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First drive: Mercedes-Benz SL 400. Image by Mercedes-Benz.

First drive: Mercedes-Benz SL 400
Facelifted and given more power, the entry-level Mercedes SL is anything but basic.

   



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Mercedes-Benz SL 400

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5

It might be deemed the 'entry-level' version of the facelifted sixth-generation Mercedes-Benz SL, but overlook the 3.0-litre V6 '400' model at your peril - it's not much slower than its big brothers, it's just as good to drive and it also makes a surprisingly excellent noise. Factor in the cheapest purchase price and running costs, and this might just be all the SL you'd ever need.

Test Car Specifications

Model tested: Mercedes-Benz SL 400
Pricing: from 73,805
Engine: 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged V6 petrol
Transmission: nine-speed 9G-Tronic automatic, rear-wheel drive
Body style: two-door roadster
CO2 emissions: 175g/km (VED Band H, 295 first 12 months, 205 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 36.7mpg
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
0-62mph: 4.9 seconds
Power: 367hp at 5,500- to 6,000rpm
Torque: 500Nm at 2,000- to 4,200rpm

What's this?

The facelifted and updated Mercedes-Benz SL range - including the two Mercedes-AMG versions. A four-strong UK line-up consists entirely of twin-turbocharged petrol variants, running 400, 500, 63 and 65. The last of these has a V12 engine, the two in the middle have differing V8s (one 4.7-litre and one 5.5-litre), and then there's this V6. In the process of the overhaul of the SL range, it's the SL 400 that is the only one with any sort of power increase, with 35hp and 20Nm added for peaks of 367hp and 500Nm. Also new is the nine-speed 9G-Tronic transmission it is paired to, the torque converter auto replacing the old 7G-Tronic gearbox. The SL 500 also gets this unit.

If you weren't overly keen on the SL's looks before, this reasonably comprehensive (if that's not a contradiction in terms) restyle of the long-running Mercedes roadster should change your mind. The well-considered alterations are mainly situated on the nose and they amount to, from the bottom upwards: the A-wing front air dam that evokes the more powerful AMG models; a new and unique (in the world of Mercedes) front grille, harking back to the 300 SLs that won the Carrera Panamericana race in 1952; LED intelligent headlights that look rather similar to those found on the AMG GT supercar; and a re-sculpted bonnet with a couple of 'powerdomes' grafted onto it. Mercedes has chucked in some new interior trim finishes, a fresh no-cost exterior colour option called Brilliant Blue, the ability to drop the car's Vario-Roof on the move at up to 25mph and even more connectivity goodness, all in order to boost the SL's enduring appeal.

How does it drive?

Last year, Mercedes sold just shy of 900 SLs in the UK, but that was still enough to make us the second-biggest market for this luxury two-seat convertible in the world, after the US - where we drove the facelifted model. The 2016MY SL should see sales boost up to 1,100 units, the majority of which will come courtesy of this 3.0-litre V6-engined SL 400 introduction point (we can't keep saying entry level about a 74 grand motor). And the good news for these buyers is that they're getting an absolutely superb machine for their money.

For a start, it is seriously bloody rapid. At the other end of the SL scale sits the mighty V12 biturbo AMG 65, which develops giddy data of 630hp and 1,000Nm of torque; almost double the horsepower and precisely twice the twist of this 400. And yet, thanks to a 215kg weight advantage, the 400 is just nine-tenths of a second slower to 62mph than the SL 65 at 4.9 seconds, while their top speeds are an identical 155mph limited - unless the AMG buyer opts for the Driver's Package, whereupon the V12's limiter gets raised to 186mph.

That on-paper performance gap is narrower than you might reasonably expect from the engine output figures, and in reality the difference between the 400 and the 65 is even smaller still. In fact, in terms of cornering and road-holding, the 400 is actually our preferred choice. The steering on it is a little stickier in weighting and feel than either the 65 or the SL 63 AMG models' set-up, but as a car it feels far more nimble overall than its 6.0-litre big brother. The SL 400 dances into curves in a way that a 1,735kg roadster really has no right to, the rear moving around underneath you on a razor-sharp throttle (in Sport + mode) and the front wheels clearly communicating their current grip levels through the steering column. True, the SL is still not quite the committed sports car, but for a vehicle that is supposed to primarily do GT cruising, it's a thoroughly entertaining steer.

Part of that is down to its Active Body Control (ABC) adaptive suspension fitted with Curve Tilt Function (CTF), a 3,080 option. This adds oil reservoirs in place of traditional dampers above the springs, although a normal shock absorber sits alongside this set-up as a support/precaution. ABC can pump in or suck out fluid for the reservoir as required to firm up the car's body control at all corners. More of a proactive system to keep the SL's weight transfer in check than the reactive standard suspension, ABC keeps the big Benz flat and true during even the most lunatic of cornering speeds. CTF, which can lean the car up to 2.65 degrees into the bend, thus supposedly counteracting body roll, really only works on high-speed motorway driving so it's best to leave it disengaged for back roads.

For the rest of the SL 400's dynamic make-up, the traction control is pretty unobtrusive and the brakes are good (although we managed to thoroughly cook them during one intense up-mountain-down-the-other-side strop), which leaves the gearbox as the main obstruction to driving fun. It's a super-slick and fine unit in normal conditions, but it refuses to react to downshifts on the paddles when requested and it can occasionally cause rapid double-upshifts if the driver's not focusing on the redline. Therefore, simply leave it in fully auto mode and let the software do the work.

No complaints about the 400's soundtrack, though. Crikey, the first few half-openings of throttle had us agape, wondering if Mercedes had given us a V8 by mistake. It's another area where the regular SL bests the 65 from AMG, and given there's as near as dammit 100,000 between them, that's a phenomenal assertion to make. The V6 revs crisply and keenly, the tacho flinging itself round the dial with real energy in most situations. The engine has a lovely, clean bark to its high-revs performance and the exhaust, while not quite as mad for noise as the AMG V8, still burbles and pops away on a trailing throttle and downshifts. It's a soundtrack befitting any good performance car and we love the 400's tune.

All of the above, naturally, pertains to driving the SL like an idiot. But when you throttle back, the 400 makes the most sense as a purchase, thanks to an abundance of easily accessible torque and its stellar levels of refinement. Even with the Vario-Roof folded into the boot, the cabin is quiet and comfortable, while the ride on ABC is exemplary; you feel very little in terms of road imperfections in the SL 400's cabin. The exhaust and engine both adopt cultured and discreet manners, and the Mercedes once again reminds you it is a long-distance cruiser first and foremost. It just so happens that it's also a convertible and a sports car, wrapped up in one package.

Verdict

The super-rich would probably never contemplate buying a 'mere' SL 400, but they're the ones missing out. In a post-lottery win existence, the magnificent SL 63 is the prime choice, yet in the actual world we all inhabit, the 3.0-litre V6 is all the Mercedes roadster you could possibly want. Great to look at, possessed of a superb interior laden with luxury toys, capable of unruffled cruising hood up or down and absolutely fantastic to listen to, such a repertoire alone would be enough to convince us of the 400's merits. So the fact there's a sparkling chassis underneath it all, with which to reward the keener driver, is a wonderful surprise. Entry-level has never looked as appealing as this.

4 4 4 4 4 Exterior Design

5 5 5 5 5 Interior Ambience

4 4 4 4 4 Passenger Space

4 4 4 4 4 Luggage Space

4 4 4 4 4 Safety

5 5 5 5 5 Comfort

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Driving Dynamics

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Powertrain


Matt Robinson - 28 Feb 2016



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2016 Mercedes-Benz SL. Image by Mercedes-Benz.2016 Mercedes-Benz SL. Image by Mercedes-Benz.2016 Mercedes-Benz SL. Image by Mercedes-Benz.2016 Mercedes-Benz SL. Image by Mercedes-Benz.2016 Mercedes-Benz SL. Image by Mercedes-Benz.



2016 Mercedes-Benz SL. Image by Mercedes-Benz.
 

2016 Mercedes-Benz SL. Image by Mercedes-Benz.
 

2016 Mercedes-Benz SL. Image by Mercedes-Benz.
 

2016 Mercedes-Benz SL. Image by Mercedes-Benz.
 

2016 Mercedes-Benz SL. Image by Mercedes-Benz.
 

2016 Mercedes-Benz SL. Image by Mercedes-Benz.
 

2016 Mercedes-Benz SL. Image by Mercedes-Benz.
 

2016 Mercedes-Benz SL. Image by Mercedes-Benz.
 






 

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