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Car review: 2013 Mercedes SL550 is pedestrian-friendly excellence

Exterior of the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 makes pedestrian-safety styling concessions. Beyond that, it is one of the best road-trip cars money can buy.

July 12, 2012|By David Undercoffler, Los Angeles Times
  • Its square profile and oversized headlights give it a bug-eyed face not unlike that adorably British Geico Gecko.
Its square profile and oversized headlights give it a bug-eyed face not… (Mercedes )

If Europeans didn't walk so darn much, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 might be a better-looking car. Clearly they don't appreciate the convenience of a 90-second drive to Gelson's for a carton of soy milk that we Angelenos take for granted.

Their ambulatory prowess means new vehicles must meet specific crash regulations, designed to reduce the likelihood of serious injury or death if a pedestrian gets hit by a wayward Bimmer or Benz.

These mandates have thrown a wrench into the aesthetic evolution of numerous automakers' vehicles, since the rules place very tangible requirements on the design of a car's front end. This collateral damage is regrettably conspicuous on this latest version of Mercedes' iconic two-seater.

But at least this all-new SL is one of the best road-trip cars that money can buy. (Piles of money, actually, considering its base price is about $106,000.)

The 2013 SL's shape ends previous versions' evolution toward a sleeker profile. The car now sports a blunt, upright front bumper and grille. This moves the impact zone higher to reduce knee and ankle injuries to pedestrians. Consider that a person getting hit at the hips can bend sideways in ways they can't if they are hit in the legs.

The hood itself also sits higher because more space is now mandated between it and the engine underneath. This provides somewhat of a cushioned landing for the unfortunate soul you're relocating from the crosswalk.

Thus, the SL is undoubtedly safer for pedestrians. But at a cost. Its square profile and oversized headlights give it a bug-eyed face not unlike that adorably British Geico Gecko. The rear end's lines are more sleek but its silhouette is saddled with too-big taillights that make the back end bulbous.

Fortunately, once you're actually in the car and not looking at it, the $124,935 SL550 I tested was utterly seductive with its intrepid power and a peerless appetite for highway miles.

The nucleus of this ability is a sublimely athletic motor. Sitting beneath that high hood is a new 4.7-liter, twin-turbocharged V-8 making 429 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque. Through the wonders of turbos, intercooling and direct injection, this engine is physically smaller yet significantly more powerful than its 5.5-liter predecessor.

The SL's amplified vigor is also aided by a feature far less sexy than rote power figures; it's lost a lot of weight.

By pairing the smaller engine with an aluminum body shell, Mercedes was able to shave a whopping 275 pounds off the previous SL550. Pair that with a 12% boost in power and the 2013 model will now do zero to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds. That's almost a second faster than before.

Losing this much weight also helps your efficiency (just ask Richard Simmons). The new SL is now rated at 16 miles per gallon in the city and 24 on the highway, a gain of 2 mpg in each case over the less powerful 5.5-liter engine. During a road trip with mostly highway miles, I averaged 23 mpg, and I was easily getting 25 mpg for long stretches of cruising.

Managing the SL's penchant for speed and efficiency is a seven-speed automatic transmission that routes power to the rear wheels. The only transmission available on the SL550, this unit comes standard with paddle shifters and Sport and Manual modes.

Throughout my week with the car, the engine and transmission worked in concert for an eminently smooth motoring experience. The V-8 has a silky delivery of power and gets truly vocal only when you mash the throttle. The rest of the time it's content to purr along with a quiet burble and the faint hint of turbo whine. Meanwhile, the transmission provides shifts with the expected rapidity of a six-figure roadster.

The SL is also an esteemed multi-tasker. While its drivetrain focuses on expediting you and your passenger to that private tasting menu at a chalet in the neighboring province, the interior is equally attentive to your whims.

All SL550s come with items such as sun-reflecting, heated leather seats, a Harman Kardon surround stereo system, a navigation system, a power-operated wind blocker, and heated windshield wipers that squirt the fluid directly onto the windshield — lest you douse your companion's Lanvin blouse when the top is down.

My tester mixed in the $4,900 Premium package, and I don't recommend leaving the Mercedes-Benz dealership without it.

It adds delectable features including Mercedes' Airscarf system that can blow varying strengths of warm air from the headrest onto your neck, a backup camera, a self-parking system and a pair of seats whose side bolsters will automatically inflate every time you go around a turn to better hold you in place.

Yes, it's true: Somewhere in the hills of Stuttgart, there's a German whose only job is to figure out the best way to hug you. And yes, I think the idea of a backup camera being optional on a $100,000 anything is beyond the shadow of stupid. Shame on you, Mercedes.

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