First Drive

2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 550

Bigger, faster and better equipped... lighter, more economical and less expensive

2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 550 - rear

FOX HARBOUR, NS – Bigger, faster and better equipped, the 2013 Mercedes SL 550 is also lighter, more economical and less expensive. Those seemingly conflicting accomplishments exemplify the reason this company has been successful in one of the most competitive businesses around the globe for more than a century.

They're very good at what they do.

The SL has been the Mercedes-Benz flagship sports car since the 50s when the SL designation was bestowed upon it. Originally, SL stood for Sport Leicht (Light). But that description withered over time as the two-seater took on the roll of topless luxury.

By the time the fifth generation wound down, the SL had become a rolling spa with everything from massaging seats to wafting warm air around your neck while an automated suspension erased road blemishes.

For the sixth generation the design and engineering departments were charged with maintaining the attributes that had made the car so popular – and profitable – while paying more attention to the issue of weight.

More masculine appearance

The design department had the easier role and managed it well. The 2013 Mercedes SL55 is instantly recognizable as a continuation of the line. The new design features a lot of angular work up front and sculpted flanks for a more masculine appearance while at the rear shapes are more rounded and modern.

The classic short deck, long hood appearance remains and the overall effect, helped along by a wider track and added width is that of a more aggressive SL.

The new SL is 7-cm wider and 5-cm longer. It bears a strong resemblance to its smaller SLK sibling from some angles, but an SLK that has been on steroids.

2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 550 - instrument panel.jpgThe interior was similarly updated – all new, but definitely a Mercedes. Luxury meets functionality. From the folding hard top to the aforementioned massaging seats with built-in warm air circulation system the new SL carries over many features but introduces some new ones like a glass sunroof that darkens or brightens at the touch of a button.

Weight was the enemy

The engineers tackled their task with a vengeance. Weight was the enemy as was fuel consumption. Yet the folks over in the design and marketing departments continued to ladle on feature after heavy feature. It’s enough to make you throw up your hands in surrender! But that’s not what they did.

The 2013 Mercedes SL55 sits on an entirely new chassis (R231) made almost entirely of aluminum. The only steel in the structure is used around the windshield frame for added strength in the event of a roll over. The rest is a collection of extruded, sheet and cast aluminum pieces joined with a variety of innovative welding, bonding and riveting methods.

The company says the firewall is the biggest single-piece of cast aluminum yet used in a production motor vehicle. Even the folding roof mechanism was put on a diet. It now made of magnesium. Despite that added width and length and the problems caused by those evil people over in design and marketing, the new SL weighs 120 kilos less than the old and benefits from a 20% increase in chassis rigidity.

Next up – fuel efficiency

Losing weight is one way to reduce fuel consumption because less power is required. So the new SL gets a new (M273) smaller engine. A 4.7-litre DOHC V8 replaces the 5.5 (M278) unit used previously.

Mercedes-Benz SL 550 - engine.jpgBut, not content to merely reproduce the performance available in the outgoing model the folks in the engine department turned to turbocharging to add a dollop of punch to the new SL. With a turbocharger inserted into the exhaust stream on each side of the bent-eight, horsepower shot up to 429 and torque to 516 lb-ft, gains of 12% and 32% respectively.

The SL uses a seven-speed automatic transmission to get that power to the rear wheels. Physics to the fore once again – more power and less weight equals increased performance – 0-to-100 km/h in less than five seconds! But the new SL also uses 18% less fuel than the outgoing model.

Innovation abounds

In addition to engineering, innovation is also part of Mercedes’ DNA. The SL introduces several new ideas.

1)The standard Harmon-Kardon audio system utilizes big 18-cm diameter subwoofers in the front foot wells instead of the doors. The system boasts remarkable power, clarity and crispness, and to these ears sounds better than optional Bang & Olufsen system.

2)Magic Vision Control – nozzles on either side of the windshield wipers spray heated water unto the windshield in advance of the wiper, eliminating the shower you usually get in convertibles when cleaning the windshield with the top down.

3)Hands Free Access – Swipe your foot under the rear bumper and the trunk opens. Do it again and it closes.

4)Magic Sky control – first introduced on the 2012 SLK, this optional glass sunroof, integrated into the folding hard top, has tiny particles sandwiched between two layers of glass that change alignment at the touch of a button to go from clear to dark.

More GT than sports car

On the road the new engine is a jewel with silky soft manners until goaded with the right foot at which point it emits a deep growl even more enjoyable when the top is down. The automatic snaps off shifts with precision and speed and if you are so inclined, you can do that manually with plastic (!) paddles on the back of the steering wheel.

The SL comes with Active Body control that reduces lean in corners. A console-mounted switch allows the driver to select "comfort" or "sport" modes. The difference was not that great. In either case, the ride was controlled but comfortable. There was a bit of brittleness in sport mode over particularly nasty road blemishes. All told, the big sports car tackles the turns with aplomb, but more like a Grand Touring Vehicle than a pure sports car.

The 2013 Mercedes SL started arriving at dealers in April wearing a $123,900 price tag, $6,000 less than the outgoing model. All Canada-bound SLs come with the AMG styling kit and only two option packages will be available.

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