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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.
The Mercedes SL500 is one of the most beautiful cars in the world. From the jutting chin of its front bumper to the four-eyed headlamps to the traditional front fender air intakes to the shoulders over the rear tires to the five-spoke alloy wheels, the SL500 is not only the new style leader for Mercedes-Benz, but a new style leader for the entire segment.
Mercedes says the new SL simultaneously pays homage to its legendary great grandfathers while offering a new interpretation of excitement. Now almost 50 years in production, it is an automotive icon. It dates back to the 1954-63 300SL "Gullwing" Coupe. The most recent generation of SLs ran from 1989 to 2002.
The air inlets in the front fenders were inspired by the original 300SL. The narrow, wing-like chrome gills are reminiscent of the first SL Roadsters and are echoed in the hood. The four-eye headlamp pattern has the two lamps on each side melting into one another. They represent the latest in lighting technology with a circular Fresnel lens that concentrates the light emitted by the standard xenon headlamps. From the side, the rising beltline contributes to the car's rake. At the rear, the Mercedes triangular taillights use 27 LED bulbs designed to illuminate more quickly.
The Mercedes SL has a completely new interior design, different from the CL coupes and very different from the Mercedes sedans.
Two large round instrument pods carry the primary instruments, using smart, colorful graphics shared by no other Mercedes-Benz. The instrument panel and center console are well organized and feature the Mercedes COMAND screen that operates the sound system, navigation system, and telephone, with redundant controls on the new steering wheel. Below center, just ahead of the shifter, are the ventilation controls, similar in style to the twin round controls used in the M-Class SUVs. Voice activation for the phone, radio and ventilation system is optional.
The leather-covered seats that come with the car are superbly comfortable for grand touring, but if you need more and want more, Mercedes offers both dynamic multi-contour seats that give a continuous massage, or seats with active seat ventilation. The standard seats are larger and more sumptuous than the previous models because there is simply more room in the cockpit, with more room to adjust the seat for tall drivers and more room to rake the seat back. That's because the new automatic folding steel top design doesn't take up as much room as the old fabric convertible top. Behind the bucket seats are twin lockable storage compartments in place of the ridiculously small jump seats in the old car. The seats will adjust to anyone save a midget or an NBA starter, and the cabin feels much more open than the previous model did.
With the steel top up, the SL turns into a coupe as quiet as a church on Wednesday, allowing the occupants to relax and cover ground while the new 10-speaker sound system (with separate 100-watt amplified subwoofer) bathes the interior in sound. With the top stowed, a 16-second process, the sound system compensates automatically for the increased road noise. Mercedes worked long and hard to ensure that with the top down and the side windows down, you can still hold a normal conversation with your traveling partner even at very high road speeds.
An interesting new feature is the optional Keyless Go card, an electronically coded card that replaces the normal fob-and-key arrangement. As long as you have Keyless Go in your pocket or purse, you simply walk up to the car, touch the door handle to unlock the car, and then, once seated, you touch the knob on top of the shifter to start (or stop) the engine. Pretty handy when you're in a hurry or a rainstorm.
Passive safety features include front and side head-and-thorax airbags as well as new knee bags, and an automatic rollover protection bar that snaps up to protect you if the top is down.
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.
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