Seen at dusk, the curving orange LED stripes in the headlights of the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 give the car an almost evil face. That look is a portent of the power inside as well as a visual clue that this is a car to be reckoned with on several levels.
By TOM STRONGMAN
Prices start at $105,500 for the 2013 model, the sixth-generation SL. The first was the 1952 300SL that caused a sensation when it won the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Carrera Panamericana, a six-day race that covered the length of Mexico. The racer spawned production of the now-coveted 300SL Gullwing that was introduced in 1954 in New York. That introduction was the beginning of a succession of SL flagship sports cars that has culminated in the 2013.
The first SL was renowned for its innovative use of a tubular frame, direct-fuel-injection engine and an aerodynamic aluminum body whose gullwing doors gave the car its nickname.
Today’s SL550 is a technological showcase that illustrates just how much the SL has evolved in six decades. The long-nose, short trunk profile is classic sports roadster.
The styling is bold – almost too much so if you want to cruise unnoticed – yet striking. This is not a car for the shy or faint of heart.
First off, its aluminum body is 200 pounds lighter than the previous model, yet it is 20 percent stiffer. The windshield frame is made from high-strength steel for rollover protection.
Second, the 4.6-liter, twin-turbo V-8 is 20 percent smaller than the 5.5-liter engine it replaces, but it generates more torque, 516 pound-feet, and horsepower, 429, while getting better fuel mileage. This engine delivers its power in a seamless surge that plasters you back in the seat. The transmission is a seven-speed automatic that can be shifted manually. The Eco start-stop system is one of the better I have sampled. The engine shuts off when the vehicle stops and restarts the moment you release the brake. The transition is nearly seamless.
The SL is a sports car but it emphasizes luxury and it rides very comfortably. When you demand corner-carving performance it delivers with ease, aided in part by its lighter weight. Driver aids such as vehicle stability control, traction control and anti-lock brakes play a part, too.
The optional multi-contour seats help hold occupants in place in turns by inflating the side bolsters as the car turns. They can be a bit unsettling at first, but after a few minutes you wonder why all seats don’t do this. Cost, of course, is the answer.
Fancy features include a Harman/Kardon surround-sound system with bass speakers mounted in the front firewall. Most cars have the bass speakers in the back. The SL’s system means the two front frame members function as bass boxes, and the sound was outstanding.
The wiper blades have laser-cut passages that distribute washer fluid directly in front of the blade. The system reduces the volume of fluid when the top is down so occupants don’t get sprayed with washer fluid.
The optional panoramic glass sunroof can change from opaque to transparent with the flip of a switch. Very clever.
The SL has pop-up rollbars and several crash avoidance systems. Active lane keeping actually tugs on the wheel should you stray from your lane. Blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control and a brake system that applies maximum stopping power in an emergency play important safety roles, too.
Driving with the top down is very comfortable, thanks in part to Airscarf. Tiny vents in the seat near the headrest direct warm air to the occupant’s neck when needed. The convertible top tucks into the trunk, but it consumes some luggage space when it does so. Taking a trip with the top down means you have to pack very lightly.
The base price of the test car was $105,500. Options included Iridium silver paint, illuminated doorsills, analog dash clock, panoramic sunroof with adjustable opacity, rearview camera, multi-contour seats and 19-inch sport wheels. The sticker price was $120,505.
Four years or 50,000 miles.
Tom Strongman’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org