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2022 Mercedes-AMG SL first drive review: A stellar return to form

Mercedes' seventh-gen roadster is both a better sports car and a better daily driver.

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The Mercedes SL is back, baby.
Mercedes-AMG

The Mercedes-Benz SL has gone through some fundamental transformations over the course of its 68-year lifespan. While the original 1954 300SL was a spectacular roadster directly derived from a race car, subsequent generations saw the SL becoming more of a heavy, sedate grand tourer. Now for 2022 there's a totally redesigned SL, developed from the ground up by Mercedes' AMG performance division on a brand-new platform allowing it to replace both its predecessor and the AMG GT roadster. It's a real stunner, and a better daily driver with a serious performance edge.

The 2022 SL comes in two flavors, SL55 and SL63, both of which use AMG's twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 engine paired with a 9-speed automatic transmission. The SL55 puts out 469 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque, matching the base AMG GT, while the SL63 has 577 hp and 590 lb-ft, matching the AMG GT R. A fully variable all-wheel-drive system is used on both SL models, and it can send 100% of the engine's torque to the rear wheels.

Rear-axle steering -- another SL first – is standard and can turn the rear wheels up to 2.5 degrees. The SL55 uses steel springs with adaptive dampers, but the SL63 has a fancy Active Ride Control hydraulic system with active anti-roll bars and a front axle lift. Every SL63 gets a Race drive mode, active engine mounts and an electronically controlled limited-slip differential, all of which are optional on the SL55 along with the hydraulic suspension. Also optional on both models are carbon-ceramic brakes.

The SL has a soft top once again.

Mercedes-AMG

Both the SL55 and SL63 that I'm testing have all those available performance goodies along with 21-inch wheels wrapped in Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, and there isn't much of a noticeable difference when driving them back to back. Using launch control the SL63 will hit 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, just 0.3 seconds quicker than the SL55, and both have a variable exhaust system with two different modes. In its louder setting the twin-turbo V8's noise is thunderous and bellowing, getting progressively more intense as the engine approaches its 7,000-rpm redline. Shifts are super quick and augmented by lovely crackles and barks from the exhaust, especially when downshifting, and the transmission has a satisfying automatic throttle blip.

But the new SL is about so much more than straight-line power. Its steering is the best I've experienced in a modern Mercedes, with perfect weighting, sharp turn-in and a lot of feedback through the thick-rimmed wheel. Combine that with the rear-wheel steering, variable AWD system and limited-slip diff and the SL has incredible levels of grip while remaining playful enough to be exciting -- if you want the SL to get sideways, it will. The hydraulic anti-roll bars keep the SL nearly flat in high-camber corners, and the ride is supple even in the stiffer Sport Plus mode.

The SL has a Slippery drive mode, which is tailored for wet and icy roads – perfect for the less-than-ideal conditions in the mountains between Newport Beach and Palm Springs. This setting applies smoother gear changes and uses a flatter torque curve for more linear power delivery to keep the car calm and stable. But even while being pushed in Race mode on a wet road the SL is easy to drive quickly without being at all scary. As with other recent AMG models you can also individually adjust things like the exhaust, suspension, engine and stability control via touch controls on the steering wheel.

Despite looking smaller, the new SL is actually longer than the old one.

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Out of the mountains, the SL is perfectly content in Comfort mode as I cruise into Palm Springs. Top-down wind buffeting is a non-issue with the windows up and wind deflector in place, and with the top up not much in the way of wind or tire noise enters the cabin. The start/stop system is pretty seamless, the engine is fairly quiet with the variable exhaust muted and the throttle is easy to modulate. Around town and on the highway the SL does the perfect cosplay of a high-end luxury cruiser, belying the aggressive performance car that's just on the other side of the drive mode dial.

The new SL is a breath of fresh air compared to the fairly ungainly, bloated previous-gen model. Despite being 2.9 inches longer than the outgoing SL it looks smaller and leaner, with short overhangs and a long hood giving it exaggerated proportions. My favorite hues are the matte dark brown or the metallic teal Hyperblue, but honestly, the SL wears all its available colors well. I prefer the SL with its standard chrome intact, but it looks great with the blacked-out Night package as well. Crucially, the SL is attractive with the folding soft top in place, which is a rare feat for a modern convertible. The roof opens and closes in just 15 seconds and can be operated at speeds up to 37 mph. Plus, it saves 46 pounds compared to the old SL's folding hardtop.

Mercedes calls the SL's interior hyperanalog, referring to the mix of real materials and digital features, and it really works. The 11.9-inch central touchscreen is set into a sculpted center console and flanked by turbine-style air vents, and the 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster has a nicely shaped shroud. The SL's center screen can electrically tilt anywhere between 12 and 32 degrees, making it nearly vertical if you wish. It may seem gimmicky, but the tilting screen genuinely does make a difference in terms of glare with the top down.

The SL's party trick is the tilting center screen.

Mercedes-AMG

In terms of driver comfort the 2022 SL is vastly better than both its predecessor and the AMG GT, and despite its long hood, visibility is much improved. Front passengers are far less cramped, and though the SL does have a fairly tall center console, the cabin doesn't feel claustrophobic. Two different seats are available, with the normal seats being more comfort oriented and the optional performance seats more similar to racing buckets with integrated headrests. Both are mega supportive, have myriad electronic adjustments and come with Mercedes' Airscarf neck-heating system, but only the non-sport ones get a massage function -- so obviously they'd be my pick.

While the SL's new rear seats are really just meant for children or grocery bags, adults can squeeze back there in a pinch. I'm 5 feet, 9 inches tall and can fit behind my own seating position without losing circulation in my legs, but getting in and out is difficult with the top up – and I look ridiculous. The SL has a little less cargo space than before, but even with the top down you can fit two golf bags and the trunk's load-in height isn't too tall. (The trunk is powered and can open with a wave of your foot, too.)

The SL's MBUX operating system is fantastic as ever, and the voice assistant is able to understand me even with the top down. Standard items include navigation, a 360-degree camera system, a Burmester surround sound stereo, a heated steering wheel, active LED headlights, keyless entry and ambient interior lighting. Also available are things like a head-up display, augmented reality navigation and a full suite of driver-assist features like adaptive cruise control with steering assist, automatic lane changes and active blind-spot assist.

Though Mercedes isn't ready to say how much the new SL costs, my guess is the SL55 will start at around $120,000 with the SL63 coming in at $165,000, aligning closely with the outgoing GT and GT C roadsters and the previous SL550 and SL63. That would also position it right with the Carrera GTS in the sweet spot of the Porsche 911 lineup, a comparison that an SL hasn't really deserved in decades. The 2022 SL does, though. Equally fantastic to drive fast on a twisty road as it is to luxuriate and commute in, the new Mercedes-AMG SL is a hell of a return to form.