First of all, it's pronounced "Can." Not Cans. Or Kahn. Or Kahns.
If you're a jet-setter or an heiress or a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon with a lust for Tae Kwon Do, you probably already knew that. Cannes is a see-and-be-seen destination on the French Riviera for the "My Yacht Is Bigger Than Yours" Club. It's where the world's wealthy go to dine, drink wine, shop and tan. Oh, and watch movies. Cannes has hosted the Festival de Cannes, the world's premiere film festival, every May since 1946.
Cannes is the perfect place for this 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550. It fits the city like a fur-lined Versace glove.
But we're not in Cannes. We're not even in France. We're racing though southern Spain on our way to Marbella, a historic and breathtakingly beautiful resort town on the Mediterranean. The SL's retractable hardtop is stowed and the twin-turbo 4.7-liter V8 is seriously getting the job done.
It's here, blasting through the foothills of the Sierra Blanca under the warm sun of Andalusia, where the all-new SL550 is really showing us its chops. These roads are right out of Ronin: narrow, twisting and lined with strips of guardrail and slow-moving Fiat Puntos. There are fast sections and enough downhill, off-camber hairpins to test every aspect of this two-seater's dynamics.
After 125 miles, it's clear Mercedes-Benz has not screwed up the SL. In fact, it has made the SL better.
Less Weight, More Power
No easy feat. The SL that is being put out to pasture might date back to 2003, but it's still on our great-car list. And it still dominates the big-buck drop-top market against such rivals as the BMW 6 Series, Jaguar XK and Porsche 911. Saying the SL has aged well is like saying TMZ is kinda juvenile.
That, however, did not stop Mercedes from starting over for the sixth generation of its iconic two-seat convertible. Every part of this car is new, even if its overall shape and proportions seem familiar.
For 60 years, SL has stood for Sporty Lightweight. But SLs haven't qualified as light since the early 1970s, and the most recent SL was a porker. Weight-saving has been a priority this time around. The body is now 90 percent aluminum and weighs 309 pounds less than the steel body it replaced. The car's curb weight is down to 3,947 pounds, some 485 pounds less than the last SL we track tested, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG.
This weight loss is noticeable from the driver seat. The 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 just feels lighter on its feet. Less bulky. Please don't misunderstand, of course, because at nearly 4,000 pounds, this is no Lotus Eleven (or even Westfield XI), but it no longer feels too heavy.
The new structure is much more rigid, too. Even with the top down this new SL feels like a closed coupe. Even Spain's washboard roads can't send a shiver down its spine. It's the tightest convertible we've ever driven.
After they made it lighter and stiffer, Mercedes added power. The naturally aspirated 5.5-liter V8 that made 382 horsepower is history, replaced by a 429-hp 4.7-liter V8 with twin turbos and direct fuel injection. Some guys hear the word "turbo" and worry about low-end torque. Don't. The engine's torque rating is 516 pound-feet from as low as 1,800 rpm. Even the engine's horsepower peak occurs at just 5,250 rpm, well below its 6,300-rpm redline.
We dyno-tested this engine last July in an all-wheel-drive 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL550. At the wheels the motor made 357 hp at 5,250 rpm and a tire-shredding 461 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm. In the rear-wheel-drive SL550, this twin-turbo V8 is no doubt putting down more power to the road.
The twin-turbo SL is explosive off the line. Launch it hard and its massive 18-inch rear tires begin to fight a losing battle for traction. Despite their 285mm of width, these tires turn to dust as soon as the 13 psi of turbo boost propels the intake charge into the cylinders — which is essentially right off idle if our impression means anything.
With its traction control switched on, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 will still spin 'em off the line. And with it off, the SL will roast 'em high-school style. Although such burnouts, to our surprise, are frowned upon in front of the Hotel Marbella Club. Don't ask us how we know.
Mercedes says this "base" SL now delivers the acceleration of the outgoing SL63 AMG. Mercedes says it should hit 60 mph from a dead stop in about 4.5 seconds, which is exactly what the SL63 ran when we track-tested it back in October of 2010. And it was packing 518 hp.
The next SL63 AMG will up the ante with a twin-turbo 5.5-liter V8 when it hits dealers in mid-July. The AMG edition will offer buyers a choice of two output levels. The standard AMG-tuned twin-turbocharged, direct-injected 5.5-liter V8 is rated at 530 hp and 590 lb-ft of torque. Mercedes says the SL63 AMG will accelerate to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds and will have an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph (the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 is limited to 130 mph).
The optional AMG Performance package will kick output up to 557 hp and torque to 664 lb-ft, while trimming 0.1 second from the 0-60 time. Top speed rises to 186 mph.
Both cars use the same seven-speed automatic transmission that Mercedes calls "7G-Tronic." In the SL550 this transmission proves responsive, is geared perfectly and it matches revs when you ask for a quick downshift with one of its plastic shift paddles. No complaints.
We can complain, however, about the SL's annoying stop/start feature, which turns off the engine to save fuel at red lights and when the car stops moving in thick traffic. It can be disabled with the push of a button (marked ECO), but it must be manually disabled every time you jump behind the wheel. This is also annoying. Sorry, but we don't want to be annoyed by our $100,000 roadster.
Still, the stop/start system is one of the reasons that Mercedes says the new SL's fuel consumption has been improved by 30 percent. The EPA hasn't had its say yet, but the CLS550 sedan, which weighs a bit more than the SL and uses the same drivetrain, is rated at 17 city and 25 highway mpg.
Longer and Wider
The SL's new styling picks up where the also new CLS sedan left off. It's more severe. Also more masculine, if a bit less classic. The silhouette we've known since 2003 is still there, but the car has grown a bit larger. It's now 2 inches longer and 2.2 inches wider.
Two different suspension systems are available. There's the standard semi-active dampening or optional Active Body Control, which uses air springs. Both systems are paired with plenty of aluminum suspension components in an effort to reduce unsprung weight.
The ABC system in our test car delivers a sensational ride/handling combination that fits the SL's character. Switching it from Comfort mode to Sport dials up the spring rate, but the damping remains unchanged. Even in Sport the ride is never too firm, and in Comfort it's downright supple.
And the SL corners dead flat, which makes it feel more agile, even in really tight corners. Front end grip is incredibly good, and the SL's stability makes it an easy car to drive quickly.
Every new SL uses Mercedes' new "Direct-Steer" electric steering system. Direct-Steer controls both the ratio and the assist of the power steering according to the speed of the car, stabilizing the SL at straight-line highway speeds and decreasing both the effort and the turn-in required during low-speed maneuvers.
We would like to say it's a nonissue, but Mercedes, like many other automakers, is still figuring out the electric steering thing. The SL's steering ratio is spot-on and road feel is good, but the consistency and levels of assist are not. It too often feels synthetic. And there's the occasional moment when it feels video game-y.
Interior and Sound
If you've been in a Mercedes SLS, the new SL's interior will seem familiar. While not a direct lift from the gullwing supercar, the SL's interior is similar. You'll also notice the echo of SL heritage in the round grilles of the air vents, which recall the R107 SL that was built between 1971 and 1989. Of course there's plenty of leather and aluminum, and two optional woods if you would like a warmer ambience.
The seats are very aggressively bolstered, but wide enough for a fast-food junkie, which is a nice trick. They're also heated, cooled and adjustable in almost every conceivable way. We're also happy to declare that Mercedes has finally put a decent set of cupholders in the SL. There are three — two smaller provisions up ahead of the shift lever on the center console and one biggie back between the seats. This is a big deal; there's finally a place to put your lady's Big Gulp-size mochachino chai-latte double shot.
According to Mercedes, this is the world's safest convertible. As standard equipment, this car has active rollover bars, A-pillars made from a mix of aluminum and steel, and every active and passive safety system Mercedes has to offer.
Our test car was also equipped with the optional panoramic roof with the Magic Sky Control, which might be the coolest thing around. The transparent roof switches instantly between light and dark with the push of a button. In the light setting it's perfectly clear, like a giant glass sunroof. In the dark setting it shields the passengers from the sun.
By the way, both the panoramic roof and the standard glass roof take 20 seconds to open or close, which is the same as before. And they both now use a magnesium frame, which is 13 pounds lighter than the steel frame used last year. Pretty cool.
With its top up, the SL is quieter inside than most sedans. Wind control with the top down and the optional power-retractable wind deflector in place is also exceptional, even above the ton. Top dropped also allows you to enjoy the sound of the car's V8, which still has a muscular rumble despite its twin turbos.
Shy of Kate Upton enjoying a spicy burger in the passenger seat, improving the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 would be tough. This really is grand touring at its best.
Mercedes has managed to improve the SL's comfort, its dynamics, its safety and its performance, while also increasing its efficiency. If that were easy, ladies and gentlemen, everyone would be doing it.
Of course we expect even more from the forthcoming SL63 AMG, but for now the Mercedes-Benz SL550 will impress when it hits dealers in early May. It rings in at $105,550 plus destination for a cool $106,375.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.
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