Car Test   R0228
April 2002
First Drive Mercedes-Benz SL 500
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ALL THOSE LETTERS AND NUMBERS THAT ARE used to signify the various Mercedes-Benz coupes and cabriolets certainly creat confusion.
   The best way to clear the mist is to start with the asking price. So for example, a CLK (soon to be replaced) is clearly a lower-cost proposition than this new SL series, which is the fifth generation of Mercedes luxury roadsters, stretching back over 50 years.
   There will be a cheaper V6 and a dearer AMG later, but this first version, with its 5.0-litre (non-supercharged) V8 engine still belts out a handsome 306bhp. This is enough to put it into contention with the likes of the Jaguar XK8 and Porsche 911, both in power output and price.
   However, the SL 500 is a very interesting offering in other technical aspects, as well. It uses self-adjusting "active body control", designed to prevent excessive body roll in fast cornering without the need to resort to stiff springs and dampers; the result is impeccable handling and grip, yet with a really supple, comfortable ride. There's no scuttle shake either, even when the folding roof is in the boot.
   Another novelty (which we predict will be seen progressively on cheaper cars in the future) is braking by wire - "Sensotronic Brake Control", in Benz-speak. This converts the brake pedal into a messenger, rather than it being a hydraulic pump, with electronics commanding the various brake hydraulic functions. This means no pulsations through the pedal when the ABS functions, varying braking effort from one tyre to another depending on grip and cornering attitude; and there's even automatic drying of the discs on wet days (because the wipers are in use). Needless to say, the SL stops as well as it goes.
   Of course, the real convenience feature of this strictly two-seater is its self folding aluminium and glass roof. Sixteen seconds convert this turbulence-free yet open-sports car into a snug hard-top, with full interior climate control and no rattles.
   The SL 500's engine drives the rear wheels through a competent five-speed stepped automatic gearbox with sequential-manual mode provided, as well; a fully manual gearbox isn't on offer.
   The driving experience is one of exhileration without compromise to comfort - except that a certain agility is needed when getting in and out. The same is true for luggage - when the roof is folded, it robs the otherwise respectable boot of a lot of it's capacity; access to the space below the stowed roof is eased by a temporary tilt position, however. This helps but doesn't solve the problem.
  considering size, price and rivals
  • easy affability when driven slowly
  • proper glass (heated) rear window
  • surprisingly supple ride
  • restricted boot access still
  • high door sills impede egress
  • not much space behind seats
It's expensive but the SL 500 is a very complete convertible, with its UK price including all the appointments and driving aids you could wish for. A wise move this, for with limited supply, the SL 500 is likely to hold it's value surprisingly well. And if there are only two of you, it's a lovely way to travel - sporty yet so civilized.

engine 4966cc, V8 petrol, 32 valves, 306bhp/339lb ft; normally aspirated. 80-litre fuel tank
drive 5-speed stepped automatic; rear-wheel drive
suspension multi-link (aluminium) with coil springs and hydraulic servo cylinders for self-levelling and anti-roll
wheels/tyres 255/45R17 on 8.5in alloy wheels
brakes electronically controlled hydraulics. Discs all round with variable wheel response and ABS
0-62mph* 6.3sec
official mpg 22.2
* maker's figures
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