By Hannah Elliott, Los Angeles
The Mercedes SL deserves a spot next to the Porsche 911, Ford Mustang, and Chevrolet Corvette as one of the most recognizable, longest-running, and now thoroughly modernized cars ever.
You want something that puts a smile on your face? This one will.
Everyone you know owns one, used to own one, or wants to own one. They are easy and fun to drive, with cute, short wheelbases and the signature flat hood and trunk that, with the hardtop removed, showcase how the car’s ingeniously simple profile becomes timelessly chic.
Four round headlights beam friendly warmth and the interior satisfies with plump leather seats and such tactile delights as actual round knobs and burled wood trim.
So I was happy to spend recent time behind the wheel in Southern California for the debut of the 2022 Mercedes-Benz SL.
I will spare you sentimental speeches about how the new one embodies the old one’s DNA: This version shares exactly zero components with its predecessors. The only thing they have in common is the name.
Don’t expect anyone to complain.
The modern SL is a radical beast in an identity switch that goes deeper than just its curvier, heavier body.
Where the original SL is lucky to maintain 80 mph (129km/h) cruising speed on the highway – as a former 560SL owner, I write from experience – you’ll have to actively rein this one in.
It has the power, aggression, and handling of modern sports cars. A darling, if gutless, convertible this is not.
Tuned for Speed
The 2022 Mercedes-Benz SL comes in two varieties, each hand-built and tuned by Mercedes’s high-performance AMG division, which means both are fierce.
You can pick the AMG SL 55 or the AMG SL 63. Each comes with a V8 bi-turbo engine; the SL 55 gets 469 hp (350kW) with 516 pound-feet (700Nm) of torque, while the SL 63 gets 577 hp (430kW) with 590 pound-feet (936Nm) of torque.
The SL 63 is 0.3 seconds faster in a sprint, with a zero-60 mph (97km/h) time of 3.5 seconds. Pricing has yet to be released, but expect it to be more than double what you’d pay for a vintage SL on Bring a Trailer.
I felt a share of that speed during my winding drive in the SL 63 I picked up in Newport Beach, home of Arrested Development and the world’s largest Mercedes-Benz dealership.
Mercedes could not have selected a more fitting place to relaunch one of its most branded cars: If there is one place European convertibles belong, it is in California.
Many European convertibles were developed specifically to tap into this market; for Mercedes specifically, 40% of all SLs sold in North America go to the “Western Region,” which includes the state.
I drove south on Route 1 through the palms of Laguna Beach and sunshine-drenched Dana Point before turning east toward Lake Elsinore and Palomar Mountain, near the white-domed observatory that oversees verdant forest pines and celestial bodies alike.
The SL is based on a completely new AMG-developed architecture with a chassis made of lightweight composite aluminum in a complex new design that maximizes rigidity. It also comes, for the first time, with AMG-tuned all-wheel drive.
Its torque, stability, and balance are smoothed by a tight body and a computer system that’s far more adept than my own driving skills. Which is great.
It meant that as we climbed the two-lane mountain road high above the Coachella Valley, the car handled each curve as a mere matter of fact.
Mercedes’s excellent suspension system, with active anti-roll stabilization, rear-axle steering, and AMG high-performance ceramic composite brakes, made this SL more fun to drive than the old one; you can go faster, push harder.
But don’t let that active rear spoiler (with six different settings) fool you: There is neither engine drone nor drama here, just smooth, collected driving. Which is what I expect most people who buy an SL today will want.
Smart Interiors, One Downside
Quite unlike the original SL, the new one has back seats – two of them – that might fit children or even a large dog; I don’t suggest they’ll suit adult humans.
A further difference: This SL comes only with a soft-top, which deploys in 15 seconds but looks about as good as a limp dish rag and will make you long for the originals’ removable hard tops, difficult as they were to lift.
Thankfully, the soft top stores – out of sight, out of mind – in the trunk, cutting into that already small space. Total trunk space tops out at less than eight cubic feet (227l), about enough to hold a golf bag and a duffel bag.
The SL’s interior is as close to perfection as anything I saw in 2021.
It has all the latest technologies, comfort settings, fragrances, and textiles that make it feel special without forcing them upon you.
There’s an “airscarf” that blows air on the back of your head for neck-level heating; the tall touchscreen in the center console is adjustable to help avert glare; the AMG sport seats that come standard cradled my hips and back without ever feeling harsh.
I’m a big fan of Mercedes’s propensity to put control buttons on the steering wheel, and I was happy to see this continue on the AMG Performance-style steering wheel.
It’s all a mix of analog technologies with digital inputs performing beautifully in a streamlined, intuitively designed, and just plain comfortable cabin.
Even after driving all day through the desert, I never felt fatigued or frayed. (The same cannot be said for harsher sports cars such as the Porsche 911 GT3.)
I ended my drive in Palm Springs, where Gene Autry’s old house served as a fitting conclusion to the drive.
Its bright white walls, open-air format, and seclusion amid a lush garden oasis in the desert seemed the perfect parallel to the rebirth of this midcentury model.
History came to life, better than ever.