An Automotive Icon Returns

Photo: 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

Every few years lately, Mercedes-Benz has created an ultra-performance supercar. First it was the McLaren-Mercedes SLR, followed by a roadster version of the exotic two-seater. The limited run of those was discontinued a few years ago, making way for the next limited production car from the German brand.

Behold the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLR AMG, a high-tech, super sports car that harkens back to an iconic design from decades ago. The standout feature of the new SLS comes when the doors open vertically with an effortless push. The “gullwing” is back.

Technically, Mercedes has never used the word gullwing to describe the 1955-56 300SL that was very much ahead of its time and has become a treasured collector car. But the unmistakable shape of that car when viewed from the front or rear of the car – that of a seagull in flight – earned it the nickname in the car world.

After a couple of years on the market, the original 300SL became a roadster for practical reasons. While the unique doors sure looked cool, the car was a bit stuffy inside in the days before air conditioning, with only small sliding windows to let in outside air. The roadster was much more successful and continued on through 1962.

As the 2011 SLS was taking shape, the heritage of the gullwing design was blended with the company’s current styling themes. Unlike other Mercedes-Benz cars that wear the vaunted AMG badge (signifying vehicles from the company’s in-house performance division), this car was done from scratch as an AMG. There is no non-AMG version of the SLS.

And since it is an AMG as well as the flagship for the Mercedes brand, performance was on the spec sheet from the beginning. Under the long hood is a highly-tuned 6.3 liter V8 making an impressive 563 horsepower. Big engines in AMG cars are one thing, but this is an ultra light weight vehicle with an aluminum chassis, tipping the scales at a relatively wispy 3573 pounds. Huge power plus light weight equal mega performance.

The layout of the car is also set up for near perfect balance. The engine is set behind the front axles, and the transmission is combined with the differential in a transaxle at the rear. The result is a car that will scoot around a race track quite handily (so I’m told) due to the weight being kept toward the longitudinal center of the car and pretty evenly split front-to-rear.

Since this is a modern performance car, it has a modern state-of-the-art transmission. It’s essentially a manual, but shifts automatically via dual hydraulic clutches. For the driver, it’s a matter of just slipping the selector lever into drive for behavior nearly like that of any automatic transmission, save for a bit of a lurch when moving off from rest.

When it’s time to exercise the SLS’s full performance, a manual mode allows you to shift up or down via two paddles behind the steering wheel. For those who may scoff at the absence of a conventional manual gearbox, this is the most efficient way to change gears in a performance car. Racing cars have used similar systems for years, and the high-tech cars in Formula 1 racing can shift in mere milliseconds.

Climbing into the car is a bit of a challenge, but no more so than with any other exotic. The door swings up nice and high, and you’re greeted by a cozy interior just across a wide door sill necessitated by the car’s structure. You enter this Mercedes backside first, then swivel your legs up over the sill and into the roomy foot well. Once settled into the firm leather seat, a significant reach to the door is required to pull it down into the shut position. (Mercedes-Benz dealers will provide hanging straps to those who find this difficult. I have fairly long arms so never had a problem.)

Legroom and headroom are a bit tight, however. While every effort was made to keep taller drivers comfortable, I’ll have to say that 6’-4” is about as tall as you’d want to be if you’re planning on spending long stretches of time behind the wheel. Even if it is a bit cramped, the car is remarkably comfortable.

It’s also remarkably fast. Mercedes-Benz says that the SLS will shoot to sixty miles per hour in 3.8 seconds and will achieve a top speed of 195 miles per hour. I had no chance to measure either of these claims, but a few strong jabs of my throttle foot confirmed that those numbers are completely realistic. This car is like a land-bound rocket.

As you might have guessed, it’s also quite expensive with a base price of $183,000. That’s actually not bad in comparison to the McLaren SLR that it effectively replaces in the Mercedes-Benz line, though options can raise the price up above the $200,000 mark. The example I was privileged to drive was decked out to the tune of $203,500, which included almost $4000 for a special matte silver paint color. The options can be further piled on to make this a quarter million dollar car.

If you have the means to afford the brilliantly executed SLS AMG, that sum is a small price to pay for the privilege of pulling up to a parking spot and swinging those unique doors upward. You can almost see admirers mouthing the world. “Gullwing.”

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He can also be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. You can reach Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net.

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