In today’s high end cars, luxury and technology go hand in hand. And no company has married the two more successfully than Mercedes-Benz. The latest and perhaps ultimate impressive example of that is the all-new 2003 SL500. This flagship two-seater is a rolling showcase for the company’s technological prowess. But has Mercedes been able to keep all that technology from overwhelming the spirit of the car?
You can be excused for thinking that it would, since the 2003 Mercedes-Benz SL500 is one of the most sophisticated machines on the road today. Mercedes-Benz has crammed every high-tech system in its automotive lineup under the SL’s all-new body. And what a sumptuous body it is! The new SL lines are sharper and more rakish than before, especially with the added AMG Sport body package. Yet the aluminum skin retains an elegance that the SL has always been known for.
And that’s with the top up or down! As with the previous SL, there is a folding aluminum hardtop. Up or down takes 16 seconds. Its complex system of hydraulic pumps and cylinders has been redesigned for smoother operation and more compact storage. This allows the trunk to hold 11.2 cubic feet of cargo with the top up, and a still usable 8.3 cubic-feet with it folded. A new Easy Pack feature allows you to partially lift the folded roof for loading. Very clever.
The new SL chassis mixes steel, aluminum and magnesium to create a platform that has 20-percent less flex than the last SL. The wheelbase has been extended by almost two inches, while overall length is up about an inch-and-a-half. The platform sits atop Mercedes’ latest ABC active suspension, which uses 13 sensors, 2 microprocessors, and a 2,840 psi oil pump to drive hydraulic servos located at the top of each spring. These provide split-second adjustments, and eliminate the need for conventional stabilizer bars. In standard ABC mode, body roll is reduced by 68-percent, while the Sport mode reduces it by 95-percent.
The result is a 4,067 pound roadster that handles less like a boulevard cruiser and more like a slot car. This SL turns in sharply and stays flat during aggressive transitions, while the new rack-and-pinion steering system is quick and direct. Shut the ABC off and the tail will step out rather easily, showing just how effective the active underpinnings really are.
Even more sophisticated is the SL’s new Electronic Braking system. A brake-by-wire system that eliminates all major mechanical linkage between the pedal and the brake calipers. This allows rock solid stops from 60 of only 116 feet. The system is also linked to Mercedes’ Brake Assist and ESP to produce exceptional stability. The only down side, eliminating mechanical linkage also seems to have remove any pedal feel. So this system needs work.
After all that new-technology, the drivetrain seems almost mundane, but a 5.0-liter single- overhead-cam 24-valve V8 with a dual-intake manifold that makes 302 horsepower and 339 pound-feet of torque is still one very interesting powerplant. It’s mated to a 5-speed adaptive automatic transmission with Touchshift manual gear selection mode and pushes the big SL to 60 in only 6.3 seconds. The 1/4 mile is dispatched in an impressive 14.7 seconds at 97 miles-per-hour. Throttle response is instantaneous, with power building in a smooth, linear manner. Shifts are crisp in automatic mode, and exhibit little of the expected delay in manual mode.
In our two weeks of driving the SL500, we found all of these complex electronic systems to detract little from the pure driving experience, while adding immeasurably to the levels of control experienced in both road and track. But wait, there’s more! Including that the standard 17-inch wheels, or our car’s 18-inch AMG hoops, can be equipped with a tire pressure monitoring system.
And then there’s what’s inside the SL’s roomy, ultra-luxurious, and very safe interior, which sports standard adaptive airbags for both front and side impacts, plus knee airbags, as well as the now-familiar pop-up roll-over bars. For safe following, radar cruise control is available. The super-comfortable, leather-clad bucket seats are equipped with full power adjustments, heat, ventilation, and an available massage function. The artistically hooded analog gauges are slick and stylish, and thankfully easy to read. But the complex Mercedes Comand system, which controls audio, navigation and phone functions, remains one of the industry’s most distracting telematics systems. Fortunately the climate controls below are very straightforward.
As is the price, which is very high, no ifs, ands or buts. Base price for the 5th generation SL is $86,655. With options like the $5,100 Sport Package, and a $2,100 Motorola phone, the price quickly climbs to $95,735. All that technology doesn’t come cheap.
But if you’re lucky enough to already be on the list for a flagship SL500, prepare for a driving experience that seamlessly blends the incredible control available from modern technology with the satisfying driving experience of Mercedes’ ultimate roadster. So, the 2003 Mercedes-Benz SL500 is not so much the best of both automotive worlds, as it is the best of all worlds.
Engine: 5.0-Liter Sohc 24-valve V8
Torque: 339 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 6.3 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 14.7 Seconds @ 97 MPH
60-0 MPH: 116 Feet