When Mercedes announced the new SL63 Roadster during last year’s Monterey Car Week, they weren’t quite ready to let me drive it. But the kind folks at Benz did have several of the six other generations of SLs on hand and tossed me the keys to a 1957 300 SL. It was a rare treat to be able to tick one of the most iconic cars ever made off the bucket list.
By today’s standard, the mid-century masterpiece was not terribly fast. According to the manual, the original 0 to 60 mph time was around 10 seconds with a top speed of 163 mph. During the Eisenhower administration, that was the pinnacle of performance.
Top off, throttle down, the million-plus-dollar, sans-power-steering museum piece still shuffled in and out of corners better than most cars half its age. Even the arcane drum brakes were more effective than I’d imagined. But, damn, you really have to push. The 300 SL was, and remains, a brilliantly engineered, driver-focused sports car that oozes style and swagger.
Comparatively, the 2022 iteration might as well be a space ship with otherworldly power. It has a variable all-wheel-drive system and more tech than they used to put people on the moon. But beneath the trappings of 60+ years of German automotive advancements, you can feel the soul of the original pulsing through the new model.
Let’s get into it
From the first sketches, the new SL was designed and built by Mercedes’ in-house tuning division: AMG (aka Aufrecht, Melcher, and Großaspach). So, it’s a grand touring roaster with a sports car skill set baked in from the get-go.
And go it will. The 4.0-liter, biturbo-charged V-8 in the SL63 is tuned up to kick out 577 hp and 590 lb-ft (same as the AMG GTR.) The brand advertises a 0 to 60mph time of 3.5 seconds, but it’s probably a few ticks faster, when you enable launch control (aka “Race Start” in Benz lingo).
A Mercedes V-8 is one of my favorite soundtracks. As you work up through the power band, the growling snarl transforms to a howling scream. Downshifts result in incredibly satisfying snaps, crackles and pops…wickedly louder than a bowl of cereal.
A new all-wheel-drive system
For the first time, the new SL gets a fully variable all-wheel-drive system that can send 100 percent of the power to the rear wheels. Can you smell the rubber yet? Those back rims also turn thanks to rear-axle steering. This tightens up the turning radius and increases stability in higher speed corners. The new platform, which will also serve as the base for the replacement to the AMG GT, is fitted with an active ride control hydraulic system and an electronically controlled limited-slip differential.
The roads of suburban New Jersey can feel a bit—let’s be polite and say, textured, especially on fat 21-inch wheels. But set to “Comfort” mode, the SL rides smooth and supple, though not to be confused with cushy.
For the better, Mercedes has skewed the SL more toward a sports car bias. Find some tarmac with some twists and it’s time to flip the driving mode to “Sport.” Or, better still, try “Sport +” or even “Race” to crank up the engine volume. Inputs become sharp as German cutlery, feedback is enhanced, and you’re ready for some spirited driving. Fling all 4,239-lbs of the SL’s girth into a turn and it comes out remarkably balanced. Grip, bolstered by the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, is exceptional but not limitless. Come in a little too hot and the optional carbon-ceramic brakes grab like the road is made of velcro. In total, it’s an exceptional driving experience.
They call that a back seat?
The SL now comes in a 2+2 configuration, but those backseats are basically useless for hauling human beings unless they’re sitting criss-cross applesauce. Small children could fit, and ostensibly, you could get a small booster seat back there to keep them safe. But, as an adult, with a size 10.5 shoe, I couldn’t put a single foot on the floor when I climbed in the back. That said, it’s more than fine for stowing a few grocery bags, or a set of golf clubs, though you’ll need to pull your driver out.
The front seats are, on the other hand, brilliant. Both supportive and comfortable, they feature Mercedes’ stellar massage functions (my favorite in the industry) and “air scarf,” a heater situated behind the neck to keep you and a passenger warm while rolling with the top down in cooler weather.
The soft top opens and closes in just 15 seconds, though it takes easily that long to find the operation buried in the touch screen menu (there is no dedicated button). Since you can operate it at speeds up to 37mph, at least you won’t have to stop when the rain starts.
Dressed to the 9s
As you would expect from a Mercedes with a damn-near $200K starting price, the new SL comes with not just bells and whistles but sirens and gongs, many of them standard. These include an 11.9-inch central touchscreen that can electrically tilt from 12 and 32 degrees to fight glare. There’s also an easy-to-read head-up display, biometric authentication, and a Burmester surround sound system. The ceramic brakes will run you a little bit extra (to the tune of $8,950). But that’s less than the sales tax.
This time, Mercedes has nailed the assignment presented by the original SL roadster. It’s given us a sumptuously chic cabriolet with a feisty spirit. Of course, I doubt the SL63 will become quite the paragon of automotive inspiration the O.G. SL has become. But if it does, I hope we’re both around in 65 years so I can eat my words.