Review and road test of the Mercedes-Benz SL [R230] (2008 - 2011)
CLASS OF THE FIELD
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The Mercedes SL has long stood for refined elegance and continent-crushing ability and although the 2008 iteration of this car was viewed by most as a facelift of an existing favourite, it more than justified Mercedes' rightful pride. Okay, so the weighing scales indicated that the SL delivered on sportiness but not the lightness bit of its 'Sport Leicht' designation but at least the car offered big power, decent dynamics and better fit and finish. Here's what to look for when buying used.
2dr Coupe/Convertible (SL 350, SL 500, SL 600, SL 63 AMG, SL 65 AMG, SL 65 AMG Black Series)
One thing the Mercedes SL isn't short of is backstory, with the Sport Leicht badge first appearing as far back as 1954. Since then, the sportiness and lightness may have diminished with each revision but the SL has morphed into a beautifully engineered two seat GT car which attempts to fuse the luxury of an S class saloon with the appeal of open-top driving. The R230 series generation car we're looking at here went on sale in the UK in early 2002 and sold with some success before it was updated by a facelifted version that was launched in 2008. And it's that particular car we're going to focus on.
With this improved fifth generation SL, the peanut-light front styling disappeared, replaced with a more angular front end featuring single rather than twin headlamps. At the same time, the efficiency of some of the engines was improved. The old SL 55 AMG rocket ship was replaced by the high-revving SL 63 AMG and an amazing limited run 670bhp fixed roof SL 65 AMG Black Series made a brief appearance at the end of 2008. The SL 300 made its debut as the entry level point in late 2009, supplementing the popular SL 350.
Car buyers in the privileged position of having a few grand to spend on a used car for two occupants plus a little bit of luggage have long had the world's most exotic and talented vehicles laid-out before them. The SL's job has always been to convince these big spenders that the optimum destination for their massed wealth is this smooth operator. This model was very good at doing exactly that, breathing new life into a very successful design.
What You Get
The 2008-onwards SL model we're looking at here replaced the peanut-style headlamps of the old model with massive single pod bi-xenon units that look surprisingly good. The Intelligent Light System provides five different lighting modes which activate automatically. Motorway mode, for instance, is activated in two stages when speeds exceed 90km/h, increasing the driver's range of vision by 60 per cent. When the active light function is activated, the headlamps pivot with the steering. There are also cornering lights that illuminate the verge below 70km/h. Twin powerdomes on the bonnet and gill-style air outlets on the front wings also give the SL a more aggressive attitude.
The interior was given the once over as well as part of the 2008 facelift, with a completely restyled instrument cluster that saw the speedometer and the rev counter finished in a classic chronometer design. A three-spoke steering wheel and more supportive seats also debuted. Otherwise the recipe is classic SL. With the hood down, there's minimal buffeting if you keep the windows and the wind blocker between the seats extended. The roof itself vies with the engines to be the highlight of the whole SL package. You get a 310-litre luggage capacity in the SL that only drops to 206-litres with the top down. There's even a button that raises the whole roof cassette when it's in the boot so you can get easier access to your bags. Build quality as a whole is notably tighter that it was when this R230 generation model was first launched in 2002.
Equipment levels are generous even at the base of the range, with all SL derivatives benefiting from the Mercedes Cockpit Management and Navigation Display (COMAND) system with its CD/DVD player and satellite navigation. Leather upholstery is standard, as are Xenon headlamps, rain sensing wipers, ESP and ASR skid control. Buyers can also take advantage of a huge array of personalisation options to upgrade their model according to their individual taste. COMAND got a bit of a revamp too as part of the 2008 facelift, with a slot for SD memory cards built in, a Bluetooth receiver for hands free mobiles and an updated version of Mercedes' LINGUATRONIC voice control. A Music Register stores around 1,000 MP3 tracks and a saved database enables automatic recognition of the tracks and their artists.
For the first time, in this facelifted fifth generation model, it was also possible to connect an iPod, USB stick or other external audio device to the COMAND System thanks to an optional media interface housed in the centre console. Customers also got the option of the AIRSCARF neck level heating system that by 2008 had proven very popular with SLK buyers. This incorporates heating and a hot air blower in the head restraint of the seat to provide a constant stream of warm air, ideal for enjoying top-down motoring on those clear winter mornings.
What to Look For
The good thing about buying what is effectively an extensive refresh of an existing model is that many of the faults have been ironed out. That's why, in this facelifted fifth generation SL, you don't get the sort of engine mount issues you got with the old SL 55 AMG or ABC pump failures like those that plagued the original MK5 SL 600. As part of its 2008 updates, the SL just became a better engineered car.
The Vario roof works well, but make sure that the ESP system and the satellite navigation systems function as expected. Tyres can be very expensive on the AMG models especially, so check that they haven't been cremated by over-enthusiastic use. Don't worry too much about higher mileage cars though. If they've been serviced on the button, that shouldn't be an issue. Both engines and interiors are, after all, very hardwearing.
(Based on a '08 SL 500 and exclusive of VAT) A full exhaust will be around £2000. Brake pads are approximately £95 for the front and £65 for the rear. An alternator is just under £300 and a starter motor roughly £220. A radiator should come in at about £450.
On the Road
The range was simplified with the 2008 updates but the choice really boiled down to V6, V8 or, for those who really had the budget and the stomach for it, V12 engine options. In the facelifted MK5 SL range, the entry-level SL 350 variant saw its original 272bhp engine upgraded to a meatier 315bhp unit. This had a far sportier demeanour, revving to 7,200rpm and capable of jetting the SL through 60mph in 6 seconds, 0.4s quicker than the old 350. Next up was offered the definitive SL 500 model with its burbling 5.5-litre V8 still producing 388bhp. Above that sat the mighty rare V12 SL 600 harbouring a twin turbocharged 5.5-litre V12 developing 517bhp. In the SL 500, 0-60mph takes 5.4s and the SL 600 achieves the same in a supercar humbling 4.5s. If that's not fast enough, the SL 63 AMG model offers 525bhp, while the flagship SL 65 AMG delivers a thumping 612bhp.
The SL is built more for bullet-like straight line performance than aggressive cornering, although this hefty 1,800kg car can still excite through a set of fast bends. The SL 350 makes do with the standard suspension set-up that still shows great composure, while the others utilise the clever Active Body Control technology that continually adjusts the suspension settings for optimum performance. This Mercedes also gets a high-tech Direct Steer system which combines with the more familiar speed-sensitive power steering to increase the steering rack ratio sharply as soon as the steering angle reaches five degrees. This means that extreme manoeuvres at speed require a mere flick of the wrists rather than grabbing whole armfuls of steering.
You'd have thought that this car would feel like a good idea whose time had passed. The chassis is relatively ancient and with the 2008 MK5 model facelift, Mercedes was merely prolonging the life of its fifth generation SL design until the lighter, smarter and far more dynamic replacement arrived in 2012. And yet a SL made in the 2008 to 2012 period still feels utterly fantastic. Okay, so it's not pin sharp round a race track but then you didn't sign up for that. You were after good looks, big power and reliability right? This one delivers. And then some.
Mercedes-Benz SL [R230] (2008 - 2011) review by ANDY ENRIGHT