1990 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class

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$3,792–$16,532
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chicagotribune.com
Imagine such concern for safety that, in the event of a front-end collision:

The vehicle`s clutch and brake pedal are designed to swing away from the driver`s feet to lessen the possibility of injury.

The footwell is padded with energy-absorbing foam to lessen forces transmitted to the legs and back in a frontal impact.

And in the event of a side collision or if you simply lose control, a roll bar deploys to protect the occupants.

Others talk safety; Mercedes-Benz practices it with a passion. The competition is offering antilock brakes as an option in several cars. Mercedes offers antilock brakes as standard in all its vehicles. The rivals offer driver-side air bags as standard, and Mercedes offers driver- and passenger- side air bags as standard.

What further sets Mercedes apart from the others is that it not only incorporates all those safety features, but it also does so in the fun-to-drive sports/luxury 500SL coupe/roadster, not an armored sedan featured in Soldiers of Fortune.

The 500SL and its 300SL running mate are the successors to the 560SL. They`re the first totally new Mercedes sports cars since 1972 and mark the first time Mercedes has offered two versions of its hardtop/convertible coupe. The 500SL and 300SL are basically the same car. They share the same shell but offer different power trains. The 560SL was powered by a 5.6-liter, 227- horsepower, V-8 engine. The 500 features a 32-valve, 322-h.p., 5-liter V-8 and the 300 a 24-valve, 228-h.p., 3-liter in-line 6. The 500 comes with 4- speed automatic only, the 300 with a 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic.

You don`t buy an SL for its fuel economy.

The 5-liter is EPA rated at 14 miles per gallon city/18 m.p.g. highway and, so it carries a $1,300gas-guzzler tax. The 300SL with manual is rated at 15/21 and carries a $650 guzzler tax, the 300SL with automatic is rated at 16/ 22 and carries a $500 guzzler tax.

You also don`t buy an SL if discount financing or factory rebates get you in a showroom.

The 500SL starts at $84,800, the 300SL at $73,150 with manual, $74,000 with automatic. All prices include guzzler taxes. By comparison, the 560SL sold for $64,230.

For 1990 the SL sheet metal has been redone. The body has smoother flowing lines than the 560 and incorporates some of the rounded aero look that`s the rage. You still can tell it`s an SL, but now from several yards, rather than blocks, away.

Rather than the traditional Mercedes-Benz 3 pointed star logo floating in a single aluminum grille vane, the500 features the 3-pointed star floating amid seven aluminum grille vanes. Another styling change finds ventilation openings in the rear of each front fender. And the round headlamps are gone.

We test drove the 500SL, which features a longer wheelbase but shorter overall length than the 560SL it replaces. The 500 is built on a 99-inch wheelbase and is 176 inche s long versus a 96.7-inch wheelbase and 180.3 inches long for the 560.

The 560SL had become a bit ponderous. Though about 400 pounds heavier than the 560, the 500 feels more nimble than the pachyderm it replaces. Credit the 32-valve V-8, the suspension system and the nimble power steering for making the 500 act svelte.

The 5-liter V-8 has ample horses to provide quick acceleration so you don`t feel the 4,100 pounds in the wheel. Steering is responsive, and there`s no feel of bulk in corners or turns. You feel the poundage when you ease off the gas pedal. It`s as if you just downshifted with a 5-speed to third gear.

Mercedes calls the 500 a sports car. With a 0-to-60-mile-per-hour time of 6.3 seconds and top speed of 155 m.p.h., it would be hard to dispute that.

But first and foremost the500SL is a luxury machine, a toy for the rich. It`s truly a car that can be enjoyed standing still, because that`s when you can play with the convertible top .

Unlike the Cadillac Allante (Cartalk, May 6), which required a call to Detroit to figure out the manual top operation, the 500SL power ragtop is the epitome of simplicity.

The top fools you at first. You look for latches above the windshield that must be unfastened to lower the top. Not so with an $84,500 machine. You need both hands free to handle the phone.

Instead, you turn the key to ``on`` and press a console button. The side windows lower, the top lifts from the fasteners in the windshield, the plastic rear window separates from the top, the rear compartment lid raises, the rear plastic window folds into the compartment, the softtop folds into the compartment, the plastic compartment lid lowers to cover the hardware and software and secures itself. The task takes about 30 seconds.

There`s also a roll bar that raises the safety device to a new plateau. Push a console button and the power-operated bar lifts for protection. Push the button again and it retracts to hide along the rear ledge. If you`re driving and lose control and are in danger of rolling, the bar automatically lifts-in about 0.3 second.

Other toys include a key fob that resembles a switch-blade knife. Press the little red button and the key blade pops out from its holder. The key fob need only be aimed at a sensor on the door or deck lid and pressed to lock or unlock the machine. A blinking red or green light from the sensor tells you what you did.

Then there`s the spring-loaded ashtray. Rather than fumble and fight to dispose of butts, you press a button and it pops from its holder into your hand. And the headlamps have wipers.

Before you ask what vile being would desecrate an $84,500 machine with foul smoke-this loathsome scribe among the desecraters-keep in mind that the automatic climate control system has an electronic filter to trap tobacco impurities, along with dust and pollen.

Standard amenities include power brakes and steering; air conditioning; leather upholstery, including steering wheel and shift handle; 10-way power seats; power mirrors (outside heated); power adjustable steering wheel; cruise control; AM/FM stereo with cassette and power antenna; power windows/door locks; antitheft alarm; and rear-window defroster for the hardtop.

The 500SL is more than a car, it`s an experience. Adding to the prestige image, if not snob appeal, is the fact production is extremely limited-only 20,000 will be built this year and 60 percent of those, or roughly 12,000, will be sold in the U.S. Chicagoans will purchase 10 percent of the total.

But will the public accept an $84,500 SL replacement for a $64,230 machine?

The wait for delivery in the U.S. is six to nine months for the 500SL, three to six months for a 300SL, a fraction of the time those in Germany (six years) or Great Britain (four years) must cool their flat or spiked heels waiting for one.

So why bother? Why not just grab an Allante and save $30,000? Only if you hang paint-by-number sets on your den wall.

The 500SL is a car, Allante is a concept.

For the 1991 model year, Mercedes is developing an adaptive damping system for the SL that automatically adjusts shock absorber firmness to match the road surface-soft on straight, smooth roads, firmer in corners and turns. It also is developing a version of that system, which automatically would raise or lower the car based on vehicle speed to improve aerodynamics-lower at high speeds, higher at low speeds. Federal regulations regarding bumper heights probably will keep the latter off any U.S. Mercedes.

1990 Mercedes Benz 500SL

Wheelbase: 99 inches.

Lenth: 176 inches.

Engine: 5-liter, 322 h.p., 32-valve V-8.

Transmission: 4 speed automatic.

Fuel economy: 14/18m.p.g.

Strong point: Performance, safety, convertible operation, prestige image.

Weak point: Mileage, price.




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