Mercedes SLS AMG Gullwing

When you've got to take the plunge over the notorious Laguna Seca corkscrew for the first time, having multiple DTM champion Bernd Schneider leading you round the racing lines is a bit of a mixed blessing.

My own instinct would have been to bump the car gently onto the kerb at the top of the hill leading up to the corner, clamber out and peer over the precipitous drop like a nervous skier eyeing-up his first black run. Call it cowardice if you will, and you'd be right.

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.

My trepidation about the legendary corner proved unfounded as, although the unsighted and plunging corkscrew is difficult to get right (I don't think I 'landed' on the same spot twice in any of my dozen laps), the circuit serves up plenty of challenging corners that are a lot faster, and significantly more alarming for the uninitiated.

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..?)

Aside from its retro-innovative doors, the secret of the SLS Gullwing's success is pretty straightforward. For its size it's a relative lightweight, at 1620kgs, being built almost entirely of aluminium (apart from a plastic boot lid specified because Merc's telecoms engineers couldn't find anywhere to mount hidden GPS, radio and phone antennae, which don't transmit through ally). It's stiff thanks to an exceptionally rigid aluminium spaceframe chassis design, its weight is biased slightly to the rear (47/53 per cent) to aid traction, and a long 2680mm wheelbase in a 4638mm body minimises overhangs, while a wide 1682mm track helps stability. The suspension is double wishbones all around, with conventional dampers, and braking is handled by mighty ceramic-composite stoppers.

Plus, of course, the Gullwing is blessed with that AMG-normous normally-aspirated 6208cc V8 belting out a socking great 571hp at 6800rpm with 480lb ft of torque.

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.

But before getting to grips with any of that performance, you've got to get in it, and loftier drivers expecting traditional M-B accommodation may be surprised by the cramped confines of the Gullwing's driving quarters. It's mainly headroom that's in short supply, a problem that's partially ameliorated by specifying the optional race-style bucket seats in place of the well upholstered standard items - although AMG says it can provide the standard units with reduced cushioning thickness in the squabs instead, just ask your dealer. (Just don't say PH sent you...)

Once installed with the door closed (if you're not a six-footer, you need to begin the process as you climb in over the wide sill or you'll find the door handles a struggle to reach), the upright windscreen and closeness of the glasshouse give a slightly vintage feel. Then it's time to either be disappointed by the plain finish but high quality of the interior appointments, or to admire the unpretentious simplicity of the design, depending on your point of view.

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.

Set off down the road with the gearbox set to automatic 'comfort' mode, and - soundtrack notwithstanding - you'll find it a relaxed and refined experience. We found the ride to be extremely supple over some of California's mountain roads and, although there were limited opportunities to really open the car up, the damping and body control seemed genuinely excellent over some demanding surfaces and cambers.

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.

And yet... I can't shake the nagging sense that there's something about the SLS experience on the road that's just a little bit too easy, too comfortable, and too cruisey in spite of its spell-binding performance. It just doesn't feel as 'hairy-chested' as I was expecting - although I'm sure that assessment won't disappoint Merc's dealers who will relish the car's resultant accessibility, and the broader marketing possibilities engendered.

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.

Which takes us neatly back to the track, and those flying laps behind Bernd Schneider, where the SLS really does start to deliver the raw uninhibited thrills its aggressive styling promises and my perception of what the SLS is all about changes. Maybe this car is simply too good to be enjoyed to its fullest on the road?

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.

Or maybe I've become an ace just like Bernd? Well, sadly not, which is probably why our Laguna stints were limited to three flying laps at a time. The SLS is a machine that flatters its driver to the extent that enthusiasm could easily outpace ability.

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...

From a personal point of view, the SLS is not quite the 'best' of its type because there's a place in my heart that may forever be reserved for the Ferrari 599 HGTE.

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...






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Comments (86) Join the discussion on the forum

  • fastgerman 25 Nov 2009

    Absolutely love this car!

    Fantastic write up!

    I want one (in about 6 years time...)

  • matt3001 25 Nov 2009

    This is my new favourite car in the world right now. Stunning in every way

  • Gridl0k 25 Nov 2009

    The photos don't really help me satisfy my curiosity - is it homage or pastiche?

    (GPS and radio antennae don't transmit by the way) getmecoat

  • Mag1calTrev0r 25 Nov 2009

    Must be a chalk and cheese car... it's hideous!

  • Gizmo! 25 Nov 2009

    Great write-up.

    The styling of the rear is growing on me. And I like the interior - dare I say it, I thought "MX5" (probably the four round air vents). But oh dear, the front styling. Gopping doesn't cover it. Bring on the mid-life facelift.

    And the Black. Oooooh, yeah.

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