There are a number of wrappers for Mercedes Benz's all-aluminum 5.5-liter V-8 engine: the flagship 2007 Mercedes Benz S550 relies on the 382-horsepower plant to get from private airport to movie premiere to golf club parking lot; the 2007 E550 relies on the engine to get down the autobahn at white-knuckle speeds while looking deceptively innocuous, the CLS550 four-door coupe enables well-heeled, sporty-minded parents to whisk the kids off to soccer practice in style. But for sheer good looks, the 2007 Mercedes-Benz SL550 is head and shoulders above its stable mates. The stars aligned for our week with the 2007 SL 550 and we were blessed with clement weather in which to enjoy the topless delights of Mercedes' iconic roadster. While the SL550's exterior design is irreproachable, the car's interior falls way short of what we would expect for a two-seater with a six-figure price tag.
Test the tech: Canyon carving in the Presidio
The 2007 Mercedes-Benz SL550 has the performance credentials to earn it distinction as more than just a pretty face. Its place in the elite of the Mercedes line up is confirmed by the inclusion of Active Body Control (ABC) as a standard feature (the only other vehicles to be so equipped are the S55 AMG, the S600, and the CL class). ABC is an active suspension system designed to reduce body roll in cornering, accelerating, and braking. Using 13 sensors placed around the vehicle, the ABC system theoretically detects and counteracts vertical- and transverse body roll by regulating the suspension via hydraulic servos located at each corner. The driver-selectable ABC Sport mode, activated by a button on the SL550's center console, firms up the servo-assisted suspension for those wishing to put the car through its paces in spirited driving.
For our tech test of the SL550, we resolved to join this latter group: in the interests of empirical automotive journalism, we planned to drive the car in spirited fashion for a whole afternoon, half of which we would spend in regular ABC mode, and half in ABC Sport mode. This way we could report back on any noticeable difference between the two. To ensure that we had a sufficient supply of suitably challenging roads, we set our sights on San Francisco's Presidio, located a couple of miles west of the densely packed maze of office towers and gridlocked traffic that makes the city's downtown area. With its tangle of winding roads, hairpins, hills, and straightaways, the Presidio was tailor-made for our purpose.
With a curb weight of 4,420lbs, the 2007 SL500 is more of a porker than its svelte profile suggests. The SL550 is a little ponderous when called into action off the line: even with stability control disabled, we were barely able to chirp the tires from standing.
With the ABC Sport mode activated, the handling dynamics of the SL550 are demonstrably improved and weight transfers through chicanes was noticeably sharper. In aggressive cornering, the suspension provides a satisfying pushback as the car tries to roll, leading to the car holding its line and its lateral orientation throughout the course of a bend.
In the cabin
The cockpit of the SL550 is a triumph of spartan sportiness over luxury. Aside from a sliver of wood in the center console and $900 worth of timber on the steering wheel and shifter, the appointments are a mix of black leather covering the seats, cowl, and the doors; and black plastic trim for everything else. For those with an extra $7,850 to burn on finery, the SL550 does come with three designo trim packages (Espresso, Mystic White, and Graphite), which give the car an upgraded paint job, some Nappa leather appointments, a wood-and-leather wrapped steering wheel, a roof liner, and some designer floor mats.
The most dramatic tech feature of the cabin is its retractable hard-top roof, which opens and closes with the aid of a flap located toward the rear of the center console. With a pull of the flap, the roof majestically folds up and disappears into the trunk in about 15 seconds. Our test car came with the Panorama roof option, which replaces the standard roof with a glass panel, letting more light into the cabin and giving the car a more flowing rear profile. With the roof in the boot, the SL550 has an impressive amount of cargo space left available, which is made particularly accessible by a tilting shelf that swivels upward when the trunk is opened to allow access.
Waiting for the top to come down gave us an ideal opportunity to program the SL550's dynamic multicontour seats (part of the $3,150 Premium I package). This function gives both occupants the ability to adjust their seat's shoulder width and lumbar support via a cluster of buttons located on the outboard side of the seats. In addition to fine-tuning the seat's pneumatic chambers to suit your posterior's requirements, the multicontour controls include a Pulse feature designed to alleviate lower back fatigue.