ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin - In the automotive world, looks can deceive. Even though the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL doesn't look much different than its predecessor, the redesigned sixth-generation two-seater has undergone plenty of change beneath its exquisitely crafted surface.
Dimensionally, the 2013 SL550 has grown by 2 inches in length and width. More significantly, the body has been reengineered to use more aluminum and high-strength steel. A Mercedes-Benz spokesperson advised that the SL now has an 89-percent aluminum body, with weight cut by 300 pounds.
Engines have gained in both power and fuel-efficiency. Even luxury-car buyers are taking a greater interest in fuel economy these days, despite the fact that gasoline prices have been dropping rather than rising during the first half of 2012.
Horsepower and torque have both increased, despite switching to a smaller-displacement engine - a move that quite a few automakers are undertaking, even at the luxury level. In the base-model SL550, a new twin-turbo 4.7-liter V-8 engine, rated at 429 horsepower, drives a seven-speed automatic transmission. That engine replaces a larger (5.5-liter) V-8. Mercedes-Benz claims a fuel-economy estimate of 16-mpg city/24-mpg highway (a 2-mpg increase).
As before, the SL roadster has a power-retractable hardtop, with pop-up rollover bars available. A sizable complement of safety features includes knee airbags for both the driver and front passenger.
Standard features include leather upholstery, heated seats, a driver's seat memory, navigation system, steering-linked bi-xenon headlights, and a power tilt/telescopic steering wheel. Genuine wood trims the interior, and the driver faces a wood/leather steering wheel. Newly available Magic Sky Control can adjust tinting for the panoramic glass-panel roof.
Options include adaptive cruise control, blind-spot alert, lane departure warning, a rearview camera, front and rear obstacle detection, and ventilated seats. Mercedes-Benz also continues to offer an Airscarf heater system, which aims to keep the occupants' necks warm and cozy when the top is down in cooler weather. Optional Active Body Control reduces body lean in turns, according to pre-selected settings.
Anyone who's written about cars for a long period knows that eventually, they begin to run together. Fewer and fewer models tend to stand above the pack. Now and then, however, a particular automobile manages to attract full attention. Instead of being content to give it back after the test period, the hapless journalist is at least momentarily tempted to just start driving that car into the sunset, never to return.
That's how the latest Mercedes-Benz SL two-seater comes across: as a blissful, gentlemanly boulevard sports car with traditional credentials and a most impressive heritage.
Acceleration is stimulating, as the power rating would suggest. Superior steering feel and ride comfort round out the picture. Occupants might hear the tiniest exhaust rumble at idle, followed by a rich, subdued sound while accelerating. On the whole, though, the SL550 is pleasantly quiet at speed. Little wind bother is evident with the top down
Easy-to-read gauges sit on a somewhat "busy" instrument panel. Both occupants get superior seat comfort and support. Overly-active bolsters in the driver's seat can be helpful in intense driving, but rather annoying otherwise.
None of this sumptuous sportiness comes cheap, of course. The SL550 has a Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price of $106,405 (including destination charge). Later in 2012, two super-powered AMG editions - more expensive yet - will arrive, as they have in the past. The SL63 model will hold a 530-horsepower 5.5-liter V-8, with an automated manual gearbox. A conventional transmission goes into the SL65, which contains a 6.0-liter, 621-horsepower V-12 engine.
With its SL550, Mercedes-Benz roughly competes against the Jaguar XK and the Porsche 911, though the three vehicles differ considerably. Mercedes-Benz has offered an SL-Class model for six decades now, dating back to the original 300SL gullwing coupe and roadster, which first debuted in 1954.