2003 Mercedes-Benz SL Class Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Senior Editor
July 29, 2002

Related Articles:
2003 Mercedes-Benz SL500 by TCC Team (5/27/2002) 

Who needs it when all you need to do is replace your old SL with a new one? Mercedes-Benz is still targeting older, high-rolling men, but the appeal of the vehicle is suddenly much more youthful. Trust me on this: Our bright red SL evoked jealous, interested looks—rather than sneers—from younger people, while still looking classy for the local country club. It’s a good image-builder for Mercedes-Benz, and the missing piece in the full makeover of the M-B lineup that began six years ago, halfway through the last SL’s lifespan.

Though it’s a relatively low-volume vehicle, the SL may in fact be the most radical redesign in recent year for M-B. The exterior design is very flashy and flamboyant, especially in our Magma Red test car. All the panels have gentle creases and curves that  give the car a shape that’s almost more Italian than German.

Perhaps the most significant change versus the last-generation SL is the new retractable hardtop, very similar in operation to that which has been offered on the SLK for five years. When in place, the hardtop actually aids body rigidity and stiffness. You can feel a slight difference between the top down and up positions on pockmarked pavement surfaces. With the top up, there’s no detectable shake, and the SL feels like a full-bodied coupe.

The new SL boasts improved torsional flex and stiffness but decreased overall weight, thanks to the increased use of lightweight materials, such as aluminum for the hood, front fenders, trunk lid, fuel door, and other structural pieces; magnesium for the inner doors; and plastics for the bumpers, fuel tank, and flat underbody paneling (which helps reduce turbulence at speed).

Though its basic controls and layout are conventional, the SL500 incorporates some hardware that’s not only new to Mercedes-Benz but new to the industry, and it’s absolutely loaded with electrical componentry and gadgetry.

First application of electronic brakes

But if we were to call out one of these technical marvels as groundbreaking, it would be the new electronic braking system—the first of its kind in a production vehicle. It’s a true brake-by-wire system, though not a true fully electronic braking system: meaning hydraulics still deliver the actual brake force, but electronics skip the conventional brake booster and actuate the brake pads in less time and more accurately. Essentially, it’s what Brake Assist does in other M-B models, but here it’s incorporated as part of the actual braking system.

The system has a number of benefits in emergency situations. One of the most important is that the system will anticipate the application of panic braking, ‘priming’ hydraulic pressure for the pads and preparing for an abrupt braking situation as the driver quickly lets off the throttle (which, by the way, is ‘by wire,’ too). In wet weather, the pads periodically gently squeegee water from the discs, allowing more effective braking when it’s needed.

A tandem hydraulic brake cylinder for the front brakes is engaged only when the electronic system fails. Otherwise, it serves no function but to help give the pedal feel of conventional hydraulic/mechanical brakes. The truth of the matter is, we really couldn’t feel the difference between these brakes and normal hydraulic ones. The feeling of pad contact isn’t there to the extent of that in BMW vehicles, but these brakes are very easily modulated. Another advantage is that the new system also has no perceptible pulsations of the anti-lock braking system.

Also, the electronic braking works in conjunction with the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) skid control system. During sharp turns near the limits of adhesion, the system increases the pressure available for the outer front ones and decreases that available to the inner rear ones, allowing the stability system to counter a skid faster than otherwise possible. It also allows progressively more brake force distribution to the front at higher speeds, for increased stability.

Electronic stabilizer bars

Mercedes-Benz’s active body control (ABC), also offered on S-Class and CL-Class models, is now standard on the SL. ABC uses hydraulic servos at each wheel to help control body motion during maneuvers, working in conjunction with the existing suspension (struts in the front, aluminum multi-link in the back) and eliminating the need for stabilizer bars. Aided by two microprocessors and thirteen sensors, the system has an update rate of an astounding 10 milliseconds, and in the SL it now also adjusts for vehicle load. Active body control also lowers the SL’s ride height by an additional 0.6 inches at and above 60 mph. Overall, the system is designed for performance, rather than for the ride comfort purposes of pneumatic equivalents.

It’s not surprising either that the SL500 is loaded with safety features. Smart front airbags deploy at a rate corresponding to the impact force, and new head-and-thorax airbags are built into the doors. The SL’s industry standout automatic rollover bar is carried over to the new model but with some design changes. Now, the roll bar deploys in just 0.3 seconds whether the top is up or down in a hazardous situation that might lead to a rollover.

Automatic xenon-bulb lamps are standard, of course, but in the rear there’s something special, too. All-red taillight covers conceal yellow turn signals and white backup lights that have special filters to ensure that their proper colors show through.

Our car had the attractive optional 18-inch AMG five-spoke wheels, part of the $5100 sport package which also includes special front and rear spoilers, rocker-panel bodywork, and trim.

2003 Mercedes-Benz SL500

2003 Mercedes-Benz SL500

Inside, the gauges are round-faced—a departure from the arc shapes in other new Mercedes-Benz products of late—with attractive matte-chrome surrounds. The gauges are backlit in cool blue at night. Climate controls get rotary controls—one for the driver, and one for the passenger. They’re sophisticated, yet simple in operation and easy to intuit, and if you want to quit fiddling and settle for the automatic mode you just depress the middle of the switch. The rest of the controls are pretty much as expected for M-B, with a wraparound center console. Everything is within easy reach.

The seats are wonderful, adjustable in just about every way possible, with an air contouring feature for the backrest and pulse massage feature for the lower cushion. Our car also had the optional active ventilated seats, which send cooled, fan-forced air through perforations in the seat.

Gadgets and gizmos

If the SL’s long list of standard luxury equipment isn’t enough, there are even more optional equipment goodies, including Distronic adaptive cruise control, a tire-pressure monitoring system, and voice control. Due to all the power demands of all the electrical componentry in the SL, there are actually two batteries. A computer manages the charge of and between the batteries, and it’s capable of shutting down particular accessories in order of importance.

Other standard features inside include COMAND, the screen-centered control interface which combines audio, navigation, and cell phone controls into one. Auxiliary information from COMAND is displayed just below the gauge cluster, and steering wheel buttons aid in navigation. We still find COMAND a difficult interface, but fortunately there are redundant controls for frequently used functions like the sound system.

Of all the gadgets offered in the SL, one of our favorites was the optional ($1050) Keyless Go system. You simply attach a black controller—the size of two credit cards stacked on top of each other—to your key chain, then you don’t need the actual key or key fob to unlock doors or trunk. Better yet, once inside the vehicle (there are precise antennas around the doors and console which determine that) you can start the engine by depressing the brake pedal and touching the heat-sensitive pad on top of the shift knob. What a great getaway car!

For such a large vehicle, space is still an issue, though there are lots of small storage bins (some lockable) behind the seat, in the doors, and in the center console. The trunk is downright small with the top up, only large enough for a ‘traveling light’ weekend. A pull-out cargo cover keeps you from putting an item where the top might get damaged during raising/lowering. Actually, the lower section of the trunk looks suspiciously sized to fit two golf bags on their side.

Sprightly, agile on the road

With a little less weight and a much lighter feel on the road, a raspier exhaust note, flamboyant design cues, and a more aggressive stance, the new SL doesn’t only look more sprightly: It is.

The SL’s 302-hp magnesium- and aluminum-alloy 5.0-liter V-8 rumbles to life a little more vocally than with other products in the German automaker’s family. In cruising, the engine is nicely hushed, yet if you get on the throttle and downshift a gear or two, it develops a nice roar that isn’t unlike the familiar sound of American muscle cars. There’s an AMG version on the way with more power, but the SL has plenty of power in any situation, to the point that the gears don’t seem to matter. All-out, Mercedes claims a (probably conservative) zero-to-sixty time of just over six seconds. What’s more impressive is that it now passes ULEV emissions standards, and our test car sipped fuel nearer to its 22-mpg highway rating. We’re still a bit confused as to why the federal government imposes a $1300 gas-guzzler tax on this car while it doesn’t for some big SUVs that get half the miles per gallon and pollute a lot more.

Power is transmitted only through a five-speed automatic with Touch Shift. It’s good at reading your right foot, but it tends to rush to top gear, even with moderate throttle, in the typical German-car way. Manual shift control is made easy by tipping the shift knob to the left or right.

The steering gear is an all-new  rack-and-pinion design. It feels precise and the speed-sensitive power assist is just about right, but the feel is a bit artificial and very little feedback makes it from the tires to the steering wheel. It fits the grand touring half of the SLs personality, but doesn’t always feel so sharp and sporty. We noticed in applying the throttle out of a tight corner that the self-centering is weak.

On the highway, the traditional M-B roadholding traits are still there, with great straight-line stability and roadholding. The SL is a no-brainer on open stretches of highway, capable of blasting along vast straight expanses painlessly at triple-digit speeds, with remarkably little steering input required.

Interior pieces not all awe-inspiring

While the top was tight-fitting and never emitted even a hint of wind noise, and the car was so well hushed inside at speed with the top on, we couldn’t help but notice some creaking from the side and door panels, a loose shifter face plate, and a rattle from the center console over bumps. Looking over the interior critically, as a discriminating shopper with a hundred grand to throw down would, the quality and feel of the plastics in the SL is only acceptable for a car of this caliber. Some elements—like the handy storage bin at the front of the driver’s seat—feel downright flimsy.

That’s really all we have to complain about. The new SL masterfully walks the line between being a comfortable touring car and being darned close to a real sports car when you want it to. The old SL just felt too heavy to ever even be considered a sports car. Price- and image-wise, the Porsche 911 is probably the closest competitor, but these are very different vehicles, folks.

The bottom line is that the new SL500 is remarkably two-sided. It can be seen as a youthful roadster or a mature luxury tourer, and depending on the situation—and quite possibly what you’re wearing. There is a newfound focus on driver involvement and sportiness in the SL, yet at the same time it’s easier to raise the windows, motor up the top, place the shifter in ‘Drive’, turn the music up, and forget about the world.

2003 Mercedes-Benz SL500
$85,990 base, $97,640 as tested
Engine: 5.0-liter inline four, 302 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 100.8 in
Length: 178.5 in
Width: 71.5 in
Height: 51.1 in
Curb Weight: 4045 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 15/22 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, head/thorax side airbags, driver’s knee airbag, automatic roll bar, electronic braking system, ESP stability control system
Major standard features: Dual automatic climate control, 12-way heated power seats, rain-sensor wipers, COMAND navigation/audio interface, eight-speaker Bose sound system w/six-disc changer, keyless entry, Xenon headlamps
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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