2003 Mercedes-Benz SL500 Road Test

2003 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class Convertible

(5.0L V8 5-speed Automatic)

As an automotive journalist, you learn to not measure your day by the kind of car you're driving home for the night. After all, life can still be dandy when you're told that you have to drive the latest pile of stink from "X" automaker; likewise, you can still be in a bitter mood even when you get to go home in the latest pricey gleaming piece of confection. Ultimately, these cars are not ours to keep, and they must be returned at the end of the week.

However, it's difficult to keep an unsavory look on one's face when confronted with the prospect of driving the 2003 Mercedes-Benz SL500 for a week. For that period of time, we played make-believe that we were one of the privileged few (of course, in Los Angeles, the "few" is subjective compared to other parts of the country) who can spare that much of their income to have as their own personal conveyance one of the finest automobiles the greenback can buy.

Our editors almost unanimously decreed the fifth-generation SL500 their favorite drop top in our Luxury Convertibles Over $55,000 Comparison Test, in which it handily beat out such competitors as the Jaguar XKR, Lexus SC 430 and Porsche 911 Cabriolet. In the SL, with its pop-culture connotations of movie star glamour (who can forget Grace Kelly tooling around in it in Monte Carlo?) and unlimited wealth, it is exceedingly easy to be swayed into believing that fame and fortune are imminently within one's grasp; in the context of the movie capital of the world, that it can be yours if only you got that callback for that promising script or if the hot new producer would just glance your way.

Accordingly, we drove the roadster in and out of Hollywood and its storied environs, along Sunset Boulevard and its dazzling signage, past the Viper Room and Chateau Marmont — grisly memorials of such dreams and fantasies gone bad; around Beverly Hills and its multimillion-dollar mansions, so large that its occupants wouldn't notice if a roving troupe of acrobats had taken up residence in the corner of the attic; and through the Malibu Canyons where real-life movie stars roam free in their own spectacular vehicles.

What's immediately noticeable about the SL500 is its chameleonlike quality, quite appropriate in this town of illusions. One minute it's a convertible, a few seconds later it's a sleek coupe. The SL was conceived with unorthodox features since its inception, with gullwing doors indelibly establishing the 300SL as a design feat in 1954 when the first production SL was introduced.

No, this isn't the first time that a hardtop has been offered; this isn't even the first time Mercedes has offered it. It's been a chief draw on the SLK since 1998, but in the 2003 SL it's perfected, taking mere seconds to transform it from an open roadster to a sheltered coupe. Indeed, the top is a marvel of engineering, requiring a brief 16 seconds to go topless, courtesy of 11 hydraulic pumps and cylinders. Unlike convertibles with canvas or vinyl tops that contrast the body of the vehicle, the SL is equally stunning whether the top is up or down.

It almost makes up for the fact that the previous-generation SL shamefully had a plastic rear window for the duration of its 13-year life. When the top goes down so do the rear windows, ensuring that no one inadvertently (and doofily, we might add) drives with the quarter windows raised. Several editors mentioned that a one-touch function would be useful, but it seems mere nitpicking to mention; it gives you time to check yourself out in the rearview mirror. Wind buffeting when the windows are up, especially when the rear wind blocker is in place, is virtually nil, tousling your hair little more than if a sunroof on a sedan were open.

Back in its nascent stages, the SL appellation was short for "sporty" and "light," a designation that still half holds true to this day. It's sporty, much sportier than the previous pudgy fourth generation, though it's anything but light. Weighing in at 4,045 pounds, it's heftier than all of its opponents; there's more than 1,000 pounds of difference between the Mercedes and the Porsche 911 Cabriolet.

Rousing this beast into motion is Mercedes' 5.0-liter V8, capable of 302 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 339 pound-feet of torque at 2,700 rpm. This is a carryover from the previous-generation SL with minor modifications to the exhaust note (it also motivates various forms of the CL-, E-, G-, M- and S-Class). Power and thrust are plentiful, if not exactly aggressively abundant. For all but the most serious reprobates, it should make for a quick jaunt to your destination. The V8 is ULEV certified and its observed fuel mileage of 16 mpg isn't too bad for a car of this class, but the Feds have seen fit to impose a $1,300 gas-guzzler tax on it nonetheless. Managing the power is an excellent five-speed automatic transmission with touch shift, and both modes work seamlessly to deliver timely shifts when necessary.

A 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of 6.01 seconds doesn't connote the blisteringly fast, landscape-becoming-a-blur, thrust-you-to-the-back-of-your-seat straightline acceleration of a supercharged Jaguar or a Porsche, both of which readily grant sub-six second times; we'll leave that to the upcoming SL55 with its forced induction of air and almost 500 horsepower. Mercedes promises it will be the fastest production Benz ever.

One of the most touted features of the '03 SL500 is that it marked the debut of electronic brakes, in essence, a brake-by-wire system. In lieu of conventional rod-and-cylinder hydraulics, the SL replaces many of the mechanical and some of the hydraulic components and uses computer sensors that regulate brake pressure at all four wheels. Some of its advantages include shorter stopping distances and the loss of that annoying ABS pulsing.

In terms of sheer braking distance, we can't argue with technology. With a length of a mere 109.3 feet, it outperforms all of its competitors. However, in practice, we feel it could use finer tuning in pedal feel and linearity; stopping in nonpanic situations was not as smooth as we'd like. We've noticed this quirk in the new E-Class, which is the first mass-produced application of this feature, and predict that future versions will show more refinement. The Pirelli P Zero Rossos, sized 255/40R18 95H in the front and 285/35R18 97W in the rear, provide immense amounts of grip, clinging to the road like a 32-year-old has-been child actor to his agent. Steering required little input, as the rack-and-pinion system was a tad overboosted for our tastes. Still, it gave a reasonable amount of feel from the road, and its linearity encouraged exuberant point-and-shoot behavior from drivers.

Protecting occupants has been a primary consideration for Mercedes engineers, who can claim lifesaving devices like ABS, traction control and stability control systems as their brainchildren. Indeed, the SL, like all Benzes, benefits from Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) and BrakeAssist to enhance the abilities of the brakes, and stability control to help you maintain your intended path. Should a crash be unavoidable, seatbelt pre-tensioners, front and side airbags, knee airbags along with a head-thorax airbag (which is hidden in the door panels and inflates 6.7 to 9.5 inches further above the regular side airbags) help to keep you in one piece.

Rollover protection is provided by roll hoops that deploy in 0.3 seconds should sensors determine that they're necessary. We found they're just a bit too eager to serve, deploying when the car is traveling at speed on undulating pavement. With it up, rear visibility is somewhat hampered; and to fold them back up, you have to stop the car, turn off the engine and then press the button that's below the hardtop control handle in the center console. We suppose this is preferable to a lackadaisical system, however.

Active Body Control (ABC), which made its debut in the CL500 two years ago, monitors the underpinnings upon which the SL500 rides. A total of 13 sensors and two computers calculate the input from the driver and the road to adjust the hydraulic pistons to adjust the ride quality from sporty to comfortable. It's also able to delete up to 95 percent of body roll that would typically be experienced with a more traditional suspension. Riding on a double-link front and multilink rear suspension, the SL ably provided a most pleasing ride no matter the type of road, whether it be a serpentine, canted twisty or a straight-shot, smooth highway. Body roll was minimal, and very little torsional silliness invaded the cabin. A run through our 600-foot slalom was completed at 67.1 mph, beating out other competitors in the class by a wide margin. There is precious little difference between driving with the top up or down in terms of chassis rigidity, as Mercedes engineers were able to insert the proper amount of stiffness into its shell. Credit the SL as having been designed from the ground up as a convertible, rather than merely having the top chopped off from a coupe.

The SL500 tries its best to make its cabin as accommodating an environment as possible. Climate control is dual-zone, and with its dual knob operation, has been vastly simplified over other Benz models that make changing the temperature a hair-ripping experience. Our tester came with the SL3 Comfort Package, which includes ventilated seats that have three degrees each of cooling and heating effects, as well as a massage function and contour adjustment for the driver and passenger. The ventilated seats are a godsend while the sun is beating down on you but you can't bear to put the top up; the glovebox and center console, too, get the benefit of cooled air.

The dash layout received praise for its simple layout, although there were complaints about the navigation screen that completely washed out when driving in sunlight. The cool, icy blue gauges were soothing to the eye at night; they're shaded by twin hoods, echoing the arches of the front headlamps. Very nice to look at, but they were composed of hard plastics, which didn't match the rest of the lovely leather and wood-lined interior. Other interior trim pieces left a lot to be desired, with flimsy cupholders and underseat storage compartment doors lacking the polish expected of a near-$100,000 car. The rearview mirror, like other SLs we've driven, had too much vibration. The vinyl sunvisors felt cheap and had obvious flash lines.

Tender-skinned drivers will want to take note that your left knee inevitably rests against the door speaker grille, resulting in soreness when you brace for a spirited right-handed turn. It's best to wear pants for this endeavor. Another complaint relates to power seat controls that don't activate once you close the door, requiring you to wait until the engine's on. You've got to find your position while the door's still open or let the engine idle while you're cocooning yourself. Plus there's no retained power for the stereo, so you'll have to leave the engine idling to enjoy a tune when you're waiting for your date to put on his final touch of hair spray. Another complaint concerned a typical Mercedes design, which is the cruise control stalk that's located too close to the turn signal stalk; it's easy to hit the wrong one.

Storage capacity in this roadster is commendable, with a sizable center console, a medium-size glovebox and soft-deploying door bins lined in velveteen. Crane your neck to the rear to check out the two storage spaces, one of which is taken up by the six-disc CD changer. We'll make sure to suggest that Mercedes switch the location of the CD-ROM-based navigation system (who uses CD-ROMs these days?) from its current prime real estate in-dash location to a more appropriate rear facility. With the roof open, the trunk allows for 8.3 cubic feet, easily accessible via a red button that retracts the roof for ease of loading cargo. Put the roof up and 11.2 cubic feet will be available to you.

An expensive option on our test vehicle was the sport package, which will give you 18-inch wheels outfitted with high-performance tires but little else in the way of performance. Instead you'll get a sculpted front air dam, side skirts and rear apron, amounting to mere visual enhancements. However, if you're shopping for a car in this price range, such a consideration as price will be a nonissue; in that case, go ahead and check the box for the bi-xenon headlamps which will pierce the darkness with xenon power even in high-beam mode, as well as the Keyless Go feature which allows you to unlock the car and start the engine without the key. For those of you who often misplace keys, this will be a helpful feature. We liked the tire pressure monitor, which warns you if your tires are seeping air. An available feature that wasn't on our test car is the Distronic cruise control, which uses radar sensors to automatically keep a palatable distance between you and the car in front of you.

At a shade under $100,000, the SL500 (equipped as our test car was), for most people, is a dream that can only be meted out in judiciously applied doses. On a soft, balmy summer night, driving through the Hollywood Hills, one is led to believe that anything is possible, that the twinkling lights before you can all be had with just a turn of luck or twist of fate. For most people, the dream is as illusory as the image that's projected onto the silver-coated screen, but for a week it was ours to revel in and cherish. Like losing yourself in the stories of the populace whose faces become your own in the darkened theater, the SL500 can transport you to a place and time, where, through your willing suspension of disbelief, life's more glamorous, the people more beautiful and dreams come true at a snap of the fingers.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 8.0

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 4-by-6-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 4-by-6 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 to be the best among luxury convertibles.

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

Second Opinions

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
As is befitting of a car in this price range, the SL500 is almost impossible to dislike. Power flows smoothly and easily from its 5.0-liter V8, and ride quality is excellent. Drop the top, raise the windscreen and you and a loved one could drive for hundreds of miles with minimal fatigue. And despite a mandatory automatic transmission, the SL is perfectly suited for adventures on winding back roads — with the help of ABC, the body is pretty much flat when cornering. Yet, I miss the point of the SL. Obviously, given my paycheck, I'm speaking in hypothetical terms, but for about half the cost of the Benz, I could have a BMW 330Ci Convertible that forges a closer relationship between the driver and the suspension, steering and brakes and has equally upscale interior trimmings and a fully usable backseat. Of course, if you have sufficient cash to put behind a SL500 purchase, you may not want to part with the power (though there's always the M3), the nameplate prestige or the sleek sheet metal.

Oh, and then I think about the SL's interior. The seats are certainly to my liking, but I hate the controls. I've spent quite a few miles behind the wheel, and simple audio and climate adjustments are still a struggle and therefore an opportunity to take my eyes off the road for longer than I should. And there are too many control stalks; I was always catching the cruise stalk when trying to put on a turn signal.

Overall, I still found the SL500 enjoyable, but with convertibles like the 3 Series on the market, I don't think one has to spend 90 grand to have a wonderful top-down driving experience.

Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
I'm somewhat at a loss as to what to tell you about the SL. Yes, it's fantastic. Yes, it's expensive. What else do you really need to know? I dig the styling; I think it's one of the best rolling shapes currently being sold. From the rear, it looks low, wide, luxurious and just a bit menacing. If I were in the market for such a car (which, if you were to know my yearly salary, is as implausible as Ralph Nader pumping gas at a Texaco station) the SL500 would be very high on my short list. Heck, when I'm spending this much, why not wait for the SL55? But seriously, if you own this car, consider yourself one of the lucky few. It's got power, it's got comfort and there's enough technology to fill an IBM research lab. This is the best SL in quite a while. It's rare that we automotive journalists get to sample such fine hardware.

Consumer Commentary

"This car has it all! Great looks, comfort, performance, safety and quality. I compared the SL500 to the Lexus SC 430, Porsche Carrera 4 and the Jaguar XKR. This beats them all. It looks sporty, classy, sexy and tough. It fits any mood the driver has." — DVSI, April 22, 2002.

"This is an outstanding vehicle to drive. The security of a coupe with the ability to become a convertable at the push of a button. I have the Sport package which, in my opinion, makes for an incredibly attractive-looking car. On a 1,400-mile trip, I averaged 24 mpg, with a speed average of 70 mph. This included all stops. I think that is very good fuel economy. Favorite features: Folding metal roof, active ventilated seats, drop-dead good looks and large fuel tank. Suggested improvements: This car needs rear speakers for the sound system. I can always use more power. SL55, here I come." — Zipcode, Aug. 31, 2002.

"My fifth SL in 15 years and by far the best. An awesome car with technology that others will take years to catch up to. Braking power is incredible, the ABC feature is the best automotive invention since disc brakes (I experienced it first in my S55). I have a Ferrari 360 and Aston DB7 which are vastly inferior in technology, safety, road holding and braking. No contest, besides, when the SL55 comes out they are toast anyway. Great looks and while not a real exotic, it is the first exotic SL coming out of Stuttgart. A marvel. Favorite features: ABC and automatic retractable roof. Suggested improvements: Audio." — Catlover, Sept. 2, 2002.

"Last week I attended a launch party for SL at our local dealer, and over the weekend had a test ride. This car is beautiful and solid. I have had an SC 430 for the past year. The SL has a much more solid feel and is more responsive as well. Creature comfort is everywhere. The trunk 'felt' as if it had twice the room compared to SC. The SL trunk is deeper and goes a little further back, although you have to push a button to have the folded top raised a bit before you can reach all the available space. Two more features on SL which are not on SC: 1) You can operate the top with your remote key. 2) Top can be opened and closed with the windows up. One thing I did not like was the lack of in-dash CD changer, although the cartridge is positioned behind the driver seat and somewhat easy to access." — First touch and ride, March 10, 2002.

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