2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

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.

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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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