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Road Test: Mercedes-Benz SL500 facelift

  • Sharper drive, smarter looks for 2016 SL-Class
  • Almost as fast as the SL63 AMG...
  • ...Yet costs £31k less – an £83k bargain?

This facelifted version of the Mercedes-Benz SL500 was given a makeover early in 2016 along with every other model in the SL roadster line-up. With 449bhp the SL500 is the more powerful of the two ‘standard’ SL-Classes, the other being the 362bhp SL400. A pair of Mercedes-AMG models badged SL63 and SL65 are also offered, but priced considerably higher.

As well as significantly improving the looks, which were previously somewhat amorphous, the 2016 update aims to offer a sharper driving experience across the range. So while the only other luxury two-seater folding hardtop at this level is the Ferrari California T (really only a rival on price to the AMG SLs), SL500 buyers might also consider the four-seater BMW 6 Series Convertible, Maserati GranCabrio and Porsche 911 Convertible as potential alternatives.

Powered by a 4.7-litre twin-turbo V8 that also produces 700Nm of torque at 1,800-3,500rpm, the SL500 will see off 0-62mph in 4.3sec and has an electronically limited top speed of 155mph. So no matter that this luxuriously appointed folding hardtop convertible weighs in at 1,795kg - a substantial amount for a two-seater.

While certainly not as vociferous as the AMG models, the V8 has a cultured aural repertoire that adds a pleasing backing track to any spirited driving without ever becoming overbearing at a cruise.

A new nine-speed automatic gearbox, fitted as standard, increases fuel economy and enhances engine response; you’ll rarely find yourself wishing this car was any faster. Left to its own devices, the auto is impressively seamless, and it’s seldom reluctant to react to the driver’s paddleshift command.

More impressive still is the SL500’s increased agility. There are no hardware changes in the suspension or chassis, but tweaks to the software controlling the Active Body Control (ABC) adaptive damping mean the Sport setting is now sportier and the Eco setting more comfortable – though so good is this car’s ability to absorb bumps, we found little reason to switch it out of Sport at all.

Taking things further, the Curve Tilt Function system from the S-Class Coupe is now available on the SL for the first time. This actively leans the car into turns like a motorbike in order to counteract the usual rolling sensation. It’s designed to improve comfort and almost impossible to detect from the outside – the active lean angle is just 2.65 degrees – but you can certainly feel the difference on the inside as it increases your impression of stability and poise.

The ABC and Curve Tilt combination may cost over £3,000 extra but it adds a further layer of refinement, aided by the SL’s impressively rigid aluminium structure. There are no shakes or wobbles present at all.

The SL500 comes in a single, generously equipped trim level confusingly labelled AMG Line. This now includes adaptive LED headlights, Apple CarPlay for full iPhone connectivity and a host of additional safety systems as well as traditional mainstays such as leather upholstery and satellite navigation. The interior design is largely unchanged (though you do now get two USB ports) – no hardship given the quality of the materials, even if Mercedes’ COMAND infotainment interface is starting to seem a little outmoded.

Definite improvements of note include the ability to continue the electrohydraulic roof operation at speeds of up to 25mph – though you still have to activate it at a standstill initially – and the addition of an electrically operated load separator in the boot; this is the cover that demarks the amount of luggage you can pack while still being able to stow the top. Mercedes’ Airscarf and an optional electrically operated wind block – very slick – serve to blow warm air on your neck and keep out the breeze, respectively, making the SL500 a very cosy place to be, regardless of roof position.

As for running costs, this is a luxury grand tourer with a powerful petrol engine emitting 205g/km of CO2, so taxation will be heavy whether you’re a business or private buyer. Fuel economy is by no means shabby for a car of this type - the claimed figure is 31.4mpg - but the tank will empty with startling alacrity if you use all of the performance.

Verdict

Better looking, better to drive and just as refined, the updated SL has plenty to recommend it. And given that the SL500 is some £31,000 cheaper than the SL63 yet barely any slower, there’s a solid argument to suggest this is the sweet spot in the range.