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.
1 When open, the tall side section of the door interferes with entrance headroom.
2 This fuel-door cliché isn't worthy of Mercedes. It was cute on the original Audi TT, but it's kitsch in this case.
3 The straight top of the windshield is at odds with the rounder transverse section of the hood, giving the impression that designers had to use an existing windshield.
4 The center of the hood is slightly raised, with these two crease lines defining . . . what? True, GM stole the original Gullwing's bump for the '56 Corvette, but something more could have been imagined here.
5 A highly respected chief designer of another car company said that these headlamps make the whole front end look like that of a poorly designed kit car.
6 A definite carryover design element, the encircled three-pointed star with the one-bar grille is still great.
7 These lower scoops are nicely shaped, but the other inlets above aren't nearly as nice.
8 There's a single arced line from the headlamps to the tail, with no formal definition for the front and rear fenders.
9 This huge blind quarter betrays what was best about the original Mercedes-Benz Gullwing - the fact that it was a true GT. Austere, yes, but perfectly serious for high-speed travel and sightseeing.
10 The rear deck is curious, almost a straight line in profile and quite flat transversely, in contrast to the well-rounded rear plan view.
11 This sharp edge with a BMW-like undercut on the rear face owes nothing to classic Mercedes surface development.
12 This neat crease line helps diminish the tail's vertical mass.
13 The spidery wheels are the best single detail on the SLS. They look delicate and at the same time leave plenty of air space for brake cooling.
14 The highest part of the windowsill profile is near the passengers' heads, so they may feel claustrophobic.
15 This rising crease line is all the rage these days for cheap sedans. Here, it doesn't quite link to the crease across the rear end.
16 The ergonomic justification of a door handle at shin height is hard to fathom.
17 These chrome bars are similar to those on the SLR McLaren but aren't in character with M-B's bright trim detailing for the past five or six decades. New, yes. Good, not really
18 Beautifully made and carefully finished, the interior looks like a luxury sedan's. Except for these cheap-looking vents.
19 The steering wheel manages to avoid all semblance of sportiness.
20 The interior door handle echoes the shape of the exhaust outlets.
21 One of the best things about the 300SL was the idiosyncratic plaid seat fabric. Today, no company could get away with anything other than leather in a six-figure sports car.