Mercedes SL: Posh vs. power
Mercedes takes its flagship two-seater to new heights - but pure sports-car status remains elusive.
(Fortune) -- With the introduction of the 2009 SL63 AMG, Mercedes-Benz is both reaffirming its place in the high-performance universe and reminding the world of its heritage as the first company to build a true high-end production sports car.
The 300SL of the '50s was a road car that borrowed heavily from racing. (Mercedes was leading Formula 1, and won Le Mans in 1952 and the Targa Florio in '55.) With fuel injection, a tubular steel space frame, gull-wing doors, and an engine mounted at an angle to allow for lower hood lines and better weight distribution, the production version was one of the fastest cars on the road. It made almost everything else look like scrap metal.
The journey from that groundbreaking model to today's technology-stuffed car has been a long one. Over time the SL's sporting pedigree (SL stands for Sport Light) has bowed to its luxury soul - thanks in large part to the predilections of American buyers; 51% are sold in the United States.
Most sports car purists, including me, wouldn't call the SL a real sports car. It's a different beast - a crossbreed of hard and soft. So I was eager to test the new 2009 SL63 AMG, which the company says is the most aggressive an SL can be (for now). The 518-horsepower V-8 version promised to tip the balance back toward the track.
The handsomely sharp-lined two-seater has one strike against it from the get-go: it is the first SL to have to comply with pedestrian-safety legislation, which, to make a long story short, stuffs hardware into the front end that forces the hood height to rise, adding unsightly bulk.
Beyond looks, I found the SL63 a perplexing series of pros and cons. I climbed in: great seats, fine Nappa leather, expensive Alcantara headliner. So what was that sea of knobs and switches crowding the center console? The start/stop button, placed atop the gearshift knob, caused me to inadvertently shut the car off several times when trying to go into reverse.
Then there's the hand-built 518-hp V-8 and the fabulously sonorous, burbling exhaust music. AMG has produced massive performance upgrades on Mercedes (DAI) for decades; you can count on the driving experience to be consistently close to a bullet train - loads of speed, loads of grunt. AMG didn't underdeliver here.
There's so much power and torque (80% of its 465 foot-pounds is available at 2,000 rpm) that when I nailed it off the line at a light, I snapped my own neck back. Still, the weighty SL63 tended to plow into corners with a bit too much unsporting understeer. Stabbing for the controls to set up my preferred level of play (there's Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus, and Manual) was distracting, especially because most are mounted below eye level.
And when I dropped the retractable top, horrors! The mechanism's handle was flimsy plastic painted to look like metal. When the roof was neatly tucked into the rear deck (the actual system works like a German dream), I suddenly felt that the sharp rake of the windshield's upper edge was in danger of colliding with my forehead. On the exterior, I was similarly torn. The 19-inch sport wheels were a cool mix of polished and matte finishes, the Bi-Xenon headlights technical jewelry, and the overall fit and finish top-notch. The "blackout" rear air diffuser, however, was a horrible mass of flexible black plastic.
At the end of the day, I wished for a few things: a car this pricey should be built with exquisite materials yet still achieve visual simplicity in the cabin. And while I'm at it, why not bring the gull-wing doors back? The SL63 is trying to be all high-end things to all high-end owners, which in the sports car realm is impossible. Still, I'm guessing lots of wealthy people who don't care about being purists won't mind.