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2003 Mercedes Benz SL500 Road Test

By CharlesOfria

Category: $85,000+ Luxury Sports Car
Who should buy this car: A person looking for the ultimate status symbol with a sports car look and a luxury car ride 
Comparable cars in this class: Jaguar XKR, Lexus SC430, Maserati Spyder

reep-breep breep-breep  breep-breep   "There goes theradar detector.  but obviouslythe guy behind me doesn't have one or he wouldn't be gaining on me.  Ah,he's slowing down... just to give me a thumbs up?!?  C'mon slow down..there's.... breep-breep  breep-breep  breep-breep... too late, he'sbagged."   

For better or worse, this car certainly attractsattention.  Drivers jockeying for position in order to get a better look atthis amazing car, people stopping in their tracks trying to see what itis.  Twice, I had to shoo people away from the car in a parking lot just so Icould get in, but I'm polite about it and answer their questions.  I mighteven throw them a show by putting the top down.  It's fun to be envied likethat.  Watching the longing looks as I pull away.  They should onlyknow that I'm just a lowly journalist and could never afford a car that costs$90,000 and only has two seats. ("But I won't tell")  I mean, let's face it, you don't see a completely restyledMercedes SL every day.  Redesigns for the SL happen maybe once every 10 to 12years (the last one was in 1990), so when they comeout with a new one, the designers make sure that the styling will look fresh andimpress for the next decade.  And Mercedes designers didn't miss a beat with this car. Top up or top down, it is an eye popper.

The 2003 SL500 is only the fifth new car to wear the SL moniker sinceits birth in 1954. The SL series came to lifeas the 300SL which is considered by some automotive historians to be oneof the most beautiful cars ever made.  The 300SL was available as a Roadster and a wild Gull-wing coupe that stole theshow in New York when it was introduced.  That first Generation car wassold until 1964 when it was replaced by a new model that lasted until 1971.  The thirdgeneration stayed around the longest, lasting until 1989, when the 4th generationarrived and stayed with us until 2002.  That brings us to this 5th generationcar that carrieson the tradition of ground-breaking technology the SL is famous for. We'll spend some time culling through all this new technical stuff, but what'sabsolutely the most important thing here is to slap the Valentine1 radardetector back inthe windshield, pop you in the passenger seat with me (sorry, I can't let youdrive, I have to do that myself, but I'll be sure to tell you how it feels) andget this baby back on the road.

First step in my ritual for this car is to put my cap on so that my comb-overdoesn't rear its ugly head with the top down.  Next, I make sure there are some bystanderswatching while I activate the top-down switch sending the roof into the trunk in a tightly orchestrated ballet ofservos and motors that puts on a show that I could almost charge admission for.  Finally, I buckle myseatbelt and I'm off looking for a nice stretch of winding road.

The seats are super comfortable and supportive on trips long andshort.  Three memory settings are available for both the driver andpassenger.  There is storage aplenty with covered, flip-out compartments in each doorand in the front of each seat, a generous glove compartment in the dashand a two-level compartment in the console.  Behind the seatsare two covered compartments with one side housing the 6-disk cd changer with room tospare for a stack of CDs.  These rear compartments are large enough toswallow a 12 volt car battery.

The climate control panel is easy to understand and use, withcleverly designed dials and buttons that allow for fully automatic control or anycombination of manual control.  Only the Command navigation system leftsomething to be desired.  Mercedes still hasn't gone to a DVD basednavigation system, which meansthat you need an assortment of CDsfor full coverage.

The most visible technological wizardry has to be the mechanism for the retractable hardtop.  This crowd pleaser will take the SL from an open roadster to a closed hardtop in a mere 16 seconds.  Opening it up again is just as quick, but the surprising part is that when the top is down, there is still plenty of usable space in the trunk.  With the top up, the trunkholds 10.3 cubic feet. With the top down the space is reduced by only 3 cubic feet to 7.3 cubic feet, an amazing feat of engineering.

The system only works while the car is stationary.  To put the top down, the driver holds the switch causing the following sequence to take place:  The windows retract, the trunk unlatches and opens to the rear,  flaps on the forward edge of the trunk lid deploy to cover the holes left by the roof.   The roof then unlatches and begins its lift off,  as the roof folds in half like a clamshell, the rear window flips around so the curve of the glass winds up nestled in the curve of the front part of the roof.  With the roof stowed in the trunk, the lid closes and latches down, 14... 15... 16... ready to roll.

If you need access to the trunk with the top down, just open the lid normally from the rear.  You will see the roof assembly forming what looks like a second trunk lid.  Reach in and press a button and the folded roof lifts up about a foot to give you access to the trunk well.

Another button on the console lets you deploy the roll bar which gives the SL a racier look.  There is a screen that attaches to the roll bar to cut down on wind buffeting. but I didn't like the visibility to the rear with the screen up.  Since the real reason for a roll bar is to protect the occupants in the event of a roll over, the bar is designed to deploy automatically in the event the system detects excessive g-forces that indicate a potential safety concern.  In that case, the bar will pop up in just three tenths of a second.  

Roll bar aside, I can't imagine any situation where this car is in danger of flipping.  Cornering is absolutely flat on this Benz. No dive or squat on braking andacceleration either.  Butwhat is really amazing is that this car gives you these great handling attributes withoutsacrificing an excellent ride.  As that TV show says... "How'd they do that??" The answer isin the Active Body Control (ABC) computer that automatically controls the Electrohydraulic Active Suspension.  This computer automatically adjusts the hydraulic units on each wheel with split-second precision to tailor the ride and keep this SL on an even keel.

Envision a brick laying down on a hard surface.  Grab the brick with your hand and slide it around.  Push it forward fast, then stop it fast.  Now make a few sharp turns with it.  Notice how the brick doesn't lean, dive or squat at all.  It just lays there like... well... a brick  That's how this car feels when you toss it around a winding mountain road.  It just stays flat, stable and poised as though there was no suspension at all.  But you know that the suspension is working because the irregularities of the road seem to get absorbed as though they weren't there.  Just a smooth, steady ride with absolute control.

Quite unlike a brick, this new SL feels downright nimble and light despite its more than two tons of heft. I felt secure driving it down a poorly paved winding road with curves that were banked the wrong way at speeds that made a couple of birds loose some feathers trying to get out of my way.   The standard 17 inch tires did their part by delivering a smooth, quiet ride and excellent grip.  I can't imagine how the 18 inch performance tires on the Sport Package could be that much better.

The brake pedal has a great feel and this car stops like the dickens as a wayward squirrel that crossed my path came to appreciate. The feel is not at all artificial, even though in reality it is.  Unlike any other car, whenyou step on the brake pedal you are sending a signal to a computer which can sense the amount of pressure you are applying as well as how fast your foot is moving.  The computer then sends a signal to four fast-acting valves which apply the brakes at the individual wheels in the exactproportions required to slow the car in keeping with the driver's wishes.

Butwhy move to such a fancy system when the old system served us so well? This new Electronic Brake System can react faster and more intelligently byregulating pressure on individual wheels in order to keep the car on the exact coursethat the driver is steering toward while stopping in the shortest time possible. If the system detects that the driver's foot has moved from the gas to the brakevery quickly, the system assumes that there may be an impending emergency andreadies itself by applying additional pressure to move the brake padslightly against the discs, skimming them.  This action clears any moisture off therotors and reduces reaction time for the padsto actually stop the car.   On the highway,pre-loading the brakes in this manner helps to reduce stopping distance by about three percent.

In normal driving, the system candetect when there is excessive moisture in the air and move the pads closer tothe discs in order to keep the system dry and ready.  There is abackup master cylinder should the system experience problems, but withthe amount of engineering that Mercedes invested in the reliability of thissystem, my guess is that they never expect this backup system to be used inthe real world.

The engine for the SL500 is the tried and true Mercedes five-liter V8 with twin spark plugs and 3 valves per cylinder.  This velvety smooth engine produces 302 horsepower and 339 lbs. ft. of torque.  Enough for a 0 to 60 romp in a quick, but not breathtaking 6.1 seconds.  If you want breathtaking, order the SL55 AMG version instead.  This beast will spit out upwards of 465 horsepower from its supercharged 5.5 liter engine and do the 0 to 60 blast in the mid 4 second playground.  All this without loosing the luxury ride or the automatic transmission.  I'll be sure to keep you posted when it arrives.

I know this great back road that is perfect for stretching thiscar's wings.  Engine sounds fabulous at speed and islike music to my ears, especially as the speedometer swings toward the righthalf of the dial and... breep-breep  breep-breep  breep-breep... Oh oh.

Do you have any feedback on the Mercedes SL?  Any opinions orexperiences of your own?  We would love to hear from you. 
Clickhere to send us your comments

Clickhere for more pictures of the SL500

How would I improve this car?

  • Switch to a DVD based Navigation system and add an in-dash 6-disk Changer

  • By me personally driving it around the country in my own proprietary way in order to break it in properly.  I figure that, to properly break it in would take around 10,000 to 15,000 miles.  If you have just purchased a new SL500 and need this service done, just contact me and I will tell you where to drop your car off.

How does theSL500 fit yourdriving style? 

Conservative drivers willexperience total control and have afeeling of security that can't be matched by any other car, for anyprice.  You will find yourself making excuses to go out and drivesomewhere.

Sporty drivers will love the effortlesspower, flat cornering and superb brakes. This is the ultimate expression of asports car when comfort is as important as performance.

Fast driverswill kick themselves for not waiting for the SL55 AMG with its 465+ HPSupercharged engine and other performance stuff that will make grown men who can't afford such an exotictoy cry.  So what if this package puts the price of admission north of$120,000.  If you can afford 90 grand for the base SL500, you only have toadd the cost of a C-Class sedan to get the performance you really want.


Engine Type 5.0 liter Aluminum 90-degree V8 Engine, Chain-driven single overhead camshaft per cylinder bank, twin sparkplug, three valves per cylinder 
Horsepower 302 @ 5,600 RPM
Torque 339 @ 2,700 - 4,250 RPM
Fuel Recommended Premium 91 Octane Unleaded.
Transmission Five Speed Electronic Automatic with driver-adaptive shift logic & Touch Shift manual control
Tires  255/45ZR17  (Sport package: 255/45ZR18 Front, 285/35ZR18 Rear) 
Overall Length 178.5"
Wheelbase 100.8
Width 71.9"
Turning Diameter 36.2 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight 4,045
Fuel Tank 21.13 Gals
Miles Per Gallon N/A 
Acceleration 0 to 60 6.1 Seconds
Base Sticker Price $86,000 + $665 destination charge

Standard Equipment
Mercedes Benz SL500 Rear Wheel Drive Luxury Sports Car

  • 5.0 liter Aluminum 90-degree V8 Engine, 302 HP, 339 lb.-ft. of torque

  • Five-speed electronic automatic transmission

  • Active suspension system

  • Dual-zone climate control with Micron air filtration

  • Leather and Wood Interior

  • 12 way power front seats, both with 3-position memory

  • Heated seats

  • Power tilt/telescoping steering wheel

  • Bose premium audio system with 6-disk CD Changer behind seat

  • Power Windows with Express Up & Down

  • Automatic headlamps

  • Auto-Dimming Rear & Driver Side Mirrors

  • Integrated Garage Door Opener

  • CD Navigation System

  • SOS button for Tele Aid

  • Electronic Stability Program (ESP)

  • Smart Restraint Systems

  • BabySmart automatic child seat recognition system

  • Door-mounted side airbags

  • Knee airbag for driver

  • ABS anti-lock braking system with Electronic Brake Control and Brake Assist

Major Available Options

  • Sport Package: 18" AMG Monoblock Alloy Wheels, High-Performance Tires, AMG Designed Sculpted Front Air Dam, AMG Designed Side Skirts and Rear Apron

  • Bi-Xenon Headlamps

  • Distronic Radar Cruise Control

  • Keyless Go

  • Panorama Transparent Roof with Sunshade

  • Parktronic

  • Wood Package: Wood/Leather Shift Knob, Wood/Leather Steering Wheel

  • Comfort Package: Active Ventilated Seats, Driver Multi-Contour Seatback, Passenger Multi-Contour Seatback

  • Tire-Pressure Monitoring System

For more information on the SL500, visit

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