2007 Mercedes-Benz SL 55 AMG
2007 Mercedes-Benz SL 55 AMG. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Laurance Yap

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Palma Mallorca, Spain – For more than fifty years now, the Mercedes-Benz SL has been a star, not only for the company whose pile of luxury cars it sits atop, but also in the public’s wider consciousness. Partly, it has its status thanks to its styling, price, and that big old star logo on the grille. Partly it’s because the SL has shared the limelight with many a real-life star, and sometimes even stolen it. Pierre Trudeau was famous for going on weekend drives in his SL, quickly outrunning the security staff assigned to him; more recently, teen pop star Lindsay Lohan has demonstrated, more than once, the SL’s impressive safety features by crashing a succession of SL65 AMGs. (Janis Joplin, interestingly enough, never had a Mercedes-Benz, despite asking for one in a song.)

While it’s been around for a long time, the SL is hardly the car it once was. The original “gullwing” hardtop coupe was actually a thinly-disguised racing car, with a tubular frame, race-bred six-cylinder engine, and, uh, challenging dynamics. Over the years, it evolved along a much more luxurious path, losing its roof while simultaneously being packed with leather, wood, and the best technology and gadgetry that Mercedes could offer. But though the SL gained weight and status, a vestige of that old raciness remained: you could always hustle Mercedes’ most expensive roadster along a winding road much faster than you (or indeed other road users) would imagine, and its high-speed autobahn credentials have always been impeccable.

Thanks to modern electronics in the drivetrain and suspension, the current-generation SL – which has undergone a serious upgrade for the new model year – has brought back much of the raciness of the original car without sacrificing any of the luxury. It’s a two-seater that’s full of contradictions, a 4,000-pound luxury cruiser with all the amenities that can accelerate and brake like a sports car. It’s a laid-back boulevard cruiser that, with the push of a couple of buttons, tightens up its sinews, strengthens its seats’ grip on your spine, and then corners like a supercar.

2007 Mercedes-Benz SL 55 AMG
Click image to enlarge

Nowhere are the contradictory worlds of the SL more obvious – or its ability to bridge them more impressive – than in the revised SL55 AMG, which if past experience remains true, will account for about a quarter of Canadian SL sales. Its 5.5-litre V8 engine now produces 517 hp, up from 500, thanks to a new higher-speed supercharger compressor and a more efficient engine-management unit. Its styling is a mix of elegant, sweeping curves up top with brutal functionality below, its softly shaped sides blending into a front with huge air intakes, an F1-inspired front splitter arrangement, and a rear apron punctuated by four massive oval exhaust pipes. Its wheels may have an elegant multi-spoke design, but behind them lurk massive monoblock brake calipers capable of repeatedly hauling the car down from high speeds.

2007 Mercedes-Benz SL 55 AMG
2007 Mercedes-Benz SL 55 AMG. Click image to enlarge

It’s not just the engine’s massive power and torque output (or its NASCAR soundtrack) that makes the SL55 feel lighter than it actually is. Credit also goes to the AMG “speedshift” automatic transmission, which swaps cogs faster than its cousin in the regular SLs, and allows you full manual control, holding gears up to the rev limiter and not downshifting even when you floor the gas in manual mode. On the handling front, the car’s Active Body Control suspension electronically dispenses with any perceptible body roll, and offers three progressively aggressive settings, depending on how hard you want to drive.

2007 Mercedes-Benz SL 350
2007 Mercedes-Benz SL 350, European model. Click image to enlarge

Of course, the (ahem) “regular” SL has been thoroughly made over as well. The engines are the really big news, with the SL500 now being powered by a 5.5-litre V8, first seen in the new S-Class, that produces 388 hp, up significantly from the 302 produced by the outgoing SL500; the twin-turbo V12 in the SL600 goes from 493 hp to 517 – not as much of a jump, but not much of one was needed, given how fast it already was. The new V8 features a four-valve design instead of the old V8’s three-valve system, and seems smoother and quieter under most conditions; it also makes a delicious noise under hard acceleration, though it’s not nearly as aggressive as the SL55. The SL600, on the other hand, is eerily quiet, no matter how fast you’re going (which will, inevitably, be very fast indeed).

2007 Mercedes-Benz SL 350
2007 Mercedes-Benz SL 350, European model. Click image to enlarge

You’ll only get Mercedes’ nifty 7G-tronic automatic gearbox with the SL500, however (the car will likely be called SL550 when it hits our shores, to reflect its increased displacement). Because of their torque output, which the seven-speed can’t handle, the SL55 and SL600 stick with Mercedes’ usual five-speed setup, which isn’t that big of a deal given how fast they are. All models have steering that’s 18 per cent faster than before. Even in the non-AMG versions, the ABC system reduces roll even more than it used to.

Unfortunately, the SL’s brakes remain under electronic control; stopping power is impressive, but the computers have unfortunately dialed out most of the feel from the pedal, making smooth modulation more difficult than it should be. It’s fine when you’re driving aggressively and hitting the pedal hard, but it’s very difficult to drive smoothly in traffic.

2007 Mercedes-Benz SL
Click image to enlarge

Styling changes, inside and out, are limited to a few tweaks here and there. The air intakes at the front are bigger, and house aluminum-trimmed fog lights that give them a more aggressive look than before: the new 5.5-litre engine needs the extra air, so the larger intakes are actually functional, along with the new three-segment grille. Several new wheel designs are available, and better fill out the fenders into which they’re stuffed. Out back, the only changes are new rear lamps that better follow the curves of the car. Inside, the only changes are an instrument binnacle with leather trim on top, new chrome-plated sills and some better-finished switches and knobs.

Arguably, these changes are too subtle, and even parked up alongside last year’s SL, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Then again, Mercedes says (and quite rightly) that the car is already quite attractive, and that changing the styling too much would also affect the 2002-2005 models’ resale values, and make owners unhappy.

2007 Mercedes-Benz SL 500
2007 Mercedes-Benz SL 500. Click image to enlarge

The biggest and best trick the SL has up its sleeve remains its folding roof; with the flip of a console-mounted switch, it can go from being a tight, closed-roof coupe to a stylish convertible in less than twenty seconds. It makes for great roadside theatre as the trunk lid hinges backward, the roof splits into four pieces (the top, the back window, and the rear pillars), and the whole arrangement acrobats into the top half of the cargo area, the rear window doing a back flip to increase useable space. The trunk divider – which lets you expand the cargo area when the roof is up – is now removable, so that you can use the entire trunk during the winter.

Top up, the new SL is as quiet as any coupe, with nary a rustle of wind or road noise even at fairly insane speeds. Top down, you get just enough wind in your hair to remind you that you’re driving a convertible. Should you have just had your hair done, a wind blocker flips up from behind the seats, and allows for a driving experience that’s free of turbulence, while still full of sunshine.

2007 Mercedes-Benz SL 55 AMG
2007 Mercedes-Benz SL 55 AMG. Click image to enlarge

Since its introduction four and a half years ago, Mercedes has sold over 110,000 SL convertibles worldwide, an impressive number given that, at least here in Canada, it lists north of $120,000. Its success is largely down to the company’s understanding of the car’s unique clientele – a wealthy, cultured bunch that wants the latest in performance and technology but also has a sense of classical style. While there’s a lot that’s new underneath the new SL’s flowing body, its shape, save for some details, has remained largely the same.

SL enthusiasts, who have loved the car through five generations and more than fifty years, would have it no other way.

At A Glance:

  • Engine: 5.5-litre V8 (SL550); 5.5-litre supercharged V8 (SL55 AMG); 5.5-litre twin-turbocharged V12 (SL600)

  • Horsepower: 388/517/517
  • Torque (ft-lbs): 390/531/612

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