There are few automobiles as iconic as the Mercedes-Benz SL, the quintessential 2-seat roadster that offers a sublime blend of comfort and performance. The refreshed 2017 Mercedes-Benz hews to this formula, giving the standard V6 SL450 and V8 SL550 more of the former, while imbuing its high output tag team of the SL AMG 63 and 65 models more of the latter.

California is the spiritual home of the SL, its mild weather and sinewy roads make for the perfect environment to experience Mercedes’ top GT top down over Southern California highways and byways between Orange County and San Diego.

Enhanced design

The exterior changes to the new SL Class are subtle—the grille design, which was wider at the top, has been turned upside down and now the face has a more aggressive and purposeful look, giving the car a slightly more angry appearance over the smiley upturned corners of the previous models. The honeycomb pattern on the standard SL models has been replaced by a concave array of tiny chrome squares (it’s handsome, but hardly novel—Google 1958 Buick grille, for example). Another heritage cue to return to the SL are twin power domes on the hood surface.

The AMG models have the same purposeful look to the grille, but have a more familiar texture to the insert and a new dual wing bar connecting the three-pointed star. Larger below bumper intakes give all SLs a lower, more planted look. All SL models have bigger fender vents with two chrome strakes and a more prominent rocker panel. At the rear, there is larger diffuser with single exhaust tips on standard SL models and dual split tips on the AMG versions.

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Stouter drivetrains

While the exterior revisions are understated, the changes beneath the skin are more dramatic. All four engines produce more power and the SL 450 and SL 550 benefit from a new 9-speed automatic transmission that replaces the previous 7-speed torque converter unit. The AMG 63 and 65 make marginally more power, but also tweaks to the single clutch MCT 7-speed transmission on the 63 and the 7G-tronic on the 65  improves shift times and feel, enabling these models to make the most of the modest engine enhancements.

The biggest power bump is on the SL 450, which now has 367 horsepower from its 3.0-liter V6, a gain of 38 horses over the SL 400 model. The bi-turbo 4.7-liter V8 in the SL 550 increases from 449 to 455 horsepower. On the AMG side, the SL AMG 63 now produces 585 horsepower from its 5.5-liter V8, up 28, while the range topping SL AMG 65 has 9 more horsepower at 630 from its 6.0-liter bi-turbo V12. 

Comfort and convenience

Beyond the engine improvements, the SL range now has a host of driver assists including Distance Pilot Distronic cruise control that automatically maintains a safe interval from the vehicle in front and keeps the vehicle in center of the lane. Active brake assist will read cross traffic, providing warnings as well as the ability to brake automatically, while active blind spot assist will warn of cars to the side and will use brake intervention to keep the vehicle from moving over. And parking pilot helps the driver search for a suitable parking space and assists in maneuvering the car into place with active steering intervention.

On the convenience front, the power retractable hardtop has one-button operation and can now be raised or lowered at speeds up to 25 mph. When down and stowed in the trunk, there’s a neat automatic separator function that raises the roof stack and the divider to allow you to stow luggage beneath. Wind buffeting is not a problem thanks to the design of the windshield, effectiveness of the side glass and the wind blocker that can be powered up or down. Even at highways speeds of up to 80 mph and the top down, the wind levels were low enough to permit normal conversation.

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 Sharper handling

Ride and handling have also been improved with a new curve tilting function in the Active Body Control on non-AMG models. While the curve function does help the SL 450 and 550 to corner with less body movement, its effect is so subtle that it’s difficult to pick it out in operation. Still, both models have a comfortable, relaxed feel to the suspension without sacrificing crisp handling.

On twisty bits, the SL 450 and 550 benefit from the Sport and Sport + models, which tightens up the suspension, adds a bit more weight to the steering and quickens both throttle response and gear changes, as well as holding ratios longer to get more performance from the engine. On Palomar Mountain Road, the Sport mode was in its element and the ability to couple vehicle speed and steering angle to gear changes made it seem as if the car were telepathically reading the driver’s mind, making the use of the paddle shifters superfluous. This is a car you just point and either hammer on the accelerator or the brakes and the programming takes care of the rest.

The AMG factor

For some, the AMG badge is merely an indicator that they have the ultimate Mercedes, but the SL AMG 63 is more than just a prestigious logo. It puts a fine performance edge on a world class GT. The engine sound of the hand-built AMG V8 is raucously throaty. The shifts on the 7-speed MCT are smoother, but no less immediate or direct. Even in comfort mode, the car is surefooted, with a taut suspension and a relatively high effort feel to the steering. In fact, AMG engineers say that the comfort mode in both the AMG 63 and 65 are the equivalent of Sport in the standard SL models.

As a result, you really have to be committed gearhead to truly enjoy the AMG versions. In everyday commuting, the stiffer ride and louder exhaust could become taxing if you’re someone who views a high performance car as a weekend lark as opposed to a daily passion. For those, the SL 550 is the perfect compromise. It has a rumbly V8 that’s not too loud, is quicker and feels more substantial than the V6-powered SL 550, while at the same time, offers considerable more comfort than the AMG stablemates.

Pricing has yet to be announced, but the addition of the new technology like the 9-speed automatic and curve tilt feature are likely to bump up the SL 450 (which started at $85,050 on the SL 400) and the $108,050 we’ve seen on the SL 550. Other than the boost in engine output and design changes, the AMG 63 and 65 will likely be priced in the same respective neighborhoods of $149,700 and $217,550. 


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