By Mark Maynard
Three gullwing coupes bellowed along the front straight at California’s Laguna Seca Raceway sounding very unlike the typical Mercedes-Benz sports car.
The trio was part of a test of the SLS AMG, the new coupe built by Mercedes-Benz and engineered by its high-performance division, AMG.
The car’s 563-horsepower, 6.3-liter V-8 exhales through an exhaust system that pushes the legal limits of noise. But this is dynamic sound. Deep and rich, like a race car in pursuit. Lift off the throttle and the back pressure pops and crackles as if spitting sparks from the exhaust tips. When the engine clears its throat, the launch force is stunning.
Auto journalists were playing lead and follow with pro drivers. I was playing some catch-up, but the event was a forceful display of the class of car Mercedes really hasn’t had since its mid-1950s 300SL. That car could be driven all week and raced on weekends — just as any good Porsche was engineered to do.
Now, Mercedes-Benz has its own purpose-built, aluminum-spaceframe sports car. It is not a production car that has been infused with AMG performance.
As a testament to this engine, Mercedes will offer a lightened and widened version of this car for GT3 racing and the company claims the engine is virtually identical to that of the production car. On the other end of expectations, there is also a 525-hp, electric prototype.
The SLS is a rational replacement to Mercedes’ previous supercar, the SLR McLaren, which had a 617-hp, supercharged AMG V-8. At $500,000 it was uncommon, but also so wide and low it was prone to getting high centered, such as when entering a steep driveway.
There is no such downside to the SLS AMG, as long as you like its styling. It has beauty, like a hand-tooled howitzer. And at about $200,000 with a few choice extras, it has twice the pleasure of the McLaren.
But it is not how it looks that is important but how it sounds and drives — and what it does for the driver and passenger.
The gullwing doors recall history and give this car iconic presentation, but they were an afterthought to the original design. It takes more engineering to design these doors, which require an unflattering flat roof.
But this is one tough car. There are illustrativeYouTube.com videos of SLS crash testing. In the event of a crushed roof, the hinges have exploding bolts so the doors can be pushed away. Other safety features include eight air bags.
It does take some agility to enter and exit with composure. It is a procedure. Step across the wide sill and reach up with a free hand for the door handle, then ease/drop into the seat. But this design allows lighter doors than a traditional coupe door and in tight parking conditions there is no squeeze to getting in and out. Practice will make the procedure perfect.
The cabin trim is restrained Germanic with die cast aluminum trim elements, leather and alcantara headliner.
After the long hood and cabin, there is 6.2 cubic feet of trunk space, which has usable dimensions. And there is an option for fitted luggage, just as there was for the 300SL.
The entire car is a design exercise in form following function. The engine, which sits behind the front wheels, contributes to the 47/53 front to rear balance and low center of gravity. The engine is hand assembled by one technician in Sindelfingen, Germany.
The hood is nearly 6 feet long, and while the engine bay may appear capable of holding a 12-cylinder, Mercedes engineers insist such a power plant is not planned. But think of a number between eight and 12, and that could be possible at some time, an engineer said. But with the approach of stricter U.S. fuel-economy standards, the future of big-displacement sports cars changes weekly.
Power is sent to the rear wheels by a carbon-fiber torque tube connected to a seven-speed direct-shift gearbox. It is a double clutch automated manual and sinister in its quickness. To have to clutch and shift in the snug cabin would be a chore and, somehow, it seems old-fashioned in this car.
With performance choices of Comfort, Sport or Sport Plus, the enthusiast driver will always select the Plus mode. But even in Comfort, the automatic shifts are fluid and well timed. The algorithm includes a hearty rev-matching downshift.
EPA fuel economy ratings were not available at press time, but an engineer said it was capable of 18.8 mpg combined city and highway driving. Good luck with that. The SLS whispers evil things to the driver.
The long wheelbase and the compliant suspension are comfortable for daylong drives on the interstate. And without tightening the suspension, the car will dig into hairpin turns with flat tenacity. Gentle pressure on the throttle keeps the nose pointed in the right direction as the car rotates through the corner. In the city, a turning circle of 39 feet will not be the driver’s friend.
The SLS AMG went on sale in the U.S. on May 10, but most dealers were sold out of the first run of cars. And no wonder: Even with $20,000 in options, the SLS gives portfolio-strapped consumers an opportunity to indulge responsibly.
2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG
Body style: Two-seat coupe with gullwing doors, aluminum spaceframe and front/mid-engine layout
Engine: 6.3-liter, naturally aspirated V-8
Horsepower: 563 at 6,800 rpm
Torque: 479 at 4,750 rpm
Transmission: seven-speed, dual-clutch AMG Speedshift automated manual
Acceleration, 0-60 mph: 3.7 seconds; top speed 197
EPA fuel economy estimates: NA, 91 octane recommended
Fuel capacity: 22.5 gallons
Trunk space: 6.2 cubic feet
Head/leg/shoulder room: 39.1/41.7 inches
Length/width/wheelbase: 182.6/76.3/105.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,573 pounds
Aerodynamic drag: 0.36
Turning circle: 39 feet
Standard equipment includes: Keyless Go starting and locking, dual-zone climate control, Parktronic (camera guidance assistance), die-cast aluminum trim, auto-dimming rearview mirrors (folding outside mirrors), designo leather upholstery and alcantara headliner, power (heated) seats with memory, bi-xenon headlights with washers and Active Curve Illumination, rearview camera, COMAND cabin control system with six-disc DVD/CD changer, 40GB hard-drive GPS navigation, Sirius satellite radio, HD radio and iPod/MP3 connections
Safety features include: eight air bags, three-stage stability control, ABS, brake-force distribution
Brakes: compound discs, internally ventilated and perforated, with six-piston calipers; 15.4-inch rotors front, 14.2 rear
Steering: speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion power steering; 39-foot turning circle
Suspension: aluminum double-wishbones with anti-dive front and anti-squat rear suspension, coil springs, gas-filled shock absorbers, stabilizer bars
Tires and wheels: 265/35 R19 front, 295/30 R20 on light-alloy wheels
Mark Maynard is driving in cyberspace at Mark.Maynard@uniontrib.com.
COPYRIGHT 2010 THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE.
DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM.