As I reached for the keys to the Mercedes-Benz SL500, I noticed a slight tremble in my hand. Did the others see? More importantly, did the Mercedes? They sense fear, right? I firmly took the keys, adjusted my Sunday-best clothing and threw back my head, laughing to the west. I approached the slate-blue roadster with an aura of confidence in my step. So far, so good. I'm almost there. Its looks were nothing fancy, so it didn't scare me. I raised the remote and unlocked the doors. Yeah, baby, come to mama. But then I heard a voice cry out from behind me, "Can you believe that's a $95,000 car?" Doh! It was all over now. I began to tremble like a teacup poodle does about a block before the veterinarian's office. My sweaty fingers grasped the door handle and I dropped myself into its interior, waiting for it to puke me out like yesterday's clams.
I was in a $95,160 car. Ninety-five thousand! Nearly 100 grand! I'd never driven anything this expensive in my life. People buy these things? Would I be able to evaluate this car fairly, or would I be too timid to touch anything? Would I be able to face a week of driving a car that was totally and completely not me (nor anybody I know, for that matter)? And, more importantly, would I exercise its true performance capabilities or fear the "You break it, you buy it" speech? Make the voices stop! About this time, other staffers began honking for me to get out of the way.
When you get inside a Mercedes-Benz, the first things you notice are the buttons. Many buttons. And where there aren't buttons, there are switches and knobs. In fact, on a recent drive of an M-B E55 we counted upward of 80. But in the SL500, the button-count was considerably downsized. Hey, had we been gypped? We would have liked $30,000 in buttons we'd never use. Show us the money! Yet for as scarce as the buttons were, they were simplistic and well placed. Even the six-speaker Bose sound system and the air conditioning were logical to operate. The center console housed two cupholders that seemed flimsy and so, like, $9,500 window sticker, but the rest of the interior, from the Nappa leather seating surfaces and leather upholstery to the well-integrated front- and side-impact airbags, had striking fit and finish.
There were storage compartments in the doors (which were quite welcome since a glove box wasn't on the agenda) and enclosed storage behind the seats. Those boxes, as well as the center console, automatically locked at the same time as the car was locked from the outside. Between those boxes and the vast amount of deep trunk space, carting stuff around shouldn't be a problem, from luggage to big boxes, such as for a TV. Well, not the big-screen variety. Our test vehicle also featured a trim package offering maple charcoal wood that added even more class, but we have to admit to a bit of curiosity as to what the interior would have looked like had it not been rigged with the $5,700 in optional wood. Give us trim in edible $100 bills for that price. The seats had a ton of adjustability (to the tune of 10-way power with three-position memory), but we could have used more seat height adjustment for better over-the-hood and rearward viewing.
But we're guessing you don't fork over a heap o' moola for the interior's function. You want performance and power. The Benz has 'em both. Sorta. When you fire up the 5.0-liter V8, you can barely tell that it's purring. (Pop the hood -- and good luck without the owner's manual -- and you'll discover a ton of sound-deadening material.) The mighty but quiet mill puts out 302 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 339 foot-pounds of torque between 2,700 and 4,250 rpm. Impressive lower-rpm response is due to a magnesium two-stage resonance intake manifold that increases runner length, and Mercedes puts the zero-to-60 time at 6.1 seconds. And it's a given that it runs on premium unleaded.
Coupled to the V8 is a driver-adaptive, electronic five-speed automatic transmission. We loved this tranny. It had seamless shifts and when yanked into any gear, it replied with the correct answer. We controlled the Benz through nasty, tight curves using the transmission, not the brakes. For $95,160, that is good. Very good. The engine made strong power through the low- and high-rpm range, but one driver complained of an off-idle dead spot. He would roll into the throttle slowly, and nothing happened for a few seconds, then the car moved forward. Not exactly the definition of sporty, he pointed out. And unfortunately, the Benz didn't score kudos for its recirculating-ball steering system's loose feel, which was more luxury cruiser than sports car. However, its turning radius should be the industry standard.
But here's the biggest complaint across the board from the test drivers: The platform is old. It isn't as rigid or stiff as modern designs, which you can feel when going over bumps, and we yearned for a more solid ride. The suspension utilizes an independent front with damper struts and triangular lower control arms, while the rear is also independent but with five links and geometry designed to eliminate squat. The bumps (even trivial ones) also revealed a very squeaky and creaky interior. For $95,160, that is bad. Very bad. One of the reasons we played with the transmission so much was because of the brakes. They were mushier than fresh oatmeal, and their delayed response was downright scary. However, stomping on them proved that the brake-assist system, which senses that you've hit the pedal in a hurry, then loans you the maximum available power boost, was blemish-free. When mashed, the brakes reacted immediately and without chatter.
Because the weather in Los Angeles went from a steady 90 degrees to a downright blizzard-worthy 65 during our testing period, we figured putting the top down would not be very enjoyable. We couldn't have been more wrong. The drop top is activated by one button, so no manual labor is required. However, as it disconnects from the A-pillar sheetmetal, the sound is rather startling, as though it's being painfully ripped from the body. But we were willing to ignore that for convenience. A removable fine-mesh wind deflector is also part of the deal. With the top concealed and both windows down, conversation level required no amendment. Tackling freeway speeds in this mode also did not present challenges, nor did a chill factor -- the optional (oh, please) heated seats even made the occupants break a sweat. And with the top down, visibility improved noticeably, although peering over the hood and to the rear remained a struggle for shorter drivers because of that lack of seat height we mentioned. Also, when the top was gone, so was the view of the severely warped and wrinkled plastic rear window, something intolerable for just 800 miles on the odometer, not to mention $95,160 out-of-pocket expenses.
With the low-temp weather also came drizzle, so no better time to try out the standard Electronic Stability Program (ESP) and the Automatic Slip Control (ASR). ESP studies how you steer and brake and compares it to the vehicle's response, then brakes the wheels or cuts down the engine power to eliminate under- or oversteer. ASR can spot drive-wheel slip and will brake the guilty wheel(s) or tame the engine power until you're in control again. We stumbled across a nice and wet section of pavement and a muddy piece of land, and went to work. The instrument panel quickly gave us the binging exclamation mark, signifying that the system had recognized trouble and was engaging. Completely flawless. Party pooper.
Thankfully, the Benz didn't go into exclamation-mark mode over any of us meridian-income drivers being behind the wheel. It allowed us to play like the other half, er, quarter play. And how is that? Well, they don't get as sporty a ride as you might expect from a roadster, but they do get some of the finest modern German engineering around. The high-tech mechanical systems work extremely well, and while the SL's appearance is bland it's clean both inside and out.
The other perks that come with driving a very, very expensive car are dual heated power mirrors with memory, cruise control, power windows with one-touch express up/down, tinted glass, and a four-way power-steering column with memory. Headlight wipers, a BabySmart child seat-recognition system, seatbelts with emergency tension retractors (that work almost too well), and becoming the talk of the entire block are among the other standards. Xenon high-intensity discharge lights (in other words, those cool blue headlights) and those hot seats we mentioned are part of the optional "value" packages that tacked on an additional $12,465. Wow, skip the value and you could also park a base model Honda Civic in your garage, too. But then there goes the neighborhood, right?