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First Drive: Mercedes-AMG SL 2023

Lawrence Allan

Written By Lawrence Allan

Mercedes-AMG SL Review 2023: front driving


  • Stylish, posh and high-tech

  • All-wheel-drive security

  • Doesn't lose refinement despite fabric roof


  • A little compromised as a sports car and as a cruiser

  • Question marks over build quality

  • Boot space reduced for tiny rear seats

Mercedes-AMG SL Review 2023: side driving
New AMG-developed Mercedes SL ditches heavy metal folding roof to reduce weight and improve packaging.

What is it?

For the uninitiated, the Mercedes-Benz SL is the brand's convertible flagship and has been for getting on for seven decades. SL loosely stands for 'Sport Light', with its 1950s origins stemming from a road-going racing car. 

Over the years that definition has evolved somewhat, with most later generations instead playing a 'grand touring' role. In essence, that means the SL isn't a hardcore sports car, and nor is it a softly-softly luxury car - but it aims to straddle both classes. A stylish, premium car that you'll relish taking on a cross-continent cruise but that won't disappoint should you encounter some twisty lanes on the trip. 

This new model changes things somewhat, though. Now called the Mercedes-AMG SL, it's the first SL to be developed with a watchful eye by the AMG performance division. Out goes the heavy but noise-reducing folding metal roof, with a lighter fabric top brought in instead, while its newly built basic platform will be shared with the next Mercedes-AMG GT supercar. 

That means trading in some of that cruising comfort to make a bona-fide sports car to compete with the Porsche 911 Cabriolet and Aston Martin Vantage. But it can't turn its back on established four-seat luxury convertibles like the Lexus LC500 and BMW 8 Series by being too noisy and uncomfortable. 

Yes, that's four seats, because this is also the first Mercedes-Benz SL to get two rear chairs as standard fitment, while all-wheel drive is also included for the first time. There's also features such as rear-wheel steering to boost agility.

The range kicks off with the Mercedes-AMG SL43, making 380PS from a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine - that'll probably prove controversial in a £108,000 sports car. There's also two 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8s powering the SL55 and SL63 models, putting out 476PS and 585PS respectively. The SL55 and SL63 are also all-wheel drive as standard.

Mercedes-AMG SL Review 2023: rear driving
New fabric roof is quicker than older one and can go down at speeds of up to 37mph. Buffeting is well-controlled, while a fold-out wind breaker can cover the rear seats.
Mercedes-AMG SL Review 2023: front side
Entry-level SLs are rear-wheel drive, but both V8 models are all-wheel drive and also have rear-wheel steering for greater agility.

Sounds like quite the recipe. What's it like?

We drove the mid-tier range choice, an SL55 in its launch Premium Plus trim, and suspect that'll be the one to go for. Although the base model looks as cool as the others we doubt it'll deliver the performance and soundtrack to satisfy in a car such as this, while the SL63 looks expensive. 

Mind you, at over £147,000 the SL55 isn't cheap itself. A 911 Carrera 4 GTS (before options) is faster and noticeably cheaper, while even a BMW M8 Competition Convertible offers a bit of a saving. That means the SL has to deliver in a variety of ways. 

There's no question it serves up the goods in the looks department, appearing suitably exotic and sporty where the outgoing SL is starting to look rather old-fashioned. Alright, it's not a McLaren, but it certainly turned enough heads on our test drive to keep a typically fashion-conscious buyer of a car such as this happy. 

Climb into the cabin and again it feels special, with a low-slung driving position fulfilling the sports car basics and the feeling that you're sat rearwards in the car, looking over a long and thrusting bonnet.

It's impressive that Mercedes has achieved this despite the addition of rear seats, but a quick glance at them reminds you that this is no full-on 8 Series rival: there's little point in an adult even trying to fit back there, so they're better off for kids or extra luggage. Space up-front is fine for tall adults, however the chunky centre-console restricts leg and knee space somewhat. 

You'll want those back seats for luggage on longer two-up trips because the boot is disappointing. There's just 213 litres of capacity underneath a narrow opening, with the usual intrusion of the roof folding mechanism. That's way less than half the outright boot space offered with the old SL and still 150 litres less than when the metal roof was folded. 

The rest of the interior is a mixed bag, too. It appears suitably upmarket with posh finishes and the usual Mercedes-Benz LED lighting glitz and fancy technology. Storage is pretty good, too. But there are elements that underwhelm for a car costing this much: you'll find the odd brittle plastics, while the UK test cars had slightly wobbly touchscreens (you can raise and lower the screen's angle electrically to avoid sunlight) and cabin rattles. Worse, one example even locked us out of the car thanks to the electrically retracting door handles refusing to budge, rendering it out of service.

Another gripe comes with the bizarre decision to only let you open or close the roof via the touchscreen, You actually have to swipe and hold a screen icon for several seconds, which is much more of a faff than just tapping a button if you're trying to do it on the move. 

Still, once down the SL is a cosseting convertible, as even without the deflector fitted wind buffeting is kept to a minimum and you can hear the radio at speed. We also continue to love the Mercedes 'Airscarf' system, which pumps warm air around your neck from the headrest - perfect for getting that roof off in winter. Roof up? The SL doesn't suffer unduly from traffic or wind noise through that fabric top. 

Getting that roof down of course enables an even closer relationship to that twin-turbo V8, which has a muted rumble or an anti-social snarl depending on your exhaust and drive mode. It's a great sound that gives the car such a sense of occasion, although it doesn't translate to neck-snapping performance. 

It's surprising that the SL55's power output begins with a 4 given its 1900kg kerbweight and the fact that 'lesser' Mercedes-AMG models such as the E63 and upcoming C63 get considerably more. It's far from slow, with loads of overtaking urge on tap, and the all-wheel drive means all the power gets down onto the tarmac. Really, nobody's going to feel it's lacking. But it's not as bonkers at the top-end as you might expect from a brand that usually over-delivers on the performance front, while 21mpg will sting a bit.  

At least the gearshift works well, allowing you to exploit the power that's there with quick shifts while remaining smooth and civilised for mooching about town. It isolates big pothole and speed humps pretty well for a sporting model, too, though it's a shape the rear-wheel steering doesn't act to reduce the still-large turning circle. 

At motorway speeds the SL feels right at home, with an easy-going ride, oodles of punch in reserve and little wind noise. There is quite a bit of road noise from the 21-inch wheels, but the same applies to a lot of sporty convertibles (not least the 911). But, crucially, can it now challenge these sporting models on a twisty road? 

Well, sort of. Both the SL55 and SL63 come with adaptive dampers that let you stiffen or smooth out the ride. For most of the time we found the Comfort setting best, with Sport working best on smoother tarmac and Sport+ too jarring on UK roads. 

It's mostly comfortable, but it doesn't have the plush edge to the ride that previous SLs manage - a Bentley Continental GT is far more luxurious. It's more upset by really bad surfaces or undulating country roads than we'd like for a grand tourer, even if it's never actually harsh. Even so, it'll eat up miles on better roads with a sophisticated feel. 

Previous-generation SLs nailed the comfort side at the expense of handling, feeling heavy and lacking control at speed. The new SL55 is certainly better in the bends, with the body staying very flat and loads of grip at all speeds. But it lacks the razor-sharp responses of the best sports cars, with numb steering and composure that unravels when you really push. It's a heavy car, after all, and even the stiffest convertibles do suffer from some body shake. 

Mercedes-AMG SL Review 2023: interior
The SL borrows cabin elements from latest Mercedes models like the C-Class and S-Class, although on our test car the fit and finish had some weak points.
Mercedes-AMG SL Review 2023: back seats
Fabric roof and packaging changes free up two small rear seats, but only children will squeeze in them and they come at the expense of boot space.

Should I buy one? 

We reckon plenty of people would be very happy with the new Mercedes-AMG SL. It's a fair bit more dynamic-looking and feeling than older SLs, meaning it'll help shake off the 'wealthy retired golf enthusiast' image that's plagued the model for a while. 

The latest SL also validly challenges the Porsche 911 with its kid-friendly rear seats, so it could (just) be used for the school run if needed. The technology is clever, and even though it's priced amongst strong competition you do get plenty of standard equipment. 

We also like the sense of occasion and the theatre of the SL55's V8, even if it isn't ultimately as fast as some similar cars. All-wheel drive unlocks more all-weather capability than ever before, while It's a pleasingly refined and long-legged cruising companion.

But with the extremely high standards set by the competition we can't help but feel the new SL sits in a bit of a no-mans land, unable to offer the true plushness and interior richness of a proper luxury car while not quite delivering the properly sorted driving experience of the best sports cars. 

That might change with the flagship SL63, which gets not only more power but clever chassis tech including cross-linked hydraulic dampers. We'll hopefully get a go in that soon, but for now the AMG-developed SL is either a happy medium or an unhappy compromise, depending on your view. 

Mercedes-AMG SL Review 2023: side static
New SL's design is sportier than ever before, with hints of AMG GT in its shape. But it's still a 1900kg car in this form.
Mercedes-AMG SL Review 2023: rear static
Available engines for the Mercedes-AMG SL so far sees a four-cylinder 'SL43' base model and two 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8s in the form of the SL55 and SL63.

Watch: the World Premiere of the Mercedes-AMG SL

Mercedes-AMG SL: the facts

Model tested: Mercedes-AMG SL55 4Matic+ Premium Plus

Engine: 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 

Gearbox: Nine-speed automatic 

Power/torque: 476PS/700Nm

Combined fuel economy: 21.9mpg

CO2 emissions: 292g/km 

Price from: £108,020 (SL43 Premium)

As tested: £147,475

The latest Mercedes-Benz SL starts at £108,000 for the SL43, rising to £147,000 for the SL55 and £172,000 for the SL63. 

The term 'SL' dates from the 1950s, and standard for 'Super Leicht' in German. Literally translating as 'super-light', it's a term used in German that generally means 'sportiness'. 

Yes, the Mercedes-AMG SL has four seats for the first time as standard. However it's best considered a '2+2' because while the front seats are spacious enough for most people, you really won't get even small adults in the rear seats. They're only really suitable for children or luggage.