The lovely Larkin Hill, Mercedes-Benz
USA's media relations representative for the West Coast, promised me that I had quite a nice surprise at the San Francisco airport for my drive down the coast to the Monterey Peninsula for the 2008 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. She was right, as a sparkling silver, 2009 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG roadster was waiting for me at the Park n' Fly near SFO. I loaded my luggage into the SL's spacious trunk, slathered my face with SPF 55, lowered the power-folding hard top, set the navigation system for the Lodge at Pebble Beach, and headed south on the 101. This, I thought, is not a bad way to start my Pebble weekend.
The SL55 makes way for the SL63
I first saw the SL63 last December at AMG headquarters in Affalterbach, where a small group of American journalists were given a sneak peek of the car that was to replace the infamous SL55 AMG, the most successful AMG-badged Mercedes in the four-decade history of the tuning house. More than any other vehicle, the SL55 had cemented AMG's reputation for transforming Mercedes-Benz luxury cars into high-performance Mercedes-Benz luxury cars, ones that bristled with the sort of rubber-melting power and heart-on-the-sleeve attitude that previously had not been associated with Mercedes-Benzes. The SL55 was particularly popular in America, where half of the 21,000 SL55s built from 2001 to 2007 were sold. In fact, the SL55 helped make California AMG's most important sales market in the world; twice as many AMG cars are sold in the Golden State as in all of Germany.
In the spring of 2002, I participated in an Automobile Magazine comparison test wherein the new SL55 acquitted itself quite smartly in the company of a Lamborghini Murcielago, an Aston Martin Vanquish, a Porsche 911 Turbo, and a Ferrari 550 Maranello, most of which cost twice as much as the Benz. The SL55's supercharged V-8 was bursting with energy, the car looked great and handled well, and it had a great exhaust note that reverberated through the narrow streets of the northern Italian villages of the Emilia-Romagna region. The SL63 AMG, then, has a big reputation to live up to.
This is not your everyday Mercedes-Benz SL
AMG'S styling modifications to the newly face-lifted stock SL roadster might not be to everyone's liking, but they effectively broadcast the SL63's sporting intentions. Aside from the AMG, double-five-spoke, light alloy, nineteen-inch wheels, the SL63 is known by its huge rear center-mounted air diffuser, flanked by twin chrome tailpipes at each corner; a trunk lid spoiler; and a rather menacing looking, black mesh front apron. Then there are the big "6.3" badges on the front fender vents. Even during the Pebble Beach Concours weekend, when the Monterey Peninsula is crawling with thousands of Ferraris, Bugattis, Lamborghinis, Rolls-Royces, and other new and old exotic automobiles, the SL63 AMG was the object of constant attention, admiration, and cocked cell phones, from people of all ages.
No penalty box, this
The interior of the SL63, like those in all SL models, is very comfortable and spacious for a two-seater. Lidded storage boxes behind the seats, commodious lidded door cubbyholes, and a lidded center console cavity provide plenty of room for in-cabin gear. Even when the roof is down, the trunk has enough space for a couple of carry-on roller suitcases. When you pop open the trunk lid, the stowed roof panels automatically lift out of the way to allow you to easily access the trunk contents, a feature that we've liked in the SL for years.
My test car was fully kitted out with every conceivable option offered by Mercedes and AMG, including heated and cooled sport seats, AMG premium leather, carbon fiber interior trim, and a great ten-speaker Harman/Kardon stereo-nearly $28,000 in options, believe it or not. Unfortunately, the SL does not get the same intuitive control knob for its navigation and entertainment screen that you find in the S-class and C-class sedans, and I could not manage to get Bluetooth to work for my Razr cell phone. California has a new law prohibiting the use of cell phones without a handsfree device, so Sirius satellite radio and the crackly exhaust note constituted my audio entertainment.
With AMG, it's always all about the powertrain
This is the first time that AMG's new, normally aspirated, 518-hp, 6.2-liter V-8 engine, which began trickling into the Mercedes lineup two years ago, has been installed in the SL roadster. This also marks the debut of AMG's new 7-speed Speedshift transmission with comfort, sport, sport-plus, and manual modes, all of which are controlled but round buttons located to the left of the gearshifter. The significance of this transmission is that it uses a new wet start-up clutch rather than a traditional automatic's torque converter. AMG says that the car offers 30 percent faster shift times than the AMG 7G-tronic transmission. The transmission also blips for downshifts when it is in manual mode, just like in a Ferrari.
I played around with the four drive modes over the weekend and found that I liked sport-plus and manual best. In sport-plus, the shift times are plenty quick, the engine revs to redline in each gear, and off-the-line acceleration is lightning-fast. It was easy to lay a little rubber, too, although I have to admit that I drove conservatively all weekend, because the Monterey Peninsula was crawling with cops and I figured I was a magnet for them in this car. Manual mode is quite entertaining, too, but I always find myself forgetting that I'm in it, and end up lugging the engine at redline in first gear before remembering that I need to bang the gear lever sideways to upshift. Shift times lived up to AMG's billing, and the shift action itself is very crisp and direct.
Straight-up comfort mode is fine for freeway cruising, but when the transmission is simply in Drive, there is not enough oomph for passing. People who want instantaneous torque whenever they mash the accelerator might be a little disappointed in the SL63, as it doesn't offer the locomotive-like torque of the twin-turbocharged, V-12 SL65. No surprise, that; it's the same with all Mercedes 63 AMG models. But that's why AMG installed such a cool new transmission; you just have to learn to make it work for you. Trust me, there is nothing arduous about this learning process.
Is it a true sports car?
The SL63 AMG is certainly more than just a luxury roadster, and unlike some previous AMG efforts, its chassis tuning is as impressive as the powertrain. As part of the $24,275 "Launch Edition" options package, it boasts a specially tuned version of Mercedes-Benz's ABC (active body control) suspension system that keeps the car very flat when you throw it into a corner. When you set the suspension to sport mode, chassis responses become noticeably more taut, but ride comfort does not unduly suffer. The car has decent steering feel, even if it's not quite up to Porsche's standard. The SL63 is really a very livable, grand touring super-roadster, one that someone who's tired of sitting on the waiting list for a Ferrari F430 Spider could quite enjoy.
2009 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG Roadster
Base price: $132,000
P88 Launch Edition, $24,275: "Silver Arrow" metallic paint, premium red leather upholstery, designo black piano lacquer wood trim, heated and active ventilated multicontour seats, airscarf, panorama roof, parktronic, keyless go, electronic trunk closer, smoke-color headlamps and taillamps, 19-inch AMG twin-five-spoke forged light-alloy wheels, AMG limited-slip differential, AMG track-calibrated active body control (ABC) suspension system, AMG compound braking system, AMG performance steering wheel, top speed 186 mph
Destination and Delivery: $875
Gas Guzzler Tax: $2600
Total Retail Price: $159,750
518-hp, 465-lb-ft, 6.2-liter V-8
0-to-60-mph time: 4.5 seconds (manufacturer figure)