It's more than a half-century of progress by any measure: Ferrari's in its seventh decade, and the Corvette's well into its sixth. The Italian carmaker's uncorked a California vintage to celebrate, while Chevy's cheering its very survival with the most powerful 'Vette ever.
It's only right in this retro-tinged year--everyone's fondly recalling the good old days, even if they were as recent as September of 2008--that Mercedes-Benz is ready to ride the nostalgic wave with a new gullwing coupe, the 2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG.
The successor to the legendary Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing from the 1950s, and a de facto replacement for the SLR, the SLS opened its north-south doors for the first time in production form today. MotorAuthority joined up with Mercedes-Benz in Monterey and Laguna Seca for the worldwide press launch crack at the revived gullwing, which has sprung from concept to reality in three years.
Though it follows on the cooled heels of the SLR, the new SLS AMG has been designed from scratch, says AMG chief Volker Mornhinweg, and it's not based on any other Mercedes-Benz vehicles. It's the first car developed by the in-house tuners from Affalterbach, and while Mercedes builds the new two-seat coupe in a mainstream Benz factory in Sindelfingen, the heart of the SLS--the powertrain--still is assembed in Affalterbach, each drivetrain shepherded by a single assembler, from start to finish.
That AMG tradition is just the newest touchstone tapped by the engineers in charge of the SLS. Philosophically it remains true to the original in a few definitive ways: it's still rear-wheel drive, it's still built on an aluminum chassis, and then, of course, there are the doors, its calling card. In almost all other ways, it's been transmogrified into a $200,000 supercar with few concessions to anything but power and traction.
It's a bridge between the starter-exotic ranks of the Corvette ZR1 and Viper, and thin-air lust objects like the insanely capable Porsche 911 Turbo. Or, to stuntware like the expensive, non-brand-correlative Lexus LFA. And, of course, it's the new gullwing--even the non-car-people guests at the Ritz-Carlton recognized it so.
But is it a piece of Mercedes history up to the epic moment of the original 300 SL? After a day of motoring around the Monterey Peninsula, one thing is clear.
The new gullwing has far more to it than wings.
2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG: Does it sink, or does it soar?
It's moonrise. That's what happens in California, on the coast, when daylight-savings time expires and the sun's barely a red cast, while the full moon pinpoints a faraway horizon. I'm up and ready to grab a car in 20 minutes, ready to catch some sun, to head south toward the old Monterey road and Laguna Seca.
We've told you about the SLS many times, but to recap, the 2010 SLS AMG fuses classic and new styling themes on a purebred chassis. The new SLS is dominated by a new front-end treatment that evolves the current SL/SLK-Class shapes, a widemouth grille grafted on an impossibly long nose and a brief suggestion of a rear end. It's long and low and wide, very wide, stretched up front to accommodate the big AMG V-8 and abbreviated in back, to cloak the transaxle and to grant two passengers a little bit of carry-on space.
It's also shod with with a pair of gullwing doors. Those heritage pieces, recalled from the legendary Gullwings of the 1950s, mean there's no other car on the planet that looks as stunning with its doors open. It's a trump card that even the scissor doors on a Lamborghini can't duplicate. Neither can the split rear window on a Sting Ray, for that matter. The gullwings stop traffic and give the SLS instant iconic status. It's, simply, the "new gullwing."
The consensus from drive-bys? Approving stares and thumbs, but even casual onlookers had to look for a moment or two at first. If you're not sold on it, a critique of the SLS body could be unflattering. It's truly handsome from a few angles--the rear 3/4 view plays on the liquid sideview arc perfectly. The nose is wide and flat, which begs comparisons with pure musclecars--like the Dodge Viper, which qualifies as a distant cousin once removed, I think.
Unlike the original, which came with 3.0L straight six, the latest replica features a 405hp (302kW) 5.5L V8
It's more difficult to love the SLS from other angles. The whole sculpturing of the rear deck and the fenders' fall around the taillights is uninspired, and a little plain. The front end minus all context is wide and menacing--but isn't entirely related to the teensy greenhouse, which has some sizable, safety-inspired pillars in back in the place of the original's glassy greenhouse. The pillars are there for a reason--body rigidity and rollover protection--but they make for some unfair comparisons to some memorable semi-roofed slip-ups in auto history, like the Honda del Sol and the Buick Reatta.
If it sounds harsh and a little overstated, consider the fluid grace of the Jaguar XK and Aston Rapide, real benchmarks in design that don't suffer. The gullwing's doors, and the underlying mechanicals, really dictate some shapes on the SLS AMG that just aren't as emotional as they could be with conventional doors. (Ever walk in a Louboutin heel? Probably not, but it hurts. A lot.)
It's more emphatically good inside, particularly in the black-on-white edition I drove from Half Moon Bay to Laguna Seca. The dash has real graphic strength, and so do the door openings that frame the view for first-timers; the black door seals outline their slots like a Versace picture frame. The dash itself is similar to the SLR panel, but with far richer finishes, addressing that car's somewhat pedestrian cabin.
There are eye-pleasing details strewn about, like the aluminum-lidded storage bin on the rear end of the console. The climate and radio controls are exactly like those in the C-Class I'm driving this week, but they're ringed in metallic trim. The console has spot for the Benz COMAND controller, but it's located further up the console. In its place, there's no roller, just high-contrast French-stitched leather. You'll witness many bits and pieces lifted from the Mercedes inventory, but they're used in appropriate ways.
2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG: Probably an abuse of power
You might connect Mercedes with hulking machines like the G-wagen or even the plushly hefty SL hardtop roadsters. This time, the German automaker's put an emphasis on low weight to go with astonishing power, as it hunts down some of the track-ready luster that graces most Ferraris and Lamborghinis in the SLS.
Low weight is "one of the Ten Commandments" of sportscar engineering, AMG chief Mornhinweg says, and that's all the explanation needed for the aluminum space frame and body panels that grant the SLS a relatively light curb weight of 3,573 pounds. The body construction, the location of the engine behind the front wheels and the transmission in front of the rear wheels (mostly), means the SLS has nearly ideal weight distribution of 48:52 percent. There's some steel in the car, namely the strong pieces that make up the windshield frame.
If you're looking for virtuosity, it's under the broad expanse of aluminum hood. That's where the big AMG 6.2-liter V-8 lives, though it picks up a mysterious tenth of a liter for the "6.3" badges on the car's flanks. With tweaks to its intake manifold, to its lubrication system and to its throttle system, it cranks out a prodigiously healthy and vocal 563 horsepower, accompanied by 479 pound-feet of torque. This is one engine that talks back when spoken to, via throttle-by-wire controls. You'll always hear the SLS AMG coming, and rolling. The vintage metallic ripple that gathers at low speeds opens up to a fantastic howl, giving you plenty of engine note for your entertainment dollar--though it's almost unbelievably docile at a steady 80-mph cruise.
There's no manual shifter to conspire with the engine--instead, a new seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox takes care of all the gearchanges. Developed by AMG, the four transmission modes: Comfort, Sport, Sport + and Manual, with a "RACESTART" launch-control program built in. AMG says the gearbox is good for all modes, from "relaxed" driving to track racing, but "relaxed" may be too strong a word. It certainly slows and mellows shifts when it's in Comfort mode. Racing responses are much quicker, and the paddles themselves have the cool touch of real metal until you've rubbed them warm from repeated 4-3-2 clickdowns. This particular unit doesn't always want to dance as quickly as the blatty V-8, but I'm convinced these twin-clutch gearboxes make manual gearboxes a thing of the past. They're more complex to build and more expensive, but they remove the cultural hurdle Americans see in manual transmissions. That makes the SLS more accessible to a wider group of daydreamers, and in truth it makes the SLS more usable on the street--and still executes racing-speed shifts more quickly than almost any driver on earth can manage. Anything that keeps the driver's focus on the right line and the right point in the powerband--which all can be dictated in Manual mode--has to be progress. Right?
Through the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, and rear-wheel drive, the SLS AMG will accelerate from 0-60 mph in a claimed 3.7 seconds--Corvette ZR1 territory but shy of the stunning 3.3-second times turned in by the Nissan GT-R and Porsche 911 Turbo. A top speed of 197 mph is also claimed.
The suspension's forged in aluminum wishbones to handle the truckload of on-demand power with aplomb. Trundling in traffic can make the SLS seem a touch bouncy, but when the view ahead widens, it digs into its element. Drive it faster and sweep into tighter turns and it stays almost completely flat, even while the rear 20-inch tires are clawing for some middle ground between torque and reality. The most pleasant surprise of the day: the SLS really can be a relaxed ride, not a cruiser but with enough compliance dialed in for commendable ride control on those trying 80-mph interstate slogs between raceways. Carbon-ceramic brakes with 15.4-inch front discs and 14.2-inch rear discs are teamed with 19-inch wheels and tires in front, 20-inchers in back for stopping capability equal to the task.
At Laguna Seca, the SLS wants nothing more than some free time from the leash Electronics have opened up a huge wide path for everyone to drive fast more safely. And it's hard to imagine being satisfied with an SLS that didn't offer a slower throttle response, or a softer shift for pedestrian trips out in public. You can dial those things out of the SLS entirely if you want, along with most of the stability control, but do you want to?
Let a few track laps be the judge. There's a clear dividing line between rear-drive machines like the SLS and the slew of all-wheel-drive exotics aingling for the same airspace. It's really simple: you can drive well with a rear-drive car, and you can drive well with an all-wheel-drive car, but one requires you to drive well. One lets you paper over a lack of practice, or skill.
My advice, after taking almost an hour to get up to the SLS' speed? Don't jump into a rear-drive monster with zero experience on the given track and expect wonderful things. I nearly looped my SLS twice on first lap--my first lap ever at Laguna--before I got the right ideas about steering sensations, braking points and throttle travel.
Four-wheel drive usually means never having to say you're sorry about a scraped-up car. Rear-wheel drive warns you right off the bat where you need practice. Point taken.
2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG: you versus your stuff
The SLS AMG is 183 inches long and sports a wheelbase of 105.5 inches. More tellingly, it's 76.3 inches wide, but only 49.3 inches high. Most of the wheelbase is taken up by the front-midship placement of the engine, leaving scant space for two passengers, who will use most of the 39.1 inches of headroom even if they're not six-footers.
When it's all open--hood, trunk and gullwing doors--it's a centerpiece. From there, the SLS' tricky geometry requires practice before getting in and finding a spot that's comfortable. Pop open the gullwing with the handles--they're down near the sills--and clamber in, being careful not to clank your head against the lower door panel.
Once you're in, deal with the amount of headroom you have to work with. Some cranium space has been scooped out of the gullwing's top, but it's hemmed in by a flat, wide center structural member so the tall driver's right brain and the tall passenger's left brain will call a timeout. It's pretty confining inside, not only from that center plate but from the four-inch-deep windshield frame and the vertical wall behind the seats, in front of the transaxle. Then you dismount and--crack!--your head hits the door panel anyway. I counted four times during the day. It's something to get used to, for sure. For jollies, you can open the gullwings under about 30 mph and find out how golf-cart drivers feel. That beeping lets you know the car doesn't really want you to do that, sir, please.
When you've clambered in, you'll find out soon that there's not much room inside the SLS, in most any dimension. The seats are marvelously upholstered, but they take up much of the room left for people and things. Finding the right balance of seating position and rake isn't set-and-forget, it's strategy. The steering wheel telescopes, so you can reach a workable driving position, but it's in the tight, horizontally oriented cockpit where the SLS feels most like the Viper.
Leave the extras at home, too. A light, undamped glovebox hides some space, and the twin console bins are shallow, ready only for a cell phone and some other road detritus. A netted pouch hangs between the seats, and that's about it. The huge shelf behind seats isn't usable for cargo, unless you're willing to let go of any rear view. In the trunk you'll find 6.2 cubic feet of space to fill. Golf clubs? A couple of soft-sided bags? Make your choices well, since there's no other stowage available.
As mentioned above, there's also plenty of noise. Music to most of us, it could get annoying to casual users. There are very few moments of true peace in the SLS, though wind noise doesn't enter the equation. Fit and finish are nicely done: there are familiar parts around, like the twin stalks for cruise control and turn signal/wiper functions that you'll mix up once or twice before you get the hang. There's also a good balance of real aluminum trim on the console and the painted plastic on the dash, and some high-quality switchgear to twiddle at stoplights.
Standard features includes the COMAND system, leather trim, an electronic parking brake, headlamp assist, keyless ignition, PARKTRONIC, rain sensors, heated seats, AMG floor mats, cruise control, sports pedals and THERMOTRONIC. Optional goodies include a six-disc DVD charger, a Bang & Olufsen sound system, alarm, and several AMG paint schemes include the special Alubeam Silver. AMG is also offering several performance modifications including a carbon-fiber hood, side mirrors and trim; stiffer suspension settings; forged 10-spoke wheels; sports bucket seats and a performance steering wheel finished in leather and Alcantara.
Safety gear includes six airbags, stability and traction control. The stability system has three modes: full, Sport with some wheelspin, and "off," which experts can turn off at their own risk.
2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG: last impressions
It's unquestionably a great performer, and with the gullwings, a verifiable spectacle. Does the 2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG only win because it's a new gullwing, though, or because it's a stunning, 571-hp AMG supercar with ground-swallowing speed?
My first instinct was to call it a Mercedes-Benz Viper--based on its enormous powertrain roar, and the narrow slot for passengers, wedged in between big displacement and huge wheels. And while the packaging and power are in the same ballpark as the Viper, there's not much comparison when you roll in the gullwing's suave aesthetics, its controllable handling and electronic interventions. Also, it's fully executed inside--the interior's small but it's bejeweled, compared to the Viper's black plastic pit.
So what is the SLS AMG, in the world of exotic two-seaters? Ferraris are about the rapture of engine noises and the cult; Bentleys about the conflict of intense performance with the unique British idiom of veneer and handwork, which is also Rolls-Royce, minus the emphasis on intensity. The Viper and less so, the Corvette? Raw displays of power, unqualified American expression. And the world has enough of that, right?
This Mercedes occupies a middle zone. The SLS doesn't abandon technical refinement, but it does let its hair down with the loopy vintage bellow of that huge, hardly adulterated V-8. It compromises the actual driving experience to a degree, for the mythic appeal--and the visual impact--of gullwing doors. It's partly American in its tendency to speak out, part Italian in its cool-first aesthetic, and uncharacteristically Mercedes-Benz in its blend of the two, as anyone used to trundling to Pottery Barn in their GL450 4Matic can confirm.
We can think of two perfect scenarios for the use of the SLS AMG. One, cruising Miami's South Beach and making the most play with those fantastic standout gullwing doors. Two, putting the SLS to occasional track use out of a garage of seven or eight modern classics, probably during the annual Pebble Beach weekend.
It's a first-world dilemma, for sure--trying to figure out why you want one, and how to get one. The two-seat 2010 SLS AMG will be a limited production vehicle. Then there's the issue of future versions. A convertible is almost certainly guaranteed for the 2011 model year--and there's every chance it will correct the styling fall-off at the car's rear quarters. Mercedes is working on an electric version of the SLS due in 2013, and the interesting new partnership with Tesla will come into play in some compelling way, I'm guessing.
The SLS' starting price in Germany is set at approximately $257,000, but it's expected the American sticker price will come in below $200,000, since America's usually been given a price break due to currency concerns, and the fact that, as the U.S. PR team points out, we "buy in bulk" compared to the rest of the world. The first SLS AMGs will arrive in owner's hands in April 2010.
If you're not among them...don't say we didn't tip you off.
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