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Mercedes Benz SL500

Broadcast date : 9th May 2004

Mercedes-Benz's SL500 defines an entire class of car on its own. It is not a supercar in the mould of a Ferrari F360 or Lamborghini. It is not a Grand Tourer like the BMW 645Ci, which has room for two passengers in the rear. And it is not a sports car in the mould of a Porsche 911, which places far more emphasis on agility and straight-line performance.

The Mercedes-Benz SL is perhaps a blend of all those cars, offering speed, excellent handling, superb build quality and user-friendliness. In fact many SL owners use their cars as day-to-day transport, despite the fact that an SL is a pure two-seater.

The SL comes from a lengthy Mercedes-Benz tradition that goes all the way back to 1955 when the first 300 SL was introduced.

Since then there have been only four body revisions to the SL range and this is the fifth-generation shape. That is a remarkable testimony to the SL's longevity and the secret is the timeless styling that is a Mercedes hallmark. The latest SL500, introduced here in 2002, is no different. The sleek shape still draws attention wherever it goes.

And its steel roof-convertible configuration is not just a triumph of engineering. This car looks good, top up or top down.

The Mercedes-Benz SL500 costs a whopping one million, one hundred and nineteen thousand, five hundred Rand. And this is after it was discounted earlier this year to the tune of some eighty thousand Rand! That's a lot of money in anyone's book. But sales have been excellent and if this is not enough for you, there is a supercharged AMG version that costs just under one comma five million Rand!

Justifying that kind of money isnít easy and it is obviously a car for the fabulously wealthy. But it is bristling with features as well as excellent performance.

The latest 2004 models are now fitted with Mercedes-Benz's new seven-speed automatic gearbox. With a V8 engine producing two hundred and twenty five kilowatts and four hundred and sixty Newton metres of torque, you may well ask: Why seven-speeds?

The reason, according to Mercedes, is that every aspect of performance is just that little bit sharper. The gear ratios are spaced closer together and the top gear is taller.

This means quicker acceleration off the mark and better fuel consumption when cruising in seventh gear.

Like most modern automatics, the transmission is adaptive, which means it adjusts shift points according to driving style automatically.

Drive it slowly with a light throttle and it will change up early. Mash your foot to the floorboards and it will hold change points close to the six thousand rev redline. For those who like more control, there is also a manual, or semi-manual mode on the gear lever.

The top-folding function is an impressive piece of design and mechanical efficiency and as the rear screen is glass it means you won't have to worry about rearward vision deteriorating over time, as you would with a plastic rear window used on many convertibles. To enable the top and screen to fold away without damage to luggage, a special protector shield is installed. If it is not in place, the folding mechanism refuses to operate.

Another neat detail of the SL is that it has a quick lift access to luggage when the top is folded away. If the boot needs to be fully laden with luggage, you'll have to wait until you reach your destination before unloading and driving around topless.

The SL is a solid car, but it does suffer from just a little scuttle shake when the top is down. You can feel this via a slight lack of rigidity in the steering column location. This is a problem that affects many convertibles. In our experience, the class leaders in this top-down rigidity at the moment are Porsche and BMW. The Porsche 911 Cabriolet, which we will be featuring soon on Car torque, is rock solid top up or top down and sets new standards for open-top body rigidity.

Travelling in convertible mode, the SL provides excellent wind protection and it is possible to cruise at highway speeds and beyond and conduct a normal conversation.

To provide even more top-down comfort a mesh wind-deflector is provided that clips behind the roll bar. This prevents the wind-tumbling effect causes as the air passes over the windscreen and then tumbles back on the occupants, blowing backwards onto their necks.

The roll bar in the SL is also an interesting piece of technology. The driver can choose to drive with it folded down, or raise it via a switch on the console. But if sensors detect that the car may be about to roll, the roll bar is automatically erected in a few milliseconds.

All the latest Benz luxury equipment is to found on the SL. This includes the keyless go system which enables you to unlock the doors and start the car with your key in your pocket. As long as you have the key on you the system reads the encoded signal from the key and allows access and engine start-up.

There is also a television and navigation screen which also incorporates radio and CD functions.

The seats are electrically adjustable and also have warmers, ventilators and a massaging function.

On the safety front, there are rain-sensing windscreen wipers, BiXenon headlamps and Distronic. This system allows the driver to operate the car in cruise control. If Distronic sensors any slow-moving or stationary object in the car's path, it automatically applies the brakes until the car has slowed to negate a closing speed on the obstacle.

As mentioned, for serious performance drivers the SL also comes in the supercharged version known as the AMG SL55.

But this car is no slouch, with zero to 100 km/h coming up in six and a half seconds. That is impressive stuff for a car weighing just over 1 800 kilograms.

Convertibles are often thought to be lighter than closed-roof cars but this rarely the case.

The extra body reinforcement needed when the top is down adds weight, and with the array of equipment on board the SL 500, that one comma eight ton figure is no great surprise.

Overall it is the Mercedes-Benz 500's effortless ability that impresses. It offers a fluid driving experience that is hard to beat and it does so with amazing agility for a car that is fairly large.

It also has the excellent air suspension option which offers adjustable ride height for clearing obstacles and a range of damping settings to suit either sporty or leisurely driving moods.

But when all is said and done it is the timeless styling that gives the SL its unique appeal. Women simply swoon when they see it, and men driving them seem to puff their chests out just a little.

It is one heck of a price, but it is one heck of a car too.

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