A palm tree whips by on our left side. On our right are the tight folds of a rock-speckled valley. The roof is open in our 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG roadster and the smell of the sea slips into the cabin. We crack off a heavy-throttle upshift just before a silly French hatchback comes understeering into our already too-narrow lane. We're hard on the brakes to avoid punching a three-pointed star through the wandering subcompact.
Disaster averted, we're back to enjoying the scenery. It looks familiar but slightly different. The palm trees are shorter and stockier and the sea ahead of us is a milky blue instead of the deep blue-green Pacific we see at home.
This could be Southern California. We could be minutes from home. If we weren't paying close attention, the roads leading into the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azure region of France look like California. And if you're not paying attention, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG looks like a normal SL550.
Stronger and Stiffer, Not Heavier
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL63 is based on the new 2013 Mercedes SL550 and thus gets all of the same treatments. The body-in-white of both cars is down by 220 pounds versus the previous model, yet rigidity is up by 20 percent. The latest SL chassis contains some 200 feet of robot welding and nearly 2,000 rivets; the firewall is the largest cast piece in the automotive industry. Stiffness is important when you've got a car with 429 horsepower from a twin-turbo V8.
It gets even more important when you, as AMG has done here, rip out that motor and fill the void with a 530-hp 5.5-liter twin-turbo V8 hand built in Affalterbach.
Stiffness is also an issue when that same car doesn't have a roof. The magnesium power-folding roof is not only very sturdy, it shaves 13 pounds from last year's steel-framed roof. The old SL would shudder as the mechanisms whirred and the roof origamied itself into place, but there's none of that here. Hold the button for the top and, like a good stagehand, the SL63 changes the scenery without reminding the audience of the intricacies at play. We said it of the SL550 and we'll repeat it here: It's one of the tightest convertibles we've ever driven.
With the additional bodywork and larger wheels, Mercedes estimates the SL63 tips the scales at 4,068 pounds — only 100 pounds heavier than the SL550 and nearly 400 pounds lighter than a 2011 SL63 AMG we tested last year.
It All Starts With the Engine
Starting the engine begins with a familiar snarl, but from a different body. Gone is the lustworthy naturally aspirated 6.2-liter V8 from the outgoing SL63 AMG and in its place is a new forced-induction power plant that promises to satisfy our love for power and the government's love for fuel efficiency.
Tobias Moers, chief engineer at Mercedes AMG, is quick to remind us that this is not the first application of AMG's new M157 5.5-liter turbocharged V8. It already sits in the E63, S63, CL63 and the CLS63 AMG cars and we've had our hands on nearly all of them. As with the S63, the SL63 AMG makes 530 hp and 590 pound-feet of torque in its standard tune.
Mercedes didn't provide them in their normal state, however. The cars we were driving were equipped with the AMG Performance package — a $9,000 option that "relimits" the top speed to 186 mph, increases power to 557 hp and 664 lb-ft of torque (via cranking the boost to 18.5 psi from 14.2 psi) and adds a limited-slip differential. Equipped with this pack, Mercedes estimates that the SL will hit 60 mph in under 4 seconds.
Controlling the Launch
Achieving this number, however, isn't as easy as smashing the go pedal and riding the wave of boost. Try it that way and the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL63 drags itself to about 10 mph before the turbos drop their full payload and the 285/35ZR20s out back scorch the asphalt. Fun, but not fast.
Instead, this SL, like the other AMGs is fitted with a Race Start (RS) feature that manages wheelspin, gearshifts and rpm to get the perfect launch. But it's a multistep process. Trying to use RS for light-to-light racing is like using an over-under shotgun to mow down zombies; you may get the first few, but eventually you'll get caught.
On the open road, the twin-turbo V8 has startling midrange. Passing a slow-moving Dacia — and the six cars it's holding up — is a non-event that requires zero forethought. All of that torque we wanted at launch is available and only too happy to get things moving.
Whether we shift the seven-speed automatic (a wet clutch replaces the torque converter in AMG cars) via the upgraded aluminum paddles or dump it in Sport Plus mode, the shifts are lightning-fast and send just enough shock through the system to make you feel like something happened. Along with the shift comes a distinct pop. Less a pop, per se, than a huff covering a yelp. Sound matters to AMG. Just because they can't get overrun on deceleration anymore doesn't mean they can't make some inappropriate noises.
The ABC of AMG
There are three buttons on the center console next to the shifter in the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG. The first is the familiar skidding car representing traction control. The third is the AMG button that sets all systems to a preset level of attack. Between them is the familiar graphic of a shock absorber that allows for adjustment of the suspension.
In normal mode, the SL63 glides with the solidity and effortlessness of the megayachts moored in the St. Tropez bay below us. Impacts flow through the suspension and into the cabin to remind us that the car is still connected to the road in the traditional Germanic way. The goal isn't isolation; it's control. As the road tightens, the body pitches over in reaction to the precise but finger-light steering.
Press that shock absorber button and the Mercedes-Benz Active Body Control springs into life. Immediately the steering changes. There's more weight in the wheel and the SL63 is far more reactive. The ratio never changes. Rather, Mercedes simply tinkers with the levels of assist as the ABC adjusts the suspension to simulate a quicker ratio. Turn-in is immediate in this mode and takes some getting used to, as does the ultra-flat cornering.
"There aren't any," a representative for Mercedes tells us when we ask about competitors. "Buyers don't cross-shop the SL."
According to the company, SL buyers are also, on average, 56 years old, predominantly male (84 percent), college graduates (77 percent), married (75 percent) and earn an average household income of $516,000 per year. Up to 40 percent of these buyers opt for an AMG version.
They're also repeat Mercedes-Benz buyers and often repeat SL buyers. The 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG is better in every measurable way than its predecessor — something we look forward to proving on our track back home — and Mr. $516,000-per-year will count himself deserving to park one next to his S- or CLS-Class AMG.
We'll mourn the loss of the naturally aspirated V8. We always liked the way it would pop and burble under engine braking, explode with natural sound on an upshift and fly through its rpm range with a wicked quickness.
Mr. $516,000 will briefly mourn the loss of $181,240 (as tested) and bask in the Mediterranean sun while his car slowly depreciates as he waits to buy the next best SL63 AMG ever.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.
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