MERCEDES SLS AMG GULLWING
PH samples AMG's first bespoke supercar at Laguna Seca
But when you're line astern in a column of super sports cars travelling about as fast as they'll go without trying to hurl themselves off the circuit (well, mostly), there's not much to be done but throw caution to the wind and try and keep up. Which is why, over the past several weeks, Laguna Seca has been treated to the spectacle of the massed ranks of the international press corps lobbing itself - lemming-like - into the corkscrew's abyss.
Praise be then, that the Mercedes SLS AMG Gullwing is so fabulously competent, and the experience demonstrably survivable. Oh, and trouser-tremblingly good fun to boot. (Come on, you don't think we do this for the money, right..?)
Set well back under the bonnet, the engine's horses reach the Tarmac via a carbon propshaft (made in the UK), and a beefed-up version of the Getrag 7-speed double-clutch transaxle gearbox that's also fitted to the 460hp Ferrari California. The 295/30 R20 rear tyres are designed expressly for the car.
With that sort of muscle, the performance figures are as barmy as you might expect, with 0-62 arriving in 3.8secs and an electronically limited top speed of 197mph. Epic stuff.
You definitely won't be disappointed when you fire up the engine, which reverberates through the cabin even at idle with a gorgeous V8 whoffle. In fact, even in gentle driving, the engine note remains a highlight - an ever-present reminder of the potency of the mighty V8 installed just ahead of the driver. When you're 'on it', the noise is deliciously fruity and loud, but never objectionably so.
The constant-ratio steering is precise, and while perhaps lacking a smidge of ultimate 'feel', delivers a level of directional control that, together with the beautifully composed chassis, means challenging roads can be despatched with sure-footed conviction at startling speeds.
The power delivery is very rewarding too, the big V8 winding on revs smartly in response to throttle inputs, and the car quickly and effortlessly piling on pace thanks to bags of traction from big rear tyres - which rarely seem to require support from the electronics unless you're deliberately playing the hooligan.
The gearbox plays an unexpected part here, as the paddle selectors' interface with the driver in manual mode seems strangely stilted by the electronics - you really notice the ECU assessing every request for a shift before allowing it. When (after a moment of due consideration) the shifts do happen, they're silky-smooth and super-quick but I'd like to try a sport setting that imparts a bit more of a sense of urgency to proceedings - if only for those times when you need to feel, like the inimitable Mr Queefe, that your bitch is being spanked.
In hot pursuit around the circuit, as confidence and commitment increases, the more elemental characteristics of the SLS emerge. Raw speed, of course, but more impressive is the stability and balance of a chassis that exhibits near perfect poise on the limits of adhesion. Braking later for every corner (the pedal feel is fantastic), getting on the throttle sooner for every exit, the forces at work on the chassis seem so seamlessly linear, so smoothly progressive from 'loaded up' to moving sideways at either end when grip is finally relinquished that it's hard to believe this car is a 600hp hot rod.
So how best to sum up the SLS Gullwing? Well Herr Schneider has gone on the telly-net saying it's the best sports car he's ever driven, for its overall balance, its traction out of corners, its braking and perhaps (we might rudely conjecture in spite of the great man's official retirement) the prospect of a final factory-backed FIA GT1 or Le Mans fling in a couple of years time if he keeps saying all the right things...
For all its design novelty, the SLS AMG doesn't have a sufficiently exotic feel, or quite the thrillingly visceral engagement that the Ferrari provides on the road. That said, perhaps the comparison is unfair as AMG has already promised a 'Black Edition' which should address the Gullwing's lack of a more hardcore 'edge' - at a price way in excess of the standard model's £150k price-tag, of course.
Yet the SLS is certainly a fabulously enjoyable driver's car, with glamour in spades and performance to match. It's worth remembering also, that with a three-pointed star on its grille, you shouldn't have to do much more than change the oil a couple of times on your way to its first 200,000 miles. By which time you might have restored the Ferrari twice...