2000 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class
MSRP
$82,600 - $128,950

Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

Your neighbor's property values just went up.

Introduction

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. But those people have 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. 

Lineup

Two models of the Mercedes-Benz SL are available: the V8-powered SL500 and the V12-powered SL600. The SL500 retails for $82,600, while the SL600 goes for $128,950. A one-touch convertible top and removable aluminum hardtop are standard. 

Walkaround

An expansive hood leading down to a grille accented by a giant three-pointed star dominates the appearance of the Mercedes-Benz SL. The styling was 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. 

Interior

The SL500 looks as big from behind the wheel as it does from outside. One sits low 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. The hood also blocks the view of the road immediately in front of the car, but you should be looking farther down the road anyway. 

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 owner's 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. 

Driving Impression

The engine starts instantly, with a roar that quickly settles down to quiet idle. Don't look for temperamental behavior from this engine. Your meek maiden aunt could drive the SL500 around town. Although the SL500 doesn't have the Saturn V rocket 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 subtler than that. Full throttle sounds better with the top down because the wonderful exhaust note comes through better without the fabric filter. 

The SL500 is powered by a 5.0-liter version of the new-generation 4.3-liter V8 used in the hot E430 and C43 models. 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 single exhaust valve easily handles the post-combustion volume of exhaust. 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 V8 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. 

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. 

A fully independent suspension uses a strut 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 farther. 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.)

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. When they do break loose, Electronic Stability Control is there to help maintain control. On the road, it's hard to get this into action without being terribly foolhardy, but Electronic Stability Control makes it possible to really power out of a corner without worrying about the rear end sliding out. 

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 Sport Package, added last year, adds to the sporty look of the SL with a special aerodynamic front bumper designed by AMG, the famous race and tuner firm that's now a division of Mercedes-Benz. The bumper has projector beam fog lights in a deeper apron with a mesh air dam. To furt. 

Summary

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 cars will improve the property values of any neighborhood. 

Model Lineup

SL 500 ($82,600); SL 600 ($128,950). 

Assembled In

Bremen, Germany. 

Options As Tested

SL1 Sport Package ($4,995) includes aerodynamic bumpers and side sills, integrated projector beam fog lamps, 18-inch wheels and tires; integrated portable phone ($1,795); SL2 Value Added Package ($1,820) includes Xenon headlamps, heated front seats, integrated CD changer. 

Model Tested

SL 500 ($82,600). 

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