Mercedes-AMG SL63: California Screamin'
When it comes to epic stretches of open roads and utterly staggering scenery, California has it all. For Mercedes-Benz, and its open-top SL Roadster, the region holds a special significance because it’s along the Pacific Coast Highway that the iconic model first saw the light of day back in 1958.
That original Roadster sprung out of the monumental 300SL Gullwing Coupé – examples of which now fetch astronomical hammer prices at auction – and while it shared much of the same architecture and underlying mechanicals, the Roadster attracted an entirely different type of customer. The Coupé was a road-legal race car; the Roadster was designed to provide elegant conveyance along coastal roads, such as those found to the north and south of Los Angeles.
Since the heady days of its introduction, the SL has evolved into an open-top tourer that occupies a small and incredible niche section of the luxury car market. It has its competition in the form of the Porsche 911, Aston Martin V8 Vantage and the Audi R8 convertible (when it arrives, the new one isn’t out yet), but the SL is a car that manages to encompass sportiness and comfort in a way in which the others don’t quite manage.
For 2016, the SL gets a subtle redesign that has smoothed out the car’s lines and delivered a much more appealing looking machine than the last one that arrived in 2012. It’s slightly longer than the outgoing car, but the proportions seem better balanced – and the power bulge in the bonnet is a clear design nod towards the 300 SL Gullwing. The headlights have been reshaped, and the entire front end and grille have been redesigned. Major changes to the SL for 2016 also include many technical features first seen in the two-seat Mercedes-AMG GT launched in 2014.
The driver activated Active Body Control system now includes a mode called Curve, which triggers changes in suspension that enable the car to lean into corners. It does this by firing signals to hydraulic rams in the suspension that apply up to 2.6 degrees of ‘lean’ in to a corner, effectively making every corner seem as though the road camber is positive. While it sounds like this has been added to make the car sportier, it’s ultimate aim is to make the ride feel even more comfortable.
Curve doesn’t work in Sport or Sport+ modes and, in fact, the entire suspension system becomes softer and the throttle far less aggressive when the mode is employed. For drivers used to the cut and thrust of the SL 500’s hustle, Curve takes a little getting used to, as it dives into a bend by tucking an inside wheel into the corner.
The car launches with a choice of four engines: the SL 400 has a 367 horsepower 3.0-litre V6 that delivers more than enough power, torque and exhaust excitement to set your pulse racing. To be frank, this is all the car you need for most roads; maximum pulling power is available from a ridiculously low 2000 rpm, and the nine-speed gearbox means you’re always in the correct gear for a spirited backroad blast or frugal motorway cruise.
The V6 has slightly more aural spark to it than the SL 500’s 4.6-litre V8, and even the Mercedes-AMG SL 65 bat guano crazy 6.0-litre V12 roar and bark on upshifts is suitably muted.
Unlike the non-AMG cars, the SL 65 and its V8 stablemate, the SL 63, retain the seven-speed “Speedshift” automatic, which has been tweaked for quicker shifts. Still, with 630 horsepower and 1,000 Nm torque over the endlessly twisty sections of Cuyamaca mountain pass south west of Californian gold-mining town and current apple pie capital, Julian, the car is both an absolute joy and utterly terrifying in equal measure.
With Sport+ engaged, the SL 65 simply monsters any stretch of road; particularly the switchback mountain pass we’ve been funnelled onto. Rising 4,000 feet over a 12 kilometre stretch, this road is constant series of point-and-squirt squiggly lines punctuated by the odd hairpin. The drops are precipitous, and the surrounding country staggering. There’s no time to soak in the scenery as you bury the throttle to the firewall, pull the upshift paddle and launch towards the next corner, stand on the brakes and change down. The off-throttle pop and warble as you change down through the gearbox is intoxicating, though if it all sounds a little intense, the AMG models also offer Controlled Efficiency (C) and Manual (M) modes for more reserved driving.
The real pick of the litter, however, is the SL 63. It lacks the outright horsepower of the V12, but the twin-turbo V8 spools-up faster, and delivers the kind of brutal force and exhilarating acceleration that would, point-to-point and over similar roads, have the performance edge over the SL 65.
Mercedes has made living with the SL even easier. The folding hardtop can now be operated on the fly, and the boot separator has been automated so that you don’t have to stop and fix it into position. It was a sticking point with the current model, and the fix has been an easy and efficient one.
With these final tweaks in place the SL has become a more complete car. It doesn’t matter which engine you choose – all four versions will provide you with an everyday commuting vehicle as well as a perfect weekend getaway machine. There are very few cars that marry every day practicality and supreme excitement in such an utterly beautiful way.
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