Mercedes SL Class Driven

Mercedes will disagree, but I think it’s fair to say the famous three-pointed star brand hasn’t been the quickest out the blocks when it comes to lowering emissions and improving fuel economy of its big cars in the last decade. It’s tended to appeal to the middle ground – compared to BMW say – and retain a little more performance, comfort and refinement. Ratcheting down emissions can often mean losing such attributes through smaller engines, adjusted gear ratios and stripping out weight through less noise and vibration-reducing cladding. Greener cars can sometimes also lack a little style with skinny low-rolling resistance tyres, smaller wheels and visually weird aero additions affecting stance and shape.       

The good news for the new SL – now in its sixth generation – is that its engineers and designers have zipped up their boots and gone back to its ‘Super Lightweight’ roots (what ‘SL’ historically stands for) by getting rid of a whopping 140kg compared to the last one. Having extolled its 90% aluminium body already in Green Car Design’s Hot/Not section I now wanted to find out more by driving it.  

Beyond the serious weight loss, the SL has lost the fifth-generation model facelift’s squashed hood and wonky eye look and gained a longer and wider taut new body befitting someone who’s been down the gym. In matte grey metallic in particular the flashy feeling that normally comes as standard driving any new SL – especially a red one – is toned down considerably and morphs into something much more sophisticated. “I may cost circa £80k but I don’t need to shout about it,” you can almost hear it purr.

In SL500 guise the 435hp V8 gives out more of a pleasing burble than a purr but incredibly still records 31.0mpg and only 212g/km of CO2. The SL350 306hp V6 is more amazing still, judged by those criteria, posting 41.5mpg and 159g/km. That’s 12mpg and 47g/km better than the old SL350, or a jump of almost 30%.

Aerodynamics have also played a key role in these great figures, with the new SL350 recording a 0.27 drag co-efficient, making it the most aerodynamically efficient mainstream sportscar on sale, says Mercedes. Quick wins are gained by smoothing the underside of the car with engine covers and through the SL’s relatively long front and rear overhangs but Merc’s aerodynamicist – the superbly named Dr Teddy Woll – says they also managed to improve things by clever adjustment of the A-pillars. Discovering that water pouring off the front screen and onto the side windows was a drag-inducer, Woll’s team created a channel that traps the water and sends it up over the top instead. A groove in the top of the door mirror has a similar channeling role, trapping water coming off the front of the mirror and sending it down to run off the bottom edge instead of back onto the side windows. The nodule that guides the water creates a little drag but is “worth having” says Woll.

Also ‘worth having’ is the experience of driving the new SL. Fast or slow, top up or top down (a smooth 20-second process of whirring glass and metal) the SL is a pleasant place to sit, neither jittery and wanting to go faster when cruising round-town nor wobbly and unstable when working the gearshift paddles on twisty mountain passes. For such a big car it feels very agile, although it’s still a big car to park. Get the valet to do that or own a large driveway.

The quality of the interior is also first class, with propeller-style cold-touch metal-dipped air vents punctuating classy leather and carbon fibre-covered surfaces. Opt for the B&O stereo system with Merc’s patented new FrontBass system – where free areas in the aluminium structure in front of the footwells become seriously large resonance spaces for the bass speakers – and your song of choice, in my case on the test, “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone, becomes transformed. At the climax of the long track it sounded like Nina’s drummer was sitting in the car with us, somewhere between the footwell and the instrument panel I think. Awesome.

In summary then, the new SL is lighter, greener, still high performing, comfortable and more good-looking and sounding than before. Good work. Note to the designers probably about to get started on the facelift though: Please sort the front lights out a bit, they’re okay but needlessly busy and LED-graphic heavy compared to the sophistication of the rest of the car.   

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