With its first model, Mercedes-Benz entered a rarefied realm of performance, aided by new safety standards that required helmets for drivers and passengers on highway speeds and a proliferation of hard-pressed rubber on country roads.
The result was a complete revolution in the sports-utility vehicle marketplace. The fastshifting SL-Class SUV, an ambassador for not just the G-Class but the SL55 AMG as well, took the formula from its country-road roots and built on it with a thirst for power and handling. It even had a low overhang — the safest place to park an SUV — to keep occupants from having to sacrifice as much view as we did from parking outside. It took guts — and a 6.0-liter V-12 engine.
More than seven decades later, the SL550 is still on the scene. It’s powered by an AMG 5.5-liter twin-turbocharged V-8, with what is essentially a backup diesel generator. The only other reason to drop down in price to the mid-$70,000s is the bonus of adding the famously low CO2 emissions.
In all of the previous SL sedans and SUVs, we’re dealing with some very old technology. In this case, though, performance actually matters. The SL550 hasn’t lost the feel for that spirited acceleration while understeer and rear-end slide have not morphed into full-blown shenanigans. And there’s ample storage space around the front seats for carrying belongings for long weekend trips. With three rear seat passengers, there’s often two in back; the downside here is you need to choose between a veritable shebang in the trunk and an uncomfortable commute. If there are allergies, kids and/or pets in the equation, you’ll want to think about a dedicated hatchback to maximize space and reduce transmission wear.
The main difference for the new SL variant (that’s called a “second-generation” SL on the Merc Web site) is the redesigned rear end. That doesn’t mean the tacked-on fact-for-fact exterior is unique. Car manufacturers try to unveil different and inventive designs in display programs for car shows; there’s also ample opportunity to have your own hand-drawn creation photographed, built and put in a showroom. Those who follow car design often start out with sketches and then build, or art-directed, replicas.
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For our part, we worked with Mercedes-Benz to keep the design consistent throughout the development process. We’ve personally seen some of the preliminary sketches, some of which come across as very elegant, elegant things. The car is very close to what our current concepts (from 2004) did. There will be some slight changes here and there along the way, in connection with upcoming products. Even so, it still feels very uniquely Mercedes-Benz — a modern, 3-D vision of the next generation of the G.
On the track, the AMG V-8 can shed to 300 pounds, but the discrepancy here is there is no AWD, so the car can be driven while in the car’s straight-line slalom mode. Most AWD autos in this segment pull to about 40 mph uphill in SL mode with 1 second left in their response time. That’s impressive.
The regenerative braking that comes with the SL’s high efficiency package is nicely accentuated. In SL mode, you can cruise at 75 mph on the highway and still feel the acceleration almost immediately. I never quite saw the 6.0-liter turbo V-8 on regular highways, but it did have an enormous amount of horsepower under acceleration, where a V-8 normally would be lacking.
So, what about performance from the stoplight? Like I said, the SL550 didn’t win any new automotive races. The sleek design was perfectly pleasing. But the reality is the SL550 hasn’t come to mainstream sports-vehicle status through some big changes in suspension technology. In other words, it’s a clock-meeter, not a 1:1 mover.
That said, in this market, speed remains the key to sales, so yes, the SL550 represents the majority of the G-Class segment’s marketing material. It’s not about puritanism and squeamishness about a booming engine, unless of course you’re a member of an anti-anything audience. Don’t put that snob hat on, ladies and gentlemen.