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SL550: High-tech and fast

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This undated picture provided by Mercedes-Benz shows the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550.

This undated picture provided by Mercedes-Benz shows the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550.

Mercedes-Benz, Associated Press

The 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL550 roadster is faster, more fuel efficient, bigger and yet significantly lighter than its predecessor and aggressively styled on the outside to evoke SLs of the 1950s.

But the high-tech and luxury features of this new, sixth-generation SL could bring buyers to showrooms, too.

After all, who wouldn't want to impress a friend or neighbor with a 0-to-60 sprint that takes just 4.5 seconds? And how about the active side seat bolsters that automatically hug passengers more tightly as the car takes turns?

The faster acceleration comes from a 429-horsepower, twin-turbo, direct-injection, gasoline V-8 that replaced last year's 382-horsepower, naturally aspirated V-8.

The active seat bolsters aren't dependent on speed. They instantly inflate and press forcefully — and unnervingly for a first-time passenger — to keep a person in place any time the steering wheel is moved appreciably.

Best of all, the SL550 has improved fuel mileage. The U.S. government gives the 2013 model a city rating of 16 miles per gallon, with highway travel rated at 24 mpg. The test SL was spot on with the government's combined city/highway rating of 19 mpg, affording a range of 375 miles.

Note the 2013 mileage is up from the 2012 SL550's 14/22-mpg rating and is better than the 15/22-mpg rating for Jaguar's two-seat XKR convertible.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a base, rear-wheel drive, 2013 SL550 is $106,405, an increase of $1,890 from the 2012 price.

Standard on every 2013 SL are seven-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters for shift-it-yourself mode; a fuel-saving, engine stop/start system; seats trimmed with leather that's specially treated to reflect the sun's heat and, over time, reduce sun damage; a retractable, hard sunroof that's a heat-reflecting panel; dual-zone, automatic climate control; bi-xenon headlamps that swivel in turns and curves to illuminate the road ahead, and 12-way, power-adjustable and heated seats.

A long list of safety features go beyond the usual air bags — there are eight in the SL — and antilock brakes.

For example, the SL550's brakes include automatic drying that activates whenever windshield wipers are turned on. This feature keeps brakes ready for maximum work when roads are wet.

There also are high-beam headlights that use a camera to automatically adjust the range of the lights depending on the proximity of other cars.

Competitors to the SL include the rear-wheel drive, 2012 Jaguar XKR convertible with 510-horsepower, supercharged V-8, automatic transmission and soft roof, which starts at $104,375.

Meanwhile, the rear-wheel drive, 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S Cabriolet with 400-horsepower, horizontally opposed, six-cylinder engine, seven-speed manual transmission and soft-top roof has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $108,950. And a new Porsche 911 Carrera S has a retail starting price of $113,030.

The new SL550 exterior styling is busy, for sure. There seem to be lines and swirls in the body everywhere, save for the rear end which, in contrast, seems a bit plain.

The stand-up grille in front especially evokes the early SLs.

One thing that's not obvious: Most of the SL550 body shell is made of aluminum for the first time. Steel is primarily found inside the window pillars. The lighter aluminum accounts for the loss of some 240 pounds from the previous SL. Indeed, the 2013 base car weighs in at less than 4,000 pounds.

The car looks good with hard top on and off. Mercedes boasts the complicated, power-operated maneuvering of the roof and rear window takes just 16 seconds. A driver only has to touch a button.

Roof storage reduces trunk room from 10.2 cubic feet to 7.2 cubic feet.

The SL550's newfound power can be addictive. It came on so smoothly and strongly in the test car that the driver typically was going 20 mph faster than expected.

The new engine — a 4.6-liter, double overhead cam, direct-injection V-8 — has twin turbos providing 13.1 pounds per square inch of boost.

Torque, that "oomph" feeling of being propelled forward forcefully, is plentiful in this car and comes on quickly. Peak torque is a hearty 516 foot-pounds starting at a low 1,800 rpm and continues to 3,500 rpm.

Even though Mercedes installed a start/stop system in the new SL that turns off the engine automatically to save fuel at stops, the test car got under way as soon as pressure on the brake pedal lightened, and it beat everyone away from stoplights. The start/stop worked seamlessly in the tester and was nothing like start/stop systems in earlier, lesser vehicles where the engine almost seemed to stall as it got going again.

Engine sounds were deep and confident, but steering, while direct, required a bit too light an effort at times.

It was weird not having "Park" on the gearshifter. Instead, a driver must push a button at the base of the gearshift lever to put the car in "Park."

Controls in the SL550 take some getting used to, though buttons are decently sized.

In the tester, seat leather was luxurious to the touch, carpeting was thick, and fit and finish was excellent.

Extras can be costly. The test car came with nearly $18,000 of options, including seats with the active bolsters plus a massage feature, a roof panel that changes transparency and adjustable body control suspension. Even the rearview camera was optional.