David Booth takes the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG for a high-speed spin around the Yas Marina Circuit and falls completely under its spell.
Don't stop me now
It's the sound that captures you first. Much louder than you'd expect from a Mercedes, yet somehow still sophisticated. Not as effete as a typical European V12 but neither the brutish brawl of a high-performance North American V8. At idle, it threatens. Push the throttle and that menace erupts in a guttural flurry of revs and torque that is at once both sinister and unrelenting. The SLS at full chat sounds like nothing could slow it down. Claiming that an SLS sounds fast without being able to pass along an audio clip of it accelerating through the gears is to know journalistic inadequacy at its most frustrating.
It's also deceptive. At full throttle, there's a certain monotonal quality to the 6.3L V8's syncopation that, like the Eurotrash muzak that passes for house music in every corner of the massive Yas Marina Circuit facility, lulls you into a sense that you're just loafing along. Until, that is, you look down at speedo sweeping rapidly past the 260 kilometre an hour mark just as the 200m braking marker for the second-gear hairpin at the end of the Yas Marina Circuit's long back straight starts looking alarmingly close.
Then the whole internally combusting symphony gets even better. For unlike any other car that I've ever tested, the new V8-powered Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG sounds better coming down its piston-generated musical scale than going up. The seven-speed dual clutch manumatic is the very master of the smooth downshift, automatically matching revs in a pas de deux that sees blipping throttle and co-ordinated clutches working in perfect unison. Mash the (optional) carbon ceramic brakes hard (because that tight second-gear hairpin is coming up very quickly indeed) and the entire downshift from seventh gear takes on a rapid-fire blatt-blatt-blatt that is purely magical. My only question is how Mercedes manages to make this entire soundtrack legal in our increasing controlled, even for sound levels, world.
What's immediately obvious is that, while the SLS is (officially) not a replacement for Mercedes outgoing SLR, it does, in fact, replace that McLaren-built supercar at the top-end of Mercedes's sporting lineup. Equally obvious is that AMG, Mercedes' inhouse tuning arm that has, so far, only been allowed to modify existing Benz product, has been chomping at the bit to design their own supercar. The surprise, especially considering that McLaren is at the forefront of Formula One technology, is that the SLS is the far superior car, despite costing much less than the SLR.
For one thing, despite the SLR's chassis being entirely constructed of carbon fibre, the SLS weighs less. Credit an all-aluminium chassis (with only one small piece of high-strength steel in the A-pillar) held together by thousands of rivets and high-strength steel. The lighter-than-steel chassis also boasts phenomenal frame rigidity as well, more than in the SLR's league. Indeed, thanks to the SLS front/mid-engine layout, there's room for a massive rigidity-inducing cross-member ahead of the engine. It's the first such application I've ever seen and helps explain why the SLS's front tyres feel seemingly directly connected to the driver's synapses through the steering wheel.
That steering feel will require some acclimatisation by traditionalists, however. Sports cars of the SLS' exalted status typically have heavy steering to allow greater feedback to the driver. The SLS, on the other hand, has magnificently light steering, yet is as communicative as anything with four wheels. That precise front end steering is married to a traction control system that, by Benz standards, is very liberal. Unlike previous Mercedes ESP systems, the "sport" version of the SLS' electronic stability program allows far more tail-wagging than normal.
In fact, the SLS's ESP system allows as much tail-happy oversteer as the Corvette's excellent "competition mode." Indeed, as I am pumping those carbon composite brakes (part of an AMG Competition Package that also adds stiffer suspension) trying to somehow get the SLS down to manageable speed for the aforementioned Turn Eight hairpin, the rear end does the gentle high-speed sideways dance that warns you that you're right on the limit. For once, Mercedes electronic nannies don't intrude on the fun.
Even the SLS' engine fits into making the SLS handle better. AMG, in its determination that the SLS' centre of gravity be as low as possible, converted the 6.2L V8 to dry sump operation. By eliminating the oil pan (and carrying the engine oil in a completely separate container) AMG was able to lower the engine's 206kg by 100mm. Combined with the low, squat rear-mounted transaxle, it makes for excellent weight distribution and a very low centre of gravity. Factor in double-wishbone independent suspension all round not to mention sticky P265/35R19 (front) and P295/30R20 (rear) Continental performance radials and you've got a car that deals with the rigours of the track - even one like the Yas Marina Circuit that was voted the number one F1 venue for 2009 - with ease.
Of course, there's much more to the engine than guttural sounds and a lower waistline. Based on the same normally-aspirated, double overhead cam V8 that powers all of the Mercedes' "63" badged cars, it sports a modified intake system, more aggressive forged pistons and a set of equal-length, "big tube" headers (perhaps the source of all that exhaust music?) that sees its output raised to 571hp and 650Nm of torque. Mercedes says that accelerating to 100kph takes just 3.8 seconds and, if the driving instructors that Mercedes used as chaperones would have got out of our way, we might have even skirted with the SLS' reputed 317kph top speed. Performance will not be an issue.
My greatest revelation, however, the one that would allow me, if I were independently foolish, to own an SLS are its seats. The SLR, you might remember, was only available in race seats with no recline option. Either you fit or you did not. My diseased lower lumbars did not and, no matter even if I had loved the McLaren, I could have never owned one. The best thing I can say about the SLS' interior is that its supercar status requires you to sacrifice none of Mercedes' luxury
Indeed, Mercedes wanted just such an accessible supercar when they originally commissioned the SLR. They got it in the SLS. firstname.lastname@example.org