2003 Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG
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by Tony Whitney

The magnificent Mercedes-Benz SL500 hasn’t been at the dealerships that long and already – as promised – an AMG version has been launched. The SL55 AMG is one of the most awesome Mercedes sports cars ever built and tops everything that went before by quite a margin – but first some background on what AMG is all about.

Sometimes, an automaker becomes so impressed with a tuning firm handling it’s products, it buys the company. So it was with Mercedes-Benz and AMG, a German tuner specializing in the products of the famed Stuttgart upscale automaker. AMG has been in business for over 30 years and became so respected through race successes and a series of awesomely fast road cars, Mercedes eventually purchased a majority (51 per cent) interest. Today, AMG has an almost legendary reputation among performance car buffs and no automaker comes close to Mercedes in the way in which it has cleverly exploited the tuner’s reputation.

Like it’s less august stablemate, the SL55 AMG is a stunning looking car and far more stylistic than its predecessor – which drew many not-too-rewarding cues from contemporary Mercedes sedans. The 2003 car is all curves and dramatic sculpturing. The nose is sharply raked back and the headlights follow the general style of recent Mercedes coupes. Vents in the bodysides follow a pattern that goes right back to the old Gullwing.

2003 Mercedes-Benz SL55
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Best of all, the car has one of those remarkable power metal tops pioneered by the smaller SLK. It’s an amazing piece of engineering and compactness and leaves quite a lot of room for luggage when folded down. In fact, you can squeeze a surprising 7.3 cubic feet in there. With the top up, you can shoehorn in a couple of medium-size golf bags. It’s fast too. The car can be converted from a coupe to a roadster in just 16-seconds. The window glass pivots on retraction and cleverly matches the curve of the roof as it all closes up.

The SL55 AMG is powered by a super-potent 5.5-litre 24-valve V-8 developing a stirring 469-horsepower at 6,100 rpm. Underlining the potential of this power unit is its impressive 516 lb.-ft. of torque. According to Mercedes-Benz, the car will rocket to 100 km/h in just 4.7-seconds, but having driven the car, it wouldn’t surprise me if one or other of the US enthusiast magazines didn’t better that figure under the right conditions.

It really is an amazingly fast car, and although it’s easy enough to drive around town and on the freeway, it would take a very skilled driver to exploit its capabilities to the full. Quite apart from its obvious technical excellence, the engine makes “all the right noises” and sounds more like a good old US muscle car than a super-refined Mercedes-Benz. Not too many serious enthusiasts will complain about that!

The engine is mated to a transmission that’s something special too. It’s a “driver adaptive” 5-speed automatic with AMG’s SpeedShift semi-manual technology. The car can be driven almost as though it had a manual transmission (which is not available on any AMG model) and shifts are lightning-fast. Frankly, this car has so much torque it works just fine with the transmission set in conventional automatic mode.

As with the SL500, the car features the world’s first electronic brakes. The brake pedal works with a computer that tells four fast-acting valves exactly how hard to apply the brakes on each wheel. If there’s an electrical failure, a hydraulic system comes into play. I worked the brakes hard on my test car to see if I could detect any difference, but they feel much like normal stoppers. An emergency stop certainly brings quick response, and there is a feeling that you’re getting more pressure than you need, but the car stops on the proverbial dime.

2003 Mercedes-Benz SL55
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The cockpit is beautifully done with lots of fine leather and genuine wood. The SL seems to be taking Mercedes in new directions as far as instrument layout goes and it doesn’t slavishly follow the sedans. Some of the layout detailing is the best yet in a Mercedes and AMG luxury touches include the use of suede on the instrument binnacle and A-pillars.

As with other AMGs, the suspension has been upgraded over the standard SL and handling is thus as good as you’ll find on any sports supercar. The SL55 features huge 18-inch wheels in a custom AMG style. The downside here is that they’re not that easy to clean – a detailer’s nightmare, in fact.

Stability control is an SL55 feature, so this car is safe as well as very agile. Other safety features include an automatic rollbar which pops up in a rollover – or you can set it in place with a switch. Seat belts are anchored directly to the seats, which are very strongly constructed. The SL has head and thorax side airbags in addition to the usual front pair. Mercedes claims it’s the world’s safest convertible and they won’t get much of an argument from me on that score.

2003 Mercedes-Benz SL55
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This much technology and performance doesn’t come cheaply and buyers should be prepared to ante up $165,000 for one of these beauties. Pricey it may be, but the car compares with the very best out there, including the Porsche 911 Turbo, the Ferrari 360 and the new Maserati coupe and convertible.

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