2003 Mercedes-Benz SL 500 First Drive
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2003 Mercedes-Benz SL 500 First Drive

2003 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class Convertible

(5.0L V8 5-speed Automatic)
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Five or six years ago, the arrival of the SL 500 roadster from Mercedes-Benz would have been a much bigger deal than it is now.

Five or six years ago, the two-seater from Stuttgart was pretty much the only player in the ultra-luxury roadster game. Now, of course, there are a couple other Mercedes ragtops to choose from, a great Jaguar (as opposed to a suspect Jaguar), the Porsche Boxster and the improved 911, an Aston-Martin, a more comfortable Corvette, a powerful and stunning BMW, the Ford T-Bird if you stretch the point, and soon a killer model called the XLR from Cadillac. Amidst all these voices, it's a lot harder to stand out.

Which is why it's somewhat surprising that Mercedes went for such an evolutionary style change rather than an in-your-face new look. It's easy to mistake the SL for the SLK (even for some Mercedes executives, but we promised not to talk about that), and it's really only handsome in the way all roadsters are handsome, which is to say that with the top down the SL looks sleek and sporty.

This all contributes to a reduced sense of occasion with the arrival of the latest version of Mercedes' big-ticket roadster. This is an important issue because a large part of the charm of this car for nearly 50 years has been its ability to stun non-owners into a fugue state of jealousy.

In the end, what we have is a car that — though better than its predecessor in nearly every single way — is less appealing. Not so unappealing that many high-end roadster shoppers wouldn't be delighted to own one, mind you, but certainly less appealing than it was five or six years ago.

Without having its reputation to lean, the 2003 SL 500 has to stand or fall simply on its pure abilities as a car. On that front, the new ragtop is both fabulous and disappointing.

For instance, though it sports quite an array of luxury features, the new SL 500 does not launch any truly groundbreaking techno-toys except a faster power hardtop and a brake-by-wire system (certainly a welcome addition to the industry's overall safety arsenal, but not the type of feature you can easily show off to your well-heeled friends). At the same time, it doesn't even get a new engine. This is surprising in a car that was last updated 12 years ago, especially from a company that fancies itself the leading engineering firm in the industry.

Though there may not be one single aspect of the new SL to rave about, the sum of its parts is certainly huge. Driving this car is one of the premiere automotive experiences, partly because you're tapping directly into a major historic vein (Grace Kelly drove an SL in Monaco, for heaven's sake), partly because it suggests you're doing well financially and partly because it's simply a great car.

The SL has always been sportier than the average car, but in recent years the average car has been closing the gap. Well, thanks to a stiffer body, some improved running gear and a different engineering mindset, the newest SL re-opens the sportiness gap a tad. It's still more of a tourer than a performance car, but it is undoubtedly more capable.

Key to this sportiness is the 5-liter all-aluminum powerplant. Harp about the SL 500's engine being a carryover as we may, it's hard to dislike this V8 in this application. Its horsepower peaks out at 302, way up at 5,600 rpm; more useful in terms of maximum speed (a concern on Germany's autobahns) than in terms of low speed launches (a concern all over America). Launch is the province of torque, and this engine answers that call with at least 295 pound-feet from 2,000 to 2,700 rpm and 339 (the max) hitting at 4,250 rpm. When mated to the slick and responsive five-speed automatic, the engine delivers a 0-to-60-mph time of a tick more than 6 seconds, which is solid if not spectacular.

This power, of course, goes to the rear wheels and is guided and nurtured into forward thrust by a bowlful of alphabet soup technologies (more on those in a minute), but much of the joy comes from the fact that the new SL's body is so stiff. That was a priority for the engineering gnomes in Stuttgart, and it shows. Top up or top down, on any kind of road surface you can find, this thing feels like a well-crafted sedan rather than a convertible. Along with making the car handle better, this stiffness also delivers a smoother and quieter ride. It's very impressive.

Taking this body to the highest ride and handling level possible is the job of the ABC active suspension, which Mercedes-Benz claims ''virtually eliminates body roll in cornering, accelerating and braking.'' If you light up the ABC Sport switch on the console, the car's combination of hydraulic, electronic and mechanical parts squeeze out 95 percent of the body roll, and you will not be able to reach that final quintet unless you're seriously beyond the bounds of legality and good sense on a twisty road.

It makes more sense to keep the ABC Sport switch off, because the normal ride setting leaves you 32 percent of available body roll to remind you that you're actually going into a corner and should maybe slow down. Thank you.

Should you need to bring this beauty to a halt, that brake-by-wire (that is, electronic-braking) system will come in very handy. This device eliminates many of the mechanical and hydraulic components of a traditional braking network in favor of a brake pedal and master cylinder merged into a single module, and this transmits braking pedal action to a powerful microcomputer through electronic impulses.

Brake-by-wire allows for superior panic braking, because it recognizes when the driver senses trouble and goes to maximum stopping power quicker and with more confidence than most drivers. Likewise, if you're braking in a curve, it recognizes this and puts more pressure on the outside discs, which allows for safer and quicker slowing. In an emergency involving a loss of traction, electronic braking teams up with the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) to bring the car back under control better than any driver can. Electronic braking even does preventive maintenance in the wet, by lightly engaging the discs enough to keep them dry and therefore more useful.

The other technological breakthrough is the retractable roof, which one-touches up or down in 16 seconds. The roof divides into two pieces in the trunk and powers up and down to make for easier loading and unloading of a couple of smallish bags. When open, the folding hardtop consumes more space in the trunk than the previous softtop, closed, there's just over 11 cubic feet of space — slightly more than previous SLs.

On the subject of room, it must be noted that there's plenty of space for two full-sized adults inside the SL 500, with the roof up or down. Not every roadster can say this.

Some people are likely to find the console-mounted gearshift and some important control switches set a little too far back for easy use, but that's not a deal-breaker. Many people will love the COMAND system, which routes the stereo, navigation, CD and cell phone service through a single series of buttons onto an LCD display on the dash. Many will find it too confusing unless they're willing to spend time having it explained.

To broaden the appeal of the SL in the near future, Mercedes will add a less expensive inline six version, a fire-breathing AMG iteration of the V8 and a king-of-the-hill V12. Those engines should breath some much-needed life into this "almost all-new" SL, and possibly give us the fully developed Mercedes roadster we're looking for.

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