In the last 10 years, the slice of vehicle sales that were cars has plummeted in the United States from about 50 percent to less than 25 percent. That’s why the only car in a Ford showroom is the Mustang and the only cars at your Buick dealer are used. The premium-car makers haven’t been immune to this trend, and Mercedes-Benz’s car percentage fell from 80 percent levels in the early part of the century to less than 30 percent this year. Obviously, this results in fewer cars being sold, with the brand’s two-seaters under particular pressure. The smaller SLC roadster was discontinued last year, and the even the venerable SL skipped the 2021 model year.
That one, however, is coming back for 2022 with a number of changes designed to broaden its appeal without compromising the luxury-convertible vibe that has been unique in a market tilting towards overtly sporty two-seat droptops. While Mercedes has released little hard information about the new model (codenamed R232), we recently had a chance to ride along in a pre-production example, driven by Moritz Stockmeier, senior manager for powertrain software and drivability for Mercedes-AMG. Here’s what we gleaned from the passenger seat.
As our driver’s title indicates, this new version of the SL will become the fourth Mercedes-AMG model specific to the brand, following the GT coupe/roadster, GT four-door coupe, and the One hypercar. This transfer to Mercedes sporting division is, in some ways, a return to the SL’s roots in the 1950s as a high-performance, roadgoing coupe that evolved from the Le Mans winner. That sporting orientation has been AWOL from the SL since the 300SL was replaced by the beautiful but decidedly more sedate 230SL in 1963. The new SL, developed by AMG and badged as such, perhaps hopes to shed its nearly 50-year-old image as a Hollywood producer’s car and make more of a muscular statement.
At the same time, Mercedes seems wary of giving up those posh buyers and making the car singularly focused. Therefore, this new model will come with rear seats for the first time in decades. They were last offered on the R107 model (1972-1989) but only in Europe. These seats are very small, comparable to the rear seats in a Porsche 911, but Mercedes hopes they will broaden the car’s practical appeal, even if only to carry stacks of movie scripts.
Another concession to the marketplace is standard all-wheel drive, which has never even been optional on previous SLs. This change recognizes that it’s increasingly hard to sell rear-drive cars in the northern latitudes of the U.S. That’s too valuable a market to write off in these days of fewer car sales. And with the AMG version of the 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, the car’s sporting balance will not likely be compromised.
One more change is the shift from the retractable hard top, introduced two generations ago, back to a soft top. Among the reasons offered is that the soft top is somewhat lighter and takes up less space than the folding hard top. Better packaging of the top will help make room for the rear seats without increasing the length of the car.
No specifications for the new SL have yet been released, but the car looks to be about the same size as the previous generation. Mercedes has developed a new body structure for the SL using a great deal of aluminum in addition to steel, magnesium, and carbon fiber. Compared with the AMG GT roadster, transverse rigidity is 40 percent better and longitudinal rigidity is increased by 50 percent.
It’s hard to discern styling details on the camouflaged body, but the rear deck area seems unflatteringly high. Otherwise, the example we saw sported high-performance details, such as quad tail pipes, large carbon-ceramic brake rotors with muscular brake calipers, and Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires sized 265/40R-20 and 295/35R-20 mounted on wheels that have a goofy-looking inner ring.
The doors have retracting exterior handles a la Tesla, and once you’re inside, the look is not as futuristic as some recent Mercedes. There’s no two-foot-wide LCD screen on the dash. Instead, there’s a 12.3-inch LCD in a traditional binnacle in front of the driver, supplemented by an 11.9-inch central touchscreen that can be tilted between about 45 degrees to nearly vertical. The layout is similar to that in the new S580, and the screen is set in a nicely leather-trimmed dash. There will also be an optional head-up display.
There was no discussion of what was under the hood of this prototype, but it was clearly a version of Mercedes’s ubiquitous 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V-8, coupled to the nine-speed transmission, which is essentially a planetary-gear automatic, with the torque converter replaced by a wet multiplate clutch. A good guess for the engine choices would be the super- and turbocharged 429-hp 3.0-liter inline-six from the AMG GT53 four-door coupe and the twin-turbo V-8 from the GT63 and 63 S rated at 577 and 630 horsepower, respectively.
In the current fashion, the new SL is equipped with a driving mode selector, offering Comfort, Sport, Sport+, and Race modes. The range of adjustability seems unusually broad, as the ride is luxuriously plush with a subdued exhaust and seamless shifts in Comfort mode, while everything gets progressively more furious as the selector proceeds towards Race. It’s yet another aspect of giving this car the broadest possible appeal.
We won’t know any more details or see the undisguised body until the R232’s official launch later this year. But expect to see it in your Mercedes showroom in 2022. We’ll see if broad automotive appeal works in this truck-focused age.
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