Ford F-150 Lightning to Tesla Cybertruck: Electric truck roundup 2022 Honda Civic 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E GT 2022 Hyundai Tucson GMC Hummer EV 2021 Ford Bronco Best car insurance

2022 Mercedes-AMG SL prototype first ride review: Back to its roots

Sleeker, lighter and a whole lot sportier, Mercedes' redesigned roadster packs major fundamental changes.

The 2022 Mercedes SL was solely developed by AMG.

Mercedes-AMG

New Mercedes-Benz SL roadsters don't come along very often. Each of the SL's generations lasted about 12 years on average before a new one came out and for the past five-ish decades, the SL has been more of a comfortable GT car as opposed to a racing-derived sports car like the original 300SL. But with the brand-new 2022 SL, that's all about to change.

It's apparent that change is afoot from the name alone: Instead of being a Mercedes-Benz SL, the new generation will be the Mercedes-AMG SL. Like the AMG GT, the new SL was developed by AMG from the ground up. Mercedes tasked the team at AMG to make the SL lighter and much more athletic, channeling the spirit of the original model. It rides on a new platform -- one that will be shared with the next-gen GT coupe -- and the SL will essentially take the place of the soon-to-be-discontinued AMG GT roadster.

The AMG development is a big deal, but it's not the greatest fundamental change. For the first time in the model's history, the new SL will be available with all-wheel drive -- and not just available, it'll be standard. Also, for only the third time in the SL's history (but the first time in the US), the new one will have a back seat. The R107 was available with a rear jump seat as a factory accessory and the R129 had an optional back seat in Europe, but every version of the new R232 SL will come with a two-plus-two configuration. The new SL is also going back to using a fabric roof, ditching the folding hardtop setup of the past two generations. Rear-axle steering will be available for the first time, too.

While no one from Mercedes will confirm any specs or details about the SL I'm riding in, there's a lot that's visible -- and audible. It's an SL63 (maybe an SL63 S) with AMG's tried-and-true twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8 engine, quad rectangular exhaust tips and carbon-ceramic brakes with gold calipers. The base SL will be the SL53, which will use AMG's turbocharged inline-six hybrid motor, and there should be a high-powered plug-in-hybrid model sharing the GT63 E Performance's powertrain.

On first impressions the new SL looks freakin' awesome. This matte white prototype has a light camo wrap covering the front and rear ends as well as minor details like the badges, but everything else is uncovered. The new SL has a super squat stance with a shark-like front end, short overhangs, smooth side surfacing, wide fenders and a tapering rear end with an active spoiler. It's also one of the rare soft top convertibles that looks truly good with the top up.

Mercedes revealed the SL's interior months ago, so it's fully exposed here. This one has black leather with white stitching covering almost every surface, with a few pieces of carbon-fiber trim. It immediately feels less cramped than the AMG GT and a whole lot more modern than the outgoing SL. The large center touchscreen is just as nice as in the new S-Class, and the power tilting function genuinely does work to combat glare. That rear seat is tight and has an upright seatback -- my 5-foot, 8-inch self can barely fit -- so it's really just suited for kids or luggage, like the back of a Porsche 911.

This prototype is a V8-powered SL63 model.

Mercedes-AMG

Taking me for a ride through the mountains around Denver is Moritz Stockmeier, AMG's senior manager for powertrain, software and driveability. The test route is at high elevation on absolutely stunning stretches of road, but I get to experience rougher road surfaces and some highway stints from the passenger seat, too. This Colorado test is actually Mercedes' final validation run, where the team is basically making fine-tuning adjustments. In other words, this prototype is about 90% finished. 

Stockmeier never really gets a chance to open the SL up aside from a couple rips through tunnels and a merge onto the highway, but the roadster feels just as quick as a V8-powered GT from the passenger seat. This one has 20-inch wheels with Michelin Pilot Sport 4S summer tires, sized 265/40ZR20 at the front and 295/35ZR20 at the back, and the ride is firm but comfortable and composed, even in Sport Plus mode. Rear-axle steering will be available for the first time, aiding both maneuverability and high-speed stability, and I can both see and feel it working in tighter corners. And with the top down and windows up it's easy to have a conversation, even without a wind deflector.

"It's always a different approach if AMG does a car from scratch all by ourselves," Stockmeier tells me. "The fact that the board of management gave AMG the task to develop the next SL said something. It starts with the bodywork and the chassis, where we can already start saving weight and increasing stiffness." Handing development to AMG allows for a lot more focus on dynamics and performance, as the team isn't working off an existing Mercedes model. "We want to make it a big change from the predecessor, when you give a car to AMG you know what's happening."

It's lighter and stiffer than the outgoing SL.

Mercedes-AMG

Stockmeier says the team looked to the original 300SL for inspiration, and the R232 will definitely be a lot more fun to drive than previous SLs. But AMG doesn't want the new SL to alienate existing customers by being too racy -- in fact, Stockmeier thinks it could be the next car for those that bought the now-dead S-Class convertible. "Of course we know the heritage of the car and we know the customers of the current one, and they shall be lucky when they buy the new one as well," he says. "90% of the customers will never go to the track, and they want to have a comfy car as well, and that's what we need to provide. These are very valuable customers and we want to have them with us." It will also attract enthusiasts that want a performance car, though, and therein lies the new SL's real appeal.

"We wanted to have a car that has a great bandwidth between Comfort and Race mode, we didn't want to make it a super stiff and sporty car all the time," Stockmeier adds, and that's not an easy task. "The bandwidth was definitely one of the things we took an eye on during development to have all the possible customers satisfied." Major parts of the car like the body structure and wheel-and-tire setup are fixed, so it's things like adaptive dampers, engine programming, transmission shift mapping and other electronics that vary between drive modes. "These things have to be seen as a whole system that changes at once," Stockmeier says, explaining that helping make the drive modes more distinct are haptics like the ferocity of shifts and the weight of the steering.

In a similar vein, Stockmeier's favorite thing about the new SL is its variability. "It's like Jekyll and Hyde," he says. "You can have the roof open or closed, you can use it in winter and summertime, you can have a smooth ride downtown in Comfort mode and then take it to a racetrack and use Race mode." While he admits that it's not a family car, he says it was necessary for the SL to be a good daily driver.

All told, this first impression has me eager to drive the new roadster. It feels noticeably different from both the outgoing SL and the GT roadster, taking the best aspects of each and adding a much more modern finish. The new SL will debut by the end of the year before going on sale in the first half of 2022 -- though given Mercedes' current V8 situation, we may only get the SL53 at first.