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Mercedes-Benz SL 500 review (2002-2006)
Bodystyle: 2-door sports
Engine: 5.0 litres V8
Fuel type: Petrol
Transmission: 5-speed auto; rear drive
Date of test: August 2002
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What is it?
The SL is the sporting flagship of the Mercedes range - at least until the McLaren-Mercedes SLR supercar appears in 2003. It has been around in its various guises for several decades and this, the latest SL, is the most accomplished yet - blending surprising agility with supreme comfort. The SL moniker might stand for 'Sports Light' but all the technology on board this stylish machine (not to mention the folding hardtop) means it's more of a heavyweight than its name suggests. Power comes from a 5.0-litre V8 engine mated to one of the smoothest shifting five-speed automatic gearboxes we've ever had the pleasure to experience. You can control it manually too if you wish, allowing you to revel in the astonishing performance on offer from this smart roadster/coupe.
Where does it fit?
The SL comfortably straddles two different markets as it is both a roadster and a coupe. That's thanks to the remarkable folding hardtop - which is a marvel of engineering packaging and a joy to watch in operation. Pricewise the SL is slightly more expensive than rivals like the Porsche 911, Jaguar XKR or the Maserati Spyder, though none of these cars offer the folding hardtop of the SL. A phenomenally well-rounded machine, it's able to cosset on a long motorway drive or delight on a challenging cross country thrash, that alone making the SL500 Mercedes' best SL to date.
Is it for you?
If you've got a spare £70,000 burning a hole in your pocket the answer is undoubtedly yes. Rarely do you find a car that can do such a convincing job for so many different people. It's a sports car, a comfortable long distance cruiser, and one which can be enjoyed year round either open or closed. It's easy to drive quickly, with numerous driver aids aiding progress, yet despite the technology, which includes world firsts like brake-by-wire, the SL remains thoroughly enjoyable drive. It's just as comfortable cruising too. With Mercedes losing its rather 'old-money' image and appealing to ever-younger customers, the SL really is a car for everybody. That's providing you can afford it - and get your hands on one.
What does it do well?
Everything. The SL is remarkable in that it is so complete a package. Provided you don't want to carry more than one passenger, or drive across muddy fields, the SL is an enormously capable machine. There's even a decent sized boot that'll carry the obligatory two sets of golf clubs - roof up or down. Indeed when the roof's folded you can lift it by a foot to access the luggage space underneath. Supremely well engineered, fun to drive, comfortable and fantastically styled, you could want for little else. The gearbox is super smooth, the 5.0-litre engine's power ample and the ride and handling immensely surefooted. Throw in all the latest safety equipment and the SL really is a league ahead of its competition.
What doesn't it do well?
It's so good at everything yet it doesn't really excel in one particular area. As such it can feel a touch soulless, in a market dominated by characterful cars like the 911 and the XKR. You'll have serious difficulty getting your hands on one too - there's a huge waiting list such is the SL's popularity. Inside, despite the neat design the switchgear doesn't have the over-engineered feel of the previous SL, and use its performance and you'll struggle to make double figures on the economy front. Seriously though, there's very little to criticise on the SL - except that we all can't afford to have one.
What's it like to live with?
Mercedes dealerships are fairly prevalent, however recent changes in the dealer network may cause some disruption to the usual excellent standard of service. Other than that, SL ownership should be painless - though you'll attract plenty of envious looks. The folding hardtop means it should be safe to leave out on the street overnight, while also meaning that it's an open-topped car that can be comfortably used all-year round. The creamy smooth automatic transmission is a delight, and the 310bhp 5.0-litre engine pulls the SL along easily with its ample torque. It's about as desirable an ownership proposition as you could possibly hope to have.
Would we buy it?
It's unlikely that you've read this far and not already guessed our answer to the above question. If not, it's an emphatic yes. There are few cars that so comprehensively cover all bases in their market place. Certainly there are rivals out there that offer more outright sporting appeal, but in every other way the SL is unarguably a supreme all-round performer. Besides, there's an AMG version for those wanting an SL that can crack 200mph. Limited availability means it remains desirable, the hardtop gives it all-year round usability and security, and it looks fantastic.
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