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Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Review

Rating: 8.0
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SLS AMG - Retro Power at its best

by Mark Hacking, California USA

At dinner the evening before our first crack at the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, it’s clear that this is an important car for the German manufacturer. No, it will never be a high-volume car, but it does represent the very pinnacle of their engineering, circa 2009.

It’s also clear that there’s something to prove with the SLS, particularly for the tuning gurus at AMG. This, you see, is the first-ever car the performance division of Mercedes-Benz has developed from top to tail. And although the M-B and AMG reps present in California are adamant that the SLS is not a replacement for the McLaren SLR, the new car is, like its “predecessor”, a front-engine, rear-wheel drive, 2-seater supercar—so you tell me.

(The timing of the launch event is also particularly interesting; it took place mere days before Mercedes announced they were breaking their Formula One association with McLaren and taking over Brawn GP to form their own team.)

The company line, though, is this: the SLS is the heir apparent to the original Mercedes 300SL, the iconic sports car first introduced in 1954. I’ve never driven the original 300SL, but I was always under the impression that it was a near-perfect blend of true performance car and classic grand touring machine. Sure, the SL was based on a race car and had a top speed of over 160 mph, but it also had reasonable interior space, decent luggage capacity and a look that was custom-made for cruising.

Given this historical perspective, I predicted that the SLS would be a similar animal, perhaps leaning even more towards the touring side, given that the new coupe is not based on a race car. Wrong. Meandering along the coastal roads and freeways that led to Laguna Seca, I was struck with the following realization: The SLS is a supercar in every sense of the word—including the expected compromises.

The notion of the “everyday supercar” is common nowadays; even formerly extreme machines from manufacturers like Lamborghini are dead simple to drive to the corner store. From this perspective, the SLS AMG certainly meets most requirements. The interior includes two cupholders and a glove compartment. Outward visibility is reasonable. There’s a navigation system. But interior space is at a premium, cargo-carrying capacity is modest and the trademark gull-wing doors can be a pain.

Allow me to elaborate. When I tested the McLaren SLR Roadster this past summer, I cranked my head on the scissor-style doors an embarrassing number of times. I did the same with the SLS; luckily, I was wearing a helmet at the time. I witnessed a handful of others do likewise, some protected by headgear, others not.

There’s no question that the doors are a very special design element—dramatic, to be sure—and they can apparently be opened in a standard-size garage. With a little bit of practice, I’m certain that recurring head injuries can be avoided. Also, although there are no elongated grab handles fitted, the doors can be closed from a seated position with minimal dexterity required.

Speaking of the seats, although our SLS featured multiple power adjustments, including optional lumbar support, I simply couldn’t find a setting that worked during the nearly three-hour drive from south of San Francisco to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. When combined with the car’s very stiff ride—even the raised lane markings in the road could make your teeth chatter—this didn’t exactly create a classic grand-touring experience.

Apart from said seats, the interior is a slick bit of work: flat-bottomed steering wheel, hefty paddle shifters, carbon fibre trim for the centre console, a reasonable number of switches, leather throughout. It doesn’t have all the amenities and flourishes of a luxury car, but its features are certainly in keeping with a top performance car. It’s a very clean design, very oriented towards making the driver feel in command at all times.

And in command is exactly what you want when piloting an extra-fast car around an extra-scary track like Laguna Seca.

Prior to the SLS launch visit, I’d never driven the circuit before; I’d watched races there and was familiar with the notorious Corkscrew left-right with its blind, 18-per cent elevation drop. But the funny thing is, when you get out there in a really fast car, the Corkscrew is only, like, the fourth-scariest turn on the track.

Fortunately, those in charge of planning this event had the foresight to recruit a pair of eminently qualified pace-setters from the AMG Driving Academy in Europe, Bernd Schneider and Thomas Jäger. Earlier this year, I attended their training session at Spa-Francorchamps, so this visit to California was a reunion of sorts. Five-time DTM champion Schneider was actively involved in the development of the SLS AMG. Jager, this year’s German Porsche Carrera Cup champion, is clearly no slouch either. This had all the makings of a truly memorable day at the track.

Of course, the car we were driving played no small part.

With a 6.2-litre V8 engine producing 563 horsepower and 650Nm of torque, the SLS AMG is a very quick car. How quick? Zero to 62 mph in 3.8 seconds, 0 to 125 mph in 12 seconds and an electronically limited top speed of 198 mph. Couple these figures with a low centre of gravity, close-to-ideal weight distribution and some incredible grip from the tires (265/35s in the front, 295/35s at the back), and you have all the ingredients needed to go hurtling off a high-speed track at, you guessed it, high speed.

Given all these factors, the first track session took on a fairly urgent objective: staying alive. While Schneider put the hammer down in the lead car, the journalist in the second car had his SLS fully sideways in an attempt to keep up and I had mine fully sideways in an attempt to learn the track. If our pace driver hadn’t slowed down on the straights, I might still be somewhere in the California desert.

At Spa, I worked closely with Jäger on fine-tuning technique and generating speed and smoothness. So, for the following track sessions, I elected to clamp on to the bumper of his car and bring a lot more control and finesse to the proceedings. My plan worked like the proverbial charm; by the end of another six laps, I had some sense of which way the track went and a much better grip on the car’s capabilities.

I returned to the pits, my hands shaking noticeably: not enough caffeine? too much car? too much track? Most likely, it was a combination of all of the above. But I was having so much fun, the thought of stopping never entered my mind.

For the third session, I kept the SLS in the sport plus mode, which controls the 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission—a first for the manufacturer—and keeps the traction control in the “bend but don’t break” setting. The SLS comes with four drive modes that range from the more relaxed to the more extreme, the final one involving manual shifting using the paddle shifters. The dual-clutch gearbox is, as expected, largely wonderful. The only downside: a few ill-timed upshifts before the system corrected itself, returning to and holding the lower gear.

As to the traction control, the sport plus mode allowed for plenty of honest-to-goodness fishtailing action before the active safety features took hold. This characteristic—combined with light yet very direct steering and a racing-derived suspension system—give the car incredible agility at the limit and a near go kart-like ability to slide around turns. Having said all that, the SLS AMG is definitely not a car for beginners. It’s also worth noting that our track cars featured the optional ceramic composite brakes (monstrous) and optional performance suspension system (mighty).

To sum up, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is a fantastic piece of engineering that represents very serious competition for every single supercar in the 150,000 to 250,000 Euro price bracket (final pricing has yet to be determined for markets outside Europe). It’s also a worthy successor to both the SLR—at roughly half the price!—and the SL with its trademark front grille and traffic-stopping gullwing doors.

I'll take mine in any colour.