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