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2003 Mercedes-Benz SL500
Unfolding time: 16 seconds

As I rocket across the desert outside Phoenix at 120 mph, I’m surprised by my test car’s stability. I’m driving the legendary 1955 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing-the car that inspired the real reason for my trip west: to test Mercedes’ new flagship sports car, the SL500 hardtop convertible.

The reputation of the original SL has cast a long shadow over subsequent models. The all-new 302-horsepower SL500 carries the banner high. Like all German cars, the SL’s top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph, far faster than anyone should drive on American highways. Even so, the car gives you the sense that it could handle such velocity, thanks to a smooth 5.0-liter V8 engine, an active suspension that soaks up bumps and ripples, and a new brake-by-wire system that trims 3 percent off the SL’s stopping distance at highway speeds.

More powerful versions are coming as well: The 469-hp SL55 AMG is scheduled for this fall; the V12-powered SL600 will arrive late next year. The 2003 SL500 starts at $85,000.

Technology Quotient: 20 points per category, 100 possible in total

Engine & drivetrain: 13
Suspension: 17
Safety: 17
Electronics: 19
Materials: 15

TOTAL: 81

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