Aston Martin is celebrating its 100th anniversary with the CC100 – but it’s not the first to do this…
What – Mercedes SL63 AMG
Where – Bruntingthorpe airfield
Price – £102,075
Available – Now
Key rivals – Audi R8, Porsche 911, Aston Martin Vantage
Does the driver-focused transformation of the latest SL extend to the track? We escape the rules of the road to find out...
Likes: classic handling feel, amazingly driftable for a Merc, linear and delectable engine
Dislikes: requires patience to quell understeer, relatively peaky torque profile, very heavy
It was too easy to miss the old SL55 AMG alongside a standard SL280 with big wheels. Not any more. The revised-for-08 SL range sees the old 5.4-litre V8 substituted for AMG's mighty 6.2-litre unit; at 525bhp, it's the most powerful non-turbo V8 in its class. Ignition on, the instrument needles flick round, but it's the rumbling exhaust's bark that's most exciting. However, now, onlookers will be less surprised. They'll have already clocked the front apron, black grille, larger cooling intakes and AMG bulges on the bonnet.
19-inch wheels shield burly AMG brakes, and the Merc-owned tuning firm has also fitted its own side slits, rear diffuser and spoiler lip. It looks fantastic, the best new SL of all. It seems to suit the harder-nosed, chiselled look that replaces the old version's elegance.And what better place to sample it than a track. We've driven it in the US already where, like over here, you don't stand a chance of fully testing its Porsche 911 Turbo-shaming power. To the race circuit then, for no-holds-barred fun - and to see how much of a sports car the 'Sports Light' really is.
On the track, those yearning for the old SL55's low-down supercharged grunt will have less to fear. Yes, it takes more revs to build its 525bhp crescendo but, on the circuit, it's easier to maintain those high revs. Particularly with the new, brilliant, seven-speed AMG auto. Unique to this car, a proper direct-drive clutch replaces the trad torque convertor, for immediacy, startling shift speeds and a directness like no other two-pedal. It has four modes, with differing levels of auto-ness; hit high revs and the dials blink red, demanding a tug on the paddle-shifter. You feel just like Hamilton.
Besides, it's relative. This is a very fast car, hitting 60 in 4.6 seconds and, officially, being limited to 155mph (how odd, then, for us to see 175mph on the speedo, still accelerating). Undoubtedly, the massive fall in torque compared to the old car (67lb/ft) hurts low-rev response (particularly as max output shoots up the rev range). But tracks are less about low revs...And the satisfaction felt, of power building so linearly, is wonderful, as is the delicious, pure noise and 'natural' response of the hand-built motor. There's a purity about it that the more clinical old car lacked. And, the fact that you have to work a little harder, think a little more, to access it seems all the more fitting when you consider the facelifted car's more driver-focused attitude.
Handling and balance
ABC computer-controlled suspension is more hi-tech than an F1 car. While the SL is ultimately compromised by an open-top body lacking a coupe's stiffness (and there are occasions, in extremis, where you are aware of a little 'give'), the digital componentry does a good job of turning this 2.1-tonne cruiser lithe. Wrestle the wheel and it firms up automatically, improving reactions and front-end bite, slashing roll... and also constantly altering in stiffness to offset any destabilising reactions your vigour may instil. ESP is a further safety net, which has also benefitted from AMG input.
The three-stage stability system can not only be turned off - once a no-no for Mercs, now a marketed feature for "private racetracks" such as we're enjoying the SL on - but has an intermediate sports function, that is more lenient and, as even Mercedes admits, "allows for corresponding angles of drift". Basically, it means safe hero status. You feel even more like Hamilton, driving dramatically on the edge, but without the threat of overcooking things. Pity steering kickback over mid-corner bumps spoils this feeling of firm, long-wheelbase precision of guidance; don't expect a 911's detail or subtle weighting, either.
On the limit
A classic slow-in, fast-out approach suits the SL63 best. The key is getting the heavy nose tucked in. Do so, and ensure there's no understeer, and the tail-out world is your oyster. This is a beautifully balanced machine that, thanks to the linearity of the engine, is deliciously easy to control.Try to take things too fast, though, and ugly understeer spoils your fun and your flow. All the time, you have to remember it weighs 2120kg (!), and won't respond with, say, the immediacy of the more agile C63. Not that it's intimidating, despite the fearsome power and bulk. Unsticking those 285/30 rears is easy: blessedly, so is controlling it...
The MSN Cars verdict: 4/5
The latest AMG SL is not only more visually striking, but it's more pronounced behind the wheel, too. This is not a car to waft disconnectedly up to high speeds; it requires you to drive it, apply your brain, just like a sports car should.A remarkable gearbox gives you the impetus, as does handling that, once understood, is really mechanical and evocative - a proper powerful bruiser, that's driftable (indeed, now allowed to, as the nannying electronic intervention is loosened) and easier to control than any 2.1-tonne, £102k, 525bhp rear-driver should. Porsche-crisp? No. But fun, dramatic and entertaining all the same.
GALLERY: Mercedes SL63 AMG
Read more Mercedes car reviews
Ratings out of five: Mercedes SL63 AMG
Ride & handling****
MSN Cars verdict****
Need to know
Petrol engine6,208cc V8
Top speed (mph)155mph (limited)
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