You don't really understand the cold until you've been to the Arctic. In the winter months here in northern Sweden, the sun barely raises its head and the temperature struggles to better zero degrees Fahrenheit. It's a brutal environment and an incongruous place to meet the 2011 Mercedes SLS AMG.
It's incongruous but not unusual, because when the cold weather really bites, the city of Kiruna becomes a playground for Europe's automotive development engineers. The local hotels are littered with men in garish jackets that bear names like Bosch, Continental and Mercedes. And it's impossible to drive for more than an hour without spotting a top-secret prototype bedecked in camouflage clothing. If you're a spy photographer and not afraid of the cold, this tiny town on the fringe of the Arctic Circle is Shangri-La.
Driving a 563-horsepower supercar like the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG in the ice and snow should be easy, don't you think? No one else up here under the Northern Lights seems to be having any problems. It won't be like driving that Ferrari F430 Spider across Italy like I did a few years ago, or even like whipping that Ferrari 612 Scaglietti across India (with a roll of toilet paper in hand almost all the way), but it should be doable, right?
What have I let myself in for?
South to Alaska
Our 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS rolls out of the truck dressed in bright red. The Mercedes engineers brought it to Kiruna for a final cold-weather systems check before production begins in March and now they're done. I've been tasked with driving the car 250 miles south across the Arctic Circle to the town of Arvidsjaur, which, in terms of latitude, is on a par with northern Alaska.
When I first saw the SLS on its stand at the auto show, I wasn't sure about it. The macho nose looked slightly at odds with the curvaceous rump, which itself seemed an awkward pastiche of the iconic Mercedes-Benz SL300 of the 1950s. But here in the wild, smeared in ice and snow, the Gullwing looks much more effective. The SLS might not have the flamboyance of the cartoonlike Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren — a car I've driven many times — but it still has plenty of impact and those gullwing doors are pure theatre.
We're running on standard winter tires, similar to those used throughout Europe at this time of year. Studded tires would be more sensible for the conditions, but they'd provide less of a challenge for the stability control system and less of a test of my manhood. Today, concentration and finesse top the agenda.
We crawl out of Kiruna, a city of around 18,000 people. Sweden's most northerly city built its fortune on the production of iron ore, but more recently it's diversified into ecotourism and even space exploration — Kiruna has signed a deal with Virgin Galactic to house Spaceport Sweden. It would be easy to imagine the astronauts becoming confused, as so desolate is the countryside that you could be forgiven for thinking you'd already reached the moon.
Point South, Hope for Warmth
Not surprisingly, most locals here travel by Volvo and they're not afraid to push on. If your roads are smothered in ice for seven months of the year, you learn to adapt, so it's little wonder that so many of the great rally drivers hail from this part of the world.
In the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, I'm being cautious. The 6.2-liter V8 musters 563 hp and the slightest tickle of the throttle seems to make the stability control light dance to a disco beat. I pop the seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission into Manual mode and use the shift paddles on the steering wheel to change up early, something the electronics seem surprisingly reluctant to do.
Mercedes is billing this car as a proper GT, a car that owners could use every day, even though few will. This is the first time AMG has been permitted to develop a complete car, but it hasn't been given too much license to get overly frisky with the design. For example, the ultra-conservative cabin could only have hailed from Stuttgart.
Maybe it's too sensible. The infotainment system is pinched from a C-Class and looks out of place here. When you're spending around $235,000 on a car, you don't really expect blank plastic switches. Apart from an awesome Bang & Olufsen stereo system, little inside feels genuinely special. The cockpit of a Ferrari 599 GTB or even the much cheaper Audi R8 4.2 FSI has a greater sense of occasion (as we British automotive journalists like to say).
The Coolest Hotel in Sweden
A few kilometers south of Kiruna we stumble across the area's most famous tourist attraction. The Ice Hotel at Jukkasjärvi is an extravagant igloo rebuilt every winter using 45,000 tons of snow and ice. Now in its 20th year it attracts arty types, ambitious tourists and corporate executives (although Inside Line's Jason Kavanagh was also allowed to stay here when he tested the 2008 Saab Turbo X). We park the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS outside and let the Japanese tourists snap away before they're shooed away by an angry marketing man. Even in the Arctic, you can't escape the brand police.
Back on the road, I'm feeling more confident. The stability system offers a Sport setting that allows a few degrees of oversteer before the electronic killjoys intervene. On a dry racetrack it's not always easy to feel the benefits of such a system, but here on the ice you really notice the difference. It's the automotive equivalent of a rock climber's harness — you're allowed to play but you alleviate the risk of a painful excursion.
The benefits of the electronics are self-evident the moment you turn them off. It is now comically easy to slide the SLS at almost no speed. Apply a couple of degrees of lock, prod the accelerator and prepare to countersteer. It's spectacular fun and it offers a fascinating insight into the car's character. The engine is mounted so far back in the chassis that 53 percent of the weight is over the rear wheels. On the ice you can really feel the moment of inertia as the car gets crossed up. At heart, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS is really an old-fashioned bruiser.
Driving in the Dark
We've spent so long practicing our drifting techniques that we're still north of the Arctic Circle when the sun starts to set. This is an extraordinary moment. From the driver seat it looks as if God has set fire to the heavens. We pull over and spend a half hour watching the horizon burn, then fade to black. Living this far north must be incredibly hard, but it's not without its benefits.
It's dark now and we spear on across the wilderness at 80 mph with the stability control in Sport. In some ways it's frustrating — not once today have I used more than a quarter of the throttle — but it also shows the all-weather, all-surface ability of the modern supercar. It's minus-4 degrees F outside, but the car starts on the prod of a button, maintains a steady 72 degrees F inside and the transmission slips from cog to cog with effortless ease. Don't let anyone tell you that extreme weather testing is an unnecessary indulgence.
Reaching the Tropic Latitudes
You expect something more from the Arctic Circle. Maybe a blinding flash of light or a small troupe of dancing girls. Instead our arrival at the latitude of 66° 33' 39" north of the equator is met by a cheap sign and an octet of huskies from...Germany. There's not even a gift shop.
We push on into the night in search of Arvidsjaur, past tiny communities that do who-knows-what for entertainment. We're in 7th gear and the big V8 is barely ticking over, its deep bass woofle subdued but ever-present. The SLS might lack the allure of the McLaren name, but it's a massively better car than the SLR and costs half the money besides. It's much more consistent and it genuinely feels like it was developed by one harmonious team instead of two different companies with competing philosophies.
But the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is expensive, and its competition lies with cars like the Aston Martin DBS, Ferrari 599 GTB and Lamborghini Gallardo, all of which promise greater exclusivity if not greater competence and quality. There are times, particularly in the design of the cabin, when the SLS seems like a mainstream Mercedes-Benz dressed up for the prom.
Even so, you can't deny the depth of the Gullwing's ability. Even after nearly 300 miles and with the temperature plummeting still further as a cold front approaches, I still want to drive on.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds with this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.