2009 Mercedes-Benz SL600
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL600. Click image to enlarge
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Mercedes-Benz Canada

Review and photos by Greg Wilson

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2009 Mercedes-Benz SL

Santa Monica, California – Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that there are more Mercedes-Benz SL sports cars per square mile in Los Angeles – or more particularly, Beverly Hills – than anywhere else in the world. After all, this is the land of generous sunshine, conspicuous wealth, and image-conscious import-oriented car buyers. For decades, the SL, with its combination of style, luxury, performance and a hefty price-tag, has been the perfect vehicle to say, “I’ve made it, and I like to live well.”

2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550. Click image to enlarge

Just down the street from Beverly Hills is the trendy coastal enclave of Santa Monica, where Mercedes invited the world’s motoring press to see and drive the latest versions of the SL: the 2009 SL 550, SL 600, SL 63 AMG and SL 65 AMG. Also on display were the new SL 350 and new SL 280 models, but unfortunately these European models aren’t sold in Canada. Apparently, Canadians don’t want a ‘cheap’ SL.

The changes for 2009 come only two years after the SL’s last styling and mechanical upgrades, and are once again more of an update than a redesign: a new face, revised interior styling, an updated entertainment and navigation system, improved seven-speed automatic transmission (SL 550), quicker steering, better headlights, and optional “Airscarf” neck heater are the major improvements.

2009 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG. Click image to enlarge

The biggest changes are to the new SL 63 AMG model which replaces the SL 55 AMG. The SL 63’s new 525-hp naturally-aspirated 6.2-litre V8 (that’s right, 6.2!) replaces the SL 55’s supercharged 5.5-litre V8. As well as all the updates mentioned above, it receives an exclusive seven-speed automatic transmission with a new wet start-up clutch that replaces the torque converter, driver-adjustable shift speeds, manual shift mode, and a new “Race-Start” function. Also new is a driver-adjustable, three-stage ESP (electronic stability control) system.

Citing competitive pricing pressures, Mercedes-Benz Canada won’t announce 2009 prices until closer to the on-sale date in April, but current SLs range in price from $135,000 (SL 550) to $248,000 (SL 65 AMG) and I would guess ’09 prices will be lower. That’s still a lot of money to pay for a two-seater luxury sports car, but it’s in keeping with high-end competitors like the Aston Martin Vantage and DB9 roadsters, the Jaguar XK and XKR convertibles, Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet, and BMW 6-Series convertible.

2009 SL 550

2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550
1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550
Top and bottom: 2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550; middle photo: 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster. Click image to enlarge

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that the trunk badge in the photos says SL 500. That’s because American models are still called SL 500 even though the engine was upgraded to a 5.5-litre V8 in 2007.

Exterior styling changes are mostly at the front end: the SL 550’s nose has new L-shaped headlight covers replacing the four oval lenses of the 2008 model. The grille has a new criss-cross background pattern and a single chrome cross-member replacing the three bars of the former car. The hood has two new “powerdomes” and the fenders have new gill-like air outlets, both styling features borrowed from the original 1954 300 SL Gullwing. As well, there is a more pronounced V-shape in the lower air dam. At the rear are new trapezoidal exhaust pipes and a diffuser-look bumper. The whole effect is to give the SL a wider, slightly more aggressive look, but to my eye, the SL has traded some of its sophistication and character for a trendy, more macho look. Is this a face you could love? I’m not sure.

The ’09 SL 550 retains its robust 5.5-litre DOHC 32-valve V8 engine that pumps out 382 horsepower at 6,000 r.p.m. and 391 lb-ft of torque between 2,800 and 4,800 r.p.m. and also retains its seven-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode – however the latter now includes a double-declutching feature that is activated during manual downshifts. Double-declutching produces smoother shifts by equalizing the rotational speeds of the crankshaft and transmission placing less load on the mechanical components – plus it sounds cool when you do it. In fact, the V8’s exhaust note is noticeably throatier and louder than the smooth whine from the V12 engine in the SL 600.

Performance figures haven’t changed for 2009: 0 to 100 km/h is quoted as 5.4 seconds, however average fuel consumption of 11.9 L/100 km is slightly better than last year. The SL 550 requires Premium Unleaded.

To improve driving safety at night and in the fog, the new SL is available with an optional “Intelligent Light System” that provides five different lighting functions: Country Mode, Motorway Mode, Enhanced Fog Lamps, Cornering Lights, and Active Lights. These are activated automatically. For example, when speeds exceed 90 km/h, Motorway Mode is activated increasing the driver’s range of vision up to 60 per cent. Active Lights cause the headlamps to swivel when cornering at speeds below 70 km/h.

2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550. Click image to enlarge

Mercedes’ direct-steer system has also been added to the speed-sensitive power steering system on all SL models. Rather than a constant ratio, direct-steer’s variable rack ratio increases the steering angle sharply after five degrees. Basically, the driver does not have to move the steering wheel as much in sharp corners. As well steering effort at low speeds is further reduced. I had a chance to experience this on the winding drive from L.A. through the Angeles National Forest and San Bernadino Mountains to Palm Springs. The steering is so quick that sometimes it catches you by surprise as you turn in too quickly. But after a day’s drive, you get used to its quick response and adjust accordingly.

Handling is a nice blend of comfort and stability even at high speeds. Mercedes’ Active Body Control (ABC) adjusts the independent suspension automatically to suit the road and conditions, and for 2009, the ABC shock absorber settings have been revised for more control and comfort. As before, low profile 255/40R-18-inch radials are standard.

2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL550. Click image to enlarge

The SL 550’s cabin features a new three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel and a restyled instrument cluster with a classic chronometer design. There are two types of leather seats to choose from and five different aluminum and wood trims including a new natural beige/black colour scheme and pale burr walnut trim. The seats, with their integral seat belts, are extremely comfortable and supportive. The optional AirScarf consists of heater fans in the head restraints that blow warm air around your neck to keep you warm when the top is down. During my drive with the top down, the temperature dropped to as low as three degrees in the mountains, but the combination of AirScarf, heated seats and climate control kept me quite comfortable.

A number of new technology upgrades have been added to the SL’s interior. The Comand system includes radio, CD/DVD changer, slot for SD memory cards, a Bluetooth interface for hands-free cell phone use, and a large colour display in the dash. The optional Comand APS system has a hard disc for navigation, integrated six-disc CD/DVD player and storage for around 1,000 MP3 or WMA tracks. It also includes the latest Linguatronic voice-operated control system that can recognize whole words. iPods, USBs and other audio devices can now be used with the Comand system and music tracks can be displayed on the monitor.

As before, the SL’s ingenious folding hardtop automatically folds into the trunk with the press of a button, and remarkably, there’s still room for a couple of overnight bags in the trunk with the top down. With the top up, the interior is quiet and rattle-free, and much more secure when the car is parked away from home.

2009 Mercedes-Benz SL600
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL600
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL600. Click image to enlarge
SL 600

The 2009 SL 600 receives most of the styling, technology and mechanical upgrades that I mentioned above, but is still powered by the twin turbocharged 5.5-litre SOHC 32-valve V12 engine that develops 510 hp at 5,000 r.p.m. and an enormous 612 lb-ft of torque between 1,900 r.p.m. and 3,500 r.p.m. It’s mated to a five-speed automatic transmission rather than the new seven-speed unit, and because of this, it actually feels a bit slower off the line than the SL 550. However, with a 0 to 100 km/h time of just 4.5 seconds, it’s almost a second faster than the SL 550. Fuel consumption, as expected is worse, averaging 13.9 L/100 km – if you’re lucky.

Unique SL 600 styling features include ten-twin-spoke alloy wheels, matt silver painted side louvres and silver rear tailpipe divider. Inside, the SL 600 has softer Nappa leather and poplar wood trim, heated/cooled seats, sunroof, Keyless Go, and V12 emblems on the seats, steering wheel and door sills, and unique door panels. The SL 600 also has wider rear tires: 285/35R18.

Of the two cars, the SL 550 and SL 600, I preferred the SL 600. Its V12 powertrain is effortless no matter what the speed, and the ride and handling are sublime. Its ventilated heated or cooled seats keep the occupants comfortable no matter what the weather and it has all the entertainment and communication features needed to keep occupants entertained.

SL 63 AMG

2009 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG. Click image to enlarge

Replacing the SL 55 AMG, the new SL 63 AMG is like a race-car for the street. It’s powered by a new naturally-aspirated 6.2-litre V8 engine that develops 518 horsepower at 6,800 r.p.m. – this is the same engine used in the CL 63 and S 63 models. But the big news is the new AMG Speedshift MCT seven-speed sports transmission which features a new wet start-up clutch, four drive modes and a Race-Start feature.

Replacing the torque converter, the wet start-up clutch responds with no slip, causing an instant traction response. The driver can set the transmission to four different shift-speed times: C for Comfort; S for Sport where shifts are about 20 per cent faster; S+ which cuts another 20 per cent off shift times; and M manual shift mode where shifts take just one-tenth of a second.

The Race-Start feature allows the driver to achieve maximum acceleration from a standing start without fear of spinning the tires. The driver selects RC and ESP Sport on the console dial, depresses the brake pedal and accelerator pedal simultaneously, taps the steering paddle, and releases the brake. The SL 63 shoots off the line without any tail wiggle or tire spin, reaching 100 km/h in about 4.6 seconds. The engine has a loud, throaty, blatty sound much like a race-car – so don’t try this at 2 am in your neighbourhood.

The SL 63 also has a modified Active Body Control sports suspension, and the driver can select a Sport setting for flatter, stiffer handling. Also new is a three-stage ESP (electronic stability control) that includes a new ESP Sport setting that allows some oversteer and understeer before it cuts in to arrest the slide.

2009 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG. Click image to enlarge

The SL63 AMG’s front brakes are huge 360 X 36 millimetre internally-ventilated composite disc brakes with six-piston aluminum calipers and rear 330 X 26 millimetre four-piston calipers. Needless to say, the SL 63 stops incredibly quickly.

SL 63’s have slightly different styling to non AMG models – note the different front air dam, blacked out Mercedes star, badging in the side louvres and lack of powerdomes on the hood. The steering wheel also has aluminum shift paddles, and the instrument cluster includes a race timer with lap times. AMG sport seats with Nappa leather and genuine carbon fibre trim are standard.

SL 65 AMG

Changes to the top-of-the-line 2009 SL 65 AMG are limited to the same styling and interior upgrades given the SL 63, except for its V12 badging. It continues to use a 603 horsepower twin-turbocharged 6.0-litre V12 engine with an amazing 738 lb-ft of torque starting at just 2,000 r.p.m. The transmission is an AMG Speedshift five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode. 0 to 100 km/h takes just 4.2 seconds according to Mercedes-Benz, while average fuel consumption is a thirsty 15.1 L/100 km

I didn’t have a chance to drive this model, but perhaps it’s better that I didn’t. It might be too tempting, and I don’t think I could afford the gas, let alone its over-$200,000 asking price.

Manufacturer’s web site
Mercedes-Benz Canada

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