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Mercedes-Benz SL500 Roadster

Highway
Eight cylinders,300 horse-power and a crore of rupees-things don't get much more exotic than an SL500 roadster

Suddenly, the absolutely massive phone bill which I’d got this month didn’t matter. That one of my neighbours had been playing music at full blast at two in the morning today was also not so important after all. Pending credit card payments could wait, and who cares about the bank calling up thrice a week and their repeated reminders to pay up or else! There I was, wafting down the Mumbai-Pune Expressway in a Mercedes Benz SL500, and all was well with the world. Amazing, what an SL does to spirit away mundane concerns of everyday life. But then SLs have always been special. Be it the first 300 SL that came out in 1954, or the ‘pagoda roof’ SLs of the early-1970s (reportedly, David Coulthard drives one), or even the last-generation SL that made it first appearance in 1989, each SL has been a sportscar icon for its respective era. And this, the current SL500, which debuted in 2001, continues the tradition of melding grace, pace and panache in one extremely desirable (if appallingly expensive) package. If this be automotive excess, indulgence were never so sweet.

Statement of intent
For the last five decades, Mercedes SL cars have made sweeping style statements. They’ve led the path, struck new ground and moved design philosophies ahead. And the new SL really does look as stunning, and perhaps more, than any that came before it. Pictures don’t do it justice – you have to see the SL500 in person to experience the supercar
presence it has. No BMW Z4-style hacked-with-a-machete lines here. Thankfully, M-B have refrained from experimenting with new-age, ugly-is-cool styling cues on this car. And indeed, the SL is absolutely spot-on in the looks department. The stance – low, mean and brawny – is perfect for a car with pronounced sporting intentions, and the proportions are just so right. With its foldaway metal roof, the SL is equally adept at playing coupe or convertible – just pull a little gizmoid by the gear lever’s side, and the roof folds up and disappears into the boot in about a quarter minute. The entire procedure of going from tin-top coupe to open-air convertible is mechanised, and all you have to do is make sure the gear lever is in ‘Park’ before you pop the magic button. That the whole plot goes off like clockwork every time shouldn’t really be surprising. Not when you consider that extensive, exhaustive test program which the SL was put through before the series went into production. According to Andreas Faulhaber, who headed pre-production testing and R&D, no less than 80 SL cars were tested before the first one rolled off the production line.

But let’s get away from the SL’s folding roof and brilliant styling and come to where the real action is. Which of course, is below the hood, for that is where the SL500’s 4973 CC V8 lives. Eight cylinders usually mean an abundance of stomp, and with 306 horsepower and 46 kgm of torque on tap, that’s certainly the case here. All this power is delivered to the rear wheels via a smooth, ultra-competent five-speed automatic which has ‘Winter’ and ‘Sport’ modes to choose from. (In Winter mode, the box shifts up earlier in order to complement ESP and completely banish wheelspin, while in Sport mode, it holds to each ratio for a longer while to maximise acceleration and performance.) Like with other M-B autoboxes, this one too has the ‘Touchshift’ feature which lets you shift up or down manually, simply by nudging the lever sideways. Here, I’ll make an honest confession. Though I always prefer manuals, I actually found the SL500’s automatic beyond reproach. Though it’s just a tiny bit slow in responding when you floor the throttle, shifts are smooth and appropriate, and I never felt the need to use ‘Touchshift’. Just let the auto do its thing – most of the time, it knows best. For a road tester, that was hard to admit, but that’s how it is, so there!

Star power
So what does all that power and torque and technology do for performance? Hmm... let’s see. For the 0-60 and 0-100 kph timings, we got 4.57 seconds and 8.91 seconds respectively. Now while there’s no denying that that’s reasonably quick, it is perhaps less than what you would expect of a car as mighty as the SL500. Many will now think I’m off my rocker, but before you bring out the daggers, let’s look at two other cars which I’ve tested in the recent past. The Camry 2.4 VVTi goes from 0-60 kph in 3.86 seconds, and from 0-100 in 8.55 seconds. And the Corolla 1.8E does the same in 4.10 seconds and 8.06 seconds. Much as I love the SL500’s styling, the technology that goes into making it not only very rapid but also extremely safe, and the sheer aura of romance that the car has, having a brace of everyday Toyotas blow it away while accelerating from a standing start can’t be such a nice thing. What happened? Has the SL been detuned for India? Anyway, the SL500 ultimately does redeem its reputation, and leaves the aforementioned Japs in its wake during 80-120 kph, and 100-140 kph acceleration runs, but the Merc driver’s bruised ego might be harder to repair. Of course, if he or she still has some loose change lying around, they could just run out and import an SL600, which is powered by a
406-horsepower 5400 CC V12. Or, if that isn’t enough already, there’s also a brutal 476-horsepower SL55 AMG, which uses a supercharged version of the SL600’s V12. These cars have not been homologated in India and are not officially available here, but private imports are always possible. After all, it’s just money isn’t it? And the bigger SLs certainly make mincemeat of the Camrys and the Corollas of this world, so SL55 owners have nothing to fear from the rice rocket brigade.
Power is but one of the SL’s talents, and standing start acceleration numbers do not tell the entire story. For one, the SL500’s V8 has a commendably vast mid-range. The engine growls at idling speeds, but floor the go pedal and the exhaust note changes to rasps and thrums of anticipation and finally, an angry bellow emanates from the SL’s twin oval exhaust pipes as the car tries to claw the horizon into submission. Booting the accelerator pedal at almost any speed elicits predictable and linear response from the engine. Those 300-odd horses stampede all over the rev range (the V8 is redlined at 6000 rpm), and push the car to its electronically-limited 250 kph without breaking into sweat. Though such speeds would only be academic for most, it’s nice to know that if opportunity (and the right road) presents itself, the car is capable of true supercar velocities. And come on, admit it, you wouldn’t buy an SL500 to drive it at 80 kph, would you?
Mind-boggling speed notwithstanding, there’s something more notable about an SL500 than its stratospheric top whack. Let’s talk about the steering first – it felt fairly responsive and connected, thanks to an adoption of the rack and pinion system over the Merc-standard worm and roller set-up. Some older Mercs which I’ve driven in the past have often suffered from slightly vague and ponderous steering, but the SL500 is very different. Oh, steering feedback is still not as palpable as, say, an early-1980s Ferrari 308 or an early-1990s Escort Cosworth RS, but then those ‘supercars’ belonged to another time, another era. What counts is, the SL is not only supremely refined in the way it responds to driver inputs, it also gives sufficient feedback at high speeds which makes those speeds that much more enjoyable. 

The other notable aspect are the stunning brakes. Packed with every kind of electronics wizardry known to mankind, and then some, the SL’s anchors haul the car down so efficiently that our long-term C200 CDI’s brakes (which are the best amongst all D-segment cars sold in India) started feeling inadequate after driving the SL. Helping the SL’s all-wheel ventilated discs are sensotronic, anti-lock, and brake-assist. Without going into tech details (read those in the E220 CDI test pages in this issue), I’ll only say that these brakes are by far the best I’ve ever sampled on any car anywhere. The
electronics make sure that maximum braking force is applied to the wheels that have most traction, and stopping distances are amazingly short.

Try braking deep into corners at triple digit speeds, and most cars will likely land you in the nearest ditch available. But not in the SL500, Nothing I did seemed to make any difference to the car’s composure. I tried braking hard over loosely-packed gravel, changed lines while braking in very fast corners, and tried high-speed lane-changes under hard braking. The result? Nothing at all. After a quietly disapproving nod or two, the car would simply continue on the chosen course. It also helps if you choose the ‘Sport’ setting on the ABC (active body control) button, which presumably firms up everything, and roll/pitch/wallow is kept to an absolute minimum. The car’s ESP traction control system keeps things under tight rein and doesn’t allow even a smidge of power oversteer. Even with ESP switched off, I could not get the SL sideways through a tight corner. Instead of a satisfying power-slide, half a dozen beeps went off, and the engine just cut out mid-corner. Well, I suppose the stars above just weren’t in alignment on that particular day...

The SL500 features adjustable ride height, so if you have to take the thing through some rough stuff, you can raise it to the highest of three positions available, and go! Big, 17-inch alloys are happiest on billiard table-smooth tarmac, and clunk over bumps and potholes in a mildly alarming fashion, but the steamroller-wide 255/45 ContiSports’ performance
was sublime. We tried cornering the car hard over a variety of road surfaces, and not once did the tyres threaten to let go. ‘Grips like a leech’ might be one of the biggest road testing clichés ever, but it does aptly describe the SL’s rubber. Do note, however,that this combo of low-profile tyres and large wheels is best-suited for Expressway kind of roads, and the ride gets jarring over rough tarmac.

Roadster rumination
You did not need to read any of this to want an SL500. We all want one anyway, don’t we? The SL500 makes you feel special. The stitched-leather seats (which move every which way, thanks to an abundance of power adjustments), the cool-blue gleam of the instrument panel, the game console-style control buttons on the steering wheel, the smattering of frosted metal trim, the glossy wood inserts, and the three-pointed star on the steering wheel – all of these conspire to make you feel good, and put a grin on your face. SL heritage is alive and well. True happiness is travelling at 190 kph in an SL500, top down, engine revving high and CD-player belting out Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer.’ And who cares about limited boot space? The suitcases can follow in the S350 L.... 

SECOND OPINION

Two alphabets, S and L. String them together and place it on the back of a car that wears a three-pointed star, and you get automotive magic. The two alphabets together are not to be taken lightly – they denote history, power, speed, technology and million dollar looks. So when you see the latest generation SL in metal, it’s clear that in the successor, the SL legend lives on. The SL 500 manages the transformation from a stylish and cool boulevard cruiser to a highway stomper to a corner carver with ease. I liked everything about the SL, right from its stunning, powerful looks to the retro vent touches, and its usage of technology to make the drive safer and enjoyable – but what I liked best was the way the SL attacked corners with supreme confidence. All my curve-straightening efforts felt like those John Woo movie sequences in slow motion. Extremely memorable. And no matter what some may say, the automatic gearbox is perfectly fine – it allows me to completely enjoy the dynamics of the car.
SRINIVAS KRISHNAN