Review and photos by
Peter Bleakney, CanadianDriver.com
If ever a car could justify its price on sound alone, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG might be the one. Pressing the start button on the centre console awakens the AMG-designed 563-hp 6208-cc naturally-aspirated V8, bringing it to an ominous idle. Blip the throttle and the revs jump like there’s no flywheel. From there on it bellows like the hounds of hell, wailing to a metallic 7,250 rpm redline if you have the road (and nerve) to do so.
But it doesn’t stop here. On overrun, there is a cacophony of burbles, blats and pops spewing from the twin tailpipes that only a conservatively muffled large-displacement bent-eight can provide.
This $198,000 two-seat rear-drive sports car from the denizens of speed at AMG (their first fully in-house vehicle) is gloriously, and unapologetically, retro – in a very modern way. We all know it is a spiritual successor to the iconic 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing, and as such, does a wonderful job of straddling the old and new. The roof-hinged gullwing doors, classic long hood, stubby rear deck and large side vents are blended into a respectful, and yes, large interpretation of the original icon.
On approaching the SLS AMG, one is struck by how long, low and wide it is. At 1940 mm, it’s broader in beam than a Porsche Turbo (by 89 mm) and an Audi R8 (35 mm). With a wheelbase of 2680 mm, it easily outstretches those similarly priced competitors as well.
This is not all for show. Lift the long hood and that dry-sump V8 is nestled low and well back behind the front wheels. It connects to the new seven-speed dual-clutch rear transaxle (developed in conjunction with Getrag) via a 167-cm carbon-fibre drive shaft. This front-engined, rear-drive supercar has a 48/52 front to rear weight bias.
Balance is the name of the game here, and I got to get a taste of this on a racetrack set up for members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada during the annual TestFest in Niagara, Ontario.
Despite its appearance, sound and mechanical layout, the 2011 SLS AMG is not an untamed rear-drive beast waiting to bite you at the first opportunity. On the contrary, its formidable performance is easily accessible. It is neutrally balanced, shows astounding grip and very quick turn-in. This car follows its nose and hunts down apexes like a cochon hunts tasty truffles. With the standard limited-slip rear differential, you can put the power down hard and early when exiting corners.
The steering might not be as tactile as in the Audi R8 or Porsche 911 Turbo, but it is surely accurate, and the best of any Mercedes vehicle I’ve driven. The shift paddles are steering wheel-mounted.
A rotary switch on the centre console gives the driver a choice of four shift maps. Controlled Efficiency (C) is the most relaxed – it starts in second gear – while Sport (S) gives 20 per cent faster shifts with rev-matching on downshifts. Sport Plus (S+) further sharpens shift time (40 per cent) and Manual (M) gives you complete control over upshifting with 50 per cent quicker cog-swaps, although the transmission will still downshift when coming to a stop. There is also an RS (race start) launch control setting.
The ESP (electronic stability control) has three levels: Normal, the more lenient Sport Mode, and Off.
Once you’ve tailored the car to your liking, this dynamic cocktail can be stored and called up via the AMG button.
Like the exterior, the SLS AMG has a decidedly retro feel inside. The deeply bolstered Nappa leather seats are excellent, and you sit low, peering out over that long sculpted bonnet. The dash and console layout is simple, bordering on bland, yet the cabin is beautifully trimmed with hand-stitched leather and real metal (or optional carbon fibre). The two silver-faced major gauges and four large and round chromed air vents hark back to earlier times.
As does the way the SLS’ back end squats and squirms, and the nose lifts slightly when you hammer the throttle. Bloody addictive.
But there is the modern as well. The T-shaped shift selector is of the electric joy-stick variety, and, of course, voice-activated navigation, Bluetooth, and iPod connectivity is standard issue.
The SLS is mostly aluminum (there is some steel around the passenger compartment), tipping the scales at 1,620 kg. With the aforementioned 563 hp and 479 lb-ft of torque available at 4,750 rpm, this car is a rocket. The extra juice over the “regular” versions of this 6.2-litre V8 comes from a new larger diameter magnesium intake plenum, forged pistons, hotter camshafts, a lightweight valvetrain and lower resistance exhaust. According to M-B, the SLS blasts to 100 km/h in 3.8 seconds and tops out at 317 km/h. There is a rear spoiler that deploys at 120 km/h.
This tester was fitted with the optional 1000-watt, 11-speaker Bang and Olufsen BeoSound. It sounded killer in the driveway, but the SLS hardly provides an ideal acoustic environment, what with the road noise and that in-your-face V8. I only had the car for a few days, but I never tired of hearing that insane engine – the driver’s window was down at all times.
Ah, yes, those doors. Short of emerging from within with my hat on fire, I doubt I could have attracted much more attention when running errands that required me to stop and get out. The doors swing up with ease, and while it is not the easiest car to exit, it’s no worse than any other low-to-the-ground rocket.
I’m about six-feet tall, and I could just reach the door’s grab handle while seated. For shorter folks, you have to grasp the handle and partially close the door while sliding into the seat. Or ask for help from a bystander, of which I can guarantee there will be many.
And what happens in the event of a rollover? If the car is upside down and motionless for 10 to 15 seconds, pyrotechnic bolts will blow the wing’s hinges apart, enabling escape.
On a day-to-day basis, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is quite liveable. Yes, the ride is firm, but it only gets uncomfortable over broken pavement. With a usable 176-litre trunk, two could easily escape on a weekend getaway. Understandably, fuel usage is healthy. Around town I was getting about 18 L/100 but it dipped to 13 L/100 km on the highway. Don’t expect any Christmas cards from David Suzuki.
The 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is a normal AMG production car of which Canada receives an allocation on a monthly basis. It is currently selling well: a special vehicle for a fortunate few.
Pricing: 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG
Base price: $198,000
Options: $9,700 (Bang and Olufsen BeoSound $7000, AMG Imola Grey metallic paint $2700)
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $209,795
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Crash test results