2022 Mercedes-AMG SL First Drive Review: Magic Trick
There’s good luck, there’s bad luck, and then there’s whatever the hell kind of luck leaves you stuck puttering along at five miles per hour on a stunning mountain road in a V8 sports car. That’s my luck. Fog, little more than an underachieving cloud really, has me squinting to see past the nose of my 2022 Mercedes-AMG SL-Class as I climb past 5,000 feet on the Palomar Mountain Road in Southern California.
And you know what? I’d have been fine with the situation had the SL-Class not undergone a significant transformation during its recent one-year hiatus. See, this is not a Mercedes-Benz SL-Class anymore. It’s a Mercedes-AMG SL-Class, developed by the team in Affalterbach and without an equivalent Mercedes-Benz model following. It’s a big shift for a vehicle that spent decades as a relaxed and refined boulevard cruiser. But in entrusting the folks from AMG with the SL, Mercedes has given one of its longest running nameplates a new lease on life that also realigns it with iconic, high-performance ancestors.
While Motor1.com strives to rate every vehicle we test, Mercedes has not released pricing or fuel economy on the 2022 SL-Class. We’ll attach a rating once that information is available. For more on how Motor1.com rates cars, click here.
Gallery: 2022 Mercedes-AMG SL-Class: First Drive
Now You See Me…
More than perhaps any other body style, automakers have mastered the proportions of a sports car: long hood, short deck, rakish windshield, and high beltline. The SL has those traditional design elements, but it’s also awash in modern Mercedes styling. In front, the wide, menacing grille sports 14 slats, commemorating the 1952 300 SL that was genesis, and on each side, angry triangular headlights scowl ahead with LED eyebrows.
The profile relies on the SL’s vaguely phallic shape to define it, rather than any abundance of ornamentation. The chrome side grilles are about all the tinsel there is, but they look tacked on and their finish clashes with my tester’s gloss-black badging. In back, thin LED taillights wrap around the bulbous tail, drooping at the center like they’re stretched taut across the body.
The SL’s cabin is classic four-place convertible, with a high beltline shielding occupants and a tall, wide center console bisecting the cabin. Carbon fiber and piano black trim form the sporty shape of a NACA duct on the transmission tunnel, while the SL opts for awesome turbine-inspired climate vents. Yellow stitching on my test car is delightful and everywhere, and real metal accents – from the speaker grilles for the Burmester audio system to the vent surrounds and inlays on the steering wheel – abound.
The cabin’s functional aspects follow the AMG formula. The latest AMG flat-bottom steering wheel appears, complete with thick rim, huge aluminum paddle shifters, and an Alcantara/leather finish. The SL63 I drove also carried the optional Performance seats. Combined, the SL earns its AMG designation thanks to the effect it has on the driver – slot behind the wheel, and you know this car means business. But it still excels at convertible things.
Top in place, this new convertible is as quiet as any hardtop SL that came before.
Drop the roof and the 11.9-inch MBUX touchscreen in the center of the dash rises from a relaxed 12-degree angle to a more upright 32 degrees, helping eliminate glare, while the 12.3-inch digital cluster wears deep shrouds on either side for the same reason. I’d love to say that these touches worked, but the dreary conditions meant there was little direct sunlight for testing.
The new three-layer fabric roof takes the place of the previous SL’s folding hardtop, trimming 46 pounds of fat in the process. It’s also faster to raise and lower (15 seconds versus 20) and works at 37 miles per hour (12 mph more than the tintop). Top in place, this new convertible is as quiet as any hardtop SL that came before, muting the pelt, pelt, pelt of rain. At high speeds, the thick roof and its aggressive sealing eliminate wind noise, while the ultra-stiff body means cowl shake is a distant memory. But the inconvenience of operating the new SL’s top overshadows how good it actually is.
For reasons I can’t begin to comprehend, Mercedes hides the top control on a slider in the center touchscreen and then requires the driver to hold their finger in place while the roof does its thing. Slip a millimeter, and the Roof du Soleil stops in its tracks and the slider bounces back to center.
Negotiate appropriately with the touchscreen, and you’ll experience the SL at its best. With the windows up and the removable wind deflector in place, the cabin remains quiet enough for polite conversations at highway speed. But a more elemental experience comes with letting more air in, and I’d happily spend long hours on the highway without the protection of the windows or rear deflector – the SL’s sleek shape, raked windshield, and low seating position mean the wind can rush through your hair without beating you about.
…Now You Don’t
Every 2022 SL packs a twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8, to which I say, “good.” Mercedes’ bread-and-butter hi-po engine is one of the most engaging eight-cylinders on the market. Here, it injects the base SL55 with 469 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque. Step up to the SL63, and those figures swell to 577 ponies and 590 lb-ft. In both models, a nine-speed automatic transmission distributes power to a standard AMG-spec all-wheel-drive system, a first for the SL.
Conspicuous in its absence is EQ Boost, Mercedes’ excellent mild-hybrid setup. The company’s line – by way of a quiet conversation I had with an engineer – is that it’s difficult to justify the engineering expense of putting EQ Boost in the SL, when plug-in-hybrid E-Performance models are the future of AMG. That’s great for future owners, but it does make for a significant short-term downside, because neither SL benefits from the immediate spool-up that comes from the mild-hybrid system’s compressor.
After a whiff of turbo lag, wide-open throttle delivers a series of hammer blows that repeat on each upshift. Mercedes claims peak torque is available from 2,500 to 5,000 rpm but I couldn’t spot a single drop in performance on my repeated charges to the 7,000-rpm redline. Like the AMG GT, the power comes in relentless and unending waves.
But it’s all manageable, even in the more aggressive of the six drive modes. The progressive pedal is easy to modulate, and with the benefit of all-wheel drive, the slick and chilly conditions couldn’t prevent me from attempting to test Mercedes’ claimed performance figures. I wasn’t brave enough for an aggressive Race Start in such poor weather, though, settling for pounding on and off the throttle and basking in the effortless performance.
Like the AMG GT, the power comes in relentless and unending waves.
Praise goes not just to the engine, but to that lickity-split nine-speed gearbox. Using a wet clutch rather than a torque converter, it engages quickly off the line. That was helpful on the first part of the drive, as I negotiated the many traffic lights of the Pacific Coast Highway before merging onto Interstate 5 near Dana Point. Both on surface streets and at highway speeds, the gearbox fades into the background – leave the car in Comfort for imperceptible performance.
Or do as I did, and select the SL63’s standard Race setting (optional on the SL55) while taking hold of those aluminum paddle shifters. Multi-gear downshifts are a couple tugs away and come with a cannon-like report out the four square exhausts on each change as the computers blip the throttle to match revs. Try as I might, I couldn’t catch the SL flat-footed – even in automatic mode, the gearbox’s response to sudden throttle applications was flawless.
This entire package is easy on the ears, too. There are only two exhaust modes, Balanced and Powerful, but each hits a sweet spot. The former hushes things up, delivering a hearty V8 growl under heavy throttle, but limiting the exhaust’s hysterics and overall volume. Powerful is my choice though, pleasing the ears regardless of the situation with a deep bellow and plenty of pops and crackles on overrun. Aside from the sound, there’s little vibration while accelerating and controlled weight transfer on deceleration, owing to the active engine mounts (standard in the SL63, optional in the 55).
Sleight Of Hand
I expected the new SL to be quick. And I knew it would be comfortable – the restrained fore, aft, and lateral motions and well-isolated steering provide high-speed stability, while the stiff body and balanced adaptive dampers mean even punishing local roads have little impact in the cabin. But what I didn’t expect was just how impressive the SL would be in the bends after decades of relaxing, ponderous cornering. That starts with AMG’s solution for roll control.
In other Mercedes products, EQ Boost’s 48-volt system is a prerequisite for the active anti-roll systems that make even hippos like the GLS 63 feel graceful. But in choosing not to make the SL a mild hybrid, Mercedes had to reach for a new hydraulic active roll stabilization system, which does away with the traditional mechanical actuators or linkages.
What I didn’t expect was just how impressive the SL would be in the bends after decades of relaxing, ponderous cornering.
Instead, each of the four adaptive dampers has two hydraulic connections (one on the compression side and one on the rebound side) tied together via a two/two-way valve. Those valves link to the opposing damper via a hydraulic line, while a central pump ties all four corners of the car together.
From there, the SL relies on kinetic energy – when one damper compresses, it forces fluid through the line to the opposite side, reducing that damper’s rebound and creating a similar effect to electromechancial anti-roll bars, but without the added weight and complexity. And as a small bonus, the system can also lift the SL’s nose by 1.2 inches to clear steep driveways.
The hydraulics are standard on the SL63 and optional on the 55 (which uses lightweight torsion bars instead), but you want it no matter what. Combined with the standard rear-axle steering, the SL63 handles like a far smaller, lighter car, changing directions and exhibiting cornering limits that would shame its predecessors, and perhaps, the AMG GT. Every movement of the suspension feels precise and deliberate, like the SL will never let me down.
Beyond the innovative roll control system, the SL adopts an AMG-first five-link front suspension. Combined with the hydraulic anti-roll system, which changes the steering ratio from 14.2 to a more direct 12.8:1, the revised front suspension makes for precise and predictable behavior. At high speeds, the weighty and isolated steering feels stable and controlled. Entering corners, that weight builds naturally, making mid-corner adjustments easy to plan for. The SL feels more natural than the setup in the AMG GT, which occasionally feels overboosted at low speeds. And more than anything, it feels like a sports car again.
That shift from boulevard cruising, country club accessory to sports car was unexpected, but welcome. When the first 300SL debuted for 1954, it was a race-derived road car, all zest and speed, with its unique gullwing style dictated by the demands of a stiff, race-ready platform. And while the SLs that followed had the look and luxury customers demanded, their link to the legendary 1950s racers that inspired the original grew more tenuous.
The 2022 AMG SL is not a return to Stirling Moss or Carrera Panamericana glory. But it rebalances the scales for the nameplate, providing a performance and handling character that’s been missing for decades, all without sacrificing the comfort and luxury SL customers expect. With the end of the S-Class Cabriolet and the pending demise of the GT convertible (don’t worry, the coupe is probably sticking around), that sounds like just the trick well-heeled Mercedes customers were waiting for.
SL Competitor Reviews:
- Aston Martin Vantage Roadster: Not Rated
- Bentley Continental GT V8: Not Rated
- Lexus LC 500: 8.6/10
- Porsche 911 Cabriolet: Not Rated
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