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Mercedes SL500 Care and Service
© 2006 KenRockwell.com

1997 Mercedes SL500

1997 Mercedes SL500 with very rare brown soft top

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People ask me about the reliability and service costs of these fine, fast convertibles.

Owning an SL500 can be nearly free due to a lack of depreciation, but you will have to pay for service. Classic Mercedes have the unique quality of retaining their value so long as you keep them up properly.

It costs more to service a $100,000 classic than a $50,000 car and certainly more than servicing a $25,000 car. Resale values drop from the original $100,000, which is why folks consider them as used. The costs of parts, labor and upkeep stay where they were when the car was new, and go up from there. High-school kids buy things like Porsche 928s for $5,000, and then freak out when they can't afford $1,200 for a water pump. My Mercedes 190D Diesel just had a $1,000 air conditioning compressor replaced in June of 2005. The book value of the 190D was about the same as that part! I replaced the compressor simply because it was starting to rattle; it still worked fine.

Bring your SL500 to the Mercedes dealer on schedule, replace things before they die, keep it in your garage and your SL500 will always be like new.


I think everyone ought to join the Mercedes-Benz Club of America, which of course is a club of people like me who love their cars.

Many dealers (including mine) offer discounts on parts and service to members. Membership pretty much pays for itself even if you don't read the magazine or take advantage of all the other club benefits.

The club is its own organization, it's not part of Mercedes.

The Service Booklet

Service Booklet
Inside, stamped for each service

This booklet should always be with your car. It lists when service is required, and has places to be stamped for each service. It forms an easy reminder of when to bring your SL500 in for service as seen through the front, and also serves as an important one-stop record to allow you to examine the car's service history since new.

Never buy an SL500 without this booklet. I got my SL500 as a certified pre-owned and of course it came with this booklet. The booklet shows me instantly where and when the SL500 was serviced and even where it was bought. It showed me I had a well maintained car from my local area and was always serviced at the same dealer. I've gotten this booklet for every Mercedes we've ever bought. The good ones all have it. On rare occasion an owner may have forgotten to have the book stamped here or there. In that case when we bought our SLK we simply drove to the dealer who looked it up on his computer and stamped our book after we bought the car.

People trying to sell crappy cars have all sorts of stories about why this book might be missing. I'd rather have a car missing a door, which I can replace, than one missing its records. The real story behind SL500s missing books is probably because the car missed its services, too! Today the stories usually involve some baloney like "privacy" or whatever. Remember: no book, no sale. When I exceeded the mileage covered by the book for my Diesels I simply bought a replacement at the dealer's parts department and had that stamped for each ongoing service.

Service Interval

My 1997 SL500 has a 7,500 mile or 12 month service interval. I think it's been the same since at least 1990.

Starting around 1998 through about 2005 a computer replaced the odometer for calculating when service was due. The computer, along with synthetic oil, let you get about 14,000 miles between services. No one trusted them, so for 2006 they're back I think to the odd number of 13,000 miles.

Good Service Pays for Itself

Looking back on 12 years of owning a Mercedes 190D showed me that the service paid for itself in resale value. You need to be able to afford all the service for an SL500, and if you do, it will pay you back. The SL500 is not a vehicle to own if you defer repairs or can't afford spot repairs for a thousand dollars or two every now and then. My 190D needed those sorts of repairs in its normal course of operation over 150,000 miles, and it was only worth a third of an SL500. When I sold my 190D in July 2005 I got about four times it's book value, and there were many people wanting to pay me that because it was in tip-top shape.

An SL500 is probably going to cost you more to maintain than an ordinary new car. Your return is that an SL500 is going to be worth what you paid for it years down the road while a ten or twenty year old Honda, Lexus, Ford or Mazda won't be worth squat.

The Mercedes Dealer versus Saddam's Auto Repair

An SL500 will depreciate if you wait to take it to Saddam's Auto Service only after things fall apart. If you keep it serviced on schedule by the Mercedes dealer and keep it in your garage you'll probably see the value of your SL500 climb over the years.

Of course the reason to use the Mercedes dealer even just for an oil change is that they replace the drain plug, seals and filters with legitimate new Mercedes parts and catch anything else that might need attention. For the few extra dollars the Mercedes dealer costs I had a loan car and met my wife for lunch while the job was being done correctly. That means everything over having to wait around in a Qwickee Lube and have them reuse parts that are supposed to be replaced each time. Of course the dealer knows to stamp your service book properly, and a stamped service books adds more than the the cost of service to the value of your SL500.

Reliability and Service Costs

My 1997 SL500 is still under warranty and gets driven so little that nothing has the chance to wear or break. Therefore I have little data for you. Honestly I've never found any of my Mercedes to cost any more than any other car to keep on the road, even back when I was a cheapskate and worried about it. More expensive cars certainly have the potential of costing a lot when something expensive fails. Today I own my SL500 as a hobby and I don't worry about maintenance costs.

Since most SL500s are made without compromise I doubt we'll ever have any problem with anything due to poor quality, at least for the pre-Chrysler (1998) ones. To quote one mechanic when I was out asking these very same questions: "We're not exactly talking about 1974 Mercury Montegos here." Likewise we're talking about the world's most solid exotic car. You may drive this every single day and it will always work wonderfully, and if it doesn't, Mercedes will, for your lifetime, send someone out to help you. We're not talking Jaguar or some other finicky breed which prides itself on trouble.

I had the last service at 22,500 miles in September 2004 for $109.41, and just brought it in again in September 2005 for just an oil change after just 3,000 miles at 25,500. My local Mercedes dealer is great: for $75 I got my oil changed, had a free loan car for the day with a full tank of gas and a wash. That's it: $75 for a year. Your results will vary if you actually drive your SL500.

I've seen no Consumer Reports data, since CU doesn't report on the SL presumably due to it's low production.

The SL500 is an expensive vehicle made without compromise in it's true Mercedes days. After Mercedes bought Chrysler in 1998 they tried to cheap it out somewhat in later years. I have a neighbor who bought a brand new 2002 SL500 so unreliable that MB gave her a new one. The great news is no matter how bad or good, MB always stands behind you. Of course that's presuming you use the dealers for service. I've met two people who had model year 2000 and newer Mercedes that were lemons, and in each case the cars were taken back and these folks were still loving their new Mercedes. Consumer Reports did single out the new version 2003 SL500 as one of the very least reliable cars sold in 2003, and lo and behold, it also came up as the car with the very highest percentage of customers who would definitely buy one again. That speaks volumes. (Consumer Reports, April 2005 edition.)

At first I was scared by the reliability issues I read in Consumer Reports and elsewhere for model year 2000 and newer Mercedes. My sanity came back as I realized that Mercedes always takes care of you and these folks, who did get stuck with lemons, were happy and still buying more Mercedes. I'd much rather have a finicky Mercedes than a new Ford or BMW. I know, I had a new Ford and new Dodges and a BMW and the dealers were terrible even though the cars ran flawlessly. Best yet, my Mercedes are all great cars, too.

Of course just get an earlier one in great shape as I did and don't worry.

I do see a lot of SLs in at the dealers when I visit. At first I got scared and thought that maybe they was a problem, but then realized a few reasons why this probably is a good thing:

1.) You always notice cars like your own.

2.) People who own SL500s, like me, are more likely to bring it back to the original dealer for service instead of bringing it to Saddam's Car Service for repair. This is even more apparent after the car is out of warranty. Folks with 1994 SL500s still take them to the dealer for service; I doubt many buyers of 1994 C class cars still do.

3.) The R129 SL500 was made for 12 model years. There are a lot of them out there and we owners like to have them serviced properly!

More Suggestions

My SL500 only has 25,000 miles on it, so it's not even broken in, much less had anything wear out.

A reader with a 1997 SL500 Sport with 147,000 miles offers the following observations:

1) Change the transmission fluid. The dealer recommends not, but this reader does and has an original transmission running great.

2) You don't need to rebuild the transmission if it goes bad (some say they last 100K to 120K). If the transmission acts strangely, change the speed detector gear. It's a little plastic part that translates the engine to the transmission. Dealer prices are $500 to 600 while good aftermarket guys are half of that.

Personally I've only run my Diesels that long, and I had no problems to 150,000 miles changing the fluids as recommended.

Typical Owners

A great thing about SL500s is people who own them tend to take much better care of them than ordinary people with ordinary cars. People willing to blow $100,000 on a car usually respect them. I see shiny SL500s all over my neighborhood and they all look great. I never see a beater SL500, and certainly see plenty of beater 1990 Ford Tauruses. Every day I see at least a couple of SL500s running around town and they always look spectacular. It's as if the owners are all German! There are no dirty cars in Germany.

Thank goodness all the SLs I see of every vintage seem well cared for. The only beaters I see are ones for sale, since those are usually crummy and have had a lot of careless, loveless owners. The majority of well kept SLs are kept for generations and not put up for sale.

It seems the most worn ones you see are the 1970s 450 SLs. These are at the crossroads where the uncared for ones are on their very last legs, owned by people who just drive them till they die out of neglect and nothing but the most basic oil changes at Qwickee Lube. Anything older has only survived due to fanatical care, thus the 1886 - 1950s Mercedes you see are owned and cared for by nutcases.

You have a choice with your own SL500: neglect it and watch its value plummet, or respect it and have a family friend for life that only goes up in value. As time goes on the two classes of cars separate. The cared for cars live on to become valuable classics, and the neglected ones deteriorate parked out on the street.

Be serious: how many Lexus owners spend weeks developing web sites worshipping their Lexii? I probably spend more time writing about my SL500 on this website than I do driving it.

Your Garage

The biggest factor in keeping the interior and exterior of your SL500 looking like new is keeping your SL500 garaged day and night.

The only wear and deterioration that happens to the interior and exterior is when they are exposed to sun and the elements.

Leaving your SL500 out overnight, even in a covered carport, is worse for the paint than parking it underwater! When dew forms on your SL500 in the early morning the paint is completely underwater. Worse than really being underwater, all the dirt and chemicals that were on the paint to begin with are now concentrated since the water doesn't flow. At least if your car was underwater or under a stream the water would constantly be changed with fresh water. Dew merely concentrates all the reactive and damaging fallout on your car. Think about it: merely putting dry bleach powder on a totally dry car won't hurt it anywhere as much as when that bleach gets wet and active! Just keep your SL500 garaged, please!

Wood doesn't crack or get cloudy unless you leave your SL500 parked outside all day. Please do your best to keep it enclosed if you do have to drive it to an appointment. Just like any other artwork or painting, exposure to the elements will deteriorate your SL500. Of course it will last longer than a Chevy Cavalier in the same conditions, just please respect that the SL500's Panorama glass roof option costs as much as some complete cars.

The best garages of course are climate controlled. I find that ordinary aluminum insulated roll-up doors without windows are best. Worse are non-insulated doors and doors with windows. The windows allow heat to get in. Wives love windows, but it heats up your garage the same way the inside of a car gets hot in the sun.

Waxes and Appearance Care

Washing and Waxing

It's best to wash your car with pure water and no soap at all. Soap takes off the wax, even if just a little. Wash it gently with a power washer or hose and slop it with clean cloth cotton diapers. If you've used deionized water you can skip drying it, otherwise use soft towels. Most people use a chamois. I only use soap if I have to remove a lot of dirt and bird poop and bugs. Here in Sunny Southern California all we get is dust and yellow bee poop. The dust is actually fine sand, so never write "Wash Me" on your paint!

I don't use any special exterior wax. Since my SL500 is garaged day and night it has little opportunity to get dirty, much less have the wax deteriorate. I wax it once a year. In 2004 I used Turtle paste wax. I'm going to try Meguiar's NXT Next Generation Tech Wax, P21S or Zaino Z2 or whatever this year. Let me know if you have a favorite.

The less you mess with washing and waxing the less you wear the finish of your paint and add swirl marks. It's best to keep your SL500 locked away unless you're actually driving it. My garage has an epoxy coated floor so there's no dust and my SL500 stays clean a long, long time between washings.

Brake Dust

Brake dust is always an issue with powerful cars with big brakes. To my amazement, WheelWax really keeps my wheels much cleaner than regular wax. I have no idea how they do it, but compared to regular wax my wheels simply hose off with water and my power washer. I don't have to use soap or even a brush to keep them clean!


Tires are mostly personal taste. I prefer a dull clean black, not a ghetto shiny wet look. I use Meguiar's Endurance. Only use one coat and wipe it right off otherwise you'll get a glossy result. The best product is one used by Mercedes of San Diego which they use for their free courtesy washes. I need to go down there and buy a bottle of it, which they also sell.

Plastic Rear Window

I use Meguiar's PlastX on my plastic rear window.

Black Trim and Door Handles

I have no black trim except the epoxy fiberglass-filled door handles. When I have black trim I use Meguiar's Gold Class Trim Detailer. It looked great on my 190D's black plastic bumpers, although it did wash off the one time I drove the 190D in the rain.

Don't do It!

I use these products maybe once a year. I only use them when needed. I'm lazy, and it helps not to be grinding away at your finishes unless you need to. I drive so little and my SL500 is never left outside so it doesn't get dirty. I love these products, but rarely use them. I drove my 190D frequently and used these on it, since it did get dirty.


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