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Reviews: 2003 Mercedes SL500

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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 
	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.