Used 2003 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class Review

The most technologically advanced two-seater currently sold (despite its navigation system).




what's new

Everything. A new SL debuts to replace the previous version, which dated back to 1990.

vehicle overview

Model History/Marketing Philosophy: Introduced in the mid-1950s, the first SL was the 300SL "Gullwing" coupe, so nicknamed for its doors, which swung upward. The Gullwing was joined a few years later by a convertible version. The model's letters stand for Sports Leicht (translated: sports lightweight) and the number(s) refer to the engine size (e.g. 300 means 3.0 liter). The 300SL was the first car to be fitted with fuel injection and, with the proper axle gearing, could hit 160 mph. Pretty impressive for a car of that era -- propelled by a six-cylinder engine, no less! As the years went on, the SL got more luxurious and heavier with each successive redesign. The 1960s brought the 230/250/280 SL roadsters. A V8 replaced the straight six when the car was revamped in the early 1970s and this version (the car Steve Austin drove in "The Six Million Dollar Man") continued through the 1980s. After a lengthy run of 18 years, that car was replaced in 1990 by the sleek 300/320/500/600SLs of the 1990s, which once again offered six cylinder as well as V8 and V12 power. The newest SL continues the tradition of an open-air, two-seat grand touring (GT) car with the typical Benz virtues of luxury, safety and capable performance. At 4,000 pounds, the newest SL sure isn't a leicht-weight, but having nearly all of the latest high-tech features to optimize handling, safety and comfort tends to add weight, as does a new, retractable hardtop.

Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options: Initially, the 2003 SL series will consist of the SL500 (5.0-liter V8) and the AMG-tweaked SL55 (5.4-liter supercharged V8). The V12 SL600 will join them some time in the near future. The SL500 will, as expected, come loaded with luxury, safety and convenience features such as xenon headlamps, Bose audio system with CD changer, navigation system (though it uses less-efficient CD media as opposed to DVD), stability control, electronic braking and TeleAid communications service. The SL55 adds a few upgrades of its own, such as 18-inch alloy wheels, massive brakes with eight-piston front calipers, unique sport seats and instrumentation, lower body sculpting and a quartet of exhaust pipes poking out from the rear valance panel.

Several options are available to personalize the SL, such as a Sport package for the SL500 that gives it the look of the SL55 (by way of 18-inch AMG wheels, high-performance tires and lower body sculpting), Parktronic (electronic parking assist), bi-xenon headlamps and even ventilated seats that can massage one's lower back. A few other gee-whiz options include "Distronic" cruise control (which automatically keeps the Benz a fixed distance from the car ahead of it on the freeway) and "Keyless Go", a credit-card-like device that lets you access and run the car without a conventional key.

Powertrains and Performance: The same 5.0-liter V8 that served in the previous SL500 is used in the new model. That's certainly not a bad thing, as this engine pumps out 302 horsepower and 339 pound-feet of torque while running super clean (early estimates indicate Ultra Low Emission Vehicle class status). No manual gearbox is available, but the five-speed automatic features M-B's TouchShift selector that allows manual-style gear changes when the mood strikes. With performance stats that include a 0-60 mph sprint of 6.1 seconds and a (electronically limited) top speed of 155 mph, the SL500 can boogie if it wants to. If that's not enough, the 493 horses and 516 lb-ft of torque produced by the SL55's force-fed V8 will slingshot that Benz to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds. In addition to the increased thrust, the SL55 also has those big wheels and brakes mentioned earlier, performance-tuned suspension, a faster "SpeedShift" automanual gearbox, full dual exhaust, sport seats and special instrumentation.

Safety: The latest active and passive safety features are included in the SL series. The more notable features include a slew of acronyms that stand for performance- and safety-enhancing technologies such as ABS (antilock brake system), ASR (traction control), ESP (stability control), ABC (body roll control). And the new SL is the first car to have electronic braking, which replaces the conventional brake pedal-to-hydraulics interface with a sophisticated electronic setup that can react much quicker and even selectively adjust braking force to each wheel when cornering. Should an accident be unavoidable, there's a multitude of airbags to protect the occupants, including side bags that cover the head and torso areas and a knee bag for the driver. As with the previous version, the latest SL has a pop-up roll bar that will deploy if a rollover is imminent. Interior Design and Special Features: A power-operated, retractable hardtop, much like that seen in Mercedes' SLK sports car, is standard as is most everything one could want in an automobile. The metal top replaces the old canvas job (with its plastic rear window) and offers the integrity, insulation and security of a coupe when raised. A simpler climate control system debuts, with easy-to-understood knobs and dials that replace the previous unit's annoying array of confusing buttons. A wide choice of exterior colors and interior trims are offered, including four different types of accents for the cabin (three woods and one metallic).

Driving Impressions/Opinions: Improved dynamically and functionally, the newest SL handles better and is more user-friendly than the car it replaces. It's also comfortable, luxurious, faster and packed with the latest technologies and safety equipment. If you're in the market for a luxury roadster, the 2003 SL should be high on your list.

edmunds expert review process

This review was written by a member of Edmunds' editorial team of expert car reviewers. Our team drives every car you can buy. We put the vehicles through rigorous testing, evaluating how they drive and comparing them in detail to their competitors.

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