Test Drive: 2017 Mercedes-AMG SL65 Roadster

Courtesy Mercedes-Benz

Driving the California coast was never more enjoyable than when behind the wheel of this new convertible

Call it the Southern California Posh Hotel Run. The starting line is the elegant Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach (22701 S Pelican Hill Rd.; 855-315-8214; pelicanhill.com), and the finish line is the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego (1500 Orange Ave.; 619-435-6611; hoteldel.com), one of the great classic Victorian stays. The distance is just over 88 miles and it should take about 90 minutes to get there. But here’s the thing: I’m driving the new 2017 Mercedes-AMG SL65 convertible roadster with 12-cylinders under the hood, which fire the two-seater from zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds and offer a top speed of 186 miles per hour. Guess what? I’m taking the long way—with the top down.

This means leaving the scenic but traffic-packed Pacific Coast Highway at Dana Point and turning inland onto the more sparsely used Ortega Highway, a two-lane black ribbon that winds its way through the Santa Ana Mountains toward Lake Elsinore. Going super fast on the Ortega Highway is practically suicidal—the road is just one hairpin turn after another—but the route highlights the deft handling of the SL65, and its 621 horsepower translates into quick acceleration coming out of the turns, all managed by a smooth shifting seven-speed transmission. Five different modes vary the ride from a comfortable commuting setting to a sport plus setting that enhances the car’s agility. This car loves tight switchbacks so I add a side trip up a stunning alpine road to Mount Palomar, home of the famous observatory. The pursuit of science is a lot of fast fun.

By this point, I've stretched a 90-minute ride that started just after breakfast into a twisting tour requiring a lunch stop at the Ponte Winery in Temecula (35053 Rancho California Rd.; 877-314-9463; pontewinery.com). It’s a perfect moment to reflect on some of the car’s finer design points. I like how the new, slightly retro grille slopes downwards, making the entire front end of the all-aluminum body look longer. The wing-like air outlets on the side are largely cosmetic but they give the car a sporty air it deserves. And with the Mercedes-AMG SL65 accounting for about one percent of SL sales, I’m looking at a future collectable.

The SL65 sits at the top of the new SL roadster line for Mercedes. Another high performance AMG version is the SL63 with an eight-cylinder 577 horsepower engine that makes the car lighter and therefore a little more agile through corners. The Mercedes-Benz SL450 and SL550 are six- and eight-cylinder versions offering 362 and 449 horsepower, respectively; both feature a nine-speed transmission and a new “curve” driving mode that is more of a comfort setting than a performance enhancer as its designed to reduce any sideways motion of the car through a turn.

Back behind the wheel it’s getting hot, so I put up the hardtop. It’s a good time to play around with the panoramic Magic Sky roof, which lets me tint the glass from transparent to dark (perfect for a blistering day like today) at the touch of a button. My new plan is to arrive at the Hotel Del Coronado by dinner. Route 76 South looks interesting.

Pricing to be announced; mbusa.com.