New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2011 Mercedes Benz SLS AMG

“Ugly don’t mean nuthin’ when you’re sleeping on Ralph Lauren sheets.” Such was the dating mantra of an old friend who evaluated the attractiveness of potential mates solely by the number of zeroes in their portfolio balance. In automotive terms, we suspect, ugly don’t mean nuthin’ when you’ve got gullwing doors. Ugly is, truthfully, too strong of a word to describe the new Mercedes-Benz supercar, but so, too, is beautiful. Until you open the gullwing doors, that is. Then, suddenly, all the world stops and stares. The rear end of the SLS, which apparently was inspired by the Buick Reatta and the Acura CL coupe, becomes irrelevant. The widemouth-bass face even fades away, just like the wrinkles on that old man’s liver-spotted, shaky hands when they’re holding his shiny black American Express.

Chronologically and alphabetically, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is a direct follow-up to the Mercedes SLR Mclaren. In reality, however, it’s a clean-sheet design intended to resurrect the original 300SL Gullwing from fifty years ago. The SLR, as you’ll remember, was a joint project between Mercedes and McLaren; the SLS was developed by AMG, Mercedes’ in-house performance brand. It marks the first-ever car engineered by the brand that was once nothing more than an aftermarket tuner.

It’s also the first-ever all-aluminum Mercedes, and as a result, it’s impressively light-in fact, at 3573 lb, it’s some 300 lb lighter than the carbon-fiber SLR was. And it costs less than half as much. Perhaps the SLS is starting to look better already.

The SLS’s engine is mounted so far back in the enormous engine compartment that, with the hood open, it looks possible to insert another engine up front. A carbon-fiber driveshaft weighing only 10.3 lb connects the engine up front to a rear-mounted dual-clutch transaxle, which houses a mechanical limited-slip differential.

The engine itself is a reworked version of AMG’s 6.2-liter V-8. Since the original 300SL Gullwing was the first-ever production car to use direct fuel injection, this would have been a historically convenient time for AMG to equip its powerhouse V-8 with the technology. Alas, even though DI is quickly becoming de rigeur in inexpensive vehicles, the engine still uses port fuel injection. AMG’s head of powertrain development explains that, due to the size of the 6.2’s cylinder bore, the benefits of direct injection weren’t significant-and so AMG relied on more conventional tuner tricks to coax more power out of the engine.

A revised intake (with eight, 11.4-inch by 2.0-inch velocity stacks) and less restrictive exhaust (with equal-length headers) help the V-8 breathe more freely; forged rather than cast pistons shave more than a pound off the reciprocating mass, and when allowed to run free, the engine puts out 563 hp and 479 lb-ft of torque. Those numbers are enough to take the trophy: this is the world’s most powerful normally aspirated production V-8.

It’s also enough to cause some problems at the other end of the driveshaft: for durability reasons, the engine isn’t permitted to produce full power in the first two gears. It seems that the Getrag-sourced twin-clutch transaxle-the same seven-speed unit found in the Ferrari California-isn’t quite robust enough. Even still, Mercedes claims the SLS AMG will hit 60 mph in 3.7 seconds with the assistance of the transmission’s Race Start clutch-dump launch control. Top speed is electronically limited to 197 mph.

That which speeds up needs to slow down, too, so the SLS is equipped with enormous brakes-and is optionally available with Mercedes’ first-ever composite ceramic discs. At 15.8 in., the enormous front rotors are bigger than the wheels on the original Gullwing, and the 14.2-inch rears aren’t far behind.

The most important measurement in the SLS is the distance from the ground to the bottom of one of the opened gullwing doors: 60 inches. If you’re over five feet tall, you will repeatedly smash your head when trying to get in or out. Despite the potential for head injury, climbing in isn’t nearly as difficult as mounting, say, a Lotus Exige. Since the lower sill is only eighteen inches from the road, there’s actually quite a large opening through which to fold yourself. You quickly learn to pull the door closed before buckling your seatbelt-it’s a long reach, and in the interest of low weight (and a low center of gravity), there is no power mechanism to close the doors for you.

Given the SLS’s exterior dimensions (it’s about the same size as a C-class sedan), the interior is surprisingly claustrophobic. The door support structure in the middle of the roof hangs down considerably, enhancing that intimate feeling. If you require legroom, you’ll have to get used to a vertical backrest. Storage is limited to a covered center console bin and a tiny glovebox whose flimsy door feels like it belongs in a Tata Nano.

Okay, so AMG’s first glovebox door isn’t a dynamic masterpiece. But the car is. The suspension, with control arms at all four corners, provides a comfortable ride on the road without the assistance of air springs, active dampers, or other trickery. At the same time, it allows almost zero body motions on the track. Turn-in is immediate, and chassis balance is brilliant-ask for any amount of oversteer and this two-seater will happily oblige. Luckily, the steering is quick and accurate, and the brakes instantly responsive and eternally fade resistant. The SLS doesn’t feel like a lightweight-perhaps due to that enormous hood in front of you-but as a driver, you get the sense that all of its mass is low to the ground and concentrated well between the axles.

Despite its ability to perform imperceptible full-throttle upshifts, you also get the sense that the transmission is the weak point of the SLS. AMG engineers warned that our pre-production prototypes were running transmission software that was a full release generation behind the cars that will make their way to Mercedes showrooms. The gearbox’s numerous issues (slow response, reluctance to downshift, occasional harsh shifts) will be completely resolved, they’ve promised.

Or perhaps the transmission is just afraid of the beast under the hood-like in every other application, the AMG V-8 is the Tasmanian Devil of the automotive industry; snarling, popping, and barking while spinning up dust clouds and terrorizing anyone within earshot. The significant old-school, big-block mechanical cacophony coming through the firewall is no match for the guttural basso profundo exploding from the exhaust pipes-never melodic, only satanic, and more impressive by virtue of volume rather than pitch. This unbelievable acoustic performance will be a tough thing to forego when an all-electric version of the SLS debuts in 2013, but it’ll certainly be a reason to buy the roadster version, which we expect to see even before that.

The roadster won’t have the gullwing doors, though. And for that reason, it’ll never be as special. We love the way the SLS drives, we respect its potential for speed, and we admire its handling. We don’t love its styling. But that doesn’t matter — the combination of a Mercedes badge and gullwing doors means that we’re looking at a car that is given an instant, emeritus entry in automotive history books right next to the 300SL Gullwing. After all, ain’t nuthin’ mean nuthin’ when you’ve got gullwing doors.

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