First Drive: Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG E-Cell

The runway at Norway’s Kristiansand airport has been closed for our test, and the final takeoff section has been converted into a challenging autocross course. I taxi slowly down the tarmac, turn around, wait for the thumbs-up-and give it stick. The sensation that follows can be described only as mind-boggling. After four seconds, the yellow cruise missile, with a combined 526 hp and 649 lb-ft of torque coming from its four electric motors, passes the 62-mph mark. A few heartbeats later, we tick 100 mph. Past the airport tower, the speedometer indicates 125 mph, and before the first cone appears, I swear I see 150 mph.

“No, you did not. Not quite,” says the smiling AMG chief project engineer, Jan Feustel. “But if everything goes according to plan and we make some more progress on the battery front, the production version should be able to top 160 mph.”

Through the cones, the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG E-cell feels as fast as the current that feeds it. The nearly neutral balance is sensational. The handling is a little ponderous at first, but as car and driver learn to waltz with each other, the rear wheels load up so fast even Mozart would have loved it. The brakes are experts at multitasking. They decelerate the vehicle as vigorously as the thrust reversers of the DC-9 parked at the gate while recovering electrical energy at an amazingly efficient rate. The transmissions (one for each axle) are single-speed affairs and seem to suck us toward the horizon as if attracted by a huge invisible magnet. Only the steering isn’t quite perfect. It could be quicker, it could be more positive on-center, and it could be more communicative.

“Problem recognized; solution under way,” comments radio AMG.

As we leave the airport and head for the picturesque coastline, acceleration and speed soon assume second priority to maximizing range. The hefty 48-kWh energy pack can store only enough juice for eighteen minutes of flat-out driving, but our leisurely pace — limited to 50 mph — promises a driving range between 100 and 125 miles. When descending hills, you instinctively pull both wheel-mounted paddles to trigger the coasting mode. The paddles also give access to four different brake-regeneration programs, ranging from the equivalent of mild engine braking to full handbrake. Unless traffic lights turn red, there’s virtually no need to touch the brake pedal.

The electric SLS isn’t due until 2012, but this prototype looks and feels suspiciously like a production car. Inside, the redesigned center stack is dominated by a large touch-screen monitor that replaces the fussy C-class-style Comand buttons. The instruments are also new. Both the speedometer and the power meter consist of rotating round dials. The twelve o’clock positions indicate current velocity and how much energy you are sapping or regenerating. A blue bar graph indicates the remaining range, along with a redundant numerical readout.

Under the E-cell’s skin, there are more changes from the fossil-fed SLS. For one, it’s more than 800 pounds heavier, although it still works out to an agile and well-balanced 46/54 percent front/rear weight distribution. At the same time, the center of gravity has been lowered almost an inch. Since the front-mounted power pack (motors, batteries, and ECU) takes up more space than the regular SLS’s 6.2-liter V-8, the control-arm front suspension has been replaced by a pushrod-operated strut arrangement. Revised air intakes, a low-drag wheel design, and a flush underbody make the plug-in SLS more aerodynamically efficient than the standard Gullwing.

The E-cell provides a completely new sports car experience with all the classic virtues of the breed. It’s fast, handles well, scores full marks in terms of ride and roadholding, and looks great. At the same time, the exhaustless SLS opens the doors to a whole new potpourri of thrilling sensations-on-demand torque, nearly silent superfast acceleration, and the art of regen braking as a driving technique. Electric motoring has a bright future if it’s half as much fun as wasting watts in this crowd stopper.

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