Even though it is not as cheeky as the little SLK, the other Mercedes-Benz roadster, the SL series is an eminently enjoyable two-seater loaded with luxury and panache.
SLs come in three flavors — 320, 500 and 600 — and their powerplants range from a six for the 320 to a V12 for the 600. I drove an SL equipped with a 5.0-liter V8 engine and the optional Sport package of 18-inch wheels and more aggressive front and rear spoilers designed by AMA, a German after market tuner with close ties to Mercedes. This package adds $4,900 to the already hefty base price of $89,900, putting the total price on par with a three-bedroom house in suburbia.
While that is out of reach for the majority of us, the privileged folks who buy SLs don’t have to worry about the monthly payment or cost of insurance. To them, this car competes with summer homes or yachts.
Decked out in white paint as stark as a refrigerator, with huge tires and ground-effects spoilers, our test car had the stance of a ballet dancer on steroids. Its muscles rippled, and it looked like it could gobble up the pavement without breathing hard. The Sport package looked a bit too conspicuous in white and I frequently caught people staring at me. If you prefer a lower profile, choose the standard model or else pick a dark color.
Tromp the throttle and the 315 horses respond with authority. It is clearly more of a high-speed touring car than a drag racer because it gathers speed elegantly, deliberately, as one would expect of a luxury car that weighs more than 4,000 pounds. On the highway it motors along with such assurance that you have to consciously reign it back to keep from zooming well past the speed limit.
When I drove the SL500 the weather was still warm, and it was most enjoyable to drop the top, put up the windows, and motor. The wind-blocking screen that folds up behind the seats kills much of the turbulence that would otherwise buffet the passenger cabin.
While the SL doesn’t have the razor-sharp responses, or punishing ride, of an all-out sports car, its handling is considerably sportier than a boulevard cruiser, due mainly to the prodigious grip of the high-performance tires and 18-inch wheels. When the pavement turns twisty and you have the top down, it is a joy.
Putting the top down is absolutely painless. On the console there is a red knob that looks like a miniature model of the top. One touch is all it takes for the top to completely retract and fold itself under a hard cover. It only takes a few seconds for you to enjoy the freshness of top-down motoring.
Inside, leather abounds, and the seats are as comfortable as orthopedic shoes. The instrument layout is the same as every Mercedes, which is to say logical, readable and oriented toward making the driver’s job easy. Secondary controls for radio and climate control can be a tad cryptic, but are easily figured out.
An occupancy sensor in the right seat deactivates the passenger-side airbag when it detects less than 26 pounds in the seat.
Given this car’s price and stature, nearly every imaginable convenience item is standard, from 10-way electric seats to headlamp washers and a roll bar that pops into place in a third of second should you tip over.
Both front and side airbags are standard, as are traction control and anti-lock brakes.
The keyless remote vehicle security system uses infrared light so thieves cannot snatch the radio signals with a scanner.
Driving at night was a joy because of the optional Xenon headlights, whose blue-white color illuminates the darkness much better than standard bulbs. At $950, they are an expensive option, but they last longer than regular lights and provide much better vision.
It has been 40 years since Mercedes-Benz introduced the first 300SL roadster, a car now hailed as a landmark classic. Whether the SL500 will fall into the same category remains to be seen, but it has ea ed a respected place in the company’s history.
The base price of our test car was $89,900. Extra-cost items included a CD changer, Xenon headlamps and the Sport package. The sticker price was $98,510.
The basic warranty is for four years or 50,000 miles.
Vehicles for The Star’s week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.
Point: The SL500 is a classic roadster with the refinement of a luxury sedan and the performance of a grand touring car. The automatic top is painless and the seats are as comfortable as your favorite pair or shoes.
Counterpoint: The Sport package enhances handling but also made me feel conspicuous. For a lower profile, choose the regular model and add the bigger wheels.
ENGINE: 5.0-liter V8
WHEELBASE: 99.0 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 4,165 lbs.
BASE PRICE: $89,900
PRICE AS DRIVEN: $98,510
MPG RATING: 15 city, 23 hwy.