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New Car Review

1996 Mercedes-Benz SL500

by John Heilig

SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide


    ENGINE: 5.0-liter V-8
    HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 315hp @5600 rpm/345 lbs.ft @3900 rpm
    TRANSMISSION: Five-speed automatic
    FUEL ECONOMY: 16 mpg city, 23 mpg highway, mpg test
    WHEELBASE: 99.0 m.
    OVERALL/LENGTH 176.0 in.
    OVERALL HEIGHT: 51.3 in.
    OVERALL WIDTH: 71.3 in.
    CURB WEIGHT: 4165 lbs
    FUEL CAPACITY: 21.3 gal.
    LUGGAGE CAPACITY: 7.9 cu. ft.
    TIRES: 225/55ZR16
    INSTRUMENTS: Speedometer, tachometer, fuel level, water temperature, oil pressure,
    "mpg gauge," analog clock.
    EQUIPMENT: Power windows, power door locks, power mirrors, power seats, cruise
    control, air conditioner, AM-FM stereo radio with cassette, anti-lock braking, dual air
    STICKER PRICE: $94,000 (est.)

I guess of all the two-seater sports cars in the world that I like, this car is pretty close to the top of the list. Why do I like it? Well, it's a neat car that has tons and tons of power, tons and-tons of luxury, and tons and tons of price, too. But you have to make some sacrifices for the good stuff.

The SL 500 is in the middle of Mercedes' three-car SL range. There are the "entry level" six-cylinder SL320, the V-8 SL500, and the V-12 SL600. All have basically identical interiors and equipment except for the engines. In addition,. Mercedes-Benz has added a "sport" styling package to the line that includes special wheels, air dams, side body cladding and badging.

The 5.0-liter V-8 engine in the SL500 is rated at 315 horsepower. It drives the rear wheels through a five-speed automatic gearbox. That five-speed gearbox is exceedingly smooth. You can barely feel the shifts, even on hard acceleration and when you tromp down on the pedal. You can feel it downshift when you floor the accelerator and hit a passing gear. It is as close to a CVT or continuously variable transmission as you're going to find with gears.

Seating is for two. The two seats are deep buckets with plenty of side support. And you need that side support because the SL500 handles extremely well. Besides great straightaway speed, it has great cornering speed as well. The front suspension is by struts, lower control arms, coil springs and a stabilizer bar, with anti-dive geometry and negative offset steering. In the rear is Mercedes' five-link design with coil springs, gas shocks and a stabilizer bar with anti-squat and anti-lift geometry. The SL500 handled every corner I took at every speed I took with great ease. Granted, I didn't posh the car as much as I could have (I was intimidated by the sticker), but I believe it was up to anything I could throw at it.

Of course, being a Mercedes-Benz, the SL500 has all the goodies: power seats, power windows, power door locks, an excellent sound system, good automatic heating/cooling system, dual air bags, and a marvelous power top.

The top in the SL has always fascinated me. This is the second or third time I've had an opportunity to drive an SL. There's a little red plastic button in the center of the console, and all you have to do is move that button to make the top go up or down. On the way down, the first thing that happens is the windows roll down. The hatch opens in the back and the top releases at the top of the window frame. After the rear window folds up, the top drops back into the compartment behind the rear seat and the hatch closes over it. If you keep you finger on the switch, the windows go back up.

In addition to the air bags and ABS for safety, the SL 500 also has Mercedes' antiskid protection that not only gives you traction control in a straight line, it also controls wheel spin when cornering so there is less chance of spinning the car.

It also has an automatic roll bar that moves into position in less than a tenth of a second when attitude sensors in the car detect an impending rollover. You can raise the roll bar intentionally, which also puts into play a rear wind screen that helps protect delicate coiffs from blowing all over.

Mercedes-Benz safety research goes back to the 1930s when an engineer by the name of Bela Barenyi performed crash tests (with engineers, not crash dummies). Mercedes has put a lot of air bags into its vehicles and the company has been a leader in safety research for many years. The roll bar is just another in a long line of innovations.

Being a two-seater sports car, there are always challenges in finding storage space. The SL has a small trunk, rated at just under 8 cubic feet. It does have storage compartments in the doors, though, in addition to one in the center of the dash, between the seats, and it has a decent glove box. And there's one with a sliding door in the arm rest with ingenious cupholders. So you can find enough space for luggage for two people to go away for a nice weekend

There are a few things that I was surprised to find in the SL500. One was the plastic rear window. Here is a car priced at $94,000 and they can't find a glass window. The plastic one will have to be replaced several times in the life of this car.

I was surprised to find no automatic feature for the headlights. You actually have to turn them on manually. Here's another small detail that could be automated.

The cruise control stalk is mounted two or three inches above the turn signal stalk. There were several times when I wanted to use the turn signal and I switched the cruise control instead.

The most annoying problem, though, came when I was trying to remove the key from the ignition. Normally, there was no problem. But occasionally, the key simply wouldn't release, and I spend minutes trying to remove it. I even set off the alarm one tune in a 7-Eleven gas station. I eventually discovered (my daughter told me, of all people) that the key won't release if your foot is on the brakes. Take your foot off the brakes and there's no problem. But I couldn't find this out in the owner's manual, or at least not easily.

But except for these small problems, the SL 500 is a great car, and all great cars should have quirks. Shouldn't they?