Mercedes-Benz SL-Class Review

2008 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class SL65 AMG Convertible Shown

Easily one of the most recognizable automotive icons of the last half century, the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class has long epitomized elegance and performance in the grand touring coupe/roadster segments. From the early 300SL models of the 1950s to the present-day retractable hardtops, this two-seater has never wavered from offering the best that Mercedes-Benz could offer.

Initially powered solely by various six-cylinder engines, the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class switched to V8 power in the '70s, and in the early '90s began to offer inline-6 and V12 engines as well. That latter time period also marked when the company adopted AMG, a tuning firm that had offered engine and suspension upgrades for various Mercedes-Benz models since the early 1970s. As testament to the power of this union, the current Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG makes an incredible 604 horsepower, making it one of the most powerful cars on the planet.

Regardless of what year SL you may consider, you can be certain that it will have cutting-edge technology and a comfortable cockpit. The downside to packing in all those safety and luxury features is that the SL typically weighs 2 tons or more. So even though it boasts strong performance and handling, a Benz SL isn't going to feel nimble in the vein of a pure, elemental sports car. Nor does all of this excellence come cheap. But for most shoppers, particularly those looking at the current generation, the SL is hard to beat.

Current Mercedes-Benz SL-Class

Debuting in 2003, the current Mercedes-Benz SL-Class luxury roadster has been one of our editors' favorite vehicles of any sort. In fact, it has been a winner or runner-up for our Editors' Most WantedSM> award every year since its debut. With its retractable hardtop that requires just the touch of a button to raise or lower, the latest SL offers the fun of an open roadster along with the security and quiet comfort of a closed coupe.

All current Mercedes-Benz SL-Class models are rear-drive and offer a wide variety of engines that are all teamed with automatic transmissions (a five- or seven-speed unit, depending on trim level). Even the least potent SL, the SL550, sports a 5.5-liter V8 with 382 horsepower. Next up is the SL55 AMG, which features a supercharged 5.4-liter V8 making 510 hp. A 5.5-liter, twin-turbocharged V12 in the SL600 also makes 510 hp, but puts out 612 pound-feet of torque, nearly 100 more than the SL55. Should those be inadequate, there is the SL65 AMG, whose 604 hp and 738 lb-ft allow it to hit 60 mph in just 3.9 seconds. The SL65's top speed (as with all high-performance Benzes) is electronically limited to 155 mph.

Handling is also a strong point, with Active Body Control (optional on some trims) keeping the SL eerily flat when ripping through a set of S turns. This athleticism doesn't come at the expense of ride comfort either, as the SL absorbs nasty bumps in the road without drama or excess body motion.

With its effortless performance, adaptive suspension, fast-retracting hardtop and wealth of luxury and safety features, we've found it easy to fall in love with the latest SL. Our complaints are few, centering chiefly on the multifunction COMAND interface that requires a fair amount of reading and time to master.

Upon the current generation's release for '03, the SL lineup consisted of just the SL500 (5.0-liter V8 with 302 hp), but it was joined by the SL55 (493 hp) a few months later. The SL600 (also making 493 hp) debuted in 2004, as did a seven-speed automatic for the SL500 and Keyless Go (which allowed the car to be entered and started without using a key). The following year the SL65 bowed, while 2007 saw more power not only for the entry-level SL (hence the name change to SL550) but also for the SL55 and SL600.

Past Mercedes-Benz SL-Class models

The chief differences between the current car and the long-running 1990-2002 generation are styling, a soft top (versus a retractable hardtop in the current car) and ultimate performance.

The 1990-2002 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class offered six-, eight- and 12-cylinder engine choices. Prior to 1994, the cars were named slightly differently, as the numbers came before the letters. Six-cylinder cars (300SL and SL320) made 228 hp, the 500SL/SL500 offered 322 or 302 hp (depending on the year) and the 600SL/SL600 made 389 hp. The sixes could be matched to either a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic, while the V8 and V12 versions initially came with a four-speed automatic only. (They were upgraded to a five-speed unit in 1996.) Apart from a navigation system, these cars could be had with most any luxury and safety feature, such as dual-zone climate control, integrated cell phone, HID headlights and stability control.

Although this generation of the Mercedes SL offered spirited performance, decent handling and plenty of luxury, the driving dynamics proved disappointing to our staff. The culprits were steering that felt somewhat loose on center, a platform that lacked this marque's typically solid feel (giving rise to interior squeaks) and brakes that, although strong in panic situations, felt mushy in normal use. At the time, we also felt the Benz SL was overpriced compared to other competing luxury roadsters, though depreciation has largely negated this potential drawback.

With a run that lasted 18 model years, the 1972-'89 SL was much simpler, both in terms of the vehicle itself and trim levels, than the ones that followed. This SL was powered by various V8 engines, starting with a 4.5-liter (around 180-200 hp), changing to a 3.8-liter of just 155 hp and then adopting a stout 5.6-liter (227 hp) for the final years. The names of these SLs went from 350SL (only for 1972) to 450SL, 380SL and then 560SL. Although you may see a 500SL advertised, be warned that it's a gray-market car, a European version modified by some unknown shop to meet U.S. emissions and crash standards. For obvious reasons, we recommend you steer clear of a gray-market example.


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