The SL500 (previously known as 500SL) must be one of the most iconic badges to grace the bootlid of a Benz. The nomenclature has been a fixture in the marque’s iconic luxury roadster line-up since 1980 and is utterly desirable, but has the SL, which recently received a facelift, kept up with the times?
We like: Sharper, more purposeful looks, sophisticated drivetrain, enhanced onboard technology
We don't like: expansive exterior dimensions make the SL cumbersome round town, it's a sporty grand tourer – not a sportscar
- For a little more practicality: The BMW 650i Convertible M Sport doesn’t have the SL’s pedigree/snob appeal, but it’s a handsome car, somewhat sportier than the Benz and offers additional seating for two (although there is not much in the way of rear legroom).
- For a lither sportscar experience: The Jaguar F-Type R Convertible is powered by a supercharged V8, has lively dynamics and is arguably one of the most beautiful road cars in production. It’s got a minuscule boot, however, and although it’s adept at cruising, it's more suited to spirited driving.
- More exotic (second-hand) options: For the asking price of the SL500 or, at times significantly less, have a look at 3- to 4-year-old examples of the Maserati GranCabrio and Aston Martin DB9 Volante.
See how the Mercedes-Benz SL compares with its BMW 6 Series Convertible and Jaguar F-Type R Convertible
What is it?
The Mercedes-Benz SL is an automotive icon. The ancestry of the car you see pictured here dates back to the Sindelfingen-based company producing a road version of its racing car in the 50s, which led to the introduction of the evocative 300SL Gullwing and its roadster sibling, followed by the exquisite “Pagoda” SL of the 60s and “Der Panzerwagen” or “Bobby Ewing SL” of the 70s and 80s.
Sportier front end detailing in the grille and bumper (courtesy of the AMG Line) has given the SL a more purposeful visage.
Since the 90s, however, Benz’s SL range has evolved from a compact roadster to an open-topped boulevard cruiser. The introduction of the retractable hard top R230 version at the beginning of the millennium seemed to underline that; irrespective of the introduction of potent AMG versions, the SL had morphed into a softly-sprung and somewhat portly, if undeniably classy, grand tourer.
The current (6th generation) SL, which was introduced 4 years ago, was even longer and wider than its predecessor, even though it featured weight-saving technology, a plethora of luxury on-board features and adaptive damping. What’s more, the world’s automotive media was not singularly impressed with the sinewy roadster’s somewhat bluff front-end treatment… What’s more, Benz’s traditional rivals still resist the temptation to build a large roadster with a folding metal roof… They prefer to stick to fabric tops, which are more compact and allow for 2+2 cabriolet configurations.
A recent facelift saw the introduction of an aesthetic styling upgrade and the adoption of several features from the super-luxurious S-Class Coupe. But now that Mercedes-Benz offers a more practical (and newer) cabriolet version of the aforementioned S-Class, does the SL still make sense?
The SL500's metal-folding (vario) roof can open/close at speeds of up to 40 kph.
How does it fare in terms of…
It is, perhaps, telling that the Mercedes-Benz offers the SL range in South Africa replete with an AMG Line exterior package. Whereas some may have suggested that the pre-facelifted standard version seemed a little bland considering the bold style statements made by its forebears, the low-slung torpedo-shaped Benz gets a characterful pointy snout courtesy of a provocatively shaped front bumper, a bold diamond-pattern grille and elongated headlamps with standard-fit LED Intelligent Light System. The eagle-eyed observer will notice the bonnet now sports a pair of bulging power domes!
In terms of head-turning ability, the SL’s appearance is undeniably distinctive. At almost 4,6 metres in length and just under 1,9 metres in width, the roadster has oodles of parking bay-filling presence… which is a boon if you’re blissfully admiring your ride from a distance, but the brawny dimensions prove frustrating when you are trying to manoeuvre the Benz in a congested urban centre. The SL’s elongated bonnet makes it difficult to judge where to stop when crawling into a parking space (thank heavens for distance sensors… but bear in mind that the Parking Pilot system is standard, so electronic assistance is available). The elongated doors need to be opened carefully to avoid contact with vehicles parked near the Benz’s flanks and the old-school “dead” accelerator pedal, which requires a strong prod to prompt the car into motion (but is fine thereafter) requires familiarisation.
The ABC adaptive suspension (if specified) can raise the SL's ride height on rougher roads, and lower it (for better aerodynamics) at speed.
Ride and handling?
Yes, the SL can feel cumbersome on a run to the shops, almost infuriatingly so, but a relaxed Sunday afternoon drive along a winding, scenic route finds the Benz resplendent in its element. Propelled by a burbling 335 kW 4,7-litre V8 engine masterfully matched to a 9-speed automatic transmission, the SL500 offers muscular (arguably surfeit) performance in combination with a (mostly) loping gait.
As the AMG Line is standard, the ride height is lowered by 10 mm, but the test unit also came equipped with Active Body Control (ABC) adaptive suspension with a curve tilting function. ABC works in conjunction with the respective Dynamic Select transmission modes: Curve (CV), which strategically applies a maximum of 2.65 degrees of tilt in the speed range from 15 to 180 kph to optimise occupant comfort, Comfort (C), Sport (S), Sport Plus (S+) and, lastly, Individual (I), which allows individual adjustment of the various parameters to suit the driver's requirements.
We found that the SL was particularly adept at coping with variable road conditions; its body control is admirable given the roadster’s heft, but on the most uneven surfaces the Benz still felt a trifle uneasy, probably due to its sizeable wheels and low profile rubber. And, to be honest, the steering setup is, if not quite vague, a little insular in feel, which means that although the SL500 is quite capable of delivering a brisk turn of speed, one feels disinclined to pitch it into corners with gusto.
360° video drive in the SL along the Californian coastline:
Still, given the Benz’s character, and the (assumed) urbane sophistication of its target market, relaxed and engrossing top-down motoring is the SL’s forte. We would not be surprised if Benz sold the bulk of its SLs in the well-heeled coastal cities: as a lifestyle-minded proposition, it still delivers.
What’s more, the ability to manually adjust the ride height was deeply appreciated. At the press of a button, it's possible to raise the ride height by up to 50 mm, which is a godsend when negotiating steep on- or off-ramps with a vehicle that has such generous overhangs.
There is most certainly an upshot to the SL’s dimensions and that is superb interior comfort by roadster standards. The large, cossetting seats offer a host of features, such as an extensive range of electric adjustment, heating or cooling functions, plus a selection of massage functions.
A tasteful upgrade of the Benz's 2-tone cabin has brought the interior up to date with the marques' top-end cars.
The interior’s layout is, if perhaps not as elegant as that of the S-Class, classically classy, replete with sumptuously stitched leather trim and tasteful metallic accents on the switchgear.
Audiophiles can specify the Harman Kardon Logic 7 surround sound system with a 10-channel DSP amplifier, total output of 600W and 11 speakers including Frontbass, which utilises free installation space in the aluminium cavities in front of the footwell as resonating chambers for the bass speakers. Not fancy enough? You can also spec the Bang & Olufsen BeoSound AMG sound system with a 16-channel DSP amplifier with a total output of 900W and a dozen speakers!
And even though comprehensive luxury is expected on a car that costs close to R2 million, the SL still offers a few surprise and delight features, including Magic Vision Control, which dispenses with windscreen water jets and neatly pipes washer fluid through the Benz’s wipers, and, if specified, the Magic Sky Control system can make the glass panel in the panoramic vario-roof change from dark to transparent or vice-versa within just a few seconds.
The flat-bottomed steering wheel and ornate instrument-dial cylinders underline the SL's sporty heritage... and pretensions!
On the topic of the electrohydraulic folding-roof function, we note that the open/close process can be completed at speeds of up to 40 kph, which is handy when you want/need to pull away from a traffic light or intersection before the roof’s machinations are completed. Having said that, opening or closing of the roof needs to be initiated when the car is stationary… In other words, you cannot activate the roof mechanism by simply coasting to speeds of under 40 kph or a crawl, for example.
SL500 AMG Line price in South Africa
As standard, the SL500 retails for R1 776 621, which includes a 6-year/100 000 km maintenance plan.
Sixty years since the Mercedes-Benz SL made an indelible mark on the automotive world, the SL500 and its brethren (the SL400, SL63 AMG and SL65 AMG) continue as the only large luxury roadsters amid rivaling 2+2 seater cabriolets and exotic, grand tourer soft-tops. Perhaps Mercedes-Benz’s rival manufacturers have not developed a direct rival to the SL out of respect of its iconic status, but we believe it's more likely that the market for vehicles of its kind is very niche and “not worth exploiting”.
Remember that in the absence of an S-Class Cabriolet, which has now returned after being discontinued 44 years ago, the SL has effectively needed to fulfill the roles of roadster and grand tourer, which explains why it has become a bit of a, forgive us, luxobarge. We’ve driven the new S-Class Cabriolet; it offers more practicality, sophistication and, arguably, prestige than its roadster sibling. Fans of the SL will be quick to point out that the S500 drop-top costs R500k more than the SL, which is big a premium if you don’t intend to use the extra seats and bigger boot often, however.
Be that as it may, sources suggest that the next SL, which should arrive around 2018/19, will have more compact packaging and feature a fabric roof and will ostensibly span the divide between where the current SLC and SL sit in Benz’s product line-up. What the SL500 is then, is the SL at the high point of its large luxury cruiser phase of the iconic range’s evolution. It may not be for everyone and, yes, it now seems an anomaly in terms of the overall vehicle market’s product offering, but for those who admire what the SL is and has always stood for, few vehicles warrant a direct comparison.
Watch the Mercedes-Benz SL go on a hunt for the perfect mile along the Pacific Coast Highway in California:
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