2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG — Review
By Kirk Bell of MSN Autos
To many automobile enthusiasts, the 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL was the pinnacle of sports car design. With its low-slung stance and distinctive gullwing doors, the 300SL was the first gasoline-powered car equipped with fuel injection directly into the combustion chamber, and it solidified the German carmaker's reputation for crafting highly desirable, slick sports cars.
Now, more than 50 years later, Mercedes is revisiting the legendary Gullwing with the all-new 2011 SLS AMG. The first car developed from scratch by their in-house performance arm AMG, the new Gullwing is proof that Mercedes-Benz can still manufacture true high-end sports cars. This one is sure to become a classic.
Performance options include carbon ceramic brakes and forged 7- or 10-spoke light alloy wheels. A step up is the AMG Performance Suspension package, which comes with forged light alloy wheels, carbon-fiber interior trim, a leather and Alcantara steering wheel, and a track-calibrated suspension with 10 percent stiffer springs and 30 percent stiffer dampers than the stock SLS. Also available are a 10-speaker 1,000-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system, extended carbon-fiber interior trim, carbon-fiber trim for the engine compartment cover and side mirrors, a fitted car cover and a fitted luggage set.
Standard safety features consist of dual front airbags, front side airbags, side-curtain airbags, knee airbags, a tire-pressure monitor, anti-lock brakes with brake assist, traction control and electronic stability control. The SLS also comes with adaptive headlights that point into turns, rear park assist and a rearview camera.
Under the Hood
To optimize balance, the SLS has a front mid-engine design and a rear transaxle. The engine sits behind the front axle in an aluminum spaceframe. It is linked to the 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission by a carbon-fiber composite driveshaft. The result is a near-perfect 47/53 front/rear weight balance. Thanks to a dry sump oiling system with an external oil reservoir, the engine sits lower than it would with a taller oil pan, thus lowering the car's center of gravity.
With a dual-clutch design, the transmission uses one clutch to hold the current gear and one to ready the next. Gear shifts are instantaneous, with almost no loss of tractive power. The transmission can be left in Drive to shift like an automatic, or drivers can shift manually via the gearshift or a pair of steering-wheel paddles. The transmission also has Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus settings that change the shift schedule. EPA fuel-economy numbers are not yet available.
The SLS AMG comes with a standard navigation system and Mercedes' COMAND control system. COMAND (an acronym from COckpit MAnagement and Navigation Device) uses a rotating knob on the center console to operate the navigation, audio and phone functions, some of which can also be accessed via buttons on the steering wheel. Like BMW's iDrive, COMAND can make some functions overly complicated, but most drivers will get used to it. The SLS also comes with a 40-gigabyte hard drive to hold navigation map information and up to 1,000 music files.
With its $200,000-plus price tag, the SLS has some premium materials. Leather upholstery is standard in five single-tone or three two-tone colors, and the headliner is suedelike Alcantara. The sport bucket seats have plenty of controls to fit most any backside. Wider drivers might find that the side bolstering makes the seats too skinny, but others will appreciate the support. Shorter drivers will also have a problem reaching up to close the gullwing doors once seated. An easy remedy to this problem is to simply grab the door and pull it down as you get in.
Small-items storage is minimal. It includes a glove box, a pair of cupholders and a small pouch along the rear bulkhead. The trunk is also small but fairly useful. It has 6.2 cubic feet of cargo space, about enough for two pieces of carry-on luggage.
On the Road
All the effort AMG has put into optimizing the balance of the SLS has really paid off. With more weight over the rear wheels and tons of power on tap, you might think that the SLS would be a beast to drive, with a nasty tendency for the rear end to come around if you get on the throttle too early coming out of a turn. While some of that character is certainly there, we found the SLS surprisingly easy to drive. Goose the throttle midturn and the rear end will start to kick out, but it's easy to catch, and a really good driver can drift and power oversteer the car through joyous arcs.
The power is monstrous, with willing response through all rev ranges. Floor it from a stop, and the 6.3-liter V8 engine barks like a big dog as it vaults the car to 60 mph in only 3.7 seconds. If you let off the throttle at that point, the engine crackles, pops and burbles like a stock car slowing for a pit stop. AMG calls it "controlled backfire." We call it cool. If you hold your foot to the floor, the SLS AMG just keeps accelerating all the way up to an electronically limited 197 mph. But if you just want to take it easy, the car is perfectly willing to amble slowly along the boulevard, with only the droning engine note detracting from a relaxed cruise.
The engine is well-matched to the new 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission. In the Comfort setting, the transmission shifts at lower rpm to improve fuel economy. In the Sport and Sport Plus settings, the shifts are later, making power more readily available. We used the Sport Plus mode on twisty roads and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and found that it readily downshifted when we jumped on the brakes before a corner. In some instances, though, when braking wasn't necessary but a downshift would have helped, it retained the higher gear. This problem can be easily rectified by clicking the steering-wheel shift paddles.
The track cars we drove were equipped with the optional ceramic compound brakes. Lap after lap of high-speed driving had no effect on them, with no fade or pulsating.
Right for You?
Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, andcurrently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.