It's great fun to dab into the power for as long as you dare. Photo Gallery
Bengt Halvorson road tests and reviews the Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG in France.
To understand a car — especially one that’s far 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 SL63 AMG, we’re willing to subscribe to such hardship and masquerade.
For everyday driving, or cruising along the beach strip, the SL63 AMG won’t force you or your passenger to sacrifice any 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 somewhat chilly spring air.
Compared to the SL models of more than a decade ago, the current SL feels more sports-car-like, with its brawny 395kW/800Nm, twin-turbo AMG-built V-8 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 SL63 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, including a different regimen for the stability control. Many AMG customers like to run their vehicles in the more aggressive Sport powertrain mode, but with a Comfort chassis setting. We also ran much of our test route this way, as Sport mode brought out more surface irregularities, while offering fairly satisfying dynamics on sweeping country roads — except perhaps for the steering.
Even in Sport, 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 feedback. On the other hand, on some of the narrowest roads in Europe we appreciated the precision the steering allowed in lane placement.
Only when we got to some tight switchbacks did we truly recognise the need for Sport mode. M-B's Active Body Control (ABC) system, which is optional in the SL550, is included here in the SL63 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 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 to switch to Sport (or Sport+) — where this effect isn’t as pronounced — when the roads turn very curvy.
Rear axle geometry has been tweaked to accommodate the AMG models’ sharper, higher torque delivery. 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.
The SL63 AMG will feel lighter than any previous-generation SL owner might expect; it includes an all-new aluminium body that saves about 275 pounds altogether next to the previous version; the design also includes an aluminium frame as well as aluminium body panels.
Included in all SL AMG models is a Race Start feature that allows the most quick, aggressive launch possible, with some wheel slip. There's a pretty involved routine you'll have to go through to tap into the system, and for good reason. Also on offer in the SL63 is an AMG Performance Media system that includes a screen with extra gauges, lap timer and other performance info.
And if you're of that mindset, you'll want to go for the Performance Package, which increases peak turbo boost from 14.2psi to 18.5 psi — boosting power to 410kW and torque to 900Nm, although the torque peak is a slightly higher 2250 rpm (versus 2000 rpm). Top speed for the SL63 is 250km/h, but the Performance Package gives a boost to 300km/h. In both cases it's electronically limited.
A Torque Vectoring Brake system comes with the SL63 and functions essentially as an electronic limited-slip differential, but the Performance Package — identified from afar by its bright red brake calipers — includes a real one.
Acceleration is scorching — even compared to the SL550. While the SL 550 gets to 100km/h in just 4.5 seconds (from 5.4 seconds in the previous generation), the SL63 AMG can do it in just 3.9 seconds with the Performance Package — and those are AMG's somewhat conservative numbers.
Cruising and making the scene is the majority of AMG SL ownership to some. And inside, the current SL sheds some of the tackier details of the previous SL for a mix of classy curvaceousness. While the trims and upholsteries are up to the standards of any of other high-end Mercedes-Benz and AMG models, the round vents and hooded instrument cluster echo the SL models of the 1970s and ‘80s. And the analog IWC clock top and center on the dash remains one of the most distinctive in any vehicle.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a typical luxury feature that isn't standard here — Harman/kardon surround sound, HD satnav with live traffic updates, heated windshield, power folding side mirrors.
Mercedes-Benz’s Attention Assist, which studies steering inputs and detects driver fatigue, is also included. As is Pre-Safe, a pop-up roll-bar system, and bi-xenon headlamps — in addition to eight airbags. Other active-safety options include adaptive cruise control, Active Blind Spot Assist, and Active Lane Keeping Assist. Active curve illumination is also included, allowing the headlights to swivel 15 degrees to either side, helping to see around tight, dark corners.
The SL63 comes with Eco Stop/Start, which smartly shuts off the engine at stoplights and restarts it the moment you lift off the brake. We found it to be one of the least obtrusive stop/start systems yet, with very little shudder noticeable from the cabin, although setting the powertrain controls to S or S+ disables the feature.
From the inside, the SL63 AMG really does have all the comfort of the S Class, with long, nicely contoured seats with extendable thigh bolsters plus massage and ventilation functions, and in Coupe mode, with the tight-fitting insulated hardtop top up and in place, it's hard to believe that this is a convertible. Just as with the other new SL models, there’s a fully retracting, electrically operated hardtop that can be opened or closed in about 20 seconds, and a power-operated windscreen that greatly reduces turbulence at city-cruising speeds.
We didn’t have to drive long at all before one of the SL63 AMG’s almost-direct rivals — a late-model 997-era Porsche 911 Turbo — came barreling along, beside us for a short time on a wider section of road. With the top down, we arguably had the better-sounding engine from outside the car — and far superior comfort — while being nearly as quick. But between these two models, it served as a reminder that while the 911 remains closer to a pure sports-car (or supercar) formula, the SL63 is a high-powered grand-touring ultra-luxury roadster — with more of a priority placed on comfort and cabin appointments.
While these two vehicles both vie for the rich and influential who summer on the Riviera — along with the likes of the Jaguar XKR, Maserati GranTurismo, and base Aston Martin DB9 — they appeal in very different ways. In its proper context, the SL63 AMG makes about as much sense as a rather large $418,670 luxury two-seat roadster can.
And that's what might best sum up the appeal: it won't always turn the heads of testosterone-fueled motorheads, but it's a high-priced luxury good in all the right ways that those who can afford it want: versatile and comfortable enough for daily driving (it does speed bumps; it parks easily), yet providing a more exclusive experience that discerning drivers — and those who want to go faster — appreciate.