It always appears slightly pretentious and self-indulgent when you hear someone dropping the odd name or place into a conversation. But allow me this luxury just once. So there I was in Los Angeles, along with Leonardo, Charlize, Cate, Sylvester and the rest of the gang. So I admit the only connection was that we were all in town at the same time — they for the 88th edition of the Oscars and I for the launch of the facelifted Mercedes-Benz SL. But hey, as they say, ‘‘Never let the facts get in the way of a good story”.
“Legendary” is an apt description of what this vehicle stands for — 60-odd years of cutting-edge design, innovative technology and kick-ass performance that continues to impress as much today as when it was first launched in 1954. Actually, it was interesting to compare an impeccable original model on display with this new version. Clearly, through the generations, it is a case of building on what has gone before — improving, but not forgetting. Still evident, despite the age divide,is the distinctive outline, including the inverted radiator grille and long seductive bonnet.
Already into its sixth generation (launched in 2012), the range now comprises the SL400, SL500, SL63 AMG and SL65 AMG, and this facelift is festooned with changes — some obvious, others a little more subtle. First, there is a revised, more progressive front end with two powerdomes accentuating the long, drawn-out bonnet, while standard is the new LED intelligent light system. Also, large cooling air intakes on the bonnet and sides are not simple cosmetic add-ons, but required for technical reasons when you take into consideration what lies beneath the bonnet. Next is a newly designed vario-roof, which can now be operated at up to 40km/h and stored away with the simple push of a button. The curve tilting function (on the SL400 and SL500) is another new addition, which helps provide a smoother ride when pushing through mountain passes by lowering and raising the chassis on either side of the vehicle.
Powering the SL is a wide range of engines. In the SL400 is a 3-litre engine producing an endearing 270kW and 500Nm. Next is perhaps the ‘‘bargain’’ of the pack, the excellent SL500 with a V8 powerplant upping the stakes to 335kW and 700Nm. Then things start to get interesting and the SL63 AMG of today produces 430kW and 900Nm courtesy of a 5.5-litre V8 engine. For ultimate bragging rights, the SL65 produces a butt-clenching 463kW and 1000Nm via a massive 6-litre, V12 bi-turbo engine. If that’s not a middle-finger salute to environmentalists, then I don’t know what is!
Top-end vehicles that carry the distinctive three-pointed star emblem attract a raft of electronic gadgets. For the SL, it means a new automatic boot separator, a Mercedes Me portal featuring services such as accident recovery, breakdown and maintenance management. An emergency call system — which works anywhere in the world — is also handy to have and automatically connects the occupants with a call centre which transfers the information to the nearest emergency services. The SL range — thanks to an all-aluminium body shell — is now a Weight Watchers impressive 110kg lighter than if it had been produced using steel technology, and the use of aluminium carries over to the gearbox and cylinder heads.
The SL400 and SL500 come standard with a new nine-speed automatic transmission, while in the AMG versions there is a seven-speed twin clutch sports transmission. An early-morning drive down the Pacific Coast highway through the trendy suburb of Laguna Beach kicked off our driving experience. So as surfers sought to tame the barrel waves rolling in, with the sky turning a bright crimson, we did our best to wake up the neighbourhood with the acoustics that play out from the large smoking-gun exhaust pipes of the SL63 AMG. The SL63 still roars like the deep-throated V8 it is. We selected Sport mode — other choices in dynamic select include Comfort, Sport+, Individual and Race — and nailed the accelerator to the floor. The early-morning air was pierced with a series of pops and bangs you associate with the distinctive AMG engine. It’s raucous, rebellious — manic even — but all the while addictive, with old-school fun written all over it.
I must admit that in an age where reducing CO2 emissions and downsizing engines are the norm, it is refreshing to get behind the wheel of a vehicle that keeps the classic spirit of a V8 alive. Next we headed into the Temecula mountains, and while the temperature outside may have dropped a degree or two, things in the cabin were just starting to hot up as we sliced through some breathtaking switchback roads. Up the ante to Sport+ on the move and the dynamics of the vehicle are noticeably altered. It responds with precision and holds the line into corners with reassurance, while the carbon composite brakes are quite happy working overtime as you navigate hairpin bends. The seats are also bolstered with lumbar cushions to protect the lower back and kidney region, ensuring that while it might not leave you shaken, it definitely leaves you stirred.
Time spent behind the wheel of the godfather of the family — the SL65 AMG — was equally enthralling. A claimed sprint time of 4.0 seconds to go from 0-100km/h shows the seriousness of the vehicle, and with its standard 20-inch wheels at the rear makes a statement of note. Across the range, interiors are of the highest standard when it comes to materials used (nappa leather in the AMG models), while the layout and functionality of the cabin is beyond reproach. Yep, with this new SL, Mercedes-Benz has once again nailed it. It’s the complete package for the well-heeled enthusiast who demands a combination of cruiser and hardcore sports car. It’s basically your choice depending on your mood. And it doesn’t matter which choice you make, you won’t be disappointed.
The launch of the SL range in South Africa is planned for June, but the order book is now open. Pricing: SL400 AMG Line: R1 435 100; SL500AMG Line:R1 767 900; SL63 AMG: R2 454 300; SL65 AMG: R3 119 900. Includes a six-year/100 000km maintenance plan.