- The Washington Times - Friday, November 7, 2008

For more than half a century, the letters SL have identified the premier sports car from Mercedes-Benz.

It started in 1954, with the now-iconic 300SL gull-wing sports coupe, followed in 1957 by the roadster version. Nowadays, examples of the latter can command up to a quarter of a million dollars.

Over the years, despite nosebleed prices, more than 634,000 SL models have been sold world-wide. Because of the investment involved, but more so because of their continuing appeal, many vintage SLs still exist, often carefully and lavishly restored.

Though the SL is German in character and engineering, Mercedes-Benz regards Los Angeles, and especially Hollywood, as its inspirational birthplace. Movie stars and other wealthy buyers embraced the SL in the 1950s and encouraged the development of the roadster.

The aura has lasted. Dieter Zetsche, the chief executive of Mercedes-Benz, said that the United States still accounted for half of all SL sales world-wide.

Now the SL combines the characteristics of both the roadster and the famed gull-wing. It remains a powerful two-seat sports car, but with a hardtop that folds quickly into the trunk to provide open-air motoring.

Even so, it manages to set aside from seven to 10 cubic feet of luggage space, depending on whether the top is up or folded — or enough for two people on an outing.

For 2009, the Mercedes designers, responding to comments from owners, said they worked to make the new SL stronger-looking, more sporting and more useful in daily driving. But they also could not resist introducing some innovations, including a unique “air scarf.”

Part of a $3,750 options package that also includes heated seats, an electronic trunk opener and a transparent panoramic roof, the “air scarf” consists of heating units and outlets in the headrests, which gently blow warmed air onto the backs of the necks of the driver and passenger. It makes for more comfortable top-down driving on chilly days.

As ever, the SL is a two-seat sports car, but it has an abundance of extra storage space behind the seats. Although there are a variety of power combinations available elsewhere, the United States gets just four models: the SL550, SL600 and two ultra-high-performance AMG versions: the 63 and 65.

The limited-production SL63 AMG V8 and SL65 AMG V12 models come with hand-built engines that deliver 518 and 604 horsepower, respectively. The SL 600 has a V12 engine with 510 horsepower.

But the bulk of SL sales are expected to be of the tested SL550. It has a 382-horsepower, 5.5-liter V8 engine, which should be more than enough to satisfy any motorist who doesn´t insist on the bragging rights that come with the other models.

Even though it´s the lowest-priced and lowest-powered SL, the 550 is not for the masses. The base price is a humongous $96,775 and, with a couple of option packages, the test car came in at $105,285.

For that, you get stellar performance, including zero to 60 mile an hour acceleration in 5.3 seconds, according to the manufacturer´s tests, along with and city/highway fuel economy that elicits a $1,300 gas-guzzler tax from the government. But if you spend $191,575 for the rapid-transit AMG 65, it gets you to 60 miles an hour only marginally faster.

At the introduction, engineers demonstrated a new SL rack-and-pinion steering system. Invented by an Australian in the 1970s and only recently refined by Mercedes, it is a mechanical system that relies on special grooving in the steering rack to produce a more secure on-center feel as well as quicker steering response on curves.

Unfortunately, it will not be available in the United States until the 2010 models. For 2009, the steering remains a hydraulic, speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion unit that is only slightly less capable.

Even with its handling and performance attributes, the SL 550´s stock-in-trade is luxury cruising.

The seven-speed automatic transmission shifts imperceptibly and has a manual-shift mode that can be operated by the shift lever or paddles on the steering wheel. Even in the manual mode, shifts up or down barely register interruptions in the power flow.

The seats are deep, supportive and comfortable, with a myriad of adjustments to accommodate almost anyone, augmented by a steering wheel with powered tilt and fore-and-aft adjustments.

Instruments, especially the speedometer and tachometer, are notable for their legibility-perhaps a nod to the older, well-heeled owners who are most likely to buy SLs. They feature a white ring around the perimeter, with black graphics and automatic lighting.

With the top up or down, wind noise is minimal, and buffeting from the rear can be ameliorated by a wind blocker, although there´s not much even without the blocker. Minor shortcomings include sun visors that do not slide on their support rods to block sun from the side, and a mesh shade for the transparent roof that still allows hot sunlight intrusion.

As expected, the SL 550 comes with a full complement of safety, convenience and audio equipment, including navigation and Bluetooth connectivity.

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