2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG
Gullwing - Second Drive
BY TONY SWAN,
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DIRK WEYEMEIER
Let’s start with an unassailable
premise: In a corporate history overflowing with exceptional automobiles, few
if any have more enduring cachet than the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing coupes
of 1955–57. It’s no exaggeration to call them automotive immortals, which
makes the prospect of a contemporary sequel downright daunting to those
responsible for its execution—the denizens of AMG, Mercedes’ in-house
AMG has an impressive track
record for creating sophisticated hot-rod versions of just about every vehicle
Mercedes produces. But the
2011 SLS AMG is different. AMG says the car shares no structural elements
with other Benzes and was created to “show how sporty a Mercedes can be,”
according to Thomas Weber, Benz’s head of research and development.
No question about the sporty
part. The latter-day Gullwing is a bullet, covering 0 to 60 mph in a claimed
3.7 seconds, a forecast we feel we can beat by a couple tenths. A top speed of
almost 200 mph. The agility and precision of a high-wire acrobat. Bulldog
grip. Massive braking power. But in the context of today, is the SLS AMG as
sensational as its legendary ancestor? Is it fabulous? We’ll get back to that.
But first, a little hardware review.
The SLS, which goes back to
concept sketches created nearly five years ago, was rooted in two fundamental
principles: minimal mass and maximum structural rigidity, goals that aren’t
exactly parallel. To achieve these objectives, the design that emerged was a
unitized aluminum space frame and aluminum body shell.
Bodies are fabricated by Magna
Steyr in Austria, which also contributed to the Gullwing’s design. Then
they’re shipped to the Mercedes facility in Sindelfingen, Germany, where
they’re united with aluminum control-arm suspension components, a 6.2-liter
V-8, a carbon-fiber driveshaft, a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual
transaxle (from Getrag, and specific to this car), and a limited-slip rear
differential. It all adds up to a car that weighs about 3600 pounds and has a
sense of structural solidity we’d associate with something much heavier. A
railroad trestle, for example.
Amplified 6.2-liter V-8
The engine is AMG’s familiar
6.2-liter, 32-valve DOHC aluminum V-8, referred to as the 6.3 in company
propaganda, commemorating the engine that propelled the brutal AMG Hammer. But
the SLS version packs a bigger punch than the standard 6.2. Upgrades are
extensive and include dry-sump lubrication, revised camshafts, a stiffer
crankcase, a stronger crankshaft, and a low-back-pressure exhaust system, for
a total of 563 hp and 479 lb-ft of torque.
The new Getrag seven-speed
transaxle handles the thrust via multiple operating modes, and its “brain” is
a quick learner. During lapping at California’s Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the
gearbox quickly picked up the rhythm of the circuit and began executing
perfectly timed downshifts on corner entries.
This was not unwelcome, since the
Laguna Seca routine for this event had us following five-time German Touring
Car champ Bernd Schneider. His lead-follow technique went like this: Run a
moderately hot lap, then check the mirrors. If the civilians are still within
sight, turn up the heat on the next lap. And so on. Inevitably, despite
considerable experience with the storied track, your humble narrator struggled
to hang onto the flying German as speeds picked up and the laps zoomed by. His
smooth lines never seemed to vary by more than an inch or two, while ours
began to be increasingly untidy, marked by a certain amount of slithering
around on corner entries and more slithering when we picked up the throttle on
Although the SLS isn’t a torque
monster like the SL65 AMG, picking up the throttle can produce more results
than one might have planned, particularly from low speeds, even with the
three-stage stability control in its normal default setting. The thresholds
are high, and power oversteer is definitely achievable. Do not stab the
throttle. Ease it on. That is, unless you’re hanging it out for the camera.
The take-away from the Laguna
Seca experience is that the SLS might not be quite as well suited to track
work as some of its competitors are. The
Audi R8 comes immediately to mind. Bernd Schneider is certainly smooth,
tidy, and fast in this car, but he was also one of its development drivers.
And besides, he’s Bernd Schneider, and we’re not.
The SLS has plenty of grip from
its fat Continental tires (265/35-19 front, 295/30-20 rear); the
speed-sensitive, variable-assist power steering delivers feel and accuracy
that approach perfection; the brakes are formidable; and, of course, there’s
no shortage of power. But for all that, there was sliding around that came on
with little or no warning. This chassis is exceptional, but for some reason it
wasn’t telling us everything we needed to know about its limits.
We hasten to add that these
little episodes of slippin’ and slidin’ weren’t remotely fraught with peril or
even excessive drama. Still, they did add seconds to our lap times. And the
responses of the transmission in pure manual mode seemed a little slow
compared with those of other dual-clutch units we’ve encountered. Perhaps more
track time would improve our performance and thus our reaction to the SLS as a
track-day ride? We’re happy to volunteer.
there are definitely racetracks in this car’s future. One of the revelations
of this preview was that the SLS will serve as the official Safety Car for the
2010 Formula 1 World Championship. It’s a hallowed AMG tradition, and
according to AMG boss Volker Mornhinweg, the cars are already set up and ready
On the Road Again
If the SLS leaves some
questions about its limits on the track, there are none about its
performance on public roads. Cornering limits are high, the chassis seems
to have no objection to trail braking in decreasing-radius corners, and
the V-8 makes short work of tight passing situations, emitting a
surprisingly virulent bark when the throttle goes to the floor. Lovely.
We should note once again
that although the SLS is the most exotic member of the AMG family, it’s
probably not the pin-you-to-the-seat champ. That distinction undoubtedly
continues to belong to the SL65 AMG, with its twin-turbo, 6.0-liter V-12
churning out 738 lb-ft of torque. But the SLS will certainly stretch your
facial tissues into a big grin, and there’s no doubt it would leave the
muscle-bound SL65 gasping for breath on a mountain road. Better still, the
SLS’s athleticism doesn’t seem to be at the expense of comfort. Our
driving impressions were gathered on California roads that have never been
subjected to the rigors of real winter, but even so, there were enough
rough patches to give us an appreciation for the compliance this super
Benz brings to the party.
Pros and Cons
As a place to be while the
scenery is whizzing past, the SLS is tough to criticize—unless you happen
to sit tall in the saddle. Our friend and former Car and Driver
teammate Barry Winfield answers this description, and his hair was
brushing up against the low ceiling. The twin seats are superb in
providing lateral support and general comfort, but the range of
fore-and-aft adjustability is limited; adjusting for long legs requires an
excessively vertical seatback angle that compromises headroom, and dialing
in more rake improves room up top but at the expense of legroom.
Interior décor is elegantly
simple, set off by tasteful carbon-fiber and aluminum trim. The control
array is easily accessible to the driver, and the instrumentation binnacle
includes a set of LEDs that let the driver know when it’s time to upshift.
But aside from the glove box, and a console cup holder, small-object
storage is conspicuous by its absence. You can probably get a weekend’s
worth of luggage into the trunk, but that’s about it.
Is this car beautiful? We
feel very strongly both ways. The retro touches—the grille, the
front-fender gills, the long hood, the short deck—pay homage to the 300SL.
But in profile that long hood seems out of proportion, reminiscent of the
Cadillac 16 concept car from earlier in the decade. We were surprised the
hood didn’t intrude on the driver’s vision; it falls away nicely, and
forward sightlines are very good, augmented by an A-pillar that provides a
decent view of upcoming apexes.
Then there are the gullwing
doors. It’s a tough stretch to grab the door pull when the wings are up—we
had to hike one bun up onto the door sill to reach it—and of course owners
will whack their heads more than once before they learn to wriggle into
and out of the car. But those doors attract attention as few automotive
design elements can. The SLS isn’t exactly invisible to other
motorists—how could it be? But stop somewhere, pop one of the doors up,
and watch the crowds gather. To some, that alone will be worth the price
The Bottom Line
And what, you ask, will that
price be? We don’t know yet. The SLS goes on sale in Europe at the end of
March, and at the end of April in the U.S., so no one from AMG or
Mercedes-Benz was willing to go on the record about MSRP. However, we did
encounter a deep-throat source who provided an off-the-record base-price
estimate of “about $200,000,” which is about the price of an SL65 AMG.
The gullwing coupe will be
followed by a roadster in 2011, an even faster and lighter Black Series
edition at the end of the model run, and an
all-electric version sometime in between. Mercedes says 2012 for the
zero-emission SLS. We’ll see.
is it fabulous? The 300SL coupe stood out against an automotive universe
that was a little thin in terms of exotics, while the SLS is surrounded by
all sorts of gee-whiz rides, many of them considerably less expensive.
Still, it’s fast, it’s athletic, and it’s clearly something special. If
not fabulous, then certainly superb, and a worthy successor to an
immortal. You can’t do much better than that.