If you're Calvinist in nature, a two-seater with a house-size price tagseems like a ludicrous consideration. After all, a small sedan is only 12K.Why spend 10 times that to get where you're going? If you feel that way, stop reading right here. Why? No words can possibly describe the sheer joy involved in driving suchan extravagant piece of automotive machinery as the Mercedes SL500. This is adream machine, an automobile that evokes envious glances and long stares. Itmakes one an instant celebrity of sorts. Certainly, you'll appreciate -- orbecome appalled -- as people wave at you, shout at you, and offer themselvesas a passenger. Who can blame them? SLs have always been beautiful cars, and 1996'sfacelift of headlights, fog lamps and tail lights along with body-colorbumpers and rocker panels only enhance the look. Of course, the big chromeMercedes star sitting in the middle of the blacked-out grille captures theaudacity of this car perfectly. Just in case you'd like to know, the SL comes in three flavors. The"entry-level" SL320 features a 229-horsepower 3.2-liter in-line six and a baseprice of $78,300. Next up is the SL500, the tested car, with a 5-liter315-horsepower V-8 and $89,900 base price. The top-of-the-line SL600 with a389 6-liter V-12 is yours for a base price of $120,100. All three coupes arecoupled to a five-speed automatic transmission. Needless to say, no matter which number is on the deck lid of your SL,there's sufficient power. But more of it never hurts. Just be careful backingout of the garage for the first time in your SL500 -- you can get to 60 mph bythe end of your driveway. This car dishes out the speed effortlessly, thefive-speed making the shifts so smoothly you'll never notice them. The SL500has a new engine management system and a distributorless ignition this year. New also for '96 is ESP, the Electronic Stability Program. When ESP detectsa wheel slipping from its intended track, it applies the brakes on the wheelthat's slipping. Additionally, it features sensors that measure yaw, steering,wheel speed, lateral acceleration and brake pressure, and integrate thatinformation with anti-lock brakes and traction control systems. So what doesall this technology do? Makes you a much better driver than you are. Riding on huge Dunlop 18-inch tires, this car's behavior is flat, whetheraccelerating, braking or going through corners. Handling is neutral andfeedback is good, slightly more insulated than a BMW, but easier to live withon a daily basis. Even at insane speeds on public roads, most drivers neverwill fully tap the performance potential of this car. All convertibles shake over bumps, and even though this Mercedes did a lotless than most, it still exhibited some. If you do get in over your head, Mercedes has you covered. Dual airbags arestandard. New side airbags are standard as well. Seat-belt tensioningretractors that tighten in a crash are standard . ABS and traction control arestandard. Additionally, if sensors detect an impending rollover, an automaticroll bar pops up and locks in place in a third of second. While you're speeding down the road, you'll note the cabin is a veryhospitable place to spend some time. The seats are big and wide, yet stillhold one in place while carving up corners. They're also supportive and firm,not so rock-like as some previous Benzes. The dash is familiar to any lover ofthe three-pointed star. The gauges are large and easy to read, although themiles-per-gallon gauge is almost mocking as it swings down to the 10-mpgrange. The automatic climate control and audio controls are improved over earliercars and prove easy to figure out. Memory seats help prevent arguments and theventilation system filters out dust and pollen. This car features cupholders(!) and decent storage in the armrest and center console. There is no glovebox, but there is a small slot above the center vents. The de ck behind theseats features storage, and the trunk is big enough for two moderately stuffedgolf bags. The top is fully automatic and works at the touch of a button. As itunlatches the top from the windshield and begins to fold down, the windowslower, the roll bar retracts and the storage compartment lid opens to acceptthe folding top. As passers-by gawk, the top folds into the compartment, itslid closes and the windows roll back up. There. All set for motoring alfresco. Wind noise is minimal, lower than in most sedans with the sunroof open. Aremovable aluminum hard top is standard (which explains the soft tops plasticrear window). The Mercedes keyless entry works two ways, locking doors, trunk and gas capwith the top up, and locking all compartments when the top is down. Theinfrared signal can be hard to aim, but it's harder for high-tech car thievesto copy. Its frequency changes each time it's used. Additionally, enginemanagement is disabled if someone decides to help themselves to your car. Over the top? Sure. Any complaints? Only one. I wish it were mine.Mercedes SL500Standard: 5-liter double overhead cam 32-valve V8, five-speed automatic,acceleration slip control, 225/ 55ZR16 tires with alloy wheels, automaticclimate control with dust filter, 10-way power seats with seat, mirror andsteering wheel memory, infrared remote locking and trunk release, AM/FM/weather band/cassette six-speaker Bose audio system, leather upholstery andburl walnut trim, power windows with express down, electronically adjustablesteering column, beverage holders, floor mats, removable hardtop, dualairbags, four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock, anti-theft system with enginedisabler, headlamp washer/wipers, automatic pop-up roll bar, central locking,power black soft top.Optional: Sport package (specific trim, 18-inch monoblock wheels)Base price: $89,900Gas guzzler tax: $1,000As tested: $97,280EPA rating: 16 mpg city, 23 mpg highwayTest mileage: 18 mpg
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