After 12 years in its previous form, a massively restyled, posh Mercedes-Benz SL500 two-seat convertible went on sale as an early 2003 model. Unlike the prior SL-Class, which had a fabric top, the 2003 version was equipped with a retractable hardtop. At the push of a button, the car can transform from a roadster to a watertight coupe in 16 seconds.
New electronic brake control retained hydraulic components but had no mechanical link to the brake pedal. Its operation is electronically controlled and varies brake pressure to each wheel based on vehicle dynamics and other constantly monitored conditions. 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.
The SL500 gets a new seven-speed-automatic transmission for 2004. Active Body Control is an active suspension system that virtually eliminates body roll. An Electronic Stability Program is also standard. Occupying the luxury end of the sports-car realm, the SL-Class competes against the Jaguar XK8 convertible, the Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet and the cars in Aston Martin’s lineup.
Several months after the emergence of the SL500, a high-performance SL55 AMG edition went on sale. At the 2003 North American International Auto Show, Mercedes-Benz unveiled an SL600 convertible equipped with a bi-turbo V-12 engine. (Skip to details on the: SL55 AMG | SL600)
An evolution of the previous-generation SL-Class roadster, the 2003 SL500 changed substantially in appearance with styling touches reminiscent of SLs of the past. The automaker said clear-glass xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights were considered a “more dynamic variation on the familiar ‘twin-headlamp’ theme” and an “intelligent” tilting mechanism ensured the roof retracted into the upper section of the trunk.
Slippery in shape, the SL500 has a 0.29 coefficient of drag. Substantial aluminum content is used to keep body weight light.
Leather, fine wood and aluminum greet the two occupants of an SL500. Matte chrome surrounds the four separate chronometer-styled instruments on the dashboard. Distronic “intelligent” cruise control is optional. Cargo capacity is 7.3 cubic feet with the top down and 10.2 cubic feet when the top is up.
Under the Hood
A 302-horsepower, 5.0-liter V-8 engine powers the SL500. It is connected to a new seven-speed-automatic transmission.
Each door is equipped with side-impact airbags designed to protect occupants’ head and thorax. Automatic rollover bars pop up within 0.3 second when the system senses an impending rollover.
The luscious SL500’s many features, such as the super-supportive seats, are enticing. 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 it’s far less bothersome in this car.
The SL500 is highly stable on the road. It clings securely to the pavement and has excellent steering-wheel feel and appropriate effort. All told, it’s more boulevard cruiser than hard-core sports car, and it delivers outstanding ride comfort.
The controls range from cryptic to ambiguous. Mercedes-Benz’s navigation system is next to useless — the small screen becomes almost invisible in daylight. Hooded, finely calibrated gauges, on the other hand, are reasonably easy to read. Trunk space is skimpy due to intrusion from the retractable hardtop.
Related Model: SL55 AMG
With a 5.5-liter supercharged V-8 engine that produces 493 hp and 516 pounds-feet of torque, the SL55 AMG is the fastest production Mercedes-Benz ever manufactured. Its five-speed-automatic transmission has SpeedShift buttons on the steering wheel. Racing-derived brakes are installed, and other components have been adapted to work with the higher engine output.
Mercedes-Benz claims the SL55 AMG roadster can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds, versus a more leisurely 6.1 seconds for the SL500.
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. The SL55 AMG’s interior features aluminum trim that has a sand-cast effect and special sport seats. Back to top
Related Model: SL600
Introduced as a 2004 model, the SL600 holds a 5.5-liter V-12 that produces 493 hp at 5,000 rpm and 590 pounds-feet of torque as early as 1,800 rpm. Its five-speed-automatic transmission incorporates TouchShift operation for manually selected gear changes. Though engine output is the same in both the SL600 and SL55 AMG, the automaker says the SL600 differs in “character”; its power delivery is more refined.
The same brakes are used in the SL600 and SL55 AMG. Five-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels are installed. A chrome grille and subtle “V12” badges identify the SL600. Nappa leather on the active ventilated seats comes in five colors. An integrated digital phone is standard.
Mercedes-Benz has somehow managed to combine ferocity and luxury in the SL600, which flaunts a noticeable exhaust note along with its posh occupant fittings. Tromp the gas pedal while standing still and the SL600 lunges forward with a triumphant burst of power. Response is no less dramatic when pushing the throttle at higher speeds. SL600 drivers will likely feel confident when the need to pass or merge arises.
The seats are snugly bolstered. Few cars are more plushly upholstered than the SL600, which features masterfully stitched leather that cradles the two occupants. Rich-looking wood on the console and doors rounds out the interior.
Serious luxury also shows through in the SL’s compliant suspension. The ride is far smoother than in a typical sports car. A wind blocker helps when the top is down, but some buffeting may occur, regardless.
Is it excessive? Of course it is, but at least the SL600 delivers an enjoyable form of automotive excess. Back to top