- The Washington Times - Friday, May 10, 2002

Without a doubt, the most famous Mercedes-Benz of modern times was the 1954 300SL gull-wing sports/grand touring car, which was a tour de force of engineering and performance in its day and many years afterward.

Even now, it excites automobile enthusiasts and is highly sought after by big-bucks collectors. It still performs remarkably well, even against some modern machinery.

But compared to its newest successor, the new Mercedes-Benz SL500, it seems like little more than a farm tractor.

That will likely strike some folks as heresy. But the old adage, "They don't build 'em the way they used to," is turned on its head. Neither Mercedes-Benz, nor anyone else for that matter, builds cars the way they used to. They build them better and, in this case, by many orders of magnitude.

With the new SL500 (Mercedes reversed the letters and numbers some years back), the German company is making much of its heritage, which dates back to that first 300SL.

The new model the fifth generation in the SL line (though Mercedes mysteriously and stubbornly excludes the popular old 190SL from the lineage) is a complete departure from its predecessors, though it takes some of its styling cues from the original 300SL.

Most of the SLs were convertibles that sometimes could be outfitted with hard tops for winter driving. The new SL500, however, comes with a convertible hard top, crafted of aluminum and glass, which gives it the best of both worlds. It's a tight, quiet and rattle-free coupe that transforms into an open tourer in a mere 16 seconds.

The top works flawlessly, like everything else on this two-seater that the Mercedes people refer to as the pinnacle of their brand despite the fact that it is not the most expensive Mercedes you can buy.

It's not cheap, however. The base price is $86,655, including the destination charge, which means that it is reserved for people with excesses of disposable income.

Moreover, there's a long list of options which, if you had the temerity to order all of them, could bump the price to well over $100,000.

The test car had a few of those, including the sport package ($5,100), which includes special wheels and tires as well as body trim parts; a comfort package ($1,520), which includes ventilated leather seats; interior wood trim ($840), and super-bright bi-xenon headlights ($900).

One option that is something of a puzzle is Keyless Go, an electronic ignition key that looks something like a credit card, but bigger so it doesn't quite fit in a wallet. Carrying it somewhere on your person, you lock the car by touching a button near the outside door handle. When you return, you simply touch the door handle and the doors automatically unlock.

Once inside, you start the car by simply touching a pad on the shift lever.

Trouble is, Keyless Go is not as convenient as a regular remote locking system because you must touch the car both when you leave and when you return, whereas a remote lets you lock and unlock from a distance. Keyless Go costs a whopping $1,015.

Any way you order it, the new SL500 is a high-quality, high-performance sports/GT car with impeccable road manners, long-distance comfort and superb all-around performance.

Its heartbeat is an all-aluminum 5-liter V-8 engine that sends 303 horsepower to the rear wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission that snaps off gear changes with a fluid aplomb.

It includes a manual-shift mode, but whether or not you choose to shift, the combination can propel the two-ton SL500 to 60 miles an hour in a whiff over six seconds. Top speed is governed at 155 miles an hour.

Even at high speeds on rough roads, the SL500 exhibits none of the so-called cowl shake manifested as a vibration of the steering column and hood that often afflicts convertibles.

However, the most remarkable aspect of the new SL500 is its electronic brake system the first on any production car anywhere which substitutes computerized electronics for the old mechanical linkage between the brake pedal and the hydraulic brakes. If the electronics fail, there's a backup hydraulic system.

A full description is appreciated mainly by engineers and car nuts, but it works extremely well and most motorists won't notice any difference in brake-pedal feel from other high-quality brakes on premium automobiles.

There is one difference: The Mercedes electronic system eliminates the hammering of the pedal that occurs in other cars when the anti-lock braking system kicks in.

The SL500 has only a few minor flaws. The odometer and gear indicator are hard to see in daylight, especially while wearing sunglasses. Also, there's no tape player; just a CD changer located awkwardly behind the driver's seat.

Many cars, even inexpensive ones, now offer more convenient six-disc in-dash changers with tape decks.


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