Although the SLS AMG has been on the market for a couple of years already, I’m a little late to the gullwing party. I’ve simply never had the chance to drive one. Based on what I’d read in magazines and on the web, it’s supposed to be a little nervous and doesn’t inspire confidence, but that notion couldn’t be more wrong.
The truth is that the SLS is one of the most exciting and dramatic cars available today. The boisterous, hand-assembled AMG V8 makes brutal power and makes a gregarious rumble. Yet, because the SLS’ handling makes you pay attention, I can see why some drivers are a little confused about its dynamics.
You needn’t worry, though, because unlike a vintage 911, it doesn’t want to kill you, nor will it self-immolate like some Italian exotics do on occasion. This is, after all, a Mercedes-Benz by AMG and there’s simply nothing else like it. It has more street presence than anything this side of a million dollar exotic, has vault-like build quality, is unmistakably loud and brash, and drives like a German hot rod. I don’t recall ever driving a more extroverted machine than this one.
The gullwing-style doors hearken back to the iconic 1955 300 SL which, in addition to the unique doors, was a benchmark performer in its day. It would, of course, be easier to engineer conventional doors, similar to the SLS Roadster, but there’s no style in that. Upon unlocking the SLS, door handles emerge from the door panel and with a light pull, the latch releases and the door swings up to its wing-like position.
The tall doorsill and low seat make getting in the SLS a unique experience and, when you pull the door down and it latches shut, you know you’re sitting somewhere special. The opening is spacious enough for drivers of every size, but just be sure not to wear any short skirts when a paparazzi is nearby.
The low roofline makes you feel like you’re in the cockpit of a machine that’s truly fast. While the cabin is compact, there is some extra headroom carved into the top section of the door, which leads to some unusual acoustics for the driver and passenger – when your head is positioned just right, you can hear yourself speak clearly. One solution, of course, is to simply enjoy the outstanding Bang & Olufsen sound system. It’s optional, but too good to pass up. The better option perhaps is to drop the windows and listen to that wicked V8.
While the cockpit’s height is short, the cabin is wide with abundant elbow room, which makes the SLS feel more spacious inside. The all-black interior with red stitching of this test car might be a post-trend, but it suits the SLS perfectly. The start button glows red, as well, increasing the cool factor.
The steering wheel feels great in your hands, although I’d rather have Alcantara all around the wheel instead of just the nine and three grips, and I can really do without the flat bottom style. Those wheels were already out of fashion in the '90s, so leave that to the pretenders, please, AMG.
The seats themselves are perfectly formed with excellent support for long distance drives – the 200 kilometre round trip from Toronto to Mosport and back is a great road trip in the SLS and I have zero discomfort. Still, the seats have superb bolstering and keep you in place when the going gets quick.
I think the reasons some drivers complain about the SLS’ dynamics is twofold. One, the seating position is much further back from the front axle than virtually every other car and, two, the rear axle can be very much alive – and for enthusiastic drivers like us, that’s a good thing.
Sure, your brain takes a little while to rewire itself for the feeling of sitting so far back in the chassis, but once you become accustomed to it, it makes the experience of driving the SLS even more exceptional. Where most other cars of this calibre have more conventional front- or mid-engine layouts, there is nothing else like SLS’ long hood and the almost-over-the-rear-axle seating position.
Steering is precise and quick enough for every situation, even when your right foot prescribes a little oversteer. In fact, you can easily balance the SLS while going a little sideways between steering and throttle inputs. It’s as is the SLS was engineered for lurid, tire smoking slides.
The GT part of this car’s name was added for 2013 and signifies a few important changes. Most importantly, horsepower is up 20 to 583 on the dry-sumped, 32-valve, 6.2-litre V8 while torque remains static at 479 lb-ft. When you decide to step on the gas, it’s like unleashing a dirty, thundering V8 symphony. The exhaust can be so loud and sometimes so offensive that full throttle is not meant for the meek.
For 2013, the seven-speed dual clutch (SPEEDSHIFT DCT in Mercedes-speak) was also recalibrated and it works well, but it’s nowhere near as quick as a Porsche PDK or the S-tronic in the new Audi R8. The dual clutch box suits the SLS better than any manual could because you can cruise around comfortably in automatic mode, but when you want some thrills, an authentic manual mode is available to you. In fact, every time I get in the SLS, I spin the dial over to manual because it's simply a more enjoyable drive.
With almost 600 horses, the SLS is perhaps a bit under-tired for outright performance. Where most cars with this kind of performance made do with 305 mm-width tires – or wider – the SLS uses 295 section tires at the rear, and I’ll readily argue that it’s a good thing. You see, with less grip at the rear axle, the SLS is a more willing to be coaxed into a slide, and sliding a powerful supercar is one of your fundamental rights as an enthusiast. To some drivers, this may be a little disconcerting and, if you’re that kind of driver, just leave the stability system on. You’ll be fine. If you’re a card-carrying member of the oversteer club, then you’ll really love the SLS.
With an SLS in your garage, you’re always looking for excuses to drive somewhere, so on a perfect summer’s evening, I take the gullwing for a romp around town. A few minutes into the drive, the engine of the SLS switches to a limp-home or safe mode for reasons I couldn’t determine. I pull into a parking lot, switch off the SLS and give it a chance to rest. After a few seconds, I press the glowing red start button, fire up the bellowing AMG V8 and the SLS operates normally. A subsequent diagnosis reveals a faulty e-throttle and is repaired quite easily. Ah, you just have to love all of the electronics in cars these days, don’t you?
My only real complaint – and I dare say I have but one real complaint – is that the SLS rides a bit too hard, as if it’s meant to impress prospective customers with a “sporty” ride. In an ideal world, the SLS would ride on softer springs and better dampers, giving it a more comfortable and controlled ride. After one remarkably enjoyable drive while the SLS is cooling off in my garage, I look into the catalogs of top notch European tuners and, yes, you can get the right stuff for your SLS, which is exactly what I’d be doing should an SLS of my own show up in my garage in the future.
Whereas the Audi R8 and Porsche 911 Turbo are more refined and even a little restrained, the SLS stands out as brash and elemental. The bark of its AMG V8 and the visual presence of those wonderful gullwing doors make the SLS the most unique super car in this category.
Perhaps the only supercar similar in spirit to the SLS is Aston Martin’s new V12 Vantage S. While the Aston is stunning, it doesn’t have the same visual impact. If you want to make an entrance with a brash super car, there’s just one way to do it and that’s in an SLS AMG GT.
2013 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT
Base Price: $217,900
Engine: 4.8L V8
Horsepower / Torque: 583 hp / 479 lb-ft
Transmission: 7-speed automated dual clutch
Fuel Economy Ratings (city / hwy.): 16.3 / 10.7 L/100 km
Options on Test Vehicle: Bang & Olufsen Sound System ($7,000).
A/C Tax: $100
Price as Tested (before taxes): $224,900
Basic Warranty (mos / kms): 48 / 80,000