Mercedes-Benz SL

Stuttgartís boulevard cruiser cops a youthful nipínítuck

ALEX INWOOD

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

RARELY has a car suited its location so perfectly.

Iím standing atop a sunny Californian mountain, peering into the valley below while the 4.7-litre V8 of a Mercedes-Benz SL500 ticks loudly as it cools behind me. Below are glimpses of a sinewy, hairpin-infested road, and the air is pierced by howling SL engines as other journos charge up the mountain.

It takes a single glance to know the SLís mid-life facelift has been a successful one.

The old carís styling divided opinion, especially around its beaky nose, but this refreshed look is much more pleasing. The new all-LED lights are thinner, the snout more cohesive and the bonnet is now strafed by a pair of bulges reminiscent of the iconic 300SL Gullwing of 1955. Itís all rather handsome.

Aussie cars also get AMG body styling as standard, new wheels and interior trims, and boosted interior tech with the latest version of Comand Online and integration with Apple Carplay.

There are mechanical tweaks, too. Non-AMG models now feature a nine-speed auto, and can be optioned with Active Body Control suspension, which eliminates conventional sway bars via computer-controlled dampers.

Likewise the same curve-tilting function from the S-Class Coupe, which leans the car into corners like a motorbike to offset bodyroll.

Thereís also more power. While the twin-turbo V8s in the SL500 and AMG SL63 remain unchanged, Benz has wicked up the newer 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 in the entry-level SL400. It now produces 270kW/500Nm thanks to extra boost and an ECU tune, and itís an absolute peach. Sharp and responsive, itís also satisfyingly quick and pushes the SL400 from 0-100km/h in 4.9sec.

The new nine-speed auto is smooth, though obviously calibrated more towards cruising than performance. Even with Sport+ selected on the now standard Dynamic Select dial, the torque-converter auto rolls into the next gear instead of slamming shifts home with conviction.

Stepping into the 335kW/700Nm V8-powered SL500, which Benz says will make up half of SL sales, brings a welcome boost in grunt, but performance junkies will lust after the new SL63.

It scores the trick active suspension system as standard and the result is a car that instantly feels more focused. Its 430kW/900Nm 5.5-litre V8 is more explosive, its front-end keener to turn in, and rear grip is enormous thanks to sticky rear 285/30R20 Michelin Super Sports.

Yet thereís still no escaping the SLís colossal size. Peering down that enormous bonnet gives the impression two-thirds of the car is in front of you and, while the steering is fluid, it lacks connection to the road and front wheels. This makes it difficult to judge the SLís trajectory and steering inputs when you really begin to push.

So a razor-sharp sports car the SL is not, but it remains an effortless performance cruiser and a rather great GT. The ride on large-diameter wheels and lowprofile rubber is deftly damped, the cabin is richly trimmed, and the car is astonishingly stiff. Roof up or down, every SL is free of flex and scuttle-shake.

Inside is a new steering wheel and instrument cluster, but the small infotainment screen and button-heavy central stack are beginning to feel a little last-gen.

Better news is the price. Despite the extra equipment, Mercedes- Benz has cut around 10 percent from the SLís sticker. Thatís up to $40K on some models, making the SL harder to overlook.

PLUS & MINUS

More cruiser than apex hunter; dated interior; front axle lacks precision Engaging engines; improved styling and suspension tech; cheaper

01 ROLLING CEREMONY

The SLís folding metal hardtop can now be operated at speeds up to 40km/h, although you have to be stationary to begin the rather elaborate opening or closing ceremonies.

02 MORE COGS, SAME SIZE

New nine-speed auto fitted to non-AMG variants might carry two extra ratios than the transmission it replaces, but its dimensions are roughly the same, which helps with packaging, and itís lighter.

03 SAFETY FIRST

SL is armed with the usual active safety and assist systems such as emergency autonomous braking, blind-spot detection and lane-keep assist. But thereís also a semi-autonomous Distronic system with Steering Pilot, and optional Parking Pilot that helps park the SL in tight spaces.

The king is dead

The head of the SL family, the 6.0-litre V12 SL65, is dead. Well, in Australia at least. Mercedes has cut the 463kW/1000Nm super-convertible due to low demand. The previous car cost $480,610 and only six were sold in the past four years. However, if you have an unbending will to own the updated SL65, which now hits 100km/h in 4.0sec, thereís a silver lining. ďIt wonít be certified, but itís not impossible to get one,Ē said a company insider.

OR TRY THESE...

BMW M6 Convertible $308,600

The rag-top M6 is the SLís nearest competitor, at least in size, and it also boasts a twin-turbo V8, packing a potent 441kW/700Nm. It has rear seats, too, but the downside is it weighs a colossal 1980kg.

Porsche 911 Carrera S Cabriolet $274,300

Would destroy the SL on a winding road and youíd have more fun doing it. New 3.0-litre twin-turbo flat six is a cracker, but canít quite match the effervescent top end and spinetingling howl of the atmo donk. Canít match the SL for cruiser cred either.