Pros: Great for top-down driving; no skimping on luxury; added athletic ability

Cons: Still more tourer than sport machine; options can take price to heady levels

What's New: This is a completely fresh generation of the Mercedes-Benz SL two-seater. Classy and classic, but ultra-modern at the same time.

Looking out through the windshield of the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550, it's possible to see the chromed blades that form part of the hood vents. They serve as another reminder, if any were needed, that driving the SL550 feels more special than driving most other cars.

This version marks generation six of Germany's famed luxury two-seat tourer. Over the years, the SL has come to symbolize open-top luxury. Even its makers concede that there's no more significant new-model launch for the brand than that of the SL. The 2013 model preserves that tradition - and now it's lighter and far more composed on interesting stretches of road than its predecessor.

Having carved its own classy niche in the automotive world, especially once it featured a retractable hard top, the SL doesn't really have any direct competition. There are other cars, however, that might be just as tempting. The 2012 BMW 6 Series convertible offers plenty of luxury but adds a little more driver appeal, while the Jaguar XKR convertible has more muscle along with styling that might speak to the more conservative in taste. Both rivals have the extra practicality of two-plus-two seating but can only offer fabric roofs. For something even sportier, wait until the 2013 Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet comes out later this year.

Comfort & Utility

At this level, leather upholstery and tasteful wood trim are givens. Navigation is also standard. Among the options are seats that heat, cool, massage and use active bolstering to hold their occupants even more snugly when running through the curves. The retractable hard top takes less than 20 seconds to fold into the body or turn the SL into a coupe.

Magic Vision Control is an excellent innovation. It's a clever take on windshield wiping. Instead of having washer nozzles splat a load of fluid onto the glass, the water comes out of jets in the wiper arm itself. This preserves visibility, keeps things tidy and drier, a bonus when cleaning the windshield while the top is down, and it conserves water. Because of that last point, the new SL can use a smaller reservoir, saving a little weight.

At the back end, there's an option that looks like magic. Wave a foot, and the trunk opens automatically. Wave that foot again, and the lid closes. With the roof in place, trunk space is 13.5 cubic feet, good for at least one set of golf clubs.

Other available features include Magic Sky Control, an option that switches the glass roof from mostly transparent to heavily tinted, and Airscarf, a pleasant stream of warm air on the neck that affords top-down lovers more chances to indulge comfortably.

The Premium 1 option package includes a rear-view camera, active parking assistance and keyless ignition, plus the aforementioned clever seats, hands-free trunk open/close and Airscarf.

Technology

Headlamps are getting smarter. Not only can they shine around corners, they can also take themselves off the main beam setting when another set of lights approaches. In the SL, this idea is taken a little further by reducing the pool of light from 1,000 feet to 220 feet gradually as a oncoming vehicle approaches. So far, it's the only system of its kind.

With the launch of the new SL comes mbrace2, the company's array of information and entertainment, personal assistance, emergency notification and vehicle care technology. Software updates are performed wirelessly, and the system is compatible with Android smartphones as well as the iPhone. Users can enjoy functions like sending Google Maps information to the car's navigation system.

There's even something for the al fresco audiophile. The standard-issue Harman Kardon system has subwoofers built into the footwells, because that location works better than mounting low-end speakers in the doors. It means crystal-clear sound even with the roof down. Seriously, this setup is superb. Play a track you think you know really well, and you'll suddenly pick up on all sorts of previously unheard detail, as if someone has just flushed the wax from your ears.

Performance & Fuel Economy

Driving the rear wheels is a twin-turbocharged 4.6-liter V8; this is the first time forced induction has made its way under an SL's hood. It makes 429 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque and is linked to a seven-speed automatic transmission that utilizes shift paddles mounted behind the flat-bottomed steering wheel. Mercedes-Benz claims an improvement in power of 12 percent, a 32 percent hike in twist and 14 percent greater fuel efficiency over the outgoing model.

Consumption estimates run to 16 mpg city, 24 mpg highway and 19 mpg combined. There's no gas guzzler tax for this model.

Safety

Mercedes-Benz claims the 2013 SL is "the world's safest convertible." Along with side and knee airbags, there's a pop-up roll bar, driver attention assist and the company's pre-collision system that tightens seatbelts and primes the brakes. On the options list are intelligent cruise control, blind spot monitoring and active lane keeping.

Driving Impressions

For the first time in its history, the SL has a predominantly aluminum body. A notable exception is the frame for the retractable roof, which is made of light yet super-strong magnesium. Overall construction is so ingenious that there's no hint of body flex when driving over rough surfaces; the vehicle feels as rigid as a hardtop. Torsional stiffness has been improved by 20 percent. Yet even with all the latest technology and safety features, this generation is about 240 pounds lighter than its predecessor.

Acceleration is rapid yet smooth; the SL zips from 0 to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds while the engine delivers its energy in an exceptionally linear fashion. Top speed is 130 mph.

Power and lightness are still not enough to let the SL lay claim to sportiness. The chassis has to be poised, pert and precise, and it is. It does, however, behave quite differently from virtually every other vehicle. It takes a fast bend to find this out.

Heading toward a tight curve, the brakes lack a reassuring initial bite. Move the steering wheel, and there's a calm, confident action as the nose turns in, despite an artificiality to the actual feel (the bane of electrical assistance). This shortage of real sensation might cause the driver not to reach the speed the SL can surely achieve: it's hard to tell when the front wheels will break into understeer, and it's not a good idea to leave it until it's too late.

In mid-corner, something odd happens: the tail seems to rotate a little, tightening the line, almost like  a four-wheel-steering effect. This is especially evident with the optional Active Body Control but also present in the standard model, which has a semi-adaptive suspension with Sport and Comfort modes. The rear end feels as though it firms up to a greater degree once all the sensors have checked steering input, road speed and yaw rate and adjusted the settings accordingly.

Other Cars to Consider

BMW 6 Series - One specific advantage the 6 has over the SL is the option of all-wheel drive. The timing is right for the face-off, as this version made its debut for the 2012 model year.

Jaguar XKR - The supercharged V8 throws 510 horsepower to the road - 81 more than the SL offers - and it also has an aluminum body. This generation is about five years old, so the XKR doesn't have quite the sophistication of the SL, but no one would know it just going by the looks.

Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet - This model comes with all-wheel drive as standard and is more of an enthusiast's car, but for crossing continents while taking in the sun, the powerful 911 convertible has to be on the short list.

Auto Trader Recommends

There's only one trim level; add the Premium 1 option package to that, the one most customers go for. Driving enthusiasts should consider Active Body Control. Don't expect much change back from $125,000.

author photo

Colin Ryan has driven hundreds of cars thousands of miles while writing for BBC Top Gear magazine, Popular Mechanics, the Los Angeles Times, European Car, Import Tuner and many other publications, websites, TV shows, etc.

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