2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG: Panamericana Refined and Revisited

Soon enough, the congestion of the city gives way to beat-up highways lined with broken-down vehicles of all shapes and sizes. Our Hemi-powered Charger escorts flip on their lights and clear the left lane of any pesky commuters doing less than 100 mph. On these rough roads, we'd almost prefer to be handcuffed in one of their back seats, as the stiffly sprung SLS bounces from pothole to pothole, jostling us around in the firm seats. The sensations go from merely uncomfortable to slightly unnerving as our speed climbs past 120 mph, when the steering becomes light and jittery. Mind you, the original race was held to commemorate the construction of the highway. We'd say it's time for a new one.

Not that we really have much reason to complain. We weren't allowed to drive the original 300SL out of fear that we might exercise its multimillion-dollar insurance policy, but the ninety-two-year-old Fitch (see sidebar), who speaks with the frankness of a man who's beyond the age of caring what our Mercedes hosts think, describes it as "unmanageable." It's easy to forget that when Fitch became Mercedes-Benz's first American driver, the company was still a bombed-out shell of its prewar self. Unlike the later production 300SL, the 1952 Panamericana racers that Fitch, as well as Hermann Lang and winner Karl Kling, piloted were constructed quickly and cheaply from the 300 sedan's parts bin. That meant carburetion instead of direct fuel injection and a crude rear suspension that Fitch's team literally tied down to reduce axle chatter. Fitch attributes his success in the car more to its amazing durability than any dynamic excellence.

The SLS, by contrast, is all about dynamic excellence. As the highways around Puebla give way to twisting two-lane mountain roads, we blow past the federales and put the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic in manual mode. The 563-hp V-8, modified significantly in this application for lighter weight and better breathing, croons beautifully with every rev-matched downshift, although the donkeys wandering the roadside have apparently heard better, as they never bother to look up. Unimpressed as we were with the steering at high speeds, it's Porsche 911 good as the road curves and tilts mere inches from the sheer rock face. So much information comes through the wheel that it's possible to detect subtle changes in the asphalt that affect grip, not that the SLS ever feels at risk of breaking loose. When we give it too much gas coming out of tight bends, stability control - which we happily left fully engaged - intervenes gently yet effectively. Considering how much technology is baked into the Gullwing's aluminum body, it's refreshingly transparent and, yes, fun to drive.

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