It is a rare and momentous occasion when one gets to experience not one but three world class roadsters all over the course of a weekend. There was the seductive SL550, the concrete crumpling AMG SLK55, and last but not least the silver screen-gracing Mach 5 from the movie “Speed Racer.” Of course only the two Mercedes Benz vehicles are real-life super roadsters but it is still fun to compare the real with the semi-real from time to time. So without any further ado, sit back and enjoy, “Challenge of the Mercedes Racer (Part 1),” as “Speed Racer” takes on the 2009 Mercedes Benz SL550 in another exciting, albeit hypothetical episode of “Speed Racer.”
As far as real roadsters go, the SL series could be the most worthy opponent the Mach 5 has ever encountered. Certainly from a visual standpoint, the Benz has the Mach 5 licked. Exterior updates for this year’s SL line include a new, more aggressive headlight cluster, a redrawn hood with twin power bulges, and a single bar grill that harkens back to the renowned 1954 SL300. Working your way towards the rear, you’ll discover gill-type air outlets behind the front wheels, larger side view mirrors, and at the rear, a wind diffuser below the rear bumper between two restyled trapezoidal exhaust outlets.
Interior design and accommodations are equally impressive with a spotlight on the new elegant yet sporty three-spoke steering wheel and the restyled instrument cluster featuring red indicator needles that swing to their maximum positions and back again upon vehicle startup. Watch out Speed Racer. Your little red scarf will seem pathetic once you’ve tried the SL’s new AIRSCARF system (optional on SL550). This neck-level heating system is built into the headrests of both driver and passenger seats. While it can be set to three different heating levels, it also possesses intelligence and can adjust itself based on vehicle speed and interior/exterior temperatures.
The SL’s audio system is also new. A 6.5” color display and music storing capability have been brought up from the C-Class division to the big leagues, along with a six-disc in dash CD-DVD Changer and integrated memory card slot (SD Card rather than Compact Flash as in the C-Class). Bluetooth, voice command operation, and Ipod integration are all there as well. Let’s see the Mach 5 top this impressive array of features.
On the road, the SL550 can assume two distinct personalities thanks to its two-mode Active Body Control suspension. While body roll is rarely an issue given the SL’s wide body, low center of gravity, and its continuously adjusting dampers, Sport mode will tighten things up even more for serious maneuverability just in case. At relaxed speeds, you’d better leave the suspension in Comfort mode as the ride can get a bit bumpy over even small road imperfections in Sport mode. A driver also has the ability to adjust ride height for situations that require extra ground clearance. At highway speeds the suspension automatically lowers the SL’s ride height for increased aerodynamics and body control. The Mach 5’s auto jacks are starting to look pretty primitive in comparison.
The SL550’s new intelligent seven-speed manumatic transmission allows a driver to take full advantage of the 5.5 liter V8’s 382 horsepower. Sorting out the best possible gear for a given situation can be difficult at times, especially when there are seven cogs to choose from. Fortunately the SL’s shift computer can remove the guessing game from the equation. Simply pull back on the left paddle shifter for a split second (or pull left on the console shifter) and your ideal gear will be served to you on a silver platter, whether your goal is to pass a slower moving vehicle or slow your SL on a steep downhill grade.
To assist in the slowing are new four-channel anti-lock brakes. The only time they felt less than race worthy was in slow moving, around town, situations. The pedal felt a bit soft and difficult to modulate in stop and go traffic. However, when the road cleared and the pace hastened, the Brake Assist (BAS) along with Predictive Brake Priming did an excellent job of providing maximum brake-pedal pressure and binding power when it was needed along the twists and turns around Griffith Park.
Sure the Mach 5 is equipped with a whole slew of impressive imaginary technology like the Bernoulli Converginator and Tire Crampons, but the fact that Mercedes Benz has developed a real roadster with a feature set that could conceivably make Speed Racer second guess his own ride, is a remarkable feat. The Cadillac XLR and Lexus SC430 are another pair of real life roadsters to consider but neither can match the SL550’s performance nor its luxury features, although Mercedes Benz will make you pay dearly for the seat at the top of the podium. Our SL550 was fully loaded and came in at $108,075. The only notable features not standard were AIRSCARF, heated and Active Ventilated Seats as part of the Premium 1 Package, Distronic Adaptive Cruise Control, and a Panorama roof. But enough technical babble. Let’s get back to the show.
It seems Mercedes Benz has Speed Racer right where they want him. Will the Mach 5 be able to counter the SL550’s impressive luxury and performance or will Speed Racer be seduced by one of the classiest roadsters money can buy? Tune in next week for Part 2 of “Challenge of the Mercedes Racer.”
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