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Mercedes-Benz SL 63

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Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG
6/10

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Mercedes-Benz SL 63 AMG

Driven March 2008

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My head hurts. And that's OK, you know. Yes we all know Mercedes are meant to be relaxing, loping long-distance cars, and all I've done is drive a Mercedes for 180 miles. But let's just look at the circumstances. In that 180 miles through southern-French mountains and gorges, the fuel tank has completely drained itself. I've done 10mpg.

So my neck muscles are tired from fighting every which way; my ears drummed by the awesome thapp-thrappa-thrappa-bu-bu-bubb of the V8 rattling its sonic reflection off the rock faces as it accelerated and lift-off-backfired through the hills. I kept the roof down to better get the full head-in-the-bass-bins effect - hence the pummeling of wind around my upper body. Result of all that is the headache.

An ailment I want to repeat, please. Pretty please.

I once did a similar drive in an SLR and all I got was a stress headache. The SLR is feral and uncommunicative, and it left me a bit of a gibbering wreck. The SL63 has nowhere near the SLR's raw performance, but I'll bet I was as fast through the corners this morning because the SL63 makes me feel so much more confident and joyously alive.

I always was a fan of AMG's SL55. It's gone now, replaced by the SL63. There's no supercharger here, but the wild 6.3 engine (OK, actually 6208cc) makes good. It also gets an all-new method of transmitting the power between engine and transmission. Oh yes, here we have yet another kind of flappy-paddle device... but it's a good one.

The heart of the Speedshift MCT is Mercedes' seven-speed autobox. Because it's an auto it shifts without a pause, which makes it fundamentally different from sequentially activated manual devices from Ferrari et al - they have to go through neutral. Normally, for starting off and for cushioning the shifts, an auto box has a hydraulic torque converter. Trouble is that's heavy and blurs the sense of connection from throttle to wheels. So the new AMG box does without the torque converter and instead has a multi-plate clutch, programmed to open progressively when you're starting or stopping, and to give a moment of slip to cushion gearchanges. It's the programming of that slip which has defeated previous attempts by others to do the same thing, AMG engineers smugly imply.

How much slip depends on what you select on a rotary knob. ‘C' for comfort makes it slur the shifts like an old-school auto, but go through ‘S' to ‘S+' and finally ‘M' for manual and you get ultra-fast (in fact sometimes fast-beyond-smooth) paddle-requested changes, a nice blip on downshifts and a real sense that the engine has been relieved of a heavy flywheel and just wants a tickle of the throttle to bark up through the revs. And if it wants, well who am I to deny it?

The SL's other technical highlight is kept on: the active Body Control suspension, which uses hydraulic legs to do the work of springs. It means the car doesn't pitch or roll, and because the virtual roll-stiffness is varied front-to-rear according to your speed, you get turn-in oversteer in slow bends so it feels agile, and understeer on fast bends so it feels stable. Sounds like off-putting techno-voodoo, and on some Mercedes it is, but here it actually feels pretty natural while performing the minor miracle of making this two-tonne cruiser dance more-or-less like a sports car. And it does do a fairly good job of disguising the weight. Not quite as good as being without some of the weight, as a drive in a Jaguar XKR will confirm, but a good job anyway.

Normal facelift SLs get Mercedes' ‘direct steering', a rack that gets sharper the more lock you apply. It means you don't have to do much wheel-twirling in town or hairpins, but it also has an odd patch half-way into a corner when it's very unprogressive. So AMG binned it and now uses its own quick but constant-ratio rack. It's nice and predictable and also has a useful bit of feel. Definitely an improvement.

These days any supercar without multiple driver-adjustable parameters is going to get bullied in the playground. So the SL63 has an array of buttons and a little wheel. Between them they allow two suspension modes (in practice little different), four transmission modes, three ESP modes and a launch control. The intermediate ESP ‘sport' is brilliant, giving you a properly lively tail while saving you from yourself. The ‘off' setting means it.

That's the underskin stuff. The facelift you will have noticed for yourself. And if ever the word facelift was apt, it's here. The headlamps' pinned-back perma-surprised look, the widened grille's eerie rictus, the flattened forehead - all have the aspect of someone who has their cosmetic surgeon on speed-dial. No, I prefer the elegance of the old face. But I can see why they've done it. All Mercs are going for a harder-edged, more aggressive look. See it in the CL and the C and the new GLK and CLC, and see it soon in the next CLK and E-Class. Trouble is, with the CLC and now the SL, they've grafted a square face onto rounded flanks, and it sits uneasily.

On top of the standard SL facelift, AMG has done its own work, including a unique bonnet (the standard SL now gets twin power bulges). The AMG front and rear bumpers have blackened centre sections that invoke a racing car's aero devices - but only in the visual sense, for the diffuser gives you not an ounce less lift.

Still, because AMG's special front and rear bumpers are so edgy, they go some way to disguising the curviness of the car beneath, so the AMG is the most successful-looking car in the new SL range. Given the AMG has to go toe-to-toe with metal such as the DB9 Volante, the XKR convertible and the 911 convertible, looking awesome is a prime requirement. And it's not quite there.

The SL63 is also the most successful of the new SLs to drive. But once again, some of the opposition is all but insurmountable. I'd take it over the Aston, and probably over an M6 convertible. But versus a 911 or a XKR? Sorry, but with them around, the AMG can't be pegged far above class average.

On top of that, the SL63 has some pretty desperate sibling rivalry to contend with. First off, that superseded SL55 AMG puts up a strong fight. It had as much power and more torque. And what a noise that supercharged lump made! Maybe not so subtle as the 63, but something to put dents in your memory, and your skull come to that. In the 63, you go for revs, and you can drive it with more finesse, but when there's a sudden change to overtake, the sledgehammer kick of the 55 has gone MIA.

Besides, you won't have to go far to find someone who thinks the old car is the more elegant.

The SL63's other problem is that within the year there'll be a Black Series from AMG. The engineers are putting it on an athlete's diet. It will have a carbon-fibre fixed roof, a carbon-fibre bonnet, and seats that are far lighter than the multi-adjustable pulsating electric fat-bum thrones on the SL63. If the engineers get their way, the heavy - and power-sapping - active suspension will give way to a conventional if loony-hardcore steel-sprung set-up. That will save 10-15 per cent of the weight of the car.

Then there's the question of power. It's possible the Black Series won't get more than the SL63, because it costs a lot to put a new version through the emissions and economy tests. Anyway it'll still have more performance thanks to the weight cut. But AMG people make no great secret of the fact that they can easily find an extra 50-80bhp by straightforward tuning measures like better exhausts.

That sounds like a proper supercar, the car the SL63 isn't quite. Won't be cheap, mind.

So let's not give too much of a kicking to the SL63. It's fast, easy, and fun... and still an SL in that it's a proper Mercedes. Sensible, practical, safe as houses and many times more luxurious than a house - than my house at least. It's also as happy going slowly as it is going fast. I know this because for the final 40 miles of my drive I was pussyfooting, balancing distance to destination on the navigation against distance to empty on the computer, traversing bleak highlands bereft of fuel stations. And then with 30 miles to go the distance to empty abruptly cut to zero and I ran on fumes and pure faith.

But it got me there. Trust, after all, is what Mercs are about.

Paul Horrell

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