There's a steep stone cliff to my left; on my right, a sheer drop-off to the valley floor, several thousand feet below. The curves are sharp and blind, yet my foot feels glued to the floor. It might just as well be as I've no intention of easing up on the throttle as I take the new Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG for a test drive through the treacherous passes from Los Angeles to Palm Springs. With a car like the 2009 SL, the first significant update to the classic Benz roadster in eight years, who needs freeways?
Starting with the original SL of 1954, Mercedes always aimed to please two masters—comfort and sportiness—with its spry two-seater. Delivering both wasn't always easy, and some of the early SL iterations weren't up to it. The outgoing model raised the bar significantly, while breaking ground with what was then the revolutionary concept of a hardtop convertible. These days, that feature shows up on such mainstream offerings as the Pontiac G6 and Volkswagen Eos. But there's nothing middle-of-the-road about the new SL.
The look of the '09 model is familiar, though sportier, with the aggressive wing design of the headlamps and grille. Mercedes' performance chief, Volker Mornhingweg, describes the look of the AMG edition as "an athlete in a tailored suit." If the visual differences are modest, it's what's under the sheet metal that matters.
The AMG comes in two takes. The ultimate edition, the SL65 AMG, with its twin-turbo, 604-horsepower V-12, declares that you've arrived—in a hurry. But I'll "settle" for the SL63. Its normally aspirated, 6.3-liter V-8 makes "only" 518-hp, and at 4.4 seconds, you'll take an extra two-tenths of a second to go from 0 to 60. But of the pair, the SL63 has the more sporty feel and balance. It helps that the V-8 is mated to the new Speedshift MCT, the first transmission designed exclusively by and for AMG. Eliminating the traditional automatic's torque converter created no noticeable power disruptions, and gear changes are nearly Formula One fast.
The AMG SL63 boasts a new, three-stage stability control system. One of the more interesting new touches is an electronic control setting that optimizes engine RPMs for maximum launch. What's not available is the Direct Steering technology that will be added to U.S. versions of the SL550 and SL600 for the 2010 model year. That system greatly enhances handling on roads like the ones we experienced outside Palm Springs. But AMG has gone with its own handling and steering package, and a back-to-back comparison says the brand-within-a-brand has made the right decision.
The 2009 SL63 AMG is, to my eyes, and hands and feet, the car I'd love to wake up to in my driveway every day. The new model has met the challenge, delivering that uncanny blend of comfort and sportiness that other makers can only hope to achieve.
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