Driven: 2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

By Matt Davis

November 15, 2009

—Monterey, California

You’ll get a chock-full version of this amazing drive experience with the new Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG in the next issue of Winding Road (next week), but we wanted to hit you with some of the fun fresh out of the aluminum Sportwagen. In a nutshell, the SLS is a clear successor to the SLR McLaren and it is clearly improved from the SLR.

The new aluminum SLS built in Sindelfingen, Germany stays dead even with the carbon-fiber SLR built in the UK until early this year. Though the naturally aspirated 6.2-liter V-8 in the SLS has 54 less horsepower (down 9 percent) and 96 fewer pound-feet of torque (down 17 percent) than the supercharged 5.5-liter V-8 in the SLR, the SLS weighs 328 pounds less (also down 9 percent), has much finer dynamics, and better technology. Acceleration on both cars to 60 mph therefore stands at 3.6 seconds and both lap the Nürburgring Nordschleife in just 7:40. The SLS just does it all with better behavior and efficiency.

On the road every day, the SLS wants very badly to always cruise at between 90 and 100 mph, anything less feeling a little caged. Nonetheless, the feel on the road is extremely solid through the nimbler aluminum chassis transmitting less vibration under all circumstances versus the SLR. The self-adjusting dampers of the suspension setup are perfect on this package and the accompanying springs combine to make this simple scheme a virtue. We’d even throw in here that the 10-percent stiffer springs and 30-percent stiffer damper settings of the optional Performance suspension are unnecessary.

For gearing, the rear-axle mounted AMG Speedshift DCT seven-speed transmission combines well with the AMG Drive Unit’s Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus and Manual calibrations. (Compared to the SLR’s sluggish 5-speed auto, there is little comparison.) Favorites are Sport Plus self-shifting and manual action, since both are serious setups with Ferrari-like shift times. The Sport Plus double-declutching approaching curves on hard braking is so good it’s surprising, while the paddle action also lets us hold a gear right to the 7200-rpm redline.

Standard wheels and tires for the SLR were always 18-inch diameter, but the SLS gets showboaty with 19s up front and 20s in back. The track widths of the new chassis are enormous at 66.2-inches front and 65.1-rear, so steering action is crisp with little understeer, thanks also to the front axle design borrowed from the C- and E-Class 63 AMG cars.

Putting the three-stage ESP in the middling Sport Plus, we noticed immediately one of the old SLR hiccups still in the new mix: enthusiastic oversteer tendencies requiring seriously fast counter measures. We imagined AMG needs to start examining a version of 4Matic for these hairy halo cars. Then, rightly so but still unlikable, the ESP in any mode really does need to cruelly chop in to reel in that rear axle, since most drivers will be a little overmatched. ESP Off can happen exclusively on closed courses with masses of run-off.

Still, get the hang of it all in the ballpark and the SLS is a seriously unique all-day track-club weekend car – a status that the SLR had to bully the club council to get. Through all but the tightest turns—such as the awful final Turn 11 at Laguna Seca—our SLS galloped along unflustered, so long as we stayed alert. The much lower center of gravity with this dry-sump front-mid engine placement and the transmission at the rear axle, all work together nicely to keep weight distributed correctly.

And the exhaust tone from the two huge tailpipes is really intense and loud and low from minimal revs. You don’t really need that noise to do better, but you really do. Know what we mean?

The more we stared at the SLS design painted Le Mans red under the perfect California sun, the more we appreciated the statement this trick car makes. The only doubt remains for the rear third of the car in straight profile, as it seems forcibly pinched. As for the gullwing doors, they cause physical challenges, but they are light and easy to operate in the end. Any wounds to hands or head will simply be proud marks of ownership.

The SLS AMG will sell about 1,500 units per year worldwide and the U.S. base price sits at around $190,000. Our deliveries begin in May of 2010 and the Audi R8 V10 and Porsche 911 Turbo need to watch out.