MotiveMagazine:Motive First Steer--the 2009 SL 63 AMG

<< If you've been paying attention, you'll have noticed that Mercedes-Benz cars and their AMG variants are growing farther apart, that the AMG badge now denotes much more than a bigger engine and blockier wheels. The C63 AMG, when compared with its untweaked counterpart, is distinguished by a massively revised front suspension, and the CLK63 AMG Black series has more in common with Merc's DTM racing car than it does with the street CLK. The new SL63, which replaces the SL55 in the lineup, is so reworked that it barely feels like an SL, even though the base car gets sportified itself for its mid-cycle makeover this year.

The man behind this initiative is Volker Mornhinweg, the trim, blue-eyed, mustachioed CEO of AMG. We spent a morning together driving the new SL63, wherein he explained the new philosophy of Benz's performance imprint: "We need to separate AMG and the Mercedes brands — to keep ourselves true to our performance heritage, and to offer more choice for our customers. Now it's possible to own two SLs, say a 550 and a 63, and feel like you are getting two totally different experiences."

For the SL63, Mornhinweg specified changes at every level: elastokinematics, brakes, telematics, a new transmission concept, and of course, that monster of a 6.2-liter V-8. "This is the first time we've redone the car's systems so comprehensively," Mornhinweg said, as we drove up into the first set of Santa Rosa mountain passes outside of Palm Springs, California.

Inside, the SL63 is basically unchanged from the SL55 — the same round vents and peaked instrument binnacle dominate the dash. But small alterations abound. The new SL seats, for example, are go-to-sleep comfortable, and they get the neck-warmer function from the SLK. More important to gearheads will be the three little buttons and one rotary knob adjacent to the shifter. Reading ESP/sport/off, the top button manages wheel slip and fully defeats traction control in the off position. The second has an icon of a damper on it, with the word Sport under it: This sets the Active Body Control (ABC) to its stiffest setting. Beneath that button is one marked AMG, which allows you to save your preferred damper, ESP, and gear-speed settings.

Atop these selectors is the lone knob, and it controls the shift rate of the new seven-speed automated-manual transmission. This gearbox deep-sixes its torque converter, substituting a wet start-up clutch whose six plates run in an oil bath. It features five modes: "C," for Comfort, shifts gently, and is accompanied by a softened throttle response; "S" speeds shift time by 20 percent and engages the gearbox with more bite; "S+" shaves off another 20 percent; and "M," or Manual, cracks off shifts fastest, in just 100 milliseconds.

The fifth mode is called "RS" (Race Start), AMG's name for launch control. Engaging it involves swirling the knob to the RS setting and essentially brake torquing the living hell out of this superpriced ingot of German metal. It's a move you may remember performing on your Dodge Omni in high school, and it feels just as soul-satisfying here.

When we charge up the next series of mountain switchbacks (the top is down and the wind is blowing, but the cabin is silent), I notice that the gearbox, even in S+ or M modes, is shockingly deft. Despite the absence of a torque converter to massage the gear changes, the SL63 not only shifts cleanly, it also quells any rogue inertial forces. Mornhinweg says, "Some people think that sportiness means a car that slams you back into the seat when it shifts. I don't believe that. This car shifts very quickly, but it doesn't upset the car or the driver." In fact, it's no less smooth than a DSG 'box, a technology that would have added around 50 pounds, taken up space, and worked hard to handle the 63's hurricane of torque. This gearbox is compact, stout, and weighs just 175 pounds.

These serpentine roads are flawless, and cambered to encourage maximum carving. The SL63 feels heavy here, but in a good way. It's a road-crusher, sinking into the pavement and claiming it as its own. Due to the Active Body Control, which pairs conventional dampers with body-controlling bladders at the top of the shock towers, the SL refuses to dive under braking, or squat under acceleration, or bob up and down in response to road undulations. The car stays flat on corner approach — stable, mighty, and clean. It has so much grip that it becomes impossible to provoke on these roads, and responds calmly and controllably to even ham-fisted inputs. Also, the dampers are tuned so that broken, choppy pavement — which we would encounter later — barely creeps into the cabin. There's an odd but satisfying paradox to this car's dynamics: Except for a little carefully calibrated body roll, it feels both motionless and yet impossibly fleet.

"We stiffened up everything in this car, making the connections between all the moving suspension parts as hard as possible," Mornhinweg says. The steering, a new rack with a 13.5:1 ratio, benefits as a result. On-center feel is natural and matched to the weight of the car. It rolls into turns with acutely linear response. Not once did it require any mid-corner adjustment.

Elevation changes and rapidly approaching curves mean frequent applications of the brakes, and they, too, are excellent. With huge rotors and six-piston front/four-piston rear calipers, the brakes dispel heat effectively and resist fade. Says Mornhinweg: "We are eventually going to offer carbon-composite brakes, but not until we can substantially improve on these. There has to be a reason to move up."

With the top down and wind noise well suppressed, the only thing we hear up here is the exhaust note caroming off the mountainside. There's little induction growl, just a ripping, snarling, feral kind of tone that, according to my driving partner, just squeaks in under the European drive-by dB regulations. A throttle blip accompanies double-declutched downshifts in the higher gear-change speeds (i.e., all except Comfort mode) and this, in turn, is accompanied by a little repeater toot of gastric distress, as if to signal manly content at the piece of road it just ate.

The engine itself, familiar already from other 63-series AMG cars, feels particularly well suited to this car. Its 518 horsepower and 465 lb-ft of torque deliver the heaviest, most satisfying V-8 kind of power there is, tractable at the low end and manic at the top. It vaults the car to 62 mph in 4.6 seconds, and feels as though the AMG boys stole a little Hemi magic from their former colleagues in Auburn Hills.

Above and beyond all this goodness, AMG offers the P30 Performance package. It brings a flat-bottomed steering wheel, Alcantara trim, an even stiffer suspension, 15.4-in front brakes (up 1.2 in over stock) with aluminum hats, and a limited-slip differential capable of 40-percent lockup.

It's hard to find much to fault in this well-resolved, comfortable, and hair-searingly fast SL. Perhaps its price, which will be announced soon, will seem obscene to those outside the target audience, expected as it is to creep a bit higher than that of the outgoing SL55 ($129,300). With all options, though, it won't reach into Gallardo territory, which is good, because then you'd be driving a Gallardo, putting you one mustache and one Hawaiian shirt away from looking like a complete dickhead. The SL63 makes a less extreme statement, and is far more livable all the way around. We'd love to pit this car against the R8 for a week and see which one we'd want to keep. Like the Audi, it feels worth the six figures, mainly because there's nothing else quite like it: The SL has always been a car apart, refusing to fit neatly into any category. The SL63 AMG is no different. It's a GT with a supercar heart. >>

Link to the review

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