2013 Mercedes Benz SL 63 AMG: The painstaking art of performance

by Aaron Cole :: posted in Reviews on September 4th, 2013
There might be a white boardroom somewhere in Germany with white chairs, bright white lights, cold gray floors, big windows and not a speck of dirt to be found on any of it. In the boardroom of my mind, where Mercedes Benz’s Skunkwerk engineers from their AMG division meet, surgeons perform a different kind of surgery in the bleach-clean room in pressed, slim-fitting suits looking through angular hip glasses. “The bezel on that badge is 56 degrees, Dieter. It must be 55!”

Precision demands better lighting than fluorescents, you know. At least in my imagination, it does.

AMG — which stands for “Affalterbach, Melcher and Großaspach” — has been the nameplate for some of Mercedes’ most iconic, insanely fast cars. Whereas American muscle demands a distillation from their names: “‘Vette,” “Boss,” “Judge,” Benz specialty builders add more syllables, because of course they do.

For decades, like Swiss watchmakers before them, and British marine chronometer makers before them, AMG engineers have constructed some of the world’s most precise and powerful instruments. According to Mercedes, only 50 builders can make AMG engines, and one engine is built by one man, signed at the end with a plate riveted to the front of the engine. Today’s engine was built by Kevin Ludwig one of two or three he made that day.

The contradiction between a violent combustion process and a synchronized valve timing system for eight cylinders, two turbos and hundreds of expertly timed parts can’t be ignored — it must be celebrated by mashing your right foot into the floor, repeatedly. I think I’ll do that right now.

The 2013 Mercedes Benz SL 63 AMG is just that kind of car. Crafted in clean rooms by men with wire-frame glasses, the two-seater convertible is a chiseled peak of angular perfection brought to you by blunt-force, ruthless and raw power. The fact that it’s midnight black, carpeted with flecks of silver paint — they call it “Magnetite Black” — only emphasizes how savage the art of precision can be when your name is AMG. No wonder the seats are blood red-colored leather.

Back to Kevin and his outfit in Affalterbach, Germany. In the automotive industry, in-house tuners and performance divisions are commonplace today. BMW’s M division, Chrysler’s SRT, Ford’s Shelby and Nissan’s NISMO, have made specialty racing almost everyday sights on the streets — darn near pedestrian too. Blame it on the after-market explosion of the mid-1990s or the consistent watering down of factory-stock performance cars, extra letters after the car’s name are big business. To wholly pronounce the name of this car and its 16 syllables, “2013 Mercedes Benz SL 63 AMG,” takes around four seconds. Coincidental then, I guess, that it takes the hulking 4,059-lb. mass to accelerate from 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds. Two syllables come to mind for that: “holy,” and your choice.

But AMG is perhaps the standard bearer for factory-sponsored performance. The group, which began making engines for racing Mercedes in the 1960s, has stuck to a singular formula since the beginning: better performance comes through bigger engines — at the very least.

Starting with an already fleet-footed cruiser in the Benz SL550, AMG dumps the standard 4.6-liter eight and shoehorns a 5.5-liter, twin-turbocharged eight in its place. The resulting horsepower difference is over 100 more horses, depending on spec, and more than 100 additional torques. It’s hard to put into words what that kind of twist does to performance, but you can feel it in the back of your neck and in the corners of your eyes where your pupils naturally gravitate when you accelerate toward the horizon at obscene speeds. It’s for this reason that AMG begins to separate from the competition — and from the cars they base their performance versions on — and why it begins to make sense that this specimen costs an eye-watering $171,225. More than $40,000 of that is for the AMG touch, and $9,000 more is for the AMG Performance Package, which adds more horsepower, a higher top speed and bright red calipers to the discs at all four corners.

It begs the question, among those wealthy enough to purchase a car like the SL 63 AMG, how many more are unsatisfied with 530 horsepower that they’d spring for a Rolex-priced package to add 27 more? Is 155 mph so slow that 186 mph becomes attractive? And if you’re going that fast anyway, who’s going to see your bright red brakes? Affalterbach must be on the unrestricted side of the Autobahn.

With great cost comes great sacrifice, though. As in, expect police officers to take a keen notice in how fast you’re driving (Officer Timmons, for one), other drivers to gawk at your car instead of paying attention to the road, and thanks to a convertible folding hardtop, all can see your ear-to-ear smile in high-definition. It may not be the cheapest way to blow-dry your hair in the morning, but it could be the most fun. The folding roof takes fewer than 20 seconds to completely open or close — enough time at a stoplight before you crank the Hall & Oates — and the origami operational dance between top latches, semi-translucent Magic Sky roof and carbon-fiber composite trunk lid prompts a “Wow,” followed closely by a “I bet that’s expensive to fix.”

There’s not much in the SL 63 AMG that feels cheap anyway. Sitting in the red leather bucket seats, there are multitudes of buttons, switches and displays that feel bespoke for a car that fully qualifies as “mass production.” 

I, for one, don’t believe it. I won’t let myself believe that this car is built for just about everyone. Instead I’d prefer to hold on to the idea that in that white room, with those sharp-dressed engineers, they’re arguing over every potential owner like they should.

Aaron Cole is a syndicated auto columnist. He’d like to hear from you. Reach him at aaron.m.cole@gmail.com.  
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