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Monday 12th March 2012


DRIVEN: MERCEDES SL500

Chris Harris drives the all-new Mercedes SL and discovers the old cruiser has a few new tricks up its sleeve


There has been a quiet, most welcome trend in the motor industry over the past few years - one of removing mass. Mercedes-Benz has quietly been a championing (if perhaps unexpected) voice of this trade and put itself on one massive corporate diet. Look at the bare chassis of the new R231 SL and you will see perhaps its most significant expression of lightweight technology since the SLR's carbon tub.

It's relative but the 'light' in Sports Leicht is there
It's relative but the 'light' in Sports Leicht is there
There is some steel - the A-pillars and the windscreen surrounds for example. But much of the rest of the car is an aluminium fetishist's wet-dream in the form of multitudinous sheets, extrusions and castings. The front firewall is one large cast element - one of the largest pieces of cast aluminium in the industry. It's stunning.

Is the SL a PH car though? I think so. We don't all want to get our knee down on the public road and despite its retirement image the SL has consistently been the most compelling solution for people who want a coupe and a convertible. Not being such a person myself, I thought I'd made a terrible mistake by leasing an SL63 AMG back in 2009, but ended up loving the thing. And it wasn't just me getting old.

AMG lite
This is not the new AMG model (Mercedes has already shown that 564hp/664lb ft monster at last week's Geneva show) but the cooking SL500. Actually, the cooking SL is the 350 but six-cylinder SLs are like sugar-free fizzy pop: unworkable.

SL500 now feels quicker than old SL55
SL500 now feels quicker than old SL55
SL63 or not it makes the noise and provides the sensation of thrust of an AMG model thanks to a 435hp, 516lb ft twin-turbo V8. Working inside that light bodyshell this great whale of a two-seater actually weights a snip under 1,800kg. It's over 150kg lighter than the car it replaces, even accounting for extra safety gear and frivolities like 'Frontbass' subwoofers in the footwells, leaving it with a better power-to-weight ratio than an R230 SL55.

There's no double-clutch gearbox, instead the SL500 gets a seven-speed auto which perfectly fits the character of the car. There are the familiar Economy, Sport and Manual modes (the latter necessitating use of the rather unfortunate plastic shifter paddles) and, while standard suspension is steel springs and adjustable dampers, our test car had two-mode air suspension.

PH-worthy or not SL does plush very well
PH-worthy or not SL does plush very well
The shifter paddles are disappointing and this is a shame because the rest of the cabin is exceptionally good. The console is lower than before and feels decidedly SLS - the button count is high, but it's intuitive and fabulously well put together. The Schremp-era sheds are a thing of the past.

Steering the debate
I'm a little punch drunk from the eternal electric power steering debate, and with this car using such a half-house electro-hydraulic system and coming a day after driving the new Boxster, I'm a bit emotionally ragged on the subject. One minute I think it's fine, impressive even, the next I'm cursing it. Just like the Boxster, the SL's overall appeal to some people will be influenced by its rather lifeless wheel.

It's no beauty but it does the SL thing well
It's no beauty but it does the SL thing well
But this is a Mercedes SL: at best a GT, but in reality probably a cruiser. Surely the wheel's duties should involve just directing the barge to the beach club? Nope, it's not as simple as that. In fact the SL is a much more complex character, and not just in terms of steering.

At low speed, it's about as good in its intended role as anyone could wish. The calibration of engine and gearbox give effortless pace and are completely intuitive. That competence in an SL carries the same importance as lap-time in a Porsche RS model. The ride is just magnificent. I'm not a fan of air suspension, but when it's done properly and fixed to a bodyshell this stiff the results can be inspirational. OK, our test car's 18s didn't do the looks any favours but, in comfort mode, this car is so far ahead of any supposed rival that they shouldn't even bother turning up. It's up there with an S-Class.

SLS influence clear in looks and engineering
SLS influence clear in looks and engineering
Go faster, and the car gets better. It glides over the road surface with unparalleled grace.

Go faster still and weird things happen. I'm talking 9/10s driving here - the type that most SLs won't ever be involved in - but it's worth noting all the same. There's a quite specific point at which you suddenly become aware that you are almost completely unconnected to the car underneath you. The SL becomes quite hard to place because the steering doesn't load-up either with the initial input, or in the middle of the turn. At the same time the air springs do that thing where they resist roll to an unnatural degree and, together, I was left lacking confidence in high-speed corners.

What to make of this largely pointless discovery? First, that it won't matter to people who buy the car. Next, that it demonstrates just how much more performance the R231 SL500 has to offer than the equivalently badged R230. Quite simply, it places demands on its cornering hardware that far exceed anything an SL500 chassis has been expected to handle to date. To the point that Mercedes has clearly, and correctly, tuned the car to cosset and leave a little headroom for the SL63.

Coupe to roadster trick still unsurpassed
Coupe to roadster trick still unsurpassed
Having said that, with the ESP switched off you can spend plenty of time looking out of the side windows, so people looking to yob about and too impatient to wait for the 63 will find the 500 more than capable of wrecking rear rubber.

All seasons
The efforts expended to achieve the ultimate fresh-air driving experience are seriously comprehensive. The rear wind-deflector is now electrically operated, the test car had heated, ventilated seats with blowers to singe your neck hairs. Magic Vision Control may creep over the line of good taste as far as technological descriptions go, but those wipers with in-built water jets mean SL occupants can squirt without fear of getting the old syrup damp. The hi-fi needs a mention too: it's immense, right up there with the Jag XJ's Bowers & Wilkins masterpiece.

SL has the kind of quality we expect of a Merc
SL has the kind of quality we expect of a Merc
Manual gearshifts are fast and smooth, automatic ones the same. The brake pedal gives confidence, the boot seems about the same size as before and there appears to only be one cubby behind the seats in this new model. What seats they are too: you could sit in them for days and never ache.

And finally the thorny issue of styling. We all make individual judgements about this stuff, mine is one of mild ambivalence. It's not an ugly car, but it's also not one that makes me stand and admire it. Bigger wheels help it as much as the awful optional matt paint finish spoils it.

It's a much, much more capable car than before, one with a big operating window because it genuinely feels like a coupe with the roof up, and like a roadster with the roof down. No other car can play that trick as well.

People will be surprised just how much of a hot-rod this vanilla version actually is. Assuming AMG can improve the driver-machine connection in high speed corners, it'll be a great basis for the faster examples.


Engine: 4,663cc twin-turbo V8
Transmission: 7-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 435@5,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 516@1,800rpm
0-62mph: 4.6 sec
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Weight (EC): 1,785 kg
MPG: 31mpg (NEDC combined)
CO2: 212g/km
Price: £80,000 (est)


 
   

 

Author: Chris Harris