Pros: Regal blend of performance and comfort
Cons: Scant cargo capacity; seats only two; not quite focused enough to be taken seriously as a proper sports car
If the Mercedes-Benz SL550 is a balanced, solidly built roadster that lives up to the reputation of superlative German engineering, the SL63 AMG is its burlier, meaner big brother.
Starting at $141,315 (compared with $104,525 for the more pedestrian SL550), the SL63 AMG offers more of virtually everything when it comes to performance: a bigger and brawnier engine, a stiffer suspension, better brakes and an aggressive transmission with rev-matched downshifts and race start to go with the boosted power.
Although it lacks the weight savings of the forthcoming 2013 model (which will incorporate a lighter, stiffer aluminum chassis), the 2012 SL63 AMG differentiates itself visually with a large, single domed "power" hood and more aggressive bodywork. Having enjoyed several face lifts over the course of a decade, the 2012 SL63 AMG tops off this generation of the Mercedes-Benz roadster with styling that manages to be both muscular and tasteful.
Comfort & Utility
Despite the impracticality of its two-seater setup and the fact that taking the top down reduces trunk space from 10.2 cubic feet to a mere 7.2 cubic feet, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG comes equipped with enough creature comforts to make it very accommodating for long-haul drives.
The SL63 AMG's seats are supportive but comfortable perches from which to enjoy hours of driving, with heating, ventilation and four-way lumbar supports as well as Mercedes' AIRSCARF technology, which blows hot air on your neck for cool weather top-down motoring.
While driver and passenger will likely have little to complain about in the area of comfort, the SL63 AMG's paucity of cabin storage space might require just a bit more planning when it comes time for that epic road trip.
Mercedes-Benz often showcases cutting-edge technologies in its passenger cars. The 2012 SL63 AMG offers some of that, with advanced drivetrain elements, but alongside them are aging telematics and multimedia systems.
For instance, the SL63 AMG's engine incorporates numerous features that have trickled down from Mercedes-Benz racing programs, and its multi-clutch seven-speed Speedshift transmission effectively combines quick cog swaps with smooth operation.
But while the SL63's 4-GB Music Register and hard-drive-based GPS system aren't as antiquated as the stuff found in SLs of yore, the Comand system is still a bit of a throwback, adding an old-school element to an otherwise fashionable roadster.
Performance & Fuel Economy
With the world and Mercedes-Benz moving in the direction of turbochargers, the heart of the SL63 is a good old-fashioned normally aspirated 6.2-liter V8. Producing a healthy 518 horsepower and 465 lb-ft of torque, this mill makes some serious grunt and quick acceleration: 60 mph comes in 4.5 seconds, according to Mercedes-Benz. A sharper-edged experience is available with the optional Performance package, which includes 19-inch wheels, a limited-slip differential, two-piece front brake rotors and a more aggressively tuned ABC active suspension system. The package also boosts top speed from 155 mph to 186 mph.
Shoppers cross-shopping 2012 and 2013 SL63 AMG models should note that the all-new 2013 version offers more power with better fuel economy; the '12 SL63 is rated at 12 mpg city, 19 mpg highway.
If zippy acceleration and strong brakes help you avoid accidents, the SL63 AMG should do an outstanding job of keeping out of trouble.
In the event of a crash, Mercedes-Benz's reputation for safety engineering should go a long way toward protecting the occupants. From shoulder belts integrated into the seats with emergency tensioning retractors to side and dual front airbags, the SL63 incorporates numerous features designed to live up to the triple-pointed star's safety-conscious image. The SL-Class also features an automatic roll bar that pops up in a third of a second when a potential rollover situation is detected.
The SL63 AMG transforms from hardtop to roadster in only 16 seconds, and performance enthusiasts will appreciate the aural experience of open-air driving. The burbling V8 produces plenty of great sounds to be savored from the comfort of the cabin.
In contrast to the SL550, this AMG model amps up virtually every aspect of performance. Acceleration is brisker, the brakes are stronger and handling feels noticeably sharper. Ride quality is commensurately stiffer as well, but never so tight as to be annoying or disruptive to the driving experience.
There's plenty of torque on tap to pull through the smooth-shifting transmission's seven gears, and while the power isn't quite explosive-this is, after all, a 4,398-pound car-the pull is strong enough to be addictive. The SL63's active suspension system does an admirable job of balancing ride quality and comfort, but this roadster will never be confused with smaller, nimbler offerings like its SLK-series stablemate. At the end of the day, the SL63 is more of an athletically toned grand touring machine than a slalom-busting autocrosser. But for the average SL consumer, that's exactly what makes it a draw in the world of high-priced two-seat convertibles.
Other Cars to Consider
Aston Martin V8 Vantage Roadster-The $132,870 Aston Martin V8 Vantage Roadster offers a more stylistically striking alternative to the Mercedes-Benz, with lines that manage to evoke both elegance and muscularity. The S variant offers a more driver-oriented focus than the standard issue V8 Vantage, but thanks to exquisite interior details, this delicately appointed two-seater proves there's nothing standard about an Aston Martin.
Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet-Compared with the SL63 AMG, the $149,000 Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet is a far more beastly sports car with considerably lighter weight, greater power and visceral performance. This softtop roadster's accelerative potential may eclipse the Benz's, but if you're looking for a stately ride with a more mature image, it's hard to top the CEO-friendly SL-Class.
Jaguar XKR-S Convertible-The $138,000 XKR-S is Jaguar's most powerful roadster to date, offering 550 horsepower. It also offers subtle interior detailing befitting the storied marque, but the Jag does lack the sense of solidity and durability of the Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG.
This is a fine car, but you might want to wait a few months and get in on the ground floor with the next-generation SL63 AMG, coming for 2013.