The Mercedes SL has come full circle. The fifth-generation SL finally recaptures the sports car soul of the immortal 300SL Gullwing of 1954. This new SL is a real sports car--full of technology, stunning to look at, deceptively fast, amazingly capable, and, most important, a lot of fun to drive. For much of its life, the SL was a boulevard cruiser for aging, affluent softies, but now it's good enough and rewarding enough to challenge the Porsche 911. For the moment, SL fanciers will have to sate their appetites with the SL500, although other models will follow: a supercharged 476-horsepower SL55 AMG, an entry-level 220-horsepower SL320, and a range-topping V-12-engined 406-horsepower SL600.
We drove the SL500, which is tipped to be the best value of the range. Despite being loaded with new technology, it will be priced at a similar level to the outgoing car (at around $85,000), it is plenty powerful, and the normally aspirated V-8 will give it better balance than the two more potent but heavier engines.
Like the SLK, the latest SL boasts Mercedes' patented hard-panel fold-away roof. The full-size droptop is now, like the SLK, strictly a two-seater, as every decent roadster should be. While the collapsible top converts the new SL into a weatherproof coupe at the push of a button, the absence of token rear seats provides valuable extra storage space, either inside two convenient lockable compartments or on top of them. Opening and closing the roof takes only sixteen seconds, bettering the SLK's operation by nine seconds. There are some drawbacks, however, such as too much wind noise at speed and a cramped trunk that shrinks from 11.2 cubic feet to 8.3 cubic feet with the top down.
Virtually every function in the SL is motorized, power-assisted, or fully automatic. The trunklid pulls itself shut, the wind deflector rises at the push of a button, and there is even an "easy pack" feature that lifts the folded roof to improve access to the shallow cargo compartment. Of course, the driver still has to steer, brake, and accelerate, but even these basic functions have been made easier. The new SL is the first production car fitted with electrohydraulic brakes (see sidebar), and it also boasts Active Body Control (ABC) as standard equipment; speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering in place of a recirculating ball arrangement; an electronic throttle; and a five-speed automatic transmission that doubles as a self-shifter should the urge arise.
But the first thing you notice when you open the wide door to climb behind the four-spoke multifunction steering wheel is the car's much more generous packaging. By extending the wheelbase from 99.0 to 100.8 inches, the designers have created a notably more spacious cabin: Legroom has gone up by almost two inches, and headroom has increased by an inch. Shoulder room is marginally greater, too. Also worth mentioning are the impeccable build quality and materials, something of a shock in this era of budget-driven Mercedes interiors. There are some ergonomic flaws, such as the complex A/C controls and the confusing array of pushbuttons around the gear selector, but these are minor glitches.
Settled into the cabin, it's time for a blast across the Swabian Alps near Stuttgart. The familiar twin-plug-per-cylinder 5.0-liter V-8 has a subdued growl that turns into an angry roar whenever you blip the throttle. Filtering onto the A8 autobahn toward Munich, it's obvious that this is far and away the best steering ever fitted to a modern Mercedes. Our second impression is that the gearbox responds lazily to kickdown, and the accelerator pedal travels a long way before it eventually hits the firewall. Set against that, the chassis feels solid as a gold bar and instantly inspires confidence. We are going to have fun today.