A Technological Showstopper (Not That You’d Ever Know It)

The appeal of the new Mercedes SL500 lies not in the growling V-8 or nifty retractable roof, but in the circuitry beneath the surface.

Insight can arrive unexpectedly. In this instance, it came in the form of Abe, who owns the convenience store down the street, when I wheeled up in the latest ego-bomb from Mercedes: a slate-gray SL500 with a coolly sinister menace to its sledgelike profile. Abe loves cars and is always happy to see what I’m driving. He emerged and circled the SL, lightly tracing its warm flanks with an appraising finger. “All these nice cars,” Abe said admiringly, “they’re really nice.” Well … yes. And that’s the gist of things, actually, when you enter the brightly lit room where the six-figure cars are kept. You can assume a few things about such vehicles, so let’s dispatch those right now. Once seated, you will be coddled in buttery elegance: nuzzled by unblemished leather, warmed by the finest burled wood, and informed by the most tasteful instrumentation. I’d list the luxury features that bejewel the SL500, but it will be far simpler to note that every luxury feature you might possibly ever encounter already comes standard.

In fact, the significant differences among such top-shelf rides are found in that murky lagoon known as automotive technology. When you purchase, say, a Saturn, you don’t fret much about technology. (Does it start? Check. Does it stop? Super.) But as you enter the realm of the statement automobile, things get a bit more demanding. Here, some manufacturers — like BMW, with its 745Li (see “The $77,845 Computer,” September) — plow their efforts into wowing you with electronic gadgetry obvious to the naked eye. Mercedes, too, is among the most innovative automakers in the world, and the SL500 is the fortunate locus of its geeky ministrations. But most of its technological prowess lurks beneath the surface, where it goes about its business unseen.

Let’s take the car’s keys, for instance. Or rather, let’s not: To enter the vehicle, you approach and allow the slim electronic card that resides in your wallet to emit the correct frequency, which pops the locks and preps things for your getaway. Merely touching the heat-sensitive pad atop the gearshift then sparks the Mercedes to life. What you’ve just engaged is, essentially, a mainframe with wheels. Mercedes has packed the SL with more than 50 data sensors linked by a controller area network, six main processors, and enough spools of fiber to truss up both passengers if you’re into that sort of thing. How powerful is all this? Well, open the hood and note that there are two batteries in there: one to run all the tech wizardry, and one for less vital things, like the cigarette lighter.

“Not that you’d smoke in this car, of course. That wouldn’t be good for you. And this would displease the SL since virtually every system onboard is focused on making things safer for you, the hapless, error-prone human. Are you taking that corner too fast? Not to worry. By now, one of the 13 sensors tucked between the coils and the car body has noticed your foolishness, and the car has already tightened the suspension to eliminate 95 percent of the body roll. Have you wigged out a bit in traffic, slammed the brakes into a spin? Well, actually, the SL would not have let you endanger it like this. When it sensed you were getting into trouble (by analyzing the time elapsed between when you removed your foot from the electronic throttle and when you hit the brakes), it launched a host of countermeasures to ward off your clumsiness.”

Since the SL uses a revolutionary brake-by-wire system, which replaced the mechanical and hydraulic elements of the braking system with a single module employing electronic impulses, the car preemptively began applying the perfect amount of braking pressure on the individual disks — heavy on the outside, for instance, if you were entering a curve, slightly less heavy if it sensed rain on the road — even while it adjusted the suspension to counteract your panic. If you’ve totally screwed up and a crash is imminent — and rest assured the SL is damned pissed at you right now — the vehicle will deploy the roll bar, ratchet the seat belts, and ready as many of its five airbags as it feels will be necessary to keep idiot you from being killed. It does all this in 0.03 seconds before the crash, after which it will phone in and report the accident.

So Kreskinesque is the SL500 that it’s easy to become inured to its many wonders. Tire pressure too low? One of the monitoring units embedded in each wheel will notice this and politely alert you on the car’s information center. You’re tooling along the highway, cruise control engaged, and the car in front begins to slow? Ffft, the Doppler radar mounted in the front grill has already calculated the relative speeds and the distance between the two vehicles, and the SL’s proximity control feature has slowed the vehicle accordingly, lest you be forced to manually readjust the distance. As if.

The simple fact is, you will likely never realize that the technology hidden within the SL’s stunning profile is the reason it moves through curves as if it’s been vacuum-sealed to the road and stops as if a dragging chute has been deployed. (The company’s cosmetics folks did a nifty bit of rhinoplasty on the new SL too, smoothing its snout and trimming several degrees of drag coefficient, thus eliminating the curious whistling and honking that afflicted the older, boxier SLs.) To drive this car is like piloting quicksilver, every thought of the driver made instantly, silently, addictively real. No doubt this is the result of the half-decade that Mercedes spent fussing over the SL, but the innovation is seamless, which is as it should be. The showiest piece of auto wizardry, now that I think about it is the SL500’s convertible roof — a steel marvel that in 16 seconds unhinges and folds into itself in a yogic dance to shame the most limber seer. My first day with the car, I amused myself endlessly by watching the roof glide up, glide down, and glide back up again.

2003 Mercedes SL500 Roadster

Price (as tested)
$94,165
Body type
2-door convertible
Weight
4,045 lbs
Length
178.5 in.
Width
72 in.
Wheelbase
100.8 in.
Engine
High-pressure die-cast alloy cylinder block with alloy heads; single-overhead-cam, 24-valve V-8
Horsepower
302 (@ 5,600 rpm)
Acceleration, 0-60 mph
6.1 seconds
Top speed
155 mph
Fuel economy (city/highway)
15/22 mpg
Posted by on November 25, 2002