Mercedes-AMG SL63 review: is the 577bhp V8 drop-top 2023’s most confusing car? Reviews 2023 | Top Gear
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Mercedes-AMG SL63 review: is the 577bhp V8 drop-top 2023’s most confusing car?

£169,305 when new
Published: 24 Feb 2023


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SL63 – that’s the fastest Mercedes-AMG SL you can get, right?

For now, yes: this £173,000, 577bhp-strong V8 is the flagship. There’s talk of it being usurped by a hybrid version soon, lifting output beyond a dizzy 800bhp.

I wouldn’t bother, if I was working at AMG. Partly because more power is not something the hugely fast SL needs, but mostly because my resources would be better spent defining what exactly the new SL is trying to be. No-one at is quite sure.

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A super-GT luxury sports car, right?

For a few decades, the SL’s been a cruiser. A boulevarding, origami-roofed golf chariot – and that’s fine. It knew its audience, played the hits, and everyone went home happy in their plaid trousers. The AMG’d 63 versions had a naughtier edge to them – and would slay tyres like Affalterbach’s best if poked – but they weren’t pointy, aggressive sports cars. An SL was a pleasure yacht, not a jet-ski, if you catch my drift. Check out this review of the old SL63 from 2016. That was a car that knew its role in life.

That was back when AMG had to schport-ify the SL after Mercedes had finished designed it. Now the whole car is AMG’s own work. It shares a fresh platform with the incoming AMG GT, the bulky folding metal roof is gone, and well, just look at it. Hunkered down on its 21-inch wheels, toothy face snarling with menace. Shock, horror: the boot’s a tad pinched for golf clubs. The tone is set for a very different kind of Sport-Leicht.

Wait, are those back seats?

Not ones a human could realistically sit in. But it is odd: Mercedes has very deliberately tried to morph the SL into an unapologetic sports car, then stuffed in token rear chairs. 

Top Gear Mercedes SL

The front thrones still massage your knotty back as you rumble about, while wafting comforting warm air around the nape of your neck. So there are still hints that this car is a big woolly jumper, for people who like wearing big woolly jumpers.

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However. No-one over the age of 15 has a cat in hell’s chance of operating the SL’s disastrously unhelpful interior. It’s like a greatest hits compilation of everything we detest about modern car cabins. Fiddly touch-sensitive pads on the quad-spoke steering wheel? Check. All major functions entrusted to a fingerprint-smeared touchscreen? Oh yes. More ambient lighting options than helpful features? Ja.

The very fact Mercedes has motorised the touchscreen to change angle depending on sun glare should’ve hinted to headquarters they were engineering their way out of a design dead end. The screen gets worryingly hot even on a brisk winter’s day – those processors are working really quite hard to do the job a button would be better at.

Then there’s the driver’s instrument screen. Eight different displays to choose from. Above, seven varieties of head-up display. It’s bafflingly complicated and – criminally – makes the SL feel cheap inside. Instead of knurled metal switchgear, it’s red-hot pixels.

Even popping the roof down is accomplished by operating a ‘slide to unlock’ style gimmick in the touchscreen. If your hand is momentarily deflected as you drive along, the roof operation stalls. After two days I accidentally discovered you can double-press-and-hold the roof button to move the roof. Does the 11.9-inch screen find space to tell you this hack? It does not.

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How Mercedes-Benz – the one-time standard-bearers for all that was tasteful and sensible – got themselves into such a mess with tech-obsessed design is anyone’s guess. An irrational desperation to copy Tesla, perhaps? Either way, the minimalist purge of common sense inside comes close to ruining the SL.

Top Gear Mercedes SL

Be fair – all this tech is found in an S-Class as well. And you like the S-Class.

Indeed, but an S-Class is an easy-going deluxe barge. The SL63 is a missile. When you’ve got almost 600bhp and 600lb ft of torque on tap, Ferrari-quick steering in your hands and an alarmingly firm ride under your bum, it’d be nice to feel like the interior hadn’t been set up like an escape room, brimming with puzzles, calculated frustrations and devious dead-ends.

All sounds quite fraught…

Forget what you thought of SLs gone by. This new one is a very different sort of car. I’m just not sure what the result actually is…

It’s certainly not a GT car: there’s more road noise from the phat tyres, and the soft-top isn’t as well insulated as a Bentley Continental GTC’s thickset canvas toupee. It’s also far too firm to be a cruiser. It’s as though AMG was so proud of how stiff the new SL’s aluminium structure is, it wanted to show off how taut it could make the ride as a result. And in our 800-mile-old test car, there was a prominent trim rattle inside.

Even in Comfort mode the SL63 is busy, and dialling it up through Sport to Sport Plus pours quick-setting concrete into the dampers. AMG’s debuting a new McLaren-style anti-roll bar free system on this car, employing cross-linked hydraulic lines to ensure control and support while supposedly allowing a more fluid ride.

Isn’t that what you love about McLarens?

Yes, it’s the sort of tech that makes a 720S ride like a Rolls-Royce, but the SL is fidgety and distracted. Fitting hyperfast wrist-flick steering with no feel or feedback only increases the sense the car’s being bullied by the road, instead of breathing with it.

So it’s too frenetic to be a loping grand tourer, too disjointed to be a Porsche 911-rivalling sports car, and too complicated to be operated by any Earth-borne biological organism. In character then, it’s ironically close to the old AMG GT.

Perhaps the SL is best thought of as a replacement for the raucous old AMG GT Roadster. Fine. Gotcha. Except, why badge it as an SL? That adds baggage and a history this car is totally at odds with.

Is it actually just a big, expensive, very well-equipped muscle car?

Yes and no. The powertrain is bloody magnificent: the 4.0-litre bi-turbo V8 is a thunderous, responsive masterpiece, bellowing and gargling while pelting for the horizon like it’s got 650, maybe 700 horsepower. The short-ratio nine-speed automatic gearbox is polite in the background and then sharp and obedient when you click the chunky metal paddles. Don’t come anywhere near the SL63 if you’ve only got the budget for the 469bhp SL55 – this is the powertrain you’ll yearn for.

But no, it’s not an old-school AMG yob. There’s now four-wheel drive as standard, so traction is mighty even in the wet, yet the big-bonneted SL doesn’t feel nose-heavy as it piles through a bend. It still needs some respect if you’re going to loosen off the safety systems – weirdly easy to do, thanks to shortcut toggles hanging from on the steering wheel. Hurrah – a physical button at last!

Mercedes has made a habit of this kind of thing, right?

Building cars that only seem to compete with each other? Yes, it’s a Benz tradition this century. Riddle me why Mercedes makes an A-Class saloon and the CLA. Or the CLS and the AMG GT 4-door. It looked like the self-owning would cease, with Mercedes recently realising the C-, E- and S-Class coupes and cabrios could all be replaced by one upcoming ‘CLE’ two-door.

But now there’s a fast and furious SL63 which seems to leave no clear space for the AMG GT to slot into. If the SL was more obviously spacious, or more relaxed, you’d understand where it sat in the line-up. If it’s meant to be the GT’s drop-top twin, why badge it as an SL?

Strange car, then?

The SL63 is one of most confusing enigmas of recent years. In the ‘love it’ column: the engine, the gearbox, the turbofan air vents and the seats. In the ‘kill it with fire’ section goes the interior and the chassis.

The car never really gels. Maybe it’s not meant for British roads – it certainly doesn’t seem to have spent any development miles here. Maybe it’ll make more sense when the AMG GT lands. But for now, Mercedes-AMG has taken one of its most iconic, historic badges, and applied it to a car that doesn’t know quite what it wants to be. And the SL legend deserves better.

Photography: Johnny Fleetwood

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