My evening with the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG began when Mike, the car geek who mans the tollbooth in our parking structure, gave the SLS the once-over. Here’s where the gullwing doors actually came in handy: the departure lane is of course relatively narrow, so anytime I’m in a car that interests him, Mike’s usual view is solely through the open driver’s window. But with the SLS, I just cracked the driver’s door, he confirmed that there was plenty of clearance, and I thrust it upward, giving him a panoramic view of the SLS AMG’s striking interior: red leather with carbon fiber trim over black carpets, in the case of our test example. I put the transmission in Park and gave the 563-hp, 6.2-liter V-8 a good blip: the resulting gnarly growl and the snap-crackle-pop of the exhaust absolutely made Mike’s day – and probably his week.
A BMW 3-Series sedan driver in his late 20s or early 30s chased me down as I pulled into a parking lot on the University of Michigan campus. His name was Khal and he was beside himself with excitement. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw you turning onto Hoover Street from State,” he said. “I never, ever thought I would have the chance to see one of these on the street.” Naturally, I let him sit in it, and then I took him on a quick ride around Ann Arbor. Then we popped the hood so he could take a good look at the big AMG V-8, replete with a nameplate from the technician who hand built the engine back at AMG headquarters in Affalterbach, Germany, outside Stuttgart. Although I’ve seen pictures of the SLS AMG’s underhood before, I was still shocked by how far back the engine is mounted: it is completely behind the front-axle centerline, which of course is ideal for weight distribution.
Much has been written about the SLS AMG’s dynamic capabilities, and it is indeed a true supercar, not a compromised effort like its predecessor, the SLR McLaren. But what strikes me about the SLS is how very easy it is to drive as a normal car around town and on the freeway. After all, that’s how most owners are going to spend most of their time with it. But even when it’s driven relatively placidly, the SLS AMG always lets you know that you’re driving something really special, simply via its amazing soundtrack. It always, always sounds so cool, with the V-8’s throaty burble and the metallic rap of the exhaust. I found myself putting the transmission in neutral simply so I could coast along city streets, blip the throttle, and get reactions from pedestrians.
There is plenty of high-tech wizardry to play with here, starting with a dial that lets you choose between C for comfort (or Controlled Efficiency, as Mercedes calls it), S for sport, S+ for sport-plus, and M for manual modes for the 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The AMG button lets you store your favorite settings, but I didn’t get around to programming anything. In C, the transmission is too slow for aggressive driving, as accelerating from a stop is pokey. M mode is much more exciting, unsurprisingly, and the steering wheel mounted shift paddles are satisfying to use.
This morning, when the car was still cool, I watched a digital readout flash repeatedly as the coolant, engine-oil, and gearbox-oil temperature readings quickly increased during the first 2 or 3 miles of driving. Unexpectedly cool.
The gullwing doors attract lots of attention, so you find yourself trying your best to exit the car with some measure of grace and aplomb. Luckily, I didn’t find ingress and egress to be as difficult as I imagined they would be, although I wouldn’t want to slide over the wide sill and slither into the driver’s seat if that sill were dirty. When you unlock the car, the door handle pops out of the door, and you do have to bend over a bit to grab it. Once you’re seated, closing the door isn’t that difficult; you just shift yourself slightly left and slightly forward, reach your arm out and up, and your hand naturally finds the door handle and down the door comes. Opening the door from inside is a cinch. And, no, I did not even once bang my head against the open door.
The SLS has the lowest-mounted rear-view camera of any car I’ve ever driven. It looks like the camera lens is just barely skimming the ground behind the car, and you get a very detailed view of the pebbles that are enmeshed in blacktop. Initially disconcerting, this eventually becomes kinda charming.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
I’ve experienced five gull-wing sports cars, enough to last a lifetime. Only one — an experimental Mercedes-Benz C-111 powered by a wailing rotary engine and piloted by the unflappable Rudolf Uhlenhaut — left an indelibly positive imprint. It’s a pity that Mercedes didn’t use that mid-engine wundercar as the SLS’s inspiration instead of the 300SL gullwing, coincidentally created by Uhlenhaut in the mid-fifties. But the real SLS bummer is that the thrill of entering and exiting through gullwing portals will fade in a week. Then you’re stuck with the awkward contortions, the strain required to close the doors, and the spectacle you’ll prompt at every stop in a public place. Here’s my suggestion for partially remedying the situation: Mercedes should add power door closers to make the SLS more palatable.
Don Sherman, Technical Editor
Unlike Mr. Sherman, I’ve experienced no gullwing cars, so getting behind the wheel of the SLS AMG was a noteworthy occasion for me. The first thing I noticed, after climbing over the sill and lowering myself into the seat, was that I couldn’t reach the door handle to close the door. That meant that I had to move my left leg back over the sill to the pavement and raise myself up in order to reach the handle and lower the door. It was a little awkward, but subsequent entries into the car were a little more graceful as I learned to grab the handle simultaneous to lowering myself into the seat. A power door closer would be a nice touch.
The interior of the SLS is filled with familiar Mercedes switchgear and carbon fiber trim, so the learning curve is definitely not steep for anyone who’s driven a Mercedes in the last ten years. Headroom — even for someone as short as me — is not generous, thanks to what is apparently some kind of support member located in the center of the roof.
When I first got into the SLS, the transmission was set for “C” for comfort, but it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t my preferred setting. When you try to ease away from a stop sign with light pressure on the guess pedal, you barely make forward progress. Then the accelerator hits a certain point and you lurch forward. Better to set it in sport and have more linear power delivery.
Once under way, the 6.2-liter engine makes a great noise. Georg Kacher’s description of the exhaust note in the August issue, “all bass not tenor, roaring tiger rather than howling wolf,” is accurate – the deep-throated growl really is reminiscent of a big cat. As would be expected with 563 hp and 479 lb-ft or torque, acceleration is blistering. When breaks in freeway traffic offered the appropriate opportunities, quickly running the speedometer up to the triple digits from regular highway cruising speeds seemed to happen almost instantaneously. It’s no wonder I took the long way home that day.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
I don’t see the gullwing doors as such a big negative. Okay, I did bonk my head on the open door once (and on the center roof panel inside the car twice), but I did not find it to be a tremendous reach to close them. Also, consider that in many two-door cars with conventional doors, the doors are very long and you often can’t open them very far in tight quarters; the gullwing doors, by contrast, don’t seem to need much clearance.
Exotic looks (and doors) aside, there’s much that’s familiar here. The 6.2-liter V-8 (which, for reasons known only to itself, AMG insists on characterizing as a 6.3 liter) has a real stock-car rasp; it’s an AMG staple (albeit with somewhat less power than the 563 hp seen here). The dual-clutch gearbox doesn’t have quite the around-town smoothness of a torque-converter automatic, nor the involvement of an old-fashioned manual, but of course it whips off lightning-quick shifts and matches revs on downshifts.
Compared to the Mercedes-McLaren SLR, this new supercar makes every bit as much of a visual statement but it far easier to drive. Where the SLR was a nervous, twitchy beast that could barely be driven in a straight line, the SLS is as user-friendly as any SL63 AMG.
Joe Lorio, Senior Editor
Base price (with destination): $185,750
Price as tested: $199,550
6.3-liter V-8 engine
7-speed automatic transmission
AMG limited-slip differential
AMG performance steering wheel with aluminum shift paddles
AMG three-stage ESP
Carbon fiber composite drive shaft
Auto-dimming rear view mirror
Power folding mirrors
Headlamp washing system
Dual-zone climate control
Premium leather upholstery
Comand head unit with 6-disc CD/DVD changer
40-GB hard-drive with GPS navigation
Sirius satellite radio
iPod/MP3 media interface
Alcantara head liner
Bi-xenon headlamps with active curve illumination
LED daytime running lamps
Options on this vehicle:
Bang & Olufsen premium sound system — $6400
1000-watt sound system
Carbon fiber trim — $4500
AMG 10-spoke forged alloy wheels — $2400
Key options not on vehicle:
Carbon fiber engine compartment cover — $5400
Carbon fiber side mirror caps — $1900
AMG leather and Alcantara steering wheel — $500
14 / 20 / 16 mpg
Size: 6.3L 32-valve V-8
Horsepower: 563 hp @ 6800 rpm
Torque: 479 lb-ft @ 4750 rpm
7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Curb weight: 3573 lb
19-inch alloy wheels front; 20-inch alloy wheels rear
265/35ZR-19 front; 296/30ZR-20 rear Continental ContiSport Contact performance tires