Supercar performance, everyday functionality, sensual-yet-practical door design, seductive exhaust note.
Throttle response and transmission engagement somewhat inconsistent at low speeds, aggressive stability control in default setting.
It's all too easy to get caught up in the gullwing door feature of the new 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. In fact, this entire road test could focus on nothing more than the design, construction, use of and reaction to these exotic doors and be quite entertaining. But that would ignore the truly unique aspects of this Mercedes-Benz AMG model. Much better to simply state that the doors are a beautiful example of form following function, with no real issues regarding clearances or entry/exit difficulty, and move on to the good stuff.
See, the gullwing doors, though highly compelling, are far from being the most impressive part of the SLS AMG's total package. The real magic of this vehicle starts when the doors are closed, the 563-horsepower, 6.2-liter V8 engine is fired up and the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is set in Sport Plus mode.
Said transmission is mounted at the back of the drivetrain, between the rear wheels, to shift weight toward the rear of the car. And all of this performance technology resides in a lightweight aluminum shell (weighing just 532 pounds before assembly) that rides on an independent double-wishbone suspension.
Of course, one would expect an exotic car with such a pedigree to deliver world-class driving performance. And it does. But the real treat we discovered while enjoying Mercedes' SLS is what it delivers when not accessing those ultimate performance capabilities.
With a horsepower rating of 563 and a curb weight just over 3,500 pounds, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is carrying just over 6 pounds for each of those horses, a figure that puts the car in line with today's most capable exotic performance cars. Its performance figures confirm this, with a 0-60-mph time of 3.8 seconds (3.5 seconds with 1 foot of rollout as at a drag strip) and a quarter-mile run of 11.6 seconds at 122 mph.
The heart of the SLS is a dry-sump version of the same 6.2-liter V8 engine AMG has been sticking in everything from the C63 to the S63. But the switch to a dry-sump design lets the engine sit lower and farther back in the SLS's aluminum space frame. Such engine placement, along with the rear-mounted seven-speed transaxle, gives the car a 47/53 front/rear weight bias.
What this means in rear-world terms is a combination of forward thrust and lateral stick seldom experienced in non-open-wheel machines. The Continental ContiSport tires (19-inch front, 20-inch rear) mesh with asphalt to keep the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG glued down on twisting road surfaces, and the aluminum double-wishbone suspension irons out all but the most extreme pavement imperfections.
Hustling our silver test car through a series of sweepers revealed an overprotective electronic stability control program, cutting power at the merest hint of wheelspin and making the SLS feel almost lethargic. A switch to ESP Sport remedied the situation, letting the low-slung exotic stretch its legs on public roads while leaving a measure of protection against an unexpected surface grip shift (or imprudent power application).
Prudence is something you'll want to keep in mind when slinging around $200,000 worth of exotic Mercedes-Benz supercar. As expected, the composite, ventilated disc brake system can halt forward progress at nearly the speed of thought, bringing the car to a stop in a sinus-draining 98 feet from 60 mph with consistent, confident pedal feel. A ceramic brake package is available for even more consistent stopping power. The seven-speed transmission is similarly responsive, offering enough accuracy in Sport Plus mode (there are also "Sport" and "Controlled Efficiency" settings) to negate the need for full manual shifting.
But turn off all the electronic aids, goose the torquey, naturally aspirated V8 at the wrong moment and the SLS AMG (like any rear-weight-biased automobile) will change direction faster than a 21st-century politician. Unless you're at a track facility with proper training, or enjoy being featured on Wrecked Exotics, we'd suggest sticking with "ESC Sport" mode during enthusiastic driving.
Just as you can set the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG up for aggressive driving with tweaks to the transmission and stability control settings, you can also leave it in its default settings and just think of it as a great-looking SL. The two leather-covered seats offer all the power adjustments you'd expect from any high-end Mercedes product, though prominent side bolsters add an unprecedented dose of lateral support to the SLS.
The default Controlled Efficiency setting for the dual-clutch electrohydraulic transmission was a bit too lazy for our tastes, even at our mellowest. We always opted for at least the Sport setting, and even then we noted inconsistent engagement between the engine and transmission in low-speed/light-throttle situations. Despite constant improvement in this area across the industry, this remains a characteristic of automated manuals, and is something to keep in mind when shopping and test-driving.
Otherwise the SLS feels very much like a modern SL. Wind and road noise are minimized, even at extra-legal speeds, and visibility is only modestly impacted by the car's thick A-pillars and extra-long front end. Taller drivers (6-foot-2 and above) should be aware that headroom might prove tight, depending on how much of that height is torso-based and where you put the electronically controlled seat height.
It's clear that AMG kept a solid grip on real-world driving challenges when designing the SLS. Ground clearance, for example, isn't the constant stress point so often associated with modern exotics, allowing the SLS to enter driveways or parking structures without the requisite grinding noises so often heard along Rodeo Drive. Getting into the vehicle is relatively easy by exotic-car standards as well because the gullwing doors create a large opening, but the wide door sill does require some focused maneuvering as you lower yourself into the leather seats.
Interior storage is limited to a relatively small glovebox and center console, yet the 6.2-cubic-foot trunk can handle light weekend luggage or a single set of golf clubs. From a technology perspective the SLS comes outfitted with everything you'd expect in a modern M-B product, from GPS navigation to Bluetooth phone pairing to full iPod integration. Our test car even included a Bang & Olufsen audio system with 11 speakers and 7.1-channel surround sound. It's this combination of real-world function and luxury, paired with the SLS's ultimate performance capabilities, that makes it such a special machine.
Covered in lightweight, tightly spaced aluminum panels, the SLS captures attention like an Apple press conference, even in car-jaded Los Angeles. The car is both longer and lower than an SL63 AMG, with a wide front end that stretches into the next ZIP code. Large wheel openings wrap around 19-inch front, 20-inch rear wheels with a 10-spoke design that clearly shows off the massive 15-inch AMG brake rotors and six-piston calipers.
The SLS's lightweight theme continues inside with optional real carbon-fiber paneling over the center console. The console joins with a supple, leather-covered dash housing classic brushed metal air vents reminiscent of those found in the original 300 SL. Red leather also covered the door panels and seats in our test car, further elevating the SLS's classic design language. All of it felt impeccably executed, contributing to the car's value equation despite the nearly $200,000 price tag.
Exotic-car performance and lap-of-luxury comfort is nothing new. Neither are aluminum space frames, gullwing doors, rear-mounted dual-clutch transaxles or 11-speaker audio systems. But combining all of these things into a single vehicle, and pricing it at less than $200,000 puts said vehicle in some pretty rarefied air. Exotic-car shoppers looking to experience all of these traits should give the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG serious consideration.