Mercedes SL

German roadster gets a thorough overhaul in an effort to keep up with younger competitors.

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

There's lots to be excited about with the new SL. Its uprated V6 is a fabulous engine that offers huge performance, while the dynamic tweaks ensure the car handles better than before. The questionable front end styling could put off potential buyers. But even with the £1,200 price rise over the previous SL 350, the new model represents a big step forward and is the best value in the range. Plus, it’s still one of the world’s most desirable drop-tops.

It may have been around since 2002, but few luxury cars are as desirable as Mercedes’ SL. With an elegant shape, slick electric folding roof and cultured road manners, it’s one of the best models the firm has ever produced.

However, rivals such as the BMW 6-Series Convertible and Jaguar XK Convertible are giving customers reason to look elsewhere, as will Maser-ati’s GranTurismo Roadster when it arrives in 2009. So the SL has had a host of updates to keep it on the ball.

The most obvious change is the nose, which takes cues from Mercedes’’ latest design direction with big headlights and an even bolder radiator grille featuring the famous badge mounted on a large horizontal bar.

Bosses claim that the styling harks back to the past, too, with the bonnet power bulge and front wing air intakes inspired by the classic 1954 300 SL. At the rear, there are fresh tail-lights and sleeker bumpers.

The result? Well, while the previous version was subtle, this SL is very dramatic – and to our eye, that imposing front end could be a bit too much for traditional Mercedes buyers.

Inside, there’s less controversy. In come new materials and revised versions of the COMAND control system and sat-nav. As ever, it’s a sumptuous, comfortable and ergonomically sound place in which to spend time. One thing that improves comfort no end is the AIRSCARF set-up. This was first seen on the SLK, and blows warm air on to the necks of the driver and passengers, making open-top cruising in winter a more realistic experience.

Another new option is the Intelligent Lighting – essentially adaptive bi-xenon headlamps with different set-tings for varying driving conditions. No changes have been made to the roof – and none was needed, either. Owners will never tire of the way in which it folds into the boot at the touch of a button.

As for the engines, well heeled customers will continue to be satisfied by the SL 500 and SL 600 models, while those with even more cash can stump up for a new SL 63 AMG, com-plete with a 525bhp 6.2-litre V8.

The most significant changes have taken place further down the range, though. In comes the SL 280, which gets a new 228bhp V6. It can return 30mpg, yet sprints from 0-62mph in less than eight seconds.

Marking the most significant step forward is our car: the new SL 350. Its 3.5-litre V6 is a development of the previous unit, and now offers 312bhp – that’s over 40bhp more than before. Torque is up 10Nm to 360Nm, too, and on the road, it’s very impressive indeed. The 0-62mph dash takes only 6.2 seconds, making it four-tenths-of-a-second faster than the previous SL 350. As you might expect, there’s plenty of overtaking punch, as well as a rasping soundtrack from the creamy V6. The six-speed automatic gearbox is smooth yet responsive, too.

Despite its increased performance, the SL 350 is 1mpg more economical than its predecessor, returning nearly 29mpg on the combined cycle.

And there’s more good news when it comes to the handling, largely due to the all-new variable-ratio, speed-sensitive steering system. As a result, the car has more feel and responsive-ness. Fitted with air-suspension, the SL also manages to strike a brilliant balance between comfort and driver appeal. It serves up a supple ride that massages bumps away, yet there is very little body roll and lots of agility under hard cornering.

It’s still too remote to feel like a Porsche 911, of course, while the Jaguar XK delivers a sharper and more fun driving experience. But the SL is a great all-rounder nevertheless.

Rival: Jag XK Convertible If there’s controversy over how the new SL looks, there are no doubts about the XK’s lines. It’s one of the most stylish drop-tops in its class. Add in a characterful V8, epic pace and a sporty driving experience and you have a great luxury car.

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