Monday 27 June 2011

Driven #33:- Mercedes-Benz AMG SLS, Part One

So, 49 years after the original Mercedes-Benz decided to recapture some of the drama of their original Gullwing, the 300SL.

Of course, the SL has moved on, or rather regressed a long way since the W198 of the ‘50s. At that point the fuel-injected, 150 mph beast was straight out of the annals of science fiction; a costly, hi-tech wonder far beyond the reach of mortal man. But soon, time and progress did their inevitable dance. Mercedes had to broaden the appeal of their flagship, so it got gradually bigger and more practical. And as it got bigger, it required more power. The engines offered on subsequent SLs rose in size through 350, 380, 420, 450, 500 and 560 in R107 shape, which didn’t really have any pretence of sportiness left at all, then up to 600 in the far more on-message R129 of the 'nineties.

Today, the R230 model is far closer to the sporting ideal of the W198, but the 300SL is right down at the bottom of the range, struggling to crack sixty in much less than eight seconds. So, rightly, the new Gullwing has a new name. They call it SLS, and it’s  Mercedes’ signature dish. This is everything the three-pointed-star knows about building a fast car.

The SLS was always destined to be an AMG product. It's a bespoke entity, there is little commonality with any other Mercedes model, and as such it could look, feel and behave pretty much exactly how Mercedes wanted it to. The ride in the SLS is firm but never really harsh, unlike with the brusquely fettled C, E or S-class underpinnings in lesser AMGs. In short it feels like it was developed in singularity, not adapted from something that was already there.

There's nothing particularly advanced about the engine, either. The comparitively low-tech 6.2 V8 has been used in lower tune in other AMG models, but here it feels particularly at home. I’m not even going to mention how fast it is, because you already know; but there are 571 horses worth of power and they all pull you at once, responding to your whim instantaneously. Only the obligatory automatic gearbox holds proceedings up, and even then only for the briefest of moments.

I was only able to drive it for thirty miles on some extremely undemanding roads, but a few enthusiastially taken roundabouts hinted strongly that, while still feeling heavy in best AMG tradition, there's far more of a nod in the direction of the nimble and sure-footed than in prior fast Mercs.

And the soundtrack is, of course, immense; a maelstrom of growls, rumbles and screams up to the red-line, before popping and banging back down on the lift-off overrun. It makes the tuned-for-sound exhaust of the C,E and S63's seem weirdly stilted by comparison.

Inside things are very pleasant, especially the nice one-piece metal surround to the console and gear selector. Best news, though, came when I drove the latest SLK half an hour later, which appears to have virtually the same interior but for a sixth the cash.

I must say that the Bang and Olufsen stereo looks smashing for your five grand but delivers a mixture of the amazing and the indifferent. On the plus side, the stereo imaging is probably the best I’ve ever experienced in a car, and spoken word is uncannily realistic. But when music gets a little more complex, it lets itself down a little in the midrange, where it can begin to sound a little boxed in. I’m not sure a 5 grand stereo upgrade is at all appropriate in such a car, MB should just have one installation that does everything, that they’re really happy with, and offer just that.

But that’s one of maybe one and a half criticisms I have of the car overall, the half being because I'm not 100% convinced by how it looks.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s sensational, doors up or down. It has a visual drama that could only be bettered if it had a standard fit dry-ice dispenser and lived forever in an Ultravox video-style eternal mist. But, on the other hand it’s a little bit contrived. Mercedes were obviously desperate to somehow include those gullwing doors, to the detriment of packaging and proportion. Twice I hit my head on the thickly padded section of roof between the door cut-outs, this projection also cuts a tall chaps view of their passengers face, or whatever there is to see out of the window.

And there’s a section of SLS just ahead of the doors that, to me, just looks to be about a foot too long. It’s an expanse of car that doesn’t quite work for me, the bonnet is completely flat before the windscreen raises in its abrupt rake. Overall, the proportions say more Dodge Viper than Mercedes SL; coincidentally, the grille itself wouldn’t look out of place with the Dodge crosshairs on it and I’m sure a smaller item would have looked happier, together with bigger, more rounded headlights rather than the somewhat mean-spirited stacked units provided. And, with a bit of clever sculpting around the jowls, the whole plot could be easily made to look a little narrower, more dynamic without losing any of its presence. There are too many vertical lines and, from head on, it looks a little bit static.

Which it isn’t of course. It’s devastatingly quick, and, fortunately, from the rear, it looks it. There are hints of original 300SL about it, of course, but the resemblance is a suggestion, not a slavish recreation. Interestingly, the rear end isn’t actually especially muscular, it doesn’t have broad, toned shoulders like a Ferrari, nor a suggestive kamm tail, er, like a Ferrari. Instead it arcs groundwards like the transom of an Italian powerboat. Viewing this car from the rear three quarters sets it off to best advantage.

In a sense none of this actually matters. The SLS is very confident statement of corporate intent. It's not realistically trying to be a volume seller, it's not intended as a rival to a Ferrari or a Lamborghini because most buyers will have those in their garages already. The important thing about the SLS is that it captures peoples imagination, and here we get back to those doors.

They're actually completely unnecessary. The deep sills that dictated the door design on the 300SL were necessary for chassis strength. These days we have ways to stiffen chassis without running girders down both sides so there isn't really a legitimate design argument to have them on the SLS. But the aesthetic merit of seeing those doors swing upwards is beyond dispute. It's what makes the coupé far more of a car than the forthcoming Roadster model will ever be. It's what sets it apart and inspires all the attention the car garners, all of it positive. People love this car.

I can’t think of many other £170+k cars where people look on in awed astonishment, rather than in contempt and loathing. When overtaking in the SLS (and you will, a lot) you'll see the driver of the other cars face in your peripheral vision, he'll look at your car first, then they'll look at who’s driving it, then they look at the car again. You will be noticed in this car, so you’d better dress the part.

Which unfortunately rules me out of ownership.


  1. You gleaned more from 30 miles than others from 300. But I think that the SLS is more than just a marketing exercise or a weapon of shock and awe, it also seems to be a great grand tourer.

  2. Thanks for reading, and I couldn't agree more. Better still are its capabilities when you take it beyond GT territory, as I discover in Part 2!