Walking along the pavement, getting ever closer to the waiting SLS that I can now see parked under the soft glow of a San Francisco street lamp, I’m suddenly aware that I’m almost as excited by the prospect of opening one of its doors as I am by the potential of a 563bhp V8 slung low in an all-new aluminium chassis. That might seem a bit wrong, but I’ve always thought that doors are more important than we give them credit for. I’m the one that will always choose to grapple with the revolving door into airports or hotels, even if there’s a normal door standing open next to it. They set the scene. They’re the architectural or automotive equivalent of a handshake.
Press the raised, Braille-like image of an open padlock on the key, the hazards flash once in the darkness, and on the door, down by the sill, a small horizontal bar appears, protruding by about an inch. Lean down, hook your fingers under the handle and the door swings smoothly skywards. Just like a DeLorean (or an original SL). The opening isn’t huge but because there’s nothing obstructing the aperture you can use all of it. Unlike the original 300SL there isn’t a hugely wide sill to clamber over, but the seat still looks a long way down. After several experiments I decide that the least clumsy way to get in is to fall bum-first into the seat and then swing my legs in. All that’s left to do then is reach up (and you really do have to reach up) to pull the door down with a thunk.
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Headroom inside is limited, and through the relatively short and upright windscreen the bonnet looks vast. It looks Corvette-vast actually, stretching for miles side to side and then disappearing over a crest to an unseen nose somewhere out in the night. The only breaks in the view over the bonnet are the lovely slashed vents that could have been lifted straight from an original Gullwing. There’s a slightly retro feel to the interior too, with all the buttons and dials grouped together, leaving the simple dashboard stretching out, uncluttered apart from four circular vents with crosshair centres. The main instruments, specially commissioned for the SLS, are lovely too. It’s just a slight shame that most of the switchgear feels so interchangeable with the full alphabet of Classes in the rest of Mercedes’ range.
The switchgear is all that’s interchangeable though. The SLS is no rebodied SL63. Where previously AMG has been slightly hobbled by the constraints of working with an existing model, this time it has been able to design the car from the treadblocks up. One example: the 6.2-litre V8 has never felt exactly asthmatic to us, but in reality it has always been short of space in other Mercs. Now, with a bespoke engine bay, it has been given room to breathe. Many members of AMG’s powertrain team have backgrounds in F1 and the changes to the engine are a direct result of their knowledge. They’re particularly proud of the sophisticated valvetrain and the flow-optimised exhaust headers that have larger and longer tube lengths (hence the need for extra space). The end result is an increase of 45bhp and 15lb ft over the standard M156 engine and an exhaust note to be proud of.
Press the starter button on the transmission tunnel and the bass-heavy growl which erupts sounds particularly loud in this relatively quiet street of San Francisco. Nudge the stubby gear selector back for ‘D’, leave the seven-speed gearbox in ‘C’ (Controlled Efficiency) while the fluids warm and then ease out into the night. Because it’s front-mid- not mid-mid-engined, the SLS won’t turn quite as many heads as something like a Ferrari 458, but the more conventional layout does mean that it has a wonderfully useable feel to it. There’s less intimidation, despite the long bonnet, and even at low speeds there’s instantly a sense that you know where all the car’s extremities are.
The SLS’s wheels slap as we cross the tracks for one of San Francisco’s cable car routes and I can feel the broken tarmac as we crawl down the next street. It’s not uncomfortable but the stiff chassis has no qualms about communicating the quality of the road surface. With its retro vibe and SL proportions, it’s easy to think of the SLS as a boulevard cruiser, but as soon as you start to drive it you remember that cruising isn’t what AMG is about.
Steve McQueen might have had a riot in San Francisco, but I’m starting to feel a little hemmed-in here. Perhaps it’s the vibe you get from having Alcatraz so close by. Highway 1 is our escape route to relative freedom but as we’re here it seems only right to start the run south from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Light seems to diffuse across the surface of the SLS’s matt finish paintwork as we rumble above the Pacific. It’s the first time I’ve really stretched the car’s legs and the effect is mighty. Nail the throttle and there is all the blood and thunder of a big-capacity or forced-induction engine yet with none of the laziness. Throttle response is instant and although the engine doesn’t quite reach the manic heights of some V8s, it nevertheless seems to demolish revs frighteningly quickly between 4000rpm and its 7200rpm red line.
We’re heading south tonight. We could stick to the iconic Highway 1 and follow the coast but it’s dark and a view isn’t really top of my priorities. Instead we head inland and up into the hills. You might have the impression that America’s roads are almost entirely of the kind that make the country look like a big, strangely outlined waffle from the air. And mostly this is exactly the correct impression to have. However, California is slightly different; it has some really great driving roads. In fact, as they relentlessly twist and turn up through the trees, the surface usually good yet occasionally very bad, the roads remind me of Spain. There’s no let-up in the corners for several miles at a time and they’re not the widest either – perfect territory for a long-nosed Mercedes with 479lb ft to start tying itself in complicated knots.
Yet the SLS not only deals with them but inspires huge confidence almost instantly. Out here you can sense the distinctive AMG DNA that we’ve felt before in the Black Series models. There’s an incredible stiffness to the chassis and allied to almost no roll this means that inputs to steering, brakes and throttle elicit fantastically quick responses. Jink the nose into a corner and you feel utterly connected to the wheels out in front. Pick up the throttle mid-corner and you can instantly feel the rear wheels behind your bum react as you start to steer with your foot. It is utterly direct in all its actions.
That supremely rigid chassis is all aluminium, the suspension is double wishbones all round and everything possible has been done to get the drivetrain as low as possible. It certainly feels like it too. It’s unusual these days to find carbonfibre making only one appearance, at least in the standard car – just the prop shaft linking the engine and gearbox – but with a kerb weight of 1620kg it doesn’t seem to have done the SLS too much harm…
On into the night we plunge, xenons flooding the way with their bright white beams. I try the dual-clutch transmission in its Sport Plus mode but, although it’s good, I can’t resist the urge to keep popping in changes with the cold metal paddles which seems to confuse both it and me, so I switch to ‘M’ for Manual and give my index fingers a proper workout. The shifts themselves are quick enough, though sometimes there’s a pause between the request at the paddle and the action in the ’box.
As the corners link together, the steering comes under scrutiny. It’s light yet direct around the straight-ahead, then, as you add lock, weight seems to flow into the steering wheel’s rim. You don’t get a lot of textural feedback about what the Continentals are moving over, but the directness of the connection between wheel and wheels means you still know precisely when grip begins to haemorrhage. Though it sounds a little odd, but the dynamics are almost like those of a very big Caterham: engine in the front, driver sitting over the back wheels, enough power to happily steer with the throttle almost as much as the steering, and a stiffness that makes the whole car wonderfully reactive and easy to place on the road.
Dawn is not far off by the time we turn into the twisting entrance road to Laguna Seca. It’s a track I’ve always been fascinated by but, until now, never had the chance to visit. It was built in 1957 as a replacement for the road circuit at Pebble Beach when that became too dangerous. It seems strange to think of gritty road-racing ever taking place amongst these genteel, chino-and-blazer surroundings; these days you’re more likely to find an original 1950s Gullwing being polished for a concours d’elegance. It also seems odd that Laguna Seca was once regarded as a sanitised place for racing, given that it’s so narrow in places and has one of the most daunting corners in motorsport…
The first time I turn left and drop over the edge of the Corkscrew I have to tell myself to turn right whilst the car is seemingly in freefall and hope that its nose finds some sort of apex underneath it when it comes in to land. The corner after requires a lot of commitment too, as you’re still in shock from the Corkscrew and still going downhill and gaining speed rapidly when you find you have to simultaneously brake, turn left and cope with a heavy camber. It’s brilliant. The fact that the SLS soaks up this circuit abuse with ease and still feels genuinely scarily quick on a track (especially in the downhill braking zone at the end of the gently arcing main straight) is of huge credit to AMG. Comparing this car to the vastly more expensive SLR seems laughable, so I won’t.
I do worry that the rigidity and unashamedly aggressive ride might not always translate quite so brilliantly to our very particular roads when we get to drive the SLS in the UK, and I would like the gearbox to be a touch more responsive, but overall the new Gullwing is fantastic. I love that it throws a transaxle layout in amongst the mid-engined supercar norm, I love its useability, I love its engine, I love the directness of its chassis, and I particularly love those doors.
The other SLSsUnlike some X Factor winners, the SLS won’t be a one-hit wonder. An electric version is definitely happening in 2013. It will have a motor for each wheel (but not in each wheel hub like some) and will thus be four-wheel drive. Power is claimed to be a stonking 525bhp and the 0-60mph should be very close to that of the petrol-powered version.
Also on the drawing board is a soft-top (presumably without gullwing doors) and it’s rumoured that after that there will be a Black Series variant too. However, if you can’t wait for the Black you can already spec several upgrades to the standard SLS: carbon-ceramic brakes (40 per cent lighter, obvious track benefits), a sports suspension pack (10 per cent stiffer springs, 30 per cent stiffer dampers), forged alloy wheels (14 per cent lighter) and sports seats.
The first thing that will happen to the SLS, though, is that it will gain a set of orange lights on its roof and be put into service as the safety car for Hamilton, Massa and the other F1 boys for 2010. Bernd Mayländer is a lucky chap.
|Cylinder block||Aluminium alloy, dry sumped|
|Cylinder head||Aluminium alloy, dohc per bank, four valves per cyl, variable valve timing|
|Max power||563bhp @ 6800rpm|
|Max torque||479lb ft @ 4750rpm|
|Transmission||Seven-speed dual-clutch transmission with paddle-shift, limited-slip differential, ESP|
|Front suspension||Double wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Rear suspension||Double wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Brakes||Ventilated and cross-drilled discs (carbon-ceramic discs optional), 390mm front, 360mm rear, ABS|
|Wheels||9.5 x 19in front, 11 x 20in rear, aluminium alloy|
|Tyres||265/35 R19 front, 295/30 R20 rear|
|Top speed||197mph (limited)|
|On sale||Spring 2010|