Overview

The Mercedes SL debuted in 1957 and has been an object of lust ever since. A two-seat, rear-wheel-drive roadster, the SL is the classic sporting Mercedes. Like the original, today's SL boasts outstanding performance. The Mercedes-Benz SL-Class has matured in every way over its six generations, quicker and faster on the one hand, more beautiful and more luxurious on the other, to the point where it lacks absolutely nothing, from its array of powerful V8 and V12 engines to its powerful stereo to its active suspension system to those all-day bucket seats. It is a marvel of automotive technology, featuring a folding steel convertible top.

For 2009, the SL models feature a whole new look, though underneath they retain the same basic platform. Also new is the 2009 Mercedes SL63 AMG, sporting a powerful normally aspirated V8 engine.

Speaking of which, each of the four models that comprise the 2009 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class is designed around a different engine. Each has its own character. Each has its own charms, but all are fast. There's no such thing as a slow SL, not in the current lineup.

The SL550 is plenty, trust us. Its 5.5-liter V8 engine emits an uncharacteristically barbaric growl for a Mercedes. Boasting 382 horsepower, it's ready and willing to accelerate at all rev ranges, and it comes with the latest in transmissions, a seven-speed automatic with a manual shiftgate. Overall, the SL550 is a sporty roadster with quick steering and nimble moves. Compared with the other models, the Mercedes SL550 seems like the deal of the century for $95,900 MSRP.

The SL600 has a more immediate power than the SL550, yet the engine is considerably quieter. Our advice: Don't drive a Mercedes SL600 unless $136,100 is burning a hole in your pocket because you might fall in love with it. Fast and comfortable, there's lots to love here. Its butter smooth twin-turbo 6.0-liter V12 is time-tested and produces 517 horsepower. More noticeable and oh so wonderful is its gobs of torque, a bottomless well of power available when cruising along: specifically, 612 pound-feet of torque from 1900 to 3500 rpm. The V12 comes with a five-speed automatic that can also be shifted manually. With its heavier V12 engine, the SL600 is less nimble and more of a tourer than a pure sports car. But as a touring car, say driving from L.A. to Vegas, the SL600 is pure joy.

Since the beginning, the SL's laurels have been raised by performance models, and two AMG versions are available in the current lineup. The 2009 Mercedes SL63 AMG uses a normally aspirated 518-hp 6.2-liter V8 mated to a new seven-speed automated manual transmission called the AMG Speedshift MCT 7. The SL63 AMG is a meaner version of the SL550. It's the sportiest SL and, arguably, the sportiest car Mercedes-AMG has ever built. The SL 63 AMG is brutally quick and fast when the throttle pedal is pushed into the carpet, yet it is still quiet enough, and docile enough to use as a commuter car in heavy traffic every day. Stand on the gas and it's even louder than the SL550.

The SL65 AMG has a twin-turbocharged V12 that puts out 604 horsepower. It is a torquey beast that delivers a rush of power bested only by exotics and pro drag cars. It's a lot of car, perhaps too much for an unskilled driver as its immense power can make it hard to handle. Like the SL600, the SL65's V12 is quieter than the V8s. And like the SL600, the SL65 is heavy (it is the heaviest SL), so it isn't as tossable as the V8 models. Tossable often equates to fun.

Not surprisingly, no SL gets good fuel mileage. The SL550 is EPA rated at 14 mpg city and 21 mpg highway, and it gets worse as you move up the model line. As a result, every SL is saddled with a Gas Guzzler Tax by the federal government.

Inside, the SL is a model of fine German luxury. Leather upholstery is standard, and the seats have plenty of adjustments to make just about anyone comfortable. The view from the driver's seat is largely unobstructed, even with the top up. Navigation system, a high-quality, it's all here. Cargo space is about average for this class, meaning it's minimal. These cars are about hauling something other than luggage.

Model Lineup

The 2009 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class comes in four models:

The SL550 ($95,900) has a 382-hp 5.5-liter V8 mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability via thegearshift or available steering wheel paddles. Standard equipment includes leather upholstery; heated 12-way power-adjustable seats with lumbar adjustment; dual-zone automatic climate control; interior air filter; navigation system; Tele Aid assistance system; power tilt/telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls; cruise control; memory for the driver's seat; exterior mirrors, and steering wheel; heated power mirrors with driver's side auto-dimming and passenger side tilt-down back-up aid; power windows and power door locks; remote keyless entry; Harman/Kardon AM/FM stereowith six-disc CD changer; auxiliary audio input jack; Sirius satellite radio with six-month subscription; Bluetooth wireless cell phone link; trip computer; auto-dimming rearview mirror; universal garage door opener; heated rain-sensing variable-intermittent wipers; automatic headlights; power-retractable hardtop; wind deflector; theft-deterrent system; adaptive bi-xenon headlights; front and rear fog lights; Active Body Control adjustable suspension with level control; and P255/40ZR18 front and P285/35ZR18 rear tires on alloy wheels. Note the SL550 is saddled with a $1300 Gas Guzzler Tax.

The SL63 AMG ($132,000) comes with a 518-hp 6.2-liter V8 mated to a new seven-speed automated manual transmission called the AMG Speedshift MCT 7. The SL63 adds to the SL550 uprated brakes, massaging multicontour seats, carbon-fiber interior trim, alcantara headliner, Bose AM/FM/CD player, 6CD changer, sports suspension, 255/35R19 front tires, 285/30R19 rear tires.

The SL600 ($136,100) comes with a 517-hp 6.0-liter V12 and a five-speed automatic with manual shift capability. The SL600 also gets upgraded leather upholstery; massaging multicontour seats; wood and leather-wrapped steering wheel; alcantara headliner; keyless access and starting; front and rear park assist; panoramic roof; and a power trunk closer. The SL600, SL63 AMG and SL65 AMG have a $2600 Gas Guzzler Tax.

The SL65 AMG ($190,700) adds to the SL600 uprated brakes; leather-wrapped steering wheel; ventilated seats; carbon-fiber interior trim in place of wood trim; sports suspension; and P255/35ZR19 front and P285/30ZR19 rear tires.

Options include a Premium package for the SL550 ($3750) and SL63 AMG ($3050) that includes ventilated/multicontour seats, keyless entry and starting, Airscarf heating, power trunk closer. A Wheel package for SL500 and SL600 ($1950) adds ventilated rear brake discs, sport steering-wheel with shift paddles, unique exterior trim, 19-inch alloy wheels with performance tires. An AMG Performance package for SL63 AMG ($14,220) includes a limited-slip rear differential; 15.4-inch diameter two-piece compound ceramic brakes; performance tires; unique alloy wheels; and 186 top-speed limiter. The SL550's Trim package ($1510) adds a wood and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and upgraded leather upholstery. Front and rear park assist is optional ($1140) for SL550 and SL63 AMG. Illuminated door sills are available for SL500 ($700), Adaptive Cruise Control is optional for all ($2230), and the Panorama glass roof is optional for SL500 and SL63 AMG ($1950). Special paint options are available.

Safety features include dual front airbags, side-impact airbags, driver knee airbag, pop-up roll bar, tire-pressure monitor, anti-lock brakes with brake assist, traction control, and electronic stability control. Front and rear park assist are standard on SL600 and SL65 AMG and optional for SL550 and SL63 AMG.

Walkaround

The Mercedes SL-Class is restyled for 2009, with a more aggressive V-shaped nose, new multi-element bi-xenon headlamps, new fender shapes, new fender gills and hood power domes, and larger side mirrors. The only parts carried over from 2008 are the door skins. The new grille is deeper, wider and taller, with sharper corners than previous grilles, with a big air intake underneath. The front fenders are longer. The new rear end features a diffuser-style rear bumper, new trapezoidal exhaust outlets, and new taillamps.

The platform, or basic structure, stays the same, however. The 2009 SL has the same aerodynamic performance and the same weight distribution front-to-rear as the outgoing car, namely a 0.29 drag coefficient and a 51/49 percent balance.

The restyled hood has a two raised ribs, each about a foot off center. Like the previous model, the hood on the 2009 model has twin air intakes at the back, just in front of each passenger, and these are decorated with three fins apiece. The hood leads into redesigned headlights that take on a cat's eye look and move away from the rounded, dual headlight theme Mercedes has used for years. The available Intelligent Lighting System automatically aims the lights into corners as the driver turns the steering wheel. The center grille opening on the 2009 models is slightly larger than on the 2008 models, with one chrome bar instead of three surrounding a large central Mercedes logo. Fog lights flank the reworked lower fascia, which features a shape that mirrors the grille opening.

Along the sides, the breathing ducts behind the front wheels change from two horizontal to three vertical gills on the 2009 SL550 and SL600, bisected by a chrome horizontal accent piece. The gill design now extends into the front of each door. The line that starts at the bottom of each gill extends into a rising character line that wraps around the car and gives the SL a forward-leaning rake. The SL600 has a V12 logo beneath the gill on each side. At the bottom, the rocker panel design is reworked as well.

The rear design is very similar to that of the previous model. The only notable change is a restyled rear fascia with a ribbed, diffuser-style lower portion.

The SL63 and SL65 come with a unique hood, front fascia with larger cooling intakes, and a black grille. The hood has a noticeable power bulge in the center that replaces the two raised ribs. The bi-xenon headlights have black surrounds and the fog lights have round instead of elliptical shape. On the sides, the AMG models have additional intake ducts just in front of the wheels and the side gills are replaced by E-shaped inserts in matte silver; the SL63 has lettering that says 6.3 AMG, and the SL65 has V12 BITURBO lettering. At the rear, AMG models have a lip spoiler, deeper side sills and a rear fascia that houses a pronounced black rear air diffuser and two pairs of chrome tailpipes.

All SL roadsters have a power retractable hardtop that opens or closes in 16 seconds. Unlike some convertible tops, the SL's does not open or close if the car is in motion, even at low speeds. The available panorama glass top gives an open-air feeling even with the top up. The SL is a beautiful car with the top down and the sleek roof makes it look even better with the top up.

Interior Features

Inside, the SL is a picture of German luxury. Leather upholstery is standard and even the padded dash is covered in hand-stitched leather. The speedometer and tachometer have the appearance of fine watch faces, with black centers and numbers, white rims and red needles. They are shrouded and are always easy to see. The trip computer can be set so temperature, trip odometer, selected gear, and numerous other readouts can appear in those black centers. Water temperature and fuel gauges flank the two main gauges.

The COMAND operating system has a new look for 2009 and additional functions. It comes with a 6.5-inch color screen and an SD card slot, and it incorporates the radio, six-CD changer, and telephone controls. The radio preset buttons are arranged in a phone-like pattern on the right side of the screen. While the COMAND system has a lot of buttons, it is pretty easy to use after some acclimation. Comand now includes a universal media interface in the center console that accepts not only iPod but also USB sticks and most other popular portable music players, and can display the music information on the screen and speedometer face. Optional is COMAND APS, which adds a 40-gigabyte hard drive that holds navigation map information and music files. Mercedes says that only four gigabytes are devoted to music, which is enough for about 1000 songs. COMAND APS also has voice activation and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The Harman/Kardon surround-sound system uses 10 speakers and packs 510 watts of sound power. Mercedes trumpets the quality of this sound system. We found it to be good, but we've heard better in cars costing much less; great sound is hard to achieve in small, two-seat sports cars.

The SL has seating for two, but both occupants are sure to be comfortable thanks to 12-way standard adjustments. The view from the driver's seat is unobstructed with the top down and is good even with the top up, unlike with many convertibles. Getting in the SL requires a step down and getting out requires some torso strength to pull yourself up. You won't want to drive your grandmother around in the SL.

Airscarf is an optional neck-level heating system designed to expand the times you can drive with the top down. The system incorporates heating vents into the headrests. We could only feel a little warm air on our necks, and we didn't find Airscarf to be effective enough to allow driving with the top down in, say, 55-degree weather.

Like the last model, the 2009 SL has a pop-up roll bar and a wind blocker behind the seats. The wind blocker works well, redirecting air around the passengers and allowing for a quieter cockpit. The roll bar is covered in leather and the driver can opt to put it up whenever he/she wants.

Cargo room and small items storage is in short supply, though we know that's part of the deal with a sports car. Both the center console and the glove box are small. There are no convenient trays in which to drop a cell phone or the like. There are two cupholders and they are both over-engineered units that pop out beneath the COMAND screen. Unfortunately, the cupholders only accept soda can-sized containers, and when used your beverage blocks the COMAND controls.

The trunk offers 10.2 cubic feet of cargo room with the top up, but that shrinks to 7.2 cubic feet with the top down. That said, there is enough room for two small suitcases even with the top down. So pack light for that weekend in Vegas and you can drop the top for an evening drive through the desert.

Driving Impressions

Each of the four models comprising the Mercedes SL-Class has its own personality. The SL550 weighs less than its siblings and is nimble and tossable, though it's more of a touring car than a pure sports car. Its 5.5-liter V8 puts out 382 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 391 pound-feet of torque from 2800 to 4000 rpm. The V8 emits a barbaric growl that is uncharacteristic for a Mercedes. The engine provides willing power at all rev ranges, and motivates the SL550 from 0-60 mph in 5.3 seconds. The transmission is a seven-speed automatic with a manual shiftgate and available steering wheel shift paddles. It has Comfort, Manual and Sport settings. The Comfort setting shifts up quickly to save fuel, which means immediate power won't always be on tap. The Sport setting holds gears longer to keep power ready, and upshifts and downshifts can sometimes feel abrupt. The Manual mode gives the driver the option of picking the gears. Gears can also be selected manually in the other modes.

The SL600 is more refined than the SL550 but not as sporty. It has a lot more immediate grunt, but is much more subtle in announcing its presence. The SL600's V12 engine puts out 510 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 612 pound-feet of torque from 1900 to 3500 rpm (221 more than the SL550). It has a five-speed automatic transmission that shifts smoother than the SL550's seven-speed. The SL600 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, a benefit of its torque. The heavier engine, however, makes it less nimble than the SL550, making the SL600 even more of a tourer versus the sporty nature of the SL550. It'll easily best the SL550 in a straight line, but will lose ground in the turns.

The new SL63 AMG offers the best combination of power and handling. It is a meaner version of the SL550 in terms of power and is even better when it comes to handling. It cranks out 518 horsepower at 6800 rpm and 465 pound-feet of torque at 5200 rpm. The SL63's 6.2-liter V8 barks like the biggest dog on the block at startup, under acceleration and during downshifts, and emits a constant background rumble while cruising. A freer revving engine, the 6.2 hits its redline at 7200 rpm, which is pretty high for a large V8. It comes with a new seven-speed automated manual transmission that Mercedes calls the Sportshift MCT 7. MCT stands for Multi Clutch Technology, and the multiple clutches allow this transmission to shift gears with no interruption in power delivery. The new AMG transmission has four driving modes, Comfort, Sport, Sport-Plus and Manual. Sport shifts 20 percent faster than Comfort, Sport Plus shifts 20 percent faster than Sport, and Manual shifts another 10 percent faster than Sport Plus, or 50 percent faster than Comfort. In Manual, shifts take only 100 milliseconds. The MCT also features multiple downshifts, from seventh to fourth or fifth to second, for example, with double-clutching, throttle blipping and perfect rev-matching in between; the Sport Plus program works like a skilled driver might to keep the engine in the power band for hard driving. It downshifts readily when you get off the gas, such as in a long sweeping turns, so maximum torque is on tap when you're ready for the power again. Mercedes quotes a 4.4-second 0-60 time for the SL63, and we believe it.

The SL65 AMG has a twin-turbocharged V12 that makes an astounding 604 horsepower from 4800-5100 rpm and a stump-pulling 738 pound-feet of torque from 2000-4000 rpm. Like the SL600, it is more subtle about its performance capabilities, issuing a subdued turbine-like hum. The SL65's 0-60 mph time is 4.2 seconds, and it feels even quicker. With just a 0.2-second difference in 0-60 times, you might think there wouldn't be much difference between the SL63 and the SL65. You'd be wrong. While the SL63 is a grunty, torquey beast, the SL65 delivers a rush of power that throws you back into your seat and feels like a jet taking off. It also has an unfortunate tendency to stand up and go, making the front end feel light and lessening the driver's sense of control. The feeling is similar to the clumsy feeling you get with torque steer in a front-drive car, only the SL is rear-drive. The SL65 is not the right choice if you're looking for pure sportiness, as the heavy engine makes it more nose heavy and less willing to cut through corners. However, for a pure rush of power and adrenaline, the SL65 is one of the fastest cars on the market today.

The price for all this power is poor fuel economy. Like the prices of these cars, if you have to ask, then you probably don't want to know, but we'll tell you anyway. The SL550 is EPA rated at 14 mpg city and 21 mpg highway, and the SL600 and SL65 burn premium gas at the rate of 11 mpg city and 18 mpg highway. The numbers weren't in for the SL63 at press time, but we're betting they won't be good.

Steering, handling and ride quality, on the other hand, are quite good. Every SL offers a pleasant ride that is surprising given how sporty these cars are. Even the AMG models, with their 19-inch wheels and stiffer suspension settings, are comfortable. Every SL also gets Mercedes' Active Body Control (ABC) suspension that has four-wheel level control, driver-selectable ride height settings, and automatic lowering at speed. ABC uses hydraulic, electronic and mechanical components to reduce body roll by a claimed 68 percent. Punch the button for ABC Sport mode and Mercedes says it reduces roll by 95 percent and tightens shock damping. In either mode, the SL exhibits little body roll. Raising the car will help you prevent it from scraping over curbs and when entering raised parking lots. The automatic lowering feature helps give the SL stability at speed.

The new Direct-Steer system works mechanically, providing variable assist based on steering wheel position. Direct Steer does in a purely mechanical way what BMW, Cadillac and others are trying to do with complex computers, algorithms, and pumps. The ratio is 15:1 in a straight line, such as on the highway. The ratio gets quicker as the wheel is turned, providing noticeably faster response when the steering wheel is turned 90 degrees and beyond. The yaw gain goes up quickly between 0 and 42 mph, then drops off markedly all the way to maximum velocity, so that the car remains stable at high speeds, but is quick to maneuver at parking speeds and in accident-avoidance maneuvers. In the real world that means smaller steering inputs are needed in tight turns, which makes the SL more stable and more nimble in the twisties. We drove several SL models with it and found it worthwhile, but it won't be available until later in the model year or for the 2010 models.

The brakes are adequate for everyday driving, but the SL550 and SL600 don't have the brakes to handle track time or long jaunts on mountain roads. We found the brakes began to smell after an hour or two on California's mountain switchbacks. Those who want a track worthy car will want an AMG model. The brakes on the SL 63 AMG are monstrous in size and thickness and we found them fantastic in terms of power, response, and freedom from overheating and fade. The car's substantial 4200-pound weight holds no problems for these brakes, no matter what the conditions.

Summary

The 2009 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class models are a joy to drive. With the deployable steel convertible top, you get a completely weatherproof coupe for cold or wet days, and a wide-open convertible for sunny or play days. Going up through the model line, each is faster than the last. Tires, suspension, and brake and steering options are improved on the 2009 models. The SL550 is relatively agile and delightful to drive. The SL600 is more luxurious and gives its driver a wonderful feeling of power. The SL 63 AMG is brutally quick and fast when the throttle pedal is pushed into the carpet, yet it is still quiet enough, and docile enough to use as a commuter car in heavy traffic every day. The SL 65 is the ultimate ultra-performance touring car with more power than anyone needs. Then again, the SL has never been about need. We love these cars.

Jim McCraw reported on the SL63 AMG from Santa Monica, California; Kirk Bell reported from Chicago on the SL550 and SL600; NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough contributed to this report.


Copyright © 1994-2008 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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