Alex Wakefield reviews the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT
I’ll admit that the SLS has always confused me. The McLaren developed SLR which preceded it did too, because I’ve always thought that supercars, or more recently hypercars ought to shout loud about their capabilities. Sharing the experience with the public at large should be part of the ownership requirements.
The SLS in launch form could never be described as a shrinking violet however. Fitted with the famous handbuilt 6.2 litre AMG V8 engine - naturally aspirated - it makes a very healthy 571BHP, and surges to 62mph in less than 4 seconds. If it were not for the presence of an electronic speed limiter, the car would happily push beyond 200mph. But the model has been on sale for a few years now and in the 21st century spirit of constant upgrades, Mercedes has subjected it to some modifications, and the range has spawned the GT model.
Our test car, the Mercedes Benz SLS AMG GT costs £165,030 before options. It is fitted with another £20,000 or so of kit, including the striking matte Magno Monza Grey paintwork, but most significantly, a ceramic composite braking system at £8,140.
Having been fortunate enough to gain experience of supercars in the past, it’s pleasing to find that there are none of the usual feeling of nerves in approaching the SLS. Supercars which scream at you with rakish design and fluorescent orange paintwork, also remind you how expensive and vulnerable they are. Once you’ve worked out the gullwing doors, and negotiated the wide sills, the car feels completely unintimidating. Those doors by the way, are great for avoiding damage in crowded car parks, although require a generous garage height. Inside, the dashboard is familiar enough to anyone with experience of the current Mercedes range, almost disappointingly so, with parts carried over from lesser models and some inexpensive feeling materials present.
Pushing the metal engine start button brings that 6.2 litre engine to life. Much of the AMG range is now being subject to downsizing and turbocharging, but this motor continues in the GT with alterations to bring about additional power to 591BHP. This is combined with updates to the 7 speed automatic gearbox, which has manual override, to bring about faster gearchanges and improved acceleration figures. 62mph is now yours in a mere 3.7 seconds.
Having been lulled into a false sense of security, pulling away reminds you that indeed, this is a supercar. We’re familiar with the 6.2 litre engine in models lower down the AMG model line-up, and the abiding sense in those cars (the C63 AMG Edition 507, for example) is of a monster being barely contained. In the GT, the engine is a core part of the experience, and so central to the car’s existence that the bonnet it sits under is central to the design language. It projects out in front of you, seemingly for miles whilst the driver is sat almost over the rear wheels. You’re reminded of this as you pass over speedbumps, potholes and any other imperfection, as the rear axle is incredibly firm.
The V8 motor sings away, whizzing, whining and barking as you thread the car through traffic. The race car heritage is never far away even at cruising speed, where the driver can never be in doubt that right in front of them, sits a massive internal combustion engine complete with camshafts, pistons, valves and all the mechanical elements needed to burn petrol and harness the chemical potential energy it contains. That’s not to say it’s intrusive, but there’s no attempt to isolate you from that process of burning petrol, something that’s at odds with the comparatively muted exterior.
It’s not long before the urge to stamp on the throttle becomes too much. Coming out of a roundabout into an unrestricted section of the A5, with a clear road ahead, the car is straightened up and the accelerator pushed all the way. It’s difficult to remember what happened that first time, as greatly illegal speed beckoned so quickly, a stretched elastic band attached to the horizon pulls you forward with no fuss. There’s none of the almost shocking, bewildering brutality of the likes of the C63 and E63 AMG, all the more amusing as the car goes from minicab to hypercar so quickly. This car was designed to handle this performance from day one and controls it beautifully.
The soundtrack sticks in the memory, a combination of the metal parts of the engine thrashing up to the red line, and the exhaust system bellowing directly beneath your buttocks, blaring out behind the car over the tarmac you have just annihilated. The delivery of the performance is ruthless, efficient, and unremitting, the driver holds on to the wheel tightly as the race car inside comes to life. Like all the other AMG cars, attempting to shift manually is largely an exercise in futility because the programmers know better than you do, if you want to achieve those claimed performance figures.
The manual override is a sop to those who want to kid themselves that they are really in charge here. Under certain circumstances, it won’t even respond to orders to change manually, if the pre-set amount of revs is not achieved. The gearbox is best left to the computers, as you enjoy the chassis. The bonnet sticking out in front of you makes you think that this is a large car, but the close fitting cockpit soon brings about a confidence that this is a car that can be piloted with precision. You can never forget that this is a front-engine, rear wheel driven car with close to 600BHP, but the levels of grip are intense, the feedback through the gorgeous, meaty feeling steering wheel is a treat, and the brakes are incredible.
To those unaccustomed to the joy of driving a supercar, it’s often the braking system that is the most memorable thing about the experience, once the throttle pedal has been explored. This test car is fitted with the optional carbon ceramic system. The response is superb; instant, with huge levels of feedback through the pedal, but never grabby. Having excellent brakes is arguably more important than extra power, as you shed speed more effectively, allowing you to concentrate on the corner you are negotiating.
This SLS is never intimidating as you steer, because the car communicates to you so effectively through every means – suspension, brakes, steering, engine. It’s a real driver’s car, despite the computer control of the gearbox. It’s not a car that flatters you, or fools you into thinking that you’re talented, by filtering out your mistakes through a microprocessor, but rather it makes you aware of your inadequacies as you strive to meet the high standard set. You’re reminded of this on the odd occasion where that near 600BHP output just gets a little too much for the rear wheels on a damp roundabout, at which point the decision to follow the advice NOT to turn off the traction control is determined to have been a good one.
To try and understand the SLS, it has to be driven. It seems that Mercedes set out to create something that would appeal to the driver, rather than the general populace. Whilst the SLS certainly entertains the crowds with its musical exhaust system and undeniable presence, the message it conveys is somewhat confused. The styling and of course, those gullwing doors clearly evoke memories of sporting Benzes past, but the rest of the car is decidedly modern, in how technology is used to improve the experience of driving it. But Mercedes have deliberately chosen a traditional front engine, rear wheel drive set up, where others are concentrating on all wheel drive.
There’s storage space and a theoretical capability to crush continents, but the thought of a blast down to the Mediterranean doesn’t seem to suit it. You’d arrived ruffled, sweaty and desperate for the toilet, as the firm ride and race car soundtrack is likely to have become too much after a few massively entertaining hours. What is the purpose of the SLS then? If you want to spend hours on a racing circuit, you can buy a Lotus Exige for a fraction of the price. If you want to smash down to your villa in Spain, an SL63 will give you most of the performance for a lot less money, and cosset you all the way before coming alive in the hills leading to your driveway. But no supercar can meet every requirement, although some get close.
But it fills a niche. Not everyone wants to be associated with overpaid footballers and visitors from the Emirates parading their fragile toys around the metropolis. The SLS manages to conjure up heritage in spades from its appearance, and offers the driver reassurance that any challenge can be dealt with. Silly doors aside, it goes about this business with a certain level of discretion that will appeal to those who love to drive, but don’t want to be seen to be overtly display their wealth. In short, it has taste and it’s probably fair to say that to choose one over a Lamborghini or Ferrari involves a lot more engagement with the grey matter.
It’s a remarkable achievement, to have created a supercar that gains nods of respect from those who understand cars, whilst never drawing the wrong kind of attention, or conveying the particularly offensive image that a certain other German manufacturer is famous for. I often wonder what I would spend my fantasy lottery cash on, and a nicely specified SLS would have to be high up my wish list.
Article by Alex Wakefield