2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43 Review and Test Drive

This convertible proves that sometimes less is more.

Front three-quarter view of a white 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43Jim Resnick


Ask any sailor, and they'll tell you that big ships take a long time to change direction. Mercedes-Benz as a company is nothing if not a proverbial big ship, which is why the new 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43 is a shocker.

In the history of the Mercedes SL sports car, which goes back to 1954 (or 1952, if you include the early 300SL gullwing race cars), there has never been an SL with fewer than six cylinders. That changes now.

Even more daring, the new turbocharged four-cylinder SL 43 roadster breaks into the market as an AMG model, promising a level of performance you would not think possible from a luxury sports car with merely four cylinders.

That leads to the next surprise with the latest-generation SL, which debuted in 2022. Every model in the new lineup is an AMG variant, which makes sense since this latest SL has been engineered down to its skeleton by Mercedes-AMG, the company's high-performance and racing division.

Rear three-quarter view of a white 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43Jim Resnick

2023 Mercedes-AMG SL Prices Start Lower Thanks to the New SL 43

The 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL comes in three models: the SL 43, the SL 55, and the SL 63. Base prices range from the low $110,000s to the mid-$180,000s for the SL 63, including the destination charge to ship the car from the Bremen, Germany, factory that builds it to your local dealership.

For this Mercedes-AMG SL review, I test-drove the SL 43 in Arizona. It came with a few options:

  • Moonlight White semigloss paint
  • AMG Night Package exterior trim
  • Black AMG 21-inch wheels and tires
  • AMG carbon-fiber trim
  • AMG Track Pace for recording performance data
  • Head-up display
  • Artificial suede headliner
  • Hands-free power trunklid
  • Load compartment package
  • Driver Assistance package

These upgrades brought the manufacturer's suggested retail price to $125,835, including the $1,150 destination charge. Mercedes provided the vehicle for this SL 43 review.

Front seats of a 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43Jim Resnick

Classic Sports-Car Profile Married to a Tech-Heavy Interior

Throughout its 70-year history, the Mercedes SL has always featured a long hood and a short rear deck. That continues with the latest generation, creating an instantly appealing profile that evokes sports cars of an earlier era.

The design positions drivers much closer to the rear wheels than the fronts, so they feel more of the car's mass ahead of them rather than behind, as would be the case with a mid-engine sports car. It's a traditional feel, as you would get behind the wheel of a Jaguar from the 1960s, a classic Corvette, or even a Dodge Viper.

High-quality, stitched leather is everywhere, accompanied by piano-black plastic, textured rubber, and stainless steel. All the materials are first rate, as they should be in a car costing more than $125,000.

Some controls are unique to Mercedes models, including the steering-column-mounted transmission lever and the door-mounted seat adjuster. All the other primary controls, such as the dash-mounted headlight switch and shifter paddles, are conventionally placed. There are very few physical switches or buttons inside the SL 43. You access most settings through the infotainment system, multifunction rocker switches, and touch-sensing steering-wheel controls.

Steering wheel and infotainment screen in a 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43Jim Resnick

Cocooning in the Mercedes SL Interior

Unlike the exterior, the inside of the 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43 is entirely modern, even futuristic.

The driver and passenger sink into supportive seats, and the high center console and tall windowsills accentuate that sensation of falling into place. Mercedes provides a significant range of seat adjustments, including the side bolsters, so the SL creates a feeling of envelopment regardless of height, body type, or size.

Legroom abounds, and Mercedes includes an Airscarf system in the front headrests. The Airscarf blows soft, warm air onto the back of your neck, keeping the chill away when driving with the top down.

Mercedes also now makes the SL with four seats, where it previously was a two-seater. Theoretically, you can bring more than one person along for the ride. However, not even small children would be happy back there. I could fit my briefcase or camera bag behind the front seats, but not much else — and certainly nothing with a pulse.

Trunk of a white 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43Jim Resnick

Cargo and Storage Are on Par With Sports Cars and Roadsters

Think of the new SL as a two-seat convertible, and you might deem the car to have ample interior space. In addition to stashing things in the back seat, the center console storage area and glovebox offer reasonable room for smaller items.

Golf bags will fit in the trunk, but not with drivers. With the convertible top up, trunk space measures 8.5 cubic-feet, shrinking slightly to 7.5 cu-ft with the top stowed due to an expanding compartment in the trunk that houses the top. And though the new soft top weighs less than the prior SL's folding hard top, the preceding model had more trunk space, at 13.5 cu-ft.

Navigation screen in a 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43Jim Resnick

MBUX: User Friendliness With a Couple of Kinks

All new SL models come with the latest Mercedes Benz User Experience (MBUX) infotainment system that uses a virtual assistant triggered by the words "Hey, Mercedes." The 11.9-inch center touchscreen adjusts to a more upright position as the top is dropped to prevent glare. Drivers can also adjust it manually.

The touchscreen operates the vast majority of the infotainment functions. For the most part, it's intuitive. However, several functions can be fussy.

For example, to raise or lower the top, you must first call up the top's menu on the screen, then swipe and hold a virtual button in the raising or lowering position. If your finger rolls a millimeter away while holding it, the top stops midstream, and you must re-swipe and hold. A conventional switch to operate the top as in the SLs of recent generations would be preferable.

In addition to this top fussiness, the front seat bolster and lumbar adjustments require calling up the infotainment screen's seat page and making your choices. The screen can get hot to the touch after even 20 minutes of driving, too. It doesn't burn your finger, but it's hotter than any other screen I've recently poked at.

Both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard. Pairing my iPhone to the system proved quick, but only after the first handshake, and that first handshake took longer than usual.

The car's native navigation system includes augmented reality in the form of animated arrows and signals on the touchscreen and in the head-up display as you approach turns, freeway merges, or other actions. However, the SL 43's navigation system suffered from a few fits during my test. It repeatedly could not execute navigation, the system delivering an audio message that it couldn't do so because of "limited internet access."

Likewise lacking, the native voice recognition could not come up with Spiga Cucina Italiana, a local favorite restaurant that a few other test cars have recognized without much issue. Uttering "Spiga Italian," "Spiga Kitchen," "Kitchen Italian," or even "Italian Kitchen" while then citing the road address also didn't work, yet "Chipotle" turned up 15 choices while loitering around the same parking lot.

Most oddly, while navigation was operating, the SL's verbal navigation instructions would cut off, raising the audio system speakers back up to regular volume before the navigation commands had finished. Since the SL uses infotainment software across multiple car platforms — including a C 43 sedan I tested right after the SL 43, which had no similar issues — I have to assume these quirks were unique to this particular SL 43 for some reason and not a systematic problem.

All SLs come with an 11-speaker, 650-watt Burmester audio system, which performed exceedingly well, even with the top down at elevated speed. Automobiles are a sound engineer's worst nightmare, and convertibles are even worse than sedans and coupes due to wind buffeting, exhaust rumbling, and white noise from the tires. But with the top up or down, the SL's Burmester system kept up with expectations.

Driver instrument panel in a 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43Jim Resnick

Digital Instrumentation: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

A 12.3-inch digital instrument display is standard, offering a choice between Classic, Sport, Supersport, and Discreet themes.

Unfortunately, the Sport and Supersport displays depict bizarre representations of engine speed, road speed, and other data, presenting it like an expanding circle for a tachometer. Though entertaining, it misses a crucial point about instrumentation.

When I need information instantly, I don't want an impediment where I have to interpret an abstract graphic to understand when I'm about to crash into the engine's redline. Thankfully, the regular Classic depiction of analog gauges rendered digitally works just as well as analog dials and is better than the car's odd sport-related instruments.

Meanwhile, the SL's head-up display provides clear and straightforward road speed and other data, including the direction animations from the navigation system.

Driver-assistance screen in a 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43Jim Resnick

2023 Mercedes-AMG SL Driver Assistance: Effective but Extra

Mercedes-Benz is a leader in safety, and the SL comes with a long list of standard and available safety features. The automaker groups many of them into the optional Driver Assistance package for a reasonable price.

The unusual highlights of the Driver Assistance package include:

  • Active Lane Change Assist: turn signal-triggered lane changing on highways
  • Active Brake Assist with Turning and Cross-Traffic Function: pedestrian and cross-traffic detection with emergency braking
  • Active Emergency Stop Assist: safe stopping mode when the driver is not responsive
  • Congestion Emergency Braking: automatically brakes when the SL rapidly approaches jammed traffic

Use the adaptive cruise control and lane assist together and the SL offers a hands-on semi-autonomous driving-assist experience. The adaptive cruise control quickly picked up on speed and traffic changes ahead when individual cars changed lanes or slowed down, and the lane assist worked impeccably. The lane-change assist took a little longer than expected to execute its task, but that's a small ding to an otherwise fine semi-autonomous driving-assistance system.

Some active safety foibles did crop up, however. After I merged onto one freeway in Phoenix with a posted limit of 65 mph, the Active Speed Limit Assist system misread a sign as 80 mph, even after a half mile. In addition, though the lane-keeping system worked as expected on meandering two-lane county highways, it occasionally suffered indecision on sections with obscured lane markings, a common problem for this kind of technology.

2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43 Safety Ratings

As of publication, neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has performed crash tests on the 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43. Check the NHTSA and IIHS websites for updates.

Engine bay in a white 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43Jim Resnick

2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43 Boasts a Healthy Inline-Four and a Formula 1 Trick

Although the Mercedes-AMG SL 43 might be the current entry-level SL, a look over the vital stats reveals anything but an entry-level car.

The turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine makes a whopping 375 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque. The turbocharger is partially electrically driven to reduce turbo lag, a concept derived from the company's Formula 1 engine, though the parts are entirely different. The engine powers the rear wheels through a nine-speed multi-clutch automatic transmission. You can choose from five driving mode settings: Slippery, Comfort, Sport, Sport+, and a programmable Individual mode.

The SL 43 uses a new and unique five-link front suspension, which creates more camber gain through the wheel's travel, improving stability, cornering speed, and grip. Steering responsiveness is immediate thanks to a new steering rack and electric power assist. In addition, rear steering is standard. It adds a small amount of same-phase steering at high speeds for quick lane changes. At slow speeds, opposite-phase steering improves maneuverability in tight quarters such as parking lots.

Front three-quarter view of a white 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43Jim Resnick

Power, Handling, and Comfort to Suit Just About Anyone

Mercedes claims it takes 4.8 seconds for the SL 43 to accelerate to 60 mph. By the seat of my pants, an educated guess is that's a modest claim. It feels quicker, and I suspect the engine makes more than 375 horsepower.

Fortunately, while most folks have a dim view of how four-cylinder engines sound, the SL 43 sings as throaty, musical, and pleasing a song as any small-displacement four I've heard in a long time.

Sadly, the transmission sometimes lets down the superb engine it's bolted to. It works perfectly well under hard use and in the Sport, Sport+, and programmable Individual driving modes, launching from a dead rest with gusto. But leave the driving in the default Comfort setting, and the transmission can be indecisive and laggy.

Of course, the simple way around all this is to select one of the Sport or Individual drive-mode settings from the beginning. In Comfort mode, however, this powertrain combo amounts to an excellent engine searching for a transmission.

The SL 43 achieved an observed 22.6 mpg in my loop of urban, suburban, and freeway driving, only a few ticks off the EPA estimate of 21/27/23 mpg in city/highway/combined driving.

Rear three-quarter view of a white 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43Jim Resnick

The most pleasing surprise in driving the SL 43 is that it's a far more nimble and agile car than prior generations, yet it sacrifices nothing in ride comfort. Where SLs have been more comfortable on boulevards and less swift in the twisties, this new SL has enough game to play with serious driver's cars. The new steering, chassis, front suspension, heroic brakes, tenacious Michelin tires, and lighter weight all combine with the overachieving four-cylinder engine to make the SL 43 the most capable and serious version of itself as a driving machine in decades — when you avoid Comfort mode.

There's little wind noise with the fully lined and insulated soft top raised. As expected, wind noise is elevated with the soft top down, though raising the windows and deploying the simple wind blocker keeps turbulence very low. And the engine stays quiet with the top down. You hear the barky exhaust only when you bury the accelerator pedal and the engine speeds climb.

Side view of a white 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 43Jim Resnick

A Satisfying Drive in Nearly Every Circumstance

Sports-car buyers have had a distant relationship with the Mercedes SL for a long time. It isn't as sporty or "pure" as a Porsche 911, as exotic or expensive as a Ferrari, or as patriotic as the Chevrolet Corvette. And Jaguar's often forgotten but pretty F-Type goes away after 2024. In many ways, the beautiful Lexus LC 500 Convertible is the closest rival to the Mercedes-AMG SL despite offering fewer powertrain options.

Yet, the iconic SL has endured since day one in the U.S. market, even through that dark period in the 1970s when government legislation threatened to completely kill off all convertible sales. Given the true mission of the Mercedes SL — luxury, comfort, leading-edge tech, enduring good looks, and a dose of driving performance — the new SL 43 certainly delivers on all fronts.

That mission sharpens in 2024 when a new AMG GT Coupe debuts on the same platform as the SL. A performance-first sports car rather than a luxury-first convertible, the AMG GT Coupe will allow the SL to excel at what it does best, taking a proverbial smoother road to deliver outstanding luxury and technology combined with a higher level of serious driving performance than before.

In that way, you could consider the AMG SL 43 to represent the best of both worlds.

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Jim Resnick
From racing exotic sports cars, to ranking new cars, to peeling back layers of cover up in an exhaust emissions scandal, Jim has chronicled the automotive sector for decades. Jim has also worked inside the corporate headquarters of three carmakers, and therefore understands how the automotive sausage is really made. But Jim’s affinity for vehicles takes a back seat to finding the truth and the cultural implications of modern transportation. He has also lectured at universities to engineering and policy students and faculty on the industry's relationship with legislation in the wake of the diesel exhaust emissions scandal several years ago. Put simply, Jim reports on autos, mobility, tech, car culture, and the traffic jam of topics within.