Traditionally, BMWs have had the edge as more of a driver's car, while comparable Mercedes models have been slightly more ponderous, less responsive, almost as if the car is merely tolerating, rather than embracing, the driver.
That's changing. AMG, the Mercedes in-house tuning outfit that takes existing Mercedes-Benz models and hot-rods them, is at the top of its game with cars such as the 2005 SL55 AMG, a two-door roadster with a retractable hardtop and a 493-horsepower supercharged V-8.
The SL55 is based on the SL500, which has a plenty-quick 302-horsepower V-8. AMG replaces that engine with the larger V-8 and adds a beefed-up suspension, better brakes, higher-performance tires on lightweight wheels, a less-restrictive exhaust system and a tuned transmission, plus other cosmetic and interior tweaks.
Of course, if this isn't adequate, there's also the SL65, which has a 604-horsepower, twin-turbocharged V-12 engine. But really, aren't 493 horses enough?
The SL55 is a big car for a two-seater, weighing in at 4,235 pounds, slightly more than a Mercury Grand Marquis. The weight helps keep the Mercedes planted during highway driving, but even the big 18-inch tires and wheels and compliant suspension can't hide the bulk when you steer the SL55 into a tight turn. Even so, for its weight, it's quite light on its feet.
And goodness knows the engine couldn't care less how much it's asked to haul around. Acceleration is brutal, and linear, when you stomp the throttle. The five-speed automatic transmission - the SL500 has a seven-speed, but that transmission isn't considered beefy enough to handle the SL55's muscle - is well-matched to the engine, and shifts are smoother than you'd expect. Buttons on the steering wheel allow the driver to shift manually, if preferred.
The SL55 is loaded with most of Mercedes' safety features, including 'Tele-Aid' communications system, which is like GM's OnStar; there are side air bags, a driver's side knee air bag, an automatic pop-up roll bar, electronic stability control and massive, easily modulated brakes.
Inside, you have everything from massaging seats to a DVD-based navigation system. The top retracts at the touch of a button: The trunk lid opens front-to-rear, the top disappears inside, and the trunk closes. There's space for a weekend's worth of luggage even with the top stowed.
Base price of the SL55 is $121,500. Several options, including Nappa leather upholstery - replacing non-Nappa leather - for $3,750, and a cruise-control system that maintains a set distance from cars in front of you for $3,070, plus $770 for Xenon headlights brought the bottom line up to $133,150. That's including a $2,100 'gas guzzler' tax for the EPA rating of 14 miles per gallon city, 20 highway.
Competitors include the Cadillac XLR, the Lexus SC 430 and the BMW 645ci, but really, those vehicles - all much less expensive - are targeted more at the SL55's donor model, the SL500, which starts at about $92,000. The Dodge Viper and Porsche 911 Turbo convertible offer power that's comparable to the SL55, but they can't match the level of luxury.
So, for now, Mercedes has this slim little segment of the market all to itself. Those manufacturers who dare to challenge, beware.
Base price: $121,500.
Price as tested: $133,150.
EPA rating: 14 mpg city, 20 mpg highway.
Details: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive roadster with a 5.4-liter, 493-horsepower V-8 and a 5-speed automatic transmission.
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven
Cole Smith's television reports air Wednesdays on Central Florida News 13.