Mercedes SL500
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Test Drive:
2003 Mercedes-Benz SL500

Story and photos by Laurance Yap

Just what is it about the Mercedes SL that inspires such envy? Pardon the pun, but there’s some sort of star-gazing thing going on every time you drive it by a crowd of people because even the ones who don’t GET cars – ever – swivel their heads in awe.

They nudge each other and point. “I think that’s the car from Whats-his-name’s video.” Ah. If you are, like my kid brother, an avid watcher of rap videos, you will know what I’m talking about. Flip to Much Vibe at any time during the day and you’re guaranteed to see a shiny new SL on the screen: with homeboys leaning against it on a street corner in this video, with two hot-looking girls speeding along a freeway in another, and with it parked in a garage in yet another, the singer fondling a twenty-four-inch alloy wheel on a pedestal through the whole five minutes.

Forget the star on the car. It’s the car that’s the star.

Mercedes SL500

Mercedes SL500
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It’s a star because it represents everything that is – forget good or bad, just is – about being a star. It’s about glitz and glamour, about style and substance, looking good under the neon lights as well as the hot summer sun. Midlife facelifts to keep you looking young and liposuction when you need to lose some pounds. It’s the entire motion picture psyche, wrapped up in a convenient four-wheeled wrapper.

All that glitters in the SL is not made of gold, but at least the car’s interior marks a return to Mercedes’ formerly unassailable quality and material standards. Save for the cheapo translucent plastic that the pop-out climate control knobs are fashioned out of (push them in for “auto” and you’ll never see their rough edges), everything in my SL500’s interior was solidly fashioned out of the highest-quality materials. The dash was draped in gorgeous, soft leather. The light switches and vent adjusters were metal with rubber inserts. Plastics felt solid and were coated with an expensive-feeling layer of matte-finish paint. In place of the usual wood trim was shiny patterned aluminum, expertly melded and moulded into organic shapes space invaders would be proud of.

Mercedes SL500
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Those outrageous shapes might be a bit off-putting to buyers of an, ahem, certain age, most of whom are the only ones capable of affording this Mercedes’ astonishing base price, but twenty-somethings all loved them, and there are plenty more pleasures to be had in the SL’s interior anyway. The seats adjust fourteen ways, and include inflatable lumbar supports and adjustable-length bottom cushions. There’s a handy windblocker to keep buffeting (already minimal) to a level where you can enjoy hushed conversations at speed with the top down. The storage bins are all lined with soft flock and are closed with real metal latches, there’s available retro-design fitted luggage for the rear shelf, and the pop-up roll bar motors into place with the touch of a button.

And of course, there’s that roof, a magnificent lightweight structure that flips, flops, and collapses into the trunk in just sixteen seconds, up or down – the rear window even does a backflip to preserve more trunk space. Park the SL curb-side, pop the top, and watch crowds gather: even after the twentieth performance, it’s still mesmerizing, a coordinated mechanical symphony unlike nothing you’ve ever seen.

Like every star approaching middle age, the SL has been given a bit of a tummy tuck. Underneath its new, sleeker skin lies a multitude of lightweight aluminum and magnesium components that help reduce mass by a substantial 60 kg, this despite the extra weight of the new folding hardtop (with a glass “panorama” roof on my tester), and ever-more standard equipment, like heated and ventilated seats, GPS navigation, a 6-disc CD changer with Bose audio system, and power trunk closing. The lightening is hinted at on the outside by new, thin-spoked alloy wheels, cooling “gills” in the hood and side panels, and a body that sports vastly reduced overhangs front and rear compared to its predecessor. Even when stationary, the new SL has a coiled look, as if it’s ready to pounce into action at a moment’s notice.

Pounce it will, if not quite as quickly as you might originally imagine. Even with three hundred horses from its three-valve five-litre V8 and one of the planet’s most responsive adaptive five-speed automatic transmissions, my SL was no rocket off the line; the gearing and the throttle tip-in had been calibrated for gracefully swift launches rather than brutally fast ones. But once you’re under way, hold on; on the highway, a shove of the gas pedal to the floor had it pounding past slow-moving traffic as if it was standing still. Should obstacles loom large, new-tech electro-hydraulic disc brakes, coupled with massive four-piston calipers on the front, bring everything to a halt with breathtaking strength and stamina. These brakes are so clever that they apply full force automatically in a panic stop, and even gently rub the pads against the discs in standing water, to keep them dry for when you do need to stop.

Mercedes SL500

Mercedes SL500

Mercedes SL500
Click image to enlarge

It’ll go around corners just fine as well, though you’re always mindful of the SL500’s substantial mass. The steering dives the car into turns with a mere twitch of the wheel, the “active body control” suspension allows zero roll when switched to its “sport” setting, and the massive Continental tires grip the road tenaciously. Road feel through the suspension and the steering is surprisingly clear, given the SL’s smooth highway ride, but when you’re really hustling, the messages start to wash out as you push harder against more resistance. An out-and-out performance car the SL is not, but driven aggressively, its power and poise would still make it difficult to catch on a difficult road.

When you’re really hustling, the occasional wobble can be felt through what is normally a rock-solid structure, visibility becomes an issue because the corners of the car are tough to see (you sit low and enclosed behind a high and rising beltline), and the ESP stability-control system starts seeming intrusive rather than intuitive. The “off” switch only switches it off partially: traction control is still enabled, meaning you get none of the fun of a switched-off system, plus none of the safety margin. Best to leave it on.

Besides, this Mercedes is much more in its element on gently-winding country roads, wide city boulevards, and, yes, sitting in downtown traffic, rather than on deserted mountain passes. Its natural environments are more tightly-packed with lights to reflect off the curved flanks; mirrored windows in which to admire yourself; and audiences to experience that special brand of stargazing that only this top-class car can bring.

After a week behind this magnificent automobile’s wheel, $124,900 started to seem like good value to my newly-celebrified brain. How can you put a price on being the star you always wanted to be, especially when you know it was always just the wheels – and certainly not the animal magnetism – you were lacking?

Technical Data:

2003 Mercedes-Benz SL500
Base price $124,900
Type 2-door, 2-passenger convertible
Layout longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive
Engine 5.0 litre V8, DOHC, 24 valves
Horsepower 306 at 5600 rpm
Torque 460 Nm @ 2700 – 4200 rpm
Fuel Premium Unleaded recommended
Transmission 5-speed automatic w/Touchshift
Tires 255/45R-17
Curb weight 1845 kg (4067 lb.)
Wheelbase 2560 mm (104.3 in.)
Length 4535 mm (178.5 in.)
Width 1815 mm (71.4 in.)
Height 1298 mm (51.1 in.)
Cargo Capacity 317 litres (11.2 cu. ft.); 235 litres (8.3 cu. ft.) with vario-roof open
Fuel consumption City: 19.1 l/100 km (15 mpg); Hwy: 9.2 l/100 km (31 mpg)

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