AUTO BIOGRAPHY / MERCEDES BENZ SL500

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The Independent Online
NOBODY reads motoring literature except buffs - life's too short. But everyone has one obsession which that unrelenting truth can't penetrate. If not cars, it's antiques, or Fender guitars, or badger-watching at midnight. We all know life's too short but that only increases our desire to make space for the stuff.

I read some buff's stuff about the Mercedes Benz S in Autocar the other day, the excellent Steve Cropley describing sitting in the cockpit with racing driver Dario Franchitti, heading up to heart-stopping bends at 120mph, braking hard and dropping the automatic gearbox into second to swing the smoking back tyres out in order to get back on the straight at ninety. All this is lunacy of course. But such tales do convey the magic of a special piece of engineering, and that's why a few people here (very few) buy a very expensive car that can't legally be used within wheel-screeching distance of its potential.

The Mercedes SL500 Mille Miglia is a celebration version of the company's standard SL500, a silent five-litre monster. Does it make sense to own and drive one? If you don't mind having little or no change out of a six- figure sum once all the extras are thrown in, and don't want to use it for extended family motoring (the rear seats can't cope with anything much bigger than a 10-year-old), then this is one of the elite group of sporting supercars. Its body design is a masterpiece of Mercedes restraint, it takes fast bends as if magnetised to the road, and its power proves its roadgoing value when you can overtake lumbering articulated lorries with safety margins unthinkable in most cars.

Safety features abound. As well as the traditional rigidity and impeccable build-quality of a Mercedes bodyshell, there are electronic driver-aids such as anti-lock braking and acceleration skid-control, and thin front airbags. Pampering features include electrically operated and programmable seat-position controls. On the convertible the hood is robotically efficient at packing and unpacking itself without human intervention.

There is, of course, fuel consumption to match the engine size - around 17 miles per gallon in town, and 25 or so on the motorway. But, as there are only 6,000 or so SLs on British roads, not used for daily motorway hammering, their environmental impact isn't on the same graph as commercial traffic. A lame excuse on a planet that must turn against the car to survive, you might argue. Maybe. But this is a superb pleasure-mobile, in the category of the mildest offenders. If fossil-fuel motoring were restricted to 5,000 miles a year and a public transport system built for all other journeys, that would suit me fine.

GOING PLACES: magnificent tigerish V8 engine, offering 0-60mph acceleration in under 6 secs, 347lbs/ft torque at 3,700 revs per min. Four-speed auto gearbox, very responsive kickdown for overtaking.

STAYING ALIVE: advanced suspension design that makes the SL such a strong contender on the track as well as the road, excellent compromise of acceptable firmness (only really discernible on rough urban roads) with flat handling. Steering feel superb, grip tenacious. Twin front airbags, anti-lock braking, anti-skid technology, legendary Merc build quality.

CREATURE COMFORTS: not much space, but lots of luxurious gizmos: electric windows and mirrors, remote central locking; fully automatic hood; air conditioning; CD player; electronically adjustable and programmable front seats; cruise control. Luxury leather seating. Twin rear child seats, but with tall front occupants even children feel the pinch. Boot space limited by hood stowage.

BANGS PER BUCK: Mercedes quality that holds the car's value. Expensive to run - top insurance group, fuel consumption approx 16-17 mpg in town, 20-26mpg on motorways. Price: pounds 79,600, plus extras

STAR QUALITY: beautiful lines, superb engine, flawless high performance, Mercedes charisma.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: price, slightly hard urban ride for some, leather sports seats can cause posterior aches over long distances, a bit too quietly efficient for some sportscar enthusiasts.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Jaguar XJS Celebration Convertible (pounds 45,950) - final revamp of 21-year-old superstar; slower than SL, just as cramped, but much cheaper for comparable equipment levels. Porsche 911 Carrera 4 (pounds 58,500) - even older classic, still sweeping the honours for thrills, safety, phenomenal agility. BMW M3 Convertible (pounds 38,200) - genuine four-seater, great engine (as quick as the Merc), steering not quite up to its performance.

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