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Mercedes-Benz SL review (2007-2008)
It can't be mere coincidence that Mercedes rejuvenates its SL roadster at the very same time that Jaguar launches its all-new XK. The Jaguar is a key rival, especially in the States where the SL has, until now, outsold the British car by two to one
We know how good the Jaguar is from our extensive drive in Cape Town in January, so will the changes to the Merc be enough for it to retain its crown? The visual differences are subtle enough to be overlooked. The bumper gets a more pronounced 'v' shape, bigger air intakes, a matt silver grille and chrome on the fog light surrounds. There are some new alloys and different rear light lenses. Inside it even harder to tell: some new colours, softer leather and a revised switch for the roof. Wow.
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But it's beneath the skin that the changes really count. Out go the 3.7 V6 in the SL 350 and the 5.0 V8 in the SL500. In come Mercedes' superb new 3.5 V6 and 5.5 V8. Though the models still have the same badging, there's a big difference. The SL 350 now has 272bhp, an increase of 27bhp, while the V8 has a storming 388bhp, up 26% over the old car. The suspension and steering have also been upgraded and there's Mercedes' 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission.
These are the "affordable" SLs, costing £63k and £75k respectively. You'd think at this price that you were buying a complete car but no, there's an option list as long as your arm which means that the final price is likely to be at least 10% higher. More, if you choose one of the "Designo" option packs that add unique colour schemes and special leather. Mercedes has even worked out a way to skim granite from a solid block so thinly that it can be curved to form the panel around the gearlever. Pity it ends up looking like a kitchen work surface from MFI.
Still, the SL is an enticing proposition. The new V6 is a treat, and if you never drive the more powerful models you'll probably been sublimely happy. The automatic transmission will flick up and down the gears, always ensuring that you are in the right rev range for your driving style. The performance is subjectively impressive when you are cruising around, but the real difference comes when you press on. Where the old SL 350 sounded harsh when you tried to get the most out of it, the new 3.5 V6 is silky smooth right through the rev range. We threw is around mountain roads in Mallorca and even on steep climbs there was ample urge to have fun. Sometimes there is more satisfaction to be gained from extracting everything from a smaller engine than merely getting 70% from a more powerful one.
The new paddle shift gearchange help. The gearbox gives you three choices of programme. "Comfort" changes up early to keep things as refined and economical as possible, "Sport" hangs onto the gearchanges longer and "Manual" gives you control of those seven gears by flicking the paddles behind the wheel. It works well and adds another dimension to the car, though no surprise, you pay extra for the paddle shift on the SL350.
Jumping in the SL500 immediately after the SL350 is a fiscally dangerous proposition, for you are sure to lust after the more powerful car. The 5.5-litre V8 positively howls when the throttle is floored, a sensation that's best experienced with the roof down. 388bhp is no mean slug of horsepower either, making this version not only significantly faster than the SL350 but the old SL500 too. Mercedes' own version of active suspension (another option) is called ABC. It allows the driver to choose between a comfortable or stiffer sporting suspension setting and has been recalibrated to cut down on pitch and roll by up to 60%.
It's rather good, and along with the slightly sharper steering, the revised SL tackles most corners with utter stability and security. There is a downside to all this technology. Slicing up a tortuous mountain road, through endless hairpins, it wasn't long before we tired of the power being cut back as we left every corner. The German manufacturers' neurosis with safety rather took the edge off the enjoyment. You can of course, switch off the traction control, which gives you a bit more of an envelope to play with, but it takes some nerve.
Style over function
Not that, we suspect, this is the sort of driving SL owners indulge in. This is a California car through and through, a car where style and the Mercedes badge overrides everything else. The SL succeeds here as well as ever. It's comfortable, roomy for two and has that fabulous steel roof that folds away into the boot. For many, that is enough to swing the balance over other rivals, including the gawky Lexus SC430, the only one with a similar roof.
The revised SL is even more desirable than ever. It still looks sharp, it has some much improved engines, the chassis developments have made it better to drive without compromising comfort and there's no arguing about that roof. It is, though, very much a two-seater Mercedes rather than a real sports car. Sitting inside, the fascia could have come from any of half a dozen Mercedes saloons or coupes. That's where the Jaguar scores, with a more focussed sporting approach, an even better gearchange and a more enveloping interior. Surveys seem to show that Jaguars are better built too, so it won't all be plain sailing for Mercedes.
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