Judging by the new-model intros from European carmakers, you'd think the bubble economy was still going strong. At Mercedes-Benz, AMG has been developing a new supercar and a new E63; BMW's M division has laid its hands on the X5 and the X6; Porsche is rolling out the Panamera; and Alfa Romeo has priced its 8C roadster at a cool $300K. It's sort of a collective, "What, me worry?" spoken with a (mostly German) accent.
MERCEDES-BENZ. Mercedes is introducing two hybrids this year, but it likely won't win over the Sierra Club since it's ignoring smart and bringing out the E63 AMG. the automaker is also hard at work on its newest supercar, the SLS.
First Drive: Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG
The Gullwing is back - with a vengeance.
By Georg Kacher
We're flat out on Germany's Sachsenring racetrack in the new Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, chassis number 00045, a mildly camouflaged preproduction model. Ahead is an SL65 AMG Black Series - twin-turbo V-12, 661 hp, 738 lb-ft of torque - driven by Tobias Moers, head of AMG's R&D division, seasoned race instructor, and today's pacesetter. Filling his mirrors, our red Gullwing keeps pushing harder and harder, even though its normally aspirated 6.2-liter V-8 is rated at a comparatively modest 563 hp and 479 lb-ft.
The Sachsenring has plenty of slow corners, lots of climbs and descents, two long straights, and two very fast and very blind fourth-gear bends. As our session progresses, the track becomes nightmare territory for the wide, fat SL and a dreamland for the light and nimble SLS. Despite the Black Series car's four more cylinders, 98 extra hp, and 259 lb-ft torque advantage, it's punished by its 550-pound weight penalty. The SLS not only uses a significantly lighter control-arm aluminum suspension, it also boasts an aluminum spaceframe and aluminum body skin that tips the scales at a mere 530 pounds. Perhaps even more significant is weight distribution - in contrast to the nose-heavy SL, the new Gullwing places only 48 percent of its mass on the front axle and 52 percent on the driven wheels. In this matchup, the Black Series SL doesn't stand a chance. It understeers early, and after only ten laps, it has practically worn out its front tires. Momentum gained on the straights can never compensate for the speed lost on the approach to and through the corners.
The SLS Gullwing is a totally different animal. It is 49 inches low and 76 inches wide, with cab-back proportions. The boxy skin is draped over a long, 105-inch wheelbase. The gull-wing doors open at a 70-degree angle, but even when fully deployed, the maximum clearance is a scalp-threatening five feet so that shorter people can still reach the inner grab handles from their seats. The power-operated buckets, which feature magnesium backrests, are comfortable and supportive. The steering wheel's squared-off bottom is a bit of a nuisance through the esses, and in a car this sporty, the shift paddles should be attached to the column, not the wheel.