We never thought we would see another gullwing from Mercedes after a 55-year absence, but it’s here, a coupe capable of taking on almost any sports car in the world.
The 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is the first product designed, engineered, and developed from the ground up by AMG, the high-performance division of the company, which up to now has provided engine, brake, and suspension system upgrades, but never a complete car. The new SLS AMG was a clean-sheet design, sharing only a few small interior pieces with any of the other cars in the Mercedes-Benz or Mercedes-AMG stable. The SLS AMG competes in the super sports car segment, against the Bentley Continental Supersport, Porsche 911 Turbo, Audi R8, and Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Aston Martin.
The SLS AMG is built like no other Mercedes-Benz in history, with a combination of 146 pieces of aluminum sheet, 16 castings, 46 welded extrusions, weldments, and extensive use of rivet-and-bond joints, magnesium and carbon fiber. The SLS AMG is only 4 percent steel, and every single fastener on the car is made of aluminum.
The layout is front mid-engine, rear-wheel drive, with an aluminum chassis and a torque tube or spine running down the center of the car, enclosing a carbon-fiber driveshaft that spins at crankshaft speed and feeds into a rear-mounted AMG 7-speed double-clutch automatic transaxle.
The SLS AMG certainly recalls the dimensions and proportions of the 300 SL Gullwing, but it is a much bigger car, because it has to be. There were no government dictates for automobiles in 1954, but in 2011 the new Gullwing will have to meet literally dozens of mandates for European, American, Japanese, Chinese and other markets, from safety to emissions to fuel mileage.
For instance, where the original Gullwing had very simple side glass, door latches and hinges, the SLS has power locks, power mirrors and power windows, and the gullwing doors actually include pyrotechnic or explosive bolts that will literally blow the doors open in the event of a rollover accident so that occupants can get out. The SLS has to pass front, rear, side, offset, pole impact and rollover crash standards and has safety bumpers and air bags to package as well, so it had to be bigger.
Living with the new SLS AMG requires some patience and a few concessions here and there. Like the old 300 SL Gullwings, the new car isn’t easy to get into, requiring caution around the raised door, a butt-first entry followed by gathering the legs in one at a time. The steering wheel on the new one doesn’t flip up out of the way, but the steering column has a power tilt-and-telescope feature that you can adjust all the way in and down every time you leave it parked so that entry and exit are easier.
To drive this new Gullwing coupe is to enjoy automotive performance at the very highest level. It has incredibly quick throttle response, immense power and torque available, a unique 7-speed double-clutch automatic transmission that shifts fast and hard, a power delivery system coupled to quick, sure steering, and race-quality suspension that doesn’t beat you up with its stiffness. For those who can afford this kind of beautiful supercar, the rewards will be prodigious, and the resale value should be fantastic, because there won’t be many of these cars imported.
All design is subjective, and we confess that, after having lived with the SLS for three days, we think the design is a success. There is no second side window this time around, the fender gills are horizontal, not vertical, the door handles are much larger, and the hood is much longer, but it all holds together in a unified design.
The aluminum body of the SLS is the first of its kind for any Mercedes-Benz product, with a decklid made of plastic so it doesn't interfere with all of the antennae built into it for radio, satellite radio, cellphone and navigation systems. The decklid also houses a deployable rear wing that can be put up or down via a console-mounted button, but normally rises to its full height at 74 mph and recedes into its housing at speeds below 50 mph, to aid in high-speed stability.
The SLS rides on a 105.5-inch wheelbase, with an overall length of 182.6 inches, 76.3 inches wide and 49.3 inches high. Front track is 66.2 inches and rear track is 65 inches. Compare those numbers to those from the 300 SL: 94.5-inch wheelbase, 178 inches overall length, 70 inches in width, 51.3 inches in height, with a 54.5-inch front and 56.5-inch rear track, at a listed weight of 2815 pounds, some 750 pounds lighter than the new car.
Being a super sports car, the SLS comes with every convenience imaginable, including Keyless Go, Parktronic, DVD navigation, six-disc CD changer, iPod and MP3 connections, Sirius Satellite Radio, dual air conditioning, headlamp washers, premium designo leather and alcantara interior, and all the usual power amenities.
For such a big car, the cockpit is small and intimate. Like all the SL models that followed after the Fifties, the new one has a limited range of seat adjustment to the rear and, although I wasn't particularly comfortable with my own 6-foot, 4-inch frame slid back and down all the way, the fit was tolerable.
The instrumentation package, the center console and the lower console are all laid out and designed beautifully, and every control knob and switch is close at hand. Two deficiencies we found with the interior are the lack of pull straps on the gullwing doors so shorter people can pull the doors closed when seated, and the complete lack of a dead pedal on the left side of the floor for bracing your body in hard cornering. Other than those two minor complaints, we loved being inside this beautiful car.
The racing-style bucket seats are nicely cushioned and hold your upper body tightly, the column can be adjusted for cruising or racing, and the sightlines are pretty good except for the views blocked by the massively thick A-pillar.
The engine in the SLS is an AMG-developed 6.3-liter V8 with every known technology inside it. The all-aluminum M159 engine, individually hand-built by one man at AMG, uses plasma-sprayed cylinder bores, double overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, variable intake and exhaust valve timing, Bosch digital fuel injection, forged steel crankshaft, forged aluminum pistons, dry sump lubrication with a front-mounted oil tank, twin throttle bodies and velocity stacks, and a high compression ratio of 11.3:1 to generate 563 horsepower and 479 foot-pounds of torque.
The company says that's enough power to accelerate the 3574-pound SLS from 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds, and from 0 to 124 mph in 11.7 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 197 mph. Mercedes-Benz says the SLS AMG will generate 1.2g on the skidpad.
The new transmission, with both a floor shifter and steering-wheel paddle shifters, has software that gives it four operating modes. The C or Comfort position on the center console switch gives it second-gear starts and quick upshifts for fuel economy while driving in traffic. The S setting, for Sport, makes it start in first gear, shift at higher rpm, and shift 20 percent quicker, with less throttle input. The S+ or Sport Plus setting speeds up shifts another 20 percent quicker. M or manual mode provides full manual control of shifting and adds another 10 percent faster shifting speed, down to 100 milliseconds.
The dual-clutch system allows full-throttle, full-torque shifting with no interruption in power delivery to the tires, and provides rev-matching throttle blips on downshifts to keep the tires from breaking traction. There is a race-start mode that ties the transmission into the electronic stability program or ESP chassis electronics and allows full-throttle first-gear launches. The final drive system includes a limited-slip differential.
The mid-mounted engine, steering and front suspension systems are all carried on an isolated aluminum subframe. This layout gives the SLS a 47 percent front, 53 percent rear weight distribution. The suspension on all four corners is a racing-style forged aluminum upper and lower arm or double-wishbone system with canted springs and gas-filled aluminum-bodied concentric shock absorbers, with stabilizer bars front and rear, a system designed for massively high cornering speeds and minimal squat and dive on acceleration and deceleration. Steering is variable power rack and pinion with a quick 13.1:1 ratio.
Stopping duties are handled by gigantic 15.4-inch front and 14.2-inch rear ventilated steel-rotor ABS brakes 1.4 inches thick in the front and one inch thick at the rear. Our silver SLS AMG came with the optional gold carbon composite brake calipers. These are the least noisy, least grabby, least temperamental and most powerful high-performance brakes we have ever used, a generation or two better than the noisy, grabby carbon ceramic brakes on the $450,000 SLR McLaren AMG we drove. The optional gold carbon SLS brakes are so powerful that they an change your driving style, allowing you to wait until the last millisecond before squeezing them on or, in a real emergency, stopping shorter than you ever imagined, less than 110 feet from 60 mph to 0, according to Mercedes-AMG.
For road driving, we left all the transmission and chassis controls in their normal Comfort positions, and didn't use the paddle shifters at all, letting the computers figure out the downshifts and upshifts. That left us to concentrate on seeing, throttle, steering and brakes, of which this car has plenty.
The SLS engine is wonderfully loud and sonorous at full throttle. Acceleration through the 7-speed double-clutch automatic is astonishingly quick, pinning you right back against your leather bucket seat. Going into a dark downhill corner in the California coastal mountains, you can concentrate on placing the car through the amazingly connected, quick and accurate steering, and slowing the car just enough with trail braking. The transmission will downshift to exactly the right gear, blipping the throttle between shifts, so that you can fly out of every corner. The more throttle you apply, the louder it gets, all the way up to the engine's 7500-rpm redline.
The tires, 265/35ZR-19s front and 295/30ZR-20s at the rear, provide an amazing connection to the pavement, and they have huge contact patches that generate quite a bit of tire noise, all part of the car's charm.
With each driving session, the SLS grew more familiar, we pushed it harder, and were rewarded accordingly, with absolutely blazing performance without a single sweaty palm on the wheel. The SLS is amazingly easy and comfortable to drive at extralegal speeds, and with the ESP system set to just this side of completely off, there is plenty of latitude to let the tail come out and allow the car to rotate through the tighter corners.
We think the new SLS AMG will prove to be one of the great sports cars of the early 21st century. It has all the engine torque and performance most drivers can handle, an excellent, responsive chassis and steering system, world-class brakes, all-day touring comfort and amenities, and a street presence like no other coupe currently on the market.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report after his test drive of the SLS near Carmel, California.