2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
September 20, 2011

The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG has those stunning gullwing doors, but but we'd take the Roadster any day--all the better to savor the sounds from that epic AMG V-8.

Mercedes-Benz may be riding a nostalgic wave with its heritage-tinged SLS AMG, but the gullwing and new roadster don't feel like anything from the Fifties--unless we're talking about interstellar flight.

These successors to the legendary Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing are true supercars, even better ambassadors for the AMG sub-brand than the old SLR supercar. The SLS is AMG's first complete car, each drivetrain built by a single engineer by hand, each copy capable of the kind of heroic acceleration and grip that vaults the SLS into the same rarified air as the Nissan GT-R, Porsche 911 Turbo, Chevy Corvette ZR1 and Lexus LFA.

By any design yardstick, the SLS is the stunner of that select group. The gullwing rocks, visually, when the doors are open, but it's a bit thin on appeal when it's closed up and seen in profile. The roadster? It's lithe and focuses all its optical energy on everything in front of the windshield, with Silver Arrow hints in its profile and even a little of the best bullet-nosed T-Birds. The interior's lined with buttery leather, carbon-fiber trim if you must--and we recommend the Sepang brown trim, so mouthwatering they should have called it Valrhona.

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The SLS AMG's admirably smooth ride and accurate, heavy steering are no match for the shock-and-awe histrionics of the AMG engine--but then again, what could be? It's 571 horsepower, thrumming and throbbing, hunting for a way out of the car through a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox that's improved a lot since we first drove the gullwing two years ago. Massive 20-inch rear wheels and tires grab as much traction as they can under the circumstances, and absolutely flat cornering comes when the adjustable shocks are dialed down to their firmest setting, and when the adjustable steering, throttle and transmission shifts are dialed up to their most responsive settings. The SLS lunges from sweeper to hairpin, barking tires and raspy exhaust all the way. it's a little too long and wide to be nimble, but it's never short of thrilling--especially if you turn off the electronic helpers and skate on the wicked edge of oversteer, which it's wont to do, with its almost even weight distribution.

With most of the SLS' silhouette occupied by engine and transaxle, there's not much space left behind for passengers. The cabin's short on leg and head room, and the gullwing always reminds us of why gullwings aren't more common. Cost aside, they require taller sills, which means it's tougher to get in and out of the car--and even with hinged pieces, the SLS still has a thing for smacking its doors against the back of our heads. The trunk's tiny, and we're kind of aghast there's no custom-fitted luggage option, dyed to match the SLS's fab interior. This is how poor people live, isn't it?

With some of the big-ticket features from the true luxury Benz two-doors--COMAND infotainment controls, carbon-fiber trim and blind-spot monitors--the SLS AMG also has its own Performance Media channel. Tucked into the screens behind the navigation system, Performance Media keeps tabs on your performance driving and lays it out there graphically in real time, translating your cornering and acceleration and lap times into a PowerPoint-worthy presentation. It's one of the hooks that gives this supercar its light layer of modernity.

There's nothing dated about its performance, or its appeal. For $200,000, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG connects the dots in time between the original gullwing and today's hyperperformers--and it does it with more than the customary panache.

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2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

Styling

Gullwinged Mercedes-Benz SLS AMGs have an awkward angle or two as they reach for the sky; the new Roadster soars higher with its effortlessly elegant profile.

The Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is the kind of car that concours will covet in 50 or maybe 15 years. Given our choice, the Roadster's the effortlessly elegant one, while the showy gullwing doesn't quite cut as keen a profile when the doors are closed.

Both models of the SLS AMG fuse heritage cues to the Viper-esque proportions. The car's dominated by a wide grille grafted on an impossibly long front end, with just a slip of a tail wearing some anonymous-looking lamps. When it's a gullwing, there's no other car on earth that can match the visual drama of the SLS AMG--it just stops traffic dead, and recalls the iconography of the old 300SL Benz vividly. Close the doors and the gullwing SLS remains a handsome car from some angles, but the roof draws your eyes away from the muscle-car nose and the brilliant detailing on the front fenders--it's almost as distracting as the gullwings themselves, just not in the good way. Chalk it up to thick, safety-minded pillars and thin detailing on the rear fenders.

Snip the roof off, and the SLS AMG Roadster is...stunning. With lots of Silver Arrow in its profile, and a dab or two of bullet-nose T-Bird, the SLS Roadster doesn't let your attention drift up to the roofline. It welds it to those stretched-out front fenders, avoiding the box-cutter headlamps entirely. Especially from the side, the Roadster has the timeless proportions you want in a $200,000 convertible, even before the usual appliques and fender vents and other bling are factored in. Even those blase taillamps fare a little better, echoed by the resculpted rear fenders.

It's more predictable inside the SLS AMG, though no less opulent. Mercedes spent more time here than on the cobbled-together dash in the old SLR and it shows: the leather faintly glows with chrome and aluminum details, like the eye-catching console lid and the tweeter pedestals on the optional sound system. The climate and radio controls are exactly like those in the C-Class, but they're upgraded with metallic trim. There are more bits and pieces lifted from the Mercedes stock bin, but they're used in appropriate ways.

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2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

Performance

The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG's admirably smooth ride and steering are no visceral match for its heroic-sounding, shock-and-awe V-8. But what is?

It's as tractable, as grippy, as lunge-worthy as any car we've driven short of a GT-R or a 911 Turbo--the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG just explodes from a standstill, grips as strongly as an eraser on a rubber desk pad, and stops dead now with optional, massive carbon-ceramic brakes.

The SLS' trump card isn't its accurate steering or its SL-like ride--it's the humpy AMG 6.2-liter V-8 cradled under the hood. It's Germany's big-block V-8, cranking out a hale and hearty 571 horsepower, with 479 healthy pound-feet of torque joining in the fray. Throttle-by-wire may call its shots, but the AMG engine talks back with a ripe metallic rumble that rips open into a fantastic howl near redline. There may not be a better car to plunge into long tunnels, driving up the revs and lifting off the throttle just to induce overrun in huge, juvenile doses. 

A seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox tames the power, and it's smoother in actuation than when we first drove the SLS AMG two years ago. Developed by AMG, the transmission has four shift modes accessed on a console-mounted dial: Comfort, Sport, Sport +, and Manual, teamed with a RACESTART launch-control program and a standard mechanical limited-slip differential. Shifts are surely slower and mellower in Comfort mode, and everything from there is now quicker, and better-timed than in the first-year versions we've driven. Manual mode links your brain and the gearbox' controls, clipping off downshifts with just a bit of shudder, upshifting brilliantly. If you truly miss a manual transmission, the majority of SLS owners don't. The dual-clutch makes it more usable on the street, while it still executes shifts quicker than any driver on the planet.

All together, the drivetrain bits will slingshot the SLS AMG from 0-60 mph in an estimated 3.8 seconds. That's shy of the 3.0-second times generated by GT-Rs, or the 3.3-second times a 911 Turbo can turn in, but it's deeply in Corvette ZR1 territory. Top speed is a claimed 197 mph.

Startling power needs a talented suspension to deliver its goods, and the SLS delivers with an independent setup with track rods and most pieces cast in aluminum, to go with a wide track and performance tires. This year, there's also a new adjustable suspension with three modes of firmness, to go with the selectable steering, shifting and throttle programming. The SLS' very size and smart tuning of all these pieces deliver a ride that's a lot closer to something like the SL roadster than to a GT3 race car: especially in Comfort mode on RIDE CONTROL-equipped cars, the SLS has lots of vertical compliance dialed in, taking the stings off patchy city roads. It's amazingly controlled in either Sport or Sport+ mode, and still tolerable for Interstate drives at that. An AMG button lets you program in your favorite settings for instant-on driving feel tailored by you.

With huge 19-inch front and 20-inch rear tires, the SLS devours long sweepers and claws around apexes with stunning grip; it's a little too long to pivot cleanly around hairpins, but it's also steerable with the throttle, something tougher to do in an all-wheel-drive GT-R or 911 Turbo. For its astonishing grip, there's progressively heavier electric-assisted power steering, maybe the best rendering yet from Mercedes--but there's not a lot of excess weight for its size, since aluminum pieces and panels trim it down to about 3600 pounds.

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Want to keep tabs on all of the SLS' movements? New this year is an AMG Performance Media system that essentially puts an LCD face to your driving heroics. It translates lateral grip, acceleration, engine data and lap times into an ever-changing display that doubles as the car's navigation system when you blip out of AMG mode.
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2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

Comfort & Quality

As a gullwing, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS rewards small bodies with balletic grace; the Roadster forgives big klutzes with limitless headroom, but neither model has much leg room or trunk space.

The Mercedes SLS AMG won't ever be mistaken for one of the company's fine sedans--not even for the relatively compact SL or SLK roadsters.

There's just not much room inside either the SLS AMG gullwing or the roadster, though it's long, low, light and wide. Two medium-sized adults are it, and they should travel light.

At 183 inches long, with a wheelbase of 105.5 inches and an overall width of 76.3 inches, the SLS has the approximate dimensions of a C-Class four-door. Most of the length isn't left for passengers, though--it's left to the front-midship engine, with a short cabin for the driver and one rider. The SLS also is just under 50 inches tall, which makes headroom one of the few luxuries it doesn't offer. Leg room is even more lean, and most people will sense the lack of space when they try to adjust the SLS' power seats for more knee room.

With the Roadster roof lowered, the car's dimensions are easy to get around, and to get in. With the gullwings, it's a different story. You'll need to practice getting in and finding a comfortable spot: first, lean down to find the gullwing door handles, down by the sills, lift them without clocking yourself in the head, clamber in--again, watching out for the lower door panel. Hopping out requires the same thought and effort, and even so, we've still counted more than a handful of head-door collisions. For fun, you can open the gullwings under about 30 mph, but a warning beep suggests you consider otherwise.

Just shy of claustrophobic, the SLS AMG at least has a power-adjustable steering wheel, and the seats are large and very nicely stitched in fine leather, with firm bolsters. Storage is on the light side, with just a small glove box and a shallow console bin at close reach, and some netted pouches for other less precious items. The trunk's about what you'll expect: in either body, it's just more than 6 cubic feet, and will hold one set of golf clubs, or a couple of soft-sided bags.

Fit and finish is flawless, even with complex trim like carbon-fiber panels meeting up with chrome and leather. The SLS AMG is by no means quiet, though, and if you're looking for something that can't rattle the tiles off a deep mountain tunnel ceiling, maybe you'd be more interested in a CL55, anyway.


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2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

Safety

The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG has no crash-test scores to its credit, but its safety equipment and brand reputation earn our respect.

As one of the most expensive supercars offered by any luxury brand, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is understandably a no-show at the crash-test derby. Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has tested the SLS AMG, and they likely never will.

That said, the SLS AMG comes from a family of cars with a great reputation for safety, and the space-frame SLS has lots of crash protection built into its low, wide-track body. Six airbags are standard, along with traction control, not to mention the adjustable three-mode stability control. It comes in modes offering normal anti-spin control; Sport with some wheelspin allowed; and "off," which experts can engage at their own risk.

The SLS also comes with a rearview camera, rear parking sensors and blind-spot monitors, though it doesn't have the more exotic lane-keeping assist, attention-assist or head-up displays of some other Mercedes vehicles.

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Visibility is a concern in either body style. In the gullwing, there's virtually no clear view to the rear sides of the car, which makes those electronic aids a necessity. That's a bit better in the convertible, but with the decklid still as high as passengers' shoulders, there's still a less than optimal view to the quarters.
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2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

Features

The 2012 SLS AMG offers many of the luxury features of Mercedes-Benz' CL coupes, including its own gearhead telemetry.

With some of the same luxury features you'll find in the Mercedes ultra-luxe CL coupes, the SLS AMG is as plush as you'd want in a 197-mph supercar.

No, it doesn't have massage-function seats, but every SLS AMG has standard leather upholstery; keyless ignition; a power tilt/telescope steering wheel; rear parking sensors and a rearview camera; heated power seats; cruise control; and COMAND, the infotainment controller that uses knob-driven haptics to run the standard navigation, automatic climate control, and AM/FM/DVD/satellite radio system.

Few options are offered. There's a spectacular Bang & Olufsen sound system; a carbon-fiber kit including a hood, side mirrors, and dash trim; the new RIDE CONTROL adjustable suspension; 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.

Roadster models come standard with a power-actuated top that's color-coordinated to a lovely palette of interior and exterior colors, including a new Sepang Brown shade. The top itself can be raised or lowered in 11 seconds, at speeds of up to 31 mph--and consumes only a tenth of a cubic foot of the available trunk space.

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2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

Fuel Economy

Gas mileage is the least of the Mercedes-Benz SLS' worries, but there's some hope for a pure electric model in the works.

It's a supercar...what? You were expecting fantastic fuel economy from a 571-horsepower two-seater?

It's not as terrible as it could be, though. The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG--in either body style--is rated at 14/20 mpg by the Environmental Protection Agency. We've seen far worse from Lamborghini, and even the superhero Nissan GT-R barely bests these numbers.

The SLS' clean and green credentials could be issued as early as 2013, however, when Mercedes puts the finishing touches on an all-electric version of the AMG supercar. Benz promises performance equal to that of the gas-powered SLS, but the new "E-Cell" version may have a total driving range of less than 50 miles, if that's the case.

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Styling 9
Performance 10
Comfort & Quality 7
Safety 8
Features 9
Fuel Economy 4
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