There has always been a business case for Mercedes to offer a lower-power engine in its iconic SL-Class sports tourer, particularly in its most common form – as a convertible. However, now that the SL is only available as a Mercedes-AMG roadster, times have changed. Until now, the latest generation of Mercedes-AMG SL-Class has been available with a potent V8 engine in the US, but now we have the sophisticated handcrafted four-cylinder version here. The engine arrives with 375 horsepower and a maximum torque rating of 354 lb-ft, boastfully delivered courtest of an electric turbocharger that uses a 48-volt electrical system Mercedes tells us is “a direct derivative of the development successfully used by the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team.”
The rest of the Mercedes-AMG SL 43 is familiar with its iconic silhouette, just-so styling, motorized folding soft top, Mercedes’ MBUX infotainment system accessed by a big touchscreen, and a plethora of standard equipment that puts the SL firmly in the luxury sport segment.
Exterior: Mercedes At Its Finest
While we feel Mercedes has lost the plot with how it styles its electric vehicles, the Mercedes-AMG SL shows the brand still has the magic touch for aesthetics. It draws from the classic SL model in its proportions, but is brought up to date with distinctive yet not overcooked styling.
The SL 43 differs from the AMG SL 55 and AMG SL 63 with its front and rear fascias, but you’ll be hard-pressed to notice as one goes by. It comes standard with 19-inch alloy wheels, but 20 and 21-inch ‘Aerodynamically optimized’ wheels are available. Our test car came optioned with the 21-inch units ($2,450), Manufaktur Moonlight White Magno paint ($3,250), and a stunning red soft top.
Interior & Infotainment: Beautiful And Frustrating
Technically, the current AMG SL is a 2+2, meaning it has back seats; however, they are of no use to people. They are perfect for dropping in daily carry bags or as extra cargo space on a road trip. The interior is Nappa leather and the comfiest and most adjustable seats we’ve sat in for a long time. The driving position is close to the floor and just about perfect for a sports car. Rear visibility isn’t perfect with the roof up, but that’s par for the course.
The interior is a ten out of ten – right up until you have to reach a long way through the narrow gap between the steering wheel and oversized touch screen to press the start button. It’s at a flat angle and split in two – the top part is the start/stop button, and the lower part turns the start/stop feature off.The fiddly awkwardness is low-level but persistent enough to annoy – all for the sake of a massive screen that a sports car doesn’t need.
That carries on into the full-featured infotainment screen that, despite the buttons underneath, is used to control everything. It’s fiddly, and the highlight of that is having to use a virtual slider switch – and keep your finger on it – to lower the roof. Balancing that out, fortunately, is the simply gorgeous-sounding Burmester audio system.
Powertrain: Far From Underpowered
The idea of an AMG-built SL with a four-cylinder engine is anathema to traditionalists and purists, but it’s 2023, and technology relentlessly pushes forward while the price of gas continues to rise just as relentlessly. The bottom line right now, however, is that there are two V8 models available for those who can afford it and are willing to fill them with gas, and the four-cylinder version arrives as a fascinating entry to owning and driving an SL.
On paper, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder promises to be more than potent enough, with its electric Formula 1-based turbo delivering higher torque at lower RPMs. Indeed, the full 354 lb-ft of torque is available between 3,250 rpm and 5,000 rpm, and it shows when overtaking or pushing out of a corner. It’s a responsive engine that pairs well with the standard nine-speed Multi-Clutch Transmission (MGT) that features a wet start-off clutch to replace the torque converter.
A sub-five-second sprint to 60 mph (4.8 seconds) isn’t spectacular for an AMG-badged SL, but it shines within its cylinder limitation when already moving. Slip into Sport or Sport+ mode, and the transmission starts to get aggressive as it bangs up and down the gears with increasingly faster shifts. That’s great, but once we started pushing the SL 43 around on a long winding route around the mountain, the throttle response started to win us over. After a couple of long runs out, we reached a conclusion.
The new engine will likely be looked down upon when compared to the more emotionally appealing traditional V8s – there’s no denying that emotional connection to the V8 and SL. But there’s also no denying that the four-cylinder isn’t entirely a letdown. If this was put in the already celebrated AMG A-Class, reviewers would be scratching their heads about how they would top the hyperbole of previous reviews.
On The Road: Infuriating Fun
The SL 43 isn’t a hot hatch, and it is rear-wheel drive only – unlike the top-of-the-range all-wheel drive SL 63. The good news here is that the SL 43 isn’t just a point-and-shoot car that anyone can drive fast on a tight backroad. In Comfort mode, the suspension is at its most compliant, and the front and rear ends felt a little disconnected from each other when pushing. However, while still stiff, the suspension isn’t easily shocked or jolted and remains consistent over rough and smoother roads alike.
Comfort is a lovely mode for touring, but it’s an AMG car with all the AMG modes and an Individual mode that can be customized with a myriad of settings. This is where some confusion arises, with two steering wheel buttons with dials for changing settings, then all the settings available through the screens. There’s a lot of redundancy built in that feels unnecessary and somewhat confusing at times when you simply want to change something.
Once you’ve got Sport and Sport+ modes dialed in, the car’s attitude changes and becomes more aggressive. The transmission starts to show off its speed, and throttle response tightens up even more while the suspension stiffens and the front and rear ends start to feel like they’re working off each other. It’s also where the SL starts to show that Mercedes-AMG can’t decide if the SL is a sports car or a tourer. The front mid-engine is tucked back, the suspension is beautifully tuned, the steering feeds back, and the car turns in nicely and puts the power down with confidence.
The AMG SL 43 feels like it wants to be a hardcore sports car, but there’s all the weight of the luxuries and motors that come with moving and massaging seats and a motorized soft top. It doesn’t have that extra-sharp edge. However, it’s got all the accouterments of a luxury grand tourer – but the suspension is just a hair too stiff in comfort mode and the transmission too aggressive. Topping that off is an engine that has to work quite hard to move the car swiftly.
On top of that, when the sun goes down, there’s a whole host of lights shining away in the cabin, including the mode buttons on the steering wheel and the ambient lighting. You can, of course, tone most of it down, but we think that should be automatic when selecting the more focused Sport and Sport+ mode. Having lights glaring at you from the top of the windscreen, the steering wheel, and the giant touchscreen is distracting. And having to go into menus to dial it all down in a fussy infotainment system each time you want to push on a back road isn’t something you should have to do in a sports car.
Takeaway: Flawed Fun
At no point was the SL 43 not fun to drive; it’s the bits in between that let it down. The SL does not need a big screen to the point it makes starting the car a low-level but consistent frustration. It doesn’t need a smorgasbord of interior lighting either, and pushing everything into the screen’s user interface is a hindrance to ergonomics. Despite the criticism, it’s still a delightful car: it’s entertaining to drive hard, looks fantastic, and is comfortable to sit in. Make that incredibly comfortable to be in. And if Mercedes calmed down on its insistence that the biggest screen possible and garish illumination is the way forward, it would be an absolute triumph of an interior.
Don’t worry about that four-cylinder engine if you’re looking at getting into an entry-level SL, though. While it doesn’t offer the pyrotechnics in the SL as the V8s deliver, it does its job with enough power and authority, just not with an excess of either.
The big disappointment with this will come to those who don’t want or need the AMG level of performance. We can’t help but think that a regular Mercedes SL would be where Mercedes could justify a giant screen (and better place for the start button) along with a four-cylinder engine and a softer suspension setup. That could be the touring version, and AMG could perform its whizz-bangery with the focus it deserves for the harder-core sports version instead of fiddling with air vent lighting. As it stands, the AMG SL 43 is a banger of a car, but it can’t seem to decide if it’s a flashy tourer or an out-and-out sports car.
Here’s our bottom line: We found the AMG SL 43 delights much more than it frustrates, but we wish it had a more defined personality as either a sports car or a tourer.