Automakers are fond of talking about their “icons.” Some automakers have entire departments devoted to updating their most well-known and beloved products. But only a handful of models really stand up to scrutiny. One of them is the Mercedes-Benz SL.
Today’s sports car traces its roots back to the spectacularly successful race car the German automaker first took to the track in 1952. Two years later, it launched the legendary 300 SL Gullwing. The first roadster version made its debut in 1957 and, through a series of makeovers, has remained the halo car of the entire Mercedes brand for the past 65 years.
But there were plenty of skeptics unsure if the SL would live beyond the outgoing model, considering the sharp decline in sales during the last few years, more and more once-loyal sports car and roadster fans shifting to SUVs, CUVs and, gasp, even pickups.
An all-new SL is making its debut for the 2022 model year. And it’s likely to deliver a shock to SL traditionalists. The eighth-generation sports car not only grows bigger but also replaces the folding hardtop first introduced two decades ago for a power ragtop. The new model also grows longer, providing more cargo space as well as a marginal back seat. And, for the first time, the SL 55 and 63 models gain all-wheel drive, with a performance-oriented version of the Mercedes 4Matic system.
You might also notice that the 2022 edition is rebadged a “Mercedes-AMG,” a clear signal the latest makeover puts an emphasis on performance. It’s now a much truer sports car than the past few generations, while retaining the grand touring level of comfort during long trips.
To get a feeling for what the new sports car has to offer, I spent a day driving an SL 55 from Newport Beach to Palm Springs, spending most of my time on the winding roads carved through the San Jacinto and San Bernardino mountains.
Known inside Mercedes as the R232, the new SL undergoes a long list of changes for 2022. That starts with an all-new aluminum spaceframe. The automaker’s engineers had several key goals in mind as development began, starting with reducing weight and improving aerodynamics.
One readily sees the way the new body has been designed to cheat the wind. There’s a new front splitter and new “wind tunnels” up front to help reduce turbulence both under the body and around the front wheels. Even the door handles now retract to deduct a few counts of wind resistance. Around back, there’s a new pop-up spoiler to increase high-speed downforce.
The eighth-generation SL is larger, as one would expect with the migration to a 2+2 interior layout. That also means more space for cargo, according to Gorden Wagener, Mercedes global design chief.
The grille is larger and now bears 14 vertical slats, a subtle throwback to the original 1952 300 SL racer. New, super-thin headlights round out the nose. Narrow taillights distinguish the back end.
The most obvious change, of course, is the shift to a seamless cloth top. That had been widely anticipated. Despite the pluses of a folding metal roof — including the ability to reduce exterior nose and limit break-ins — the approach added lots of weight and complexity and all but eliminated valuable trunk space.
The new cloth top is taut and appealing in appearance and its three-layer design does nearly as good a job as the old hardtop at holding down road and wind noise. It can open or close in just 15 seconds, with the touch of a single button. And it not only is 67 pounds lighter than the old metal roof, but also results in a lower center of gravity for the SL.
Inside, the most immediate change is the adoption of a 2+2 layout, the first time for an SL. To get real about it, Mercedes admits you’d have to be no more than 4’11” in height to be able to squeeze in back there — if the front occupants were to scooch forward enough to provide any legroom at all. Think of the back bench as a convenient place to load groceries, a computer or a gym bag.
Beyond the back seat, the cabin layout has been markedly updated, with front seats that are more sculptural, with headrests molded into the backrest. They feature the Mercedes Airscarf system — which blows warm air onto the head and neck, extending open-top driving season.
Once you get past the new 2+2 layout, what grabs attention is the “hyper analogue” cockpit, a “fully digital” 12.3-inch instrument cluster, which is integrated into a three-dimensional visor,” Mercedes explains. Then there’s the floating, 11.9-inch touchscreen that floats in front of the instrument panel and can be tilted, as need be to reduce glare when driving with the top down.
The sports car will become a true AMG offering going forward, with two packages at launch, the Mercedes-AMG SL 55 and the AMG SL 63. As is the norm for true AMG models, each engine is assembled by a single worker who stamps his identity on a certificate under the hood.
The “base” SL 55 is powered by a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 punching out 469 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque. Grunt comes on quickly, no turbo lag here, and you’ll launch from 0 to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds. The AMG SL 63 cuts that to an estimated 3.5 seconds by using a revised version of the biturbo engine producing 577 hp and 590 lb-ft. It boasts a top speed of 195 mph.
Both engines get paired with an AMG-tuned 9-speed gearbox. The Speedshift MCT 9G opts for a wet clutch, rather than a conventional torque converter, to improve launches — while also reducing weight.
Some of the most radical revisions to the classic SL formula come on the powertrain side. For one thing, the 2022 sports car marks the first time an SL has come with all-wheel drive — the AMG-tuned version of Mercedes’ 4Matic system standard on both the SL 55 and SL 63. The package nominally puts most of its torque to the rear wheels, but can quickly shift torque to whichever wheel most needs it.
Expect to see the German automaker add an electrified version of the SL, meanwhile. A plug-in hybrid is apparently in the works and will tap into the expertise of Mercedes’ Formula One program. Timing is TBD, Mercedes saying only that the hybrid is “in development.”
Safety and Technology
As with everything Mercedes builds these days, there’s an emphasis on technology. The SL’s “hyper analogue” cockpit features a digital instrument cluster with a simulated 3D display. One of the more interesting features is the 11.9-inch touchscreen that rises out of the center console. It floats in front of the instrument panel and can be tilted, as needed, to reduce glare when driving with the top down.
The SL also gets the MBUX operating system with a voice assistant that immediately wakes up when you say, “Hey, Mercedes.” While it’s not quite as knowledgeable as Amazon’s Alexa, it can operate most vehicle functions using plain English commands. I’ve found the MBUX system to improve with each new model, though it can get funky at times and Mercedes software engineers seem to have buried a number of Easter eggs in the system. Stumped by a question, I had the system once offer the curious response, “I’m the queen of Egypt.”
The new SL adds an assortment of radar, camera and other sensors, primarily to deliver an enhanced package of advanced driver assistance systems. A new “assistance display” in the center console pops up to show you how they’re operating when triggered.
Much of the technology introduced on the 2022 Mercedes-AMG SL is designed to enhance performance. That includes the pop-up rear wing with five preset positions, as well as the new active rear axle steering. The system can angle the back wheels up to 2 degrees in either direction. This approach helps enhance high-speed handling as well as improving maneuverability at lower speeds.
The SL 55 features an active ride handling system to help it stay planted, even during aggressive driving maneuvers. But the real breakthrough is the AMG Active Ride Control suspension found on the SL 63. It does away with the traditional torsion beams, instead introducing a sophisticated — read: complex — system that drives hydraulic fluid left or right, front or back. When cruising, the system can soften your ride. But hammer the SL 55 into a corner and it keeps the wheels firmly pinned to the ground.
The timing of my drive was not especially fortuitous. Heading out from Newport Beach, an unexpected cold front moved in on Southern California. And the drought-plagued region received a rare bath as I started climbing into the mountains that loosely parallel Interstate 10 on the way to Palm Springs.
By the time I reached the 5,000-foot mark, I began facing a mix of dense fog broken up by a mix of drizzle and even some snow flurries. It clearly made it difficult to keep the top down, even with the Air Scarf blowing on the back of my neck. But I was determined to push the new SL 55 as hard as it could safely go. And, if anything, the rough driving conditions revealed plenty about the 2022 sports car.
Some of those roads are difficult to maneuver under even ideal conditions. Yet, the new SL seemed to just hunker down, no matter what I threw at it. The new V-8 was delightfully responsive and, dropping down a gear or two I was able to modulate the throttle like a pro. It proved surprisingly easy to flog the SL around corners without any sense of losing grip. The new rear axle steering clearly paid off when negotiating sharp corners and, at higher speeds, the pop-up rear spoiler kept the back end pinned to the pavement.
The good news came towards the end of the trip, as I started dropping out of the mountains and the weather began to clear up. On dry pavement, the grippy summer tires took handling up another notch.
But settling down into the valley, with lower speed limits and plenty of radar traps ready to nab the careless speeder, the other side of the new SL’s performance came to fore, the sports car transformed itself into the sort of grand tourer I could imagine cruising in for hours on end.
2022 Mercedes-AMG SL 55 specifications:
|Dimension||L: 185.2 inches/W: 75.4 inches/H: 53.5 inches/Wheelbase: 106.3 inches|
|Powertrain||4.0-liter twin-turbo V- engine, AMG SpeedShift MCT9G|
|Performance Specs||469 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque|
There’s a lot to love about the 2022 Mercedes-AMG roadster, whether the SL 55 or SL 63. Despite growing longer it retains a sleek and sophisticated appearance that turned heads everywhere I drove. Realistically, the addition of the back seat doesn’t turn the new sports car into a four-seater. It barely qualifies as a true 2+2, but it does add more useful space to what has traditionally been a cramped interior.
The eighth-generation SL is loaded with useful technology without reaching the overkill level found with some other new Mercedes models, like the 2022 S-Class.
And the powertrain is everything you could want from a car that has the refinement of a grand tourer and the muscle of a sports car.
The real question is whether all this will matter in a market where sports cars and roadsters have all but vanished from the buying public’s consciousness. It would be a shame if the 2022 Mercedes-AMG SL doesn’t regain some of its lost momentum. It truly does live up to the term, “iconic.”
Look for the SL 55 and SL 63 models to reach U.S. showrooms by the middle of this year. Mercedes hasn’t released pricing yet but the “base” roadster is expected to come in at around $100,000 before delivery fees and all the options buyers tend to load up on.
2022 Mercedes-AMG SL 55 — Frequently Asked Questions
How much will the 2022 Mercedes-AMG SL cost?
Final pricing won’t be released until just before the new roadster goes on sale around mid-year, but expect the “base” 2022 Mercedes-AMG SL 55 to come in right around $100,000.
Is the Mercedes SL being discontinued?
That was a question a lot of folks were asking until recently. Demand for sports cars, in general, has tumbled, and sales of the SL have been down sharply in recent years as American buyers have migrated to SUVs and CUVs. But Mercedes sees the SL as a brand icon and is launching an all-new, seventh-generation model with a number of major changes that it hopes will increase its appeal.
Does the Mercedes SL hold its value?
Passenger cars, in general, and sports cars, in particular, have seen values slump as buyers migrate to SUVs, CUVs and pickups. But after taking an initial hit during the first three years of ownership, the SL’s value seems to stabilize. On average, they’ve going for more than 60% of original purchase price after five years. Resale prices have jumped this past year due to the shortage of new and used vehicles caused by COVID and the semiconductor shortage. But that may not last very long.