Pros: Retractable hard top enables cocooned or windswept driving; solid build quality; reassuring safety
Cons: Too heavy to be seriously sporting; design getting long in the tooth; next generation of SL offers dramatic improvements across the board.
The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SL550 is the final model in the roadster's fifth generation, and it represents the culmination of nearly a decade of gradual improvements.
The good news? This two-seat roadster is quick, luxurious and still attractive-not to mention arguably prettier than its successor-following a lengthy production run with the occasional face lift. The bad? With a starting price of $104,525, the 2012 SL550 costs only $1,850 less than the radically redesigned aluminum-bodied 2013 model. The new version eclipses its predecessor in all areas except perhaps looks, so if you're serious about shopping for a 2012 SL, you owe it to yourself to hunt down an outstanding deal.
The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class is available in two versions: the SL550 and the higher-performance SL63 AMG ($141,315). An ultra-high-performance, limited-edition SL65 AMG was available as a 2011 model and priced at $199,625, and it will return for 2013.
Comfort & Utility
It takes only 16 seconds for the SL's retractable hardtop to fold down thanks to 11 computer-controlled hydraulic cylinders, but the clamshell design's downside is diminished trunk space: capacity drops from a skimpy 10.2 cubic feet to a scant 7.2 cubic feet, delineated by a hard separator that requires being clicked into place before the top is lowered.
Despite its practical limitations, the SL550 offers exceptional seats that encourage all-day driving. Among the comfort-related options is AIRSCARF, which warms the neck area using an element composed of barium titanate, which heats up quickly when an electric current passes through it. Sound insulation is excellent, especially with the top up, and top-down motoring offers a relatively quiet cabin thanks to a wind deflector that flips up to reduce turbulence. Ride quality is good for a sporting convertible, making for easy cruising or long distance road trips.
The 2012 SL550 pales in comparison to its successor in technology, and while it's equipped with no shortage of luxury and convenience features, the SL550's most notable advancements are found beneath the surface, not on the user interface level.
The SL550 boasts the usual luxury items like Bluetooth, navigation and satellite radio, and most tech features are accessed through the car's Comand system, a 6.5-inch multimedia screen that uses four buttons to maneuver through menus. The system sometimes comes across as unintuitive, especially in light of Mercedes-Benz's more recent iterations of Comand.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SL550 is powered by a 5.5-liter V8 producing 382 horsepower and 391 lb-ft of torque. With a curb weight of 4,220 pounds, the SL550 is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in a respectable 5.3 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph.
Largely because of its heft, the SL550's fuel economy comes in at 14 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway. Those figures are no doubt aided by the SL's seven-speed automatic transmission, which offers overdrive in its top two gears.
Mercedes-Benz boasts that the SL550 is one of the world's safest convertibles, thanks in part to a padded leather roll bar that can deploy in a third of a second. The bar can also be raised or lowered using a console switch.
Typical safety items like traction control and a tire pressure monitoring system are found on the SL550, and the car's large 13.8-inch four piston front and 12.6-inch single-piston rear ABS-equipped stoppers include electronic brake force distribution and emergency brake assist.
Neither a hard-core sports car nor a too-cushy luxury machine, the Mercedes-Benz SL550 comes across with a comfortable but sporting demeanor when driven at sane speeds. Thanks to its ABC active suspension system, ride quality is accommodating during leisurely cruising. Nail the throttle, and a smooth wave of torque whisks you forward with alacrity. More aggressive driving reveals excellent body control thanks to the adaptive suspension, which stiffens appropriately for more responsiveness and limits roll, squat and brake dive.
The SL550 feels brisk and easy while negotiating twisty roads, but this regal roadster lacks much of the driver involvement offered by sportier competitors such as the Porsche 911; think of this as more of a grand touring convertible than an all-out performance beast.
Other Cars to Consider
BMW 6 Series Convertible-The 2012 BMW 6 Series starts at $81,100 for the 640i equipped with a 3.0-liter inline-6 engine and climbs to $90,500 for the 650i with 4.4-liter V8. An all-wheel-drive model is also available, and for 2013, an M6 convertible ups the performance ante. Although the BMW offers similarly luxury-oriented aspirations as the SL550, the softtop 6 Series adds an element you can't get in the Benz: a back seat.
Porsche 911 Cabriolet-The 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet starts at $93,700, but don't let the relatively low price deceive you: it takes quite a few expensive options to arrive at a standard equipment list comparable to that on the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class. However, if you're looking for ultimate driver involvement, it's hard to beat this droptop Porsche. Feeling even saucier? Numerous 911 ragtops are available, including the top dog $172,100 Turbo S.
Jaguar XK Convertible-The 2012 Jaguar XK convertible starts at $90,500 and comes in more performance-oriented spinoffs like the XKR ($103,500) and the XKR-S ($138,000). In its most pedestrian version, the Jaguar offers a definitively British take on the open-air experience, thanks to its rich interior appointments and luxurious details.
Get a good deal on the outgoing 2012, or wait for the 2013? You can't really lose either way.