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Mercedes SL 550: Poised and Powerful
Taking a date out for a drive is something Steve McQueen might have done. In today's attention deficit-disordered times, though, dates usually require that a drive has a destination. That's not necessarily so if you're riding in the 50th anniversary edition of the Mercedes SL 550 roadster from DaimlerChrysler AG's (DCX) Mercedes-Benz division. A drive will do if it's 75 degrees, the sky's brightened by a full moon and the convertible's retractable hard-top roof is down. Two seats. Two doors. With the stereo blaring Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's "Weapon of Choice," I fell for the roadster.


The Mercedes SL 550 lacks the sheer muscle of a Porsche or a Corvette, both of which I have driven, though not the most up-to-date versions. Rather, it has more of the lean, toned, yoga-inspired sleekness of a luxury car with sports-car strength underneath. Mine was a midnight blue with a navy interior, which was fitting for my moonlit excursion.

Into the Sunset


My husband and I left our daughter in safe hands and set out after work on a Friday. Dinner in the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., to watch the sun set seemed like a good idea. But, when we got there, the drive felt too short to put the car and its many features to the test. Each red light was an affront as we attempted to ramp up enough speed to really marvel at the quiet V8 engine, the leather-coated dashboard and the elegant lacquered-wood styling.


My husband was fiddling with the "multicontour" seat adjustments. One can adjust the position of the seat in the common lean, tilt, and up or down positions, but to encourage total comfort while driving this $96,075 car, there are at least six ways to adjust lumbar, midback, upper back, shoulder and head support. Before he could settle on a configuration, however, we'd arrived.


Still stressed from the work week, I was anxious about driving and parking on the old cobblestone streets, but it was a breeze.


A button for city driving lifts the entire chassis slightly off the ground, affording the driver a bit more comfort in pothole-ridden pathways. For parking, another button allows the driver to adjust bumper cameras that beep and warn the driver as the ends of the car approach the vehicles on either side of a tight parking spot.


The piece de resistance was the transformerlike retractable roof. With a simple switch nestled nearby the automatic gear shift, you pull or push to open or close. My husband was giddy as he watched the thing hum and fold into the back dashboard. "A grown-up's toy," he says.

The Ride Is All


Once fed and still keen on staying out, we decided to bag the movies and really go for a drive.


In Brooklyn, amid hippy-chick Moms and flip-flopped Dads, the city driving didn't have the see-and-be-seen effect that such a car engenders in Manhattan. Even if it had, we weren't in it for the status. We were in it for the ride.


So we took to the open road.


Without the brawny masculinity of a gear-shift sports car, the seven-speed automatic transmission Mercedes SL felt powerful nonetheless, particularly when hugging the hairpin turn off the Brooklyn Bridge and weaving through the narrow, spastic FDR drive, the highway along Manhattan's East Side.


Once we crossed the George Washington Bridge and into New Jersey, it didn't take much of a shove on the accelerator to feel myself press further into the seat as the engine sped up and took me to 90 mph on the Palisades Parkway in seconds.


According to Mercedes, the 5.5 liter, V8 engine takes the car from 0 to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds, but it felt faster.


Finally out of the city, we had time to try out the so-called basic model's best features. It has luxury car bun-warmers, and even bun ventilation fans for hot days.


Indeed, the fans came in handy on Saturday when I zipped the car around Manhattan to do some shopping with a friend and the bright sun overwhelmed whatever breeze ran through our hair. Her only complaint about the car was that the seatbelt was nearly sizzling through her shoulder.


The SL 550 comes standard with bi-xenon headlights, separate climate control for each seat, an automatic tilting steering wheel and a seven-speed automatic transmission that adapts to any driver's driving style.


Other versions of the car and the AMG sport package offer V12 engines and even more gadgetry such as keyless entry and starting, massaging seats and voice-activation controls, among others.


Consumers complain on the car Web site that the navigation system is antiquated, the stereo weak and the design lacking in cup holders. But, all in all, most consumers give the car a near-perfect 10. One even wrote that "the car moves like it's connected directly to my brain."

A Cool Connection


By exit two on the Parkway with my husband, I finally got it -- that wheels-to-brain connection. Now I was in the driver's seat.


After sitting up high in the car earlier to navigate the city's obstacles, I relaxed into my seat, adjusted the controls to situate myself down and back, close to the wheels, and I allowed myself the rush of steering the road's broad curves from the place of utter control.


Close to the road, the car felt like the high-performance vehicle I'd read about -- the steering was taught, but not tough. As the 18-inch alloy wheels gripped the road, the car slunk down, and flashes of arcade racing games came to mind.


  From 0 to 60 in 5.3 Seconds


The 382 horsepower engine propelled us farther and farther away from jobs, responsibilities, and the to-do list looming over our weekend.


I watched my husband's nervous energy melt into a grin as he finally stopped messing around with his seat. His envy that I was the driver turned to enjoyment at being the passenger and soaking up the summer air and lush scenery.


An hour or more away from home, we decided to exit in Nyack, N.Y., and find a place to have some ice cream before turning back.


We found a cute store where the ice cream paled in comparison to the classic candy collection for sale. We had a cone, but stocked up on some Big League Chew, Sugar Daddy lollypops and red-hot Atomic Fireballs before heading out.



Even hopped up on sugar, we were quiet on the way home, unwound and totally relaxed. Our only frustrations: the speed limit and the time limit on our babysitter.

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