“It sounds like a dragon.”
My wife's words perfectly capturing the moment as we waited for the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG to make its way up the ramp from the depths of the parking garage. Its 6.2-liter V8, bellowing and belching out backfires with an increasing intensity that had me concerned. Not that it would soon emerge from the darkness only to engulf us in a breath of fire, but that the parking attendant might be having a little too much fun in the $183,000 car that was temporarily in my charge.
I couldn’t blame him.
The SLS is Mercedes-Benz's latest supercar. It’s a title that it earns through a number of individual traits, but none more so than the roof-hinged gullwing doors, which alone ensure its immortality on posters wallpapering the bedrooms of teenagers around the world.
That engine helps, too. Not simply because its powerful voice could get Paul Rodgers kicked out of Bad Company, but for the actual power it produces: 563 hp and 479 lb-ft of torque. Based on the run-of-the-mill version of this motor found under the hoods of other products from MB’s in-house performance division, AMG, it gets unique intake and exhaust systems, dry sump lubrication and strengthened internal parts in order to handle the extra dose of pyrotechnics that it is subjected to. Each one is hand assembled by a single technician, so if you run into any problems you know exactly who to blame.
Yeah, I’m looking at you, Robert Feiler.
Even with the doors closed and the volume held under control, the SLS attracts a fair bit of cell phone camera picture-taking as it slinks around town. This surprised me, as it doesn’t possess the conventional beauty of something like a Ferrari or Lamborghini. Instead, the two-seat coupe exhibits the presence of a classic rock star that you see walking through the airport. You can’t quite place him, and he may not be the handsomest guy in the world, but there’s something about the way he’s dressed and how he carries himself that emanates greatness.
Yeah, I’m looking at you, Paul Rodgers.
The SLS is as low as a Corvette, but wider and nearly a foot longer – the aluminum body stretched like taffy over an ultra light space frame made from the same material. Yes, the extra thick rear roof pillars are reminders of the company’s commitment to safety overall, but they aren’t enough to take any of the bad out of its ass.
Simply drawn, but flawlessly executed, the interior is practically painted in leather from the top of the dashboard down to the carpet. Real aluminum trim abounds, unless you’re interested in shelling out a few extra grand for carbon fiber. The white on silver motif of the instrument cluster can be tough to read during the day, but the typeface on the gauges looks as if it was copied from an old 24 Heures du Mans poster, and it will have your eyes popping when the sun goes down and the backlighting turns on. The only piece that’s really out of place is the dated infotainment system, although its old-time radio dial graphics would look right at home in the 1955 300SL, the legendary Mercedes-Benz that the SLS is loosely based on.
The fun stuff is delivered to the rear wheels via a carbon fiber driveshaft connected to a seven-speed, dual-clutch transaxle, the first of its kind from the German automaker. Steering wheel-mounted paddles let you change gears yourself, or you can choose one of the automatic modes that range from Comfort to Sport Plus, which adjust the shift pattern and throttle response to match your mood.
Steering is speed-sensitive and nearly symbiotic with your directional desires. There is so little slop in the wheel that it feels like an errant flick of a thumb could send you into oncoming traffic. Combine this level of connection with race car-type double wishbone suspensions at both ends, and the concept of feedback is redefined in the SLS. Turn-in is quicker than immediate, and you sense every bend and blemish in the road surface as well as if you were sliding your bare hand across it.
Unlike the active rear spoiler that deploys at high speeds to create downforce, the suspension is entirely passive, bereft of the adaptive damping that most cars of this ilk and many lesser ones have. Perfectly tuned for dream roads, the setup can be a little punishing on everyday pavement, especially if you live in New York City, or have a full bladder. For those with neither of these issues, a tighter, track-oriented version is available.
Even without it, the SLS felt right at home fooling around on the road course at Raceway Park in New Jersey. As should be the case with a supercar, the experience is singular. With the engine set behind the front axle, the center of gravity is located toward the rear of the car -- as is your backside – while that long hood reaching out into oblivion gives you the sensation of piloting a javelin – the thrown kind, not one from AMC.
A healthy amount of understeer is dialed in, but power conquers all. A heavy stomp on the gas pedal will wag the tail with the best of them, at least until the overly protective stability and traction control systems start selectively tapping the 15.4-inch front and 14.2-inch rear brakes and dialing down the engine's output in your best interests. Of course, if you have no interest in self-preservation, you can turn them off.
It’s your money.
When it comes to smooth driving on a track, this is a slow in, fast out kind of car. But fast doesn't tell the half of it. Mercedes-Benz pegs the 0 to 60 mph time at 3.7 seconds, which is nice, but it’s the acceleration from 60 mph to beyond that astonishes. Need to pass a minivan on a two-lane mountain road? Done. In fact, take the twelve cars in front of it as a lovely parting gift.
Top speed is electronically limited to 197 mph, and the SLS should have no time getting there if you happen to find yourself on a salt flat. But that doesn’t happen all that often, does it? Not unless you live in Utah. Even then who would want to scratch the paint on this thing?
No, this is a car made for that mythical place called the Autobahn, where it was born and reared. Speed has little meaning to it, certainly not the piddling velocities we’re bound by law to observe here in the Land of the Free. From A to B it goes about its business in a very studious, very efficient, very Mercedes-Benz fashion that borders on boring.
When trapped on things called turnpikes and interstates, the demeanor of the SLS is unhurried, even if you’re driving it faster than anyone else on the road. The exhaust sound, which could win awards at Talladega with the throttle wide open, is little more than a background hum at highway speeds, removing much of the drama from the equation. And that’s what is missing most.
Supercars are supposed to be absurd, in one way or another, all of the time, not just in fits and starts. They should constantly give you and everyone on the side of the road the sensation that something amazing is about to happen, or explode. The SLS isn’t even available in yellow paint. It’s more of an assassin, remaining cool and collected as it waits for the order to eliminate something it cares little about – like that Porsche with the big fixed wing in the center lane - so it’s hard to fall head over heels in love with it in a giddy sort of way.
But then the need comes to get into or out of it, and in that moment of limbo between staring at the SLS parked on the side of the road and sitting behind the wheel, something wonderful happens. Whether you are in the middle of nowhere, or the middle of Times Square, when those doors open, it becomes the center of the universe. It's wise practice your exits and entrances, which are pretty easy once you get the move down.
By the way, in the unfortunate event that you end up putting the SLS on its roof, explosive bolts blow the doors loose so that you can still extricate yourself in a very graceful, albeit inverted manner for the benefit of the emergency crews and any paparazzi on the scene. So, rich ladies, please don’t forget the underwear.
Yeah, I’m looking at you Lindsay, Paris, Britney…
2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG
Base Price: $183,000
Type: 2-passenger, rear-wheel-drive, 2-door coupe
Engine: 6.2-liter V8
Power: 563 hp, 479 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 7-speed dual clutch automatic
MPG: 14 city/20 hwy