First Drive: 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG straightens up and flies right

2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG – Click above for high-res image gallery

On one hand, it may seem like an odd time for Mercedes to be jumping back into the ultra-premium end of the car market, particularly in light of its recent less-than-standouts efforts (think: McLaren SLR and the salesproof Maybach). But this isn't the case with the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. In fact, this isn't really a Gottlieb and Karl joint at all – at least not by any traditional definition.

The SLS is actually an Aufrecht Melcher Großaspach project. Huh? It's AMG's first bumper-to-bumper, start-to-finish project – and having just torn around the California countryside and hot-lapped around Laguna Seca, we're left wondering only one thing: Why did it take more than 40 years for this to happen? Well, perhaps we should cut Mercedes some slack, as it has only owned the high-performance arm since 1999, so perhaps the appropriate thing is to look at the SLS' 2009 rollout as something of a tenth anniversary present to itself. In that light, the folks from Stuttgart know how to throw one hell of a party.

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Photos copyright ©2009 Chris Paukert / Weblogs, Inc.
More Than Simple Nostalgia

Just look at it – even without the theater of its avian-inspired doors, the SLS AMG would have major presence. Oh, it borrows heavily from the legendary 300SL of the '50s and '60s – justifiably the automaker's most celebrated design ever – but this isn't purely a retro pastiche. It has its own proportions, form vocabulary, and detailing that makes it much more than a Xerox'd yellowed blueprint sourced from somewhere deep within the bowels of the Mercedes-Benz Museum's archives.

Despite its nostalgic cab-backwards design – the hood is so long you could land a Bell JetRanger on it – its low, wide stance and modern detailing (complex headlamps, colossal disc brakes, etc.) means that it's also a thoroughly contemporary design. This is just as well, because the SLS is the most advanced production car the company has ever fielded. It's not as classically delicate and desperately pretty as the 300SL, but that car was built when accommodating the dark art of good aerodynamics was more of a suggestion than a mandate, when safety regulations bordered on the nonexistent. We're told that the face of the SLS will significantly influence volume models to come, so expect to see variations of this mug on everything from future SLKs to the S-Class.

Blip the key fob and the flush door handle pops out to greet your outstretched hand. A gentle tug sends the gullwing dramatically skyward without much effort, but those looking for power actuation will have to seek out someone in the halls of SEMA, as AMG's boffins wisely didn't want to add the weight and complexity of a motorized assist – particularly in the roof. Climbing aboard isn't too difficult – the sill is definitely wider than in a conventionally doored car, but it isn't silly convoluted, and you can enter butt or legs first, your choice. That said, if you aren't on the tallish side, you're advised to grab the door handle on your way down, as the awkward reach will dash any hopes of a graceful getaway. Of course, if you're a taller beanstalk, you might be looking at a different purchase altogether. While the accommodations are supportive and beautifully stitched whether you go for the standard power seats or the thinner, rigid-back racing bucket, there isn't a ton of space inside for lankier types. At five-foot, nine-inches, this driver was able to find a comfortable perch with good sightlines, albeit without a lot of room to spare. Our significantly taller co-driver would complain of a bit of back pain just 120 miles into our drive, but claustrophobia didn't appear to be an issue.

Once inside, the SLS' interior is generally well executed, but it lacks the sense of occasion that the doors promise. Controls both major and minor are logically arrayed and should be familiar to Mercedes owners. In particular, Benz's love/hate COMAND interface continues to get easier to operate with each generation and we didn't have difficulty operating the nav or turning off the stereo (we'd rather listen to the 6.2-liter fireworks, thanks). This particular example was trimmed in aluminum and carbon fiber, and fit-and-finish on our prototype was very good. As you might expect, interior storage space is at a premium in a car like this – the center console isn't very big and there are only a vestigial pair of cupholders for java junkies (they couldn't very well put bottle holders in the gullwings without risking a Bellagio-rivaling fountain display upon entry and exit). Despite that, this is still a very livable everyday coupe, with niceties like iPod integration, Bluetooth and a reasonably sized trunk. Still, we can't help but wish for a proper deadpedal and better placement of the otherwise nifty LED shift indicator lights – they're mounted too low to be useful during serious driving.

Beyond the Numbers Lurks a Change in Priorities

Hopeless stat jockeys will want to know the metrics right off: 563 horsepower (at 6,800 RPM) and 479 pound-feet of torque (at 4,750); 0-100 kmh (62 mph) in 3.8 seconds and 200 kmh (124 mph) in around 11.8 seconds. Top whack? Electronically governed to 197 mph. In much the same way as skimming a seventh-grade text book can teach you about copulation or combat, looking at these numbers may paint the SLS as a very powerful, immensely quick automobile – but it tells you exactly nothing about how it feels to be behind the wheel. Like good sex and serious warfare, it's ballistic, impossible to ignore and utterly engaging.

Let's not overlook that last word – for quite some time now, many Mercedes automobiles have been stupidly powerful and stupendously fast. Some have even been sexy. But up until the current crop of AMGs came down the line, they really haven't been all that engaging – feeling sort of heavy and oblique, more high luxury than high performance. Cars like the CLK63 Black Series and C63 served notice that Benz's dynamic priorities had begun to shift, but the SLS operates on another plane.

Where the now-departed McLaren SLR was a grand tourer first and a driver's car second, the SLS reverses that priority list. First off, it's quite loud inside, with loads of road noise from the 19-inch front and 20-inch rear Continentals filtering up through the aluminum frame and body panels. The 6.2-liter V8's exhaust burble-and-pop on overrun is decidedly brusque and in-your-face. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is surprisingly sharp and talkative – something of a necessity in a car like this, because the front pointies are somewhere out there, way ahead of your legs.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

We've sampled AMG's 6.2-liter V8 in all sorts of Mercedes' vehicles, including coupes, convertibles, sedans and MPVs – but this particular iteration is quite a bit different. For one thing, it weighs just 453 pounds thanks in part to components like forged aluminum pistons, aluminum bolts and a magnesium intake manifold sporting eight velocity stacks. Not only is the engine lighter, it's also more robust, with a reinforced crankcase and a beefier crankshaft. Better still, the engine has been plumbed to run a dry-sump lubrication system, allowing the whole works to be nestled deeper in the aluminum spaceframe for a lower center-of-gravity while offering superior oil-scavenging properties in the sort of high-g situations that SLS owners will want to become intimately familiar with. All-in, AMG says that upwards of 120 components have been changed.

All 563 horses are corralled through a carbon-fiber driveshaft housed in a torque tube (itself a small work of art) and routed to the rear-mounted seven-speed dual-clutch transaxle assembly that also houses a limited-slip differential. Locating the Getrag gearbox in the back has enabled the engine to be mid-mounted (completely behind the front axle), keeping more mass within the 105.5-inch wheelbase and allowing engineers to claim weight distribution of 47 percent front and 53 percent rear. At 3,573 pounds, the SLS is more than 200 pounds lighter than the carbon-fiber SLR Roadster (3,779 pounds) and a shade less than the 3,616 pound Audi R8 V10 R-tronic – although to be fair, the Audi has all-wheel drive and two more cylinders to tote around.

Out on the Street

It is wholly appropriate that some of America's best roads lurk within a few miles of what is arguably the nation's best racetrack, Monterey's Laguna Seca. For those who haven't yet had the chance to experience the area, make a point to find your way here with an able car. In the best sense of the word, these coastal Californian roads are the product of nature's will – not man's. They drape gloriously across the mountainous landscape like The Almighty dropped a ball of asphalt yarn, only to have it unravel on the earth's floor and come to a rest under his couch. Depending on where you venture, surface quality ranges from impeccable to borderline horse trail, but all of the roads involve more twists and turns than a CSI Miami marathon. Thankfully, when attacking them with the right car, the experience is much more fulfilling and a lot less predictable.

Is the SLS up to the task? Oh, yes. At 182.6-inches long, it may be in the shadow of an SL63 by about four inches, but it's also much, much lighter, and the combination of a quick rack and a unexpectedly supple suspension setup (dual aluminum wishbones, coil springs and gas shocks all 'round) tied to a rock-solid frame makes for a wieldy, surprisingly tossable package. Make no mistake, at 76.3-inches wide and over 3,500 pounds, the SLS was never going to "drive small" like a Lotus Exige, but neither is it remotely piggish. We were concerned that the large openings necessitated by the coupe's unconventional doors might negatively impact rigidity, but the 530-pound spaceframe quickly shrugged off any such suggestions.

Soaring 'Round the Circuit

Having only driven Laguna Seca's 2.238 miles once before, this author was privately relieved to learn that we'd have a pace car to keep us from getting inebriated on a heady cocktail of horsepower, endorphins and the grille-full of AMG-branded steaks served trackside. As it turns out, we would learn that our pace car driver was five-time DTM touring car champ Bernd Schneider, so any sense of security we had going in was premature. Being a highly competitive sort, Schneider's idea of lead-follow laps got progressively quicker throughout our afternoon sessions, leading to one minor bauble where we got the rear-end quite loose in Turn 3 (a 90+ degree right-hander that's actually pretty flat, albeit with a later apex than one initially thinks). Thankfully, despite rotating the driven wheels out rather more than we had intended, Mercedes' excellent three-mode ESP system saved our bacon without drama. As we weren't yet intimately familiar with car or track, we were operating in "ESP Sport" mode, which allows for significantly higher dynamic thresholds before it intervenes with the brakes and/or throttle, but even "ESP Off" mode will intercede if the driver applies the brakes.

The SLS' stability control isn't the only setting you'll want to fiddle with before exiting pit lane – there's a range of settings that allow you to govern how the dual-clutch gearbox swaps cogs. "C" stands not for "Comfort," but rather for "Controlled Efficiency," a modest hat tip toward a greener supercar. This mode starts the car in second, and seems to seek out higher gears more quickly for enhanced fuel savings. This setting is perfectly fine for most uses, but it also puts a lid on the fun. Sport ("S") is more entertaining, as it restores use of first gear, executes shifts that are 20 percent quicker than in "C" and the gear swaps themselves take place at higher engine speeds. Sport Plus (S+) brings on shifts that are 20 percent quicker still, and for total control, there's Manual ("M") mode, which only swaps when the driver says so, executing changes in less than 100 milliseconds.

With the systems appropriately girded, the SLS is a wonderfully quick and rorty piece that bursts from corner to corner, operating with a degree of precision and verve not seen in Mercedes showrooms for some time. That wide stance, low center of gravity and relatively light weight makes for swift transient responses. It's a testament to AMG's engineering talents that its first-ever clean-sheet design is not only versatile, but also genuinely connected in feel. The long hood melts away at speed as the steering comes good, and our car's optional carbon-ceramic brakes were utterly fade- and noise-free on both street and circuit. AMG cars may have brought big horsepower to the table before, but the SLS is the enthusiast's full meal deal.

Birds of a Feather

Speaking of boxes, how expensive is the one the SLS comes in? Well, we don't know just yet, but officials tell us that they're aiming for a base price under $200,000, placing it in the vicinity of the Ferrari California, Lamborghini Gallardo and Aston-Martin DB9, but well north of fellow Germans including the aforementioned Audi R8 V10 and the bargain Porsche 911 GT2 and GT3 RS. Some of those cars are sharper track day tools, some are better GTs, but few play both sides of the coin as well as the SLS. It may have taken upwards of 40 years for AMG to finally spread its wings and take flight with an original of its own, but it's been worth the wait. Now, about that Maybach...

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Photos copyright ©2009 Chris Paukert / Weblogs, Inc.

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