The cars assembled for this comparison represent the pinnacle of automotive design and technology. Their collective sticker prices total nearly $350,000, and we're talking about just four cars here. Any one of the four could be considered a dream car, but that doesn't mean they're perfect, by any means. With widely varying personalities, the cars each have their own unique appeal, so although we chose a winner, any one of the four could be the ideal car for you.
Our quartet of cars included two German legends (the Mercedes-Benz SL500 and the Porsche 911 Cabriolet), a head-turning Brit (the Jaguar XKR) and a Japanese newcomer (the Lexus SC 430). Each was loaded with every conceivable feature. From massaging seats to an $8,700 set of wheels, these cars are designed with no expense spared to provide the most unforgettable driving experience possible.
In order to assess the merits of our contestants properly, we did what any automotive hack with an on-loan convertible would do we put the top down and hit Pacific Coast Highway. Warm, cloudless days made every car feel like a 10, so we tempered our opinions with tedious slogs through Los Angeles traffic just to make sure we didn't end up with a four-way tie for first.
When we returned, we submitted our evaluations and a winner was chosen, but to call the other three losers doesn't do them justice. When you're dealing with cars of this caliber, intangibles like image and reputation count almost as much as horsepower and seat comfort, so let our subjective assessments merely serve as a guide. If you're lucky enough to pilot any one of these cars on a sunny drive up the coast, rest assured you'll love every minute.
Fourth Place - 2002 Jaguar XKR
If this were nothing but a beauty contest, the Jaguar would have surely taken first place. Even in its sixth year of production, the XK-series still looks stunning, the high-performance XKR version even more so. Add a set of $8,700 wheels and you have the automotive version of a young Audrey Hepburn.
We hope we're not so shallow as to let a pretty red paint job and some fancy wheels blind us to a car's faults. Being all too familiar with this aging drop-top, we knew that beyond the dashing good looks lay a few matters of contention. That's not to say that this isn't one of the premier open-top vehicles on the road, but when you're competing against the finest that Germany and Japan have to offer, style is but one part of the winning combination.
Compared to the performance-oriented Porsche, the Jaguar is a more balanced machine. Yet while its capabilities are spread out over a much broader spectrum, its proficiency in each area is comparatively low. It handles competently, but not precisely enough to make it a real performer. It's fast, but not in a way that makes you seek every opportunity to exploit it. The interior is well trimmed and elegant, but space is limited and the ergonomics are far from perfect. We could make it easy and just say it's showing its age, but that wouldn't be the whole story.
One area where the XKR both excels and stumbles is its drivetrain. The supercharged 4.0-liter V8 is a marvel of power and smoothness, emitting a strangely appealing whine that makes it distinctive as well as powerful. With 370 horsepower on tap, it was no surprise that the XKR posted the best acceleration numbers out of the four. A 0-to-60 time of just 5.4 seconds should be enough to convey the fact that this is one seriously powerful car.
Unfortunately, the fabulous engine is connected to a five-speed automatic that can't always keep up. Shifts are smooth during normal driving, but don't expect it to make snappy decisions when the road turns twisty. There's no dedicated manual control and the poorly detented J-gate shifter doesn't help matters much. This wouldn't have been much of an issue if it were the standard XK8, but as the XKR is touted as the high-performance model, we expected a little more than your average gearbox.
The suspension is another mixed bag of results. Although generally more comfortable than the Porsche, the Jaguar is at times equally as jarring. Partially at fault are the optional 20-inch wheels and tires, as they offer little in the way of shock absorption. When it's pushed hard into turns, there's considerable body roll, and quick stops bring on noticeable front-end dive. There's good grip if you know where to find it, but its lack of road feel makes it hard to judge exactly where the limits lie.
Along with the upgraded wheels came an industrial set of Brembo brakes, known the world over for their incredible stopping power and race-proven durability. While they may work great in the ultra-harsh environment of road racing, their ability to provide the intricate brake feel required for the street was limited. Most editors found them hard to modulate, with too much dead travel upon initial application. And when they did grab hold, they still didn't feel as vise-like as those on the Porsche.
So the fun factor is admittedly low with the XKR, but like the Lexus, the Jaguar is better suited as a touring car. To that end, the Jaguar also features an opulent cabin covered in sumptuous leather that feels as good as it looks. The dash is covered end to end by a plank of burl walnut that provides an excellent contrast to the cream-colored trim that surrounds it. Although we did notice a few low-budget trim pieces sprinkled about the interior, the overall look is very stylish and upscale.
Looking good is one thing, but feeling good is just as important, and while the XKR's cabin is awash in soft leather and shiny wood, it's not always the most pleasant space to spend time in. Finding a comfortable seating position is difficult thanks to oddly placed controls and lack of a height adjustment for the seats. Our taller editors said they still felt cramped even after finding a good position, and there's not enough side bolstering to keep you in place in fast turns.
The radio and climate control layout is not the least bit intuitive, with too many buttons that look too much alike, forcing the driver to look down again and again to find the right one. There's no in-dash CD player, no auto up or down windows, and the emergency brake is placed on the floor next to your left leg. The top opens easily enough, but there's no automatic cover and wind buffeting is prominent at highway speeds.
It's not all bad. The DVD-ROM navigation system was easy to use, and the screen is placed high in the dash for easy viewing. The rear seats were the most usable in the test, and the Jaguar was the only vehicle to offer a sizeable trunk.
In fact, none of the four cars was really poor at anything. But when you stack them up against each other, small annoyances are often the only things you can come up with. The XKR is undoubtedly one of the most desirable convertibles you can buy, ergonomic quirks and all. Just being seen in one makes you feel good. The XKR is almost too good looking not to consider, but if you're shopping for a complete package, the Jag is a little long in the tooth for our tastes.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
This car is so beautiful; I really wished I liked it more than I did. With a body evocative of the classic E-type and an interior equally as attractive, this car will win over many on its looks alone. And a supercharged V8 that provides thrilling acceleration doesn't hurt, either. But there are other things to be considered, such as chassis integrity and brakes. Compared to, say, the 911, the Jag's structure felt loose, which isn't a good thing for either handling or the prevention of squeaks and rattles down the road. And I was befuddled by the brakes. The massive cross-drilled rotors and beefy calipers looked as if they could stop a train, yet the binders felt weak, mostly due to the first inch or so of pedal travel that did nothing. Perhaps our car had something wrong with it; I'm hoping that the answer is yes; something this gorgeous deserves better.
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
Few cars look as lovely as an XKR Convertible parked along a coastal highway. Its sheetmetal is muscular yet delicate, and its supple leather seats and wood inlays have a smooth, rich appearance. Unfortunately, this about as good as life gets for the XKR. Obviously, the supercharged V8 is extremely fast, but I didn't feel comfortable playing around with it, because the XKR's brakes and suspension didn't seem able to handle this much power at least in a manner that won't be unsettling to the average driver. Even with the understanding that the XKR is a classy touring car that won't be driven hard by owners, I still found the suspension wanting; body roll around curves was excessive, and overall, the Jaguar had a wobbly, insubstantial feel as well as lots of cowl shake. I did like the progressive weighting and slick feel of the steering; the body just didn't adjust well to the inputs I gave. I wouldn't recommend this car at this price. As it is, the Mercedes and the Lexus offer a better deal for luxury convertible buyers.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Sleek and sexy styling coupled with impressive straight-line performance; these are the reasons to select a Jaguar XKR. Though our test vehicle bordered on gaudy with its gold-tinted two-piece wheels and bright red paint, there's no denying that the Jaguar wins the swimsuit competition in this contest. The supercharged V8 generates impressive thrust when you mash the throttle, firmly pressing you into the comfortable Connolly leather seats as you rush to speed. But beyond these two fine qualities, the Jaguar lacks a competitive edge. Though the cabin is swathed in soft leather and what appears to be a cord of polished wood, the plastic bits and pieces that operate the controls fail to impress in terms of feel and finish. The folding softtop stacks behind the vestigial rear seat, blocking the rearward view and creating a lumpy top-down profile; difficult to accept when other vehicles in the class offer far more innovative and aesthetically pleasing solutions. The Jag is great for a leisurely drive and looking good while doing it, but I prefer something fun that makes me feel as though the money I spent was worth it.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Jaguar XKR
Rank in Stereo Test: Fourth
System Score: 6
Components: A tape deck in the dash and a six-disc changer feed sound to a 320-watt Alpine amplifier. There are nine speakers including mid-range units on the dash and a hidden trunk-mounted subwoofer and tweets staring you down from the side mirror patches.
Performance: This system seems great on paper, but things don't always work out as planned. It appears that the bass is trapped in the back of the car, making vocals and other mid-range tones sound hollow. The tweets sound crisp, but the entire system is easily overwhelmed at higher volumes, giving way to distortion. The bass has problems, too. Even with the equalizer set for maximum bass, extremely deep tones are almost nonexistent in the Jag. Adding insult to injury, the head unit is mounted very low in the front console.
Top Up/Top Down: Some of the bass response is lost to the atmosphere with the top down.
Best Feature: Satellite tweeters.
Worst Feature: Unsatisfying bass.
Conclusion: Not bad for an audio system, but the competition is tough in this price range. Trevor Reed
Third Place - 2002 Porsche 911 Cabriolet
Like the Mercedes SL, the Porsche 911 is an automotive icon that never gets old. It's still a looker despite a shape that has seen little change during the last four decades. Even the distinctive sound of its flat six engine remains familiar. This year's 911 is faster and more comfortable than ever before, but that doesn't mean it has been stripped of the unique personality that made it famous. Driving the 911 at speed is still an exhilarating experience. But in this company, a car has to be more than just a one-trick pony to earn top billing.
While the Lexus was luxurious enough to score well in some areas, it was relegated to second because of a lack of grace when pushed hard. The 911 was held to third place for the exact opposite reason. We loved the electrifying performance, but the trade-off is a harsh ride and omnipresent engine noise. And when it comes to luxury, the 911 doesn't even come close to the Lexus or the Mercedes. If wood trim and the latest gadgets are features you can do without, however, then the 911's precise handling and impressive power might be enough to make it your drop-top of choice.
Newly invigorated for 2002 with 20 additional horsepower (for a total of 320), the 911 can stir the soul like few other cars on the road. Wind it up to its 7,300-rpm redline and you're treated to an intoxicating wail that makes you wish you never had to take your foot off the gas. The acceleration is soft down low compared to the V8 cars, but once the 3.6-liter six hits its stride, the thrust builds ferociously. In this test, only the XKR could turn in faster times. The 911 clocked in with a 0-to-60-mph sprint of 5.6 seconds on its way to a 14.1-second quarter-mile.
A five-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission was partly to blame for the less than stunning times, but few were complaining with the transmission's performance on the street. Its ability to predict a driver's intensions during aggressive driving is uncanny, and the steering wheel-mounted toggle switches offer convenient manual shifting control. Stopping power is impressive just 114 feet from 60 but pedal effort is high compared to the delicate feel of the Lexus system.
The suspension and steering work brilliantly together, delivering the kind of road feel and control that only a world-class sports car can provide. Nearly every editor agreed that if you're looking for the most performance possible, the 911 is tops in this class. On the flip side, the Porsche's bias toward performance was also the source of some of its middling scores, as rough city streets take their toll on longer trips. Compared to the balanced nature of the SL and the posh ride of the SC 430, the 911's less forgiving setup makes it a less-than-ideal daily driver for those who don't like to feel every nook and cranny in the road.
The fact that the 911 is more abrasive on the streets than either the Mercedes or the Lexus is hardly a surprise. After all, it's designed to uphold the Porsche reputation for performance above all else, so we didn't knock it too hard for its abrupt manners. One aspect we couldn't overlook, however, was the Porsche's unimpressive interior.
There's nothing overtly cheap about the Porsche's cabin, but compared to the lavish surroundings in the Lexus, the 911 does have a decidedly low-rent feel to it. It finished last in the interior materials category, with most editors citing the numerous hard plastic panels and cheap-feeling switchgear for the low scores. "Too much plastic for a $90,000 car," was the most common complaint, while another found fault with the wisdom of in-dash cassette holders, "Is this the best use of dash space they could think of? Not only are they unnecessary, but I'm not even sure if they're sturdy enough to actually hold a cassette tape without breaking off in your hand."
The overall design is also a letdown. Although we can appreciate the driver-oriented setup that places the tachometer front and center, the rest of the interior looks dated. The climate control system is hard to read in glaring sunlight, the radio is a mess of partially labeled buttons, and the window and door lock switches reside inconveniently in the center console. After enough seat time, most of these ergonomic deficiencies wouldn't seem so frustrating, but no amount of time would make the interior seem worthy of the car's lofty price tag.
Design issues aside, the 911 was considered reasonably comfortable for long interstate drives. The optional seats in our test car provided excellent support despite their minimalist appearance. There's enough room for tall drivers to stretch out comfortably, but the lack of a tilting steering wheel makes finding a perfect driving position more of a chore than it should be. There are rear seats, but their tight dimensions make them more useful as storage shelves than anything else. The fully automatic top folds out of the way without a hitch, and the manual windscreen does a good job of controlling wind buffeting even at the high speeds the car inevitably attains on the highway.
For many people, buying a 911 is a matter of image more than anything else. There are plenty of other cars that are more comfortable, easier to drive and considerably less expensive, but none of them carry the aura of a 911. It's an intangible that's hard to calculate, and you can't add it to the option sheet like a pair of heated seats. It wasn't enough to earn it a better spot on our list, but it very well could be enough to snag the top spot on yours.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
I've got a love/hate relationship with the 911. No other car in the test spoke, or should I say screamed, to me as much as the Carrera. The snarling sound of the exhaust system is so addicting that I left the stereo off; no radio playlist or even my CD collection could bring the same level of joy to my ears. The suspension is dialed in perfectly for enthusiasts. There's no feeling of uncertainty when tearing up the twisties, just a well-planted attitude. The level of communication in the steering is unreal. Once I got into a groove, I felt my confidence and driving performance improve as I cut clean arcs through the corners, putting the seat's side bolsters to the test as the tires clung to the blacktop while the 911 and I blasted out of the turns. So what's to hate? Why doesn't the Tiptronic automatic allow manual shifting with the gear lever in addition to the buttons on the wheel? More importantly, on top of the lofty price tag of the base 911 Cabrio, Porsche charges obscene amounts for options. Really, more than $3,000 for our test car's blue metallic paint? When you're as big, and in demand, an automotive icon as a 911, you can get away with it. I'll probably never be able to buy one, which is the only significant reason for the "hate" part of my opinion.
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
Setting the money issue aside, I'm still not sure that I deserve to be a 911 driver, even if it is a Tiptronic automanual-equipped Cabriolet. Drive this car in "D" if you wish, but don't kid yourself the Porsche is overkill if you merely want to saunter down the California coastline. Besides that, the ride isn't as forgiving as that of the Lexus or Mercedes. Instead, the 911 is for serious drivers the level of road feel from the driver seat and the steering wheel is unparalleled in this group. Keep your hands on the wheel, and you'll know exactly what kind of road conditions the 18-inch P Zeros have encountered. Tear into a corner, and the suspension doesn't need any sort of active body control technology to keep the car flat. With only $10,000 worth of optional equipment, the cabin wasn't especially upscale leather seating surfaces only and no wood to speak of. But it still had enough features to make it a satisfactory touring car fully automatic top, automatic climate control, supportive seats with heaters and a CD changer (albeit in the front trunk). I don't think I've ever felt more involved in the driving experience. If this is your priority, too, then the 911 can certainly accommodate.
Senior Editor Chris Wardlaw says:
Forgive me, purists, but I have never understood the appeal of a Porsche 911, less so since the debut of the Boxster in 1998. I'm certain that when piloted by a skilled driver on a smooth race course, a Porsche is an enthusiast's dream. Even a skeptic like me has enjoyed a fast lap or two on the ragged edge in one of these German sports cars. But out in the real world, where the vast majority of these overpriced status symbols are driven, they make little sense. How, for instance, can any sane person push a vehicle with most of its weight hanging over the rear wheels to the limit, where a Porsche can instantaneously bite its driver back for a split-second of inattention? Isn't the point of buying a sports car to have fun? Fun, to me, is not picturing myself hurtling down a mountainside embankment because I braked too hard into a turn and swapped ends when the Pirellis decided they'd had enough abuse and packed up to go home.
Look, if you want a Porsche, you're gonna buy a Porsche, no matter what I say. Enjoy. Keep that life insurance policy premium paid up; you might need it.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Porsche 911 Cabriolet
Rank in Stereo Test: Tied for Second
System Score: 8
Components: With the Bose digital sound system (part of the $3,445 Advanced Technic package) you get a Porsche-branded Becker AM/FM tape deck that's low in the center console and hooked to a six-disc changer under the hood. A pod with a tweeter and midrange speaker is found on each side of the dash and similar units are placed in back. Large oval woofers at the bottom of the door panels and a stealth subwoofer provide tons of bass.
Performance: The head unit's design is not user-friendly, but imaging is wonderful thanks to the raked windshield and the four speakers planted in the dash. The bass can be boomy and overwhelming, but that can be adjusted. Along with impressive power, the 911 boasts a very clean sound. It doesn't have the range or attention to detail found in the Lexus, however. Also, the changer has a crummy magazine that requires discs to be loaded upside-down.
Top Up/Top Down: A bit of the sound's cozy feel is lost when the top is down, but you do get to hear more of the exhaust note.
Best Feature: Four speakers on top of the dash.
Worst Feature: Poor CD changer design.
Conclusion: Great performance, but an in-dash changer would make things better. Trevor Reed
Second Place - 2002 Lexus SC 430
When it comes to comparing cars in this class, value is rarely something to consider. They're all expensive one way or another, so debating their bottom lines seems trifling. But when you have a car that competes so favorably while maintaining a sticker price $30,000 less than the next most expensive competitor, the difference is hard to overlook.
The price discrepancy becomes even more intriguing when you take a step back and consider what the Lexus offers. It boasts a fully automatic folding hardtop just like the Mercedes, it finished second in the features category despite the fact that its only option was a $30 trunk mat, and its reputation for flawless build quality should ensure solid resale value for many years to come.
So why the second place finish? Consider it our natural bias toward performance over comfort. Unlike the SL that skillfully blends opulence with a measured degree of performance, the SC skews almost completely toward the softer side of the spectrum. It's plush, quiet and smooth to a fault, filtering out nearly every ounce of driver interaction in its quest to pamper its passengers. Obviously, if comfort is your priority, by all means consider the Lexus. But for our fantasy dollars, we would rather give up some luxury to enjoy a more visceral thrill behind the wheel.
Not that the SC is completely void of heart-stirring performance. Its 4.3-liter V8 whips up 300 horsepower, allowing the SC to leap from nearly any speed. It climbs to redline with no discernable strain, although it doesn't feel as content to languish there as the free-spinning eight in the SL. The exhaust note is nearly imperceptible, a trait that's either pleasing or disappointing depending on your point of view. Shifts from the five-speed automatic are always crisp, but with no manual shift mode, spirited driving takes more attention than it should.
The suspension setup echoes the traits of the drivetrain, filtering out every bump and ripple in the road in an attempt to maintain civility at all times. This, in turn, results in less road feel and reduced driver confidence when pushing the SC 430 hard into the corners. The steering is well weighted, but it never transmits a clear picture of what's going on down below. The brakes received high marks for their powerful feel and progressive engagement, but a few dissenters considered them too soft and touchy for a car with such a heavy feel.
A vehicle skid control system (VSC) is standard equipment, allowing you to probe the SC's limits without fear of getting too far ahead of yourself. It's considerably more intrusive than the stability control systems in the Mercedes and the Porsche, but in light of the intended buyer, it's seems appropriate. A few editors were pleasantly surprised by how well the pillowy Lexus could handle aggressive driving, but on the whole, most found it less enjoyable than the other three when it came to snaking up the coast on our test loop.
Put aside the SC's lack of pulse-quickening athleticism, and there's little to complain about. The cabin is a glorious display of perfectly crafted wood trim, supple leather and all the high-tech features you would expect in a high-end luxury vehicle. Unlike the SL's stark blend of form and function, the SC's interior is lavish. As one editor remarked, "Sitting in this car makes you feel like you're getting what you paid for."
Regardless of whether that editor was referring to the high-quality materials or the extensive feature content, rest assured, there's plenty of both. The seats lack the support of the Mercedes' stiff chairs, but for those who like to be coddled rather than gripped, the SC's buckets will feel great. The wood-trimmed steering wheel is solid in your hands, and even the Toyota-sourced switchgear feels like it belongs there. The SC was considered the easiest car to get in and out of thanks to its higher stance, and the large center console coupled with usable cupholders makes it a practical everyday driver. Rear seats officially make it a four-seater, but the ridiculously tight dimensions render them last resorts at best.
As with the Mercedes, the top on the Lexus is a no-effort affair. It lowers quickly (21 seconds) and quietly, and is perfectly airtight when raised. Our only real problem with the SC's setup is the miniscule trunk. With the top down, there's not much room for anything in back, so be prepared to travel light.
Like the flagship LS 430 sedan, the SC dazzles the ears with a phenomenal Mark Levinson sound system that has little trouble cutting through the whipping winds of top-down motoring. Good thing, too, given that its miniscule windscreen makes for a considerably more gusty cabin than the Mercedes. The standard DVD-ROM navigation system was easily the best of the group, with highly detailed maps and a user-friendly interface that doesn't take a separate handbook to figure out. And in a nod to those who couldn't care less where they're going or what's on the radio, the navigation and audio systems both have power retractable covers to keep them out of sight.
It's the small touches like these that make the SC 430 such a hard car to overlook. Not that we place great value on gimmicky motorized stereo covers, but in a world filled with great cars, sometimes you need more than just a great engine and sultry looks to get people's attention. The SC 430 possesses everything you could want in a luxury convertible over $55,000 a plush ride, a no-hassle hardtop and a dazzling interior that's manages to remain supremely functional. It may not have the high-performance capabilities of its German counterparts, but for those looking for nothing more than boulevard cruiser, the SC 430 answers to no one.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
The SC 430 is refined to the max, features a lovely interior and can cover ground at a serious clip if so desired. Other attributes are plentiful, as well; the nav system is easy to use, the stereo's sound is amazing and the retractable hardtop can provide the security and quiet of a coupe or the al fresco motoring experience of a ragtop. So why isn't it on my automotive lust list? The body style is bloated (the high beltline and small windows heighten this impression), the wheels look like wheel covers sourced from Pep Boys and the rear seat is unusable for the task of transporting humans (what a waste of gorgeous leather). And although the SC's handling is certainly respectable, the car feels heavy when pressing on in the twisty stuff, which doesn't do much for the fun-to-drive quotient. The last criticism is mostly a non-issue, as most folks aren't going to push the SC 430 that hard and the car is otherwise a pleasure to pilot. As for me, I'll take a BMW M3 convertible and save six grand.
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
The SC 430 would be a good choice for a luxury sedan buyer who wants the top-down experience without giving up the comforts of his sedan. Accordingly, this Lexus is equipped with the very quiet V8, an automatic transmission (without the shift-it-yourself pretenses), and suspension and steering setups that do their best to isolate you from the world (though the 18-inch performance tires tend to thwart that endeavor on rough pavement). On scenic highways, you could drive all day in comfort, but you'll want to keep the pace leisurely, since most of the pertinent road information is withheld from the driver. The interior is quite elegant with electroluminescent gauges, light-hued wood and soft-touch materials on nearly every surface; even the hard top's headliner has a supple, dolphin-skin feel. I had only two complaints I found the abundance of flat rectangular buttons on the center stack difficult to use while driving, and I didn't like that a special "shelf" has to be in place in order to lower the top. If you've retracted it into order to put more than two bags of groceries into the tiny trunk, you'll have to stop the car, get out and fix the shelf before the top will lower. I wasn't fond of the SC 430 because I felt no passion as I drove it. If you're content to work out these emotions somewhere else in your life and simply want a luxurious convertible, this could be a great choice.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
In many ways, Lexus missed the boat with the SC 430, a vehicle that epitomizes the philosophy that function should follow form. The singular exception to this rule is the folding hardtop, the design of which evidently dictated a tall, bulbous, ungainly rear deck that could accommodate the stacked mass of metal and glass but very little luggage. Style, that's what the SC 430 is all about. Outside, I appreciate the sheetmetal for what it is: rolling automotive art. But, it doesn't appeal to my eye. Inside, gorgeous wood, butter-soft leather and the highest-quality materials make occupants think you spent twice as much money on the car as you did. The Lexus offers, by far, the best interior design of this quartet, with the exception of the rear seats, which are utterly useless and whose unnecessary headrests (who will sit back there?) block rearward vision. Had designers kept the SC 430's design flair and combined it with more of the IS 300's spirit and less of the LS 430's conservatism, this car would have been a hit with me. But not all buyers in this segment want something fun to whip through the twists and turns of California's famous Route 1. For them, the Lexus is the best value of the lot. Buy it.
Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Lexus SC 430
Rank in Stereo Test: First
System Score: 9
Components: A standard Mark Levinson audio system fills every Lexus convertible with a six-CD in-dash changer and nine superb speakers. A tweeter next to a dedicated midrange speaker is in the top of each door panel. Smooth and powerful 6x9-inch woofers in large enclosures at the bottom of the doors take care of "high" bass notes while a hidden 8-inch subwoofer uses the entire trunk as an enclosure, allowing it to blast superlow tones barely audible to the human ear (and rarely heard in the other convertibles tested). Two full-range speakers above the rear seats help build a full-bodied soundstage in the cockpit. An eight-channel amplifier can pump a constant 240 watts (around 500 peak watts) of customized sound that guarantees high notes won't sneak into the low-range speakers and vice versa.
Performance: This is not a stereo system it's an educational tool. Pop in your all-time favorite album and you may hear something new. Every detail captured in the recording studio (or arena) is reproduced. The "pahh" sound of a singer's lips parting before a lyric and the echo of a finger squeaking on a guitar string these subtle touches are almost always lost in factory audio components. That's not all. This is no delicate flower. The silky bass can be pushed until the mirrors produce quadruple vision, and the highs will stay clean as music echoes up canyon walls. It's a shame that the driver-side wood door trim tends to buzz at higher volumes.
Top Up/Top Down: No difference.
Best Feature: Superb subwoofer.
Worst Feature: Busy-bee wood trim.
Conclusion: Benchmark performance (a perfect "10" if not for the door trim rattle) Trevor Reed
First Place - 2003 Mercedes Benz SL500
A legend since its introduction in 1957, Mercedes-Benz's SL roadster has long been considered the standard by which other luxury convertibles are judged. Dynamic designs, advanced engine technology and exquisitely detailed interiors have made the SL the convertible of choice for high-rolling business executives and Hollywood stars alike.
The redesigned 2003 model begins the fifth generation of this automotive icon, and if our short-lived stint behind the wheel is any indication, the SL mystique will live on for many years to come.
Although our final scoring calculations only show a narrow victory over the second-place Lexus, the SL was the clear winner in that most empirical of categories our hearts. When posed the question of which car they would want in their own garage, six of our eight editors picked the Mercedes with little hesitation (the other two held out for Porsche's 911).
Whether it was the growl of the torque-rich V8, the ultra-stiff and well-balanced chassis, the elegantly appointed interior, or the fully automatic hardtop, the SL rarely failed to overwhelm us with its technological and aesthetic supremacy. Sure, there are still elements of this Teutonic wonder that we could do without, but with all nit-picking aside, there's little doubt that this latest iteration of the Mercedes' flagship roadster is without equal. In the succinct words of our editor in chief, the SL500 is "simply the best luxury drop-top you can buy."
Slide yourself in the low stance and high door sills make for a bit of a tight squeeze and the SL's cabin impresses with a simple yet distinctive design. Nearly every surface is covered in fine leather, with straight stitching running along every crease and corner. Deep recesses render the elegant gauges readable in even the most sun-drenched conditions, and a low cowl affords an excellent view of the road ahead.
Despite the heavy dose of electronic gadgetry on board, the dashboard is free from excessive clutter. Even Mercedes' notoriously complex climate control system has been simplified to include just two dials and a handful of control buttons. We found its operation straightforward enough, although the dials themselves were loosely attached, one of the car's few lapses of perfection. The COMAND audio/navigation system continues to disappoint, with its frustrating interface, outdated CD-ROM technology and lack of an in-dash CD changer.
Driver and passenger comfort is attended to with 12-way-adjustable seats and standard bi-level heaters. Our particular test car also had the Comfort package, which includes active ventilation and pulsating lumbar support for the seats. There's more room to stretch out than in previous SLs, allowing even our tallest editors to find a comfortable driving position. In typical German fashion, the seats are well contoured and extremely supportive. But if you prefer couch-like accommodations, you might find the SL's seats a bit on the stiff side.
The in-seat ventilation is nice, but if you really need to cool off a little, there's no better respite than the fully automatic hardtop that folds itself away in just 21 seconds. Wind buffeting at speed is barely noticeable, and with the manually controlled windscreen in place, the SL is virtually gust-free at any speed. Even more impressive is the fact that even with the top down, there's still more trunk space than in previous models. There's even a button that raises the folded hardtop within the trunk for easier loading.
Whether you like the interior or not, any misgivings will quickly melt away at the first turn of the key, or press of the button, depending on how you go about it. One of the SL's unique options is a keyless ignition system that allows you to access and start the vehicle with nothing more than a credit card-sized transponder. Those who used it found it appealing, but we don't consider it much of an improvement over traditional keyless-entry systems.
The 5.0-liter V8 that powers the SL is largely a carryover from last year's model, although modifications to the exhaust system make it sound as if it might be all new. The refined note of the previous version has been uncorked a bit to deliver a more satisfying howl. Some might consider the sound a little too pervasive for a luxury car of this type. We couldn't get enough of it.
With 302 horsepower, the SL competes favorably in this class, but overwhelming power is not its forte. The wide torque band and smooth delivery make just about any type of drive a pleasant one, but occasionally we found ourselves wishing for just a bit more from under the hood. Should you feel the same way, wait a few months as AMG, Mercedes' in-house tuning arm, will release its version of the SL, complete with a supercharged V8 and nearly 500 horsepower.
We had no such reservations about the standard five-speed automatic transmission. Shifts were seamless and precisely timed. The Touchshift manual mode works well, but having to take our hands off the wheel to manipulate the lever is a step we could do without. Steering wheel-mounted buttons like those in the Porsche would be a welcome upgrade.
Previous versions of the SL were always competent, but rarely sporty. The '03 edition effectively ups the ante without sacrificing comfort or everyday drivability. The steering remains light under normal conditions and firms up nicely at speed for more road feel. Unlike the 911, which can be harsh on occasion, the SL rarely transmits any upsetting jolts to the cabin. The standard driver-selectable Active Body Control turns this cruiser into an incredibly capable partner when the road gets tight. Body roll is almost nil, and even with the top down, chassis flex is barely noticeable.
Mercedes calls its stability control system ESP (Electronic Stability Program). After pushing the SL through a 600-foot slalom course at high speed, we couldn't help but consider the name most appropriate. Unlike some systems that intervene at the slightest hint of slide, the SL has a near-perfect sense of what the driver is intending, intervening only at the last second to restore control.
An electrohydraulic braking system, the first of its kind in a production car, is another of the SL's newest technological features. This system effectively replaces the traditional mechanical connection between the brake pedal and the brakes with electronic circuitry. The goal is more immediate application in panic situations along with less overall complexity. The system proved its worth at the test track, as the SL came to a stop from 60 miles per hour in just 109 feet one of the shortest distances we've ever recorded. As effective as the new system is in emergency situations, it's still not completely refined, as more than one editor complained of poor brake feel in day-to-day driving.
So it's not perfect, but no car ever will be. It is, however, about as close to perfect as you can get when it comes to luxury roadsters. Beautiful to look at, comfortable and fun to ride in, intoxicating to listen to the SL blends all the things that make driving pleasurable into one expertly crafted package. Now if Mercedes could just work on lowering that price a little, we would really be sold.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
This car has the goods to satisfy on nearly all fronts. Performance? Got that covered. I was skeptical before I took the wheel, thinking that all those electronic acronyms would make for a drive that would feel artificial. Such was not the case. Apart from the "by-wire" brakes that felt a bit touchy at first, the new SL offered a sense of the road that the older models lacked. The net effect was that the car felt smaller than its considerable heft. Comfortable? Yep, thanks to a compliant ride and great seats. Style? Dandy except for the cut lines for the trunk that disrupt the profile (a necessary evil to allow the top to drop into the trunk). Of course, I would've liked more power (geez, isn't 302 horsepower enough?). Oh, that's right, the near-500-horse SL55 is just over the horizon. Is this the golden age of the automobile or what?
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Money sometimes is not an object. If you find yourself thinking this way when considering the four convertibles in this test, then the Mercedes-Benz SL500 is the right car for you. It is a gorgeous piece of work, from the tight yet expressive styling to the engineering marvel that is its folding hardtop to the comfortable and functional interior to the refined and powerful drivetrain, the SL500 does it all...but for a price.
Is it a touring car or a sports car? The answer is that it is both, equally capable idling in rush hour traffic as it is blasting along a favorite coastal road at supra-legal speeds. Unflappable is the word that describes the SL500 best. Officially, there is no reason to accept a Porsche 911's rearward weight bias, darty steering and buckboard ride to own a vehicle that can perform. The Mercedes is every bit as capable at the limit and doesn't punish its driver during the daily grind.
Two complaints can be made with regard to the SL, and both are associated with the interior. First, and this is a gripe I've made with all Mercedes-Benz products since the launch of the current-generation S-Class, many of the interior plastics are of sub-par quality for a vehicle that can cost nearly $100,000. For example, the rearview mirror feels loose and creaks when adjusted; I've felt more substantial mirrors on many cars that cost less that 20 grand. Second, the fussy COMAND system makes channel surfing and operating the stereo a chore, and keeps Mercedes from offering a proper six-disc in-dash CD changer.
Otherwise, the car is a pleasure to drive. It's easy to load and unload luggage from the trunk even when the top is folded, the seats offer myriad adjustments for optimal comfort, the sound system sounds terrific with the top up or down, and this is a true four-season drop-top.
Money is not an object? This is your next ride.
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
If money isn't a concern (our test car was closing in on six digits), the SL500 is close to perfect as a touring roadster. The V8 effortlessly reaches cruising speed, and when left in regular D mode, the automanual transmission shifts quickly. As you're enjoying coastal vistas at a leisurely pace, the suspension delivers the requisite smooth ride; later, when you're ready for more serious driving, the SL and its ABC are ready for flat, confident cornering. Inside, the cabin has a traditional Mercedes look to it, which is to say, handsome but cluttered I counted seven unused "dummy" buttons (presumably for options the test car didn't have) on the center console alone. For the most part, designers used high-quality soft-touch materials, though I didn't like the hard plastic cover on the gauge bezel or the vinyl sunvisors and headliner. In addition, build quality wasn't as good as I thought it should have been the trunklid, hood and driver-side mirror were misaligned, and the sunvisors had rough edges on them. Am I coming down hard on the SL? Sure I am, but for this kind of money, everything should be flawless. If you buy this roadster, I doubt you'll be disappointed, though for myself, fun trumps comfort and I'd take the 911 instead.
Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Mercedes Benz SL500
Rank in Stereo Test: Tied for Second
Components: "Mercedes COMAND Cockpit Management and Data System." Sound complicated? It is. The 5-inch color display is nice, but some functions require an extended gaze away from the road. There's a single-CD slot in the dash, and a six-CD changer with a good magazine is stored in a box behind the driver seat (a tempting reach while driving). Most of the eight Bose speakers are in large door panel enclosures, but there's also a center fill speaker in the middle of the dash and a small 4x6-inch subwoofer.
Performance: The output is standard for Bose car audio systems. The soundstage is good, frequency response is even, there is little distortion, and...it's boring. Treble notes are clean but don't sparkle. Bass response is accurate but the 4x6 subwoofer can't produce the emotion that a large circular subwoofer can (such as the one in the Lexus SC 430). That doesn't mean the sound is bad. In fact, it's quite good, just not good enough for first place.
Top Up/Top Down: Same with or without sun.
Best Feature: Balanced sound reproduction.
Worst Feature: Complicated head unit.
Conclusion: Just what you expect from Bose and Mercedes-Benz. Trevor Reed
We may have ranked them, but there are no losers in this group. Any one of these cars is worth aspiring to, regardless of whether or not they have fussy controls or an outdated navigation system.
Unlike family sedans or SUVs, these cars are as much about making a personal statement as they are about driving dynamics or interior comfort. Each one has a distinct personality, so choosing among the four is largely a matter of what kind of image you're looking to put forth.
After our two-week stint, there was little doubt that the Mercedes SL500 was our favorite. It does everything so well that it's hard to imagine wanting much more out of a car. Sharp handling, good looks and a well-tailored interior make the SL the it car of the year. If you can afford one, buy it, and you won't be sorry.
The rest of the field displayed varying degrees of proficiency, but none to the exacting degree of the SL.
The Lexus is luxurious and comparatively inexpensive, but it doesn't have the moves to make you yearn to get in and drive it. The Porsche provides an addictive thrill ride, but unless you're a die-hard Porsche person, you're not likely to enjoy it as much on a day-to-day basis. The Jaguar is as beautiful as they come, but out on the road, its age comes through.
If you're spending this kind of money, there should be no compromises, and while the Mercedes certainly isn't perfect, it's about as close to it as you're going to find. It won't be long before there's an all-new XKR, and updated versions of the Porsche and the Lexus won't be far behind. But as it stands now, the Mercedes is in a class by itself.