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Mercedes-Benz has launched a totally new SL to replace the previous model. A technological tour-de-force, the 2003 SL is improved in every way over the 2002 SL, which enjoyed record sales last year in spite of its 12-year-old design.
The new Mercedes SL is a sinuous, sensuous roadster with dramatic styling. Press a button and, 16 seconds later, its retractable power steel roof changes it from the open-air fun of a convertible to the quiet comfort of a luxury coupe. The SL is packed with every bit of automotive technology that Mercedes has perfected over the past dozen years, and that's a lot of technology. It does everything well, assuming you like to travel light because there's not much luggage space.
SL500 ($85,990) has more standard equipment than just about any other two-seater in the world today. The SL500's 5.0-liter V8 engine develops 302 horsepower.
SL55 AMG will be introduced in fall 2002 as a 2003 model. Brimming with performance, the SL55 AMG uses a newly developed, hand-built, 5.5-liter supercharged engine with more than 465 horsepower to catapult itself from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds, making it the fastest production Mercedes-Benz ever. The SL55 AMG comes with racing-derived braking power. Immense vented brake discs and calipers are engineered with the industry's first electronic braking system, stopping the SL55 AMG with racecar-like ability. Similarly, the SL55 AMG uses a further evolution of Mercedes' ABC active suspension to imbue the car with cat-like handling reflexes while simultaneously offering ride comfort designed to surpass the competition.
SL600 will be introduced next year with a silky smooth 6.0-liter V12 engine.
Options include a Motorola Timeport telephone, voice activated controls, the Parktronic parking distance warning system ($1035), Distronic radar-based cruise control ($2950) that keeps a preset distance between the SL500 and the car ahead, a tire pressure monitoring system ($630), and several seat options. Also available: Bi-xenon high-intensity discharge high- and low-beam headlamps ($900); Keyless Go ($1015); Panorama Roof ($1800). SL1 Wood Package ($840) includes wood and leather steering wheel and shift knob. SL3 Comfort Package ($1520) includes ventilated seats with multi-contour seatbacks.
SL2 Sport Package ($5100) includes AMG Monoblock alloy wheels, high-performance tires, body-colored AMG-designed front air dam, side skirts and rear apron, and the ventilated seats with multi-contour seatbacks.
To drive the Mercedes SL500 is to experience a level of technical sophistication found in few other cars at any price. And this sophistication can be enjoyed without consulting the manual. Just put it in Drive and let the systems work their magic for you.
The V8 engine in the SL500 is strong, smooth and quiet. Acceleration performance is rapid for a 4000-pound car with 300 horsepower, but not breathtaking. The SL500 is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in about 6.1 seconds. That's quick, but not as quick as a Porsche 911 Carrera or Chevrolet Corvette. The SL500's 5.0-liter V8 engine develops 302 horsepower. Peak torque of 339 pounds-feet is available from 2700 to 4250 rpm, and 295 pounds feet is on tap from just 2000 rpm. That flexibility is designed to give it quick response at all engine speeds.
The TouchShift five-speed automatic transmission is much improved over the last generation, with nearly imperceptible shifts up or down. Holding the selector toward the left causes the transmission to shift down to the optimal gear. On downhill sections, the driver can downshift for engine braking.
Automatic Body Control lets the SL corner with authority, even though the P275/45R17 tires are much smaller than those on the Corvette, Viper or Porsche 911. A dashboard switch lets the driver limit body roll even further, while still delivering a silky smooth, quiet ride.
Electronics dominate the SL500 landscape: electronic throttle control, antilock braking with electronic brake force distribution, electronic traction control and electronic stability control. These systems have been added to other Mercedes-Benz products in recent years, but the SL500 breaks new ground in the form of the world's first fully electronic braking system. If it didn't do anything else well, and it most certainly does, the SL500 would have to go down in history for this development alone.
The marvelous new electronic braking system runs on very high pressure, but the pedal feels normal no matter how hard you stop, and the ABC suspension won't let the car take a nosedive. Drive on any mix of tarmac, gravel, mud, water, ice or snow and the onboard systems keep the car on the straight and narrow with very little driver input. After five or six hours of fast driving on challenging roads, this car will make you feel like one of the masters of the universe. It's that good. It doesn't have the gut-level reactions of a Viper, Corvette, or Porsche, but the SL is far more comfortable and luxurious than any of them.
While the pedal feels perfectly normal under all braking applications, the system works quicker and faster than ordinary hydraulic braking systems and can proportion braking effort to each of the four tires depending on traction and yaw conditions, working hand-in-hand with the ABS, traction and stability systems as well as the standard active suspension system which Mercedes calls Automatic Body Control (ABC). These electronic features mean that this SL500 will corner and brake faster and harder and flatter than any previous SL while providing a huge envelope of protection against driver error and changing traction conditions.
The all-new Mercedes-Benz SL500 is a very competent sports car that takes the place of what was previously considered a sporty car. There's a big difference between sports car and sporty car. Initially intended as nothing more than an abbreviation for "sporty" and "light," the term SL has come to mean much more. Now it seems to mean luxury, sports car, classy, loaded.
The SL500 has little competition other than the Jaguar XKR roadster in its price class (the BMW Z8 is half again as much and hard to find). The Mercedes has the Jag covered in every respect except trunk space (though Jaguar is revising the XK range for 2003). Although the Mercedes trunk is 42 percent larger than the previous models, that translates to only 11.2 cubic feet with the top up, and less with the top down. This may not be enough for two Americans on a road trip.
Overall, the SL500 is a techno robot masquerading as a slick German roadster, a 50th anniversary present from Mercedes for the fortunate few.