When you're building a sports car, especially at the higher level, there are various factors that need to be taken care of. To be taken seriously, considering the competition, you need to be fast, you need performance and handling, and you need to look and sound the part of a supercar. With AMG's first attempt at designing and building such a car, I'd say they nailed it quite nicely.
The tuning arm of Mercedes has experience with performance; for decades, AMG has pumped up the German car maker's saloons and coupes and built a legendary heritage in the process. But the SLS is the first car it was tasked to build from the ground up, and AMG seems to have focused all its Teutonic engineering into every aspect of the car to make it both an instant classic and a sparkling performer. But one particular aspect of the SLS puts it above all others, at least in my books.
Believe it or not, its looks aren't even the best part. This is despite the fact that it's one of the most subtly and classically beautiful cars on the road. Low, long, beautifully proportioned, it draws stares and cameras wherever it's parked. The various air vents with chrome strakes are both stylish and functional, and that long bonnet harkens back to the early days of sports cars, especially in this classic Mercedes shade of silver. It's not as startling as a Lamborghini or an Audi R8, but there is no mistaking that this is a special car, especially when the gullwing doors open. But, no, that's not the best part.
Nor is it the simple yet stylish interior. This one was a two-tone black-and-red, and the parts that weren't swaddled in sleek leather and alcantara are sheathed in real metal trim. You can tell that engineers and designers with an attention to detail put together the SLS; everything feels like the highest of quality, from the gear selector to the dash dials to the air vents, which are made of shiny metal and could stand as art sculptures on their own. The speedo and tach will go down as classic representatives of car clocks; made in metallic silver with red pointers, they are modern and sleek yet have a real retro look to them. The only thing I really didn't like was the array of buttons on the centre dash: a number keypad for your phone and the various selectors for stereo, sat/nav, etc. They are a small distraction to an otherwise stylish layout.
Backing up its looks and heritage is its performance. It sticks to the road exceptionally well, though it does have a surprising amount of understeer, a fact I found with a few hot laps at Yas Marina. I imagine that's dialled in intentionally; once the rear end goes out on this long beast, it would probably take an exceptional driver to get it back under control. But the traction control does a good job of that, even in the sport+ mode that allows a certain amount of slip with the massive power to the rear wheels for a bit of fun.
But few cars out there will make a grown man scream like a teenage girl, which is what the SLS did when I took a friend out and stomped on the throttle. (It was the friend who screamed, not me; honest. I spent much of my time with the SLS giggling.) The acceleration is enormous, pushing you back into your seat and viciously throwing the car forward; the feeling is so visceral and exhilarating it's as if the accelerator is directly linked to the passengers' adrenal glands. The engine roars up to the red line quicker than you would think, and flicking the paddle shifters on the responsive seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox in manual mode makes a driver feel directly linked to the mechanical fun.
But no, dear readers, even that is not the best part of the SLS.
No, my favourite feature of this car begins right when you press the start button on the centre console. Praise Mercedes for going down the V8 road with this car; a V10 or V12 might seem more appropriate for a supercar, given the competition, but those mills, found in Ferraris, Lamborghinis and such, tend to offer passengers a numbing drone, a wall of white noise, under heavy duress. Not so with the SLS; while the 6.3L V8 can be kept fairly quiet in lackadaisical, downtown driving, opening up the throttle unleashes a savage cacophony of explosive uproar from the exhaust pipes, which beats its way into the cabin and pummels the passengers with aural delights. You can actually hear each piston firing in its cylinder with a raging fury, threatening to burst right out of the engine block; the sound forms a complex mix of low beats with higher metallic pings in an unmistakable, rising beat, like a wild symphony. It's a crescendo of pounding horsepower, and it's an integral part to the exhilaration of driving this sports car in the manner it was intended.
And lifting off the throttle gives more blissful rapture, as the big V8 burbles and backfires through the pipes, as if expressing its dismay at being forced to hold back its fury. Really, the aural feedback on throttle response is not only useful, but breathtaking.
A true sports car has every element to excite the senses: style, speed, acceleration and handling are definitely part of the equation, and the SLS has those features covered quite nicely. But the noise is also a necessary ingredient, and the SLS is, hands down, the best-sounding road car I have ever driven. My only regret after handing the car back to the dealer is not recording the soundtrack.