When is a car no longer a car? At what point does the task of transportation become secondary to the task of projecting your power, panache, and place in this world? At Mercedes-Benz, that metamorphosis begins with the vaunted SL series. While power and poise has run in the nameplate’s DNA for nearly 60 years, the SL hasn’t let old age slow it down. Far from it, the SL returns for 2013 a little safer, a little smarter, and (for some) a little sexier.
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL is a rear-wheel drive two-door, hardtop convertible available in three different trim levels: The SL550 Roadster that we drove (bad), the SL63 AMG Roadster (badder), and the SL65 (baddest). The base price for the SL550 starts at $105,500, while the top tier SL65 will set you back a paltry $212,000. Occupying the middle ground at $145,000 is the SL63.
Step inside the cockpit and Mercedes’ reputation as one of, if not the, ultimate luxury automaker is quickly understood. Material quality is of the finest caliber, while everything melds together to create one uber masculine and refined cabin. From its sweeping double-stitched, leather dash to its devilishly handsome gimbaled chrome vents, there is nary a complaint to be levied inside this motoring masterpiece.
For a two-door coupe, the SL never feels cramped. The seats are large and supportive, adjusting electronically so a comfortable position is never out of arms reach. Leg and shoulder room are also abundant and the cabin never feels claustrophobic, just don’t go thinking you’ll have space to escape for more than a few days’ worth of luggage in the SL. At best the trunk, which measures in at 10.2 cubic feet with the convertible top up (7.2 cubic feet with it stowed) will accommodate enough small bags for a weekend retreat, but nothing more.
Of course this wouldn’t be an SL without a sprinkle of Mercedes magic, which comes in the form of the Magic Sky Control. For $2,500, Magic Sky Control transforms the already gorgeous panoramic sunroof into a UV and IR blocking panel, capable of turning clear and completely opaque with a touch of a button. It’s essentially an automatically dimming review mirror, only on a much larger scale.
Minor issues like an embarrassingly small shifter, oddly placed cupholders, and a busy controller layout below the infotainment screen do crop up, however, but they don’t detract from the cabin’s excellent design.
Losing control of Comand
The 2013 SL uses the same Comand infotainment system offered in the rest of the Mercedes fleet, but as you would expect in a car at this price, it comes standard. Comand uses a high-resolution LCD display located in the center console, where drivers have access to 80GB hard-drive navigation, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, Bluetooth audio, and hands-free calling.
The SL550 comes stocked with a 600-watt, 12-speaker Harman Kardon LOGIC7 sound system with Dolby Digital 5.1. We have literally no complaints with the Harmon Kardon system. Audio quality is every bit as clean and powerful as you would expect from a car with a six-digit price tag, but if it still doesn’t cut the mustard on your piping-hot bratwurst, audiophiles can upgrade to a 900-watt, 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen system, which adds two additional speakers and 300 more watts for $6,400.
You can feed this burly sound system from audio sources including a six-disc DVD player with DVD audio playback, a USB connection located in the center console that supports iPhone/iPod/MP3 playback, and dedicated hard drive space for downloading and storing audio files. There is also support for Advance Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP), meaning you can stream music wirelessly through your smartphone (via Bluetooth) to the car’s audio system.
Navigation is a key component in any modern car, and the 2013 SL550 does extremely well thanks to an easy-to-read display. Turns by turn prompts are given on screen as well as spoken aloud, and the navigation system provides current traffic information (shown as tiny yellow or red cars) on screen. Regrettably, there is no support for real-time Google satellite imagery, as you can find in competing models from Audi.
Here’s where things begin to fall apart. Instead of a touchscreen, Comand uses a console-mounted control dial that lets you twist, turn, and push your way through each of its menus. We don’t mind when luxury vehicles forgo touchscreens in favor of hard controls, as they often do, but because of the endless menus and sub-menus to navigate through, the controller can become frustratingly cumbersome for even the most rudimentary tasks.
The SL has the distinction of being one of the first vehicles to feature the new Comand Online feature, which requires paying for a subscription Internet connection through Merecedes. It lets you access a host of Web-connected services such as Facebook, News, Google Local Search, and Yelp, but is excruciatingly slow due to its snail-like 3G connection.
Accessing Comand already feels slow thanks to the bloated interface, but firing up the application seems to halt the space-time continuum, causing an endless series of muttered expletives and eye-rolling. Load times take upwards of 30 seconds and each subsequent menu selection adds an additional 30 onto that. In the end, you’re looking at over a minute to simply access a feature. Making matters worse, many of Comand’s major functions are blocked while the vehicle is in motion, meaning frustrated drivers will simply look to their smartphones instead, which defeats the purpose of blocking it out to begin with.
If you can excuse the speed, Comand Online does offer a robust suite of functions. Google Local Search lets you find anything from restaurants to movie theaters, and other businesses. Once you’ve compiled a list of destinations, you can call the location hands-free, get turn-by-turn navigation, or view a 360-degree Google Street View image. There is even an option to see photos of your searches through Comand’s onboard Panoramio function, which is a collection of Google-approved, user-submitted photos from around the world.
Comand Online’s Yelp feature is another way for users to search for nearby businesses, and mimics the website and smartphone app faithfully, all without touching a smartphone. Users can browse Yelp’s establishments, read the three most recent reviews, call the location, pull up Google Street View, and plug the address into the car’s address book.
SL drivers are important people, and important folks need their news. Comand built-in news app offers a long list of news categories to choose from, but actually reading news articles is difficult because Mercedes doesn’t allow the text to be displayed while in motion. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the text was read aloud, but no such function exists. So unless you’re stuck in gridlock traffic, or don’t own a smartphone, the News app will likely gather digital dust.
Facebook integration rounds out Comand Online’s list of available apps, and while credit is due to Mercedes for bringing the social site into the vehicle, it’s plagued by the same unwieldy controls, long loading times, and unintuitive interface as the rest of them. After a lengthy setup that requires too much text entry with a control dial, users can access their friends list, view status updates, view events, view Mercedes-Benz fan page, and update their status.
For status updates, users can choose from a list of pre-written message, for example “I’m currently stuck in traffic near [your current location]. You also have the option of writing custom messages with the Comand controller, but we don’t recommend it. Instead, promptly walk over to a chalk board and scratch the hell out of it with your nails, you’ll enjoy the experience more, trust us.
It’s easy to be swept away by all Comand’s features, and the inclusion of Facebook and Google Search functions certainly cast the system in a positive light. The truth, however, is that it suffers from an interface that will probably prevent you from using most of them. Entering information and dealing with other little quirks is so mind-numbing that most will likely lose interest and simply turn to their smartphones.
While some of its consumer tech may falter, the 2013 SL550 merits its treasure-depleting sticker price by providing some of the most advanced automated driver assistance technologies available in a production vehicle. By optioning the $2,950 Driver Assistance Package, SL owners get Active Blind Spot Monitoring, Active Lane Keeping Assist, and Mercedes’ adaptive cruise control system known as Distronic Plus.
With Active Blind Spot Assist, radar sensors located in the rear bumper of the vehicle monitor both your left and right “blind spots.” If a vehicle enters your blind spot (and you’re traveling faster than 20 mph) an indicator lights up in the corresponding side mirror, activating your turn signal while a car is your blind spot will result in a warning sound. If you continue to disregard the warning and attempt to change lanes an override system can kick in, applying the brake to a single back wheel and automatically guiding the car back into its lane.
Even more impressive is the Distronic System, which utilizes two short-range radar sensors placed behind the front bumper panel capable of covering a range from 20 cm to 30 meters (about 100 feet) and a long-range radar that can sense up to 200 meters (about 650 feet) concealed behind the radiator grille.Active Lane Keeping Assist uses the same radars and sensors, only instead of tracking your blind spot, the SL can monitor lane markings in the road. Drift into another lane without signaling and the steering wheel begins to vibrate. Continue to do so and the SL will automatically apply its brakes and steer you back into your lane. Our only complaint here is that the steering wheel vibration feels too weak, especially if you’re playing music, chatting with your passenger, or on a particularly bumpy road. To combat this, we’d like to see Mercedes beef up its haptic feedback for next year.
Distronic is engaged via a control stalk just behind the steering wheel, and when activated automatically keeps the SL traveling at a predetermined speed and at a safe distance from the car in front of it. The system can speed up and slow the vehicle down to a complete stop without any driver input whatsoever, and is at its best when used during stretches of freeway as well as stop and go traffic. Admittedly, it takes some getting used to, but once experienced, drivers will have difficulty living without it.
From gullwing to goddamn
The SL has long been one of the most beautifully styled and daring examples of automotive design. One simply need look at the gullwing-graced 1955 300 SL as an example. Even during more recent decades, Mercedes has managed to keep its Sport Leicht, or Sport Lightweight, upbeat and relevant – the 2013 SL is a little different.
Admittedly, the SL550 is better head-on than at any other angle. The wide front grille is anchored by Mercedes’s iconic three-pointed-star and flanked by expressive HID headlamps bespoke with sharp strips of orange LEDs. If you’re a fan of hard lines the SL550 is packing plenty; Nearly every inch of its elongated body is a flourish of folds and creases. This tends to muddy the design’s cohesion, bringing attention to the SL’s sometimes awkward proportions.
Along with character lines beneath the vehicles beltline and some other aesthetic touches that include venting and side slits, the SL550’s profile is blatantly flamboyant. Our loaner came with standard 18-inch twin five-spoke allow wheels, but opting for the upgraded 19-inch variety is recommend. After all, bigger is better, right? Dual flat exhausts feature around the back, while the vehicle’s plunging decklid acts as a barrier between the back-end’s teardrop-shaped LEDs.
The SL’s exterior will polarize opinion: It’s an undeniably beautiful car, but in this case, beauty is squarely in the eye of the beholder.
A numbers game
Three different powertrains accompany the SL along its grand ride. In the SL550, gone is the naturally aspirated 5.5-liter V8 that produced 382 horsepower, replaced instead by 4.6-liter V8 delivering 429 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque thanks to twin-turbos and direct fuel injection. Mercedes says that base SL550 will rocket to 60 from a standstill in 4.5 seconds – we recorded figures closer to 4.6.
A new seven-speed automatic replaces last year’s five-speed variety, boosting fuel economy by upwards of 30 percent. According to EPA figures, the SL550 returns 16 mpg in the city, 24 mpg on the highway, and 19 mpg combined.
The SL also features a new ECO start/stop function similar to the one seen in the BMW 3 Series, only much less troublesome. With the setting turned on, the engine will automatically shut off when at a complete stop, leaving electronics systems still functioning.
Eco start/stop can take some getting used to, especially if the unexpected retreat of your engine’s rumbling sends you into a panic. Still, it’s a nifty feature that helps boost fuel economy, and one even the most profligate petrol users can appreciate. During our review period we never had any issue with start/stop – it just worked. Of course, drivers can bypass it altogether with a simple push of the Eco button on the center console.
While upgrading to the SL63 AMG will no doubt deplete your offshore account, the reward is a new 5.5-liter twin turbo V8 making 530 hp and 590 lb-ft of torquey goodness. Here, the SL 65 is also mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission. Like the SL550, the SL65 features paddle shifters and manages to inject an even greater degree of sportiness to an already enthralling automobile.
Of course if the SL65’s powertrain simply isn’t enough, the option to kick it up a notch exists with the SL65’s 6.0-liter twin-turbo V12; a veritable neutron bomb capable of spitting out 621 hp and 738 lb-ft of torque.
Slicing and steering on the way to heaven
For 2013, the SL550’s body is now comprised of 90 percent aluminum, shedding some 275 pounds in the process. Sadly, that weight loss is filled out by the vehicle’s onboard electronics, but the SL feels deceptively light and nimble in spite of its 4,000 pound curb weight.
As a glorified grand-tourer, the Benz is expected to handle the biz on long stretches of roadways, which it does. But it also proves competent during more arduous cornering conditions. New to the seventh-generation SL is an electromechanical Direct Steer system. With Direct Steer, steering wheel responsiveness is programmed to adapt intelligently to different driving conditions. This translates to quicker responsiveness and greater stability, meaning small jerks of the wheel during straightaways will elicit precise reaction.
The 2013 SL550 is a unique creature. It’s obviously aimed at a demographic that, by all accounts, would just as soon tweet via a personal assistant than do it themselves, but that hasn’t stopped Mercedes from cramming it with the latest connected vehicle technology and advanced driver assistance wizardry, even if it does stumble from time to time with the former.
Still, as much as we love the tech inside this car, the real hero is the driving dynamics. Whether you’re carving up mountain roads or embarking on long, highway-filled journeys, there doesn’t seem to be a situation the SL can’t handle.
Of course the SL’s exterior will continue to divide opinions, but given Mercedes’ engineering prowess and the attention to detail within its cabin, it still offers a level of refinement few other automakers can match, and few still can afford. Don’t let the price tag deter you though, this magical Merc doesn’t sacrifice its sportiness for smarts; it manages both without even breaking a sweat.
- Excellent array of safety and convenience tech
- Handling is top notch regardless of driving conditions
- Undeniably posh interior
- Cupholders are oddly placed behind the driver and passenger
- Little cargo space
- Love-it-or-hate-it exterior styling