Driving the 2022 Mercedes-AMG SL made me question the future

The cynic might say that anything gets branded "an icon" if it makes the auto industry enough money, but the Mercedes-Benz SL deserves the halo more than most. Boasting legitimate racing heritage, star connections, and true luxury bonafides, the SL has set trends more often than following them. For the 2022 Mercedes-AMG SL, though, the automaker's tuning division has taken the wheel completely, and that's not the only upending of tradition.

There's all-wheel drive for the first time, and gone is the folding hardtop roof which had persisted for the past three generations. Inside, it's a 2+2 by default, a configuration Mercedes hasn't offered on the SL since the third-generation roadster launched in the early '70s.

You don't need to go back to 1952 and the very first SL to understand today's car, but it doesn't hurt. First built for motorsports, the original racer prompted the 300 SL Gullwing in 1954, and then a Roadster replacement three years later. Either way, the pitch was largely the same: keep the Grand Prix-winning kudos, but layer on some of the luxury that deep-pocketed Mercedes buyers expected.

In the intervening decades, the premium price tag remained but some of the achingly classic design fell by the wayside. By the time the sixth-gen SL landed in 2012, awkward styling and dynamics that fell short of de-facto rivals like the Porsche 911 suggested Mercedes' stalwart might've lost its way.

Enter AMG, taking over the SL altogether and marking the end of 'Benz badging on the car. Where once the tuners were responsible for only the most potent iterations of the roadster, for the seventh-gen convertible they call all the shots. There's a completely new architecture, with a lightweight composite aluminum chassis boasting 18% stiffer torsional stiffness, and all-wheel drive is standard rather than rear-wheel drive like the old SL.

Out goes the slick but hefty concertina hardtop, with a new three-layer soft roof replacement. The fact that it trims more than 46 pounds versus the metal roof is the headline advantage, sure, but given the space-saving Z-fold design also reduces trunk comprise and lowers the overall center of gravity of the car means its benefits are as multitudinous as its hinges.

Quite honestly, it looks better, too. Mercedes' power hardtops were clever things, but not entirely graceful from every angle. This new SL deserves better, to complement its bold but not oversized grille, elongated lines, and balanced proportions.

There are two versions, the 2022 AMG SL 55 and the SL 63. Both use AMG's 4.0-liter V8 biturbo engine: the SL 55 gets 469 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque, while the SL 63 is tuned for 577 horsepower and 590 lb-ft. Zero-60 MPH arrives in 3.8 seconds or 3.5 seconds, respectively, while top speed is 183 MPH or 196 MPH.

A 9-speed MCT 9G automatic transmission is standard, along with rear axle steering. The latter allows the rear wheels to turn either counter to those at the front, aiding maneuverability at low speed, or in tandem with them, boosting high-speed stability. A lightweight cast steel brake system is standard, while ceramic composite brakes are an option.

For the SL 55, AMG uses steel suspension with its Ride Control system. That has two pressure relief valves for each damper, independently controlling release and compression. Available – and standard on the SL 63 – is AMG Active Ride Control, a new hydraulic system that ousts the old mechanical anti-roll bars. Mercedes says it's not only faster than the previous system, but has a broader range from comfort through to sportier driving.

It's an important change because AMG can't really make the new SL a purist sports car. The new roadster represents more handily than most the challenge Mercedes faces here, poised between the pitch of performance superlatives and the reality of just who buys an SL and how they actually drive it.

It's why – spoiling the surprise of my final verdict here – the SL 55 makes the most sense. Certainly, you lose out on some bragging rights by avoiding the V8's most potent tune, but only racing drivers and car magazine covers really need that maximum horsepower. Either way, you get the same gracefully pretty design, a million times improved over the angular awkwardness of the outgoing car, and a cabin with a generally pleasing balance of tech and comfort.

The same goes on the road, where in a head-scratcher, I found I far preferred the SL 55 to the SL 63. Both had the trick AMG Active Ride Control suspension fitted – standard on the 63 and included in the Performance Line upgrade trim on the 55 – and yet the lesser-powered car felt more eager in a way that the minor weight difference couldn't quite account for. My suspicion is that the (comparatively speaking) lower horsepower and different torque curve mean you need to push that little bit harder, be a little more engaged, in order to reap the maximum rewards: there's such a thing as too much power, after all, for public roads, and the SL 63's headroom is high above US limits.

Still, I can't blame AMG for offering that, just as I can't really criticize its Performance 4MATIC+ all-wheel drive. You'd have to go to real effort to unsettle the new SL, were you so inclined. The same goes for the AMG Active Ride Control, with which Comfort mode is possibly too pliant. Sport mode feels like a far more balanced mix of refinement and punchiness, catering to everyday use without sacrificing either cosseting or the playfulness you want from a roadster.

Not all of Mercedes' decisions make perfect sense. The 2+2 cabin leaves rear seats best enjoyed by the smallest children, dogs, or handbags. Anyone else will find themselves uncomfortably squashed in legroom, and probably with the top of their head sitting above the edge of the windshield: a family car, the SL is not. Think of it as a leather-wrapped parcel shelf that's easier to reach than the trunk.

The 11.9-inch MBUX infotainment touchscreen is large and takes a little getting used to. Its adjustable angle accommodates reflections depending on whether the roof is up or down, but I wish there was a single switch to operate that soft top. Instead, you hit a physical shortcut button and then drag and hold your finger across the display: it takes about 15 seconds for the roof to open or close. A 12.3-inch driver display is standard, as is Airscarf neck-warming for the front seats, massage, a 360-degree camera, heating for the steering wheel and both heating and ventilation for the seats, and a Burmester Surround Sound System.

With the Active Ride Control you get a front axle lift system, which can raise the SL to navigate steeper curbs and driveways. It's GPS-linked, to automagically trigger whenever you're back at a spot where its clearance is required. Groundbreaking? No, but definitely useful.

Indeed there's a lingering sense of that throughout the new SL. It's a roster of some of AMG's most impressive developments in recent years, from the all-wheel steer to the 4MATIC+ and that handcrafted biturbo V8, while the interior gets the same tech as an S-Class. The end result is both first-class and familiar: it breaks new ground for an SL, but not for AMG as a whole.

As for pricing, Mercedes-AMG hasn't confirmed that yet. Count on six figures as the new SL goes up against the $137k Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Cabriolet.

2022 Mercedes-AMG SL Verdict

Heritage is a blessing and a curse. The 2022 AMG SL enjoys the rightful spotlight as a descendent of the Gullwing, but expectations are comparatively higher, too. Mercedes has, for the most part, tiptoed along that balance line between sporting prowess and outright luxury, and if the SL isn't exactly surprising as a result then at least it's worthy of its badge.

At the same time, I can't help but wonder what might've happened had AMG pushed things a little further. It's no secret that electrification is Mercedes' future: even if the new SL wasn't ready to go all-in on EV like the AMG EQS, you'd be forgiven for imagining how the AMG E Performance hybrid system might shake down in this handsome roadster. We'll see that first in the 2023 AMG GT 63 S E Performance 4-door instead.

Is it too much to ask for a new SL to also usher in a new era? Perhaps so, and this seventh-generation car does seem to reclaim many of the former glories its direct predecessors drifted from. The roadster's rivals haven't exactly suffered by having an old-school gas engine at their heart, either. While the rest of us debate just how far you can push an icon without losing its core identity, owners of this 2022 SL will be too busy enjoying a stately reinvention that doesn't stray too far from Mercedes' original winning formula.