Reviews

2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 Driving Impressions


In addition to the slightly larger footprint and 20 percent greater rigidity, the 2013 gets two new engines and one high-end carryover engine. The first model to be released, and the only model we've driven, is the SL550, which is powered by a new twin-turbocharged 4.6-liter V8 that makes 429 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque. This engine replaces a 382 horsepower 5.5-liter V8, and it makes the car quicker and more fuel efficient. EPA fuel economy ratings are up from 14 mpg city/21 highway to 16/24, which eliminates last year's the $1300 gas guzzler tax. A standard start/stop feature contributes to the fuel economy improvement.

Mercedes said a 530-horsepower SL63 AMG will follow in late summer 2012 and then a 621-horsepower twin turbocharged V12 will arrive late in 2012.

The SL550's 4.6-liter V8 is a major improvement over the very capable engine it replaces. It offers almost as much torque as the 5.5-liter twin-turbo V8 Mercedes uses in its AMG products. This twin-turbocharged engine launches the car hard, without any appreciable turbo lag, and emits a refined growl when pushed. Zero to 60 mph arrives in just 4.5 seconds, almost a second quicker than the outgoing model. Though very powerful, the SL550 is docile in traffic, and the start/stop feature works almost transparently, though the starting sound is noticeable with the top down.

The lone transmission is a 7-speed automatic that isn't as sporty as some of the dual-clutch automated manuals offered by the competition, especially Porsche's PDK. It has Manual, Sport, and Eco modes and can be shifted manually via a pair of steering wheel paddles in any mode. (Eco replaces the previous Comfort mode.) Eco shifts earlier to improve fuel economy and provide a relaxed feel in traffic. Sport holds gears longer and is better for performance driving. In any mode, the shifts are smooth, and the engine is strong enough to make power ready to tap at any speed.

Like the powertrain, handling is improved for 2013, thanks mostly to the lower weight and wider track. Not a pure sports car, the SL550 combines sportiness with comfort, and drivers can choose their preferred levels of each. The SL550 offers two suspensions, both with Comfort and Sport modes. The base Agility Control suspension has electrically controlled dampers, while the optional Active Body Control (ABC) uses hydraulics.

Choose the Sport mode for either suspension and the SL550 is an excellent choice for a Sunday drive through the canyon roads. It attacks corners with verve, staying flat, gripping the road confidently, and gathering its weight nicely to turn back in the other direction. The ABC suspension keeps the car even flatter in corners as the hydraulics work to counteract the affects of physics.

The brakes are predictable and offer strong stopping response. They also dissipate heat well enough to withstand hours of hard driving without fading or pulsing. The steering is a mixed bag. It offers little feel and isn't very sharp, but this direct steer system has variable gearing that gets quicker as the steering wheel is turned farther off center. This makes the car quite reactive in sharp turns and switchbacks, but the steering can be a little hard to modulate when it gets quicker mid-turn. We like this effect, but we would prefer more feel in the steering as well.

Despite the SL550's overall capability, it is no match for the sharper and sportier Porsche 911. The Mercedes is a grand touring car, while the Porsche is a true sports car. However, the SL550's more relaxed demeanor makes it easier to live with day to day. The ride is much smoother than the Porsche's, and the duller steering and less aggressive transmission make the SL550 docile in traffic whereas the Porsche feels more high strung. Enthusiasts will like the Porsche better, while the SL550 will appeal to buyers who want a sporty convertible to drive on a regular basis.

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