May 29, 2023

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2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 55 4Matic | PH Review

2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 55 4Matic | PH Review

I’ve already written an early review of the new Mercedes-AMG SL 55, and it was broadly favourable. I liked it. I know it doesn’t present with the gracefulness of some SLs of old, but that aside, this latest iteration certainly has some SLS-style presence without trying too hard to achieve it. From the comments, I’m not sure everyone agrees, but, as they say, you cannot please all of the people all of the time.

I also liked the way it drove, but then I only drove it for a few laps on Mercedes’ handling track at Brooklands. It wasn’t the most fulsome assessment, then, nor the SL’s natural stomping ground. But now I’ve had another go and this time on the road where, let’s face it, most SLs will never stray far from. Do I still like it? Yes, although I’d like to elaborate on a few of its dynamic details.

To begin with, let’s talk tyres. The SL 55 comes with big boots. No surprise there, because it weighs nearly two tonnes and, thanks to its ever-glorious twin-turbo V8, has a skip-full of performance as well. The tyres are Michelin Pilot Sport 4S measuring 275/35 21 at the front and 305/30 21. See, I told you they were big. Now, I’m assuming the car I drove a few weeks back was using the same rubber but, to be honest, I can’t recall. What was very different this time was the varied road surfaces and the temperature. It was a lot colder. The ambient temperature was hovering just above zero with a few frozen puddles lining the country roads around Millbrook, where I’d headed.

I mentioned in my track drive that the SL 55 didn’t have an awful lot of steering feel, and I can confirm that it still doesn’t. If anything, it’s worse on the road. On track, there was a little chatter from the wheel in a straight line – just to give you a hint about what’s going on at the front – but back then there was some sense of the understeer building when attacking the turns. This time the steering was mute at all times. After launching the SL 55 at a few roundabouts, I can tell you that when the understeer arrived the only thing I knew about it was that long bonnet sliding quietly across the Tarmac.

Michelin doesn’t give an operating temperature for the PS4S, but a quick scan of the internet does seem to imply they’re not at their best in this sort of wintry snap. So I am going to put the worsened steering and the odd squirm under braking – the first time that happened it was a twitchy bottom moment for me and the car – down to the tyres dropping near to or outside of their operating window. The braking stability did improve after a while, though, which does back up the idea that temperature was at least part of the problem.

There’s another problem that I struggled with more on road than on the track, too. It’s the aggressive ramp-up in speed after just a few degrees of turn. Whether that’s the rack or the rear-wheel steering I cannot say, but it takes some dialling into and, truth be told, I am not sure I did fully. Especially at low speed, which is perhaps why it was more noticeable on the road. 

What all this means is that you drive the SL 55 into turns with a healthy margin of error. If you deploy any other tactic other than the slow-in fast-out sort, then you might be braver than I am – but potentially stupider as well. Although here’s the thing: it’s definitely fast out. For a start, there’s the power and torque. As I mentioned, both feel colossal here, so Christ knows what the SL 63 will feel like with 585hp. Why you’d need that amount is befuddling to me, because the SL 55 in a straight line isn’t leaving much performance on the table. A couple of times I looked down at the instruments after a bit of half-hearted throttling and thought “Oops, that’s trouble”. If only the gearbox could keep up. It’s not terrible, by any means, but it doesn’t quite do the engine justice with the odd delayed change or jolt of the line. 

Then there’s the noise. This engine’s reputation precedes it so I’m not sure I even need to mention how it sounds, but I’d feel wrong if I didn’t give a brief mention. It’s fabulous, even if its pantomime quality means it’s hard to take it seriously at times next to the exquisiteness of engines like Porsche’s naturally aspirated MA1 flat-six. In Dynamic mode, AMG’s M177 V8 is a swaggering trombone of silliness with a side helping of snare-drum snaps as it ignites fuel in its array of exhausts. I always think of myself as childish, but it turns out I’ve grown up because I went into the individual mode and turned the sports exhaust off. It still sounds V8-great, even then, just a bit less neck-snappingly obvious, and brings the engine’s mechanics to the fore – some whir of cams and belts to savour, too.

Going back to the slow in, fast out point again, the rear end is the opposite of the front. There’s nothing vague about the way it transmits all that performance. The SL 55 has tenacious 4Matic traction but it’s not stifling. It feels like it’s still shoving plenty of torque rearwards and you immediately feel the jink from the back end as the tyres begin to slip. Keep prodding, and it keeps moving progressively. It’s fun. Proper fun, actually, but usable, too. Despite the crispness of a winter’s day the SL 55 wasn’t the least bit hair-raising.

The way it rides is very AMG. What I mean by that is there’s too much lateral movement from the rear end when the suspension is at its softest ­– particularly at slower speeds. They all do that. So just like pretty much every AMG product I’ve driven in the recent past, you ignore Comfort and head straight to Sport, which tightens up the dampers and that reduces all the twerking. The skill AMG has is maintaining compliance. In comfort terms, the ride in Sport isn’t harsh and neither is it too stiff on a bumpy road – the Millbrook B roads are truly testing in that respect. Even Sport+ is usable, but Sport is all you need for a lovely, stable platform over ominous dips and crests when taken at speed. At no point did I sense the wheels struggling to maintain contact with the road or the back-end bucking. It simply flowed. 

There’s the odd shimmy from the chassis but those are few and far between and only if you hit something very abrasive. Generally, it feels more than stiff enough. Of course, it’s not flawless. My impression is that AMG picks quite stiff bushing and that causes some isolation issues. Yes, the wheel control is excellent, but it doesn’t take much to hear the suspension twang – a ridge certainly does it, but even cats eyes produce a helluva racket. And as I noted on track, with the roof up there’s some wind noise next to your ear from the frameless windows. When the roof is down it manages to be largely bluster free – other than the engine’s even louder, much more welcome bluster, of course.

The gamer-style displays and graphics aren’t my thing. In AMG mode the instruments look like something from an X-wing Starfighter, although, because everything is configurable these days, you can have ordinary dials instead. The MBUX software is quite layered and swallows all those antediluvian-but-oh-so-useful buttons but, on the plus side, it’s responsive. Like the exterior, the interior detailing delivers bundles of showroom appeal and has an enveloping, sporty feel, yet also enough room inside for my six-foot-plus frame. The rear seats are next to useless, though, other than for small kids. They really just add some storage space, which will be handy because the boot isn’t huge. Most things feel solidly made, other than the seat switch panels. I mentioned these previously; they’re mounted on door cards that flex so easily they might be made of cardboard.

So there you go. I’ve now driven the SL 55 on road and track, and I am sticking with my original, overall assessment, which is that I like it. Purists, you stick with your 911s, because the SL isn’t for you. It’s not that well-honed. But for everyone else, it comes with enough dynamic ability to do the biz on the back roads, and if it steered better – which maybe it will do on a balmier day – it would be even better. Tellingly, where the SL 55 wins you over, even more so than a 911, is with its sense of fun. It’s more at the Jaguar F-Type end of the spectrum in not taking itself too seriously, yet stops short of seeming frivolous. The engine is always the centrepiece, of course, and V8-powered sports cars aren’t exactly thick on the ground at the moment. That alone ought to be a big tick for many, and rightly so.

Specification | 2022 Mercedes-AMG SL 55 4Matic+

Engine: 3,982cc, V8, twin-turbo
Transmission: nine-speed auto, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 476 @ 5,500-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 516 @ 2,000-4,500rpm
0-62mph: 3.9 seconds
Top speed: 183mph
Weight: 1,970kg
MPG: 21.9 (WLTP)
CO2: 292g/km (WLTP)
Price: £147,475