Reviews: 2003 Mercedes SL500
SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide
2003 Mercedes Benz SL500 Base price: $85,990 Price as tested: $101,105 EPA mileage: city/ highway: 15/22 By Des Toups Like its predecessor, the Mercedes Benz SL500 is destined to become a cliché, a rolling backdrop for rap videos and second marriages, but forget that for now. Mercedes waited 20 years to redo the ultimate I-Got-Mine-mobile (ultimate because it suggests the presence of an equally expensive sedan in the other half of the garage), and it is well nigh perfect. Of course, for the price, it should be. This is what a $101,000 buys you: a two-seater that goes from hardtop to convertible in 20 seconds. An engine that propels you to 60 in six seconds. A chassis that corners at suicidal speeds with no drama. Seats that warm you and cool you and massage you. Cruise control that’s better at gauging traffic than you are. For all the toys beneath the skin, though, it will be the SL500’s reason-warping looks that part the rich folks from their cash. Given the assignment of bringing a luxury icon into the 21st century, Mercedes stylists outdid themselves. This sensual mix of curves manages to convey power and prestige and tradition without being in any way retro or a caricature. You have only to look at the lumpy Lexus SC430 to see how wrong an effort like this can go. Unlike most convertibles, the SL500 looks just as good with the top up, looking for all the world as if it were designed a slim-pillared coupe. The fully automatic top retracts in a traffic-stopping display of Rube Goldberg complexity: The rear-hinged decklid yawns as the roof folds in half, then disappears. There’s enough space left in the trunk for a weekend’s worth of soft-sided luggage. Beyond its stunning lines, the payoff for this huge investment is a luxury convertible that doesn't drive like a luxury car or a convertible. The two-ton SL500 can keep up with serious company. Its engine, a smooth 5-liter V-8 producing 302 horsepower, is used in many Mercedes lines but to particularly good advantage here: The exhaust note is particularly appealing, and a slick, five-speed automatic is aggressively geared (at least in Sport mode) to keep power on tap. Though the SL500 may not be as quick as some more sporting convertibles, such as a Porsche 911 cabriolet, its capabilities are far easier to put to work in daily driving. The automatic can be up- and downshifted like a manual, for twisty roads or long descents, but it’s smart enough left on its own to downshift coming out of a slow turn. What turns the SL500 into a sports car is its Active Body Control, which uses computer-controlled shocks and springs that all but eliminate body lean. That encourages more aggressive behavior in which the SL500 is a willing accomplice, right up until its stability control system (which compares how the driver is steering with what the tires are actually doing) shuts down the fun, usually when the back end threatens to come around. Either system can be switched off if you’re in need of a bigger adrenaline jolt. What keeps the SL500's athleticism from feeling tacked on rather than baked in is its exquisitely rigid body, which doesn't discernibly quiver or squeak. Drive most convertibles on a rough road and you'll see the rearview mirror vibrate, hear the doors shudder in their openings, feel the steering wheel shake in your hands. The Mercedes -- top up, top down -- feels as tight as a coupe. This is a low-slung machine, six inches or so shorter than a typical sedan, but seating is equally low, offering decent headroom for six footers with the top up (and, of course, infinite headroom with the top down). There’s hidden space for cell phones and road maps in the doors, the console and under the seats. Behind the seats there’s a couple more hidden compartments, space for a Barney’s bag or two and a wind blocker that makes the cabin more hair friendly on top-down days. Anybody who’s driven a Mercedes of recent vintage will be familiar with the look and layout of the interior, though it’s less squared-off than in the sedans and more lavishly finished. The COMAND system that controls navigation, stereo, phone and God knows what else is no less frustrating here. Anybody rich enough to afford the SL500 probably has the brainpower to unravel its mysteries, given enough time. A week wasn’t enough for me. My favorite SL500 toy is its $2,950 (shocking, isn’t it?) Distronic cruise control, which allows the option of cruising at the speed of the car in front of you. The car in front goes faster, you go faster. It slows down, you slow down. All you do is enter a maximum speed and a preferred distance. It’s ideal for fast Interstate commutes as you latch onto whomever is brave enough to lead the pack, with only a transitory pause as its radar beam latches onto a new target. Distronic will even hit the brakes to avoid a slow-moving car, then resume speed all on its own. It’s simpler than it sounds, and very, very hip. Almost as hip as the keyless entry system, which truly doesn’t require a key, only an encoded card carried somewhere on your person. The SL500 senses your arrival and unlocks the doors, allowing you to start the engine merely by pressing a button. Someday, perhaps, all cars will have such toys, and if toys were all the SL500 had to offer, the wisest course would be to wait. But only one machine looks like this and drives like this, and that should be enough for anyone lucky enough to have scratch to take a closer look. Des Toups is a Seattle free-lance writer whose work has appeared in AutoWorld magazine, The Seattle Times and newspapers nationwide.