– Chatsworth, California
Much less famous than the Le Mans–winning Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing or its glamorous roadster variant, the 1956 Mercedes-Benz 190SL brought open-top fun to a broader audience, maintaining its siblings’ styling cues in a smaller, cheaper form. Its inline-four, derived from the 300SL’s oversquare straight-six, was a revvy little thing, and the 190SL even came in a privateer racing spec with a cut-down windshield and decontented interior.
Some of the 190’s spirit lives on in the 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL43, which brings a four-banger back to the roadster lineup for the first time in 60 years. While the other SL-Class trims have a twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 under the hood, the SL43 halves each of those metrics. But don’t worry too much, as the boosted 2.0-liter inline-four has a tiny electric motor on the turbocharger shaft to spool it up almost instantly, yielding a respectable 375 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque. Hey, if a four-cylinder was good enough for the sporty 190SL, hopefully the SL43 will follow suit.
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|Quick Stats||2023 Mercedes-AMG SL43|
|Engine||Turbocharged 2.0-Liter I4|
|Output||375 Horsepower / 354 Pound-Feet|
|Transmission||Nine-Speed Wet-Clutch Automatic|
|0-60 Miles Per Hour||4.8 Seconds|
|Base Price||$109,900 + $1,150 Destination|
|On Sale|| |
Gallery: 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL43 First Drive
At the very least, the half-sized powerplant doesn’t detract from the SL roadster’s drop-dead gorgeous styling. The sneering front end does get a new, 43-specific bumper with a wider appearance and smaller corner vents, and rounded quad exhaust tips in back contrast with the V8 models’ trapezoidal outlets. But the SL43 maintains its stunning silhouette, with a long hood, drooping trunk, and impossibly raked fabric roof giving it a hunkered, sporty profile. The details are good too – 300SL-chic hood bulges, broad hips, and short overhangs make the new SL Mercedes’ sportiest roadster in decades.
The cabin feels similarly enthusiast-oriented. The most headline-grabbing cabin feature continues to be the tilt-adjustable center screen, although the partially hooded digital instrument cluster and high center console also diverge from modern Mercedes tradition. Materials are generally very good, with gorgeous Nappa leather showing up on the seats and steering wheel, although the $750 optional Dark Chrome trim on my tester attracted far too many stubborn fingerprints.
I’ve gotta say though, the tilting infotainment screen is more gimmicky than useful. When it’s upright, it feels way too close to the driver and front passenger to use easily, and its placement directly in front of the cupholders renders it useless if you’re hydrating on the fly. The screen also takes up too much console real estate – if I were in charge, I’d have it fixed in place nearly vertically, with the base of the screen moved forward toward the dashboard. As is, the screen is too reflective when angled down and too close to the occupants when upright.
Otherwise, the electronics package is very similar to what’s found in other Mercedes products. The MBUX infotainment software is easy to use after a little familiarization, and the reconfigurable instrument cluster offers plenty of information to the driver. The SL comes standard with the company’s beautiful ambient lighting package, and the front two seats get heating and ventilation, adjustable backrest and hip bolsters, and a massage function, plus Mercedes’ novel Airscarf heating vent on the headrest.
Hit The Road, Jack
Given the ardent love I have for the CLA45 and its engine that acts as a voice double for an angry hornet’s nest, I approached the SL43 with some anticipation. That first press of the start button was a disappointment, however, with a relatively muted exhaust note doing little to hide some direct-injection racket under the hood. Driving around my neighborhood, the engine’s automatic idle-stop shook the car with some unbecoming vibration, plainly obvious given the little wiggle the infotainment screen did in its near-vertical position – again, evidence that it should just be fixed in place.
And while 375 hp isn’t a small amount, it’s less than one would find in a Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet or even the smaller, cheaper BMW Z4 M40i. The SL43 also weighs a not-insubstantial 4,000 pounds or so (US curb weights haven’t been released, but the Euro model is 3,990 pounds), and as a result, it hits 60 miles per hour in a swift-but-not-amazing 4.7 seconds. For $50,000 less, the BMW Z4 is almost a full second quicker.
Slightly disillusioned, I aimed the SL43 toward one of my favorite local roads. Luckily, Santa Susanna Pass helped me rediscover the love I have for Mercedes-AMG four-cylinders. With the drive mode selector in Sport or Sport Plus, the SL’s engine is much more entertaining, its lively throttle providing nearly instantaneous thrust thanks to that lag-free turbocharger. The teensy 1.6-inch motor on the compressor shaft spools up boost before the exhaust takes over, giving the SL43 smooth, copious torque from a standstill.
Mercedes calls the nine-speed gearbox a multi-clutch transmission, meaning it features a wet clutch setup instead of a torque converter. The result is sharper power delivery and swifter gear changes, but similar low-speed gentility to a conventional automatic. In manual mode, the car will hold gears even at redline, responding quickly and obediently to commands from the paddle shifters, evincing some exhaust crackles on overrun and blatty little toots when changing gears. There’s also plenty of intake rush at full throttle to evoke the snappy, twin-cam snarl of that first four-cylinder SL.
The engine noise in hard charging helps put the SL43’s comparative lack of forward thrust in context; after all, 375 horses and 4.8 seconds aren’t bad, all things considered. Responsive, accurate steering is unlike any modern Mercedes save perhaps the outgoing GT coupe, and the non-adjustable suspension almost perfectly threads the triumvirate gap between body control, roll stiffness, and compliance. The car also reacts delightfully to mid-corner throttle adjustments, tucking in tight or breaking slightly loose as the driver demands – keep the stability controls fully active until you get to know the car a little.
What’s more, that excellent agility doesn’t come at the expense of straight-line composure. Even on LA’s battered concrete freeways, the SL43 boasts excellent air control with the roof down, phenomenal isolation with it up, and an excellent ride at all times. So dual-purpose was the handling/cruising behavior that I was shocked to learn that the four-cylinder has neither rear axle steering nor all-wheel drive. In contrast to the rear-axle-steer, 4Matic-equipped SL55 and SL63, the SL43 is as analog as it gets for a modern Mercedes droptop.
Adding to the roadster’s appeal is a comprehensive set of standard features. In an about-face from German tradition, Mercedes-AMG doesn’t ask you to pay extra for a surround-view camera, premium audio, or the aforementioned massaging seats. My tester was equipped with a $3,250 coat of matte paint, $1,950 21-inch wheels, $1,950 active safety suite (adaptive cruise control, lane centering, and lane-change assistance), and a few other bits, bringing its total price from $111,050 with destination to $119,785 as tested.
While that’s a heady sum for a four-cylinder, a comparably equipped 911 Cabriolet costs at least $130,000, while the Aston Martin Vantage roadster is on a whole ‘nother level, starting at nearly $160,000 before options. And while my first impression of the Mercedes-AMG SL43 was a bit less than positive, it quickly won me over with athletic handling, plenty of style, excellent composure, and an emotive powertrain if you’re willing to wring it out a bit. Sounds a lot like that 190SL, doesn’t it? The more things change…
Mercedes-AMG SL Competitor Reviews
Mercedes-Benz AMG SL-Class