By on December 18, 2001

 Blasting down an unrestricted section of autobahn at 125 miles per hour, the new Mercedes SL did something extraordinary: it kicked down. There I was, as nervous as a human cannonball aimed at a brick wall, and the SL just reaches down, grabs some more power, and slings me all the way to 155. All my doubts about Mercedes' range topper vanished. It's totally safe, faultlessly efficient and plenty damn fast. It is, in fact, the perfect car.

Oh, OK, the turn indicators sound cheap and nasty. The vanity mirrors are too small, and lack an indent for easy opening. The driver's visor is too tightly sprung; try to find a shallow angle and it just might snap your fingers off. And, um, that's it. It's perfect.

 But a perfect what? One thing the SL is definitely not is a sports car. First, there's a problem with the manual gear change: it doesn't have one. Yes, the SL's slick-shifter is the best automatic gearbox in the world, ever. It's so smooth, seamless and responsive, it's damn near telepathic. But even its ability to kick down a little or a lot depending on your mood doesn't overcome the fact that all that creamy V8 power is delivered by emotionally remote, fly-by-wire control.

And then there's the, um, 'weight problem'. Given the SL's supermodel curves, it may seem indelicate to mention the car's 1840kg. But there's no getting around the fact that the days when SL stood for 'Sports Light' are long gone. To their credit, Mercedes have explored the limits of science to disguise the fact. The latest power-assisted rack and pinion steering combines driving ease with remarkable feel. Deeply mysterious ABC (active body control) instantly adjusts the car's hydraulic suspension to keep body roll-the previous SL's nemesis- in check. ESP (Electronic Stability Program) and ASR (Automatic Skid Reduction) cut in gently yet effectively, as and when you forget to drive 'sensibly'.

 Still, one assault on a proper curve and you'll know that Porsches aren't the only porkers on the road. The SL may weigh less than its predecessor, but it's a full 400kgs heavier than a Carrera. Corner too fast in the Merc and the 17' tyres squeal like a stuck pig. Understeer slides you towards the scenery. You start thanking God (and Daimler Benz) that you're equipped with two-stage activation front and side airbags, a pop-up roll bar and a super-strong crumple zone.

Mercifully, there's real salvation in the SBC (Sensotronic Brake Control) and BAS (Brake Assist System) braking systems. Give the brakes a hard shove and they shove right back, right until the point where the driver's aids can introduce a measure of calm to the proceedings. Safe, sure, but no fun. Not like a sports car.

 So what about the SL as a perfect luxury two-seater? I've got one word for that proposition: 'boot space'. OK, so it's two words, but it's the same concept: not enough room for the job. Thanks to the flipping, turning, twisting, retracting Vario-roof- so balletic even the Russian judges give it 10 out of 10- the roof-down boot can only accommodate one serious case. Wealthy owners who like to shelter from life's rigours at country house hotels will not be well pleased.

The roof also detracts from the luxury experience by generating intrusive wind noise. Americans need not worry; the din begins at 87 miles per hour. But their transatlantic, transcontinental cousins will be forced to raise their voices significantly when communing with passengers at speed. Given the advanced years of many SL drivers, this is not likely to increase the sum of human happiness.

 I'm just quibbling right? For a car wearing the Mercedes star purporting to be the ultimate, er, something, I think not. If you put these objections to one side – and the SL has more than enough build quality to encourage you to do so – the car does a fine job of cocooning its occupants in 'Benz world'. That's the place where driving is no more demanding- or involving- than being transported to the planet surface by the Starship Enterprise. You get into the car, and then you get out. It's not the journey that counts; it's the calls you make on the way. (True sybarites will note that the personalised climate control system now extends to your butt.)

The SL has one more chance at filling a niche: cruising. In this genre, a car must be a convertible. It must also have brand credibility, effortless style, and endless, mindless ease. Drop-top Jags, Astons and Bentleys are far too pretentious and unreliable for the job. As good as it is, the Porsche Cabriolet is just too serious minded. The new SL has it all: a rock hard rep, movie star looks and Teutonic efficiency. It is the perfect cruiser. Expect every Monaco-residing Formula One driver to buy one, as well as the burghers of every major town in Europe, America, the Middle and Far East.

In fact, only production limitations will prevent Mercedes from shifting 100,000 SL500 cruisers this year. That, and sticker shock. At £68,500 for the base model, perfection still comes at a price.

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