While Mercedes-Benz is best known by the average man on the street for its luxury saloons, the three-pointed marque also has a strong heritage when it comes to super sports cars.
The 300SL is undoubtedly the most famous of all sporty Mercedes models. Nicknamed Gullwing due to its unique roof-hinged doors, the 300SL was the automaker’s finest hour over 50 years ago, and the firm hopes to replicate this glory today with its spectacular, 300SL-inspired SLS AMG.
If you are an F1 fan and watched the races every other weekend last year, this mighty Mercedes probably doesn’t need much introduction. Because other than the two Red Bulls, Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari and possibly the McLarens, Bernd Maylander’s SLS AMG Safety Car probably led more laps at the Grand Prix races.
If it’s good enough to lead a string of F1 cars on international race tracks, more often than not in extremely wet conditions, then it must be able to go very quickly then. Fly fast, the great gullwing certainly can, as we discovered on a drive to Cameron Highlands.
Powering the SLS is the AMG 6208cc V8, or 6.3-litre as Mercedes would like you to know it as. As with any other AMG motor, the SLS unit is built based on the “one man, one engine” principle.
The SLS powerplant shares its displacement and basic architecture with the V8s in the E63 and C63, but with major tweaks that enable it to deliver more power than any other AMG model – 571bhp at 6800rpm. The V8’s monstrous grunt at the low end and relentless power higher up the tachometer mean it is a motor of two different characters – a lazy V8 at low speeds and a power-crazy, high-revving V8 at faster speeds. This is a characteristic that you don’t encounter often, as V8s tend to be either rumbly and relaxed like in an American muscle car, or hyperactive and shrieking like in a Ferrari.
The SLS is speedy enough to clock a claimed 3.8 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint, which makes it quicker off the line than the ballistic Audi R8 V10. What is more impressive, though, is the in-gear acceleration – boot the throttle on the highway and the SLS will rocket towards the horizon. It does this so effortlessly that you will hardly feel the speed, until you glance at the electronic speedometer showing three figures that start with “2”. Along the way, the coupe emits an undiluted V8 bellow that is purely mechanical and hugely intoxicating. Lifting the right foot off the throttle pedal will cause the exhaust to pop and crackle on the overrun, as if there are mini explosions within the tailpipes.
Transmitting power to the rear wheels is a 7-speed dual-clutch transaxle, the first such gearbox in a Mercedes. Basically the same unit used in the Ferrari California, it offers several different modes like the E63’s MCT system. In the most aggressive S+ (Sport Plus) setting, the SLS executes rapid-fire gearshifts which are some of the sharpest in the business. There is also a Race Start mode for maximum acceleration from standstill.
AMGs used to be all brute force with little handling finesse, but the SLS proves that this is not the case anymore. On a twisty mountain pass near Cameron, the SLS truly came alive. It’s one of those fast cars that egg you on, encouraging you to drive even harder and give it some stick. In return, the SLS responds beautifully and obediently to your every command. It is a sublime supercar that makes the keen driver feel like he is part of the machine.
Surprisingly, the dynamism doesn’t come at the expense of ride quality, with the SLS able to cruise comfortably on the North-South Highway.
The cockpit, strictly for two occupants, is neatly laid out and clearly focused on the pilot at the wheel. Nice design touches include the hooded instruments, the W123-inspired circular air vents and the centre console machined from a solid billet of aluminium. Some switchgear, such as the Comand controller, is taken from lesser Mercedes models, but they work well and do not detract from the SLS’s static drama.
The most dramatic aspect is, of course, those gullwing doors. They actually “flap” open fairly close to the body, extending outwards by just over 36cm, but there is no electrical assistance, so a small-framed driver or passenger in either sports seat has to stretch a little to reach the handle and close the door.
The gullwing design of the SLS AMG is undoubtedly a unique selling point, but for the true driving enthusiast, it is the way the car flies on the road that makes it special.
Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG 6.2 (A)
ENGINE 6208cc, 32-valves, V8
MAX POWER 571bhp at 6800rpm
MAX TORQUE 650Nm at 4750rpm
GEARBOX 7-speed dual-clutch
0-100KM/H 3.8 seconds
TOP SPEED 317km/h
PRICE INCL. COE $795,888 (as of January 2011)
Check out the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG’s successor, the Mercedes-AMG GT Coupe