The Mercedes-AMG SL 63 packs a heroic engine, terrific refinement and dynamic polish. But it lacks in crucial areas

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You’d think that a car like the Mercedes-AMG SL 63 would barely register a sideways glance in a place like St Tropez.

But as we rumble around the Mediterranean playground of the rich and famous after a memorable couple of hours on the surrounding country roads, it becomes obvious very quickly that our shiny example is causing quite a stir.

On the right road and in the right conditions, the SL 63 is an absolute monster of a car

Perhaps it is the new roadster’s appearance. Distinctive if not exactly possessing the elegance of some performance-orientated open-top rivals, the second-generation SL 63 looks like it means business. In 2016, the SL 63 and 65 was given a mild facelift, which saw some fettling done to the bodywork, but saw Mercedes-AMG resist the temptation to fettle under the bonnet.

Still, I can’t help feel that Mercedes has missed an opportunity with the styling of this car, especially the headlamps, which look comically large. They are the result, apparently, of a decision to provide them with all the very latest in lighting technology rather than any stylistic consideration.

However, it is the technology you can’t see that really advances the game. As with its standard sibling, this latest AMG model is based around a brand-new aluminium body structure that contributes to a 125kg reduction in weight over its steel-bodied predecessor when added equipment levels are taken into consideration.

Allied to a new twin-turbocharged 5.5-litre V8 petrol engine, the lightweight structure provides it with the potential for greater performance and added handling prowess.

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Power has increased by 11bhp to 529bhp endowing the car with an ultimate power-to-weight ratio of 314bhp per tonne. That’s an increase of 30bhp per tonne over the old model. 

Torque is up by 73lb ft, or a whopping 199lb ft with the higher engine tune, which extends its torque-to-weight ratio by 30lb ft per tonne to 375lb ft per tonne – or 89lb ft per tonne more than the far more expensive Mercedes-AMG SLS. For those who want a bit more power have the option of the SL 65 with its mammoth 6.0-litre V12 engine and 621bhp and 737lb ft of torque.

There are two driving modes, accessed by a button on the centre console: Comfort and Sport. The Comfort setting places a clear emphasis on overall refinement and all-round compliancy and is perfectly suited to city driving and loping part-throttle cruising, at which the SL 63 feels right at home, thanks to the inherent flexibility of its engine.

But it is the Sport mode, bringing sharper throttle and steering response as well as firmer spring and damper settings, that you need to have engaged to extract the best of its dynamic abilities. A further AMG mode also remaps the electronic stability control to delay the point of its intervention.

The engine is the clear focal point, and despite its inclusion of sound-dampening turbochargers, the SL 63 bellows like a Nascar racer when worked with a heavy right foot. Keep the throttle planted and you’re also treated to a heavy swirl of exhaust gas out back – something that’s further intensified when you’re running with the new car’s superbly engineered aluminium roof folded back underneath the boot lid.

Acceleration is brutal, mechanical grip is immense and the brakes – at least, the carbon-ceramic units that come with the optional Performance Package fitted to our test car – offer breathtaking levels of stopping ability. In these three disciplines, it clearly deserves its supercar billing.

However, there are points of dispute. The gearbox, a reworked version of Mercedes’s seven-speed auto fitted with a wet clutch, is tardy to respond. It is not so much the action of the gearbox itself that disappoints, because the actual shifting of gears is quite rapid. No, the problem is the lack of decisiveness between the point where you flick the paddle to the point where the electronics initiate a change of gear.

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The SL 63 sits on an aluminium-intensive chassis that gets a uniquely calibrated version of the advanced Active Body Control system offered on the standard SL. Ride height varies according to the driving mode and speed, while pitch and roll are exceptionally well suppressed, even on wildly undulating roads and during all-out cornering. Begin pushing and you discover plenty of front-end bite, and the rear, which has a locking diff a, is remarkably well planted. 

The overall limits of adhesion are extremely high – helped, no doubt, by track widths that are up a significant 50mm at the front and 52mm at the rear over the old SL 63’s and a wheel and tyre combo (with the Performance Package) that sites 255/35-profile rubber on 19-inch wheels up front and 285/30-profile hoops on 20-inch rims at the back. With the AMG mode engaged, the recalibrated ESP system also allows you to edge up to the point of breakaway without any premature electronic intervention. 

Still, a question mark hovers over the steering. The electro-mechanical system is linear in its actions and extremely direct, offering whipcrack turn-in characteristics. But it fails to weight up with any meaningful resistance in the first quarter turn of lock, even at higher speeds. There’s not much in the way of feedback, either.

AMG development boss Tobias Moers says it is all a matter of tyres, suggesting that the Michelin Pilot Sport 3s of our test car offer the best grip but lack the delicacy of the other choice that will be offered to buyers, Continental Contact Sports. 

Inside, the SL 63 is a study in quality. It’s just a pity that the controls of the centre console are set so far back – the result of Mercedes-Benz insisting on the inclusion of two large cupholders in the forward section. So practicality wins out over ergonomics, then. And despite a low-set seat, the driving position is not perfect. Elbow-space is at a premium, allowing it to foul the high-set centre console during push-on driving, which means raising the seat higher than you would like.

As for the standard equipment, well both get the same tech as the regular SL's - including dual-zone climate control, LED headlights, parking sensors and reversing camera, and Mercedes' Comand infotainment system. The SL 63 adds AMG-developed bodykit, suspension, limited slip diff, seven-speed race engineered gearbox, heated sports seats and steering wheel, while the SL 65 gains cooled front seats, Bang & Olufsen stereo system and a driving assistance pack - which includes adaptive cruise control, active emergency braking, lane keep assist and blind spot warning.

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In summary, the SL 63 possesses a great engine and sound dynamics, making it a real event to drive whether you’re just tooling along in traffic or going for it on a deserted back road.

However, its gearbox can frustrate, its steering lacks feel, its ergonomics are compromised and, to these eyes, it lacks the visual appeal a car of such fine pedigree deserves. To the people of St Tropez, though, it has already become the next must-have item.

Mercedes-AMG SL 63 2012-2020 First drives