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Mercedes SL 63 AMG review (2012 onwards)
Summary: the sportiest SL lives up to its name and becomes a more rounded performance car than ever - and its newfound high-efficiency engine also marks a return to the AMG SL with monstrous pulling power.
We like: superb handling and rewarding drive dynamics, complete performance, torque, on-road confidence, beautiful interior, purposeful AMG styling
We don't like: engine doesn't quite howl like the old model, the odd interior trim creak, ride too stiff for UK roads?, question mark over price...
Love the Mercedes SLS AMG but wish it were a bit more of an all-rounder? Enter the SL 63 AMG, the third AMG generation of Mercedes' defining sports car and, once again, a very different proposition to the car that went before it.
The first AMG SL was a supercharged V8. The next one was a bigger normally aspirated V8. This time, it's a twin-turbo V8, returning to the original SL 55 AMG's capacity and, says AMG product boss Thomas Rappel, "now back to being a torque monster" by supplying that characteristic AMG thrust.
This is actually a byproduct though. The main reason for ditching the old non-turbo 6.3-litre V8 was efficiency. A smaller 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8 is much more efficient, with AMG claiming 30 per cent better economy. Saving money isn't a concern to rich AMG customers, but social awareness is: the SL AMG's newfound eco credentials are important.
As is looking the part. So, over lesser SLs, the AMG gets a more vee-shaped nose with double-bar grille and polished metal centre section to the lower splitter to give striking rear-view mirror differentiation. It's beefier, has quad exhausts and a bootlid spoiler, is 5mm lower and has the usual monster AMG alloys.
Underneath, it's now an all-aluminium structure, a massive 125kg lighter than before. 'Sports light' indeed: even the bootlid is now carbonfibre, with the weave proudly on show when you light the bootlid. The engine is also lighter than before, and a lighter roof gives a lower centre of gravity, which bodes well for handling dynamics.
AMG's suspension tuning stretches to bespoke front struts and wishbones, plus completely revised rear end and ABC active ride software programming. A thorough job indeed, rather than merely an SL with a powerful engine.
Buyers can even choose to have more power for the first time. Despite the 537hp engine having more power than before, an AMG Performance Pack option pushes it up further, to 564hp, and raising the 155mph top speed limiter to 186mph. Expect it to be a popular circa-£10k option...
Being a Mercedes, there's a welter of new acronyms that show the many new features fitted to this latest generation SL. AMG buyers demand an array of added options and Mercedes delivers - there's even a Bang & Olufsen Beosound stereo whose speakers use the cars aluminium structure to boost bass levels. Enough of the options though. What's the core car like?
Torque, how we've missed you. The old SL 63 AMG was exciting, but you had to work for it. This new twin-turbo SL marks a return to the all-rev drive of the original - and now, with 590lb ft@2,000-4,500rpm (or an astonishing 663lb ft with the AMG Performance Pack), there's more pulling power than ever.
This adds completeness. Whereas the old engine needed high revs, this one drives forward, hard, at all speeds: the pull of a really powerful turbo diesel, without the rev limit or high-speed breathlessness. The depths of performance feel enormous, revealed only in part by a supercar-baiting 0-60mph time of 4.3 seconds (again, 4.2 seconds with the AMG Performance Pack).
A fairly long-travel accelerator pedal is a Mercedes trait that fits. Because it's so powerful, this helps modulate the drive very precisely, adding to the effect of the driver controlling limitless reserves of drive. The last fraction of pedal travel gives truly explosive acceleration - the traction control light WILL flash...
Turbo lag is notable for its near-absence. Power doesn't feel artificial as reaction to the accelerator is linear and very progressive: this subtlety of response despite the two great turbochargers is something AMG's engine tuners deserve great credit for.
The noise? Because of the masking effect of the turbos, it's not quite as raw as the old SL 63. AMG has instead maximized the mechanical hum of the engine into an ever-present throb, with a thunderous backdrop of exhausts reserved for high-rev or roof-down driving.
A seven-speed gearbox enhances the noise with snap-cracks on near-instant upshifts and purposeful pops on downshifts (there's even a launch control-style Race Start mode). Four shift settings via rotary dashboard knob is one too many though: leave it in Sport and cure an occasional hesitancy by taking over via solid metal paddleshifts where necessary.
Ride and handling
For a car that AMG says is more sporty GT than outright performance car (that's the SLS), the new SL 63 offers a very engaging drive with beautifully balanced and precise handling. The immediacy of the steering is the key, with fast and linear response giving surprise dynamism to the SL.
This is supported by an agility that makes it feel like a much smaller car on twisting roads. A very grippy front end means it's far more nimble than you'd expect, particularly in the two-setting suspension's Sport mode, which further cuts roll and stiffens the dampers. It has genuine purpose and the wrist-flick agility is very rewarding. Brakes, too, are a feel-packed and powerful treat.
Even the atrocious weather of the launch didn't dampen its abilities. You'd think, with so much power and explosive torque, that this would be a nervous car to drive fast on give-and-take roads. Not a bit. The chassis breeds huge confidence in the driver, not least because of huge natural grip and traction, plus a very well configured and unobtrusive traction control system. It can be turned off - but why would you outside the racetrack?
Sure, the SL 63 AMG doesn't have the intimacy of a sports car like a Porsche 911, and for all its pinsharp accuracy, the steering is a bit short on feel and weighting. But as a high-performance sports car with absolute confidence and assured, precise and tenacious handling (that doesn't require the depth of understanding that the latest BMW M5 does), the new AMG SL is a compelling choice
In keeping with the SL's roundedness, it's also a supreme cruiser, with suspension proving supple yet still poised. Indeed, choose Sport and body control is tightened but without becoming harsh or hard-edged - it's actually satisfying to cruise in this more purposeful mode too.
But despite extremely impressive bump absorption at speed, that shows off the high level of air cushioning from the suspension, the ride can be stiff at lower speeds. The big wheels transmit some potholes with a stiff bang, particularly in Sport mode: we wait to see how it fares on UK roads.
A key AMG cabin differentiator is seats, and what work they've put into these chairs. Striking a impressive balance between being both firmly supportive yet softly comfortable, the shapely and sculpted seats are sublime to sit on, as rewarding as the soft leather is to touch.
Like Bentley with Breitling, AMGs are further differentiated by an IWC clock in the centre of the dash, and there's also a really cool solid metal gearshift lever, bespoke dials and AMG digital readout, carbonfibre trim and a fantastic part-Alcantara steering wheel. Small and chunky, it's a delight to hold.
Being an SL, it is an open top sports car: the folding hard top lowers in 20 seconds. It comes in three finishes - body colour, glass or with the Magic Sky Control of the test car. This brilliantly uses electronic wizardry to change transparency at the press of a button - the deep blue shade tint is wonderful.
The aluminium structure does seem to generate a bit more bump-thump noise inside though, with potholes apparently more audible than they were before. Surprisingly, selecting the stiffer Sport suspension setting also elicited loud creaks from the gearbox lid over rough roads: we'll give early-build benefit of the doubt there.
Economy and safety
The whole reason for ditching the old 6.3-litre engine is fuel efficiency. Good job, at 28.5mpg, it does the business: this remarkable figure is 30 per cent more fuel efficient than before. CO2 emissions are now so low, they even escape the US gas guzzler tax.
Price is another economy factor and we don't yet have UK details. There is a question though: in Europe, it costs the equivalent of £130k - a huge leap over today's car. We await their release with interest. But reassuringly Mercedes does say this is the world's safest sports car. The new all-aluminium structure is super-strung and there's a brace of passive and active safety features.
The MSN Cars verdict
The SL 63 AMG has regained the character that made the original one such a hit - and, in retaining the impressive dynamics of the peaky last-generation car, has become, surprisingly, an extremely well rounded fast sports car choice.
Offering supercar levels of performance and crisply rewarding with it, the noise may be dampened but it's still there, while the range of AMG accouterments make it finally look and feel like a genuine, bespoke cut above too. As easy to live with as all other SL, Mercedes may, with this new SL 63 AMG, have given us the best performance sports car all-rounder in the world...
Engines 5.5-litre V8 bi-turbo
Power, hp 537/564
Torque, lb ft 590/663
0-62mph, secs 4.3/4.2
Top speed, mph 155 (limited)/186 (limited)
MPG, combined 28.5
CO2, g/km/tax 231
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