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Car of the Year 2002: Winner Mercedes-Benz SL500

Robert Ross

Admittedly, the 2002 Mercedes-Benz SL500 and SL600 have aged more gracefully than any other automobile designed toward the end of the 1980s. But, after a dozen years, the stentorian SL is long overdue for retirement, especially in light of its competitors’ contemporary offerings. To be sure, Mercedes has extracted every last drop of refinement—and profit—from the car deemed de rigueur among those wealthy souls of practical mind. Indeed, given its long-lived popularity, Mercedes had to ensure that the SL’s successor could match this achievement by becoming the personal luxury flagship of this decade.

Mercedes-Benz is not content to play catch-up. Its new 2003 SL500 handily leapfrogs every other luxury perfor-mance automobile on the market in most areas by which greatness is judged. All the elements come together in the new SL: performance (including an all-new electrohydraulic, drive-by-wire braking system), handling, ergonomics and comfort, fit and finish, all combined with considerably advanced, yet usable, technology. Engineers have even tuned the exhaust for maximum aural gratification.

And then there is the shape. The new SL is truly beautiful—a term we would be hard-pressed to apply in describing its predecessor, which, if automobiles could be equated with literature, could serve as the vehicular equivalent of a telephone directory. Mercedes designers have resurrected some clever styling cues from the SLR of the 1950s, but the retro references are, to our minds, more understated and tasteful than those evident on cars like the BMW Z-8, Ford Thunderbird, or certain Chrysler parodies.

The SL500 is the perfect convertible, too, because it’s not one. Taking a cue from the smaller, more adolescent SLK, it has a retractable metal roof every bit as solid and coupelike as its larger cousin, the CL. But within mere seconds, the elaborate assembly silently and elegantly folds away to become invisible, transforming the SL into a roadster, devoid of the archaic fabric cover that is a relic of a bygone era and a blight on the profiles of most modern convertibles.

The SL shares its V-8 engine with the CL and S series, and its 302-hp output is certainly adequate, though not in the league of big-block, turbocharged, supercharged, or V-12 powerplants. The 5-speed automatic transmission, however, is exemplary, and quite entertaining when operated in manual mode. The suspension soaks up irregular road surfaces with supple ease, even in the lower and stiffer ABC sport mode—the preferred setting for the sportiv set.

What could Mercedes have done better? Well, the brakes take some getting used to; the pedal goes soft and deep, and subjectively, the response at very slow speeds isn’t as linear and precise as cars like the Porsche. While the steering is vastly improved—rack-and-pinion replaces the dreary recirculating ball of the old SL—it still feels a bit overassisted to some. For the SL’s target buyer, how-ever, these characteristics could even be viewed as attri-butes. More docile drivers might find the exhaust note a bit too raucous: Its sound is a bold move for low-key Mercedes, whose designers didn’t even expose the exhaust tip of the SL’s predecessor.

Then there’s the matter of weight; all the cars on this list, aside from the Porsche, could use a trip to the fat farm. This year’s candidates are, literally, cars of substance for drivers of substance, and what accompanies luxury and technical wizardry is additional poundage. For most drivers, however, we suspect that a certain “heft” will prove acceptable. But just for fun, what if Mercedes played true to its SL moniker—super licht, auf Deutsch—and actually dared to produce a lightweight version with forced induction, sport suspension, minimal interior, solid roof, and a few hundred pounds of accessories left back at the factory’s parts bins? We can dream. Of course, there will follow an SL55 AMG, which should appeal to drivers with more sporting pretensions.

For the truly discriminating motorist who demands that the highest standards of quality be met on every level, Mercedes-Benz cars have few, if any, peers, though an argument could be made for manufacturers like Lexus, BMW, and Audi. Still, Mercedes-Benz is the king of quality, and its newest personal luxury car is a remarkable engineering and aesthetic achievement, one that does more things well than any other car in the “Car of the Year” contest, and that’s why it’s the winner. Sure, it would be wonderful if there were 100 extra horses, and its looks aren’t as audacious as the Lambor-ghini. It’s not exclusive like the Aston Martin, and it can’t carry an entourage like the BMW. And for heaven’s sake, don’t confuse the SL with a sports car; it won’t deliver the race car experience of the Porsche.

What the SL500 will do is offer its owner the most complete and satisfying driving experience of all the cars we’ve tested.

Specifications

Engine:  5-liter, 24-valve SOHC V-8
Power: 302 hp at 5,600 rpm
Torque: 339 ft lbs at 2,700 rpm
Zero-to-60 time: 6.1 seconds
Top speed: 155 mph (limited)
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 100.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,200 pounds
Base price: $86,000

Second Opinions
“A genuine big sports car that invites the same daring as the Porsche 911 and is stuffed with all available technology for both safety and personal convenience.” —Paul Dean

“Arguably the best all-around grand touring roadster in the world.” —Ken Gross

“Simply the world’s best and most advanced volume sports car, with great style, a superb folding hardtop, towering performance, and exciting handling.” —Howard Walker

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