by John Matras
Still classy after all these years.
Base Price $81,695
As Tested $90,458
The Mercedes-Benz SL500 has presence. No matter the neighborhood, an SL is a sign of good taste. It is an expression of conspicuous consumption.
The SL500 is something of a paradox, however. It is big and heavy and offers a luxurious ambiance, but its stance is one of sportiness. A new Sport Package adds to this. So some may accuse this car of having a confusing role. Those who do have probably not spent much time in an SL500. It is, in fact, an incredible car for a top-down summer drive on a winding country road. And there's nothing confusing about that.
The Mercedes-Benz SL is dominated by an expansive hood leading down to a grille accented by a giant three-pointed star. The styling has been revised for 1999: New SLK-style mirrors, body-color door handles and side molding, new taillights, a new rear valence and a new tailpipe design all give the SL models a sportier stance.
For 1999, the SL500 is powered by a new 5.0-liter version of the new-generation 4.3-liter V8 introduced in the hot E430 and C43 models last year. Underneath the attractive plastic covers is a single overhead-cam engine that uses the Mercedes-Benz twin-spark, 3-valve-per-cylinder technology that reduces start-up emissions with no loss of horsepower compared to 4-valve designs. The post-combustion volume of exhaust is easily handled by the single exhaust valve. The two spark plugs can fire with a varied stagger-time difference between the two sparks -- depending on engine speed and load. As a result, the V-8 produces a peak output of 302 horsepower at 5600 rpm and a torque plateau of 339 foot-pounds from 2700 rpm to 4250 rpm. Maximum torque is less than before, but it makes the SL500 more responsive across the board and, per manufacturer's tests, significantly reduces the 0-60 mph acceleration to 6.1 seconds. It's cleaner too, certified as a California Low Emissions Vehicle and, according to Mercedes, is "performing at Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle levels." One can indulge him or herself without plundering the environment.
The SL500 has a fully independent suspension, with strut-type setup up front and a five-link design at the rear. It is abetted by the Mercedes-Benz Electronic Stability Program (ESP), which takes anti-lock braking and traction control one step further. ESP, standard on the SL500 this year, momentarily applies the brake on one wheel whenever understeer or oversteer is detected by a central computer using various motion and wheel speed sensors. (Understeer is when the front tires begin to lose grip; oversteer is when the rear tires begin to lose grip.)
The brakes are massive four-wheel discs, almost a foot in diameter up front and only an inch smaller in back. They are backed up with the Mercedes-Benz Brake Assist system. Hit the brake pedal fast and Brake Assist presumes a panic stop and applies full braking force faster than most drivers, reducing stopping distances in emergency situations. Standard tires have been upgraded to 245/45ZR17 on 8.25x17-inch wheels.
The new Sport Package adds to the sporty look of the SL with a special aerodynamic front bumper designed and installed by AMG, the famous tuner firm that specializes in Mercedes-Benz products. The bumper has projector beam fog lights in a deeper apron with a mesh air dam.
To further sharpen handling, the Sport Package includes unique 18-inch wheels fitted with extremely low-profile tires -- 245/40ZR-18 front and 275/35ZR-18 rear. In addition to their performance benefits, they look really great. Mercedes-Benz notes that the entire $4,970 Sport Package is priced lower than aftermarket wheels and tires alone and that everything is covered by the factory warranty. Suspension and steering calibrations are unchanged.
An alternative to the $82,695 SL500 is the $130,095 SL600, which is powered by a V12 that makes 389 horsepower. (Prices include $595 destination charge and Federal Gas Guzzler taxes - $1,000 for SL500, $2,600 for SL600.) The Sport Package is available for either model.
The Inside Story
Pay this much for a car and the interior ought to be something special, and with the SL500 it is. Nappa leather upholstery and trim is standard on the SL500 this year. The seats are Teutonically firm. Though the seatbacks are well bolstered, the seat bottoms are rather flat in the Mercedes-Benz tradition. Our test SL had the new Java leather interior, which is the color of a Starbucks latte. It blends well with the wood veneer on the console, not light enough to be blonde, but not as dark as the usual wood trim. The dash is now the same color as the interior and, matching the SLK, all gauges have chrome rings around them that impart a classy, traditional look.
The steering wheel is leather-covered, but the shift lever for the 5-speed automatic transmission is capped with a hard plastic blob. The Germans have caught on to the concept of cupholders, and the SL has a pair in the console that, when retracted, become a storage bin. The SL has another hideaway, a mini-glovebox on the dash next to the passenger seatbelt disable switch. The climate control system with electrostatic pollen and dust filter is easy to use and effective, but the audio system may require several trips to the owners manual. A button raises and lowers the roll bar that pops up automatically in an accident.
The convertible top is lined but not padded, so it has little insulation effect on noise and heat. Pressing a jujube switch on the console is all that's needed to raise and lower the convertible top. It even unlatches itself from the windshield header and hard tonneau before the tonneau rises for the top to tumble into. An aluminum hardtop comes as standard equipment. Though we did not test with this roof, it would probably make the SL quieter and more snug in the winter. Nor did we get to test the optional Panorama glass hardtop that replaces the aluminum roof when ordered, but Mercedes claims it allows the SL driver and passenger to enjoy an open air view of the sky all year long, regardless of the weather. Hardier souls will want to use the standard windblocker that attaches to the roll bar and makes the cabin relatively draft free for alfresco brumal motoring.
The trunk is relatively small and the lift-over is high, but every cubic inch is usable and, unlike many two-seaters, the SL has a large area behind the seats for everything from picnic baskets to coats to overnight bags.
Ride & Drive
The SL500 looks as big from behind the wheel as it does from outside. One sits down inside the cockpit. The dash is relatively high and the hood stretches out before it like a classic automobile from the 1930s. The steering wheel is high, like most German cars, and, though the steering wheel is tilt-telescopically adjustable, lowering it blocks those finely crafted gauges. It also blocks the view of the road immediately in front of the car, but you should be looking farther down the road anyway.
The engine starts instantly, with a roar that quickly settles down to a quiet idle. Don't look for temperamental behavior from this engine. If she didn't put her foot down, your meek maiden aunt could drive the SL500 around town. Of course, the SL could attract enough attention to make her your meek aunt, and if she learns to use the right pedal, she'll lose the meek part as well. Although the SL500 doesn't have the Saturn V thrust of the SL600, the 300-plus horses give you the trump card in virtually any automotive confrontation that doesn't involve a police radio. Mercedes reconfigured the exhaust for a throatier tone, though don't expect the rumble of a Z-28. The SL500 is more subtle than that. Full throttle sounds better with the top down because the wonderful exhaust note comes through better without the fabric filter.
The standard 5-speed automatic transmission has a zigzag shifter pattern to allow it to be used easily as a semiautomatic. It's not necessary, however. Leaving the transmission in Drive gives buttery smooth shifts whether at part or full throttle.
The SL500 is a wide car and it filled the Pennsylvania back roads we used for our test. Steering is precise and the power assist provides enough feedback for the driver to feel the road. The SL500 is an open car and, despite its Mercedes-Benz origin, there is obvious cowl shake over rough roads -- though the chassis is anything but willowy.
There's a lot of tire under the SL. Push it hard through a corner and you can feel this car working out. There's two tons of Mercedes-Benz to harness. Under normal circumstances it's almost impossible to break the tires loose from the pavement. Those who do have ESP to help maintain control. On the road, it's hard to get this into action without being terribly foolhardy, but the ESP makes it possible to really power out of a corner without worrying about the rear end sliding out.
The Mercedes-Benz SL500 may not be the newest sportster on the road, but it's still handsome and a heck of a performer. It is bigger, more luxurious and more expensive than the two-seaters from BMW and Porsche. Updates add to its sports appeal and the Sport Package enhances its handling performance. One of these improves the property values of any neighborhood.
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