Friday, October 2, 2020

2017 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class First Drive

Benz's top two-seat top-dropper gets refined a bit more.

When you reach the price of the Mercedes-Benz SL-class roadster, the market does something unusual: It separates. In many segments, car companies are viciously duplicating each other as fast as possible with nearly identical products, but among $100,000–$150,000 sports convertibles, the choices vary widely in personality and purpose. You can get a Porsche 911 Cabrio or Targa (2016 base prices: $97,250 and $103,980) or an Aston Martin V8 Vantage convertible ($122,325). BMW doesn’t really play in the arena, as the 6-series has to be loaded to the nines (or ordered in M6 form) to pass $100K, and the new Audi R8 convertible isn’t out yet. Smack in the middle of this Venn diagram is the Mercedes-Benz SL, a car that achieves both sportiness and coddling comfort with practiced aplomb, which is why we rate it tops among its peers.

We’re not talking big business here; Benz sold just over 4000 SLs last year in the United States. Yet it’s a big frog in this small pond, a position it’s likely to keep thanks to certain refinements for 2017 and the usual plethora of choices, from the circa-$88,000 SL450 to the about-$220,000 SL65 AMG (exact prices aren’t out yet).

One change is some subtle re-skinning up front to smooth and sleeken the car’s lines. Can we now say without fear of being shouted down that the 2013 redesign was less than successful? Long overhangs were tacked on to the front and back, and the headlights were given weird inflamed tear ducts, as if the car had a horrendous case of pinkeye. That’s been fixed, sort of, with new headlamps and bumper plastic that relaxes the face a little, augmented by a couple of hood blisters evoking the ’55 300SL Gullwing.

Under the skin, the output from the base 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 in the SL450 we drove (renamed from SL400) rises by 33 horsepower to 362, and the new 9G-Tronic automatic replaces the previous seven-speed. The SL450 is being positioned as the sporty model against the more luxurious SL550 V-8, and as such the chassis tuning is a little more edgy. Or curvy, as the car benefits from a new drive mode for the optional Active Body Control system called “Curve.”

You might wonder why a mode called Curve wasn’t just incorporated into the Sport or Sport+ settings. Well, Curve is not for fast driving, as the throttle goes soft and the car becomes rather somnolent in this mode. Curve instructs the hydraulic rams in the suspension to apply a maximum of 2.65 degrees of body lean into a corner to reduce the effects of lateral acceleration on the passengers. It’s a strange sensation, the car noticeably tucking its inside front corner down as you turn into a bend. It is designed, apparently, for those who find themselves with the unhappy duty of chauffeuring a grandparent over the Tail of the Dragon.

Active Body Control ran $4090 extra on the outgoing SL400, so you may be able to summon the inner fortitude to pass on this option. Otherwise, the pairing of the V-6 with the 9G-Tronic is one of typical Mercedes polished excellence. Whatever driving mode you’re in, from Eco to Sport+, the pair works as a dynamic partnership to provide epicurean wafting with seamless thrust. No, the SL450 does not sound ferocious despite a revised exhaust system, its sinuses all stuffed up with turbo, but compared with other SLs in the lineup, the SL450 has slightly more blat to its voice. Even the mighty SL65 with its 621-hp 6.0-liter V-12 is none too loud, and even in Sport+ the slam-bang of its backfires are appropriately muted. Benz clearly figures that SL owners generally are not exhibitionists like, say, Jaguar F-type owners, who aren’t happy unless the windows are rattling.

Reunited with an SL for the first time in a while, as we were, the car’s charms once again proved manifest. It handles exceptionally well for a two-seater that exceeds 3800 pounds in its barest form. The power-folding hardtop will keep folding up to 25 mph as long as you initiate the move while at a standstill, and the power-operated wind blocker helps keep the exposed cabin hurricane-free well past normal freeway speeds. The million-menu-march of the infotainment system on this aging platform is complicated but fine once you get to know it.

From C-class to S-class, Benz’s secret is to give the widest possible swath of buyers an option rather than lose them to the competition. The SL450 maintains that strategy by giving a customer less concerned with speed (still, zero to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds, we’d guess) most of the full SL experience at less than half the price of the loaded SL65.

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