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Friday
May042012

First Run: Mercedes-Benz SL550

By Al Vinikour

Is it Al or Brad Pitt behind the wheel?If you ever wanted to be the center of attention may I suggest the following: pick a nice, crisp Spring day in the City of Angels (Los Angeles, for my fellow Hoosiers), climb into a 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550, put the top down and proceed to drive for hours on the Pacific Coast Highway and other environs. I had that experience recently in a lunar blue model, and I still haven’t gotten over the feeling of luxurious freedom I experienced that day. I’ve even started imaging myself as  Brad Pitt’s cooler and handsomer brother. (As you might suspect, I have one hell of an imagination.)

Arguably the most recognized of the stable of Mercedes-Benz vehicles, the 2013 SL is the sixth generation of a model that debuted 60 years ago. “SL,” by the way, is merely an abbreviation for “super-light,” which makes sense as the first vehicle in this line, the tubular-framed 300 SL, debuted in 1952 and won its class in the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans and Carrera Panamericana. (For more on the history of the 300 SL, click here.)

The latest SL is 2-in longer and wider than its predecessor, and 242 lb. lighter. This was achieved by making most of the unit body out of aluminum, using high-strength steel in the roof pillars, and making the roof panels out of magnesium. Yet the new body is 20% stiffer than the car it replaces. How is that possible? Mercedes says it’s by using different kinds of aluminum, depending on its use. So parts can be made by chill-casting, vacuum-casting or extruding, and sheets of different thickness are used for the body’s outer panels. It’s not often that a car gets larger and lighter, but this is one of the few exceptions to that rule.

The SL continues to offer pop-up roll bars and a two-stage driver and passenger airbag system. Unlike the previous system, a head airbag reduces the chances of a direct head impact, while a thorax airbag located in the seat backrest helps protect the upper body in a side impact. If that’s not enough, the Pre-Safe system activates when the risk of an accident becomes acute, and readies the safety systems so they can provide optimal protection. After a crash, it can be set to unlock the doors, turn on the interior lights, lower the side windows to ventilate the interior and tilt the steering wheel up.

Still not enough? Then how about Attention Assist that warns you to pull over if you get too drowsy to drive, and Adaptive Brake that includes ABS, active yaw control, acceleration skid control, and gets the LED brake lights to flash in order to warn the drivers behind of an emergency braking situation? There’s even mbrace2, a next-generation telematics system that gives drivers top-of-the-line features related to safety, infotainment, personal assistance and vehicle care, and it’s compatible with both iPhone and Android smartphones. (Mbrace costs $280/year after the six-month trial subscription. MbracePlus runs $20/month after the three-month trial period, and the M-B Apps are $14/month after three months.) Other available safety features include Active Blind Spot Assist, Active Lane Keeping (part of a $2,950 package) and a power trunk closer with hands-free access (just swipe your feet below the decklid and watch it open or close) that’s part of the $4,900 Premium 1 package.

The SL550 comes standard with 18-in twin five-spoke wheels with run flat tires. With the Sport Wheel Package ($2,000) you get 19-in AMG 5-spoke wheels along with a Sport Brake System… or you can spend just $500 for the wheels themselves. Sitting behind these large wheels are equally large four-wheel disc brakes with four-channel ABS, Brake Assist and electronic brake proportioning. If this sounds like a lot of words to describe one aspect of a braking system then be glad I don’t fully-outline the other safety features found on the new SL550. And, yes, that was an abbreviated description above.

So much for safety. Let’s talk power. The 2013 SL550 is equipped with a new 4.6L V8 that’s based on its 5.5L predecessor, gets up to 14% better fuel economy (estimated at 16 mpg city/24 mpg highway/19 mpg combined), and produces more power. The V8 features direct fuel injection, twin turbochargers, and multi-spark ignition. It produces 429 hp @ 5,250 rpm, and 516 lb-ft from 1,800 rpm. It’s mated to an extremely smooth 7-speed Touch Shift manual shift control automatic transmission, and all that torque at such low rpms means the SL550 gets out of its own way… quickly. Zero to 60 mph is a reported 4.5 seconds. Fifteen years ago, you could only do that in a supercar.

Even supercars, however, have trouble with fuel economy. That’s why the SL550 features an ECO-Stop/Start system. Whenever the car stops with the brake pedal depressed, the engine is automatically turned off to save fuel. As soon as the driver lifts off the brake, the engine computer selects the piston that is in the best position for first ignition, and the fuel injection and ignition systems fire that cylinder in conjunction with the starter motor to seamlessly re-start the engine. “Seamlessly” may be a stretch, however. I finally pushed the ECO button to “off” because I found the noticeable jolt when the system engaged a bit annoying. However, it’s this feature that’s responsible for the gas guzzler tax removal on the SL, so don’t expect it to go away. The SL550 gets an estimated 16 mpg city/24 mpg highway.

The new electro-mechanical steering system also helps fuel economy by powering the hydraulic power assist by an electric motor rather than by driving an hydraulic pump off the engine’s accessory drive. It automatically varies the steering ratio based on steering wheel angle. So, for example, you get quicker, lighter steering while parking, and less direct steering at high speeds. The steering wheel itself is flat-bottomed and leather-trimmed, with multiple functions on the spokes. A really nice wood/leather steering wheel is a stand-alone option at $590.

The interior, with its treasure-trove of features, is pure Mercedes, starting with the 12-way adjustable heated seats w/pneumatic lumbar support and memory. I’m not a lumbar man but my co-driver was, and we were both happy with the adjustments available via the COMAND System. The COMAND controller is a lot of fun to play with, but requires a bit of a learning curve to master. It sits alongside a really cool gearshift handle with an embossed “SL” atop it. The instrument panel and centerstack are clean and very business-like, though the two-toned upper and lower (divided by a metallic band that sweeps down the center stack and console) can be a bit “extroverted” when certain color combinations are chosen. Leg room is aplenty and the comfort features and lighting are perfect.

The standard sound system is awesome. It’s a harman/kardon Logic 7 digital surround-sound that features the new FrontBass, in which the bass speakers are mounted in the front firewall so the two front frame members also serve as large bass boxes. (Yes, Mercedes has made the new SL a rolling boom box.) This innovation also saves weight since separate bass boxes are no long necessary. It comes with Dolby Surround 5.1, and uses two amplifiers and a total of 14 speakers. All amplifier channels have individually-tuned frequency response and the system includes speed-dependent volume control. If this audio extravaganza isn’t enough for you, then pony up another $6,400 and you can buy the incredibly crisp Bang & Olufsen BeoSound Surround Sound System.

If that isn’t enough innovation, Mercedes-Benz engineers re-thought the windshield wipers, taking into account that there are times when you’ll want to clean the windshield with the top down without taking an early-Saturday bath. They feature laser-cut passages along the entire length of each blade that distribute a precise stream of washer fluid directly in front of the moving wiper blades. A separate electronic control unit ensures that the washer fluid changes its flow each time the wipers change direction so the wiper blade never contacts a dry surface. This improves cleaning without impairing driver visibility during the spray process, and the control unit changes the amount of washer fluid as vehicle speed and outside temperature change.

Another clever device is the optional $2,500 Magic Sky Control. It features a glass roof panel in which the tinting of the panel can be electronically controlled by the driver or passenger. Immediately a button above the rear-view mirror can change the panel from transparent to heavily-tinted. It uses technology similar to automatic dimming mirrors, and Mercedes claims it lets in less thermal energy than that created by an average household light bulb while effectively blocking UV and infrared rays when completely transparent. The folically-impaired won’t have to worry about having the sun beat down on their own cranial solar panels.

How much for all this technology, power and style? The MSRP is $105,500 (along with a destination and delivery charge of $875), but with packages and stand-alone options it’s possible to say hello to a car that costs more than $130,000. Which caused a dear friend of mine to ask if I thought the vehicle was worth it. I honestly told him, “Bill, it’s good to be the King no matter how much it costs you.” For my fellow Hoosiers, that’s a “yes.”

Reader Comments (1)

The new design looks nearly perfect and the interior is simply beautiful! Amazing car! Dropping the top takes a bit less than 20 seconds.

New cars

May 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNew cars in india

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