New Car Reviews

Driven: 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

Chronologically and alphabetically, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is a direct follow-up to the SLR, the supercar that was the offspring of a seven-year fling between Mercedes and McLaren. In reality, however, the SLS is the Mercedes that’s supposed to make you forget about the SLR and hark back five decades to the magical 300SL Gullwing. One look – from any angle – at an SLS with the doors ajar is akin to being slipped a dose of Rohypnol. Memories of the SLR simply fade away.

Given that the Gullwing is such a prominent icon in the annals of automotive history, Mercedes wasn’t going to trust just anyone – including, or perhaps especially, McLaren – with the development of its new flagship. So AMG, formerly an independent aftermarket tuner and more recently Mercedes-Benz’s in-house skunk works, was tapped to do the job.

Let a performance division develop a front-engine car, and the handling-obsessed engineers will shove the engine as far back as possible. The resulting SLS has its V-8 mounted so far rearward under the pornographically long hood that it looks as though you could fit another V-8 ahead of it. A carbon-fiber driveshaft weighing only 10.3 pounds connects the engine to a rear-mounted transaxle. And that’s the only carbon fiber you’ll find – whereas the SLR McLaren unibody was made of the stuff, AMG chose to construct the SLS out of aluminum, a first for a modern Mercedes. Not only is the SLS some 200 pounds lighter than the SLR, the material choice no doubt helped keep expenses down: the SLS costs half what the SLR did. And, of course, the SLS does the one parlor trick that no SLR could ever do: open its doors straight up. (That thud you just heard was the SLR’s resale value hitting the ground.)

However, the SLS has a slight problem right out of the box: it isn’t pretty. Its face looks like that of a wide-mouth bass. The rear window is reminiscent of the Buick Reatta, and the truncated rear recalls the Acura CL. Luckily, people over five feet tall will smack their heads on the bottom of the gull-wing door getting into or out of the SLS, and perhaps the optical-nerve degeneration from repeated head trauma will help SLS owners grow to love the way their Gullwings look.

Actually, all it should take is for them to fire up the 6.2-liter V-8.

The now-familiar engine has been reworked to produce 563 hp and 479 lb-ft of torque, a bit more than it delivers in other Mercedes AMG models. Impressively, the V-8, which has been modified enough to earn its own code-name (M159, in place of the regular 6.2’s M156 designation), achieves this output without direct injection. As the successor to the 300SL Gullwing, the world’s first direct-injected production car, this would have been a convenient time to fit the technology to AMG’s V-8. But instead, AMG relied on more conventional tuner tactics to coax more power from its engine: a revised intake (with eight 11.4-inch by 2.0-inch velocity stacks), equal-length exhaust headers, and forged rather than cast pistons shave more than a pound off the reciprocating mass. The horsepower bump winds up being big enough to earn the M159 the crown of the world’s most powerful normally aspirated production V-8.

And in fact, it’s enough grunt to cause some problems at the other end of the driveshaft: for transmission durability reasons, the engine isn’t permitted to produce full power in the first two gears. It seems that the Getrag-sourced dual-clutch transaxle – the same seven-speed unit found in the Ferrari California – isn’t quite robust enough to deal with it all. The M159, like other 6.2s, is relatively soft below 4000 rpm, and coupled with the noticeable torque restriction in first gear, the SLS doesn’t exactly explode off the line.

Mercedes claims that the SLS will race to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds (and continue to 197 mph), so you can imagine how brutally fast it is once the engine is allowed to run free. As in every other application, AMG’s V-8 is the Tasmanian Devil of the automotive industry: snarling, popping, and barking while spinning up dust clouds and terrorizing anyone within earshot. The old-school, big-block mechanical cacophony coming through the firewall is no match for the guttural basso profundo exploding from the exhaust pipes – more satanic than melodic, it’s impressive more by virtue of volume than pitch. It’s completely insane.

It’s also rather insane how small the cockpit is. Getting into the SLS isn’t as difficult as you might expect – assuming you shook off the head injury and remembered to reach up and pull down the door before belting up – but once inside, space is at a premium. Legroom is granted by the power seats, but the seatback cants forward as the seat moves back, so tall drivers have to lean forward with their heads against the roof in order to have enough legroom to drive comfortably.

The switchgear is familiar Mercedes, although the silver-backed gauges look a little boy-racerish for a car in this price league. The materials are first-rate, of course, but the interior isn’t any more special than, say, a regular Mercedes-Benz SL. A substantial support member hanging from the center of the roof exacerbates feelings of claustrophobia. We’re told that the trunk will hold two golf bags, but the SLS isn’t exactly a cargo hauler. Cabin storage is limited to a small center-console binnacle and a tiny glove box whose door is so flimsy it belongs in a Tata Nano.

Not that you’ll care about the glove-box door once you put your foot to the floor, because dynamically, the SLS is a masterpiece. The suspension, with unequal-length control arms at all four corners, provides a comfortable ride without the assistance of air springs, active dampers, or other trickery. At the same time, it allows almost zero body motion, even on the track. Turn-in is immediate, and balance is brilliant – ask for any amount of oversteer, and this two-seater will happily oblige. The steering is quick and accurate, and the brakes (whose optional carbon-composite front rotors are bigger than the wheels on the original Gullwing) are instantly responsive and eternally fade-resistant. The SLS doesn’t feel like a lightweight – perhaps due to that enormous hood in front of you – but as a driver, you get the sense that all of its mass is low to the ground and concentrated well between the axles.

Unfortunately, it is also clear that the transmission is the weak point of the driving experience. AMG engineers warned that our preproduction prototypes were running transmission software a full release generation behind that of the cars that will make their way to Mercedes showrooms in May. The gearbox’s numerous issues – slow response, reluctance to downshift, and occasional harsh shifts – will be resolved, officials promise.

None of this will be an issue when the all-electric SLS debuts in 2013. AMG is proud of the fact that the chassis was developed from the get-go to accommodate batteries in the center tunnel. Lithium-ion batteries with an energy capacity of 48 kWh are slated to power four electric motors that will produce a combined 392 kW (526 hp) and 649 lb-ft of torque.

We also expect roadster and Black Series variants of the SLS, the latter possibly with a twin-turbocharged V-8 with monumental horsepower. To be honest, though, AMG has already done a phenomenal job of making a very fast, very capable supercar, and the SLS doesn’t need more power or better handling. What it needs is a little injection of special – a glamoured-up interior and a face-lift would go a long way.

Then again, the SLS’s gull-wing doors do perform a parlor trick that no other new car can pull off. For that reason alone, the SLS AMG receives a permanent entry in automotive history books right next to the 300SL Gullwing. And for half the price of the SLR McLaren, that’s pretty cool. Wait, SLR? What SLR?

Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG
BASE PRICE $200,000 (est.)

Engine: 32-valve DOHC V-8
Displacement: 6.2 liters (379 cu in)
Horsepower: 563 hp @ 6800 rpm
Torque: 479 lb-ft @ 4750 rpm
Transmission: type 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Drive: Rear-wheel

Steering: Power rack-and-pinion
Suspension, front: Control arms, coil springs
Suspension, rear: Control arms, coil springs
Brakes: Vented discs, ABS
Tires: Continental ContiSportContact 5P
Tire size f, r: 265/35YR-19, 295/30YR-20

L x W x H: 182.6 x 76.3 x 49.7 in
Wheelbase: 105.5 in
TRACK F/R: 66.2/65.0 in
Weight: 3573 lb
fuel mileage: 13/20 mpg (est.)