DRIVEN: MERCEDES SL500
Chris Harris drives the all-new Mercedes SL and discovers the old cruiser has a few new tricks up its sleeve
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
Price: £80,000 (est)