Such is the extent of the changes made to the Mercedes-AMG SL in this, the seventh generation of the luxury roadster, it is hard to know exactly where to start.
- Fabulously vocal and powerful V8 engines
- Vastly improved dynamics and driver appeal
- Versatility provided by the extra rear seats
- Firm ride may not be to everyone’s liking
- Reduced boot space (although there are now two extra rear seats)
The 2022 Mercedes-AMG SL63, driven here for the first time, is more than just an evolutionary update of its 10-year-old predecessor. It is, in effect, a major reset not only in design and engineering, but also in construction, packaging, performance and, most noticeable of all, dynamics too.
Given the SL’s revered standing, it is a move that clearly hasn’t been taken lightly by Mercedes-Benz management. The 1954 original, a modified race car with flamboyant gullwing doors, set the ball rolling, building the foundation to a line-up that has endured for close on 70 years and subsequently long since assumed cult status.
The new SL, the R232 as it is known by its internal codename, has been conceived by AMG at its performance skunkworks in the rural German town of Affalterbach on the outskirts of Stuttgart, rather than by Mercedes-Benz’s regular passenger car team at its parent company’s sprawling Sindelfingen engineering base. That tells you all you need to know about the intent behind the re-positioning of what is perhaps the most iconic of all the various Mercedes-Benz models.
By twinning its development with that of the AMG GT, a car with a Nurburgring-honed competition pedigree, and providing it with a long list of innovations, including four-wheel drive, four-wheel steering and active aerodynamics as standard for the first time, AMG is hoping to capture some of the driving magic that made the first SL so desirable. Less boulevard cruiser, more purist sports car. Or so is the plan.
In a move harking back to the fourth-generation model from 1989, it also ditches the two-seat layout and aluminium hardtop of its predecessor for a more versatile two-plus-two interior. And, as the traditionalists have been crying out for quite some time now, a return to the classic fabric hood brought to the first open-top SL in 1957.
There’s also a big push on the digital front, with an interior and appointments that combine to make those of the old model appear very dated indeed.
“When you look back into the history of the SL, you see it all began with motorsport. With the new model, we’ve attempted to make that link again. But we haven’t forgotten that customers these days also place a high priority on versatility, which is why we’ve made adjustments to the layout to give it two extra seats that make it easier to live with as an everyday car. We were able to start from scratch without building on an existing structure,” Jochen Hermann, chief technical officer of AMG, told Drive.
|2022 Mercedes-AMG SL63|
|Boot volume||213L seats up|
You can judge the design for yourself. However, there’s no denying the visual links of the six-year-old GT. This is particularly evident in the traditional cab-back profile, as well as the detailing at the front and at the rear.
Both are a big step away from the design of the sixth-generation model, giving the new SL a much more dramatic appearance than the car it replaces, with clear hints of the original in the shape of its Panamericana-inspired grille and shapely boot line. Wheels, meanwhile, range from 19 inches to 21 inches in diameter.
The upmarket Mercedes-Benz roadster has once again grown in dimensions. Length is up by 88mm at 4705mm, while width and height have increased by 38mm and 44mm respectively at 1915mm and 1359mm. This makes the new four-seat SL 259mm longer, 24mm narrower and 71mm higher than the two-seat GT.
It is the wheelbase that has grown the most, though. It is extended by 117mm over the sixth-generation SL at 2700mm to help accommodate those new rear seats. There are also corresponding increases in the track widths and a reduction in ride height, which give the new model a very confident, hunkered-down stance.
One of Mercedes-AMG’s aims with the new SL was to provide it with a luxurious yet versatile cabin with all the digital and connectivity of parent company Mercedes-Benz’s flagship S-Class.
Opening the long driver’s door reveals an interior that is as far removed from the old SL as the newly drawn exterior. The two-seat layout in use since the launch of the fifth-generation model in 2001 has been replaced by a new two-plus-two configuration, though the rear seats are only suitable for smaller children or alternatively as additional storage space.
Boot space is put at 213L with the fabric hood stowed in a dedicated well behind the rear seat. While this doesn’t sound like much, it’s 48L more than that offered by the GT roadster and 83L more than the Porsche 911 cabriolet. That said, the old SL offered 350L.
The low-set front seats are more heavily sculpted than before, and boast headrests that are integrated into the backrests for added support and a more sporting look. They also feature Mercedes-Benz’s patented AirScarf system with ventilation to warm the neck. The new AMG-developed SL has adopted one of the longest bonnets in the business. You sit a long way back from the nose in a driving position highly reminiscent of that of the GT.
The leather-bound dashboard is dominated by a 12.3-inch digital instrument display featuring AMG graphics and skins, as well as an 11.9-inch portrait-format central touchscreen display whose positioning can be adjusted from 12 degrees to 32 degrees to avoid reflections when the roof is lowered. It is all controlled by Mercedes-Benz’s MBUX operating system with the latest in conversational speech recognition.
There’s also a flat-bottom AMG multi-function steering wheel with touch-sensitive controls and, as an option, a head-up display for the time on an SL. A wide and high-set centre tunnel that runs back through the forward part of the cabin houses a set of drink holders as well as an oddment stowage box.
It is suitably high on perceived quality, though some elements could be better thought through. The control mechanism to raise and lower the fabric roof, for one, is unnecessarily fiddly. On more than one occasion, we pressed the small button within the lower section of the central display without any response at all.
Alternatively, you can also use a slider within a menu on the display, though again it often failed to set the roof in motion. When it does work the way it is supposed to, the multi-layer structure takes just 15sec to raise or lower.
The 2022-model-year SL is based on its own unique space-frame structure. Different in design to that used by the GT and fashioned from a combination of aluminium, carbon fibre, magnesium and steel, it is manufactured at Mercedes-Benz’s Bremen plant in northern Germany, where assembly of the new two-plus-two roadster takes place alongside the C-Class Estate, GLC, EQC and other models.
The whole structure is claimed to weigh just 270kg. However, the increase in external dimensions, the packaging of the rear seats and other developments, such as the inclusion of four-wheel drive, all contribute to a 125kg increase in weight for the initial top-of-the-line SL63 model, which tips the scales at 1895kg. The upshot, however, is a claimed 50 per cent increase in rigidity over the already sturdy structure used by the GT.
Underpinning it all is a largely bespoke steel suspension. It uses a new five-link double-wishbone set-up at the front with a multi-link arrangement similar to the GT at the rear, in combination with standard adaptive dampers and new lightweight coil springs developed specifically for the SL.
Buyers of the SL63 get hydraulically operated anti-roll bars as part of a newly developed Active Ride Control package. It is a first for AMG, replacing the otherwise standard conventional mechanical anti-roll bars that appear on the SL55.
Interestingly, Hermann says the switch from the old MRA platform to the new MSA platform, as the new structure is referred to internally, has allowed it to position the axles lower. “This brings about a significant lowering in the centre of gravity compared to the old SL,“ he says.
While a lot is new, the two twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre V8 engines available from the start of new SL sales in Australia are, in sum, familiar enough.
The M176 unit found in the SL55 delivers 350kW and 700Nm of torque, propelling it from 0–100km/h in a claimed 3.9sec and to a top speed of 195km/h. The SL63 uses the more heavily tuned M177 power plant with an even keener 430kW and 800Nm, allowing it to dispatch 100km/h from standstill in a slightly sharper 3.6sec and reach an impressive 315km/h.
As well as sporting an altered intake system, repositioned intercoolers, a new oil pan, changes to its crankcase for added cooling efficiency, as well as a modified exhaust for service in the SL63, the latter iteration of the AMG engine also benefits from revised active engine mounts. They stiffen and soften according to load, isolating vibrations within the body structure and substantially reducing load change.
Generous engine bay accommodation brought on by the long probing bonnet has also allowed both engines to be mounted well back behind the front axle for improved weight distribution.
Both launch models run a standard nine-speed AMG MCT Speedshift gearbox with a wet clutch and steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles. Mounted directly to the engine rather than as a transaxle within the rear axle as on the GT, it is allied to an electronically controlled rear differential as standard on the SL63 and as an option as part of an AMG Dynamic Plus Package on the SL55.
There are six driving modes: Slippery, Comfort, Sport, Sport+, Individual and Race – the latter standard on the SL63 but again an option on the SL55. You also get what is known as AMG Dynamics, a system controlling the electronic stability control in four settings, Basic, Advanced, Pro and Master.
Other drivetrains are planned, including a plug-in petrol-electric hybrid unit similar to that used by the S580e, though it isn’t expected to figure in the new line-up until the second half of 2022 at the earliest. There is also talk of an electric drivetrain for the new SL, though Mercedes-AMG is remaining tightlipped on rumors it could see production as part of a growing range of EQ-badged models any time soon.
AMG’s V8 is as characterful as ever. There’s a hearty throb of exhaust blare on start-up and lots of distinctive mechanical engine noise in more sporting driving modes once you get underway. The SL55 delivers huge flexibility and plenty of pace, but with an additional 80kW and 100Nm, the SL63 is the clear performance leader possessing sharper in-gear properties and breathtaking acceleration on a wide-open throttle.
|Fuel Usage||Fuel Stats|
|Fuel cons. (claimed)||12.0L/100km|
The gearbox is slick on upshifts – perhaps not as rapid as you get with rival double-clutch systems, but reliably smooth nevertheless, while the constantly variable properties of the four-wheel-drive system sees the considerable output of both models placed to the road with great effect. Traction is greatly enhanced over the old rear-wheel-drive SL, as exhibited in the standing-start acceleration claims that set lofty new standards for the Mercedes-Benz roadster.
There is an inherently more athletic character to the whole car in line with AMG’s aim to make the new model more driver-oriented than it has been in recent generations. You can dig into the deep reserves with great confidence. The SL55 recommends itself as the more accomplished everyday proposition with a broad spectrum of ability. However, the SL63 is always a tick more responsive, faster, louder and, in the end, exciting to drive.
When you dial things back, the new SL delivers outstanding cruising qualities. The broad spread of torque offered by both of the launch engines combines superbly with the tall gearing at the upper end of the gearbox to provide wonderful effortlessness from the drivetrain at constant motorway speeds. Both models manage to compress long distances with inherent ease. Don’t expect better than 12.0L/100km, even on the most sedate of journeys, though.
It all comes with a new level of driver engagement. Recent SL models haven’t lacked straight-line speed. However, their dynamic qualities have been compromised to a certain extent by the decision to provide them with a modified platform and underpinnings from other more mainstream Mercedes-Benz models.
This new one couldn’t be any different. It offers great agility, balance and body control, and when you go searching for it by switching the AMG Dynamics system to Master mode, mid-corner adjustability. This is a heavy car with all the luxury you could wish for, but it operates with a fluidity of movement and responsiveness to inputs of something much lighter and more spartan. This we discovered on smooth-surfaced Californian canyon roads on a run between Los Angeles and Palm Springs.
The big increase in body stiffness, lower centre of gravity and networked suspension with four-wheel steering all combine to deliver new-found response, sweetly struck handling and great athleticism. It is not a car to muscle along challenging back roads in the manner of some AMG models. Rather, it is sensitive enough to be guided by relatively delicate inputs. With all the various driving modes, you can tailor the SL just the way you want it.
|Key details||2022 Mercedes-AMG SL63|
|Engine||4.0-litre V8 twin-turbo petrol|
|Power||430kW @ 5500-6500rpm|
|Torque||800Nm @ 2500-5000rpm|
|Drive type||All-wheel drive|
|Transmission||Nine-speed multi-clutch automatic|
|Power to weight ratio||226.9kW/t|
The steering, brilliantly weighted, delivers lots of feel and more enthusiastic self-centring than the GT with which it shares elements of its electro-mechanical rack. The balance is terrifically neutral with prodigious grip that remains very dependable as lateral forces increase. We’re yet to drive the new model on a standard suspension, but the hydraulic anti-roll bars do a brilliant job of suppressing body roll. It changes direction with great eagerness, remaining flat, poised and superbly controlled.
The purchase provided by the 305/30-profile rear tyres is quite something. You can be very exuberant with the throttle and still remain within the bounds of the remarkably high limits. There’s fun to be had, though; the torque-laden delivery does allow you to unsettle the back end in the more liberal of driving modes, which program the four-wheel-drive system to deliver almost exclusive rear-wheel-drive traits with some provocation.
It is all carefully controlled by the electronics. The optional carbon-ceramic brakes, meanwhile, are typical in character to those of other AMG models, lacking somewhat in feel until they are well up to temperature but delivering massive levels of retardation.
What we’re not so sure about right now is the ride, or more specifically its suitability to Australian roads. There is an underlying firmness to the suspension, even when you’ve got the new SL in its most comfort-oriented settings. It is certainly a long way from the cosseting roadster we’ve become accustomed to over the years.
This is not to say it is harsh; there is sufficient compliance and control to allow it to cope with poorer surfaces without excessive fidgeting. However, larger transverse expansion joints on US highways occasionally defeated the otherwise fast reactions of the dampers, leading to some jarring through the stiff body at times. Tyre roar is also appreciable on coarser road surfaces, taking the shine off the otherwise impressive refinement.
A definitive verdict will come when we drive the 2022-model-year SL in Australia later this year. What is clear, though, is that with AMG calling the shots on development and the adoption of a dedicated space-frame platform using structural developments from the GT, it is now a far more focused and sporting prospect than any recent generation.
At the same time, it is more practical and versatile than it has been in the past. By reverting to a two-plus-two layout for the first time in over 20 years, and adopting a fabric hood in place of the folding hardtop that has been used for the last two SLs, the new model also offers more space than a Porsche 911 cabriolet despite a sizeable reduction in overall boot capacity.
Pricing is yet to be announced, though expect similar levels to the old SL. Estimates put the new SL55 at over $250,000, with the SL63 likely to nudge $400,000 fully kitted. High-end, no doubt. What you’ll be buying into, though, is the best SL in decades – a truly involving car combining all the drama and driving appeal of the GT, but with two extra seats and greater everyday driving appeal.