Road Test: Mercedes SLS AMG
Alarm set for 8am. Off it goes on cue, but I’ve been awake for a good hour already, far too excited to sleep. I’d been avoiding opening the curtains though, as I’d read the weather report yesterday. Oh well, thinks I, it has to be done sometime. So I pull back the drapes to reveal….. Grey. Well, to be more specific – grey skies, rain, wind, rain and bit more rain. It’s absolutely chucking it down. A little knot forms in my stomach.
You see, today I have nothing to do, apart from drive a car. A very special car. In the many years I’ve been a member of ecurie25 I’ve driven all manner of supercars – Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins, Porsches etc, including some special machinery just this year. But today’s motorised adrenaline rush excites me more than anything I can remember, bar my first ever drive in a Lamborghini Murcielago. But it’s not Italian, not French, nor British. It’s a very special Mercedes-Benz.
The SLS AMG.
I can’t quantify it, but for some reason this Merc has really got under my skin. The looks have certainly divided opinion, but in pictures I loved it. I’ve known that ecurie25 would get one on the fleet though, so I’ve actually avoided trying to see one in the metal. I didn’t want to be disappointed. There’s something about it that genuinely had me fidgeting in my seat when I arrived at the Leeds e25 HQ to pick it up – and it’s not just the doors. But I’ll get back to that later, because I still had that knot in my stomach about the weather. I’d initially planned to have a week with the SLS, and do a mammoth road trip from Leeds up to the best roads Scotland has to offer. Pure driving pleasure - a big engine supercar, and some amazing roads. But due to (very annoying) work commitments my spare time has been cut short, so I’ve been cut down to just 24hrs with the SLS, and the Peak District as my playground. Not all bad, then.
So, I’m handed the keys and we walk out into the garage and I get my first look at an SLS in the metal. And quite frankly, anyone who doesn’t like the looks should be locked up in a mental asylum in my eyes, because it’s just stunning. Okay, I’ll admit it’s not a beautiful car like a Ferrari 456 or a Maserati Granturismo, but it certainly works for me. To me it follows the age old tradition of GT styling from the 60’s. Massive long bonnet (housing a large capacity V8), tight rear overhang, low body. The front end is definitely a bit brash, with the massive Merc badge sitting in an even bigger grille, thrusting forward in its wing-like satin silver housing. The headlights caused a stir upon launch, with many saying they didn’t fit the look, but I think they do, continuing the sharply angled look of the front end. Down the sides of the large front wings you get the side strakes common on the Merc SL, but that little bit more stylised in this application. Then you have what I think is the crowning glory of the SLS – the doors.
Yes, they’re a gimmick, but they really do look good. More on those later. At the back is where I think the SLS is best resolved – driver sitting right on the back wheel, with the smoothly tapered rear coming to a stop with the lovely twin pipes and LED rear lights. I think this SLS stands out more than most though, as it is painted in Imola red. From what I’ve been told, and have seen in the classified ads, the majority of SLSs are ordered in Black, Silver, Grey or derivatives thereof, which all seem a little dull. The Imola red of this example makes it stand out like an anorexic at a Weight Watchers meeting.
I approach the car, unlock, and those little door handles at the bottom of the door pop out to greet you. Bend down to open the door, and it rises up majestically on its gas struts and…. is looking me directly in the eye. Hmmm. Okay I’m not exactly stumpy at 6ft 3in tall, but quite a lot of people will have to duck to get in under the door. It may be touted as an everyday supercar, but it still has the entry/exit issues that the Italians have. A very low seat, with a rather wide sill to straddle is not the easiest thing to get into, especially when blessed with the lengthy appendages that my height brings with it (stop sniggering at the back). But then you’re in the very comfy seat, and want to close the door. Even I with long arms had to reach very high up to grab the door and bring it down with me. I learnt to pull it down with me as I entered eventually, but all it would take is a hiccup in the process and you’d be left with a leg painfully hit by a descending door. Apparently Mercedes considered powered doors, but left them out on the grounds that it would add a lot of weight in the undesirable location of the roof.
Okay, so onto the interior. When I saw the images of the SLS’s interior I was a little disappointed. It didn’t seem special enough for such an overt car. But like the Audi R8, it is simple, looks functional and is an ergonomic dream. The satnav unit, controlled by the Command dial is a very good system, but it suffers from the same issue that so many high end car systems do – you can’t enter a full UK Postcode. This really is absolutely infuriating, as a lot of the time you don’t know the street name, and this functionality is available on a £100 Tomtom. All the other major controls are very nicely weighted, but it seems odd at first to have no wiper arm on the right of the steering wheel (all the controls are on the left arm, with lights on the dash). One of the nice touches inside is that if something looks like aluminium, it invariably is, including the centre console and gearchange paddles.
Now, the really important bit, as sitting a bit ahead of the nice alcantara trimmed steering wheel, and AMG dials sits… The Engine. I need to emphasise that, because The Engine is truly immense in this application. AMG’s 6.2 litre V8 has been praised before in the SL, S, C, CLS etc, but it was surely designed for this role. Incidentally, it does seem odd to me that, despite the 6208cc capacity, they insist on putting ‘6.3’ badges on the side of all models with this engine, SLS included. I know it’s supposed to hark back to the legendary 300SEL 6.3 litre race cars, but it just makes more sense to me to have 6.2 on the side!
Anyway, none of that matters when you press the brake pedal and thumb the starter. That big V8 bursts into life with a blare of revs, then settles into a delicious burble, reminiscent of a 70’s US muscle car. Stand at the back at idle and close your eyes, and you could be standing behind a Dodge Charger 440R/T. Bliss. As with all Mercs of note, it’s Auto only, but this one has their first dual clutch gearbox, packing 7 gears and a lovely set of paddles behind the wheel. Slip it into D and you pull away very smoothly. In fact, heading out onto the streets of Wakefield it’s very apparent that in its Comfort setting the SLS is firm, but compliant enough to be used every day without incurring massive Chiropractor bills. The only issue is that it may be a little too easy, as there’s a lot of throttle travel before the SLS will get moving, especially in Reverse.
The slip road onto the M1 approaches, windows down despite the rain, and foot to the floor…
(there should be some text here, but it contains far too many expletives for family reading)
This is a seriously fast car. I mean Lambo LP560 type fast (not surprising really, it actually has a higher bhp/tonne). And the noise is like something from a V8 lover’s wet dream. The deep bellow at low revs, rising up to a mechanical thrum, then the exhausts take over again to give forth their musical scream. I don’t mind saying that I spent a large part of that day slowing down and accelerating, giggling like a child every time it performed its overture.
Once the drudgery of the M1 was dealt with the nose of the SLS crept into the Peak District. I’m quite familiar with this territory, but in almost torrential rain, it made me ever so slightly nervous, given that I’d already experienced the brutal power the SLS has. Put the suspension into Sport+, and leave the TC on was my advice, so I complied. The road ahead (Woodhead Road for those who know it) twists and turns, rises and falls, and on this day had mini rivers running all over it. And I had the time of my life.
The SLS’s steering is absolutely pin-sharp with as much feedback as you’d ever need. The gearbox is fantastic too, if you stay away from the paddles. Shifting manually gives quite tardy results which seems a little odd given how rapid they are in Auto mode. But it matters not, because in Auto mode it hangs onto gears right to the red line, and downshifts at exactly the right time.
In Sport+ you also get just the right amount of slip from the TC. In tight uphill corners with a river running across them, I was getting a nice armful of lock on before the car gathered it up and let me carry on my way. Perfect. The suspension was firmed up, but still didn’t skip over bumps mid-corner, and the car stayed very flat through hard cornering.
The next morning, I woke up at 5am as the weather report had said it would be dry, and it was. So I headed back to the same road to try it in the dry and the results were the same just with much higher speeds! (but all within the law, Officer). It handles just like an old-school GT, powering out of corners with the rear pushing wide, hearty V8 bellowing in your ears. If it hadn’t been for my 9am deadline and dwindling petrol reserves I’d have stayed on that road all day long.
Speaking of petrol, that’s one area that really impressed me. I pressed on a lot in that car, and over a couple of hundred miles I averaged 21mpg, which I think is fantastic for a 560bhp supercar. And I was amazed at the amount of attention that the SLS got everywhere it went. Pull into a petrol station and most people have a look because of the noise, but as soon as I popped the door open I’d have 5 people standing around it asking questions by the time I’d hauled myself out. Not even Lamborghinis and Ferraris get as much attention in my experience.
In reality, the SLS would probably be a much more useable car with normal doors. The gullwing doors do get in the way, including in the interior. Where they join in the centre of the roof lining is a large bulge which I whacked my head on plenty of times when turning my head to look in a junction. But they are so much a part of the car it would lose a lot without them. The convertible version on the way will be just as accomplished, but I doubt it’ll be as special.
For me, the SLS AMG sits among the Ferrari 599 and Lamborghini LP560/4 in my favourite supercar hierarchy. It may even be at the top. It just got under my skin like not many cars have, before and after driving it.
Euromillions Lottery tickets are £2 now, correct?
Words & Photography: Tim Oldland