In the rarified air of super-expensive, ultra-luxurious, V-12 powered luxury coupes, few names match the prestige of the Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG — and even fewer cars can match its combination of massive power and coddling appointments.
Mercedes-Benz's SL roadster is one of those rare, iconic models that has endured for decades. It's been a fixture of the Hollywood cognoscenti since its initial appearance in 1954; even Frank Sinatra owned one. The latest version has been redesigned for 2013, and it's more than just a face-lift. The whole structure has been reworked, so the car is now fashioned almost entirely out of aluminum, and clocks in significantly lighter than the previous model. That describes the car that AMG — Mercedes-Benz's in-house, high-performance-tuning organization — got its hands on before adding all its special go-fast bits.
Once AMG was done, the result was the most expensive, most powerful car Mercedes-Benz sells: the SL65 AMG. It is indeed "King of the AMGs," with a twin-turbocharged, 6.0-liter V-12 pumping out massive horsepower and torque, and wrapped in aluminum, leather and carbon fiber. Changes from the previous SL65 are extensive, but the powertrain itself is only mildly revised. As there was no 2012 version of the SL65, see the differences between 2011 and 2013 models here.
The look of the new 2013 SL is an evolution of the previous model. It's still long, low and wide, but now it features the more dramatic Mercedes-Benz face that's becoming common across the range. The style is certainly distinctive, but not necessarily beautiful, with a high front end (meant to accommodate European pedestrian-safety laws) that gives it a squared-off look up front, and a muscular rear end that's meant to imply big power coming through the rear wheels.
The AMG treatment gives it some more aggressive elements, such as massive black chrome 19-inch wheels up front and 20-inch wheels out back, red-painted brake calipers, and an optional carbon fiber trim package that's most visible in the side mirrors and trunklid spoiler. My tester also included special Magno Alanite Grey paint, a semi-gloss satin finish that is increasingly the rage among super-expensive sports cars. It looks quite good on the SL65, too.
How it drives
The SL65 AMG has something very few cars on the planet have these days: a V-12 engine. Always the hallmark of a luxury vehicle (given the fuel thirst and maintenance costs that often accompany such motors), it appears here in the top-of-the-line SL roadster, and it is a stunning piece of work.
The twin-turbocharged 6.0-liter engine makes 621 horsepower and 738 pounds-feet of torque. That's almost as much torque as you get in a Ford Super Duty Power Stroke Diesel or Ram 2500 pickup with the Cummins turbo-diesel engine, but nestled in an aluminum roadster with huge performance tires.
Slide into the cockpit and press the starter button, and the V-12 fires to life with a rumble and little drama. The exhaust note from all those cylinders is surprisingly unimpressive — it sounds precise, mechanical, but subdued even under full throttle. It doesn't at all sound like Mercedes-Benz's snarling 6.2-liter V-8 that appears in the SLS AMG; that engine will shake the trees and scatter small children with its roar.
The SL65 instead prefers to go about its business of accelerating you to warp speed with minimal fuss and fury, letting the effect of all that torque do the talking. With a 3.9-second zero-to-60 mph time, warp speed is indeed an accurate analogy, blurring the world around you in a scary rush. Make sure the way in front of you is clear before you plant your foot, as you'll run out of room quickly.
Handling is precise, if not terribly athletic. Despite the aluminum construction, this is still a fairly heavy car, and given the SL's pedigree, it's much more of a luxury grand tourer than a true track star. Steering effort and transmission behavior are selectable, but for most conditions, keeping it on the comfort end of the spectrum, as opposed to the sport end, will keep you and your passengers most satisfied.
The SL65 is meant to be quick, but given its deeply luxurious appointments, open roof and scary sticker price, it's not meant to be raced. Just use it as a passenger-frightening device, pointing the car at the horizon and achieving super-legal speeds with astonishing swiftness.
With such a big engine and a propensity for seeing just how fast it can go, fuel economy suffers. The official EPA rating for the SL65 is 14/21/17 mpg city/highway/combined. Unfortunately, that means it gets hit with a $1,300 gas-guzzler tax, but if you're already spending at least $212,000 on the car, that's probably not a concern. My long-range driving test (from Ann Arbor, Mich., to St. Louis) saw the roadster average a quite-respectable 20 mpg. Not bad considering all the top-down driving I did over 1,200 miles.
Inside, the SL65 is a rich mix of classy materials, bold shapes, genuine wood, leather, carbon and aluminum, all bolted together with uncompromising quality. It feels special in here, with a surprising amount of room for two (there is no rear seat) seated on thick, quilt-stitched leather. The seats are heated, cooled and highly adjustable, featuring Mercedes-Benz's so-called massage feature — which is really only various bladders inflating and deflating, feeling more like someone pushing you in the back than actually massaging you. Call me when Mercedes-Benz incorporates a Brookstone rolling shiatsu massage chair into a roadster — that's a massage function I could get behind.
The side bladders are part of the active seat feature that helps brace you when you change direction, responding to what the vehicle is doing. Some find it a good assist; I found it annoying. Thankfully, it is easily switched off.
Some of the gee-whiz technology in Mercedes-Benz's top roadster truly is impressive. The hardtop, which descends quickly into the trunk under a hard tonneau cover, features a glass panel roof that is actually one large LCD. Mercedes-Benz calls it Magic Sky Control. At the touch of a button, the entire glass roof darkens or goes transparent, letting less or more sun shine through. A function called Air Scarf directs a flow of hot air from behind the seats onto passengers' necks, enabling comfy top-down cruising in cooler temperatures.
Ergonomics & electronics
The SL65 features nearly all of Mercedes-Benz's top technologies, including Bluetooth, smartphone compatibility and the mbrace2 multimedia app system. Everything is controlled though a knob selector in the center console; the large screen in the dashboard is not a touch-screen. Operating the system does take some getting used to, but most operations go smoothly once you've got it down. Navigation is standard on the SL65, but the map needs an update. Driving through northern Ohio and suburban St. Louis revealed relatively new major four-lane interstate highways that had not yet made it onto the Benz's map, prompting the nav system to tell us we were zipping through a cornfield at 75 mph.
The Bang & Olufsen premium audio system is superb, as one would expect in such a high-dollar conveyance. The car is designed in such a way that it uses the open cavities in the structure behind the dashboard as a subwoofer enclosure, allowing for seriously deep bass response and very high-quality sound.
Cargo & storage
In the cabin, there are only a few cubbies and storage areas for carrying small items. The center console storage is rather lacking due to the vehicle's driveline running between the passengers. Trunk storage comes in two stages: top up and top down. Top up, one can easily store a large suitcase or a few smaller roll-aboard cases, or a couple of golf bags.
To put the top down, you have to lower a special locking divider into place that cuts cargo room in half but protects the top from impacting anything in the trunk. If the divider isn't locked into place, the top won't go down. The partition diminishes cargo room to two roll-aboard cases and some stuffed-in odds and ends, but it's still plenty of room for two people and a weekend getaway.
Value in its class
The base price for the SL65 is $214,445, which includes a $1,300 gas-guzzler tax and $905 destination charge. My test car added $3,950 for the special Magno Alanite matte paint, $1,000 for red-painted brake calipers, $500 for upsized black chrome wheels and $3,570 for an exterior carbon fiber trim package, bringing the grand total to $223,465. Price your own SL with options here.
If one insists on a 12-cylinder engine and convertible top, competitors are more numerous than one might suspect. The most direct competitor may be the Bentley Continental GTC, which starts at $221,225 and features a W-12 engine, all the luxurious trappings present in the Benz and seating for two more people. While the price is similar, the performance is not — the Bentley is down 54 hp from the SL65 and does not feature the aluminum-intensive construction, meaning it weighs a whopping 1,200 pounds more than the SL65.
Aston Martin has the $201,525 DB9 Volante convertible, also sporting a V-12 engine but still not nearly as powerful as the SL65's torque-monster. The shape is arguably more attractive, however, and being 250 pounds lighter than the SL65 may offset a little of that power deficit.
A third, somewhat-less-conventional choice could be the Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet. It doesn't feature a 12-cylinder engine like the others, but power is still quite formidable, as are handling and overall performance. Motivated by a turbocharged flat-six that's still not as powerful as the SL65's V-12 (if you haven't gotten the idea by now, it's an insanely powerful engine), the Porsche is a significantly smaller and lighter car, besting the Benz by nearly 650 pounds. See how the competitors stack up here.
It's difficult to talk about value when discussing a car that costs as much as a single family home in a Midwestern city. The bigger question is one of customer satisfaction. If you have this much money to spend on an automobile and are intent on doing so, is this a good choice versus other vehicles costing similar amounts? The answer to that question is yes. The SL65 AMG feels unique. It's an understated grand touring roadster that delivers huge capability without the questionably flashy taste of some competitor coupes.