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km : First Drive

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30 May 2012

Sunset Boulevard out of Hollywood is one of those magical drives, an idyllic cruise past lush, manicured gardens and massively gated driveways in some of the country’s most storied (and private) neighborhoods – Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades – as the four-lane tarmac weaves its way up and down toward its terminus, the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. Admittedly, I’m but another of the countless tourists lured by its myth, though I’ve now driven this stretch of “Hollywood’s suburbs” enough to know the experience is so much better with a proper set of wheels. And really, nothing’s more appropriate for the ride than a Mercedes SL.

Ever since Max Hoffman insisted Mercedes cut the turret off its gullwing coupe nearly sixty years ago, Tinseltown’s moneymakers have counted on the drop-top SL to arrive in style. Traces of the hard-core SL that made Mercedes-Benz dominant in post-WWII endurance racing are hardly visible in the all-new 2013 model; instead, the modern SL has evolved into the pinnacle of relaxed, open-air luxury touring, an undeniable truth as I navigate Sunset on a perfect California afternoon. As pampering and posh as it is on the surface, it’s an absolute tour de force of engineering underneath.

This newest SL represents only the sixth generation in as many decades, but perhaps more significant for a model whose initials denote “sport lightweight” is the fact that it’s the first generation to weigh in less than its predecessor. The new body almost completely abandons steel in favor of aluminum (the exception being the windshield pillars) to save about 275 pounds compared to the last model’s monocoque. Even in full dress, the finished car ends up some 253 pounds lighter (at 3947 lbs) than the outgoing car, the equivalent of two supermodels and a magnum of Dom Perignon.

Naked of paint and trimmings, the bodyshell looks like a salesman’s sample of what can be done with aluminum – virtually every method short of sculpture is used to make the unibody. It’s a composition of die-cast, hollow-cast, extruded, forged and stamped pieces joined by rivets, adhesives and friction welds that only a German engineer could have dreamed up. The result is incredibly strong, stiff and light, delivering both improved dynamics (immediately noticeable from the driver’s seat) and uncompromised safety, the latter a longstanding SL virtue.

Another example of Engineers Gone Wild: the cast aluminum firewall serves double-duty as a bass box for the audio system’s subwoofers. Working with Harmon Kardon, Mercedes engineers worked out that the exceptionally stiff structure that runs from the base of the windshield to the floorpan would be pretty ideal – a tight chamber, in acoustical terms –for creating deep, clean bass sounds. The result, which Mercedes calls FrontBass, is full and rich more than punchy, and without the license plate-rattling reverb that normally accompanies high volumes and low frequencies. It’s a brilliant concept, and one that will undoubtedly find its way into future M-B models.

The folding hardtop that arrived on the last-generation SL soldiers on, further contributing to the lightweight diet by combining magnesium and plastic construction; even the standard panorama roof panel is featherweight polycarbonate, though a glass panel finds its way back in when you tick the box for the optional hi-tech Magic Sky roof. Making its debut last year on the 2012 SLK roadster, the tinted panel goes opaque at the press of a button.

If that’s not science fiction enough for you, take a close look at the windshield wiper. To avoid ruining a perfect paparazzi opportunity by accidentally showering passengers in washer fluid, the Benz boys went OCD with the wiper blade, piercing each side of it with lasers to create the first in-blade washer jets. Not only are the holes positioned asymmetrically for optimum coverage (there’s 84 on the driver’s side and 66 on the passenger’s), they only spray on the downsweep, delivering blue juice only where and when it’s needed. These guys have literally thought of everything. Too bad no one uses wipers in L.A.

But enough of the Mr. Wizard stuff and back to the nuts and bolts. Last year’s SL550 packed a 5.5-liter V8 under its long hood, but for 2013 the big roadster jumps onto the 21st-century bandwagon. That means less displacement, but more power and greater efficiency thanks to the magic of turbocharging. Despite the numbers on the trunklid, the V8 out front displaces just 4.7 liters (though Mercedes calls it a 4.6). Nevertheless, it pumps 429 horses, augmented by a meaty torque figure of 516 lb-ft, almost all of which is available from the moment you think you need it. Considering the old SL550’s figures of 382 hp/391 lb-ft, plus its extra weight, it’s no wonder the new model’s 0-to-60 time is nearly a full second quicker at 4.5 seconds.

The standard seven-speed automatic works in perfect step with the new engine’s power delivery. Though a conventional torque converter couples the engine and gearbox, it locks up in every gear to provide a solid, slip-free connection when it’s not shifting, saving fuel but also eliminating the traditional slush-box feel automatics have long been known for. Optional paddle shifters on the steering wheel theoretically enhance the driving experience, but the trans does such a nice job shifting itself – particularly well in sport mode – that most will probably never uses them. In fact, they’re only operable when in sport mode, virtually defeating their necessity.

Getting the power to the road is no problem for the new SL, which is nearly three inches wider in rear track width and fitted with standard 285/35-18 rear tires. Front track is a good inch and a half wider than before, with 255/40-18 tires meeting the road. Optional active body control enhances the standard electronic dampers for nearly flat cornering when engaged. Electric power steering is now standard, aiding efficiency if somewhat diluting communication from the asphalt to the driver by way of being slightly overboosted.

And that, in truth, is fine with us, since no matter how many race-winning vintage SLs Mercedes waves in front of us, the SL has simply never been a canyon-carving sports car like, say, a Porsche 911 or Lotus Elise. Not that this SL won’t absolutely hustle its way through the twisties in a way that may surprise many true sports car drivers, it’s just that the experience isn’t rewarding in the same way. The Mercedes-Benz SL is now, and virtually always has been, an exceptionally well-mannered luxury roadster that interprets “sporty” as a state of mind more than a state of tune.

In that vein, the styling of the new SL is quite evolutionary and at this point, a bit predictable, wearing as it does the long, flat SLS-inspired hood and huge grille, juxtaposed by the traditional short, wide decklid. Large-scale details like the headlights and grille look better from certain angles than from others, but there’s no denying it’s an SL at first glance. The cockpit, on the other hand, is the best SL interior in a while, with throwback elements like the round, crosshair dash vents and nearly horizontal instrument panel balanced with modern touches like the large, centrally mounted color infotainment screen and first-rate materials everywhere. The two seats, as always, are as generously sized and comfortable as anything found behind a bank president’s desk, but with optional heating and cooling, not to mention Mercedes’ Airscarf that blows warm air at the base of the neck for the ultimate in top-down comfort.

Which brings us back to Sunset Boulevard, both literally and figuratively, after a day of driving the scenic inland valleys north of L.A. Top down and enjoying the warm sunshine and the shady coolness on the way back to the seclusion of our Bel Air outpost, it’s clear that the sixth generation of the SL, for all its innovations and new ideas, does what the SL always has: pamper its fortunate occupants while delivering them in fine style.


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