People who are shopping for art should not be sidetracked by performance, unless they consider performance an essential part of art.

That is the conundrum in considering the 2003 Mercedes-Benz SL500 roadster. It is a work of art, a beautiful sculpture, sensuous in the truest meaning of the word.

Emotions soar at the sight of the car. It is sinewy, muscular, delicate, seductive. It begs to be touched, demands to be driven.

But therein lies the rub for people who equate performance with art. The SL500 is remarkably competent, but it is remarkably competent in a world of exceptionally competent coupes and roadsters, many of which can be had for far less than the SL500's price of $86,000.

Comparable models from BMW, Chevrolet, Jaguar, Lexus and Porsche come to mind.

People who are surprised to see Chevrolet in that lineup have never driven a Chevrolet Corvette Sports Convertible. With its top down and 350-horsepower V-8 roaring, the Corvette is to salsa what the 302-horsepower SL500 is to ballet.

I prefer salsa. It leaves more of a lasting impression. You remember more than the dance. You recall the sweat.

The SL500 is more ethereal in that regard. It leaves much to the imagination. Despite its sleek appearance, it is a heavy car, weighing 4,045 pounds. That weight puts a bit of a drag on the SL500's 302-horsepower V-8. The car moves not so much with alacrity as it does with a patient grace.

Thus, the need for imagination. What is it they say about sex? It is 90 percent imagination, 10 percent performance. If you can appreciate the beauty and the love of it, you can enjoy it profoundly.

That is the case with the SL500. The car is so stunningly beautiful, it is an absolute pleasure just to be in its company. It does charming little things, too, such as the way it lowers and raises its top at the touch of a console lever. Pure ballet. Pure poetry.

None of this is to suggest that the SL500 lacks substance. Nothing could be further from the truth. It has an electronically controlled braking system that is the best in the business. This system does more than stop the car in panic maneuvers. Through the algorithmic magic of computers and sensors, it predicts the need for panic braking and slows the car before the actual panic stop occurs.

The SL500 employs similar electronically controlled preventive safety technology in deploying air bags and knee bolsters, and in tensioning seat belts.

But no one buys a car to crash, just as no one with any sense of decency goes to an art museum to deface paintings or destroy sculpture.

They go to enjoy, to admire, to be a part of something for which beauty alone is reason enough to exist.

People who buy the SL500 should buy it for the same reason, and not worry about what anyone else has to say about them or the car.