Overview

The Mercedes-Benz SL offers major-league performance and luxury. It's one of the most beautiful cars sold today. Slide into the cockpit, belt up, press the button on the console and 16 seconds later the power-retractable roof switches the SL from the quiet comfort of a luxury coupe to the open-air fun of a roadster. The seats are comfortable and the interior is luxurious.

Each new year seems to bring a more powerful and exotic variation of this sinuous, sensuous roadster. The current range debuted as the 2003 SL500, powered by a 5.0-liter V8 engine. The magnificent twin-turbo, twelve-cylinder SL600 followed for 2004, along with the high-performance supercharged V8 SL55 AMG. Now comes the mightiest SL yet: The 2005 Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG with an aggressively turbocharged V12 that develops 604 whopping horsepower and a mountainous 738 pound-feet of torque.

In addition to power, every SL is packed with leading-edge technology to keep it safe and controllable. Every SL comes standard with traction control, electronic stability control, electronic brake distribution and brake assist. The electronically controlled ABC active suspension greatly reduces the roll and pitch for improved grip. We've driven various SL models at Hockenheim (a race track in Germany), at Road America (a road racing circuit in Wisconson), at Milan Dragway in Michigan, and for hundreds of road miles, and we are continually amazed at their graceful high-speed behavior and race-level performance.

Model Lineup

The 2005 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class includes four models: SL500 with its powerful V8; the luxurious and extremely powerful SL600 with its twin-turbo V12; the ultra high-performance SL55 AMG with its supercharged V8; and the new SL65 AMG. All come loaded with everything a driver and one passenger need for grand touring, from Bose stereo to beautiful interior decor.

The SL500 ($89,900) comes with a 5.0-liter V8 engine and a seven-speed automatic transmission and the ABC active suspension. The SL500 has more standard equipment than just about any other two-seater in the world today.

The SL600 ($127,500) uses a 5.5-liter V12 with twin turbochargers and five-speed automatic. It's equipped with unique leather upholstery, bi-xenon headlamps, an integrated Motorola telephone with voice control and a six-disc CD changer.

The SL55 AMG ($121,500) features a 5.4-liter supercharged V8 and five-speed automatic. Brakes are upgraded and the suspension re-programmed. Specific AMG upholstery highlights the interior.

The SL65 AMG ($179,000) comes with a twin-turbocharged 6.0-liter V12, a five-speed automatic, upgraded wheels and tires and brakes. Again, some interior and exterior trim is unique.

Options for all four models include Parktronic parking distance warning system ($1,080), Distronic radar-based cruise control ($3,070) that keeps a preset distance between the SL and the car ahead, a tire-pressure monitoring system ($660), Keyless Go ($1,060), and a Panoramic Roof ($1,880). Bi-Xenon headlamps ($770), the voice-control phone ($1,450), and other luxuries from the V12 models can be added to the V8 models. And all but the SL65 AMG are available with Designo color and trim schemes ($6,925-$7,725).

Walkaround

The Mercedes-Benz SL is surely one of the most beautiful cars produced today. From the jutting chin of its front bumper to its four-eyed headlamps; from its racy front fender air intakes to the sexy shoulders over its rear tires, the SL is not only the style leader for Mercedes-Benz, but for the entire high-performance roadster segment.

Since 1957, when the iconic Gullwing Coupe was replaced by a new 300SL Roadster, the flagship two-seater Mercedes has been completely re-engineered only four times. The company says that the current SL pays homage to its 50-year history while offering a new interpretation of roadster excitement. The air inlets in the front fenders are inspired by the original 300SL of 1954, with narrow, wing-like chrome gills echoed in the hood. The four-eye headlamp pattern has the two lamps on each side melding into one another. They represent the latest in lighting technology with a circular Fresnel lens that concentrates the light emitted by the standard xenon low beams.

From the side, the rising beltline contributes to the car's rake, and continues the wedge theme established by the 350SL in 1972. At the rear, the triangular taillights use 27 LED bulbs designed to illuminate more quickly.

The SL65 AMG is distinguished from other current SLs by its large below-the-bumper air intake, sculpted side skirts, 19-inch AMG wheels, and "V12 Biturbo" lettering on its front fenders.

Interior Features

The interior design of the SL is unique even in the world of Mercedes-Benz, differing significantly from the company's famous sedans and even its stylish, ultra-luxury CL coupes. Two large round pods carry the primary instruments, using smart, colorful purple graphics shared by no other Mercedes. The instrument panel and center console are well organized and feature the Mercedes COMAND screen that operates the sound system, navigation, and telephone, with redundant controls on the steering wheel. Below center, just ahead of the shifter, are the ventilation controls, similar in style to the twin round controls used in the M-Class SUVs.

The leather-covered seats are supportive and superbly comfortable. They're larger and more sumptuous than those in previous-generation SLs, and Mercedes says they'll adjust for the 95th percentile body type. Dynamic multi-contour seats are available that give a continuous massage. Also available are seats with active ventilation. The relatively low seating position in the SL can tire the legs on daylong trips, something we discovered on a drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in the SL600's 12-way multi-contour seats with ventilation. It seemed more comfortable than a Cadillac XLR or Corvette, however, because you don't feel like you're sitting on the ground. Visibility is better from the SL as well. Everything is trimmed in sumptuous leather and rich wood. Even the headliner is nicely trimmed in suede-like material.

Whether the top is up or down, there isn't much trunk space, but we found the trunk system works well with a few small bags that maximize the space, offering plenty of luggage room for a long weekend. Also, the compartments behind the bucket seats will hold a good amount of stuff and are lockable. The SL offers 10.2 cubic feet of trunk space with the top up, 7.3 cubic feet with the top down.

The SL is not whisper quiet. There's enough road noise to compete with the stereo in the small cabin. Drop the top and the sound system compensates automatically for the increased road noise. Mercedes worked long and hard to ensure that you can still hold a normal conversation with the top down and the side windows lowered, even at high road speeds.

Keyless Go uses an electronically coded card to replace the normal fob-and-key arrangement. As long as you have Keyless Go in your pocket or purse, you simply walk up to the car and touch the door handle, which automatically unlocks; then, once seated, you touch the knob on top of the shifter to start (or stop) the engine. Pretty handy when you've got a double armload of groceries or dry cleaning. No need to struggle to get that key out.

Passive safety features include frontal and side-impact head-and-thorax airbags as well as knee airbags. A rollover protection bar automatically snaps up if its controlling computer senses that the car is tipping over.

Driving Impressions

To drive the Mercedes SL is to experience a level of performance and technical sophistication found in few other cars at any price. Best of all, this sophistication can be enjoyed without having to consult the owner's manual. Just put it in Drive and let the systems work their magic.

The V8 engine in the SL500 is strong, smooth and quiet. Acceleration is rapid for a 4000-pound car with 302 horsepower and plenty for most of us most of the time. The SL500 is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in about 6.1 seconds. That's quick, but not as quick as a Porsche 911 Carrera or Chevrolet Corvette. Peak torque of 339 pound-feet is available from 2700 to 4250 rpm, and 295 pound-feet is on tap from just 2000 rpm. That flexibility gives a quick response at all engine speeds. Top speed on all SL models is electronically limited to 155 mph.

The V12 in the SL600 is just amazing. The SL600 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 4.5 seconds. Even more impressive is the performance of the V12 once you're rolling. Its torque means instant acceleration whenever you want it. We switched off the ESP a few times and got the impression that this car could break the rear tires loose at 40 mph, not something we wanted to see on an on-ramp. Best to leave ESP on for its traction control. At idle, the V12 sounds busy like a lot of valves and pistons working. The silky-smooth 5.5-liter V12 employs twin turbochargers to produce 493 horsepower. The V12 delivers its peak horsepower at 5000 rpm rather than at the SL55's 6100 rpm, giving the SL600 better real-world throttle response. More to the point, the V12 generates a staggering 590 pound-feet of torque. The V12 engine is a bit heavier than the supercharged V8, but it more than makes up for its weight with electric-motor smoothness throughout the rpm range.

The SL55 AMG's supercharged V8 is extremely strong, but it's also smooth and quiet. This car's acceleration is breathtaking, with 493 horsepower motivating just 4200 pounds. The SL55 AMG is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in about 4.5 seconds. Peak torque of 516 pound-feet is available from 2750 rpm. The V12-powered SL65 AMG will scream from 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds.

The SL65 AMG starts with a bored and stroked 6.0-liter V12 and then turns up the turbo boost from 1 atmosphere to 1.5 (that's from 14.5 psi to 22 psi). Forged pistons, a precision-balanced crankshaft, stronger bearings and oil-spray cooling all help deliver 604 horsepower and 738 pound-feet of torque. The SL65 AMG can accelerate from 0 to 60 in about 4.2 seconds.

The SpeedShift five-speed automatic transmission in the SL600, SL55, and SL65 is superb, with nearly imperceptible shifts up or down. Pulling the selector toward the left causes the transmission to shift down to the next gear. Or the driver can use shifter buttons on the steering wheel: right for up, left for down.

The seven-speed automatic in the SL500 keeps its engine humming closer to optimal rpm at all times. Mercedes-Benz claims the SL500 reaches 60 mph 0.3 seconds quicker than it would with the other models' five-speed. The seven-speed undoutbedly also contributes to the SL500's EPA rating of 16/23 city/highway, significantly better than any of its brethren.

ABC (for Automatic Body Control) active suspension lets the SL corner with authority, even though its tires are smaller than those on a 911, Corvette, or Viper. The computer controlled system uses a hydraulic piston above each spring to add stiffness as needed, reducing body roll by 68 percent. A Sport switch lets the driver limit body roll even further, eliminating 95 percent of it, while still delivering a silky smooth, quiet ride.

The SL roadster is packed with electronic wizardry that works amazingly well: electronic throttle control, antilock braking (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), electronic traction control and electronic stability control. These systems have been ad

Summary

The Mercedes-Benz SL is a superb high-performance sports car and a technological masterpiece. The SL models have little competition in their price class other than the Jaguar XKR roadster and Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet. They cost more than a BMW 645Ci, but deliver a superior driving experience and offer greater curb appeal. Assuming you can live with the small trunk, the SL is an outstanding car. It's beautiful to behold and a joy to drive.

Which model? Assuming we could afford it, the SL600 would be our choice for daily driving; it's rolling nirvana. On the other hand, we could live happily ever after in an SL500 if monthly payments were an important consideration; it's a fantastic car, and the phrase "sensible choice" never comes to mind when driving it. We love the AMG models for lapping a racing circuit, but they offer more performance than needed for socially responsible driving on public roads.

New Car Test Drive editor filed this report from Las Vegas; Jim McCraw contributed to this report.

Model Line Overview
Base Price (MSRP)
$89,900
Model lineup:
Mercedes-Benz SL500 ($89,900); SL55 AMG ($121,500); SL600 ($127,950); SL 65 AMG ($179,000)
Engines:
302-hp 5.0-liter sohc 24-valve V8; 493-hp 5.4-liter sohc 24-valve supercharged V8; 493-hp 5.5-liter sohc 36-valve twin-turbocharged V12; 604-hp 6.0-liter sohc 36-valve twin-turbocharged V12
Transmissions:
7-speed automatic; 5-speed automatic
Safety equipment (Standard):
ABS, EBD, Brake Assist, automatic slip control, electronic stability control, front and side airbags, BabySmart, automatic-adjusting head restraints, automatic pop-up roll bar, 3-point seatbelts with emergency tensioner retractors
Safety equipment (Optional):
tire pressure monitor
Basic warranty:
4 years/50,000 miles; Roadside Assistance
Assembled in:
Bremen, Germany
Specifications As Tested
Model tested (MSRP):
Mercedes-Benz SL600 ($127,500)
Standard equipment:
exclusive leather upholstery with wood trim, dual-zone automatic climate control w dust and pollen charcoal filter, wood/leather-trimmed steering wheel, four-spoke multi-function tilt/telescope steering wheel, wind deflector, power steering, power windows with express down, power locks, anti-theft system, cruise control, fog lamps, 3-button garage door control, illuminated glovebox with climate control, bi-xenon headlamps with heated washer/wiper, auto-dimming mirror, dual heated power outside mirrors with memory and left-side auto dimming, dual illuminated vanity mirrors, night security illumination, right footwell parcel net, 12-way power heated/ventilated seats with multi-contour seat backs, lumbar support and three-position memory, 8-speaker Bose AM/FM/6CD sound system with weatherband, Tele Aid with GPS, COMAND Navi/Audio system, Motorola V60i phone w voice control, satellite radio pre-wiring
Options as tested:
tire-pressure monitoring system ($660); Keyless Go ($1,060)
Destination charge:
720
Gas Guzzler Tax:
2600
Price as tested (MSRP)
$132,540
Layout:
rear-wheel drive
Engine:
5.5-liter sohc 36-valve twin-turbocharged V12
Horsepower (hp @ rpm):
493 @ 5000
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm):
590 @ 1800-3500
Transmission:
5-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy:
13/19 mpg.
Wheelbase:
100.8 in.
Length/width/height:
178.5/71.5/51.0 in.
Track, f/r:
61.4/60.5 in.
Turning circle:
36.2 ft.
Seating capacity:
2
Head/hip/leg room, f:
37.7/56.9/42.9 in.
Head/hip/leg room, m:
N/A
Head/hip/leg room, r:
N/A
Cargo volume:
10.2 cu. ft.
Payload:
N/A
Towing capacity:
N/A
Suspension F:
independent, four-link, hydrualic actuators over coil springs, anti-roll bar, gas-charged shock absorbers; active body control (ABC) suspension
Suspension R:
independent, five-link, hydraulic actuators over coil springs, anti-roll bar, gas-charged shock absorbers; active body control (ABC) suspension
Ground clearance:
6.0 in.
Curb weight:
4429 lbs.
Tires:
P255/40ZR18 front, P285/35ZR18 rear
Brakes, f/r:
electro-hydraulic disc/disc with ABS, EBD, Brake Assist in.
Fuel capacity:
21.1 gal.
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