Finding the ideal luxury sports car is a Goldilocks proposition: cars that fulfill either descriptive – luxury or sports – are piled high as Annapurna. For instance, the Ferrari F430 is a luxurious sports car, but it's not a luxury car. The current CL63 is a sporty luxury car, but it's not a sports car. Try to find a conveyance in which the little girl with the golden locks would sigh "This one is just right" – a car that has the sporting reflexes to keep her heart beating and a cabin supple enough for her to unwind in when the twisties are finished – and you see the field is disturbingly minuscule. Against all odds, the SL63 is that car: Goldilocks' Golden Mean. Follow the jump to find out how and why, and check out the gallery of high-res images below.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Jonathon Ramsey / Weblogs, Inc.
Before we dive into the SL63 AMG, let us go back a bit. Prior to the current, facelifted SL, we spent more time thinking about which toothpaste to buy than we ever did considering the merits of the SL-Class. Like the Range Rover Sport, the SL is an emblem, a logo, the official car of older men likely to explain the near-adolescent ages of their dates by saying things like "She makes me feel young."
So when Mercedes called to offer a sampling of both the SL600 and SL63 AMG, we attended more out of duty than desire. To prepare for a day of motoring in the new SL600 from Santa Monica to Palm Springs where we would meet the SL63 AMG, we bought a Polo and a Rolex, rolled up our sleeves, and practiced telling our broker – loudly – not to sell our shares in Dassault Systemes until they hit 42 euros. We even tried to find an aspiring model/actress to share the day's ride with, but we had to settle for a fine chap by the name of Andy.
We started the drive by putting the top down and stopping for coffee at one of the sceniest places in Los Angeles. We got a spot right out front. We're pretty sure that comes with the car. Women look. I flash my Rolex. Dial my broker. Bark orders. "Sell Kodak at eight-and-a-half!" I'm a winner. And now I feel like I've lived the SL dream, so I'd really like to click my heels three times and go home...
But there's more driving to do, and it was a very good thing – for quite a few reasons – that I wasn't wearing ruby slippers.
We pull off the highway in the egregiously misnamed Inland Empire. What, in another car, we would have looked forward to as gleeful driving sections – 180-degree turns, off-camber mountainside sections, blind corners, high-speed doglegs – began not far from the exit. And it was no more than a few corners when we had a funny and familiar feeling. Andy went around a turn at what must surely have been an accidental speed, and the conversation went something like:
"Andy, did you feel that?"
"I think so."
"Do it again."
Andy took the next turn on the gas.
"Andy... was that a... driving sensation?"
"I... think so... Hold please..."
Andy laid it on through a ferocious set of kinks like he was trying to outrun Somali bandits, hit a straight and floored it, popped over a blind crest and slammed on the brakes for a tight corner that was right there! but opened up into a long sweeping downhill right where he could test the rising speed of the car against the curve.
There was no mistaking it: the car handles.
The 5.5-liter twin-turbo V12 with 510 hp and 612 lb-ft. that runs through a 5-speed transmission propels the 4,455-pound car to 60 in 4.4 seconds. But that's the easy part. Mercedes' that go fast in a straight line are nothing new. We wanted to know why it handled like it did. Mercedes would only say that it was due to the second generation Active Body Control (ABC), featuring revised dampers among other things, and the Direct Steer system that uses a new tooth profile – no Rube Goldberg electro-gimmicky-slash-German-engineering here – for more engaging response. Harumph.
If that is really all Mercedes did, then the SL was a much better car – or at least, much closer to being a great car – than we ever suspected. But we don't buy it. However, all of a sudden we weren't so upset about having to go to Palm Springs to drive the SL63 AMG.
This is what you need to know to prepare yourself for the SL63: the AMG division was started in 1963 by former Mercedes engineers Hans Werner Aufrecht (A) and Erhard Melcher (M) in the town of Großaspach (G). They were racers, and they were very good at building racing engines and cars. Over the decades, at some ill-defined point, the pure racing creations became huge engines stuffed into chassis' with the handling dynamics of manatees. You could beat a Porsche to the next stoplight. You couldn't beat the guy in the purple Cavalier with the primered J. C. Whitney wing through a series of corners.
Two years ago, though, a gent by the name of Volker Mornhinweg ascended to the AMG throne, and he had a come-to-Gott meeting with his team, putting the question, "Do we want to keep doing what we're doing, or shall we return to AMG's heritage and build proper sports cars?" The answer was unanimous, and although it has taken two years to deliver that answer in steel, the wait was, as they say, worth it.
If we were to anthropomorphize the SL63 AMG, we wouldn't use a German, but a Russian: Peter the Great. This is the car, with its piercing look and imposing mien, that is leading the charge in dragging its compatriots – Russians in Peter's case, AMG's perception in the SL63's case – into modernity, respect.
It was with this information, and the taste of the SL600 appetizer still fresh on our palate, that we strove to give the SL63 AMG a non-stop caning. Call the car a masochist – and yours truly a sadist – because we both loved it.
The SL63 features the well known naturally aspirated 6.2-liter V8 with 518 hp and 465 lb-ft. Compared to the SL600, it has a 7,200 RPM redline instead of the other car's 5,950, it is 286 pounds lighter and has the same 0-60 time. It uses a 7-speed multi-clutch transmission (MCT) with four possible shift modes and a double-clutching function. And our cars also had the Performance Package consisting of 15.4-inch vented, compound front rotors, a multi-disc limited-slip rear differential, 19-inch AMG twin-spoke forged light-alloy wheels, staggered-width tires of 255/35 ZR19 in front and 285/30 ZR19 at the rear, an even more refined AMG high-performance suspension based on ABC active suspension, and a smaller steering wheel with a flattened underside and silver-aluminum shift paddles. Let's go driving then.
The hills above Palm Springs are strung with ancient concrete, the same stuff that Sinatra and crew rode on with cars full of groupies when doing the Vegas run. But the SL63 does not ask for cosseting, it only asks for roads. It rumbles from idle, noisy, thuggish, more Corvette than The Continent. The car will happily do the low-speed boulevard run – it's a Mercedes after all – and everywhere you go and stop, people look at you like they want to welcome you since you're so well dressed... but they can't quite... because, well, sir, your car is growling...
From a standstill, pull the trigger on the car it shoots off the line immediately, insistently. No fireworks – save for the exhaust, which appears to be bellowing the German equivalent of "Out of the way!" – just a mission to get to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, which is only a tenth shy of the new 2009 Porsche Carrera S with PDK.
The promise of semi-automatic transmissions is that the gap between gear changes is reduced to milliseconds. The tragic disillusionment with semi-automatic transmissions comes when you discover that the gap between the clutch disengaging and then giving you access to the power again takes almost as long as the first grade. Not so with the SL63's multi-clutch transmission: it's pull-shift-power, pull-shift-power.
Another great feature of a well-sorted semi-automatic transmission: it knows when to shift down and which gear to shift into, and if it happens to get wrong-footed the mistake is corrected in those aforementioned milliseconds.
All you have to do in the SL63 is attack attack attack attack attack. That's all. The AMG-tuned ABC is stiffer than that on the standard SL-Class, and works with ABS, ASR, and ESP systems that have also been recalibrated to give you a lot more room to play with the car and much more subtle help if you ever need it.
Mercedes says the car has between 68- and 95-percent less body roll than a comparable car with the same suspension setup. Throw it through turns and gravity, not body roll, will be your main concern, and it's still imperceptibly flexible enough that you won't have to pay any price in skittishness. When you're finished with a run of road-course cornering, you will demand your passenger call you Fangio for the rest of the day.
When you finally do get close to the car's limits, it's a very un-Mercedes-like affair: there are no gongs, no alarms. The only communication comes from the movements of the car itself and the tires working to go in the intended direction. Coming around one corner at a speed approaching blue blazes, we could feel all four wheels sliding, gently, confidently, but saying "All right, you get another two miles an hour out of us, and then you're in the Scheisse." That's the kind of dialogue that turns good drivers into excellent ones, knowing just how much more bend you've got before the snapping and breaking begin. It still shocks us to write this, but it's another reason why the SL63 is a truly fantastic driver's car.
There are more thrilling rocketships that will let you know you've gone too far by swapping ends and flying in reverse toward something firm and immovable. There are more luxurious runabouts that will usually distract you from investigating their sporting chops by playing a tune called "shake, rattle & roll" remixed by DJ Understeer.
But in this car we can fight above our weight any time of day and on any road, and we'd accept any challenge from any other car – F430, Gallardo, R8, Vantage, you name it. We might get beat, but only just, and that's only if the other driver is very good and doesn't make a single mistake. And then we'd invite them to endure that other challenge, navigating one full day of LA's finest motorized morass, and we doubt the fight would last past noon. And if you're thinking the Vantage might still be in it, did we mention the disappearing folding hardtop with the panoramic roof?
That is why this car sits, almost alone, in the sweet spot of the Goldilocks proposition. It is not exactly beautiful, but it is, to our eyes, hot. It's not buckwild, but its limits are well off in the distance. It is not the ultimate in either handling or luxury, but it is quite possibly the ultimate in balance. And unlike the Aston Martin DB9 Sport Pack, which is our favorite luxury sports car because it is gorgeous and handles gorgeously, the SL63 has a trunk that you can actually put things in. The SL63 AMG is how you say, acronymically: "just right."
Photos Copyright ©2008 Jonathon Ramsey / Weblogs, Inc.