Iím writing this review of the SL55 for anyone here interested in the SL55 since getting a test drive is not that easy. Fortunately, I was able to test-drive a 2003 model with about 6,000 miles on it a few weeks ago.
I will make some comparisons to the Z8, the M5, and to the M3 to provide a familiar reference point. I want to point out my biases so you will know where I am coming from and you can use that to gauge how your own preferences stack up. I am biased towards BMWs because I think they create a bond between man and machine, and yet BMW manage to supply a level of luxury that in some instances goes beyond their competitors. Itís this balance that really keeps me a BMW fan. Their natural competitor is Mercedes-Benz. My opinion of Mercedes is that they build world-class vehicles, but they never forge a personal connection with me the same way most BMWs are capable of doing.
Not too long after the Z8 came out, there was word that the new SL would get the AMG treatment and it would get nearly 500bhp and even greater torque via a blown 5.5l V8. I was naturally curious. My curiosity was slightly diminished when I had the opportunity to drive an earlier setup in a 2002 S55 AMG. I found this car just reinforced what I already thought of the Mercedes driving experience: more of a disconnect between the car and driver than I prefer, and hence I found the experience uninspiring.
Yet, over time I had been hearing from respected friends and others that the SL55AMG was a different Mercedes. They were basically saying: ďTry it- itís the first Mercedes that drives like a BMW! Youíll love it!Ē. That statement along with some email comments from a fellow board member really got me to reconsider this vehicle. Perhaps Mercedes had finally created a vehicle that would bond with me?
When I visited the NY International Autoshow a few weeks ago, I thought the Mercedes show better than the new BMWs. Mercedes might even just show better than most BMWs period. I think the key to BMWs success is mostly in how they drive, and the styling and other issues come second. Whereas with Mercedes, there is a glamour factor- and that works better than BMWís modernism in the autoshow environment.
I was at the show to check out all the new cars, but I was really curious about the new 6. This was my first time seeing it in person. I ended up being more excited by the SL500 and by extension the SL65AMG- and not because of the power in the AMG (although it is overwhelming at something like 600bhp/ 738ft-lbs!). I was a little bit let down by the 6- the interior was a little sparse feeling. It seemed ďcheapĒ to me. The exteriors of the coupe and cabriolet, shown under the harsh lights of the show, looked just like in the pictures. The intersection of lines and shapes is intriguing; itís a ďcerebralĒ design: you have to really think about it and then it might appeal to you. Contrast that to the SL. Its very easy to look at- itís a beautiful design, with few (if any) awkward angles. The interior feels warmer than the 6, even with the carbon fiber theme in the SL65. I actually didnít press too many buttons inside either SL- but the interiors felt very high quality.
So it was against this backdrop that I managed to get a 1 hour test drive of a 2003 SL55AMG two weeks ago. Color: black/red (I think they call it ďberryĒ). Itís a sharp combination. The red is not as bright as BMW uses for the Z8 interior. Itís more a combination of red and maroon. While I like this combination, were I to spec a SL- I would choose a silver exterior. Walking around the car, I noticed the wheels were the original SL55 spoke design, which I donít think suit the character of this vehicle. While they are 18Ē wheels, the style makes them look smaller. I noticed the tires were Pirelli P-Zeros. I think Mercedes has now changed the stock wheel to the more traditional AMG style on new SLs, and the tire to a run flat design.
While I was waiting for the dealer to get various technical matters sorted out, I took the time to sit in the interior and play with everything. The interior has a very inviting and open sense to it. Everything is covered in leather and I was anticipating a really memorable automotive experience. Then I touched the alcantara covered binnacle cover. It looks great and it looks like it should be touched. Big mistake. It was actually loose! I didnít want to break it, but it seems that thereís nothing attaching it to the dash behind it. It covers the speedo & tach and then flows down to the whole binnacle area beneath it. It seems like if I would extend the steering wheel, I could pull the whole assembly out. I donít know if this is due to some specific problem with this vehicle or if this is the way these cars are built. The dealer was at a loss on this as they are an exotic car dealer and not specifically a Mercedes dealer- he was just as surprised. As you can tell, I was more than surprised, I was really let down by this. My initial thought was that this has to be wrong and there has to be a better way to connect this part. If this is in fact how its connected, it would impede enjoyment of this car for me because it would aggravate me every time I looked at it- and thatís pretty much all the time in this instance. This was a very disenchanting moment.
I turned my attention to the HVAC system. Mercedes uses a rotary dial on the outside with a pop out dial in the middle, with the pop out dial you select air direction and fan speed and with the exterior one you select desired temperature. But I was again disappointed with the material quality, the dials did not feel precise, they sit loosely in the areas they are connected to, and they feel very cheap- the plastic feels very ďbrittleĒ. Worse still, the metallic touches save for the door handles look the part but feel like imitation metal. On one hand, I would hope they are real metal because of the price of the vehicle, on the other hand, if they are really metal, I would think they could do a better job.
So while I like the general ambience of the interior, I was very much turned off by actually touching it.
Contrast that to the Z8 where all the controls are real metal that feel like real metal. The controls are much more simple, but they suit the nature of the Z8. While the Z8ís dash is partially plastic, the material and finish on the plastic can fool you into thinking its something else. Some have complained about this, but it never bothers me. The multi function radio has a tiny 1 bit amber color screen, compared to the much larger one in the SL55. So the Z8s nav system does not show a map, instead it just shows arrows. Some find this troubling, but having to choose between scrolling maps and arrows, Id take the arrows. The SL has more bells and whistles, but Ill take the simplicity of the Z8s interior for the roadster mission.
Before I could start with the SLís electronics, the dealer representative appeared and wanted to pilot the SL out of the lot to some nearby back roads. When he started the engine- the fun began. The sound is really tempting, hinting at more to come when the engine is worked beyond idle. It was deeper, and louder than the Z8 at idle. Its throaty and it makes quite a bellow. To me, it sounds more American muscle car than the Z8 does- and I thought the Z8 sounded like a muscle car! The M5 at idle is relatively quiet, as is the M3. At higher RPMS, the SL55 retains its growl, where as the Z8 also growls, but the higher RPMs bring out some higher frequency sounds than the SL55 provides. The M5 is similar, but quieter. The M3 exhaust sound is much more raspy and metallic. I like it, but there are those who do not. I think all of the vehicles that have exhaust sounds that are tuned to their ďpersonalitiesĒ, and I like them all.
While the dealer was driving, I took the opportunity to play with the passenger seat and its controls. The leather quality is nice and the controls offer more options than a typical BMW seat. One option allowed the seat bottom relative to the seat back to be moved- this is helpful if you are a little shorter or taller. I really liked this setting. As the dealer accelerated I felt something bump into my knees. It was the cupholder. Just like on the Z8, the cupholder intrudes into passenger space. Unlike the Z8 which has the cup mount onto the side of the center column, the SL has the cupholder mount on to the front left corner of the passenger seat. I thought this was an interesting approach since your cup will move along with your seat, but the cup is connected via an arm that swivels- so when the vehicle accelerates, brakes, or corners, the cup will move. I hope there is a way to lock the arm in place, but I could not find any such method. If weíre keeping scores, the cup holder in the Z8 is not much better, as noted above, and the cupholders in the M5 are terrible at holding anything beyond a half-pint of water. The M3 cupholders are the best of the bunch but they force you to flip the center armrest up. Speaking of arm rests, there is no center armrest in the Z8. This never has been an issue for me, but it might be for some.
Before I could really ponder Zen and the art of cupholder integration, we arrived at the road where the dealer could get out and I could drive- which is what really matters. Once I had the seat and mirrors set I gently accelerated off the gravel-covered street.
Did I mention the car makes a nice sound? I love it! It sounded great as I was gently applying more pressure to the throttle. The somewhat vague feeling of the throttle in the SL500 is supplanted in the AMG with a firm pedal that offers more feel. It is much more BMW-like than the Lexus-like sensation I got from the 500. As a matter of fact thatís how Iíd describe the whole initial sensation of driving the SL55 AMG. It is more BMW-like than the SL500, which disappointed me with its Lexus-like driving nature.
As I spent more time behind the wheel I built up more confidence. The SL55 is very fast and has a very strong engine- speed can build effortlessly. While I could not detect much lag from the supercharger, the general sense I got from the engine is that itís not quite the fast-revving engine you would find in the BMWs. Specifically, the blown V8 in the AMG didnít really beg to be driven harder and harder, and it didnít seem to want to pull all the way to the shift point- yet the power was there. Itís happy to do your bidding, but you have to tell it. I donít say ďred-lineĒ because I didnít see one on the tach. The AMG is not a relaxed boulevard cruiser, but the engine just does not feel as vigorous as the BMW engines Iíve had the privilege to experience. By contrast it is much more of a ďbrawnyĒ engine. Itís a subtle distinction between the Mercedes AMG and the BMWs but, the distinction remains none-the-less; just like with the exhaust setups, the character of the engines suits the vehicles well.
Much to my pleasant surprise Mercedes has tweaked their e-brake software so the brake system functions consistently. The most irritating element from my SL500 test drive was the inconsistent performance of the e-brake system. Some times I would have to push very hard on the brake pedal to get any results- other times the system was overly touchy. I figured it was just a matter of proper calibration and fortunately Mercedes got it right on the SL55. Thatís not to say the braking system will be for everyone. It offers a different sensation than most other braking systems. That is a strange ďelectricĒ feeling through the brake pedal- so you could call the feel a bit artificial. Yet the brakes bite nicely and it is easy to modulate the pedal to get just the right amount of braking. And the brakes are strong. The way the dealer described it to me was very accurate: it takes a little while to get used to, but once you do its no problem. Iíd call it about even when rating the brakes between the Z8 and SL55. The brakes on the Z8 are taken from the E38 750 and they have a great balance between initial grabbing and giving you room to modulate them. The M5ís brakes feel a little mushy in comparison, but that is only in their initial application, once you get past that, they feel very reassuring. The M3 brakes are different- they are very sharp, offering a lot of grabbing with just a touch of the pedal, after that you have to push a little harder to get more braking accomplished.
The SLís steering is nicely weighted, and tight feeling- but it does feel a little artificial. There was not much feedback through the steering system except for an electronic/ rubbery feeling at slow speeds when the steering wheel was turned to more extreme angles. The car did not seem to want to follow any road imperfections. Remember, this SL55 was wearing Pirelli P Zeros- not the runflats I think they are using now. The steering is about on par with that in the M5, whereas I think you get a little more feedback from the M5, I actually prefer the slightly heavier weighting of the SL55ís steering (even when the M5 is in sport mode). The M3 has more direct feeling steering, and the Z8 takes that one notch further- and thatís with the Z8 using run flat tires.
I was impressed with the SL55ís suspension. In any mode the suspension offers a nice balance between luxury and sport. It always feels well planted and it soaks up most bumps well. In its hardest setting, which is how I drove it for most of the time, going over a series of small road imperfections and bumps the car did get a little unsettled. Going around a corner in this setting makes the car feel like its skipping over the bumps a little.
The SL55 is heavy and Iíll bet a lot of that weight goes into making it very stiff. Not once did I detect any cowl shake. Taking back road sweepers, the SL55 has a bit of understeer on initial turn in while the vehicle feels light on its feet and quickly settles down. It feels very secure on the bigger sweepers on back roads and on highways. On smaller radius turns the weight of the SL55 becomes very evident. This is most certainly not the vehicle of choice for an autocross.
The Z8 feels lighter- and it is by something like 700lbs. The Z8 feels just as stiff, if not stiffer than the SL- I credit the unique aluminum space frame. For reference, I think the Z8 & SL55 feel a little bit stiffer than the M5 and much stiffer than the M3 cabrio. If the Z8 and SL are a 10/10, the M5 would be a 9 and the M3 would be an 8. All are more than acceptable.
In contrast to the SL55ís brutal GT persona, the Z8 feels much more like a sports car, and it feels faster. Notice I said it feels faster. I think the SL55 is so smooth and even with the top down it insulates you from some of the action, so this is probably just a sense of the Z8 being faster. I am also much more familiar with the Z8- so going by feeling might not be entirely fair. I believe the numbers between the two vehicles are similar, with a slight advantage to the SL55. But roadsters should not be about performance numbers- they are about how they make you feel. In this department, itís not much of a rivalry for me. My first thought upon taking the Z8 through its first turn was: ďthis is sooo rightĒ. Also keep in mind my Z8 is still running on its OEM run flat tires, something that will be remedied shortly.
Airflow around and in the SL55 is well managed, even at highway speeds. Even with no wind deflector deployed allows you to have a civilized conversation, while still hearing the grumble of the exhaust. However, If you donít want your well-maintained coiffure to be put out of sorts, just be sure to deploy the fold away plastic hard top. Of course Mercedes makes this as easy as holding down a button for about 20 seconds. Now the SL is transformed from roadster to coupe, complete with an alcantara-lined header and integrated moon roof! The inside of the plastic top not only looks high quality, it feels it too. As a coupe, the SL55 is quiet. Some of that exhaust note comes through, but you wonít hear much except when you mash the throttle. I found this flexibility to be a very strong selling point. It really is the best of both worlds.
The Z8 uses an insulated fabric top with a plastic rear window. BMW chose this approach to retain the Z8ís styling features. Iím glad they did, as I think the design is a masterpiece, but there are drawbacks to the top. At highway speeds with the top up, there is a lot of wind noise, too much to use the hands free phone at speeds in excess of 60mph. While putting the top down is an automatic experience, but the protective tonneau cover is a manual experience. BMW says installing the cover yourself- ~30 seconds once you are good at it- is a ďbonding experienceĒ with the car in the tradition of classic roadsters. Many call this just a pain in the neck. None of this spoils the Z8 in the least for me, but I can see how this could spoil the Z8 as a daily driver for some.
My interest in the SL55 AMG is not so much as a refined coupe/roadster, but rather as a sports car. And every sports car has got to shift well. The SL55 AMG sports a 5 speed automatic transmission that AMG has tweaked to shift faster in ďshift-tronicĒ mode, and hold gears longer in automatic mode. The shift-tronic can be used through the floor mounted shifter or buttons behind the steering wheel (left for downshift, right for upshift). While Mercedes seems to have made a big effort to make this automatic worthy of being part of a sports car package, it cannot escape the fact that its really just a nice automatic transmission. Shifts are very smooth in automatic mode- there is a little pause before the transmission will downshift. In shift-tronic mode shifts are also a little slow- noticeably slower than the SMG II found in the M3 or the shifts one can achieve via stick shift. I found that I favored leaving the SLís transmission in automatic mode. Mostly because thatís where it seems like what suits the vehicle best, but also the very cheap feeling of the steering wheel shift buttons hinders what should be a positive sensation of signaling for shifts manually. Iím disappointed that Mercedes would not specify a better quality plastic for those buttons, as they are likely to be used frequently.
So the SL55 AMG is a car that nicely builds on its Mercedes heritage by tightening things up quite a bit from the standard model. Although the SL55 is priced competitively to the Z8, it is a very different vehicle. I can understand how someone else would choose it instead of the Z8 as a daily driver though because of convenience elements such as the top, the wind noise and the automatic transmission. The SLís styling, while beautiful, is of the sort that you wouldnít have too much of an issue leaving it in a parking lot or at a parking garage. It is a very nice vehicle, but not one for the ages. The Z8, on the other hand, offers truly timeless styling and a singular driving experience. That makes it a little more difficult to leave in the mall parking lot, but a lot more rewarding to drive than the SL for someone who enjoys driving BMWs.
I think if someone is a long time Mercedes customer or not as sensitive to driving feel as I am they would likely be impressed with the SL55. I was very impressed with the roadster/ coupe nature folding hardtop allows the SL55 to achieve. And the SL55ís ability to achieve speed in locomotive fashion is similarly impressive. Itís a very well done vehicle.
But in the end, the SL55 AMG just does not inspire me the way the Z8 does. The Z8 inspires me whether I am tearing down a back road, cursing on the highway or just standing there looking at it. I am often surprised about how much time has passed while I am simply looking at it in wonder- can people really create something so beautiful? And how did I get so lucky?