The launch of an all-new Mercedes-Benz SL is one of the most eagerly anticipated events in the motoring industry so we expected the car to make a big splash.
We'd had prior warning Mercedes-Benz was planning to draw fresh attention to the headlights of its cars through 2009's BlueZero Concept and the latest SLK, but it's hard not to be taken aback when confronted by the awkward combination of organic, pulled back lights and upright SLS-inspired grille. Remember, this is the SL so traditionally it's been the most beautiful model in the model line-up.
To be fair to the all-new SL, that eye-grabbing grille isn't quite so in-your-face, when you seen in the tin (or Aluminium if you may); photographs lead you straight to it, whereas when you approach the car for the first time it's the perfect proportions claiming your attention. In growing up the new SL has also grown more athletic and outwardly sporty, thus moving to the top of the class for sheer presence. Unless of course you've never seen it before, then chances are you'll mistake it for the smaller SLK, which is the last thing any SL buyer wants.
Buying a Mercedes SL has always been seen as a sensible option - you can take for granted peerless build quality, stylish exteriors and smart cabins. Buyers however are increasingly fussy and want some 'edginess' to their cars. Then again, most buyers don't know what they want until you give it to them so Mercedes-Benz is instead trying to place the new SL alongside, and preferably in front of, the BMW 6 Series and Porsche 911.
Historically, the Merc has dynamically trailed its German rivals and the task of the all-new version is to convince wavering petrolheads that you can have all the style, comfort and driving fun you need in one package with the three-pointed star on the grille. At least that's what the PR brief seems to say.
So the new SL promises to scale new heights in terms of performance and efficiency, refinement and dynamism while offering an even more convincing blend of the intoxicating luxury and open air sporting thrill for which Mercedes' grand convertible has become so widely revered. Make no mistake, the 'R231' is a massive undertaking for Mercedes and is their first series-production model to be made almost exclusively from aluminium.
The SL's sophisticated body-in-white superstructure mixes die cast-, chill cast-, stamped- and extruded aluminium with a little magnesium and ultra-high strength steel. A lighter all-magnesium folding hard-top roof and mostly aluminium body panels contribute, in turn, to an overall kerb weight saving of up to 140kg over the old car. More importantly, the new underbody has increased the car's torsional stiffness by more than 20 per cent. You need only pull open the door to feel the amount of investment that has gone into this project. It feels heavy and shuts with an authoritative 'thwump'.
Once inside you're entombed in a plush world of richly finished leather, precision-movement switchgear and an overwhelming sense of being beautifully looked after. Mercedes' cabin designers really know their stuff; they've managed to make the SLS' round air-con vents work on the SL and the A-Class as well without losing any of its novelty factor. The interior is everything you'd expect of a top-end luxury convertible, and then some.
With every new SL there are new engines. At the bottom of the pile is a 306bhp 3.5-litre V6 petrol (SL350), then comes a 4.7-litre twin-turbocharged V8 with 435bhp and 700Nm of torque (SL500); up another rung is another twin-turbo V8, this time a 5.5-litre unit boasting 537bhp (SL63 AMG), while at the top of the family tree sits the carried over 630bhp 6.0-litre V12 in the SL65 AMG model.
Like the previous SL500, the new turbocharged V8 is big-hearted in a laid-back sort of way. Gun it and it growls like a muscle-car motor, back off the gas and you can barely hear it. The noise is no empty promise either as when you nail the throttle to the carpet, the car will sprint to 100km/h in a claimed 4.6 seconds. Even if you tread more gently you'll find yourself deep into hair-raising speeds without noticing it so it's a very quick car.
The transmission — Mercedes' long-serving seven-speed automatic with steering wheel paddles - aids the serene, smooth flowing deception, oozing its way up and down the ratios without pause or hesitation. As a result of the drivetrain's initial suaveness you might find the new V8 SL short on raw thrills, though there is always the soundtrack to disprove such notions.
There are chassis improvements too, though they've narrowed instead of closed the gap on its more sporting rivals. Most notable of these is the steering, which now has a more satisfying feel, if no real intimacy. Handling? As ever, the SL lacks the finesse of a 911 once the corners turn to hairpins, yet on 160km/h open sweepers you can feel the front tyres biting into the tarmac, lending you the confidence to maintain your headlong charge to the corner's exit.
Ride and handling is where this car sets itself apart from its predecessors, never mind its improved speed. This car delivers feel, and plenty of it. There's a bit of roll as it tips into a turn, but the SL wields the kind of chassis balance most nimble sports coupés could use. The handling doesn't come at the expense of a poor ride. So immaculate are ride comfort levels that it'll glide unperturbed over the very worst surfaces.
This is despite there being a removable roof. Even with the top down there wasn't the faintest suggestion the car's structure was being stretched, as there was neither a shudder from the steering column nor a shimmy from the rear view mirror. Open-top motoring just doesn't get any more refined and roof up, it generates more noise from its big tyres than is created by the wind. With it down, you're treated to the most special roadster experience money can buy.
More demanding local roads (i.e. Malaysian tarmac) will decide whether or not the new SL is just all mouth and trousers, but there's no doubting its appeal. Visually stunning, luxurious and seriously bloody quick, it's hardly lacking ultimate roadster credentials. In truth the Mercedes-Benz SL has no real rivals; there simply isn't another car with its blend of attributes. This is a car of strong and alluring character and one thing's for sure, the motoring world would be a lot less wonderful without it.
Verdict: The ultimate roadster but at a very steep price
Looks good in the flesh
Speed and handling
No sacrifice in comfort
WE DON"T LIKE
Looks bad in pictures
Gotta be rich to own one
0-100km/h: 4.6 secs
Top speed: 250km/h (limited)
Engine: 4.7-litre, V8, petrol, twin-turbo
Installation: Front, longitudinal, RWD
Power: 435bhp at 5250rpm
Torque: 700Nm at 1800-3500rpm
Gearbox: 7-speed automatic
Brakes (f/r): Ventilated disc
Suspension (f): Multi-link struts, coil springs
Suspension (r): Multi-link struts, coil springs