New Car/Review

1997 Mercedes-Benz SL Class

by Carey Russ

Mercedes

SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide

The Mercedes-Benz SL Class sports coupes and roadsters have been cars to be reckoned with in the prestigious high-priced sports-luxury class ever since the days of the legendary, race-bred 300SL gullwing coupe in the mid-1950s. The SL-class Benzes have always offered prestige, comfort, and balanced performance. They have also been expensive. Less costly than the Italian exotics, perhaps, but still more Rodeo Drive than Main Street, the SLs serve as the co-flagships of the Mercedes-Benz lines with the S-class sedans and coupes. Innovative technology first introduced in the SL and S-class cars is later used in lesser lines. The 5-speed electronically-controlled automatic transmission first used in the SL and S- class models is now used in all Mercedes-Benz cars. Side airbags, now in the SL, will undoubtedly see further application in the future.

Currently, Mercedes-Benz SL models are available as the 6- cylinder SL320, V8 SL500, or limited-production V12-powered SL600. They are sporting luxury convertibles with an emphasis on luxury. Two hard tops are available, a regular metal one and a new, tinted glass "Panorama" top that gives an open-air experience with comfort and protection in all weather conditions. The optional "Sport Package" includes body trim and wheels designed by noted Mercedes-Benz tuning firm AMG.

A week with an SL500 Sport was most impressive. It was supremely comfortable and elegant. Although I'm not in the income bracket to own one, but it's always an experience to see how the other half lives.

APPEARANCE: The SL500 is tastefully elegant and understated in an old-money way. Even with the Sport Package, it is not overly flamboyant, although the 18-inch AMG monobloc wheels and ultra-low profile high- speed tires that are part of the package do dominate the car's appearance. The basic SL is a small, two-seat version of conservative Mercedes-Benz styling, an angular wedge with rounded edges and modestly-flared fenders for a sporting look. A wide grille with horizontal slats and the three- pointed star logo proclaims the car's identity and should help ensure top- notch valet parking care. The Sport Package adds a deeper front apron with integral air dam and foglamps, sculpted side skirts, a special rear bumper treatment, and those wheels and tires.

COMFORT: The SL500 is a luxury car at heart, albeit a very muscular one. Luxury here, as in all Mercedes-Benz products, means lean luxury, stressing comfort and elegance over opulence. The driver and passenger are treated to excellent power-adjustable leather seats. The thick, leather- covered steering wheel has power tilt and telescopic adjustment. Tasteful amounts of leather and wood trim enhance the door panels and central console. The climate control system provides cool or warm air in short order, and the Bose stereo system sounds great. The trunk will hold two sets of golf clubs, or an equivalent amount of luggage. The standard cloth convertible top has quarter windows for comparatively good visibility when up. Windows and mirrors are power-operated, of course. So is the top. To raise or lower the top, all one need do is press a button on the console. An array of servo motors and hydraulic devices take care of all manual labor, quickly and efficiently.

SAFETY: In addition to all of the more common safety features - dual frontal air bags, safety-cage construction with front and rear crush zones, and antilock disc brakes, the SL500 has side airbags mounted in the doors, an automatic roll bar, and a passenger seat occupancy detector that deactivates the passenger side air bag if a weight of less than 26 lbs. is in the seat. The optional Electronic Stability Program (ESP) takes traction control a step further and applies brake pressure to individual wheels to control an incipient spin or slide.

ROADABILITY: The SL500 is a high-performance luxury car, with an emphasis on touring comfort. With a two-ton curb weight, it is too heavy to be a narrow-focus sports car. It is also too quiet, comfortable, and refined to be a narrow-focus sports car. The chassis is among the most rigid ever made for a convertible, ensuring a solid base for the front strut, multilink rear independent suspension. That the extremely low-profile tires of the Sport Package - 40-series front and 35 rear - do not result in a particularly harsh ride is a compliment to the design of the suspension and the abilities of the Mercedes-Benz engineers. Handling is perfect for the car's intended purpose, fast touring. Xenon low-beam headlamps light the road very well at night.

PERFORMANCE: The SL500 may not be a lightweight racer, but its 5- liter V8 engine has enough power to move it down the road quite smartly. With 315 horsepower and a healthy 345 lb-ft of torque, the SL500 is not slow. The engine is always smooth and very quiet in normal operation, but spirited driving brings an enthusiastic V8 growl. The 5-speed, electronically-controlled automatic transmission is wonderfully smooth and refined. The torque converter locks up in third, fourth, and fifth gears for efficiency.

CONCLUSIONS: The Mercedes-Benz SL500 Sport offers muscular performance with luxurious refinement.

SPECIFICATIONS
1997 Mercedes-Benz SL500 Sport 

Base Price               $ 89,900
Price As Tested          $ 99,800
Engine Type              aluminum alloy V8, dual overhead cams, 32 valves
Engine Size              5.0 liters, 304 cu. in.
Horsepower               315 @ 5600
Torque (lb-ft)           347 @ 3900
Transmission             5-speed electronically-controlled automatic
Wheelbase / Length       99.0 in. / 177.1 in.
Curb Weight              4165 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower    13.2
Fuel Capacity            21.1 gal.
Fuel Requirement         unleaded premium
Tires                    Dunlop SP Sport, 
                         245/40 ZR 18 front, 275/35 ZR18 rear
Brakes, front/rear       vented disc / disc, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear   independent strut / independent multi-link
Drivetrain               front engine, rear-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      15/23/18
0 to 60 mph                        6.4 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)                    14.9 sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd)           0.34 with top up    

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