>> Read on for Gavin Green's verdict on the Mercedes SLS AMG, and pick up the new December 2009 issue of CAR Magazine - out Wednesday 18 November - to see how the SLS matches up against Porsche's new 911 Turbo and Nissan's GT-R in our exclusive group test.
Mercedes-Benz is on a roll. After the excellent new C-class and E-class saloons – proper Benzes, as opposed to BMW wannabes – now comes the most eagerly waited new sports car since… well, since last week’s launch of the Ferrari 458 Italia, and the previous month’s unveiling of the McLaren MP4-12C, and the previous month’s brilliant new Porsche 911 Turbo. So much for the prophets of gloom, foretelling the death of the supercar!
This Mercedes SLS AMG is most famous for its doors, which is a little weird. First up, do those gullwings work?
They do – though there is no benefit to ingress and egress compared with usual front-hinged doors. These roof-hinged doors are commendably light – as with the rest of the car’s skin, they are made from aluminium – so they’re easy to open and close. The only trick is to grab the door handle on the way in. The door is too high to grab once you’re seated.
They could have fitted electric doors, but that would have added weight in the very place you don’t want it – up in the roof, where the electronic actuation would have been sited. Weight paring was a priority, which is right and proper for a sports car.
OK enough about doors. Is it supercar fast?
You bet. Top speed is electronically governed to 197mph (you wonder what’s the point of stopping the fun at almost 200mph?) and 0-62 is dispatched in only 3.8 seconds. The big 6.2 V8 revs hard, woofles pleasingly when touring, bellows like a bull elephant under hard acceleration, and all the time the soundtrack is backed by that lovely V8 rumble. When it’s on full song, an SLS sounds like a NASCAR stocker at full chat on the banks of Darlington. It’s marvellous music.
The only slight surprise is the lack of big punch at low revs – you need to get the engine spinning before it really delivers.
Gearchange is by a seven-speed dual clutch paddleshift box, which changes fast and smooth. If you fancy lazy-man motoring, it will happily and smoothly drift along in automatic.
The engine is based on the same 6.3 engine (actually 6208cc) used in the C63 and E63 AMG models – except for inlet and exhaust systems, different valves and the dry sump engine. Power is also boosted – up by over 100bhp compared with a C63.
>> Click 'Next' below to read more of our Mercedes SLS AMG first drive
The outgoing McLaren-assembled SLR was a disappointment. Does the new SLS feel any sharper?
Yes, this is a better car. It is commendably light – 1620 kg is lighter than the (slower) Aston V12 Vantage – and it’s much more agile than the brutish and heavier SLR (a car neither McLaren, nor Mercedes, were ever very happy with). It always feels hunkered down to the road: a car that digs its heels in, rather than floats uncertainly on its toes.
Unlike some Benz sportsters, there is no sense of detachment from the action. Steering is sharp, the chassis is beautifully balanced and you thread corners together with real finesse. The rear transaxle helps give the car a 47:53 front:rear weight distribution, and this translates into handing neutrality, and the ability to steer the car partly with the throttle, a pre-requisite for any great sports car.
Part of our drive was on California’s Laguna Seca track, and the Benz felt stable and fast. It isn’t as composed at very high speed as a new 911 Turbo or the very best mid-engine supercars – it gets more ragged – but it’s still damned good. Brakes, too, are brilliant, especially if you choose the optional ceramic composite discs.
Past AMGs have often been crude cars – all muscle and no finesse. This sounds like a much better effort?
It is. It is the first-ever car developed, from scratch, by AMG – now Mercedes’ official fast car arm. Old AMGs were merely tarted and tuned versions of normal Benzes and were invariably over-tyred, over-powered and over-rated; weaponry-on-wheels rather than sophisticated cars. But this is a much more impressive effort.
Ride quality is perfectly satisfactory for a near-200mph supercar. In normal ‘comfort’ setting, it soaks up bumps well enough, though on some broken British B-roads, the ride will be a little unsettled. If you want a still-firmer and sportier ride there are sports and super-sports settings, the latter specifically designed for the track.
Either way, it has great chassis subtlety and feel. Old AMGs never had that.
>> Click 'Next' below to read our verdcit on the Mercedes SLS AMG
How does it look in the metal? Some people aren’t too sure about the style?
The more I look, the more I like. They have clearly tried to ape the gorgeous 300SL Gullwing of the mid ‘50s, and you can’t really blame them for that. This new one has the same-style doors, the same big grille with prominent star, the same high front wings and the side bonnet vents.
Inside the cabin is simple, uncluttered and classy. The big twin instruments (speedo and tacho) lie under a hooded binnacle, and are supplemented by familiar (but good) Mercedes switchgear. The whole cabin is swathed in stitched leather, comely red and black on our test car. Alloy trim can be replaced by carbon, if you want.
The driving position is very good. You sit really low – you drop down into the bucket after you vault the high sill – and you look out over that long, long bonnet, bordered by the high graceful wings (which allow you to see the side extremities of the car, good for positioning). Little alloy vents and mesh crown the bonnet.
The cabin is not very roomy, though. It’s fine for driver and passenger, and there’s ample head and shoulder room. But fore-aft space is limited by that big engine fitted as rearwards as possible, not so far from your chest (it’s a true front-mid engine car). There is no rear bench – there’s no room – so jackets and briefcases need to go in the (reasonably sized) boot.
This is a seriously impressive sports car. Fast, furious (when you want it to be), yet able to glide along at big speed and low revs, the SLS is part track car and part grand tourer. It isn’t quite as responsive as the best mid-engine supercars; nor is it as animal sharp as the excellent new 911 Turbo. Yet what it may lose in ultimate agility, it more than compensates with predictability and effortless ground-covering ability.
The 300SL-like style has been cleverly updated for the 21st century. It pays tribute to the old Gullwing Benz, certainly. But, as with a new Mini, it’s not old-fashioned. Rather, it is a highly desirable 21st century interpretation of one of the greatest sports cars ever made. It will also undoubtedly become a classic in its own right
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