Fleet News

Mercedes-Benz SL

Mercedes-Benz

Review

ORDER a new Mercedes-Benz SL today and it could be three years before you're able to sit behind the wheel of the ultimate in sporting luxury travel for the wealthier executive.

Irrespective of string-pulling and an expected £70,000 purchase price, a long wait is inevitable because aficionados of the next-generation icon have already signed-up every example due to reach Britain next year.

But however long the wait, it will be well worth the while. After putting the newcomer through its paces, it seems Mercedes-Benz has little to fear from rivals that include Jaguar's long-running XK8 convertible and the new Lexus SC430.

Due here in May in only 5.0-litre 500 form initially, the car is likely to cost 5% more than the current model's on-road price of £65,340. But with a wealth of technical refinement and a sophisticated metal folding roof that provides a best-of-both-worlds environment at the touch of a button, the new SL has a pedigree that appears unmatched in the super-sporting sector.

Sleeker and even more imposing than its predecessor, the most likely transport for carrying the great and famous around Hollywood for the next few years sets still higher standards.

As free from fuss when hustled over twisty roads as it is when loping along major routes, this majestic model is perhaps too well engineered in some respects. Featuring the latest active body control gadgetry, its new multi-link suspension system makes sure the car retains its composure when cornering and keeps the bodywork riding flat through the tightest of bends.

Called ABC and standard-fit on the SL500, the remarkable equipment makes cornering so smooth and simple that it is tempting to take an over-zealous approach at times, just to inject a little drama into the proceedings. But even then, technology still rules as the car stays true to the line, with only a small amount of squeal hinting at protest from the massive tyres.

The SL also proves to be supremely efficient when it comes to braking. Sensotronic, the advanced 'brake-by-wire' system that uses electronics instead of hydraulics, works so well in cutting the time it takes to kill speed that it is easy to regard the braking of other cars as lacking by comparison.

What it all amounts to is wind-in-the-hair progress without compromise. The fifth-generation SL has been designed by Englishman Steve Mattin, and looks elegant whether its Vario top is in place or stowed in the boot - a procedure that takes electric motors and a feat of neat engineering only 16 seconds to achieve after a console button is pushed.

Just as impressive is the fact that when the top is stowed the whole assembly can be swung- up easily to allow access to a surprisingly generous amount of space for luggage.

For all that, another button proved to be the source of most pleasure from the SL for the journalists invited on the car's launch in rustic Tuscany. At the top of the transmission lever, it brings to life a V8 engine that provides a wall of power for scorching acceleration and effortless high speed travel, yet makes little more than a gentle whooshing sound until it's required to spin at more than 5,000rpm - which is rarely necessary.

A delight at any speed, it works through a five-speed automatic transmission that includes Touchshift, a manual change facility that allows the driver to skip through more than just one ratio in kick down when maximum acceleration is needed.

Touching the lever briefly during overrun produces a similar by-pass operation if extra engine braking is needed. However, with such flexible power on tap, there's little need for DIY shifting, particularly when the normal drive position provides such seamless changes.

Bigger than its predecessor, the new car has a lot more interior space and treats occupants to markedly improved comfort. The seats themselves are much better in providing the full range of adjustment that makes long distance travel even more relaxing, and active ventilation and a 'pulse' massage system are also available.

Adding to the comfort factor is a memory function that stores individual seat, steering wheel and mirror settings for three different drivers.

Because it boasts so much more gadgetry - its tally of electrical components now reaches 1,400 - a single battery is inadequate to cope with the demands of the SL, so it has two. The first, sized at 35amps, provides power for the starter motor, but the sheer complexity of the car's network calls for the second battery to have a capacity of 60amps.

Not surprisingly, body weight has had to be trimmed to compensate for the army of microcomputers that are needed to maintain the car's vast array of standard and optional equipment, and aluminium and magnesium have replaced steel for the bonnet, wings, doors and some suspension components.

Although specification details are not yet finalised, Mercedes-Benz UK passenger car director Dermot Kelly, claims more lavish equipment levels will compensate for higher pricing. A total of 1,200 SL models are due for the UK next year, with annual supply rising to 1,400 for 2003.

Due toward the end of next year are a V6 version and the stunning, 5.5-litre 55 AMG announced at the Frankfurt Motor Show. As if that was not enough, a 12-cylinder version is also on the way to ensure the German manufacturer continues to hold pole position in the exclusive express sector it created almost half a century ago.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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