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Mercedes SL500 review

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The new sixth generation Mercedes SL is quicker and cleaner than the old car, but can it compete with the best sportscar rivals?

Mercedes SL500

What is it?

The all-new, sixth generation of Merc's evergreen GT, sampled here with the new twin-turbocharged V8 engine that will top the range until the arrival of the SL63 AMG in the autumn. As you'd expect these days, it's both more powerful and greener than the car it replaces, with 432bhp - 48bhp up on the last SL 500 - and an official combined economy figure of 31mpg, 22 percent better than before. 

Technical highlights?

We'd run out of space before we ran out of highlights, such is the amount of tech Mercedes has crammed into the SL. Beneath the very familiar styling - which seems to be intended to make this SL look as similar as possible to the facelifted version of the last car – it’s built around an all-new aluminium bodyshell, a first for Mercedes, which is claimed to be 110kg lighter than the steel body of the old car.

Steel springs are standard, with electronically variable dampers, but the SL can also be selected with Marcs’ ‘ABC’ air springing system. Drive is supplied to the rear wheels via a standard fit seven-speed autobox. Mercedes has also opted to stick with electro-hydraulic assistance for the steering rather than a pure electric system.

Other trick tech includes what’s described as a ‘front bass’ system, which uses apertures designed in the aluminium bodyshell to act as subwoofers to improve sound response. And there’s also what Mercedes modestly describes as its ‘magic vision’ system, spray-free windscreen washers that direct cleaning fluid through tiny apertures in the wiper blades, avoiding the risk of spraying occupants with the roof down.

What’s it like to drive?

Good. Wafty manners have always come higher up the SL priority list than ultimate dynamic response, but the new car is a far sharper steer than any of its predecessors. 

The engine is mighty, delivering effortless urge pretty much regardless of what’s showing on the tacho and accompanying progress with a proper V8 soundtrack. There’s no noticeable hesitation in the response of the new twin-turbocharged engine, which pulls cleanly and loves to be revved hard. The automatic gearbox can be a put dull witted when left in ‘D’ – but the sportier ‘S’ mode sharpens its responses usefully, or you can take full control via the steering wheel paddles.

Although Mercedes hasn’t made any specific claims about torsional rigidity, it’s confirmed that the new bodyshell is far stiffer, and two days of hard use on the bendiest (and bumpiest) roads that southern Spain could offer didn’t turn up any noticeable scuttle shake. Steering response stays good as speeds rise and the Merc seems to enjoy behind hustled along at rapid speeds. But it’s definitely a GT rather than a proper sportscar. When you get close to the limit of grip it becomes clear that – despite the diet – the SL is still a big, heavy car. Its natural instinct is to understeer, and although it will play along to the throttle with the stability control turned off, you need plenty of space to even consider trying to use power to bring the back end into play.

How does it compare?

Pricing hasn’t been decided yet – although you can bet you’ll be needing at least £80,000 for the SL500. For that, the Merc is a direct rival to cars like the Porsche 911 and Jaguar XKR cabrio. As before the Mercedes isn’t going to be able to match its rivals on pure driving appeal, but if you’re looking for an effortless, everyday GT, this is still a compelling package.

Anything else I need to know?

Three different versions of the folding hardtop roof are available. The basic system has painted metal panels, but there are also two optional glass systems, one clear and one with ‘magic sky’ control that switches its clear transparent panels dark at the touch of a button.

 

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evo RATING

 
[+]
Storming performance, economy gains, torsional rigidity
[-]
Awkward styling, lacks ultimate sportscar feel

evo SPECIFICATIONS

 
Engine: 4663cc V8, petrol, twin-turbocharged
Max power: 429bhp @ 5250rpm
Max torque: 516lb ft @ 1800rpm
0 - 60mph: 4.6 secs
Top speed: 155mph (electronically limited)
Price: £80,000 (est)
On Sale: July 2012

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