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Mercedes-Benz SL review (2001-2008)
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For many people, the Mercedes SL is an iconic choice to rival the finest from Ferrari, Porsche or Aston Martin. Just four versions of the `sport light' have been produced since the original 300SL Gullwing was immortalised by '50s film stars like Sophia Loren, and each has helped define their age. The last version was introduced in 1989 and quickly established itself as the preferred choice of professional racing drivers, as well as providing the personal transport for JR Ewing.
Twelve years is a long time in motoring though, and by the end of its life, the outgoing model was starting to show its age. Time had moved on and a new, more contemporary SL was required. The gestation period of the car you see on this page actually began in mid-1996, when a selection of Mercedes' finest designers were airlifted to the company's California studios and, in the words of Brit Steve Mattin, were instructed to `live, eat and breathe SL.' The production reality was eventually based on one of Mattin's early California sketches.
After its angular, simplistic predecessor, the new car's bold curves provide something of a culture shock. Mattin explains that the design team wanted to invoke the SL's heritage but in doing so also create a thoroughly modern design with `a bit of sex appeal.' Some of the detailing, like the fins over the air intake on the side of the car, is a clear reminder of the original Gullwing, but the new car also succeeds in asserting its own identity. And while elements of it appear a little fussy - such as the bonnet mounted fins - the overall effect is undoubtedly successful.
Some design constraints, admits Mattin, were imposed by the need to provide space for a Vario roof. The old car had a fabric hood, with a bolt on hard top available for winter months, but after the smaller SLK revealed the benefits and feasibility of a folding hardtop, any return to traditional methods `would have been a step back.' The new SL therefore uses a development of the SLK's Vario roof. At the touch of a button, it folds, flips and descends into the boot. The process takes just 16 seconds, compared with 25sec for the SLK. Even with the roof down there's an adequate 206 litres of luggage, which increases to 288 (317) with the roof erect. Both these figures can be increased by 29 litres if you opt to replace the spare wheel with a Tirefit foam system.
This is sufficient space for his and hers golf clubs and Mercedes has also solved the problem of gaining access to the boot when the roof is down. By pressing a button on the boot ledge, an `Easy Pack' system raises the folded roof by 20 degrees and enables access to the luggage below. It's wonderfully indulgent and typical of the attention to detail inherent in this car. Shortly after it goes on sale in the UK next May, there'll also be a `Panoramic' full length glass sunroof to create an open air feeling even when the roof's down.
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This option is also certain to draw even greater attention to the car's interior. Mattin explains that in an open top car it's even more crucial that the exterior and interior `harmonise together.' The result is more swoops and curves on a heavily stylised fascia. It's more welcoming and arguably more cosseting than the old car's more angular, slab-sided design. There's a heavy reliance on natural materials including wood, leather and aluminium and it's pleasing to report that, in contrast to other recent Mercedes, the quality is excellent. The seats are immensely comfortable, move every which way electrically and come with a massage feature that causes air pockets to stimulate different parts of the body. The latter feels peculiar at first, but familiarity breeds content.
Such luxuries have become central to the SL experience over the past couple of decades. In contrast to more driver-focussed rivals such as the Porsche 911, the Mercedes has posed more as a sporting limousine. The new model seeks to continue this trend, but employs a semi-active suspension system called Active Body Control (ABC) to effect a better compromise between competing intentions. A combination of computer controlled hydraulics and more conventional springs and dampers seeks to offer a supple low speed ride with taut body control at higher speeds. The system was introduced in the CL coupe, but it has been employed to better effect in the SL. Trundling through the streets of Florence where the SL was launched, its low speed ride feels a match for the sublime S-class limousine and this impression was compounded on the Autostrada, where motorway expansion joints struggled to permeate the hushed refinement of the SL's cabin.
Away from the highway and on to more twisting, undulating blacktop, the SL must show the other side of its character. Asked to play sports car, the Mercedes responds with crushing competence. This is a vast car and one is always aware of its width, but it succeeds in feeling considerably more agile than the smaller SLK. Its poise and composure are first class and the exceptional grip provided by the vast rubber is compounded by numerous electronic safety systems designed to keep the show on the road. The pioneering fly-by-wire braking system also provides impressive stopping power. It's unquestionably entertaining and yet it still fails to enthuse the driver in the manner of a 911. This impression is perpetuated by the steering, which, while well weighted and pleasingly linear in response, fails to communicate with the driver like a Porsche helm. The SL's response to turn-in is also a little soft when compared with its more sporting rivals. Mercedes will be hoping to answer many of these complaints when the more overtly sporting AMG SL55 is launched next June.
The AMG version will be powered by a supercharged 5.5-litre V8 delivering 476bhp, while the standard SL500 utilises a 5.0-litre V8 offering 306bhp and 339lb ft of torque. It's a revised version of that found in the S-class saloon and delivers effortless punch with a subdued, creamy burble. Mated to an excellent five-speed automatic gearbox, performance is no match for a 911, but it's pleasingly rapid - 0-62mph takes 6.3sec and top speed is limited to 155mph. By the end of next year, an entry level V6 version will join the 500SL, while a flagship V12 arrives in 2003.
The big V8 also contributes to an exceptional level of refinement. With the roof down, buffeting has been reduced so that even the most elaborate of bouffant hairstyles will remain firmly in place. Roof, up the SL suffers little wind noise and the peace is interrupted only by the melodious tunes of the engine. Needless to say, there are also none of the structural wobbles associated with some of the Mercedes' less sophisticated rivals, such as the Jaguar XKR Convertible.
UK deliveries of the new 500SL start next April and although the price is yet to be finally confirmed, it's likely to be £65,340, which represents only a minor increase compared with its predecessor. However, such is the SL's popularity that the order books are already full until the end of 2003 at the earliest, despite Mercedes' plans to import 1800 cars that year.
Customers bold enough to place their name on the waiting list before they had driven, or in some cases even seen the car, will not be disappointed. The new SL is a brilliant reinterpretation of an iconic theme. It's dramatically better than rivals like the Jaguar XKR Convertible and although the Porsche 911 Convertible is more enthusing drive, it cannot match the Merc's depth of quality. It may have been twelve years in the making, but the wait was worth it. The legend is safe in these hands.
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