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First drive: Born-again Benz Gullwing takes off

Wing and a prayer: The Mercedes-Benz SLS Gullwing opens the door to motoring with mojo.

Mercedes-Benz reinvents an icon worthy of the SLS Gullwing nameplate

1 Apr 2010


REINVENTING the Gullwing was a brave move. Mercedes and AMG needed to produce a sportscar that would live up to the legend of the original.

It also needed to prove that it could make a supercar after previously relying on McLaren to build the SLR.

A flat-out run along much of the Mexican route used for the 1952 Panamericana rally, which the prototype W194 Gullwing won, revealed that the new SLS Gullwing deserves that nameplate although no reasonable person could suggest that Mercedes has triumphed at its first attempt to build a supercar.

The SLS is extremely expensive, commanding a price tag of about $480,000 in Australia when it lands this July.

Seating just two, it is not as quick off the mark as a Porsche 911 Turbo, and yet the SLS is an incredibly exciting car to drive - engaging, and yet easy to drive it every day.

So what is it about the SLS that makes it so much fun to drive? The gullwing doors will be the highlight for some customers, but the sound of its fantastic 6.2-litre AMG-developed V8 is probably the best part for me.

It is the best sounding production V8 engine on the market – even more aggressive than other Benzes running AMG engines and sounding all the world like an 8.0-litre racing V8 lurking under the bonnet.

The SLS produces the most brilliant over-run noise I have heard in a production car. Normally, this sound is described as crackle and pop, but this more like a crack and boom.

AMG engineers have set up the SLS engine to squirt a little bit of fuel into the combustion chamber when the driver eases off on the accelerator.

That fuel is pushed through into the hot exhaust manifold where it ignites and creates the wonderful soundtrack.

Yes, it is a waste of fuel, but not when you hear it.

4 center imageThe engine has enormous reserves of power, so the electronic stability control should stay on.

This V8 spins up so quickly that the next gear needs to be selected when the tacho reaches about 4500rpm or it will bounce off the redline.

A race-style rev display – going from green to yellow to red – also helps to prompt gear changes.

The engine is strong across the rev range, but starts surging just below 4000rpm. A whopping 420kW is available at 6800rpm and 650Nm at 4750rpm.

Mercedes asked the Mexican federal police to help out with security, which it did, but its officers went further and provided a police escort in Dodge Charger SRTs.

The officers pulled out to 200km/h plus on open stretches and waved us past, providing a great opportunity to wind out the SLS, surging to high speed in an instant.

Some of the roads we travelled were super smooth, but watch out for the occasional bump … and some terrible stretches.

While still fun to drive 110km/h, SLS owners would benefit from some track time if they want to truly know what their car is capable of.

The SLS’s brakes were given quite a workout, without deterioration.

Of course, something better is always around the corner, and we are told by German racing ace Bernd Schneider that the upgraded brakes are truly incredible, putting up with all types of abuse.

AMG has hit the sweet spot with the steering – not too heavy, not too light and providing a good sense of how your inputs will position the car.

The SLS does tend to track on poor road surfaces, needing constant correction.

The only transmission available is a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. It is a good automatic gearbox.

The dual-clutch automatic is more sensible and fast, but cars such as this don’t make sense they are romantic, so a manual would add to the seat-of-the-pants driving experience.

The automatic is quite good in auto mode and didn’t seem to do much hunting around at low speeds as many dual-clutch gearboxes can.

Two sporty auto modes can be selected, or it can be flicked to manual for changes via the steering-wheel paddles that are metal lined and therefore cold to the touch, but nevertheless have a quality feel.

Unlike most other vehicles in its class, the SLS shuns multiple suspension settings. Like cars of old, the AMG engineers have come up with the best setting for the SLS and that’s it.

We will have to test the car on Australian roads to see if it works locally.

It seemed well sorted, as you could imagine from something based on a specially-made aluminium space-frame developed by AMG, although a bit on the harsh side. That said, some of the road sections we cruised were truly terrible.

The SLS’s interior does not jump out as a $480,000 cabin. Sure, it’s nice enough but it doesn’t exude wealth and make you feel overly special like the lovely stylish interior of the new Jaguar XJ.

Head and legroom is adequate, but room for bits and pieces is in short supply.


Most of the gear will need to go in the boot, which is a reasonable size and could fit a couple of overnight bags.

Now to those gullwing doors – totally unnecessary, but fun, like entering a spaceship and preparing to take off.

The only issue with the gullwing doors in that I had to stretch up out of my seat to reach the handle and pull them down and I’m not short.

We’re told the solution for short people is to grab the handle as they get into the car… which doesn’t look cool.

Mercedes should have come up with a better solution than that.

If the reaction of the locals is any gauge, owners should be prepared for plenty of attention.

Children cheered and squealed with delight in some of the villages when we opened the doors.

Thankfully, you can wind down the windows of the new SLS, unlike the original which had fixed windows.

The SLS has an imposing stance and looks as wide as a Hummer on the road. It isn’t a beautiful car in my mind as it mixes straight angles at the front with rounded at the rear, but many people love it.

In my mind, the SLS is so special because it delivers on its promise of thrilling driving – full of character, raucous, fast and so much fun.

It will also be the last car with AMG’s 6.2-litre naturally aspirated V8. I’m sure the new 5.5 twin turbo V8 that will replace it across the range will be fun, but I doubt it will sound or feel as good as this.

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