Mercedes-AMG SL63 first drive, CAR+ April 2016

Published: 14 March 2016

► We drive the all-new Mercedes-AMG SL63
► 5.5-litre V8 barks like a rabid dog on downshifts
► It’s a luxurious, properly enjoyable muscle car

In sharp contrast to last month’s Lamborghini Huracan Spyder launch in Miami, Mercedes has brought us to California for the launch of the updated SL not just for the lifestyle but for the roads. Miles and miles of deserted, sun-drenched two-lane blacktop that writhes across the scenery, punctuated only by the jarring presence of border patrol checkpoints populated by smiling men with machine guns. It all makes you want to keep on driving forever. And you’re probably already thinking it must have been wasted on an SL.

Merc’s big convertible cruiser might have started life as a hardcore homologation special, but over the years it’s become the de facto boulevard barge-about for buyers of a certain age and wealth profile. Comfortable? Absolutely. Luxurious? Of course. Fast? You’d better believe it – especially in AMG guise. But actually a sports car? Pull the other one Rodney, it’s got bells on.

The news that there are no hardware changes to the chassis instantly suggests there’s going to be little more to write home about this time around, either. The 3.0-litre biturbo V6 in the entry-level – if you can apply that term to anything that costs £73,805 – SL400 gets a 35bhp hike to 362bhp, but otherwise even the engines stay the same, with major revisions concentrated on the introduction of a nine-speed automatic for the cooking models and a dramatic improvement to the styling.

Being a 2016 Merc it’s available with stacks of safety tech and now even the load cover in the boot is electrically operated. Similarly, though roof operations must be initiated at a standstill, they can now achieve completion at up to 25mph, so you’ll no longer receive quite so much abuse if you’re only part way through decapitation when the traffic lights change. Your average SL owner will surely rejoice, but none of it explains how Mercedes can claim it’s made the car sportier. Which, actually, it has.

The answer to this conundrum is software. The code controlling the variable dampers has been reworked, while for an extra charge, on non-AMG models the Active Body Control (ABC) modules can also be digitally instructed to counter roll by leaning into corners like the S-Class Coupe.

Sounds like hocus-pocus, but the SL500 we sampled was unexpectedly eager to get stuck into the twisties, balancing slightly odd on-centre steering feel with lashings of grip and superb damping – especially in the tougher settings. 449bhp, 516lb ft and 0-62mph in 4.3sec means you find yourself quickly convinced that no SL will ever really need to go faster. Particularly when the upgrade to SL63 AMG costs more than £31k, and only gains you 0.2sec in Top Trumps. 

And yet… The 63 is an animal, its 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8 barking like a rabid dog on the downshifts and responding to your right foot with a vigour that will embarrass the 6.0-litre twin-turbo V12 SL65. The 63 has the firmest suspension settings, too, erasing any hint of the slack still present in the SL500 and hurling itself into hairpins with decidedly indecorous immediacy.

Admittedly, the secondary ride takes a minor hit, but the way it deals with sudden bumps remains breathtakingly good – body movement checked in a single fluid movement, underlining the incredible torsional rigidity achieved by the SL platform’s trick aluminium metallurgy. And that genuinely is the correct use of incredible; scuttle shake has basically been eradicated in a car with 664lb ft of torque. As such, with the adoption of a limited-slip diff as standard it’s hello to the other side of the aforementioned hairpin like someone’s strapped Adele to an Atlas rocket.

All that muscle does play hell with the transmission occasionally – wring out the lower end of the seven-cog AMG gearbox in manual mode and you’ve got to be on-point with your upshifts or it’ll hang between ratios, presumably in deference to not spitting you off the road – but there’s also so much of it on tap that third gear does for pretty much everything that won’t automatically see you accommodated at the constabulary’s pleasure. This is a gobstoppingly fast car.

But more than that, it’s a properly enjoyable one, surprisingly precise and graceful with it, in spite of the sledgehammer under the bonnet. In this environment it’s hard to imagine the Ferrari California T turning in a more agreeable performance, making the new SL63 something of a revelation.

Up against

Better than: Maserati GranCabrio – Maser has more seats but more wobbles

Worse than: Ferrari California T – Cali has the more outrageous options list

We’d buy: Mercedes-AMG SL63 – Once we find that winning lottery ticket

The specs: Mercedes-AMG SL63

Price: £114,100
Engine: 5461cc 32v biturbo V8, 577bhp @ 5500rpm, 664lb ft @ 2250-3750rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed AMG SpeedShift MCT auto, rear-wheel drive with LSD
Performance: 4.1sec 0-62mph, 155mph (electronically limited), 28mpg, 235g/km CO2
Weight: 1845kg
On sale: Now 

Love: Super stiff structure, ferocious performance, precision and control

Hate: Occasional transmission hiccup, busy secondary ride

Verdict: Multi-faceted gem that’s like a Louis Vuitton hand grenade

Rating: ****

Read more from the April 2016 issue of CAR magazine

By CJ Hubbard

Head of the Bauer Automotive Hub, road tester, organiser, extremely variable average wheel count