2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
December 13, 2009

The 2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG stuns with visually catchy gullwings and a thundering V-8, but the rear styling, slow gearbox, and tight-fitting cockpit need more attention.

TheCarConnection.com drove the SLS AMG to write this hands-on road test. Editors also compared the new gullwing SLS AMG to other exotic supercars to explain how its styling, performance, features, and packaging fare against the competition. TheCarConnection.com's companion full review of the AMG two-seater condenses opinions and comments from other respected Web sources to bring you a conclusive look at the latest Mercedes-Benz supercar.

Mercedes-Benz is ready to ride the nostalgic wave with a new gullwing coupe, the 2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. The successor to the legendary Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing from the 1950s, the SLS follows on the cooled heels of the former SLR supercar. The SLS AMG is the first car developed by Benz's in-house tuners, and each car's drivetrain is built by a single engineer, by hand. Philosophically the SLS remains true to the original in a few ways: It's still rear-wheel drive, it's still built on an aluminum chassis, and it has those amazing gullwing doors. Otherwise, it's a truly modern $200,000 supercar with few concessions to anything but power and traction. The competition includes everything from the starter-exotic Corvette ZR1 and Dodge Viper to the insanely capable Porsche 911 Turbo or the even more expensive Lexus LFA.

The 2010 SLS AMG fuses classic and new styling themes on its purebred chassis, but it's not a successful marriage. It's dominated by a wide grille grafted on an impossibly long nose, with only a brief suggestion of a rear end. It's also shod with a pair of gullwing doors. As outfitted, there's no other car on the planet that looks as stunning with its doors open. The gullwings stop traffic and give the SLS an instant iconography. And while it's truly handsome from a few angles-the rear three-quarter view plays up the liquid profile, and the nose is pure muscle car-the sculpting of the rear deck and the way the rear fenders fall around the taillights is uninspired and plain. The front end is wide and menacing, but isn't entirely related to the teensy greenhouse, which has sizable, safety-inspired pillars in back in the place of the original's glassy greenhouse. The pillars are there for a reason-body rigidity and rollover protection-but they're so unlike the front end, it's a visual hitch. The SLS is cleaner and more predictable inside-and sometimes stunning, as in the black-on-white edition. The dash is similar to the one in the preceding supercar, the SLR, but with far richer finishes that address concerns over that car's pedestrian cabin. Eye-catching details are strewn about, like the aluminum-lidded storage bin on the rear end of the console. The climate and radio controls are exactly like those in the C-Class, but they're ringed in metallic trim. The SLS lifts bits and pieces from Mercedes inventory, but they're used in appropriate ways.

Review continues below

Manageable but outrageous power is the SLS AMG's other calling card. It's light in weight, heady in output, and it uses rear-wheel drive, with a few traction tricks. The massive AMG 6.2-liter V-8 is as close to big-block performance as Germany will ever come. It cranks out a prodigiously healthy and vocal 563 horsepower, accompanied by 479 pound-feet of torque. This is one engine that talks back when spoken to via throttle-by-wire controls. The vintage metallic ripple that gathers at low speeds opens up to a fantastic howl, giving you plenty of engine note for your entertainment dollar-though it's almost unbelievably docile at a steady 80-mph cruise. There's no manual shifter to conspire with the engine; just a new seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox takes care of all the gearchanges. Developed by AMG, the four transmission modes: Comfort, Sport, Sport +, and Manual, with a RACESTART launch-control program. AMG says the gearbox is good for all modes, from "relaxed" driving to track racing, but "relaxed" may be too accurate a word. It certainly slows and mellows shifts when it's in Comfort mode. Racing responses are much quicker, and the paddles themselves have the cool touch of real metal until you've rubbed them warm from repeated 4-3-2 downshifts. TheCarConnection.com's test cars were sometimes slow to shift; Mercedes says updates to the software are in the works. The dual-clutch gearbox makes the SLS more accessible to a wider group of daydreamers; in truth, it makes the SLS more usable on the street and still executes racing-speed shifts more quickly than almost any driver on earth can manage. The SLS AMG will accelerate from 0-60 mph in a claimed 3.7 seconds, deeply in Corvette ZR1 territory but shy of the stunning 3.3-second times turned in by the Nissan GT-R and Porsche 911 Turbo. A top speed of 197 mph is also claimed.

The suspension's forged in aluminum wishbones to handle the startling power with aplomb. Ride quality is far better than expected; trundling in traffic can make the SLS seem a touch bouncy, but for a car of its capabilities, it's amazingly controlled. The SLS really can be a relaxed ride, not a cruiser but with enough compliance dialed in for commendable ride control on those trying 80-mph interstate slogs between raceways. When the view ahead widens, it digs into its element. Drive it faster and sweep into tighter turns, and it stays almost completely flat, even while the rear 20-inch tires are clawing for some middle ground between torque and reality. Carbon-ceramic brakes with 15.4-inch front discs and 14.2-inch rear discs are teamed with 19-inch wheels and tires in front, 20-inchers in back for stopping capability equal to the task. The SLS's aluminum space frame and body panels give it a relatively light curb weight of 3,573 pounds, and with the midship engine and rear-mounted transaxle, it has nearly ideal weight distribution of 48:52 percent-which makes for better handling than, say, the nose-heavy Dodge Viper.

It's light, long, low, and wide, but the SLS simply doesn't have enough room for anything other than two medium-sized passengers and a bit of carry-on baggage. At 183 inches long, with a wheelbase of 105.5 inches and an overall width of 76.3 inches, it could have the interior room of a C-Class Benz-but it doesn't. It's only 49.3 inches high, and most of the wheelbase is taken up by engine and transmission, leaving scant space for two passengers, who will use most of the 39.1 inches of headroom even if they're not six-footers. The SLS' tricky geometry requires practice before getting in and finding a spot that's comfortable. Driver and passenger must pop open the gullwing handles-they're down near the door sills-and clamber in, being careful not to clank heads against the lower door panel. You can open the gullwings under about 30 mph, but a warning beep suggests you consider otherwise.

Inside, the tight fit can be claustrophobic. The firewall's close, the seats are large (if marvelously upholstered), and recline is blocked by the wall behind them, in front of the transaxle. The steering wheel telescopes to create a workable driving position for six-footers, but finding the right balance of seating position and rake isn't set-and-forget-it's strategy. Interior storage is minimal; a light, undamped glove box hides some space, shallow console bins are ready for a cell phone at most, and a netted pouch hangs between the seats. The huge shelf behind the seats isn't usable for cargo, since cargo would block rear visibility. The trunk's a bit better and will take a set of golf clubs or a couple of soft-sided bags. Quality and noise levels in the 2010 SLS AMG are much better than interior space. There's plenty of engine noise and very few moments of true peace in the SLS, but it's the right kind of noise-not from wind, but from intake manifolds and over-running injectors. Fit and finish is fine, with those familiar parts repurposed in real aluminum or metallic-painted trim, paired with some high-quality switchgear-though the twin stalks to the left of the steering column still require a practiced hand to flick on their cruise control, turn signals, and wipers without a mistake.

The 2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG's safety gear includes six airbags, as well as stability and traction control. The stability system has three modes: full, Sport with some wheelspin, and "off," which experts can turn off at their own risk. There's some steel in the car, namely the strong pieces that make up the windshield frame, and Mercedes-Benz has released vivid crash-test video of an SLS dropped on its roof, with no damage to crash-test dummies. Still, NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) haven't tested it and likely never will. Visibility is a major issue in reverse-there's a rearview camera to help-but to the other angles, it's no problem.

Standard features on the 2010 Mercedes-Benz gullwing includes the COMAND radio and entertainment control system; leather upholstery; an electronic parking brake; headlamp assist; keyless ignition; rear parking sensors; heated power seats; cruise control; and sport pedals. Optional goodies include a six-disc DVD charger; a Bang & Olufsen sound system; an alarm; and several AMG paint schemes, such as the special Alubeam Silver. AMG is also offering several performance modifications, including a carbon-fiber hood, side mirrors, and trim; stiffer suspension settings; forged 10-spoke wheels; sports bucket seats; and a performance steering wheel finished in leather and Alcantara, which feels warm, grippy, and a little sinful.

The two-seat 2010 SLS AMG will be a limited production vehicle. A convertible is almost certainly guaranteed for the 2011 model year. Mercedes is working on an electric version of the SLS due in 2013, and their stake in Tesla Motors will probably play some role in the SLS EV's development. Pricing isn't set yet, but the 2010 SLS AMG is sure to start below $200,000. Deliveries begin in April 2010.

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2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS

Styling

The 2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG has an awkward moment or two as it reaches for the sky with those extraordinary gullwing doors. 

The 2010 SLS AMG fuses classic and new styling themes on its purebred chassis-"this isn't purely a retro pastiche. It has its own proportions, form vocabulary, and detailing that makes it much more than a Xerox'd yellowed blueprint," Autoblog reports-but it's not a successful marriage. It's dominated by a wide grille grafted on an impossibly long nose, with only a brief suggestion of a rear end.

It's also shod with a pair of gullwing doors. As outfitted, there's no other car on the planet that looks as stunning with its doors open. The gullwings stop traffic and give the SLS an instant iconography. Jalopnik glosses over other details, gushing, "have you seen how sexy those Gullwing doors are when they pop open?" Automobile points out, "Ugly is, truthfully, too strong of a word to describe the new Mercedes-Benz supercar, but so, too, is beautiful. Until you open the gullwing doors, that is."

"The styling of this latest Mercedes-Benz is striking," Road & Track declares, but while it's truly handsome from a few angles-the rear three-quarter view plays up the liquid profile, and the nose is pure muscle car-the sculpting of the rear deck and the way the rear fenders fall around the taillights are uninspired and plain. "If you're not sold on it, a critique of the SLS body could be unflattering," Motor Authority says. The front end is wide and menacing-"ludicrous," it seems to Motor Trend, which asks, "There's so much acreage at the prow, what goes there? Another engine?"-but isn't entirely related to the teensy greenhouse, which has sizable, safety-inspired pillars in back in the place of the original's glassy greenhouse. "The rear of the car is rounded somewhat," Road & Track observes, "but the tall trunk with its pop-up spoilers looks a bit too much like the old Acura CL for my tastes." Automobile adds that it was apparently "inspired by the Buick Reatta and the Acura CL coupe." The pillars are there for a reason-body rigidity and rollover protection-but they're so unlike the front end, it's a visual hitch. And the overall proportions make the best case for superstardom: "the abbreviated cabin and low roof help to emphasize just what the big Merc is packing up front," Jalopnik remarks.

The SLS is cleaner and more predictable inside-and sometimes stunning, as in the black-on-white edition. The dash is similar to the one in the preceding supercar, the SLR, but with far richer finishes that address concerns over that car's pedestrian cabin. "The large analog gauges are surrounded by aluminum accents," Road & Track observes, "and there's plenty of carbon-fiber trim to complement the car's high-tech aura." Eye-catching details are strewn about, like the "new T-shaped gear selector," which Motor Trend reports, "is supposed to remind you of jets and fighter pilots. Too bad it's about 50 percent smaller than the thrust control lever found in Maverick's F-14." The climate and radio controls are exactly like those in the C-Class-"we love the round HVAC vents," Car and Driver says-but they're ringed in metallic trim. The SLS lifts bits and pieces from Mercedes inventory, but they're used in appropriate ways. In all it's pleasing, but as Autoblog comments, "the SLS' interior is generally well executed, but it lacks the sense of occasion that the doors promise."

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2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS

Performance

Muscular track performance is a given from AMG; the 2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS' admirably smooth ride and steering are welcome surprises. 

Manageable but outrageous power is the SLS AMG's other calling card. It's light in weight, heady in output, and it offers rear-wheel drive, with a few traction tricks.
The massive AMG 6.2-liter V-8 is as close to big-block performance as Germany will ever come. "This sensational-sounding powerplant," as Road & Track calls it, cranks out a prodigiously healthy and vocal 563 horsepower, accompanied by 479 pound-feet of torque. This is one engine that talks back when spoken to via throttle-by-wire controls. Automobile says it's "the Tasmanian Devil of the automotive industry; snarling, popping, and barking while spinning up dust clouds and terrorizing anyone within earshot." The vintage metallic ripple that gathers at low speeds opens up to a fantastic howl, giving you plenty of engine note for your entertainment dollar, though it's almost unbelievably docile at a steady 80-mph cruise. Autoblog gets a little too close for comfort with the AMG engine: "Like good sex and serious warfare, it's ballistic, impossible to ignore and utterly engaging," it, er, waxes enthusiastic.

There's no manual shifter to conspire with the engine; just a new seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox takes care of all the gearchanges. Developed by AMG, the four transmission modes include: Comfort, Sport, Sport +, and Manual, with a RACESTART launch-control program. Edmunds observes, "manual-mode shifting is aided by a set of F1-style shift indicator lights." AMG says the gearbox is good for all modes, from "relaxed" driving to track racing, but "relaxed" may be too accurate a word. It certainly slows and mellows shifts when it's in Comfort mode. Racing responses are much quicker, and the paddles themselves have the cool touch of real metal until you've rubbed them warm from repeated 4-3-2 downshifts. Road & Track feels the gearbox "changes gears seamlessly - blipping the throttle on downshifts and grabbing the next gear either at your command or automatically when the tach reaches the redline." However, most reviewers find the SLS' gearbox slow. Motor Trend contends, "After a couple of laps, it's clear this is not the best dual clutch around...rev-matched downshifts send ear hairs quivering, but neither feel as quick as the gear indicator lights claim." Jalopnik reports "Mercedes claims the transmission takes as little as 100 milliseconds to shift, but in practice it feels far slower, with a pronounced delay between a pull of the paddle and the transmission actually doing what you told it to." TheCarConnection.com drove the same test cars and also found them sometimes slow to shift; Mercedes says updates to the software are in the works.

The SLS AMG will accelerate from 0-60 mph in a claimed 3.7 seconds, deeply in Corvette ZR1 territory but shy of the stunning 3.3-second times turned in by the Nissan GT-R and Porsche 911 Turbo. A top speed of 197 mph is also reported.

The SLS's aluminum space frame and body panels give it a relatively light curb weight of 3,573 pounds, and with the midship engine and rear-mounted transaxle, it has nearly ideal weight distribution of 48:52 percent-which makes for better handling than, say, the nose-heavy Dodge Viper. "With a 47-percent front/53-percent rear weight bias," Road & Track observes, "the SLS is a neutral handler that can be coaxed into controllable oversteer with aggressive throttle play." The suspension's forged in aluminum wishbones to handle the startling power with aplomb. "Turn-in is immediate, and chassis balance is brilliant-ask for any amount of oversteer and this two-seater will happily oblige," Automobile states. "Luckily, the steering is quick and accurate, and the brakes instantly responsive and eternally fade resistant." Motor Trend's in sync: "this is some of the best steering feel of a Mercedes-Benz production car to date, possibly the best of any AMG. It's direct, but natural feeling and moderately weighted -- but not artificially so." Autoblog deems the steering "surprisingly sharp and talkative."

When the view ahead widens, it digs into its element. Drive it faster and sweep into tighter turns, and it stays almost completely flat, even while the rear 20-inch tires are clawing for some middle ground between torque and reality. Jalopnik explains, "The 9.5" wide front wheels wearing 265/35 low profiles and 11" rears with 295/30s don't really have an issue with grip. The problem is the 6.2-plus-change-liter (ignore the badges) V8 and its 571 HP just makes pushing the limits of what's possible way too easy."

Ride quality's far better than expected; trundling in traffic can make the SLS seem a touch bouncy, but for a car of its capabilities, it's amazingly controlled. Road & Track reports, "The ride is sports car taut, so over uneven surfaces expect to be jostled, but not uncomfortably so." Motor Trend says "the independently articulating suspension adores well-cambered roads and even sends the SLS sailing effortlessly across less than perfect pavement." Edmunds points out an optional "AMG performance suspension" with stiffer shocks and springs, but advises, "don't rush toward this option if your municipality doesn't fully fund its road maintenance crew."

Carbon-ceramic brakes with 15.4-inch front discs and 14.2-inch rear discs are teamed with 19-inch wheels and tires in front, 20-inchers in back for stopping capability equal to the task. "Massive 4-wheel disc brakes (a carbon ceramic package is optional) provide plenty of stopping power," Road & Track agrees, while Autoblog reports "our car's optional carbon-ceramic brakes were utterly fade- and noise-free on both street and circuit."

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2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS

Comfort & Quality

The 2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS's gullwing doors reward small bodies with balletic grace; big klutzes will hit their heads and won't fit well inside. 

It's light, long, low, and wide, but the SLS simply doesn't have enough room for anything other than two medium-sized passengers and a bit of carry-on baggage.

At 183 inches long, with a wheelbase of 105.5 inches and an overall width of 76.3 inches, the 2010 SLS gullwing could have the interior room of a C-Class Benz-but it doesn't. It's only 49.3 inches high, and most of the wheelbase is taken up by engine and transmission, leaving scant space for two passengers, who will use most of the 39.1 inches of headroom even if they're not six-footers.

Inside, it's a tight fit. The firewall's close, the seats are large (if marvelously upholstered), and recline is blocked by the wall behind them, in front of the transaxle. "The interior is surprisingly claustrophobic," Automobile asserts, explaining "the door support structure in the middle of the roof hangs down considerably." Autoblog agrees, "there isn't a ton of space inside for lankier types," and reports the breaking point somewhere between 5'9" and 6'2, though they feel "claustrophobia didn't appear to be an issue." Edmunds concurs that "legroom isn't terribly generous," observing, "our 6-foot-2-inch frame could have used another inch of seat travel for true long-distance comfort." But Motor Trend reports the SLS is "roomier inside than expected. You sit low and twin bulges in the roof mean headroom is good even if you're tall. Just don't lean your noggin inboard toward where the door hinges reside." The steering wheel telescopes to create a workable driving position for six-footers, but finding the right balance of seating position and rake isn't set-and-forget-it's strategy.

The SLS' tricky geometry requires practice before getting in and finding a spot that's comfortable. Driver and passenger must pop open the gullwing handles-they're down near the door sills-and clamber in, being careful not to clank heads against the lower door panel. Even though "there's actually quite a large opening through which to fold yourself," Automobile says, "if you're over five feet tall, you will repeatedly smash your head when trying to get in or out." Motor Trend recalls, "getting seated requires far less contorting than with the original 300SL -- though the whole process is just as much of a show-stopper." Most reviewers note the manual gullwing doors require some forethought: "if you aren't on the tallish side, you're advised to grab the door handle on your way down, as the awkward reach will dash any hopes of a graceful getaway," Autoblog notes, while Edmunds says "unless you're an NBA star, there's no need to duck as you close these doors, either." Road & Track adds, "It's a little reach up to grab the door, but pulling it closed requires just a little more effort than opening it up." As Motor Authority discovers, "You can open the gullwings under about 30 mph but a warning beep suggests you do otherwise."

Interior storage in the SLS is minimal. A light, undamped glove box hides some space, shallow console bins are ready for a cell phone at most, and a netted pouch hangs between the seats. "The center console isn't very big and there are only a vestigial pair of cupholders for java junkies," Autoblog says. The huge shelf behind the seats isn't usable for cargo, since cargo would block rear visibility. The trunk's a bit better and will take a set of golf clubs or a couple of soft-sided bags. "The stubby rear deck lid conceals just 6.2 cubic feet of storage," Edmunds states, "just enough for weekend luggage for two." MotorAuthority panics for a moment: "Golf clubs? A couple of soft-sided bags? Make your choices well, since there's no other stowage available."

Quality and noise levels in the 2010 SLS AMG are much better than interior space. There's plenty of engine noise and very few moments of true peace in the SLS, but it's the right kind of noise-not from wind, but from intake manifolds and over-running injectors. Jalopnik says it's "always loud (both from road and engine noise)," but agrees with other reviewers that fit and finish is fine. "The rest of the car is finished in familiar Mercedes AMG fashion," Edmunds observes, while Autoblog reports "fit-and-finish on our prototype was very good."

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2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS

Safety

Minus official crash results, the 2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS' safety equipment and brand reputation earn it a strong preliminary safety score. 

Safety equipment stuffs the SLS' gullwing body to the max, but we'll probably never know how well it would score in a crash test. Neither NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) nor the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) have tested it and likely never will, due to its price and exclusivity.

The 2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG's safety gear includes six airbags, as well as stability and traction control. The stability system has three modes: full, Sport with some wheelspin, and "off," which experts can turn off at their own risk. "You can dial those things out of the SLS entirely if you want, along with most of the stability control, but do you want to?" MotorAuthority asks. "It's a bit easy to get into the throttle too hard and break the rear tires loose and get into oversteer, even with the stability control in the intermediate Sport mode," Edmunds reports. The stability control never really goes away entirely, Jalopnik explains: "While you can push enough buttons to make it say 'ESP-OFF', that doesn't fully shut down the system, with it still moderating acceleration-related wheelspin and re-engaging automatically the second you tap the brakes."

Visibility is a major issue in the SLS in reverse gear-there's a rearview camera to help-but to the other angles, it's no problem. "Provided the pop-up spoiler is down, visibility out back is good," Motor Trend states, "though it's also difficult to judge where it ends. As you discover, it's about a yard shorter than expected."

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2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS

Features

It's not lavish like a Benz CL coupe, but the 2010 SLS AMG offers many luxury features and a line of AMG performance add-ons. 

Standard features on the 2010 Mercedes-Benz gullwing includes the COMAND radio and entertainment control system; leather upholstery; an electronic parking brake; headlamp assist; keyless ignition; rear parking sensors; heated power seats; cruise control; and sport pedals. A retractable rear spoiler is standard; "at anything above 75 mph, the rear spoiler springs into action to maintain the front-to-rear balance," Car and Driver notes. "Go below 50, and it recedes."

Autoblog pins down improvements to the Mercedes COMAND system. "Benz's love/hate COMAND interface continues to get easier to operate with each generation and we didn't have difficulty operating the nav or turning off the stereo (we'd rather listen to the 6.2-liter fireworks, thanks)."

Optional goodies include a six-disc DVD charger; a Bang & Olufsen sound system; an alarm; and several AMG paint schemes, such as the special Alubeam Silver. Edmunds calls the B&O audio system "outstanding."

AMG is also offering several performance modifications, including a carbon-fiber hood, side mirrors, and trim; stiffer suspension settings; forged 10-spoke wheels; sports bucket seats; and a performance steering wheel finished in leather and Alcantara, which feels warm and grippy and a little sinful.

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