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2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG: Panamericana Refined and Revisited

Sometimes it's important to ignore your instincts. Say, for instance, you're going 130 mph down an empty stretch of highway in a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG wearing European plates, and suddenly you see blue lights flashing in your rearview mirror. Instinctively, you're going to breathe in sharply and let off the gas. Which is silly. The only rational thing to do in this situation is to let the patrol car - a dark blue Dodge Charger emblazoned with the seal of the Policía Federal - fly by and then lay back onto the throttle to stay on his tail. Welcome, amigos und Freunde, to Mexico. At least, that is, the version of Mexico brought to you behind the wheel of Mercedes-Benz's newest halo car.

Ostensibly, the purpose of our adventure is to commemorate the 300SL's 1952 victory in La Carrera Panamericana, a race that was run across Mexico from 1950 to 1954 and in recent years has been reborn as a more relaxed (but still plenty dangerous) vintage race. To this effect, Mercedes has brought along a 300SL race car replete with buzzard-blocking windshield bars and legendary driver John Fitch. AMG also used the journey as an opportunity to announce its new SLS AMG GT3 race car. But, in truth, all this is merely window dressing. Our real reason for flying down to central Mexico is to get a taste of grand touring in the inimitable Mercedes Gullwing tradition. Our condensed journey would skip the portion of the Panamericana that heads through the heart of drug-infested Juárez and instead start in the more rural southern leg that connects Puebla to Oaxaca.

Speaking of crime, the U.S. State Department, just before our departure, advised American travelers to avoid displaying "expensive-looking jewelry, large amounts of money, or other valuable items" in Mexico. How about a dozen or so European exotic cars? The pack of Gullwings was sitting casually in an alleyway as we emerged from our hotel. Much has been said about the new Gullwing's awkward proportions, but as the doors hiss open and we fire up the 6.2-liter V-8, it's hard to think of a vehicle with more presence. The drama is partly spoiled, however, when this vertically challenged writer has to lean awkwardly out of the driver's seat to reach the door handle. Taller participants look no more graceful as they stoop to avoid hitting their heads, sometimes to no avail.

We start off by driving through the historic center of the colonial city of Puebla, today home to a large Volkswagen plant that stopped producing the original Beetle only in 2003. Given all the reports of brazen shootings in broad daylight, we had been worried about drawing the wrong kind of attention in our $200,000 supercars. But as we advance through Puebla's narrow, cobblestone city streets, we encounter only a few harmless gawkers and excited children. If anything, we soon become aware of how few people even pay us a glance, let alone pull out a camera phone. Apparently, the folks around here have learned it's safer to mind their own business.

Soon enough, the congestion of the city gives way to beat-up highways lined with broken-down vehicles of all shapes and sizes. Our Hemi-powered Charger escorts flip on their lights and clear the left lane of any pesky commuters doing less than 100 mph. On these rough roads, we'd almost prefer to be handcuffed in one of their back seats, as the stiffly sprung SLS bounces from pothole to pothole, jostling us around in the firm seats. The sensations go from merely uncomfortable to slightly unnerving as our speed climbs past 120 mph, when the steering becomes light and jittery. Mind you, the original race was held to commemorate the construction of the highway. We'd say it's time for a new one.

Not that we really have much reason to complain. We weren't allowed to drive the original 300SL out of fear that we might exercise its multimillion-dollar insurance policy, but the ninety-two-year-old Fitch (see sidebar), who speaks with the frankness of a man who's beyond the age of caring what our Mercedes hosts think, describes it as "unmanageable." It's easy to forget that when Fitch became Mercedes-Benz's first American driver, the company was still a bombed-out shell of its prewar self. Unlike the later production 300SL, the 1952 Panamericana racers that Fitch, as well as Hermann Lang and winner Karl Kling, piloted were constructed quickly and cheaply from the 300 sedan's parts bin. That meant carburetion instead of direct fuel injection and a crude rear suspension that Fitch's team literally tied down to reduce axle chatter. Fitch attributes his success in the car more to its amazing durability than any dynamic excellence.

The SLS, by contrast, is all about dynamic excellence. As the highways around Puebla give way to twisting two-lane mountain roads, we blow past the federales and put the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic in manual mode. The 563-hp V-8, modified significantly in this application for lighter weight and better breathing, croons beautifully with every rev-matched downshift, although the donkeys wandering the roadside have apparently heard better, as they never bother to look up. Unimpressed as we were with the steering at high speeds, it's Porsche 911 good as the road curves and tilts mere inches from the sheer rock face. So much information comes through the wheel that it's possible to detect subtle changes in the asphalt that affect grip, not that the SLS ever feels at risk of breaking loose. When we give it too much gas coming out of tight bends, stability control - which we happily left fully engaged - intervenes gently yet effectively. Considering how much technology is baked into the Gullwing's aluminum body, it's refreshingly transparent and, yes, fun to drive.

Alas, we can't maintain this bristling pace forever - we've got speed bumps to contend with. We're passing through the ever-smaller towns of Oaxaca, a region established well before the arrival of Spanish conquistadores and to this day home to more speakers of indigenous languages than anywhere else in Mexico. In his memoir, Racing with Mercedes, Fitch describes driving the expensive 300SL through such locales. "The finest racing machines in the world - Ferrari and Lancia from Italy, Mercedes-Benz from Germany, Gordini, the pride of France, Jaguar from England - struck an exotic and incongruous note as they picked their way through the dusty streets past the burros, barking mongrels, and silent peasants." As we cover the same territory in a pack of SLS AMGs fifty-eight years later, Fitch's depiction is still perfect.

And, really, that's what makes our journey so worthwhile, if also disconcerting. Driving a Chevrolet Corvette across Route 66 might be good fun, but it feels a bit like speeding through a deserted amusement park. Many parts of the Panamericana route, in contrast, remain as untamed, rugged, and real as ever. In the same vein, Mercedes-Benz's newest sports car, although no doubt worlds removed from Fitch's battered 300SL, is a surprisingly involving automobile. Close those ostentatious doors against the beautiful yet still troubled Mexican countryside and blast onto the open road, and the SLS AMG might as well be a gull-winged time machine.

Hard-core Racing

Our high-speed sprint from Puebla to Oaxaca was plenty exhilarating, but it can't come close to comparing with the sheer mechanical challenges that American racing driver John Fitch faced during the 1952 Panamericana. Over five days, he and his navigator, Eugen Geiger (who spoke no English), traversed nearly 2000 miles in their open-roofed 300SL. Fitch finished fourth but was disqualified for having made an improper repair to his vehicle. Fortunately for Mercedes, the other 300SLs, both Gullwings, placed first and second. Here are some of Fitch's trip notes, adapted from his memoir, Racing with Mercedes.

Stage 1:
Tuxtla to Oaxaca
- Eighty-seven starters - ranging from Phil Hill in a Ferrari to the son of the Mexican president in a modified Cadillac - line up for the start of the race.
- Right rear tire blows out at 140 mph. The shock absorber is also damaged.
- Fellow Mercedes drivers Hermann Lang and Karl Kling have some animal encounters, the former hitting a dog near the starting line and the latter taking a buzzard through the windshield. Incredibly, Kling keeps driving, despite the fact that his co-driver is briefly knocked unconscious.
- Alberto Ascari rolls his Ferrari, and Felice Bonetto slides into the side of a mountain (he would have a fatal crash in the 1953 Panamericana).
- Fitch's 300SL finishes the stage needing a new shock absorber, a new clutch, and a bigger windshield (the Gullwing coupes get metal bars to protect against buzzards).

Stage 2:
Oaxaca to Mexico City (via Puebla)
- Blind turns at 80 to 100 mph.
- Steep plunge followed by a quick switchback onto a bridge. Several cars go off the road here. Fitch barely slides through.
- Back and forth with Luigi Villoresi in the mountains outside Puebla.
- Crowds in Mexico City line the road and completely block visibility around corners. A dog wanders onto the road at the finish line.

Stage 3:
Mexico City to Durango
- Tread separation forces another tire change.
- Stop in Leon, where, after driving 267 miles, drivers have half an hour to refuel and make repairs.
- Fitch, driving the only open 300SL, takes a small rock to the forehead.
- Front wheels go out of alignment, causing shaking at speeds above 125 mph.
- Steering becomes dangerously slack as Fitch rockets across bridges.
- No more balanced wheels, as Mercedes equipment breaks down.

Stage 4: Durango to Chihuahua
- More steering alignment issues. Fitch, cursing at his co-driver, turns back to gas station to fix alignment.
- Another rear tire blowout.

Stage 5: Chihuahua to Juárez
- Despite cold crosswinds and a threat of snow, Fitch passes Lang, who has lost one of his gullwing doors.
- Fitch places second in the last stage, fourth in the race, but soon learns that his stop at the gas station the day before had disqualified him, as all fixes were supposed to be made on the side of the road.