Taking a sharp Benz
Buyer power has spoken with the Mercedes-Benz SL facelift, writes KEVIN HEPWORTH
THE biggest midlife facelift in its 50-year history says everything about the latest Mercedes-Benz SL. Just as the mid-sized E-Class got more than 1000 individual changes, the 2008 update and upgrade of the SL has been extensive.
It shows the look-at-me 2001 SL roadster had missed its mark.
The penny dropped for Mercedes, according to passenger-car development chief Hans-Dieter Multhaupt, when 60 per cent of customers specified the AMG sports body kit for their basic SL.
‘‘That is not right,’’ Multhaupt says. ‘‘To be normal, only 30 per cent of customers should want the extra sporty look. This time we have followed this wish.’’
So the revamped SL has a more powerful and efficient V6, optional active steering, a more aggressive front end, restyled interior and — oddly, given the customer message — a 3.0-litre entry-level V6.
‘‘We felt we should sharpen the sporty edge of the car,’’ Multhaupt says.
Apart from the front and interior styling, the steering rack and the spanking 3.5-litre V6, most changes are, at best, subtle.
The grille and general SL stance has been squared-up and under the bonnet — which now has power bumps similar to the original 1954 300SL — is a range of four engines, from the 3.0-litre V6 to the 5.5-litre V12 in the SL600.
‘‘There are no immediate plans to add the SL280 to the Australian range but it will remain under consideration,’’ Mercedes- Benz Australia’s Peter Fedayev says.
Traditionally, the V8 SL500 has dominated Australian sales, but it could come under some pressure from the new high-spinning 3.5-litre V6 in the SL350.
With 232kW — up from 200kW in the superseded engine — and 360Nm the SL350 will slip the 0-100km/h sprint in 6.2 seconds and use 9.9 litres of fuel for each 100km.
That is marginally faster (0.4 second) and marginally more efficient (.4 of a litre) than the outgoing car.
It is, however, considerably more usable and feels a lot better than the raw figures indicate. Not that shabby for a middle-aged athlete in a corporate suit.
There are no changes to the engines at the top end of the bragging tree. The 5.5-litre SL500 and twin-turbo 5.5-litre V12 SL600 retain their 285kW/530Nm and 380kW/830Nm outputs respectively.
The most noticeable change to the cabin is the absence of the deeply scalloped dash, replaced by a flatter treatment with classic-styled dials and new-look, three-spoke steering wheel.
In keeping with a range of other performance models — including Subaru — the instrument needles flip from one side of the dial to the other on start-up before returning to their starting positions.
The seven-speed gearbox has not been changed except for a software upgrade that makes for slightly quicker changes in manual and blips the gears on downshift in all modes.
An unexpected advantage of that downshift blip is that changes are smoother because of equalisation of shift pressure.
The chassis is unchanged, but there has been some tweaking of the active body control on the top-end cars to provide sharper ride at full tilt but a more refined suspension feel for general duties.
The biggest single difference to the upgraded car is the direct steer — optional on international models but likely to be standard for Australian models.
At the heart of the variable steering is an idea first developed by Dr Arthur Bishop in Sydney almost 50 years ago.
‘‘The beauty of Bishop’s idea was in its simplicity and economy,’’ says Michael Rapp, senior manager for steering-systems developments at Mercedes-Benz.
‘‘There is no need to have sensors for speed input or servo motors or build in great complexity that brings with it the greater risk of component failure . . . the Bishop system is elegant simplicity.’’
Also optional on the international models — and under consideration for Australia— is the Airscarf neckwarming system pioneered on the SLK and a multi-mode intelligent light system.
‘‘I think now we have a very good blend and the right mix for our customers,’’ Multhaupt says.
‘‘They tell us all the time that they do not want a purist sporty car that you can only stand for an hour— the SL is a companion for the whole day.’’
Road warrior: the Mercedes-Benz V8 SL500 has dominated Australian sales, but could face pressure from the new high-spinning 3.5-litre V6 in the SL350.