Mercedes SL500 (2012) review

Published:07 March 2012

Mercedes SL500 (2012) review
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By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator

This is the new Mercedes-Benz SL, only the sixth SL generation to launch in six decades. And because they don’t release one very often, you can typically expect a new SL to mark a giant leap on from the last one. This new Mercedes SL (codenamed R231) is no exception.

What are the key changes to this new sixth-generation Mercedes SL?

Most significantly, the SL is up to 140kg lighter than its predecessor due partly to a switch to an all-new bodyshell manufactured almost entirely from aluminium (the A-pillars are an aluminium/high-strength steel mix to ensure maximum rollover protection). The ’shell alone sheds 110kg, and this despite the SL becoming 57mm wider and 50mm longer.

The other savings are netted via the roof, with its new SLK-style magnesium frame that saves 15kg, new seat structures that shed 11kg, plus there are 11kg savings from new axle component,s and the wheels weigh 4kg less too. That’s partly why, despite increases in performance, fuel economy increases by as much as 30%.

The other new technology includes a Frontbass system, with speakers mounted in cavities in the, yes, front of the bodyshell, down in the footwells. A cracking sound it produces too. Also new is Magic Vision Control: press the windscreen washer button and the screenwash squirts directly out of the windscreen wipers, meaning the driver’s vision of the road ahead is uninterrupted and you won’t get splashed with the roof down.

Meanwhile, owners of the new SLK will recognise the optional Magic Sky Control roof – press a button and the central glass section darkens with a blue/purple tint. Clever stuff.

The new SL would've lost a lot more weight if Mercedes had ditched the folding hardtop... 

Indeed, but the folding hardtop’s exceptionally good refinement meant it again got the nod, and this time it drops at the push of a button – either from inside the car or via the keyfob – in 18sec. The weight, though, isn’t the only drawback: you can’t raise or lower the roof on the go, and it stows in the same place that you keep the luggage. So it’s a pretty small boot considering the size of the car and, if you want to use it all, you’ll have to raise the luggage-tray separator to free up more space… which means you can’t drop the roof at all.

Which models are available?

We’re driving the SL500, a model that’ll be top dog until the SL63 AMG arrives later this year, and with which the 500 shares its basic V8; the 500 has 4663cc and makes 429bhp and 516lb ft, while AMG will fettle its to 5461cc, 530bhp and 590lb ft. An SL350 sits at the bottom of the range; yours for around £70k, it employs a naturally aspirated 3498cc V6 and is good for 302bhp and 273lb ft. It’s the most popular model, but none were available to drive on the press launch.

How does the SL500 drive?

It’s an incredibly smooth car. The engine, despite sharing its basic architecture with the AMG V8, is far smoother than its more overtly high-performance sibling, woofling smoothly and creamily through the rpms. It’s one of the smoothest engines we’ve ever known. The steering, gearbox and pedal weights all complement that feel too: they’re all smooth and linear and slightly sleepy, but in a manner that really suits this car

Our car rode on the Sport suspension, which chief engineer Jürgen Weissinger warned us would be very firm. Perhaps it was the smooth Spanish roads we test drove our SL on but, even in this spec, the ride still had a buttery kind of smoothness.

Is it a sports car?

Mercedes likes to call the SL sporty, but it’s not really. Yes, it’s fast, and it’s incredibly stable when you drive flat out on a motorway, but it’s so soft and so rapid that it’s actually a bit of a handful if you try to drive it quickly through fast, sweeping curves.

An Active Body Control optional suspension system is available – it uses hydraulic cylinders on the struts to counteract roll – and Weissinger said that an ABC would be his personal choice, because it better resists roll. However, a tight time schedule meant we had to stick with our Sport-spec example. And, really, the SL does itself most justice when you tickle it along at sixth tenths. Do that and you’ll be won over by the SL’s exceptionally smooth character.

Verdict

The SL500 is a beautifully smooth cruiser with exceptional levels of refinement that will surely hit the bull’s eye for its predominantly 50-something target demographic. The comparatively small boot – important – and lack of outright handling prowess – probably not so important in this market – are the only real drawbacks.

Specs

Price when new: £85,000
On sale in the UK: Now
Engine: 4663cc 32v twin-turbo V8, 429bhp @ 5250rpm, 516lb ft @ 1800-3500rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 5.9sec 0-62mph, 155mph, 31mpg, 212g/km
Weight / material: 1785kg/aluminium
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): 4612/1877/1314mm

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  • Mercedes SL500 (2012) review
  • Mercedes SL500 (2012) review
  • Mercedes SL500 (2012) review
  • Mercedes SL500 (2012) review
  • Mercedes SL500 (2012) review
  • Mercedes SL500 (2012) review
  • Mercedes SL500 (2012) review
  • Mercedes SL500 (2012) review
  • Mercedes SL500 (2012) review
  • Mercedes SL500 (2012) review
  • Mercedes SL500 (2012) review

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator

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