Benz’s Beauty Stretches Its Wings

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Photo by Chuck Squatriglia/Wired
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If and when I am ever filthy rich, I will own a Mercedes-Benz AMG SLS Gullwing. I will not care that its fuel economy is obscene and I will not care that it almost certainly costs obscene amounts of money to maintain.

There are many reasons for my decision, not the least of which is that it’s absurdly easy to drive the SLS criminally fast. The power is instantaneous, the handling is precise and the emotional and visceral response is off the charts. The SLS inspires such confidence at speed your grandmother would lose her license in it.

Yet as wonderful as that makes the AMG SLS, it is hardly the car’s biggest selling point. No, what really stands out are the doors and engine. Specifically, how the doors look and how the engine sounds.

Both can be described in one word: Fan-freaking-tastic.

I realize it is odd praising something so seemingly trivial as the doors and engine note, but they underscore the visceral appeal of the SLS. To open those gloriously grandiose doors or revel in the molten gurgling of a hand-built V8 is to know you’re driving something special.

Before we get to that, though, a little history is in order. The SLS is an homage to the 300 SL Gullwing, a masterpiece that was, by any measure, the first modern supercar when it appeared in 1954. In an age when even the best sports cars were a handful at the limit, the SL was fast, smooth and a joy to drive flat-out.

The SLS is all of those things. Few cars so beautifully blend luxury and performance in a package this engaging and rewarding.

The only reason it has gullwing doors is because they’re so damn cool. If that isn’t reason enough for you, then buy a Prius and be done with it because you just don’t get cars.

Now then. About those doors. They open upward, like the wings of a bird, something that always draws a crowd. People ooh and ahh. They point and snap pictures. They offer some variation of “Nice car” before invariably asking two questions, always the same two questions: “How much?” (A lot) and “How fast?” (Ridiculously).

No one ever asks, “Why?” That’s just as well, because the answer is, essentially, “Why not?” The SL had gullwing doors because its tubular steel frame required them. Nothing else would work. The SLS has an aluminum space frame and no need for such extravagance. The only reason it has gullwing doors is because they’re so damn cool. If that isn’t reason enough for you, then buy a Prius and be done with it because you just don’t get cars.

The rest of the car is no less impressive, even if it just sort of ends. The flaccid, rounded rear is a disappointing counterpoint to a front end more intimidating than SEAL Team 6. It’s as if the designers ran out of ideas once they got aft of the doors.

They can be forgiven though, because everything else works. The SLS recalls the classic sports cars of yore: long and low, with an aggressive stance and a hood that ends in the next zip code. Parking’s a bitch because you have no idea where the wheels are, and you’re so low that even gently sloped driveways scrape the spoiler with a grinding that sounds like a big check being written.

Of course, riding so low creates a subterranean center of gravity. That and an almost comically wide stance — those front wheels are 66.2 inches apart — keep the SLS flatter than last night’s beer through turns. Although the SLS is made of aluminum, it still a relatively big beast at 3,885 pounds. Most of the mass, including the engine, is between the axles, so the SLS doesn’t turn so much as pirouette. The back end likes to step out of line, but that adds to the fun. All manner of electronic nannies keep you out of trouble without being intrusive.

The handling is so responsive, so predictable, that the SLS encourages you to push harder than you might otherwise consider possible — or prudent. I lost count of how many times I caught a glimpse of the speedometer mid-turn and found myself at velocities that would give Condé Nast’s insurance agent an aneurysm.

But then, excessive exuberance comes easily when you’re playing with 563 horsepower and 479 pound-feet of torque. Acceleration is effortless in any of the car’s seven gears. If you simply must mainline all that power in one shot, activate the launch control system and hold on. The 6.2-liter V8 rockets you to 62 mph in just 3.8 seconds. Keep the pedal mashed another 7 seconds and you’ll reach twice that. Top speed is 197, though I’ll have to take Mercedes’ word for it.

Push the big red “start” button and the engine emits a roar that literally turns heads. Then it settles into a low idle, gurgling like Satan’s own cauldron.

The sound of the engine is no less intoxicating than its unrelenting power. To call it glorious is to undersell it. It barks. It gurgles. It snarls. It makes you shake your head and smile and thank Karl Benz for inventing the automobile because this, by God, is what a car should sound like. It is the sound every boy hears in his head as he says “Vroom! Vroom!” while pushing a Matchbox car.

Push the big red “start” button and the engine emits a roar that literally turns heads. Then it settles into a low idle, gurgling like Satan’s own cauldron. It’s a deep, primordial sound that builds to a metallic wail as the power comes on in a seemingly unending rush. Back off the throttle going into a turn and the engine pops and barks with such ferocity you expect to see flames shooting from the tailpipes.

Despite the barely contained rage of the engine and the ease with which it delivers eyeball-flatting speed, the SLS is remarkably happy tooling around town. While the sport, sport-plus and manual modes unleash increasingly unfettered performance, “controlled efficiency” mode reins it all in, keeping the car sedate if not quite docile.

For all its focus on performance, the SLS is remarkably practical. Well, as practical as a $203,000 car capable of ungodly thrust can be.

Getting in gracefully takes a bit of practice, but the interior is surprisingly comfortable. It’s deliciously appointed, though so understated as to border on dull even with the $4,500 carbon fiber trim package. The leather is softer than newborn kittens, the aluminum vents look spectacular and the optional 1,000-watt Bang & Olufsen stereo makes it sound like Thelonious Monk is riding shotgun. (At $6,400, it damned well better.) There’s even an anchor for a baby seat. My only complaint is the trunk is only slightly larger than the glovebox. Still, the SLS is so comfortable and composed around town you could commute in it if you could afford the gas.

Ah, yes. Fuel economy. If you must know, the feds peg it at 14 city, 20 highway and 16 combined. That’s about what I got racking up 766 miles driving all over creation one weekend. I would have felt guilty but, frankly, I was having far too much fun.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have lottery tickets to buy.

WIRED Opulence and performance in an exotic you can actually live with. The harder you push it, the better it gets. Is there anything cooler than gullwing doors? No, there is not.

TIRED Slows shifts. Tiny trunk. The damned door buzzer gets mighty annoying when you’re driving with the gullwing doors open.

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