70 years after the 300 SL’s debut, the “Sports Car of the Century” is back to reclaim its crown.
On March 12, 1952 Mercedes-Benz unveiled the brand-new 300 SL, a “thoroughbred racing sports car” whose lettering referred to its “super light” construction, to the international press on a stretch of motorway near Stuttgart, Germany.
Just a few weeks later, Mercedes began entering the groundbreaking car in competition; in its very first year, it won (among others) an incredible one-two victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans; the first four places in the Nürburgring Grand Jubilee Prize for sports cars; and a double victory at the Carrera Panamericana, the famous 1,900-mile race across Mexico. A new legend was born.
Customers were soon clamoring for a production version of the unbeatable racer, and in 1954 Mercedes debuted its now-iconic 300 SL Coupé, aka the “Gullwing,” as as well as the 190 SL Roadster. In 1999, the Gullwing, which was replaced by the equally-coveted 300 SL Roadster in 1957, was voted “Sports Car of the Century” by a jury of the world’s top motoring journalists, a claim few would dispute.
In the following decades other SL’s would also make history, among them the “Pagoda” (1963-1971), and its successor the R 107 (1971-1989), which remained in production for 18 years and is emblematic of the era’s best automotive design; all of them roadsters. And the R107’s successor, the R129, best known in 500SL form due to its sculptural wedge shape.
Now in the SL’s “decades-long development history from full-blooded racing car to open-top luxury sports car,” as the marque puts it, a new milestone is being set. Now under the aegis of Mercedes-AMG, the brand’s famed performance division, for the very first time, the new SL roadster just made its debut in Palm Springs, California.
Combining “the race car genes of the original SL and the sportiness of AMG with the unique luxury and technological excellence that characterize modern Mercedes models,” it’s set to begin a new chapter in the story of a true automotive icon.
In its newest form, the SL returns to its roots with a classic soft top and the sports-forward characteristics we’ve come to expect from any vehicle bearing the AMG badge. At the same time, it now comes in a 2+2 seating configuration and is equipped with all-wheel drive for the first time, making it an eminently-suitable daily driver. Two new SL’s with AMG V8 engines kick off the model’s market launch, the SL 55 and SL 63.
Rob Moran, Mercedes-Benz’s Director of Corporate Communications, declared that California was the perfect setting: “I think it’s really fitting that we’re doing this event in California, because if you look to the original lineage of the SL… it was really the strong demand from our customers in California who wanted something other than the Gullwing, [who] put this car on the map as the first SL Roadster starting in 1957.” California has always been a leading market for SL models as well as AMG-enhanced Mercedes cars in general.
Gorden Wagener, Chief Design Officer for Mercedes parent Daimler Group, also traces the SL’s lineage in a direct line from the 300 SL to the brand new incarnation. “With the new SL, we have created a repositioning of the iconic SL design,” he says. “The expressively-modeled exterior conveys a light and purist impression and brings sensual beauty and extravagant design into perfect harmony.” Philipp Schiemer, Chairman of the Board of Management of Mercedes-AMG GmbH, adds that, “The high-quality combination of analogue world and state-of-the-art digital equipment makes it clear that the new SL is the rebirth of an icon for the modern era.”
And Jochen Hermann, Chief Technical Officer of Mercedes-AMG GmbH, notes that, “When we were tasked with the overall development of the new SL, we were able to start from scratch without building on an existing structure”—the very first SL to be completely developed by Mercedes-AMG—yet while honoring the model’s important legacy. “Not a single component comes from the predecessor SL or any other model such as the AMG GT Roadster,” the marque points out. The very first SL was also a “clean sheet” design of course.
“The exterior design fascinates with a perfect triad,” points out Frank Emhardt, Chief Engineer SL for Mercedes-AMG. “It combines the modern Mercedes-Benz design philosophy of ‘Sensual Purity’ with the sportiness typical of AMG and characteristic details. The two ‘power bulges’ on the bonnet are just one of numerous reminiscences of the first SL generation. The interplay of light and shadow makes the overall appearance visually light and low. So it is clear at first glance that the new SL has returned to its sporty roots.”
Characteristic features of the body design, according to the men and women who created it: “the long wheelbase, the short overhangs, the long bonnet, the passenger compartment set back with a strongly raked windscreen, and the powerful rear end,” resulting in classic SL proportions.
“Together with the voluminously sculpted wheel arches and the large alloy wheels flush with the outer skin, they give the roadster its powerful, dynamic appearance. When closed, the seamlessly integrated soft top underscores the purist, sporty impression.”
The AMG-specific radiator grille with its 14 vertical slats is a direct reference the ancestor of all SL models, the legendary 300 SL racer of 1952. Other distinctive exterior design elements include the slim, sharply outlined digital LED headlamps and the extremely slim LED rear lamps. The dramatic effect of the lighting is especially apparent at night. Inside the car, an Ambient Light system can bathe the exclusive interior in 64 different colors.
The pulse-quickening interior meanwhile is centered on a “hyperanalogue” cockpit, an “exciting combination of analogue geometry and the digital world,” exemplified by the fully-digital instrument cluster, integrated into a three-dimensional visor, of course fully focused on the driver. The state-of-the-art MBUX infotainment system, intuitive to operate and capable of learning, offers a choice of five display modes to suit your mood and driving style.
MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) is not only “intuitive to operate” but “capable of learning.” The 12.3-inch central touchscreen is the command center for most of the new SL’s advanced functions, including operation of the soft top, which takes only about 15 seconds and is possible up to a speed of 37 mph. The touchscreen provides a virtual progression of the top’s deployment while in progress.
Customers can choose from single or two-tone Nappa leather for the interior, particularly with diamond stitching, or a sportier combination of Nappa leather with Dinamica Race microfibre and contrasting topstitching in red or yellow. “The functional and visual centre of the center console is the metallic panel that breaks through the leather surfaces at the front and rear,” lending a racy atmosphere as well.
At market launch, the new SL is available with one of two variants of the AMG 4.0-litre V8 biturbo engine, assembled entirely by hand at the company’s famed HQ in Affalterbach, Germany according to AMG’s “One Man, One Engine” principle. In the top model SL 63 4MATIC+, the engine develops 585 hp and provides a maximum torque of 800 Nm. Accelerating from 0 to 62 mph takes only 3.6 seconds, while the top speed is 196 mph. And in the SL 55 4MATIC+, the V8 is good for 476 hp and a peak torque of 700 Nm, while the dash from 0 to 62 mph takes 3.9 seconds, and the top speed is 183 mph.
We got to trial all of the above on a test drive from the stylish Lido House in Newport, CA to the Parker Palm Springs, one of the coolest resorts in all of California. At the Parker, Mercedes formally introduced the new SL at a VIP event where it was showcased alongside every generation of its forbears, starting with a meticulously-restored 300 SL Roadster from Mercedes’ private collection. Carving through canyons and whipping around winding country roads, before emerging into the cactus-strewn desert that surrounds Palm Springs, the SL handled everything we threw at it, and asked for more.
The route was what the organizers like to call “dynamic” and the driving what we like to call “spirited.” The combination really showed off the technical underpinnings that are bound to help make this new SL immensely popular: AMG Active Ride Control suspension with active anti-roll stabilization; rear-axle steering; (optional) AMG ceramic high-performance composite brakes; and of course the all-wheel drive system, to name the most prominent among them.
And by day’s end we were fully in agreement with Mercedes-AMG that this is “the stuff that automotive dreams are made of.”