2012 Mercedes Benz SL500 Review

Better in every way except for beauty
by Imthishan Giado

If you’re looking for an endorsement for the success of the SL, think about this: Steve Jobs drove a Mercedes SL55 every day to work.

In the last decade, he owned nothing but a long succession of SLs, usually with no licence plate (Google it – there are many interesting theories about how he was able to get away without one for years.) You can sort of see why: the V8 SL is the kind of gift you buy for yourself after a long hard slog, a relaxing grand tourer that comforts, cossets and when needed to, can absolutely slaughter long straights.

And that it’s meant to do. The SL is resolutely not a sports car capable of quick transitions, telepathic handling and race car reflexes. Any attempt to do so in the old SL was met with utter indifference and as I found out, it’s the same with this car.

There’s just one problem. The other thing old SLs were known for is restrained elegance, the kind of unfussy visual simplicity that makes a car like the R107 of the ‘70s still look good nearly 30 years later. Sadly, ‘unfussy’ is not a word you can use to describe the new SL. It’s still got the classic roadster cues – short tail, long bonnet – but the proportions are oddly misjudged. Like the SLS from which it borrows its blunt nose, the central bit of car just looks too long, like the designer had extra pencil lead he just had to use up before finishing this one.

Then there’s the details. The rectangular nose with the classic Mercedes bisected logo simply overpowers the new ‘eagle-eye’ design headlights, making them look too small (they’re not). That’s not the case with the tail, which features massively oversized taillights, as if overcompensating for the tiny front ones. Everything just looks kinda cartoony from the oversized side scoop to the strakes on the bonnet, as if this car swallowed a load of Popeye’s spinach.

Thankfully, the interior remains a very nice place to be, indeed. Yes, there is a bit of SLS here as well – check out those huge cross-vents) but overall it’s a tasteful cabin, with excellent materials and faultless build quality. Everything is clear and easy to operate with simple instrumentation and well-labelled buttons on the dash.

I have only two quibbles. First, there are rather a lot of buttons to deal with, including a full telephone keypad (!), not to mention the too-small Comand wheel at your wrist.  Lexus and BMW have really shown the way forward with their RTI and iDrive interfaces in how to reduce cabin clutter and have a nice clean dashboard that is still functional. Mercedes would do well to ape those designs, rather than listening to those customers who like to feel like they’re operating a 747.

Second – and this is a very small quibble – is the seats. They are very comfortable on both long and short journeys, while adjusting for reach, rake, lumbar and even under-thigh support. But future cars should definitely have an option to omit the power bolsters which hug you a little too firmly on corners. This is no sportscar so why pretend it is one?

Having said that  – a well driven SL500 will still humble quite a few ‘real’ sportscars. Quite incredible that a car that feels like a sofa can still crack 100 in under five seconds, not to mention go on to a limited top speed of 255kph, and feeling plenty robust enough to go on for a bit more! Unsurprising when you consider that it’s got a twin-turbo 5.5-litre V8 under that long motorboat-like bonnet – is it really producing ‘just’ 435bhp? Feels like way more, mostly due to the titanic 516lb ft of torque that pulls you like a Saturn V rocket out of any corner and will take any opportunity to roast the tyres like a marshmallow. Pity the gearbox is only OK; around town it slurs through the gears fine, but ask for quick changes via the column-mounted paddles and it takes over a second to respond – way too slow. Sport mode is better and full Manual better still, but ask yourself – who’s going to drive an SL this way?

This car is purportedly 140kg lighter than the old one but it feels just as hefty as through the bends, turning with all the agility and enthusiasm of a disgruntled ex-circus acrobat. Switching the suspension does nothing more than make the ride worse, while the steering remains old man light rather than race car sharp. And just to complete the effect, the brakes simply aren’t enough to haul this car down from the kinds of speeds this monster motor can achieve. The best way – in fact, the only way – to drive this car is to brake early, roll through the corners without upsetting the back end and get on the power as soon as possible when you reach the apex. Adjusting the attitude mid-corner is difficult with so little steering feedback, and there’s simply too much torque hitting too soon to risk playing with the power.

But criticising the SL for not being agile is a bit like criticising Adele for being a bit needy. The SL is a consummate cruiser, nothing more and nothing less, and we should be glad that it exists for all the old rich fat men of this world, a job for which it excels magnificently. Most importantly, it is in every conceivable way an improvement on the old car: it rides better, goes harder, cossets more and boasts great toys like that ‘Magic Sky’ roof that changes tints at the press of a buton. And while I may not get the looks now, who knows? Once I cross the big 5-0, it’ll all probably make sense.

Thanks to Gargash Mercedes for the loan of their SL500 for this test. 

2012 Mercedes SL500
Price: AED465,000 ($126k)
Engine: 5.5-litre, twin-turbo V8 bhp 435bhp @ 5250rpm, 516lb ft @ 1800rpm
Performance: 0-100kph 4.6seconds, 255kph
Transmission: Seven speed auto, rear wheel drive, front-engined
Weight: 1790kg

 

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