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New models - Mercedes-Benz - SL-class

First Oz drive: Benz SL500 stunner

Best of both worlds: Featuring styling elements of the SLR Supercar, the new SL is said to offer the best of both coupe and convertible worlds.

Mercedes promises better value and performance from its new generation cabrio

2 Jul 2002

MERCEDES-BENZ has continued what it calls its price realignment with the launch of the metal-roofed fifth generation SL cabrio range in Australia this week.

The company, which began the process of improving its cost competitiveness in the late 1990s, is determined not to be seen as demanding inflated prices purely based on the lustre of its three-pointed badge.

Nevertheless, the V8-powered SL 500 we get as the vanguard of the two-seater range is still $289,474. While that is hardly in the everyman category, Benz is keen to point out it is a few hundred dollars cheaper than the original recommended retail price announced for the new car back in March.

The drop comes courtesy of the Federal Government's upward indexation of the luxury car tax threshold - and it's a price cut that flows on to the supercar class SL 55 AMG that will be launched at the Sydney motor show in October.

It has also come down a few hundred dollars to $359,474.

In raw terms, the pricing of the SL 500 is still up 2.4 per cent on the previous model, but Mercedes-Benz Australia managing director Matthias Luhrs argues that's not telling the whole story.

"The addition of new standard equipment such as the vario-roof, sensotronic brakes, head thorax bag and parameter steering improves the value by 6.3 per cent, resulting in a net value improvement of 3.9 per cent," he said.

Such is Mr Luhrs' confidence that he is predicting a virtual doubling of average sales from the outgoing R129's 80 per year to 150 per annum for the lifespan of the new car.

Already, 640 orders are on the books. But MBA is predicting it will only be able to obtain 180 units for delivery this year, but is hoping for another 250 in 2003, but is hoping for more supply.

If orders start slackening as time goes by, six-cylinder and V12 variants will no doubt boost sales stocks again.

And not only is MBA expecting more sales, it is expecting a different audience as well.

"The previous model SL enjoyed a positioning which gave it strong appeal to men - around 89 per cent - with an average age of 49," Mr Luhrs said.

"Thanks in part to the sportier character of the new SL, this average age is expected to fall to approximately 47. We also expect to slightly improve the skew towards women." So what will this new audience get for its substantial amount of money? The SL 500 is powered by a 5.0-litre engine which gets used across several Benz model categories, in this case punching out 225kW and 460Nm. Top speed is an electronically limited 250km/h with a 0-100km/h dash time of 6.3 seconds.

But the supercharged 5.5-litre V8 AMG version takes performance to another level with a power output of 350kW and a mammoth 700Nm worth of torque. It dashes to 100km/h in 4.7 seconds, putting it truly in the supercar zone.

Cheekily, MBA has already begun a teaser "Sorry Enzo, Sorry Ferdinand" magazine campaign promoting the 55's performance.

"With the best 0-300 acceleration figures of any production sports car, the SL 55 AMG will most certainly appeal to the odd Lamborghini, Porsche and Ferrari customer," Mr Luhrs said.

MBA promises a high level of equipment as well as performance. The SL 500 includes ABC (active body control) ESP (electronic stability program) four airbags automatic climate control bi-xenon headlights CD changer with COMAND navigation and audio system heated leather electric seats with active seat ventilation PARKTRONIC ultrasonic parking aid SBC (Sensotronic Brake Control) brake-by-wire and the three-section folding hardtop vario-roof - which can be operated from the remote key.

On top of that, the SL 55 AMG has ABC with re-tuned parameters bespoke interior and exterior styling, seats and wheels specially-tuned SBC brakes AMG-tuned five speed automatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted shift controls and multi-contour seats.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

EVEN after 13 years on the market, the now superseded R129 SL-class is still a good looking car with a reasonable amount of road presence.

But put it side by side with the all-new SL and it is obvious time stands still for no-one, not even one of Mercedes-Benz's all-time classics.

The new SL retains the old car's low and wide wedge styling but it is much more aggressive and in-your-face compared to its predecessor.

Around the back blocks of far north Queensland, where we sampled the three-pointed star's latest convertible, it might as well have come straight out of a futuristic movie set, given all the staring and finger pointing it prompted.

But from behind the wheel the look and feel of the new SL is somewhat more conventional, although no less impressive.

Ergonomically, it is a more cohesive effort than some of Benz's recent efforts, although much of the minor switchgear carries over from other models.

The instrument panel and ventilation controls have been kept especially clear and simple, while the use of the satellite navigation/TV screen for all the audio system functions has enabled the complicated setup that is in many of the lesser Mercedes models to be ditched.

Now it is the next generation of electronic driver aids that takes some getting used to, with Sensotronic Brake Control (SBC) and Active Body Control (ABC) the most notable in that regard.

While braking performance is excellent for a heavy (1845kg) car, the short pedal stroke and reduced pedal feel have you struggling to execute a smooth application of the brakes, as well as over-estimating stopping distances.

ABC also has you reassessing how a car should behave as it enables the SL to corner with barely a hint of bodyroll.

The now familiar 5.0-litre V8 engine remains a free-revving unit, albeit with a noticeably more throaty exhaust note than in other models. The five-speed auto transmission continues to be syrupy smooth going up or down through the gears.

In 1954, when the first SL model - the legendary 300SL - was released, Germany also won its first soccer World Cup. That effort was repeated in 1990, when the previous R129 model was released, with Germany beating Argentina 1-0 in the World Cup final.

Now in 2002, Mercedes-Benz has unveiled its fifth generation SL, but the German soccer team could not manage another World Cup win to continue the pattern.

No doubt Mercedes-Benz will be hoping this is not an omen for its latest range-topping convertible.

But if our brief drive is any indication, Mercedes-Benz has scored a goal with its latest SL model.

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