Mercedes-Benz R230 is First Produced

The Mercedes-Benz R230 automobile was introduced in 2001.

It was sold as the SL-Class convertible, replacing the R129.

The safety car originally appeared in 2001 German Grand Prix in Hockenheim. Street version was unveiled in IAA 2001.

Changes include new engines for SL 350 and SL 500, with improved performance on SL 55 AMG and SL 600. ABC (Active Body Control) was improved to reduce body movements in dynamic driving by up to 60%.
Exterior styling changes include a new bumper with three large cooling air intakes and a more pronounced V-shape as well as fog lamps with chrome surrounds emphasise the power of the two-seater and give it a wider look, new light-alloy wheels, new rear light. Interior changes include softer leather upholstery, new interior colours, high-quality metal door sills with Mercedes-Benz lettering and embossed aluminium trim elements, removable luggage cover, optional remote boot-lid release.
The vehicle was unveiled in 2006 Geneva Motor Show. Production version began sale in 2006-03.

Mercedes' flagship SL roadster dominates its segment like no other. The classy front-engined, rear-wheel drive two-seater is quite simply the default choice when it comes to high-end, high-visibility motoring.

Benz contends the line traces its roots directly back to the original 1954 300 SL Gullwing -- or more correctly, the 1957 300 SL open car. While that might be more marketing speak than a historically correct account, there's no doubt the SL model generations are traditionally long lived. They're also seldom facelifted.

The latest generation of SL, the R230, was unveiled in 2001 and brought to the series its first folding hardtop -- Mercedes' Vario-Roof. The electro-hydraulic folding three-piece roof, has quite literally changed the recipe for top-end roadsters. We've driven the R230 on a couple of occasions, most recently when Benz added a seven-speed SL 350 to the mix (more here).

Now seven years on from its initial release, Mercedes has refreshed the SL. And rather than score a new model nomenclature, the car retains its R230 nameplate. The obvious change is the new face, and perhaps more importantly, there have been changes under the skin to make the car a sportier and more engaging drive.

Overall, Mercedes says the emphasis is now "firmly on sportiness and effortless superiority".

PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
Four SL models will be launched in the US and European markets -- the 350, 500 and 600 models are joined by a new entry-level 280. At this stage it's uncertain whether Mercedes Australia will add the 170kW 280 to its local line-up.

No local pricing or specifications have been announced for the updated models. These details will come closer the new SL range's local arrival in July (2008). Nevertheless, Benz insiders say we can expect prices to increase, though not markedly. Currently the 350 starts the range off at $218,000. The V8-engined 500 is priced at $301,000 with the V12 biturbo SL600 currently $376,000.

Given the part-million-plus pricetags, equipment levels will remain high. All the mod-cons you'd expect, including full electric, heated seats (cooled too on some models), exquisite soft leather upholstery, and the choice of dash and console finishes (some at extra cost) come standard.

Though in overseas markets goodies like the SLK-sourced Airscarf neck-level heating and high-level COMAND APS voice-activated satnav audio system (with Harmon Kardon 'Logic 7' surround sound) are optional, the SL will arrive Down Under with all the equipment you'd expect from a flagship sporty.

ADR regulations mean, however, we miss out on the SL's new Intelligent Lighting System. The system's variable-control bi-xenon headlamps activate five modes (country, motorway, enhanced fog lamps, cornering light function and active light function) automatically. When the active light function is activated, the headlamps pivot in line with the steering angle around bends, which Merc claims enables drivers to see 25m further into a long bend than is the case with conventional dipped beam.

MECHANICAL
The SLs follow a simple formula -- a solid platform with multi-link independent suspension front and rear, a big engine up front coupled with an automatic transmission and rear wheel drive. Brakes are four-wheel discs.

There's been no radical surgery this time around, however, there are two headline mechanical changes -- the new Direct-steer variable ratio steering system and the new Sportmotor version of Mercedes-Benz's 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine.

Direct-steer is essentially Merc's version of BMW's Active Steering system. Though it works in a different manner (it uses the Australian-designed Bishop variable ratio steering rack rather than the BMW's servo/gear system) it delivers the same result. That is, the steering is quicker the more lock you wind on.

Thus the car feels more responsive in the cut and thrust of the sporty stuff but there's less need for armfuls of lock when you're parking.

It's interesting that neither BMW's M division or Mercedes' AMG fettlers use the variable ratio tillers. Having driven the SL and SL-AMGs back-to-back we can attest the latter has a more 'pure' steering experience with much more feel. There's not a lot wrong with the new SL set-up just the same.

The 350 Sportmotor is the 'hero' engine in the updated SL range (and hence was the only one of the four cars we drove at the launch, see below), both the 500's 285kW/530Nm 5.4-litre V8 and the 600's behemoth 380kW/830Nm 6.0-litre twin turbo V12 are carried over. The 280's powerplant is the same 170kW/300Nm 3.0-litre V6 you'll find in the C 280.

Though based on the existing Benz V6 series, the 350 Sportmotor has been re-engineered to provide a more accelerative and lively powerplant. There's been an appreciable power increase from 200 to 232kW (at 6500rpm) and the engine revs higher -- all the way to 7200rpm. Peak torque is up 10Nm to 360Nm -- also well up in the rev range, at 4900rpm

The SL350's 0-100km/h sprint has therefore been trimmed 0.4sec and Mercedes says it's eked out some extra mileage from the V6 despite its extra neddies. In the ECE combined test it is said to be 0.4L/100km better than before (9.9L/100km versus 10.3).

For the record, Benz has also trimmed the 500 and 600's fuel consumption by the same 0.4L/100km. They're not quite as abstemious though -- at 11.9 and 13.9L/100km respectively.

Mercedes says the Sportmotor's intake and exhaust system has been tuned to offer a little more aural pleasure. To be frank we didn't detect a hell of a lot of difference -- a sonorous, symphonic Alfa V6 all of a sudden, it ain't…

The 3.0-litre 280 V6, the Sportmotor and 500 V8 are mated to the latest version of Mercedes' own 7G-Tronic seven-speed auto which in the 350 application now features a 'double-declutching' throttle-blip function on downshifts when used in manual mode. Benz says the function smoothes the shifts, but we just dig the sound.

The 600 sticks with its five-speed auto -- the only 'box able to survive the biturbo's mountainous torque.

Though Benz's Active Body Control (ABC) electronically controlled semi-active suspension is optional on the 280 and 350 in Europe, expect the system to be fitted across the range Down Under. ABC automatically compensates for body pitch, roll and yaw and adapts the damping settings for the road conditions. It also allows Mercedes' engineers to ultimately tune in different handling characteristics to the car(s) as they see fit. (see ON THE ROAD below)

In Euro trim, the 280 and 350 get 17-inch wheels standard while the 500 and 600 step up to 18s. It's likely, however, that locally delivered cars will have a higher grade of alloys as standard.

PACKAGING
The R230 refresh is quite literally a facelift. Aimed at making the car look more aggressive, the SL's new face (which Merc says gives us a hint at the flavour of upcoming models like CLK and E-Class) uses cues that hark back to the 1950s 300s. In particular, they draw your attention to the prominent single horizontal element of the grill and the twin longitudinal 'powerdomes' in the bonnet.

The headlights are an unusual design with both facetted and curved edges. The latter are necessary as Mercedes has carried over the front guards from the last model. The new side vents simply fill the spaces used in the 'old' car, and if you look carefully at the outer edge of the headlamps you'll note they match the profile of the existing 'peanut' lamps.

New, larger exterior mirrors are fitted and feature indicator repeaters.

At the rear there's been even less change. The taillights are essentially carried over and changes are limited to the new bumper, with a lower diffuser-style detail which Benz says "adds a motorsport touch"… Oh, and new trapezoidal exhaust tailpipes -- which are designed to visually widen the body.

The result is a 'new' car that is hard to pick from the model it supersedes -- except when viewed from ahead of the A-pillar. In fact, there's been remarkably few 'hard' parts changed on the car. It seems Benz is keeping the big stuff for the next generation SL which with a lighter, alloy-rich structure is expected in 2011-12.

Inside, there's more differentiation fortunately. The SL continues strictly as a two-seater, however, gone is the dual-cockpit look, replaced by a more contemporary, flatter dash that incorporates the existing model's switchgear. Or at least switchgear that looks the same.

There's a fresh three-spoke leather steering wheel and a restyled instrument cluster and binnacle that help with the 'sports' theme. New seats feature more aggressive bolstering than the last generation, however, as Mercedes-Benz head of Development and long-time SL owner Hand-Dieter Multhaupt told the Carsales Network, the SL remains a "companion for the whole day" not just a quick squirt.

The trademark folding hardtop is one of the fastest on the market -- stowing away in less than 20sec. Fresh-air fiends will be able to extend their topless season thanks to the SLK-sourced Airscarf neck-level heating system.

The new SL's COMAND APS package (Merc's more user-friendly version of iDrive) includes the latest-generation voice-control system which Benz says has the ability to recognize a number of words per function. This makes it easy to use, says the company.

SAFETY
SL's safety levels are high. As you'd expect from Benz, the SL features all the current state of the art passive safety systems including a pop-up rollover bar -- activated if the car's onboard computers detect an actual or imminent rollover.

Hefty all-wheel discs, the latest generation of ABS functionality and Benz's updated ESP stability control are all standard.

The SL has not been EuroNCAP tested. Driver/passenger airbag and head/thorax sidebags are fitted standard.

Bi-xenon headlamps are standard across the range, but however as noted Australian regulations preclude Benz offering the Intelligent Light System on local SLs.

COMPETITORS
The traditional combatant the SL has faced is Porsche 911. More recently Aston Martin has started to encroach on its turf with its models. We'd like to tell you which one, but we can't tell them apart.

In the Italian corner Maserati has lifted the lid on its Spyder and Jaguar's XKR attracts a small number of buyers. If the bigger-engined SLs are your poison, brands like Ferrari and Bentley come into play as well.

The sportier edge of the new SL is likely an answer to the continued success of Porsche and the inroads made by Aston of late. Benz says many of its SL customers come via Weissach and stay. Those who felt the current car was just a touch 'soft' may now take another look. If the 'base' SLs aren't enough to sway them, the AMG-fettled models should certainly get their attention.

ON THE ROAD
Mercedes-Benz engineers sought to sharpen the SL's performance in its latest guise, without turning the two-seater into an all-out sportscar. At the risk of being accused of regurgitating the marketing bumpf, the SL performs pretty much as advertised. Largely we can report it's mission accomplished.

It would take a back-to-back drive of old and new to firmly separate their traits. Without the luxury of that we'll have to rely on some pretty stale seat-of-the-pants memories of the 'old' R230 SL to gauge the abilities of the new vehicle.

The 232kW V6 has sufficient get up and go to make the SL quick, though a relative paucity of torque means it's not going to challenge the likes of considerably cheaper cars such as BMW's twin-turbo 3 Series six. There are, of course, several more powerful options available including AMG cars if outright performance is important.

At the 2000m-plus altitudes we encountered during the drive, the engine started to notice the SL's not inconsiderable 1825kg (kerb weight). The car was far from breathless, but quick progress required more use of the gearbox and plenty of revs. Contrasting the power curves of the new 350 Sportmotor and the 'old' 200kW engine almost all the benefits are up top -- hence the revs.

Where the V6 comes into its own is the sense of proportion and balance of the car. Coupled with the sharper front end, the SL350 is a willing corner carver and unlike the last generation retains that wieldiness and agility even in fast changes of direction.

The drive route took us through the backstreets and boulevards of Hollywood before tackling the sinuous, glorious tarmac of the Angles Crest Highway. On the super smooth, grippy roads and even on the more frost damaged surfaces on the way to Silverwater Lake in the San Bernadino Mountains to the northeast of Los Angeles, the SL felt at home.

Rolling on Dunlop rubber, the cars had prodigious grip and a sense of poise up to quite elevated speeds.

Though there is little steering feel, the response is rewarding. The variable ratio steering weights up nicely off centre -- this is in contrast to the propensity of some previous Benz models to go light in your hands.

In isolation you'd praise the set-up. Driven back-to-back with the faster-ratioed but linear steering fitted to the AMG versions of the SL, we would always opt for the latter. More feel, more confidence and absolute consistency of response.

When you do push on the Active Body Control equipped SL defaults to light understeer. Mercedes says it tunes the chassis to offer a touch of oversteer at lower speeds (under 100km/h) -- hence the great turn-in. Through to around 140km/h the chassis response is neutral and over that there's face-saving understeer. The changes are subtle rather than manifest.

The ESP system itself is unobtrusive and does not intervene less you're deliberately hamfisted. We elected to leave the Active Body Control in standard rather than sport mode, with no complaints

The seven-speed auto is a good match to the engine though on the curvy bits it can be a touch too eager to hold gears in S (sport) mode. Better to leave it to its own devices in C (comfort) or take over the responsibilities and use it in M (manual) mode.

Given it's got seven speeds to play with, there still seems to be an inordinate gap between second and third gear. As noted above, perhaps due to the power-sapping altitude and steep grades of the test route, at times we found the second-third 'gap' more often than most.

California's spring has come early this year, so even though there was snow on the ground the air temperatures were in the mid-teens in the mountains. No test for the Airscarf system -- we were more likely to need our SL's cooled seats.

We peeled off the lid for at least part of the 350km test route and can report there's still considerable wind noise at anything over 100km/h -- there are no doubt quieter convertibles on the market today. Buffeting, even without the (manual) windblocker in place is well controlled, nonetheless. With the 'net curtain' raised, there's barely a zephyr to disturb the locks. Not that such trivialities trouble your correspondent.

The SL's seats are great, with enough purchase to keep you in place though not so much that longer stints become painful. There's an added level of luxury and comfort within the cabin that at least in part justifies the hefty entry price.