First Drive: 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

Instead of a conventional transmission lever, the SLS features a small T-handle gear selector. Push it forward to engage reverse, pull it backwards to select drive, hit the button marked P for park. To the left are five buttons marked engine start, transmission mode (controlled efficiency, sport, sport plus, manual), ESP (on, off or sport), rear spoiler (it automatically extends at 75 mph) and AMG (to store your favorite settings). The familiar Comand system controls the various communication, navigation and entertainment functions. Like every AMG car, the SLS offers a choice of in-dash readouts which relay the coolant, engine and gearbox oil temperatures, the current ESP setting and the most recent lap and trip times. Above the two large main round instruments, there is a supplementary digital LED rev counter with one amber warning segment at 6900 rpm and two red warning dots which come on at 7100 and 7200 rpm.

The exterior design of the new gullwing incorporates modern and retro elements. The large grille, the side cooling gills, and the signature doors all mimic the original 1954 silver arrow. The cleverly packaged and neatly finished interior charms with its rather unique cocoon effect provided by the clamshell doors and the extra-tall sills. The cabin feel is snug but by no means claustrophobic. Standard equipment includes keyless ignition, heated seats trimmed in soft Designo leather, parking aids complete with rear-view camera, and lightweight pedals with rubber studs. Extra money buys speakers by Bang & Olufsen, carbon fiber trim, memory seats, a DVD changer, and your choice of multi-hued color schemes with contrasting stitching and piping. This is definitely not your father's Benz.

Thumbs up? Let's go! This time, there is no Black Series lead car. We're on our own now, for eight more hot laps. Time to hit the AMG button and summon the preferred set-up: transmission in sport plus, ESP in sport. There is no choice of setting for the dampers or the steering, the latter of which takes only 2.7 turns from lock to lock. In sport plus, the seven-speed dual clutch transmission swaps the gears with the same brutality as in the Ferrari California, and it also blips the throttle during downshifts. Engine and gearbox are connected via a carbon-fiber torque tube, which distributes the power to the rear wheels via a 100 percent mechanical limited-slip differential.

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