Generally speaking, I'm a pretty measured sort of guy. But when it comes to convertibles, I'm a bit of a lunatic. I've been known to motor with the top down in all conditions – including light rain and snow – much to the bewilderment of other drivers (and quite often the chagrin of my passengers). For the most part, it doesn't matter if I'm driving in a bare-bones roadster or a lux-lined GT. Thankfully for my hapless guests, however, advances in technology have done much to assuage discomfort in poor weather. These days, there are far fewer tradeoffs associated with top-down motoring: improved aerodynamics, wind blockers, enhanced ventilation, sun-reflecting leather and, of course, seat heating and cooling – all features that have done much to make me better company. What's more, modern underlying structures are stiffer and there's little in the way of the noise, vibration and harshness penalties that there used to be.
In terms of innovation, nobody has done more to advance the everyday livability of the convertible than Mercedes-Benz. They kept the faith back in the late 70s/early 80s when nearly everyone had gotten out of the convertible business. They brought back the folding hardtop. They came up with the pop-up roll hoop to augment rollover safety. They created Airscarf. Aircap, too. Hell, with this 2013 SL550, they've even invented a new windshield wiper fluid delivery system to prevent errant spritzing when driving with the top down (more on that in a minute).
On its face, a typically sober German engineering approach would seem to be at odds with the very idea of a top-down bauble, but Mercedes has taken a very logical approach to building something so frivolous. Amazingly, this philosophy works in the SL's favor... most of the time.
Before we delve into what makes this $106,375 convertible tick, we can't avoid the elephant in the garage: styling. The SL's nose is fussy, with a pair of eagle-eye bi-xenon cornering headlamps and a massive upright grille giving way to the obligatory long hood. We can't quite put our finger on it, but there's something aesthetically uncomfortable about the front end's proportions and multiplicity of lines. The schnoz looks particularly awkward when viewed in profile, as the grille and front fascia stand uncomfortably proud of the swept-back headlamps. We're inclined to blame toughening pedestrian crash test standards for all of this, but somehow, other automakers have done a better job. The rest of the bodyside is less controversial, with the SL's patented long of hood, long of door aesthetic dominated by a U-shaped character line that originates in the front fender's heat extractors. The taillamps look a bit oversized for our tastes as well, but it's really the front end that jars us.
This R231 generation SL is a big car – with a length of 181.8 inches, it's over three inches longer than Honda's latest CR-V. Compared to the fifth generation model, this new SL is two inches longer and spans just over two inches wider. Critically, while the 2013 SL is larger, it's also much lighter. That's because for the first time in its history, the SL rides atop an aluminum unibody. With the exception of high-strength steel A-pillars, nearly everything that isn't aluminum is comprised of even lighter magnesium, including the roof panels. By going with aluminum, Mercedes reckons that the SL's shell is nearly 250 pounds lighter than it would have been had it been rendered in steel, and the whole works is upwards of 20-percent stiffer torsionally. All told, the 2013 model weighs about 275 pounds less than the exit car. All of which means Mercedes can argue there's a bit more truth in labeling this roadster SL ("Sport Leicht") – if only a bit. After all, the SL550 still tips the scales at 3,947 pounds – 400 pounds more than the portliest all-wheel-drive CR-V that Honda can muster.
Thankfully, there's a lot more power here than in Honda's cute ute. 429 horsepower at 5,250 rpm and a whopping 516 pound-feet of torque from 1,800 rpm (some 32-percent more than last year's 391 torques). That mechanical motivation comes courtesy of Mercedes' 4.7-liter bi-turbo V8, an engine you'll also find in the even larger CL550 coupe. The turbos strapped to the direct-injected eight-cylinder can generate up to 13 pounds of boost, and as we found during our drive around Málaga, Spain, the engine is the centerpiece of this roadster's appeal. Muted at idle and at partial revs, to carpet the pedal is to awaken a great bellow, followed quickly by a great wave of power funneled through the seven-speed gearbox and out the rear wheels.
Mercedes has fitted a defeatable stop-start system to maximize fuel economy, but it's something of a lampshade in a whorehouse: EPA fuel economy estimates aren't in yet, but we're guessing something along the lines of 16 miles per gallon city and 25 highway.
Another part of the greening of the SL is its new electromechanical power steering system, dubbed "Direct-Steer." By switching to electric steering, Mercedes has reduced the accessory load on the engine, thus improving fuel economy and emissions. Unfortunately, this system is the weakest link in the SL550's dynamic resume – the speed-sensing, variable ratio setup is about as talkative as a Marcel Marceau convention. We'll have to hope for more feedback from the AMGified SL63, but for now, the 550 feels more like a boulevardier than a proper GT.
Of course, you don't buy a motorcar of the SL's ilk to be parsimonious – you buy it for presence, performance and poshness, all of which it has in spades. Mercedes says the SL550 can rocket to 60 miles per hour in just 4.5 seconds – quicker than Porsche's new 911 Carrera – and we believe it. Power is ridiculously easy to come by at all rpms and the seven-speed automatic with paddleshifts is well suited to the sort of relaxed, high-speed motoring that this car engenders. Top speed runs, however, are neutered at just 130 mph. Should you run out of road, 14.2-inch ventilated and perforated discs up front and 12.6-inch ventilated rears haul the SL down from speed with solid pedal feel and little drama.
Bumps are smoothed and corners are negotiated thanks to a multi-link/torsion bar setup front and rear. Mercedes' Active Body Control system is optional and provides both Sport and Comfort modes, but we'd probably stick with the less complex, less weighty standard steel spring system. It's plenty refined for cruising and relaxed winding road driving, but neither setup is much good for spirited work – you just don't get enough steering feedback and there's too much size and weight to confidently toss the pride of Stuttgart in the truly twisty stuff. Still, body roll is quite well controlled, the chassis offers girder-like rigidity and there's plenty of power. In fact, the grip is there, too, it's just that the vital information about how much purchase the 19-inch front tires actually have is a message too often left undelivered.
On the plus side of the ledger, the SL's cabin puts the "Grand" in "Grand Tourer," with a pair of supremely comfortable and supportive seats that offer more adjustments than a Beverly Hills chiropractor. Materials and fit-and-finish are tops, and our Edition 1 tester's interior bound in look-at-me crimson Designo Nappa leather with contrast stitching impressed one and all. We love the round air vents that are spreading throughout Benz's lineup, but oddly, the COMAND interface's seven-inch TFT screen almost felt small. (Consider that observation to be more an indictment of the screen size arms race than it is of Mercedes' product planners.). Our tester was also fitted with optional Magic Sky Control, the variable transparency roof panel that first debuted on the SLK, and the electrohydraulic folding top was as quiet in operation as any we've ever heard.
Mercedes is making a big to-do about its new FrontBass audio system, which turns spaces in the aluminum structures ahead of the footwells into resonance chambers. That's right, the chassis does double-duty as a speaker box. We'd like to tell you how vibrant and wonderful the stereo is, but the only volume dial we were interested in adjusting was the throttle pedal.
One trick new feature that this new SL has is Magic Vision Control, a rather fantastical name for what amounts to intelligent windshield wipers. And by "intelligent," we mean genius. We've seen wipers integrate washer nozzles before, but never with this degree of sophistication. These wipers have dozens of tiny holes along the entire length of the blade that pushes out fluid on the leading edge of the stroke (in both directions). Not only does MVC all but eliminate overspray into the cabin when the top is down, the system actually disburses different amounts of fluid depending on the weather, and in winter, the blades and fluid are heated. The only downside? You'll have to get replacement blades with the special channels at your dealer, and we're willing to bet they'll be expensive.
At the end of a couple of hundred miles of high-speed top-down meandering on narrow Spanish mountain passes, we were left a bit conflicted. Like the BMW 6 Series Convertible against which it will inevitably compete, the SL long ago graduated from a true enthusiast's car into a plush GT, and the new model fills the latter role capably. But with the promise of weight loss and additional power on hand, we had hoped Mercedes' ever-innovative engineers might have found a way to integrate a bigger dollop of driving enjoyment along with the SL's creature comforts. Guess we'll have to wait for Magic Drive Control.