By my way of thinking, when you gaze at the fascinating new Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, you’re in fact looking at three interesting automotive stories at once. One has to do with what the car appears to be: a re-creation of the famous 1955 gull-winged 300SL, among the swingin’est sports cars of Sinatra’s heyday. The second is the political back-story of the corporate rift between Mercedes-Benz and England’s Formula One racing car powerhouse, McLaren, which co-created the SLS’ amazing predecessor, the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren (but, pointedly, not this SLS). And lastly, there’s the SLS itself, which, after stripping away its nostalgic styling, is as technically advanced as any super-car could be.
First, its evocative appearance: The original Gullwing was an automotive milestone in the public’s imagination, due to its upward-rising doors. But to aficionados, it was the car’s sophisticated engineering that really mattered, including fuel injection, a first for a gasoline-powered automobile.
The SLS not only re-creates the original Gullwing’s iconic doors, it betters them. Where the original car’s wide doorsills made clambering into it an acrobatic feat, ingress to the SLS is a snap. Press the unlock button, and hidden handles pop out from low on the doors. Raise the wings, and you’ll find minimal doorsills in the way and reasonable head clearance. The only challenge will be for shorter folks who, once seated, might find reaching up to the door-pulls a stretch. (Were the SLS to become inverted on the roadway, pyrotechnic bolts will detonate to separate the doors from the chassis.) Viewed with its wings deployed, its spectacular profile is sculptural art on par with any by Rodin, in my biased opinion.
The SLS’ close hewing to Mercedes-Benz’s historical visual cues might be owed to its cozy collaboration with Mercedes’ in-house partner, AMG – a very different relationship than the tie-up with unsentimental McLaren, which, as I mentioned, Mercedes partnered with to build the coolly modern SLR McLaren. Rumor has it that a factor in the divorce was McLaren’s insistence on building its next supercar from advanced carbon fiber. Mercedes wasn’t really keen on that, and so what we have here is a more conventional structure of tubular aluminum sheathed in aluminum body panels.
Power – 563 ponies of it (the highest horsepower available from any normally aspirated engine in the world) – comes from a new 6.3-liter V8 that’s hand-built by AMG craftsmen. Indeed, one person assembles the entire engine. Moreover, the V8 sits particularly low in the SLS’ chassis, owing to its having a “dry sump” – meaning the oil is stored elsewhere. Idling, the engine rumbles like a stock car’s. Hit the throttle and it bellows like Pavarotti. Gads, what a sound. And the SLS can hit 60 mph in 3.7 seconds on its way to a top speed of 197 mph – and that’s rarified territory, my friends.
My only personal qualms about the car are its slightly slow shift response (given that the transmission is one of those newfangled seven-speed, dual-clutch affairs) and its decidedly rear-biased weight distribution (due to both the engine’s extreme aft placement under the hood and the transmission’s relocation to the rear axle). With 53 percent of the car’s weight on the rear tires – and all that power on tap – the SLS’ handling isn’t for amateurs. Which, interestingly enough, is exactly what drivers said of the original 300SL and its swing-axle rear suspension.
Ah, some things never change.
Who should drive this car: Have a collection of Sinatra CDs? (Notice I didn’t say “on your iPod.”) Call me age-biased, but somehow I suspect the over-50 crowd will “get” this car a lot better than their less-seasoned brethren. It’s also a heck of a lot easier to see out of than a Lamborghini.
How it drives: My advice would be to choose the passenger seat if you have any tendency toward uncontrollable twitches in your right foot. This is a very powerful car, so no fooling around with the throttle.
MPG (city/highway): 14/20; 16 combined
Cost: $185,750 (base price); requires an estimated $2,750 destination charge
Comparable: Ferrari F430,
Aston Martin DB9
Kim Reynolds is technical editor of Motor Trend magazine.