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Mercedes-Benz grand roadster is a high-priced luxury sun machine

Roadsters are fun, nimble little two-seat cars with removable tops, perfect for a day in the sun. Except when they're not. The Mercedes-Benz SL, with two seats and a convertible top, is what you'd expect from a roadster in some ways, but less so when it comes to being small and nimble.

For lack of a better term, I consider the SL a grand roadster, a large, powerful two-seater appropriate for a comfortable cruise through wine country or to the yacht harbor, top down to enjoy a sunny day. Those who can pack light might even consider it for a weekend getaway.

But the SL sits in a far different class, and shows very different capabilities, than your typical Mazda Miata.

2017 Mercedes-Benz SL550

Mercedes-Benz adheres to the super-light origins of the SL designation with aluminum body panels on the new SL-Class.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

Mercedes-Benz redesigned the SL, offering it as the SL550 and SL450, for the 2017 model year. Using aluminum for the SL's body, Mercedes-Benz hearkens back to its super-light heritage. A power-operated retractable hard top works at up to 25 mph, and the car comes standard with an adaptive suspension and LED headlights.

On a press drive from Los Angeles to San Diego sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, I experienced the extraordinary comfort and impressive power of this new SL. And with my sole possessions in a backpack, there was enough room in the trunk for my luggage.

Under the hood of the SL550 sits a twin turbocharged 4.7-liter V-8 engine, the same power plant found in most Mercedes-Benz models bearing the 550 designation. It's good for 449 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque. The SL450 uses the smaller twin turbocharged 3-liter V-6 engine, and despite only producing 362 horsepower and 369 horsepower, this was the engine I preferred, especially as equipment between the SL550 and SL450 is otherwise identical.

While the SL550 growls aggressively under acceleration, then sounds off with exhaust pops on gear changes and deceleration, the SL450 emits a mechanically pure whirr, like a big turbine spinning up. The latter felt more composed and civilized as I cruised Southern California streets or wrestled the big roadster on mountain roads, while the lessened power was barely noticeable. Both cars were very well-behaved on urban streets, although I felt the torque shift during gear changes more with the V-8, taking a temporary toll on how much the SL550 pampered me.

Multiple choice

Like many modern cars, the SL cursed me with choices in the form of several driving modes: in this case, it's Curve, Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus and Individual. Each mode affects throttle response, steering weight, traction control and the suspension stiffness.

You won't find the Curve mode on every SL, as it relies on Mercedes-Benz's optional Curve Control feature, which enhances comfort by tilting the car laterally into the turns. Without that option, the Curve mode reverts to Eco. In practice, I found Curve Control worked very well, as in both tight and broad turns the car's tilt pushed me down into the seat rather than pushing me to the side, against the seat bolster.

And frankly, I think Mercedes-Benz could simplify its settings, combining Curve/Eco and Comfort. And comfort is where the SL excels, not a huge surprise considering the car's maker. The adaptive suspension added a layer of sponge between me and the road, soaking up bumps and the vibrations from rough pavement. As one Mercedes-Benz representative said to me, the SL is designed for cruising.

2017 Mercedes-Benz SL550

Rather than having the drive selector on the steering column as in some other models, the SL-Class has a more traditional console placement.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

As for sport driving, well, the SL550's angry engine sounded off like a muscle car in straight-line acceleration, and even the SL450 gets to 60 mph in under 5 seconds, according to Mercedes-Benz, but I wasn't so taken with the handling. Even in Sport or Sport Plus modes, the the suspension retained that layer of sponginess. At speed in a sharp turn, the car felt wobbly, giving me little confidence. If you want truly good sport handling in an SL, look to the Mercedes-AMG SL63, which receives the same update as the standard SL.

Its saving grace is the traction control, which lets the back end drift out. At one point, the SL550 in Comfort mode, I tapped the gas while taking a right turn out of a parking lot and felt some delicious wheel slip, the car's stability program making me feel like I was a reckless teenage driver exploring the limits of control.

As for Sport and Sport Plus, I found the former very mild, not really worth its name. Mercedes-Benz could simplify things with just one sport mode in the SL.

Small screen

Next to the miniscule shifter on the console for the SL's nine-speed automatic transmission sits the dial for the car's infotainment system, using Mercedes-Benz's venerable COMAND interface. Unlike some newer Mercedes-Benz models, the SL doesn't get a touchpad overlying the dial, an omission that didn't bother me in particular. The dial works fine for controlling navigation, communications and audio.

However, the dashboard-mounted LCD is rather small for a luxury car, especially compared with the dual wide LCDs in the dash of the S-Class. With limited time in the SL, I didn't delve deeply into the infotainment system, but what I saw was standard Mercedes-Benz fare. In this regard, I find the electronics lag behind those of BMW and Audi. As a saving grace, the SL supports Apple CarPlay, a much better option than most of the car's native electronics.

2017 Mercedes-Benz SL550

The SL's navigation system shows buildings rendered in 3D, but appears on a fairly small LCD.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

The SL's driver assistance features make it an even more comfortable choice for the daily commute. Caught behind a slow-moving van on a narrow, twisty road, I set the adaptive cruise control to 30 mph. The car took over braking and acceleration, maintaining a reasonable distance behind the van, and it helped with the steering, moving the wheel to keep its position in the lane. When I loosened my grip on the wheel, the car did an admirable job of steering itself, operating autonomously, until it flashed a graphic showing red hands on the instrument cluster display, suggesting I take more control.

Mercedes-Benz's driver assistance features are very functional, and the SL benefits from all of this research.

Narrow field

Upscale roadsters like the 2017 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class are few and far between. You won't find one from BMW, Audi or Lexus. When I asked a Mercedes-Benz representative about competition, he said the SL was benchmarked against the BMW 6 Series convertible, although that car is a four-seater. As more direct competition, he mentioned the Ferrari California and Jaguar F-Type.

That lack of competition gives Mercedes-Benz some freedom in pricing. And although specific pricing has not been announced, a Mercedes-Benz representative said the SL450 will start at around $85,000 and the SL550 at about $108,000, similar to the current model. The new SL will show up at dealers in spring of this year.

 

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