2013 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG: First Drive

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To understand a car—okay, especially one that’s perhaps a little removed from our own fiscal reality—it helps to peer into the buyers’ mindset for a stint, and to go where they might go. And when the place happens to be the French Riviera, and the car is the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 63 AMG, we’re willing to subscribe to such hardship and masquerade.

The Cote d’Azur region of France, in part ranging from Saint Tropez to Nice and including Cannes, is of course one of the world’s top playgrounds for the rich and famous; it’s also where the SL 63 AMG fits right into the scene. For everyday driving, or cruising along the beach communities, the SL 63 AMG won’t force you or your passenger to make any sacrifice in comfort; top-down motoring just doesn’t get more luxurious than this, and the standard Comfort settings that this car’s many active controls default to a nice, gentle calibration for the throttle and transmission that’s more in line with traditional Mercedes-Benz powertrains. Factor in the excellent Airscarf system and heated-and-ventilated seats—plus top-notch wind buffeting—and this is a car that we could especially enjoy with the combination of bright sun and the somewhat chilly spring air.

More sports-car than the SL 550

While the SL 63 makes the right statement along the beaches, it started to sing to the senses as soon as we pulled out from the Polo Club Saint Tropez and took to the curvy backroads and smaller highways leading up away from the coastal areas toward the French Alps. Compared to the SL models of more than a decade ago, the current SL feels more sports-car-like, with its brawny 530-hp, twin-turbo AMG-built V-8 (instead of the SL 550's 429-hp 4.6-liter) and reworked seven-speed automatic transmission—with AMG replacing the torque converter with a wet clutch pack and capable of smacking from one gear to another in as little as a tenth of a second.

But in a nod to the types of people who will gravitate to the SL, the SL 63 AMG defaults to Comfort (C) modes. On the powertrain side (the dial), that smoothes the engine controls, makes the throttle response nice and seemingly linear, and gives upshifts a creamy smoothness. Click that powertrain controller on the center console one notch over to the Sport (S) mode, and it feels much more eager, with quicker, sharper (DSG-like) shifts and a more progressive throttle. Sport plus (S+) makes it sharper yet—like a racing box—and taps into the full potential of the transmission, and includes a different regimen for the stability control system.

According to AMG head of vehicle development Tobias Moers, many AMG customers like to run their vehicles in the more aggressive Sport powertrain mode, but with a Comfort chassis setting, so the SL 63 offers these setting separately, and easy to toggle through with physical switches. We also ran much of our drive route this way, in Comfort chassis mode but with Sport powertrain setting, as Sport mode tended to bring out more road irregularities, while offering a relatively satisfying dynamic experience on sweeping country roads—except perhaps for the steering. Even in Sport mode, the steering tended to be on the light side. It trades off the heft and long ratio of former M-B units for a rather quick (constant) ratio, but there isn't much of any feedback in any case. On the other hand, Southern France has some of the narrowest roads in Europe and we appreciated the precision the steering allowed in lane placement.

Only when we got to some tight switchbacks did we truly recognize the need for Sport mode on the road. M-B's Active Body Control (ABC) system, which is optional in the SL550, is included here in the SL 63 AMG, most of the time, it expertly soaks up uneven road surfaces and saves occupants from the pitchiness, also keeping the cabin flat in gentle to moderate driving on curvy country roads and making the SL in general feel lighter and more tossable than it is. But push those limits a bit on some of the tightest corners and ABC sometimes adjusts the attitude of the car a little too overtly, mid-corner; for instance on very low-speed hairpins in Comfort mode, we noticed that just before apex ABC would suddenly increase the roll moment at the rear (pushing the car closer to understeer)—with the effect from the steering wheel feeling as if the ratio suddenly tightened; it’s a bit disconcerting, and we rapidly learned that it’s up to the driver to switch to Sport (or Sport+)—where this effect isn’t as pronounced—when the roads turn very curvy. Versus the SL 550, the geometry of the rear axle has been changed just a bit to accommodate the AMG models’ sharper, higher torque delivery.

Far more spine-tingling than numbing

But all these details don't detract too much out on curvy back roads. With the systems set in Sport mode and using the paddle-shifters, it's great fun to dab into the power for as long as you dare, listening to the thunderous, howling-and-pulsating engine note—which seems to bark a little bit extra at each shift—before you need to brake down to sanity once again. Just as the new sixth-generation SL, the SL 63 AMG will feel lighter than any previous-generation SL owner might expect; it includes an all-new aluminum body that saves about 275 pounds altogether next to the previous version; the design also includes an aluminum frame as well as aluminum body panels.

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