1990 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class

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    Expert Reviews 2 of 2

By 

Los Angeles Times

The Wunderwerke that is this new, strapping, brazenly handsome Mercedes-Benz starts from its articulated top and works down. To a single button on the console that awaits the lazy pressure of one fingertip.

At that touch, a hidden orchestra of 17 switches, 15 pressure cylinders, 11 solenoid valves and one electric pump combine in an electro-hydraulic concert that opens and closes the 500SL like a two-ton cuckoo clock.

Windows whisper down. A trunk lid flaps. Catches clack. Brackets bend and hinges hiss. There is a pause.

Then the fully lined, sail-canvas convertible top slaps up, back and down to bury itself in the boot. In finale, the trunk lid flops flat, locking itself, and windows slide back up. There hasn't been this much mechanical movement from anything so typically German since yesterday's performances of the Glockenspiel in Munich's Marienplatz.

And at a long traffic signal in Studio City, a crosswalk trio actually stopped to watch and then applaud the Mercedes' 30-second special effect.

Techo-nonsense, maybe. Yet also clear verification of Mercedes' current commercials that do not undersell its 1990 duet of heavyweight sports cars (the 300SLand 500SL) as: "The most passionate statement of engineering leadership Mercedes-Benz has ever made."

Heritage and the 500SL's descent from the legendary 1954 300SL Gull Wing coupe (currently a more promising short-term investment than stock in IBM) has something to do with that engineering edge. So does the car's evolution through its 35-year ancestry and the 560SL it now replaces, and its reputation for impeccable, implacable motoring.

Expensive? At $83,500 for a two-seater (the same price would buy five Mazda Miatas), inordinately so. Over-engineered? More than the first DC-3, which was tested by a tractor driving over its wing. Durable? As the Brandenburg Gate.

But for the essential truth of a Mercedes 500SL, consider another European masterpiece, the Rolex watch. It is carved from a solid block of stainless steel or gold. It provides a unique heft, a distinctive integrity, a sense of total security from the strength of absolute indestructibility.

Bugatti built cars like that in the '30s for decadent owners wanting to assume such poise and power.

Mercedes still builds a car as if it was carved from a block into a two-ton ingot. Then the company peers into tomorrow's promising technology and automotive appointments, extracts the best and perfects them for today's vehicles.

That convertible top is magic enough. But the car also has a spring-loaded roll bar that is hidden around the inner rim of the rear deck. It snaps upright in a 30th of a second at critical roll angles. Or if one wheel lifts off the road.

Most cars have power-adjustable side mirrors--but Mercedes allows adjustment of the side mirrors and the interior rear-view mirror by the same button.

Many automob iles have power-controlled seats with memory buttons for several drivers--but Mercedes' memory stores three settings for seats, headrests, inside and outside mirrors and positions of the tilt and telescoping steering wheel.

A singular pain of convertible motoring is its invitation to pilfering when parked with the top down. And the SL--with seven compartments for the precise storage of everything from audio tapes in the center console, through sunglasses in a felt-lined dash box to parcels in bins beneath the back seat--is a warren.

Yet the car also comes with central key locking (or an infrared remote control) that secures both doors, the trunk, all mini-holds and the fuel filler lid.

Safety in a Mercedes, however, is not confined to threats against your David Benoit tapes.

In this new generation SL, it is extended fully to all occupants who, with the protection of that automatic roll bar and reinforcement of the windshield pillars, are surround d by a virtual roll cage.

There are driver-side and passenger air bags. Seatbelts with instant inertia locking are mounted to cast-magnesium seat frames so that adjusting the seat does not change the set of the belt. Antilock disc brakes, of course, and that over-engineeringfor a frame and body tough enough to survive a collision with the Berlin Wall.

Externally, the car has lost the angles and edges of previous years, with Mercedes' stylists choosing the poised, tiptoe look of a lowered front and elevated rear section.

The suggestion--which doubtless will appall purists--is of a German-built Corvette.

In apparent pursuit of aerospace construction that seems to preoccupy many manufacturers today, Mercedes has gone to a composite for the aerodynamic skirt surrounding the SLs. That might not have been a good idea.

Any plastic, even space shuttle, detracts from that substantial, robust Rolex image. Worse, the skirt is in a satin finish that forms a definite second-rate contrast to the deep, magnificent luster of the metal above.

In thankful contrast, the interior of the 500SL is almost perfect.

Wood actually twinkles, reflecting sunlight and clouds with the top down, and the leather has the tactility of a fine brogan. Instruments are large, analog and traditional. The seats would serve Malcolm Forbes' ante room, and any switch, any lever, works with that soft whisper of hair's-breadth tolerances.

Yet there is only one description for the odd symbology and controls of an otherwise peerless climate system and an equally super sound system: self-explanation achieving the inexplicable.

Such nits, however, are nothing once the engine fires and the 500SL's enormous V8, with its four overhead cams and 32 valves, starts burbling and deep-breathing.

Here is a 322-horsepower left hook. The car carries more punch per liter than the thunderous Corvette ZR-1, and that's quite enough to intimidate anything on the road save the ZR-1, Ferrari and Lamborghini.

That any convertible can motor with only a hint of frame flex or twitch is simply incredible. That any rolling stock this heavy is able to deliver such pace and smoothness is a smidge short of miraculous.

This car does not accelerate from stop or even the higher levels of its performance range. It explodes. The four-speed automatic is not just silken. It shifts and transfers power on diamonds dipped in ermine.

The 500SL moves flat and stolid, and its weight goes virtually nowhere. Not even when accelerating briskly around a Cadillac braking desperately for a sweeping interchange of the Golden State and Glendale freeways.

Unlike so many other convertibles, wind rush and bulging of the soft top, is no part of the SL's progress even when approaching its performance perimeter. That limit, incidentally, is close to 170 m.p.h. that even on Germany's Autobahnen is electrically governed do wn to 155 m.p.h.

Suspension is taut on anything but billiard table surfaces (since Proposition 13, however, these are mainly found in pool halls) because despite its opulence, distinction and Teutonic reserve, the SL was always born to be wild and sporty.

In short, the Mercedes 500SL is the best reason we can think of for East Germans to continue moving west.

These days, the high-performance luxury car market is over-dosing on comparisons. Prevalent is the debate surrounding Lexus and Infiniti versus Mercedes and BMW.

It is, in truth, a non-argument.

Japan does and always will, build its quality cars to rigid budgets. Mercedes goes after quality and technological supremacy with little attention to cost.

That philosophy doesn't seem to have intruded upon success.

The 500SL goes on sale in Southern California this month, and several dealers are reporting 60-customer waiting lists. Order a car now, said a Mercedes spokesman, and elivery will be "in excess of a year, at least."

And out-of-state profiteers already are placing Los Angeles advertisements for minimal-milea ge, used 500SLs.They are asking for $46,500 over list. That's the cost of about three more Miatas.

1990 Mercedes-Benz 500SL

The Good Supreme engineering, annointed craftsmanship and crafty appointments. Powerful, powerful engine. A flex-free convertible with a top that beats Houdini for ease of appearance and disappearance.

The Bad Plastic skirts. Guesswork controls for radio and heating/refrigeration.

The Ugly Nichts.

Cost Base and as tested $83,500.

Engine V-8, 32 valves, 5 liters, producing 322 horsepower.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 6.3 seconds. Top speed, as reported by Car and Driver magazine, 155 m.p.h. Fuel economy, city-highway average, 16 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 4,145 pounds.


    Expert Reviews 2 of 2

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