Remember an Armani-clad Richard Gere behind the wheel of that gleaming black Mercedes-Benz 450 SL in the 1980 classic American Gigolo? With Blondie’s “Call Me” booming in the background, the SL cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu was a rolling testament to brooding lust, elegance, and perfectly gelled hair.
Alas, in recent years the oh-so-classy SL has lost much of its mojo as our love for drop-top sportscars has taken a nosedive. But the SL (short for Sport Light) is too big a nameplate for Mercedes to give up willingly. After all, those two little letters have been gracing the trunk lids of low-slung Benz sportsters since the legendary 300 SL debuted in 1952.
So, drumroll please: The SL is back, brand new from the wheels up, with huge changes that include standard all-wheel drive, a return to a canvas top in place of a folding metal lid, two-plus-two seating, and V8 power. And to show how invested Mercedes is in its SL renaissance, it handed over development to the performance wizards at AMG—hence the two-seater’s fancy new name, Mercedes-AMG SL.
Two versions will be on offer come springtime. Take your pick from the new SL 55, powered by an AMG-massaged 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 cranking out 469 hp, or the muscled-up SL 63 with a 577-hp version of that turbine-smooth V8.
Gone is the bland, slightly milquetoast look of the previous generation model. Now it boasts a six-pack and a bulldog stance. Peep that barred-teeth front end in your rearview and trust me, you’re moving over. Its lower air intakes are big enough to swallow decent-sized critters, and a retro front grille and swept-back LED lights contribute to its
Climb aboard, slide a finger across the iPad-like 11.9-inch tilting center screen, and that canvas top retracts in a zippy 15 seconds and at speeds of up to 37 mph. Of course, there are those who will lament the jettisoning of the folding metal roof. As a Floridian, I liked the duality it gave—offering the choice of coupe for summer, convertible for winter—but it gobbled up too much trunk space, added weight, and raised the car’s center of gravity, compromising ultimate handling. It also meant you couldn’t have rear seats, which is one of the new SL’s attractions. Not that anyone over the age of 5 is going to fit back there. Legroom is on a par with Allegiant economy or a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe. It’s the perfect place for a gym bag or a small Labrador.
But this SL isn’t about dropping tops and trunk space. It’s all about driving. It’s a trait I experienced firsthand when I had the pleasure of flying to Southern California and exercising it on God’s driving roads, from Orange County across the San Jacinto Mountains to Palm Springs.
First up was the SL 55. Even though it’s the milder of the two flavors, it still feels breathtaking in the way it catapults off the line and rushes to 60 mph in a mere 3.8 seconds.
Rocketship performance, however, isn’t the 55’s only party piece. The way the car scythes around ridiculously tight curves, its all-wheel drive system, the rear-axle steering, and a Cray computer’s worth of bytes and bits give it an agility that’s nothing short of astonishing. Yet it delivers this on-rails cornering with a smooth, bump-absorbing ride that adds a level of sophistication never before seen on an SL.
The SL 63 just amps everything up to 11. It can sprint from zero to 60 in 3.4 seconds and won’t stop until it hits 195 mph. Plus, it has an exhaust note that sounds like Godzilla gargling nails. It’s one sensationally fun car to drive.
The SL is back indeed. And no longer is it a pretty boy Richard Gere. No, this car is definitely more Jason Statham.
Price: SL 55 from $100,000 (estimated)
Engine: 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8
Power: 469 hp
Torque: 516 lb-ft
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
0-60: 3.8 seconds
Top speed: 183 mph
Length/Width: 185/75 inches
Weight: 5,489 pounds
Why we love it: Because it’s the most performance-focused SL ever.