By Erin Baker:
The corkscrew at Laguna Seca raceway in California is a short but terrifying section of the circuit that drops sharply away from sight and tumbles to the left then right. It will be familiar to MotoGP fans: watching bikes dive and tip into it before catapulting their riders upright and down the other way takes spectators’ breath away.
A great way, then, to test the handling of the new supercar from Mercedes AMG: the gullwing SLS AMG.
Three laps spent trying to keep up with former DTM touring car champion Bernd Schneider were hardly a necessary part of the car’s launch, however: the first supercar to be designed and built from scratch by master German tuner AMG was never going to be a donkey on the track.
Plus, you can probably count on one hand the number of SLS customers who are going to spread their gullwings on a circuit. Serious racers will wait for the mooted Black Series track version (to be confirmed), or at least pay extra for a different suspension set-up and ceramic composite brakes.
No, SLS AMG buyers are the same people who buy every other supercar these days: collectors, boulevard cruisers, Merrill Lynch bankers and fun seekers, and for them, hundreds of test miles on the pitching, twisting, redwood-lined Pacific roads of Big Sur provided an ample litmus test.
Mercedes AMG is marketing the SLS as a “super sports car”, ie with emphasis on sports, not the super part, although a price of £150,000 spells supercar territory to most mortals. The SLS is, the company claims, with characteristic Teutonic understatement, “nothing short of a masterpiece by Mercedes-AMG Gmbh”. Not quite, but it’s a charming car. It tugs on the nostalgia heartstrings with its cleverly modern interpretation of the classic 300SL gullwing of the 1950s. Grace Kelly, here we all come.
That memorable profile, with the two doors arched up above the roofline, doesn’t stop surprising and delighting passers-by. The wide radiator grille, with its huge Mercedes star and the fins on the bonnet, are strongly reminiscent of the original. The overall design is slightly Marmite-ish, though: I tried to love the combination of long bonnet, small headlights, high cabin and fat rear, and just couldn’t.
The interior design also left me cold, with its very simple leather-clad dash and familiar black plastic Mercedes switchgear; I longed for a bit of Aston elegance or Maserati finesse but although the leather is beautifully turned and stitched, it’s, well, dull.
Silly as it sounds, however, the doors provide nearly all the drama you need. The handle is situated low down – pull it and the door rises easily and lightly above your head, although you still have to duck under it. Step into the car, however, and unless you’re taller than 5ft 10in, you’ll have to pull the door down with you as you sit in, because the handle sits too high to reach once inside.
Mercedes swears that with the doors open, the car fits inside most normal garages, and they only add 39cm to the width when open. Detractors are always quick to point out the downside of gullwings or scissor doors: how do you get out if the car flips onto its roof in an accident? Well, in the SLS AMG, after 10 seconds of being upside down pyrotechnics automatically explode the hinges so you can push the doors away… cue Michael Caine jokes about blowing the bloody doors off.
This being an AMG baby, the real explosion happens when you press the starter button. What an awesome sound that front-mounted V8 engine makes; distinct from anything Italian by virtue of a deep, metallic rumble that drums up into a thousand jackhammers thumping the ground as the revs rise. It sounds very mechanical, very precise and very expensive, and there are a thousand variations on the sound when you get going and play around with the throttle and gears.
This is a serious car, however, with serious performance: 563bhp, 479lb ft of torque, 0-62mph in 3.8 seconds and a limited top speed of 197mph. The acceleration is effortless: in any of the seven gears, at any speed, you get bucketloads of oomph. It’s almost too seamless – you reach illegal speeds with no sense of occasion: you just arrive there.
In “controlled efficiency” mode, it’s an easy cruise everywhere, with even some lag between gearchanges from the dual-clutch transmission to make drivers feel they’re in a “normal car”.
Switch to the “sport” or “sport plus” setting, however, and the gearchange times shorten, the engine growls and it’s no longer a pretty gullwing but a serious sports car with its DTM-inspired carbon-fibre driveshaft, and lightweight all-aluminium chassis and body; with AMG keen to show off its serious pedigree, the SLS has been confirmed as the safety car for Formula One next season.
There’s a convertible version coming in 2011 (obviously not with gullwing doors…) or, if you want to have serious fun and save the environment, Mercedes AMG has set itself the ambitious date of 2013 for a fully electric version with, they assure me, no loss of performance. In fact, you’ll get a staggering 649lb ft of torque from standstill. Expect to see electric SLS AMGs disappearing through the ground with wheelspin.
It might not be a masterpiece, but the SLS AMG offers a staggering number of incarnations to choose from: boulevard cruiser, Fifties recreation, sports car or supercar, with soft-top poser and environmental saviour on the way. The choice is yours.