First Drive: 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

By Chris Haak

It’s not every day that a normal human being (as opposed to a superhero) gets the chance to drive a true supercar.  Last May, I had the opportunity to take a brief drive in a half-million dollar Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren at a media event; the SLR was and will probably remain the most expensive vehicle that I have ever driven.  But something was missing when I drove the car because of two issues:  I was driving an unfamiliar car on an unfamiliar road, and I was chaperoned by a Mercedes-Benz representative.  Basically, I was scared that I’d be unable to control the car if I really let loose, and perhaps even more afraid that my host would fear my driving.  So I took it reasonably easy and just savored the car, doing my best to etch its memory somewhere permanent in my mind, so I can tell my sons someday that I drove the car they’re reading about somewhere.

This year, I was at the same annual media event, and after having read the list of cars and trucks that were expected to make their appearance, I was licking my chops for some wheel time with a few of them:  Cadillac CTS-V, Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG, Audi R8, and Ford Fiesta piqued my interest, among others.  Then imagine seeing my jaw drop when I spotted an SLS AMG in the parking lot, along with those other cars.  I just had to take that baby for a spin, chaperoned or not.

Naturally, there was a waiting list to take a spin in the SLS AMG.  Unnaturally, I was second on the list, and in an even more delightful twist of fate, the person before me on the list wasn’t around when his turn came up.  I was seated at a picnic table about halfway through my lunch when the SLS pulled back into the lot, and literally dropped my fork and power-walked to the car just in case the person before me on the list wasn’t around.  My persistence was rewarded:  not only was I able to take the next turn with the car, but I was able to take Autosavant’s own Kevin Gordon with me as a co-pilot rather than a M-B representative.  Apparently they were more concerned about their half-million dollar car than they are with their $200,000 one.

I gingerly stepped over the wide sill, noting that there were already a few scuffs on it from careless drivers.  You can bet that if I had a car like this, that would not happen.  I thought I had recalled reading somewhere about a power gullwing door closure, but was told to just pull the handle and yank it down myself.  I have long arms, but I imagine that it would be a less-graceful maneuver were I a smaller person.

Once settled into the driver’s seat, it’s pretty close quarters, particularly in terms of headroom.  I had about a half inch of clearance from the top of my noggin (which is 6 feet, 4 inches from the ground when I’m standing).  There’s not much room behind the seat for tall drivers, either, which means that if I wanted to try my usual trick of reclining the seat to get more headroom, I’d be sacrificing precious legroom.  At least the power seats are smart enough to slide the bottom cushions forward when more recline is requested than there is space for.  I rode shotgun with a 5’5″ driver earlier in the day, and I could have stuck a briefcase behind his seat.  Aside from fairly cramped quarters, the only complaints I have about the cockpit were the flimsy-feeling glovebox lid (perhaps it was magnesium and not the plastic I assumed it was, but it felt like it was going to break in my hand) and the proliferation of buttons, making usage difficult for folks unfamiliar with the car.

The SLS AMG cuts an imposing presence on the road.  You sit very low in the car, and it’s a very wide car as well.  The car certainly draws a crowd; in fact, when we stopped to take some photos, there was a caravan from stopped at the same place for their souvenir photos.  Although their caravan had a Gallardo, F430, Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, and a Bentley Continental, that group’s official photographer literally ran to the SLS to snap some photos of it alongside our own mini photo shoot.  Gotham’s photographer was also briefly left behind when the dream cars left and he was still taking SLS photos.

I’m still not convinced that the SLS AMG is a beautiful car, but I will say that 1) it looks very, very cool in person, and 2) it has very classic long hood, short deck sports car proportions.  You can tell from looking at it, even if it didn’t have a giant three-pointed star on the gaping grille, that it’s a Mercedes-Benz, and that it’s descended from the original SL of the 1950s.  To my eyes, the least-successful angle is the rear, which takes a little too much SLR and a not enough 1950s SL for its inspiration.

The interior is obviously premium, with exquisite leather stitching on nearly every surface – seats, dashboard, console lid, steering wheel, and more.  The headliner is covered in Alcantara, as are the thick A-pillars.  Though the A-pillars are quite thick, AMG used a neat trick to mitigate visibility problems:  they are angled so that the pillar on the opposite side of the car is at its narrowest in your line of sight.  In other words, the right pillar is at its narrowest when the driver looks in that direction.  The engineers who came up with the Camaro’s pillars could take a lesson from this clever design.  (Yes, I did just mention the Camaro in a piece about the SLS AMG.  Sorry about that.)

The SLS AMG’s steering wheel is flat-bottomed, but not to the extreme that Audi does it to its sporty cars.  The wheel is considerably smaller than those installed in other Mercedes-Benz vehicles, since its gauges aren’t so widely spaced as the ones in the other vehicles.  The SLS AMG has Mercedes’ COMAND system for controlling audio, ventilation, and other ancillary functions, but handily has the important buttons on the console next to the shifter for all performance functions:  suspension settings, gearbox mode, and traction control.

Driven calmly, the SLS responds in kind.  You can’t just completely muffle a 571-horsepower, 479 lb-ft  6.3 6.2 liter V8, no matter how low the revs, but it’s darn near sedate when the engine is turning less than 3,000 RPMs.  AMG’s new seven-speed dual-clutch transaxle is a gem, with the ability to glide from gear to gear when set to Comfort mode.  When the suspension is set to the touring mode, there’s even decent compliance over bumps.  It’s still very firm, of course, which is fine.  The structure is very solid, as should be expected with half-foot-tall door sills.

Start pushing those console buttons, though, and the SLS grows hair on its Teutonic chest very quickly.  The suspension, when set to Sport mode, is somewhat unforgiving – but that’s OK since it has a softer setting available when you aren’t in a sporting state of mind.  Beyond Comfort mode, the transaxle lets you choose Sport, Sport +, and Manual modes.  Shifts are progressively quicker and more brutal the further on that continuum you dare to go.  I honestly didn’t try Sport mode, skipping from Comfort to Sport +, which blipped the throttle on its own during downshifts and held onto lower gears during quick driving and within corners so exits could be fast.

For more fun, though, I flipped the transaxle into Manual mode.  There are paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel, and the only car I can recall with similarly-speedy reactions to paddle taps is the BMW Z4 sDrive35i with its own dual-clutch transmission.  The SLS, however, one-ups the much cheaper BMW by throwing off a throaty V8 exhaust burble that made me feel like I was driving a car in the 1960s at LeMans just coming off a straight portion.  Though I didn’t eat Rice Krispies for breakfast that morning, Snap, Crackle, and Pop most certainly were along for the ride in the SLS AMG, and made their presence known with nearly every throttle lift when the car was in Manual mode.

I didn’t try the car’s launch-control feature, which can get it from zero to sixty in 3.8 seconds; I figured that even taking my launches easy, I was hitting the big six-oh in just over four seconds, and I didn’t want to abuse a $200,000 car.

Custom-designed Michelin Pilot Super Sports are the tires of choice, with P265/35-19s on the front wheels and P295/30-20s fitted to the rears.  Though it’s nearly impossible for two tires to put all 571 horsepower down to the ground without wheelspin, the tires did do a remarkable job of keeping the big Benz in line with their superlative grip.  The gigantic brakes – six-piston 15.4 inch rotors in the front and four-piston 14.2 inch rotors in the rear – provided fade-free stopping against whatever I could throw at it during my fairly brief time with the car.  For those who want more, carbon-ceramic brakes are available as an expensive option.  The carbon-ceramic brakes have 15.8 inch front rotors and weigh less and offer more fade resistance.

My test vehicle was equipped with an optional shade of gray paint; its name escapes me, but that’s understandable, since the SLS AMG is available in nine colors, three of which are shades of gray (AMG Monza grey magno, designo magmo alanite gray, and AMG imola gray).  Three of the remaining six colors are silver or black, leaving white, red, and AMG Daytona blue to round out the palette.  I am pretty sure that it was AMG imola gray, but regardless, it’s a good color for the car.  My tester’s interior was finished with rust-colored seats that worked well with the dark gray exterior.  Those seats offered excellent lateral support and comfort.

I have no clue about the car’s fuel economy, which I’m sure will warrant a hefty gas guzzler tax.  But that’s not the point of this car.  If you have to ask about fuel economy, you may not be able to afford to feed the beast.  And speaking of affordability, it’s impossible to call a $200,000 two-seat sports car affordable, but it’s actually more likable than the SLR McLaren was, less than half the price, and basically matches the doomed joint-venture product from nearly all performance measures.  Just be careful with the options list; the carbon-fiber interior trim package on the test cars rings in at $4,500, the gray paint is another $1,500 minimum.  The Bang & Olufsen sound system – which was magnificent, by the way, though I only tried it in the name of writing as comprehensive of a piece as I could, since I preferred the sound of the exhaust by far.  Carbon ceramic brakes will set you back about $12,000 as well, and there are additional carbon fiber trim pieces and other sundry options available for a few thousand here and there as well.

I had the good fortune of driving an Audi R8 4.2 6MT just a few hours after my time driving the SLS AMG, and I felt that for about half the price, the R8 was better than half as good as the SLS.  Though the R8 didn’t draw the crowd that the SLS did, that may be only because it’s a more familiar shape at this point.  With that being said, I was thankful for the opportunity to burn some hydrocarbons in a car that future generations of gearheads will surely stand in awe of.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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