After 12 years in its previous form, a massively restyled, posh SL500 two-seat convertible went on sale as an early 2003 model. Unlike the prior SL-Class, which had a plastic rear window in its fabric top, the 2003 version gets a retractable hardtop. At the push of a button, the new vario roof transforms the roadster into a watertight coupe and back into a convertible in 16 seconds.
New electronic brake control, which Mercedes claims is the first in the world, retains hydraulic components but has no mechanical link to the brake pedal. Operation is electronically controlled, varying brake pressure to each of the four wheels based on vehicle dynamics and other conditions that it monitors constantly. Variable brake proportioning can apply added pressure to the outside wheels in order to enhance safety when braking in turns. The system can sense wet conditions and react to emergency situations.
Active Body Control (ABC), which was previously available only on the Mercedes-Benz CL-Class and S-Class, is an active suspension system that virtually eliminates body roll. An Electronic Stability Program is also standard.
On the safety front, a new type of head and thorax side-impact airbag is installed in each door. Occupying the upper end of the sports-car scale, the SL-Class goes against such competitors as the Jaguar XK8 convertible, the Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet and the more costly Aston Martin DB7 Vantage.
In August 2002, several months after the emergence of the SL500, a high-performance SL55 AMG edition went on sale. With a supercharged engine that produces 493 horsepower, the AMG model is the fastest production Mercedes-Benz ever. Its five-speed-automatic transmission has SpeedShift buttons on the steering wheel to prevent upshifting in hard corners. Racing-derived brakes are installed, and other components have been adapted to work with the higher engine output.
At Detroits North American International Auto Show in January 2003, Mercedes-Benz unveiled an SL600 convertible with a bi-turbo V-12 engine. It will go on sale as a 2004 model, joining the SL500.
An evolution of the previous-generation SL-Class roadster, the new SL500 has changed substantially in appearance, but it also exhibits some styling touches that are reminiscent of SLs from the distant past. For example, the automaker says that clear-glass xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights are considered a more dynamic variation on the familiar twin-headlamp theme. A new intelligent tilting mechanism ensures that the roof retracts into the upper section of the trunk. Slippery in shape, the SL500 has a slim 0.29 coefficient of drag. Substantial aluminum content is used to keep the body weight light.
Distinctive AMG bumpers and side skirts highlight the SL55 AMG, which features 18-inch five-spoke wheels and a quartet of chromed exhaust pipes at the rear.
Leather, fine wood and aluminum greet the two occupants of an SL500 coupe and roadster. Matte chrome surrounds the four separate chronometer-styled instruments on the dashboard. Inside the SL55 AMG, aluminum trim has a sand-cast effect and special sport seats are installed. Distronic intelligent cruise control is optional. Cargo capacity is 8.3 cubic feet with the top down and 11.2 cubic feet when the top is up.
Under the Hood
A 302-hp, 5.0-liter V-8 engine goes into the SL500. The SL55 AMGs 5.5-liter supercharged V-8 generates 493 hp and 516 pounds-feet of torque. Both the SL500 and SL55 AMG have a five-speed-automatic transmission, but the driver of an SL55 AMG can control shifting with racecar-style buttons on the steering wheel. Mercedes-Benz claims the SL55 AMG roadster can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds, vs. a more leisurely 6.1 seconds for the SL500.
In addition to dual-stage front airbags, each door is equipped with new head and thorax side-impact airbags. Automatic rollover bars pop up within 0.3 second when the system senses an impending rollover.
Nearly everything about the luscious SL500 is enticing, starting with the super-supportive seats. Other than a slight hesitation when starting off and downshifting, the powertrain produces quick and energetic responses. Like all Mercedes-Benz models, the SL500 has a heavy feel, but its far less bothersome.
Highly stable on the road, the SL500 clings securely to the pavement, with excellent steering-wheel feel and appropriate effort. All told, its more boulevard cruiser than hard-core sports car, delivering outstanding ride comfort. The controls range from cryptic to ambiguous, and the finely calibrated gauges arent as easy to read as some.