2003 Mercedes Benz SL500 Road Test

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Breep-breep breep-breep  breep-breep   “There goes theradar detector.  but obviously the 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’s bagged.”

Source: Classic Cars
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

For better or worse, this car certainly attracts attention.  Drivers jockeying for position in order to get a better look at this amazing car, people stopping in their tracks trying to see what it is.  Twice, I had to shoo people away from the car in a parking lot just so I could get in, but I’m polite about it and answer their questions.  I might even throw them a show by putting the top down.  It’s fun to be envied like that.  Watching the longing looks as I pull away.  They should only know 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 restyled Mercedes SL every day.  Redesigns for the SL happen maybe once every 10 to 12 years (the last one was in 1990), so when they come out with a new one, the designers make sure that the styling will look fresh and impress 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 since its birth in 1954. The SL series came to life as the 300SL which is considered by some automotive historians to be one of the most beautiful cars ever made.  The 300SL was available as a Roadster and a wild Gull-wing coupe that stole the show in New York when it was introduced.  That first Generation car was sold until 1964 when it was replaced by a new model that lasted until 1971.  The third generation stayed around the longest, lasting until 1989, when the 4th generation arrived and stayed with us until 2002.  That brings us to this 5th generation car that carries on 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’s absolutely the most important thing here is to slap the Valentine1 radar detector back in the windshield, pop you in the passenger seat with me (sorry, I can’t let you drive, I have to do that myself, but I’ll be sure to tell you how it feels) and get this baby back on the road.

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

The seats are super comfortable and supportive on trips long and short.  Three memory settings are available for both the driver and passenger.  There is storage aplenty with covered, flip-out compartments in each door and in the front of each seat, a generous glove compartment in the dash and a two-level compartment in the console.  Behind the seats are two covered compartments with one side housing the 6-disk CD changer with room to spare for a stack of CDs.  These rear compartments are large enough to swallow a 12 volt car battery.

The climate control panel is easy to understand and use, with cleverly designed dials and buttons that allow for fully automatic control or any combination of manual control.  Only the Command navigation system left something to be desired.  Mercedes still hasn’t gone to a DVD-based navigation system, which means that you need an assortment of CDs for 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 trunk holds 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 and acceleration either.  But what is really amazing is that this car gives you these great handling attributes without sacrificing an excellent ride.  As that TV show says… “How’d they do that??” The answer is in 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, when you 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 exact proportions required to slow the car in keeping with the driver’s wishes.

But why 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 by regulating pressure on individual wheels in order to keep the car on the exact course that 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 brake very quickly, the system assumes that there may be an impending emergency and readies itself by applying additional pressure to move the brake pads lightly against the discs, skimming them.  This action clears any moisture off the rotors and reduces reaction time for the pads to 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 can detect when there is excessive moisture in the air and move the pads closer to the discs in order to keep the system dry and ready.  There is a backup master cylinder should the system experience problems, but with the amount of engineering that Mercedes invested in the reliability of this system, my guess is that they never expect this backup system to be used in the 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 this car’s wings.  Engine sounds fabulous at speed and is like music to my ears, especially as the speedometer swings toward the righthalf of the dial and… breep-breep  breep-breep  breep-breep… Oh oh.

How would I improve this car?

How does theSL500 fit your driving style?

Conservative drivers will experience total control and have a feeling of security that can’t be matched by any other car, for anyprice. You will find yourself making excuses to go out and drive somewhere.

Sporty drivers will love the effortless power, flat cornering and superb brakes. This is the ultimate expression of a sports car when comfort is as important as performance.

Fast drivers will kick themselves for not waiting for the SL55 AMG with its 465+ HP Supercharged engine and other performance stuff that will make grown men who can’t afford such an exotic toy 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 to add the cost of a C-Class sedan to get the performance.


Engine Type5.0 liter Aluminum 90-degree V8 Engine, Chain-driven single overhead camshaft per cylinder bank, twin sparkplug, three valves per cylinder
Horsepower302 @ 5,600 RPM
Torque339 @ 2,700 – 4,250 RPM
Fuel RecommendedPremium 91 Octane Unleaded.
TransmissionFive Speed Electronic Automatic with driver-adaptive shift logic & Touch Shift manual control
Tires255/45ZR17  (Sport package: 255/45ZR18 Front, 285/35ZR18 Rear)
Overall Length178.5″
Turning Diameter36.2 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight4,045
Fuel Tank21.13 Gals
Miles Per GallonN/A
Acceleration 0 to 606.1 Seconds
Base Sticker Price$86,000 + $665 destination charge

Standard Equipment
Mercedes Benz SL500 Rear Wheel Drive Luxury Sports Car

Major Available Options

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