2004 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class
2004 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
A steel-roof roadster in three delicious flavors.
The Mercedes SL is a sinuous, sensuous roadster with dramatic styling and a major-league price tag. Slide into the cockpit, belt up, press the button on the console and, 16 seconds later, its retractable power steel roof changes it from the open-air fun of a convertible to the quiet comfort of a luxury coupe.
The SL is packed with every bit of automotive technology that Mercedes has perfected over the past dozen years, and that's a lot of technology. It does everything well, with the single exception of hauling cargo. Whether the folding steel top is up or down, there simply isn't much luggage space in the trunk of the SL, although the rear compartment behind the bucket seats will hold a good amount of stuff.
As a follow-on strategy to its introduction of the all-new SL roadster last year, Mercedes-Benz has expanded the lineup for 2004 to include three models instead of just one. The original SL 500 V8 is joined by the high-performance SL 55 AMG V8 and, for ultimate power, smoothness, and exclusivity, the SL 600 V12.
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 its graceful high-speed behavior.
Three models are available for the 2004 model year: the standard SL500, the ultra high-performance SL55 AMG, and the top of the line SL600. All come loaded with everything a driver and one passenger need for grand touring, from the Bose stereo to the beautiful new interior decor.
The SL500 ($88,500) has more standard equipment than just about any other two-seater in the world today. The SL500's 5.0-liter V8 engine develops 302 horsepower. 2004 models come with a completely new electronically controlled, magnesium-housing 7G-Tronic 7-speed automatic transmission, the world's first, with closer ratios for quicker acceleration, instantaneous downshifting and higher fuel economy. The two higher-performance versions will retain the 5-speed automatic for a while yet.
The SL55 AMG ($119,750) version is brimming with incredible levels of performance. The SL55 AMG uses a newly developed, hand-built, 5.5-liter supercharged engine with more than 493 horsepower to catapult itself from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.4 seconds, making it the fastest production Mercedes-Benz roadster ever. The SL55 AMG comes with racing-derived braking power. Its immense 14-inch vented brake discs and calipers are engineered with the industry's first electronic braking system, stopping the SL55 AMG with racecar-like ability. Similarly, the SL55 AMG uses a further evolution of the ABC active suspension to imbue the car with cat-like reflexes while simultaneously offering ride comfort that rivals any of its competition.
The SL600 ($125,950) is the latest addition to the lineup, carrying a silky smooth 6.0-liter V12 twin-turbocharged engine. Whereas the SL55 AMG V8 carries a supercharger and makes 493 horsepower and 516 foot-pounds of torque, the 5.9-liter V12 packs the same 493 horsepower but generates a staggering 590 foot-pounds of torque, more than any other Mercedes engine of this size. The engine is a bit heavier than the supercharged V8, but it more than makes up for it with prodigious torque and electric-motor smoothness throughout the rpm range. The SL600 will be sold in very small numbers to keep it exclusive.
Options on all three models include a Motorola Timeport telephone, voice activated controls, the Parktronic parking distance warning system ($1035), Distronic radar-based cruise control ($2950) that keeps a preset distance between the SL and the car ahead, a tire pressure monitoring system ($630), and several seat options. Also available: Bi-xenon high-intensity discharge high- and low-beam headlamps ($900); Keyless Go ($1015); Panorama Roof ($1800). SL1 Wood Package ($840) includes wood and leather steering wheel and shift knob. SL3 Comfort Package ($1520) includes ventilated seats with multi-contour seatbacks.
SL2 Sport Package ($5100) includes AMG Monoblock alloy wheels, high-performance tires, body-colored AMG-designed front air dam, side skirts and rear apron, and the ventilated seats with multi-contour seatbacks. The SL55 AMG comes with this body kit as standard, and the V12 version has its own exterior decor, including V12 Kompressor badging on the front fenders.
The Mercedes SL is surely one of the most beautiful cars in the world. From the jutting chin of its front bumper to the four-eyed headlamps to the traditional front fender air intakes to the shoulders over the rear tires to the five-spoke alloy wheels, the SL is not only the new style leader for Mercedes-Benz, but the new style leader for the entire segment.
Mercedes says the new SL simultaneously pays homage to its legendary great grandfathers while offering a new interpretation of excitement. Now almost 50 years in production, it is an automotive icon. It dates back to the 1954-55 300SL Gullwing Coupe. The last generation of SLs ran from 1989 to 2002.
The air inlets in the front fenders were inspired by the original 300SL. The narrow, wing-like chrome gills are reminiscent of the first SL Roadsters and are 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 headlamps. From the side, the rising beltline contributes to the car's rake. At the rear, the triangular taillights use 27 LED bulbs designed to illuminate more quickly.
The interior design of the Mercedes-Benz SL is different from the CL coupes and very different from the Mercedes sedans.
Two large round instrument pods carry the primary instruments, using smart, colorful purple graphics shared by no other Mercedes-Benz. The instrument panel and center console are well organized and feature the Mercedes COMAND screen that operates the sound system, navigation system, and telephone, with redundant controls on the new 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 that come with the car are superbly comfortable for grand touring, but if you need more and want more, Mercedes offers both dynamic multi-contour seats that give a continuous massage, or seats with active seat ventilation. The standard seats are larger and more sumptuous than those in previous SL models because there is more room in the cockpit, with more room to adjust the seat for tall drivers and more room to rake the seat back. That's because the automatic folding steel top design doesn't take up as much room as the old fabric convertible top. Behind the bucket seats are twin lockable storage compartments in place of the ridiculously small jump seats in the old car. The seats will adjust to anyone between the fifth and 95th percentile in body type.
With the steel top up, the SL turns into a coupe as quiet as a bank at midnight, allowing the occupants to relax and cover ground while the new 10-speaker sound system (with separate 100-watt amplified subwoofer) bathes the interior in sound. With the top stowed, a 16-second process, the sound system compensates automatically for the increased road noise. Mercedes worked long and hard to ensure that with the top down and the side windows down, you can still hold a normal conversation with your traveling partner even at very high road speeds.
An interesting feature is the optional Keyless Go card, an electronically coded card that replaces 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, touch the door handle to unlock the car, and 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.
Passive safety features include front and side head-and-thorax airbags as well as knee airbags. A rollover protection bar automatically snaps up to protect you if the top is down.
To drive a Mercedes SL is to experience a level of driving 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 performance is rapid for a 4000-pound car with 300 horsepower, but not breathtaking. 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. The SL500’s 5.0-liter V8 engine develops 302 horsepower. Peak torque of 339 pounds-feet is available from 2700 to 4250 rpm, and 295 pounds feet is on tap from just 2000 rpm. That flexibility is designed to give it quick response at all engine speeds.
The V8 engine in the SL 55 AMG is extremely strong, but it's also smooth and quiet. Acceleration performance is breathtaking for a 4200-pound car with 493 horsepower. The SL55 AMG is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in about 4.4 seconds. That's quicker than a Ferrari 550 Maranello, a 911 Carrera, or a Corvette. Peak torque of 516 pounds-feet is available from about 1800 rpm.
The SpeedShift five-speed automatic transmission in the SL55 and SL600 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 the right (up) or left (down) shifter buttons on the steering wheel.
Automatic Body Control lets the SL corner with authority, even though the tires are smaller than those on a 911, Corvette, or Viper. A Sport switch lets the driver limit body roll even further, eliminating 90 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 with electronic brake force distribution, electronic traction control and electronic stability control. These systems have been added to other Mercedes-Benz products in recent years, but the SL breaks new ground in the form of the world's first fully electronic braking system. If it didn't do anything else well, and it most certainly does, the SL would have to go down in history for this development alone.
The SL's electronic braking system runs on very high pressure, but the pedal feels normal no matter how hard you stop, and the ABC suspension won't let the car take a nosedive. Drive on any mix of tarmac, gravel, mud, water, ice or snow and the onboard systems keep the car on the straight and narrow with very little driver input. After five or six hours of fast driving on challenging roads, this car will make you feel like one of the masters of the universe. It's that good. It doesn't have the gut-level appeal of a Viper, Corvette, or Porsche, but the SL is far more comfortable and luxurious than any of them.
While the pedal feels perfectly normal under all braking applications, the system works quicker and faster than ordinary hydraulic braking systems and can proportion braking effort to each of the four tires depending on traction and yaw conditions, working hand-in-hand with the ABS, traction and stability systems as well as the standard active suspension system which Mercedes calls Automatic Body Control (ABC). These electronic features mean that this SL will corner and brake faster and harder and flatter than any previous SL while providing a huge envelope of protection against driver error and changing traction conditions.
The Mercedes-Benz SL is a superb high-performance sports car that takes the place of what was previously considered a sporty car, and there's a big difference between sports and sporty.
The 2004 Mercedes-Benz SL models are technological masterpieces dressed up as slick German roadsters. They are an affirmation of the company's dedication to maximum performance and a 50th anniversary present to the fortunate few who can afford one.
The SL models have little competition in their price class other than the Jaguar XKR roadster and Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet. Assuming you can live with the small trunk, the SL is an outstanding car. It's beautiful to behold and a joy to drive.
Mercedes-Benz SL500 ($88,500); SL55 AMG ($119,750); SL600 ($125,950).
Options As Tested
Motorola V60 phone ($1995), Parktronic ($1035).
Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG ($119,750).
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