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
horse-power. 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
Automatic Body Control lets the SL corner with authority,
even though the P255/45R17 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
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
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.