Maybe it's an age thing. No designer over forty I talked with at the Frankfurt show had good things to say about the blunderbuss Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. But some younger designers - unseasoned beginners, actually - were excited by it, although they were unable to articulate their reasons. On the other hand, designers of all ages and all levels of experience approved of BMW's Vision concept, which was also at Frankfurt. (See last month's By Design.) The SLS is an impressively engineered car, but its heavy, clumsy appearance was probably the biggest disappointment in the giant fairgrounds' eleven halls.
The SLS is a poor example of the blunt-instrument school of design. It's neither sufficiently brutal nor adequately elegant to stand out from the crowd, nor does it seem to have been created with a clear aesthetic goal in mind.
The legendary 1954-57 production gull-wing Mercedes 300SL coupe, derived from a line of successful sports racing cars, incorporated a number of stylistic and technical innovations yet presented itself as elegantly aesthetic, much tauter and tighter than the pudgy racers. Mercedes designers held the centerline profile and preserved the entire upper structure but pulled the body sides inward, to the point that they had to invent the characteristic streamlined external fairings over the wheel openings to allow the tires to protrude at times. Those blisters were both functional and decorative. There is no abstract equivalent to them on this ordinary-looking and ill-proportioned successor.
The famous "gull-wing" doors are present but are much bigger and far more obtrusive when open than the originals. The 300SL's doors were really out of your way, but the SLS's doors stick out farther, and you must mind your head ducking under them. Butterfly doors look spectacular but aren't a good idea in practice, as both Malcolm Bricklin and John De Lorean definitively proved with their unsuccessful rip-offs. Mercedes itself wisely dropped the idea until now, apart from show and concept vehicles. The entire SLS upper seems adapted from a sedan, with huge blind B-pillars contrasting unfavorably with the excellent visibility enjoyed by 300SL drivers, who benefited from substantial quarter windows. Sitting in the SLS is like falling into a tar pit. It's all dark, and the windowsills are too high for comfort.
Wretched excess is somehow acceptable, even desirable, when the over-the-top vehicle is gorgeous, as are so many Italian supercars. But when it is inelegant, and when it has no clear design direction, about all one can do is be disappointed. Too bad. I'd hoped for far more from the SLS and got far less than expected.