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Click for pictures“Once you’ve owned
  a SL 350 there
s no
  going back, only up

  to SL 500,
  and V-12 SL 600”

YOU CAN'T MISTAKE the latest SL for anything other than a Mercedes-Benz sports car. But, strictly speaking, that's not absolutely true. The problem is that Mercedes' premier sports car functions perfectly either as one of the smartest sport roadsters on the market or as an utterly convincing luxury GT coupé. In doing so, it blurs the lines between both. Which is, of course, a compliment of the highest order.

Mercedes have managed to get the lines of the new SL spot-on. Not only does it exude must-have cachet, but there's just the right degree of elegantly-honed aggression suggested by its predatory, sloping nose. Desirable, yes. But don't just take our word for it. Judge by the five-year long waiting list.

Membership fees to the SL club start at £60,630 for the entry-level SL 350, powered by a 245bhp 3.7-litre V6. There are also three more powerful engine options, from a 310bhp V8 up to the mighty 493bhp supercharged 5.5-litre V8 in the AMG SL 55, with prices rising from £73,030 to £98,830 for the flagship 6.0-litre twin-turboed V12 SL 600. The 3.7-litre '350' is certain to be a popular choice, not least because from the outside it looks exactly like its more potent big brother, the
SL 500. And there's a no-charge badge delete option if you like to
keep everyone guessing.

Although the 350 comes without the high-tech Active Body Control active suspension system that is fitted as standard to the rest of
the SL range, it is available as an extra for £2,540. While ABC unquestionably improves the dynamic handling and the ride, it is re-assuring to note that the SL 350's standard aluminium multi-link independent suspension already endows the car with an excellent deportment that smoothes away rough surfaces admirably. And, under most driving conditions, you and your passenger would be hard
pressed to feel the difference.

Our test car had the 5-speed adaptive auto 'box with the simple-to-use and functional 'Tipshift'. Again, it's standard on all other SLs but is a worthwhile and reasonably-priced £670 option on the entry-level 350.

Without doubt, the SL is defined by the amazing Vario-roof that turns roadster into secure coupé at the whim of its owner. Andy Warhol
said that everyone should be famous for 15 minutes. Well, you will be noticed for longer than that if you drive a Mercedes SL — whether before, during or after the exceedingly quick 16 seconds it takes to transform the SL from sleek coupé to desirable roadster. All it takes
is fingertip pressure on the distinctive roof switch or, if you're outside the car, a squeeze of the remote.

Where Mercedes has been extremely clever is in providing a folding metal hard-top that, when stowed, leaves room for serious luggage. It's no exaggeration to say that the SL's folding roof mechanism
is a masterpiece of engineering. Open or close it and you can almost guarantee an appreciative audience. Raise the boot lid and press a
red button in the boot and the cleverly flat-packed roof rises by about 20 degrees, facilitating the loading or unloading of a couple of medium-sized suitcases or a brace of golf bags. Roof up, there's 317 litres of usable luggage space in the boot. Roof down, a still-practical 235.

Rather than waste space with token rear seats behind the driver and passenger that will never be used, Mercedes has taken the sensible step of dedicating this useful area to extra storage — by fitting accommodating, lockable, storage boxes and practical retractable luggage straps that can safely secure additional luggage up to 80kgs
in weight. You will also find a number of discreet secondary storage compartments dotted about the cabin, including one under the passenger seat.

In the course of a year's testing we drive a large number of cars, most of which are both highly-desirable and competent enough to make our job pleasurable. Even so, driving the latest SL-Class Mercedes is something of an eye-opener. For a start it takes up a fair-sized bit of the road and with a 1,755kg kerb weight it's clear that luxury puts on the pounds like nothing else!

The SL feels nimble and endowed with a reassuring surefootedness, thanks as much to the sophisticated lightweight body (the bonnet, front wings, doors and boot lid are made from aluminium) and a host
of some of the best electronic driver aids available. The most cutting-edge of these is undoubtedly the Sensotronic 'brake-by-wire' brakes.

In order to try these new, very high-tech and competent electro-hydraulic brakes you need to stop admiring the SL's body and climb in. Reflecting the fact that the SL looks a touch more Tourer than Sportster, the cabin is undeniably a place for hedonists, providing
the comfort and refinement you'd expect to find in a fully-fledged limousine.

The SL's interior is roomy, stylish and very much a 'single-finger' environment. Almost everything moves electrically so you need only use a fingertip to make adjustments. The standard equipment package is very comprehensive, with just about all you might want already fitted — including tinted glass, Xenon headlamps with wash, cruise control, lovely 17-inch alloys, automatic climate control, auto dimming rear-view mirror and driver's exterior mirror, electrically folding and heated door mirrors, CD unit, leather-trimmed multi-function steering-wheel with trip computer, COMAND cockpit management system incorporating Sat-Nav, leather upholstery, auto illuminating headlights, rain-sensing wipers, heated seats and even metallic paint. All you
need to do is to choose the colour and trim materials.

The leather seats are first-class, with power adjustment of seat height, fore/aft position, seat cushion angle and length, electrical headrest plus lumbar supports in the backrest. Both have a
memory function, and their multi-adjustability means greater comfort along with enough support to match the SL's handling verve. Not only does the memory function store the individual seat,
steering wheel and exterior mirror settings for up to three drivers,
but it transmits this data to the SL's electronic ignition key.

When the driver inserts the electronic key into the ignition the seat, the steering wheel and mirrors will adjust automatically to the stored positions. The steering wheel also has a useful range of both fore/
aft and height power adjustment plus an Easy Entry function, guaranteeing a flawless driving position. Four double-action steering-wheel mounted buttons — perfectly-sited for your thumbs and which can be used without looking — cover all entertainment, telephone
and Sat-Nav functions.

The dash is both attractive and well laid out, with jewel-like instruments featuring glacier-blue needles. Two large circular dials of
a classical chronometer design cover road speed and engine revs,
each with a multi-function display for a multitude of driver information. Flanking them on the left and the right are two smaller analogue displays indicating coolant temperature and fuel level. The brightness of the back-lit glacier-blue faces adjusts automatically to suit the lighting in the SL's interior. Best of all, there is an easy-to-remember logic about everything.

Above the central 7-inch colour monitor for the COMAND system — which combines the car radio, CD player, TV unit, Sat-Nav and communications system into one compact unit — are the master central locking switches and the hazard warning lamps button. Below the screen is the dial 'n' forget dual-zone automatic climate control module. And beneath this, surrounding the selector lever, is
switchgear including that for the heated seats, switchable ESP, door mirrors and the autobox's Comfort/Sport drive program.

Materials and build quality are pure Mercedes, with some particularly nice touches. Seat switches are shaped to match the particular section of the seat operated, and the glovebox, the storage compart-ment between the seats and the stowage boxes in the rear can all
be locked with a single 'blip' on the remote when the car is locked.

The comfortable armrest at the rear of the central console is trimmed with leather. It also doubles as the lid for the stowage compartment beneath it which has a capacity of 4.6 litres and is divided into two sections which can be opened separately. The top holds a telephone, while the larger lower section is ideal for smaller items as well as for snacks and drinks. Like the generous-sized glovebox, it is cooled by
the automatic climate control system.

Twist the blade-less triangular key and the V6 purrs into life. Release the foot-operated handbrake and the first thing you notice is that
the ride quality is impressively compliant, smoothing away minor road imperfections with not a hint of flex from the bodyshell. Out on the open road you can flex your right foot as much as you wish and
the ride quality remains consistently cosseting. Definitely on a par with big prestige executive saloons.

Along with a tight turning circle, the new speed-controlled rack-and-pinion power steering delivers a degree of precision and accuracy that's in keeping with the sports car side of the SL's image.

Most 350 owners, no matter how hard they push, will have their ex-pectations fully met when it comes to having fun in their car. Even
in standard entry-level guise with conventional suspension, the SL behaves far, far better than a sports car getting on for 1800kgs has any right to do.

The brake-by-wire brakes are truly impressive and offer higher levels
of safety than a conventional system. By using a computer to measure, interpret and apply the brakes based on input from the driver's foot, the main brake system can be integrated perfectly
with the stability and traction control systems. In layman's terms this means a better judged braking operation resulting in faster response times, smoother application of the brakes and reduced stopping distances.

The Sensotronic Brake Control system even compensates for poor weather conditions, lightly applying the pads against the discs in the wet to keep them dry for maximum retardation the instant they are needed. Braking in corners is safer too, the system applying extra pressure to the outer wheels to keep the SL on track. In practice you are totally unaware of all this high-tech wizardry taking place beneath your foot. All you know is that the brakes feel superb, maintaining reassuring stability while effortlessly hauling the 350 down from high speeds.

Buyers wanting scorching performance from an SL will obviously pick either the AMG SL 55 or the V12-engined 600 for no other reason than that old American saying that claims there's no substitute for cubic inches, which is as true today as it was then. And while it may not have the awesome fire-power of its more powerful stablemates, the punchy 350 is still a very enticing means of getting around.

For the record, Mercedes actually give you more engine than the badge on the boot lid suggests. 224 cubic centimetres more, to be precise. Because the 3,724cc V6 under the SL 350's bonnet is the latest 18-valve V6 also found in the newest S-Class cars. An eager 245bhp coupled with 258lb ft of torque at 3,000-4,500rpm means it can launch itself off the line to hit 62mph in 7.2 seconds before
going on to an electronically-limited 155mph. Yet with peak torque coming in from 3,000rpm it will just as smoothly rip through the
mid-range for some challenging A-road entertainment. Driven passionately, the SL 350 is capable of giving a V8 500 a fair run for
its money.

At all times progress is seamlessly fluid, the superb ZF auto 'box slipping smoothly up and down its five ratios. However, a gentle nudge on the selector lever is all it takes to switch from laid-back cruising mode to instantaneous manual shifts — far more satisfying than going the usual kickdown route.

Not all of the people, of course, want to drive on the limit all of the time. Happily, Mercedes sports cars have always been about more than just performance. Their forte has, first and foremost, always been
not about how fast you can get from A to B, but the way in which you get there.

This is where that marvellous Vario-roof comes in. SL owners get an unbeatable two-for-one deal. During the 16 seconds it takes to change from metal-topped Grand Tourer to sun-worshipper's convertible
the three-piece roof — including the rear window with 4-millimetre thick safety glass — folds itself tidily into a space under the boot lid.

So, pull on the switch between the seats to lower the top, leave the side windows up and raise the mesh windblocker. And cruise. There's virtually no buffeting even at press-on motorway speeds. You can chat, put the world to rights, soak up your favourite music or simply chill. This is when you begin to understand what the SL-Class is all about.

Top back in place and the refined coupé SL becomes your own refuge from a stressful world. Road and wind noise are minimal, even at three-figure speeds. And if you work the V6 hard a muted growl keeps you
in touch.

Behind the SL's innate dynamic ability is an equally reassuring safety presence that — in addition to the latest electronic braking, traction and stability aids — includes two-stage front airbags for driver and passenger, head-thorax airbags, and extremely robust seats with the seat belt system fully integrated into the seat frame. There is also
a roll-over bar that, long before the driver even thinks it might be needed, will have sprung automatically into place.

It's no cliché to say that if you can afford to buy one of these cars you really aren't going to be losing any sleep worrying about running costs. Actually, with an official touring figure of 34mpg, there's no bad news. Mixed driving should see 24.1, while urban running around is given as 16.1mpg. The 80-litre fuel tank should, courtesy of the 34mpg extra-urban figure, be good for a very civilized 550-mile touring range.

For many, choosing an SL-Class will be a foregone conclusion. Who
can blame them given the SL's distinctive good looks, its comfort, its equipment and the superbly-engineered folding steel roof that effectively makes every SL 'two cars in one'. And just as money always seems to go to money, if you can afford the asking price it will no doubt prove to be one of the safest motoring investments on the market. Who wants to be millionaire? I

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Mercedes-Benz SL 350 | £60,630
Maximum speed: 155mph | 0-62mph: 7.2 seconds
Overall test MPG: 23mpg | Power: 245bhp | Torque: 258lb ft

Visit Mercedes' website Click to go there now

-------------------------------------------------------- Mercedes-Benz SL 350