First Drive: 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

First gear runs out of revs before you can say "Wow," second is only suitable for the slowest corner of the track, third is a wonderfully elastic ratio which perfectly matches the engine's 4750-rpm torque peak, fourth successfully conquers fear through the two heart-attack left-handers, fifth is just about all you need to reel in the short downhill stretch and the hunchback start-finish straight.

Unlike the tail-happy C63 and the slightly ponderous SL63 we drove to acquaint ourselves with the track, the SLS AMG is so stable and composed, it feels strangely uneventful and uninvolving. How come? Because the new dry sump lubrication helps provide an exceptionally low center of gravity, the transaxle layout ensures an amazingly neutral handling balance, and the staggered-size tires (265/35R19 in the front, 295/30R20 in the back) provide an almost insane amount of grip. As a result, the 3571-lb two-seater is as expressively dynamic in one direction as it is absolutely unshakeable in any other. Although confidence is quickly established, it takes at least half a day--and an eye-opening ride with the former DTM champ Bernd Schneider--to fathom the true potential of this very special Mercedes.

But even then, the prevailing impression is compiled of such pragmatic virtues as compliant ride, accessible performance, perfect balance, enough noise but no undue vibrations or harshness. For a rear-wheel-drive supercar, the SLS is incredibly benign and forgiving.

One key dynamic asset is the steering. Meatier and less damped than in other AMG models, it opens up a new level of man-machine dialogue. It's a precision tool that fuses minimum input and maximum control, even through that adrenalin-pumping 110 mph uphill kink where the coupe's fat rear end wants to play catch and release. Then there's the electronic throttle, which allows you to modulate and time the torque flow to perfection. The free-breathing, high-revving V-8 responds to the driver's right foot like a thoroughbred to the prose of a horse whisperer. Especially in manual mode, where the transmission holds the chosen gear no matter what, the SLS rides the torque surf so expertly that every approach is a trough, every apex is a crest, and every exit is a mighty tidal wave.

To boost the 6.2-liter V-8's power output from 525 hp to 571 hp, AMG developed a new larger-diameter intake plenum, hotter camshafts, a more ambitious lightweight valve train and a low-resistance multiple-pipe exhaust system. Other measures include slimmer forged pistons, reinforced crankshaft bearings, toughened reduced-friction piston liners, a stiffer crankcase, a shorter cooling circuit and a more efficient lubrication. Lighter, torquier and quite a bit more powerful, the tweaked 6.2-liter V-8 actually uses less fuel than the version in the E63 and S63 (though U.S. EPA figures are not yet available). Mercedes is quoting a 0-to-62 mph time 3.8 seconds and a top speed of 197 mph.

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