2017 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class first drive review

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What’s the best pick for a sun-drenched, cross-country luxury-car road trip for two—on a route that doesn’t shy away from challenging mountain two-laners? The set of contenders has reshuffled over the years, but the Mercedes-Benz SL holds strong on the shortlist.

For 2017, this roadster original has reached a crossroads in the Mercedes-Benz lineup—one that helps refresh and redefine this model. With more powerful engines, new nine-speed automatic transmissions, svelte styling upgrades, and some new trick chassis technology, the 2017 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class models hones its driver’s car credentials just a little bit more, and gets what adds up to more than a mid-cycle refresh.

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After taking a Southern California road trip of our own (guided by Mercedes-Benz), this past week—250-plus miles in several different SL models—we can say that the SL stretches its luxury roadster boundaries more than ever.

The way we see it, the current generation of the SL feels far more like a grand-touring coupe than an all-out sports car—and given that, there are two potential sweet spots in the lineup.

Relearning the ABCs

But first, a little background is in order. Up until this year, our preference within the SL lineup was the base car, with its steel-spring suspension, supplemented by a variable damper system that adjusts with the Dynamic Select modes (now Eco, Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus, and Individual)—and, to some degree, to driving style and road conditions.

Active Body Control (ABC) is a full active suspension system, controlled by hydraulics and capable of adjusting its parameters in milliseconds. It helps erase lift during hard acceleration, nosedive during hard braking, and body roll (tilting to the outside of the corner) during hard cornering. But this system, which has been offered as an option for years, has been a mixed blessing, because the sensations it provides tend to feel unnatural in tight switchbacks, as the car stays flat.

Now with a new Curve Tilting function for ABC, it allows that system’s great dynamic prowess but lets the car lean up to 2.65 degrees—into corners, like a motorcycle rider would, or as a driver and passenger track their eyes through a corner—so as to effectively reduce the lateral Gs.

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It’s a dynamic trick, but an incredibly effective one, and it makes the rather heavy SL not just feel more nimble in switchbacks and quick transitions, but more settled, also reducing head-toss and road-weariness on such roads. SL63 models really make the most of this, too—not entirely because of the added horsepower and torque, but because of these models' limited-slip/locking rear differential.

The new Curve Tilting ABC is available on every SL model, though, from the base SL450 and its twin-turbo V-6 to the twin-turbo V-8 SL550, as well as the SL63 AMG and SL65 AMG models.

Four models, delivering to very different expectations

From a powertrain standpoint, it’s the twin-turbo V-8 in the SL550 that best seems to fit the relaxed yet strong touring character that’s a natural with this car. It now makes 449 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque, and matches up quite well with the nine-speed automatic transmission (although we noticed some uncouth behavior at low speeds and gentle throttle in a few cases during our drive).

More than 50 percent of SL buyers have been choosing the V-6 version of the outgoing SL, and it’s easy to see why. Especially in this new, more powerful 3.0-liter twin-turbo version (362-hp, 369 lb-ft), the SL450 feels nearly as quick in driving anywhere near legal speeds; while the sound is a little more strident, as long as you don’t crave the character of a V-8 this engine will do just fine in flaunting your (or your spouse’s) taste in roadster style.


 
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