Mercedes SL65 AMG (R230) | The Brave Pill

As Mercedes faces up to an electric future, meet one of the glories of its hydrocarbon past

By Mike Duff / Saturday, April 17, 2021 / Loading comments

It’s been a while since we opened the double-locked, triple-bolted pharmacy vault where the very bravest Pills are kept, but here is one that – if it was an actual medicinal capsule – would be stored in a lead-lined box covered with yellow and red warnings. We’ve had courageous Mercs before, many of which have been AMGs, but none has previously carried the 65 branding that the tuning division reserved for its most extreme V12 powerplant. The fact the badge in question is applied to an R230-generation SL – one of Merc’s highest watermarks of complexity and unexpected cost – constitutes something close to automotive double jeopardy. 

When AMG was fully absorbed into Mercedes it took a few years for the new division to find its feet. But by the ‘early noughties it had successfully settled on the recipe that would serve it well for more than a decade: a brawny, characterful V8 at the sharp end and a chassis that combined respectable athleticism with more comfort than you’d get from an M-badged BMW. The W211 E55 AMG and R230 SL55 AMG, both launched in 2003, exemplified this combination and were critical and sales hits. 

At which point AMG’s execs could have put their feet on the Affalterbach boardroom table and got stuck into a case of Schwaben Brau as the money rolled in. But mere commercial success wasn’t enough. AMG’s origins in racing, and long-running competition against other Merc tuners, had given it the urge to dominate rather than just succeed. That meant creating an even brawnier elite range of models to sit above the 55s. 

The engineering logic was simple enough. The V8-powered AMG cars were tweaked and tuned versions of the regular V8 models that Mercedes was selling. As the parent company also offered V12 powerplants for those who regarded biggest as best, so AMG should offer its own version of the larger engine, which would be distinguished from its lesser brethren by 65 AMG branding. 

So while the SL55 AMG was a near perfect match for the regular V12-powered SL600, the two cars having identical power figures, 0-62mph times and top speeds, the SL65 would be clearly better than both and the toppest dog in the range. Launched in 2004, it used a largely hand-built version of the the M275 twin-turbo V12, with capacity increased from the SL600’s 5.5-litres to 6.0-litres, power raised from 493hp to 604hp and torque turned up from 590 lb ft to 738 lb ft. The last number was a then-record for any production road car. 

The increase in firepower didn’t actually improve the driving experience over that of the SL55. The lesser car’s engine and chassis were matched well enough to allow it to bait supercars, but the SL65 sat an elephant on one side of the scales. Even with the combination of an autobox, fresh tyres and dry tarmac, road testers struggled to tame the engine’s torquenami. One U.S. title managed a 3.6-second 0-60mph time – quicker than any contemporary Ferrari – but reckoned the AMG would have been even more impressive had it been capable of hooking up cleanly: “the SL65 doesn’t have too much power. It’s problem is it wasn’t given a commensurate helping of traction.”

The SL65’s seniority within the range was asserted by a price tag that could be politely described as ludicrous. Back in 2004 the SL55 cost £94,590 and the SL600 was £97,690. The SL600 was £143,000, with that supplement buying few changes beyond the monstrous engine and ability to make owners of lesser SLs feel inadequate. The 65 got modified suspension with firmer damping, a mechanical limited-slip differential capable of dealing with the torque and – in some markets – standard composite brakes. 

But the 65’s place at the top of the tree didn’t exempt it from the many quality issues that afflicted lesser members of the clan. This was not a great era for Mercedes build integrity, and the tech-stuffed SL suffered more than most from its combination of bork-prone componentry and underbonnet packaging tighter than that of a Chippendale’s jockstrap. Common failure points included the pump for the roll-fighting ABC suspension and the notorious electro-hydraulic Sensotronic brakes which, after a set number of cycles, effectively raise the white flag and demand to speak to an expensive mechanic. The folding hard-top can also be better at creating bills than a promiscuous heron.

The SL65’s limited appeal meant that fewer than 100 reached the UK, and our Pill isn’t one of them. It’s a left-hooker being sold by a specialist dealer in Bedford and which clearly started life somewhere else, although with no further details in the advert text. Clues including the narrow rear numberplate mounting and suspicion, under squinted scrutiny, that the heating controls are in Fahrenheit suggest it is most likely to have come from the U.S. It is being offered with UK registration and an MOT, or alternatively with help getting it legally imported to France or Spain.

It is also conspicuously cheap for an SL65, regardless of which side the steering wheel is on, at £28,000. The two UK spec cars in the classifieds are being offered for £45,000 and £66,000. The price being asked for this one is reflected by both a claimed 124,000 miles and some visible wear and tear, this including a heavily scored driver’s seat bolster and, strangely, what looks to be damage to the top left of the dashboard moulding – a result of too much sunshine? The split rim alloys seem to have lived on a kerb-rich diet, there is a small ding visible on the rear left-hand wheel arch and an aftermarket audio system sits in the dashboard.

Strangely our Pill’s deployable roll-over hoop is also raised in the pictures with the roof down. This is the system that springs into place if the car fears it is about to arrive at point ‘X’ on an insurance form – normally meaning a high-speed ESP intervention or the getting all four wheels off the ground. When it does it should be easy to click back into place, the fact this one hasn’t been might point to an issue, or could just indicate the seller’s fondness for the Triumph Stag look. 

So a jagged and unlittle Pill, but a fair amount of both risk and the need for future fettling is definitely factored into the pricetag. This SL65’s fate is likely to head somewhere that will consider its steering wheel to be on the proper side. But for anyone looking for a bargain example of the brawniest SL, or a reminder that AMG’s glory didn’t come from hybridized four-pots, this monster Merc takes some beating.

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