2007 Mercedes-Benz SL; photo by Michael LaFave. Click image to enlarge
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By Chris Chase
Few cars can offer their drivers the “you’ve-made-it” status of the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class luxury sports car. I say drivers, not owners, for a couple of reasons: first, anyone who buys a 300-plus-horsepower car and doesn’t drive it is nuts, in my opinion. And second, you don’t have to own one of these cars to feel special in it: borrow one and drive it downtown on a Saturday night and I promise you, you’ll feel like a rock star.
The SL-Class was redesigned in 2003, and it was a welcome change after two generations’ worth of not-too-special-looking SLs. The fifth-generation’s smoother styling took the SL back to its roots, the gorgeous 300SL gullwing and convertible and 190SL convertible models sold from 1955 to 1963.
|Highs: Prestige, power and status|
|Lows: Expensive to buy and maintain, some reliability questions|
In 2003, the fifth-generation model debuted in SL500 and SL55 forms. The former was powered by a 5.0-litre V8 making 302 horsepower, and while the AMG-developed SL55’s supercharged 5.5-litre engine was notable enough for its 493 horsepower, it was the 516 lb-ft of torque that really impressed.
In 2004, the SL600 joined the line, boasting a turbocharged 5.5-litre engine that again made 493 horsepower while delivering 590 lb-ft of torque. Where 2003 models all used a five-speed automatic transmission, the 2004 version got a new seven-speed auto in the SL500.
2003 Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG; photo by Tony Whitney. Click image to enlarge
But wait – there’s more! In 2005, yet another model was added to the range, in the form of the SL65 AMG. This one got a turbocharged 6.0-litre V12 with 604 horsepower and a stump-pulling 738 lb-ft of torque.
In 2007, the base model became the SL550, thanks to a new 5.5-litre engine making 382 horsepower.
I don’t need to tell you that these big engines are anything but frugal at the pumps. In 2003, the SL500 was rated at 15.3 L/100 km (city) and 9.9 L/100 km (highway), while the SL55’s numbers were 17.3 L/100 km (city) and 10.9 L/100 km (highway).
The SL65 is the worst offender: in 2005, it was rated at 19 L/100 km (city) and 11.3 L/100 km (highway), and the SL600 was only marginally better.
2007 Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG; photo by Michael LaFave. Click image to enlarge
With all that power available under your right foot, you’d think it’d be easy to outrun any bad news, like poor reliability, but Consumer Reports suggests otherwise. They come right out and say that “recent models have been very unreliable.”
Mercedes-centric web forums aren’t much help. There are mentions here and there about how these cars’ complicated nature can make for expensive repairs, but most discussions range from questions about whether to buy this model versus that one, or which aftermarket wheels would look better on the car.
Short of any concrete issues to look out for, Consumer Reports’ data suggest that the SL’s main problems are electrical in nature, along with some minor engine and transmission niggles. Even body hardware gets Consumer Report’s dreaded black dot.
2003 Mercedes-Benz SL; photo by Tony Whitney. Click image to enlarge
The SL is one of Mercedes’ priciest models when new, and that’s something that carries over to the used market, too. Used values range from $49,400 for a 2003 SL500, to $187,825 for a 2007 SL65 AMG (which sold for a lofty $248,000 when new). Affordable is not a word that can be associated with these cars: a 2004 SL600 is still worth $77,600, a little more than 40 per cent of its $181,900 MSRP.
Altogether, the SL is a wonderful car in many respects. The key, as with many high-end cars like this, isn’t so much managing the purchase as it is being able to afford to keep it running when things go wrong. Lust after the SL all you want, but spend wisely if you decide you must own one.
There are several forums dedicated to the SL on the web. There’s MercedesForums.net, neither of which are very busy. BenzWorld.org has a forum dedicated specifically to the fifth-gen SL, and it’s quite busy; it’s the same thing over at MBWorld.org. The forums at are pretty busy too, but the layout here is old-fashioned and can be frustrating to navigate.and
Transport Canada Recall Number: 2005094; Units affected: 9,256
2003-2005: On certain vehicles, the Sensotronic Brake Control (SBC) unit may contain a pump piston which is out of permissible tolerances. Also, vibrations within the electrical connector may cause a loss of electrical continuity. Both conditions may result in the system reverting to hydraulic function mode. A loss of brake power assist would result in increased pedal effort and extended stopping distance. Correction: Dealers will inspect and, if required, replace the SBC pump unit.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004210; Units affected: 6,579
2003-2004: The electronic monitoring system of the Sensotronic Brake Control (SBC) is designed to monitor the pressure gradient within the high pressure line of the brake system. If an unacceptable pressure gradient is detected, the system will switch, as it is designed to do, into the hydraulic function mode. DaimlerChrysler AG has determined that in certain instances, if vehicles are not routinely serviced and have extremely high mileage combined with a high number of brake actuations or a high brake actuation frequency, the pump motor of the SBC may run out of permissible tolerances, thereby triggering the hydraulic function mode. Correction: Dealers will re-program the SBC hydraulic unit. A software update will provide a clear maintenance notice on the vehicle display and assure continuous pump speed operation within tolerances.
Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.
For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.