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There are certain rights and privileges afforded the Mercedes-Benz SL320 driver that are not ordinarily extended to drivers of lower-priced vehicles.
For example, after genuflecting, parking valets will make certain your car is parked in front, safe from all manner of dents and dings, as well as from the inconvenience of having to wait for your Mercedes to be brought around.
And on the road, left-lane squatters will quickly take heed of the broad, star-tipped hood in their mirror and virtually leap to the next lane, allowing for safe and expedient passing.
You see, the most important - or annoying, as the case may be - point of owning a the SL320 is that it is never invisible. Whether clean or dirty, moving fast or slow, everyone notices the SL320. Frankly, it's just too difficult to ignore.
Walking toward the SL320 with key in hand imparts a sense of awe mingled with delight. The awe is because the key might as well be a house key, for the SL320 costs about as much as the average single-family house.
As mind-numbing as its stratospheric prices may be, Mercedes is recognizing the importance of value - even in premium luxury cars. In fact, the automaker has loaded its new S-Class and SL-Class models with more standard equipment and lowered the total amount.
Mercedes Benz SL-Class models include the SL320, SL500 and SL600. For our test drive, we chose the SL320 convertible, which featured no optional equipment and came in at $78,775.
Once the effects of the astronomical price pass and your head properly clears, your eyes focus on the crisp surfaces of the SL320's shape.
From the front of the car, the signature Mercedes-Benz 3-pointed star sits nestled in the center of the chrome grille. Attractive flush-mounted halogen headlights are placed on either side of the grille, and clear-lensed turning indicators smoothly flow from headlight to fender.
Small wipers rest at the bottom of both headlight assemblies and operate in conjunction with the windshield wiper only when the headlights are switched on. Small ellipsoidal front foglights are found below the headlights, and are integrated into the front spoiler.
The single-arm windshield wiper was interesting to watch and a seemingly stunning example of Mercedes-Benz engineering prowess, but ultimately it was ineffective at cleaning our windshield.
Following the taut skin over the sloping nose to the steeply raked windshield and back to the tapered rear leaves an impression of cleanliness and size. The shapes are simple and flowing; thoroughly contemporary, but avoiding both the wind-tunneled blob and creased and folded designs that too often plague modern styling.
Smooth-faced 8-spoke alloy wheels, shod with 16-in. Pirellis, fill the wheel wells with fluid grace.
Opening and closing the door of the SL320 gives you the distinct impression this car is expensive and solid. Mercedes has long been known for its once-exclusive solid "clunk" door-closing sound, but other automakers have since caught on and copied it. After the driver and passenger are inside, they're ensconced in vault-like solidity.
The SL320 has more interior storage than you would expect. Compartments are located in the dash and door panels, and a large storage area is located behind the seats with, yes, more compartments in the floor.
Speaking of the seats, they offer a good deal of versatility with multi-adjustable levels, but we found them difficult to get comfortable in.
The SL320 is equipped with nearly every electronic gadget imaginable. In fact, it borders on overkill. The automatic stereo volume control, in particular, is quite annoying.
The side-view mirrors and automatic dimming rearview mirror are adjustable via a switch in the center console. This is a neat feature, but it is habit to reach over and adjust the mirror with your hand. And after all, does it require any less work to operate the electronic knob than it does to adjust the mirror manually?
The SL320 has a good amount of trunk space, particularly for a convertible.
The SL320 comes equipped with an 3.2-liter in-line 6-cylinder engine. This powerplant produces 228 hp and drives the rear wheels through a 5-speed automatic transmission. Always smooth and quiet, the engine never rocketed our SL320 into traffic, but acceleration was still brisk. The automatic shifted with smoothness and alacrity, and never hunted among the five gears, even on steep hills.
The only drivetrain hiccup we encountered occurred after cold starts. The first start after sitting overnight or for most of the day often resulted in a stall. If it didn't stall, a lot of throttle was required to produce little movement. After a moment or two, the SL320 would lurch ahead as though fitted with turbochargers, chasing the tachometer needle to the redline. Only when the automatic transmission shifted from first to second did the sluggish response vanish.
Despite these problems, we suspect this anomaly was peculiar to our test vehicle and probably should not be regarded as a problem that plagues all SL320s.
Although not outfitted with the SL500's 315-hp V8 or the SL600's 389-hp V12, the SL320 still proved sporty around town and sufficiently long-legged on the highway. Fast cruising on uncluttered interstates seemed effortless for our tester. And at such speeds, the cabin was serene.
Steering in the SL320 is outstanding. With little body roll compared with the typical Mercedes-Benz, the SL320 is fun to drive aggressively. It is also lighter and slightly more nimble than the more expensive SLs.
With the standard aluminum hardtop in place, road and wind noise are markedly reduced when compared with the soft top. That is not to say that the cabin is raucous when the soft top is in place - it is in fact quieter than most convertibles - but the top is still canvas instead of metal.
Aside from noise differences, one other significant difference exists between the soft- and hardtops. The hardtop requires two people to remove, while the soft top can be raised and lowered from the comfort of the passenger compartment with no more effort than holding a switch. Mercedes-Benz was the first automaker to offer this fully automatic soft top.
The SL320 is equipped with an innovative pop-up roll bar. Sensors detect when a rollover accident is about to occur, and the roll bar automatically pops up. Or, if time allows, the roll bar can be manually activated by the flip of a switch.
A removable wind deflector behind the rear-seat headrests automatically pops up with the roll bar. The deflector makes the interior cabin surprisingly quiet and wind-free during top-down motoring.
The SL320 is equipped with a standard traction-control system, which uses only brake intervention. The system is non-defeatable but does allow for wheel slip, making it pretty fun but probably not as effective in wintry conditions as the SL320's optional traction-control system, which intervenes with the accelerator as well as the brakes.
Yes, the SL320 is expensive - likely more expensive than your first house. But for your buck you receive a kind of noblesse oblige once reserved for the highest royalty.
In addition, you get a solidly built and smoothly sporty convertible - one that will turn the corner as quickly as it will turn heads.
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