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The gull has landed

Long stretches of sweeping corners, tight twisting bits and even patches of poorly laid roads — the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG and me fly over everything.

autos Updated: May 12, 2010 10:50 IST
Kartikeya Singhee

Long stretches of sweeping corners, tight twisting bits and even patches of poorly laid roads — the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG and me fly over everything. The 6.2-litre AMG motor under the hood has massive lung capacity and staggering performance is expected.

The SLS comes with a serious chip on its shoulder and it has to prove itself here, on Mexico’s historic Route 190. This route was part of the legendary Carrera Panamericana road race where Merc’s famous 300SL earned a formidable reputation in 1952 with a resounding 1-2 finish. It was a road race run at Grand Prix velocities. So it’s no surprise that Merc has sought to re-create a little bit of that magic here with its SLS, a reincarnation of the 300SL gullwing.

Fast and furious
The SLS simply looks fast. The nose just keeps stretching backwards, like some land speed-record machine. The cockpit is a squat-looking protrusion and the rear is short, simple and rounded with overtones of the old 300SL. There’s a bit of GT-R here, some retro bit there and some mismatch with the large grille as well. However, as I roll into the petrol pump, the SLS gets everyone’s attention. And that’s before I’ve opened the doors. The gullwings open with a whoosh and the eyes of bystanders all but jump out of their sockets as the doors complete their graceful ascent.

Hopping into the SLS is a bit awkward. I also have to stretch up and out to pull the doors shut from their open position. An electric door close was an option, but was struck straight off the spec list since it weighed 10 kg. AMG’s team working on this supercar project was so intent on getting the front-engine, rear-wheel-drive supercar format right that the gullwing doors were added almost as an afterthought!

The potent 6.2-litre V8 engine is likely to change all that. In its most basic form, this is the same unit that does duty in the Mercedes-Benz C63, right upto the SL 63 AMG. The engine’s exhaust has minimal possible restriction to boost the engine power by 46 bhp.

Engine
On the go, the V8 motor offers a great amount of flexibility. It cruises effortlessly at 120 kph in seventh gear. From standstill — with the right foot all the way down — a total of 563 horses charge ahead to attain triple-digit speeds in a flash. With a company-claimed top speed of 317 kph, the SLS is certainly no slouch. The run from 0–100 kph is dusted off in a mere 3.8 seconds. The accompanying roar from the exhaust is a result of months of fine-tuning. But the SLS leaves me a bit starved. I miss the sense of viciousness, urgency and exuberance that is ample in most Italian steeds. The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission sitting at the rear is responsible for this. The transmission boasts of shift time of under 100 milliseconds in the quickest M-mode.

Different modes
If you count the time from when you tap the right paddle to the actual shift, it isn’t very long, but it’s just long enough to dampen the otherwise enjoyable proceedings. I swap modes from C (controlled efficiency), to Sport, Sport+ and the Manual. The suspension gets firmer and the shifts are quicker, but there’s still a bit of hesitation with the gearbox. So I leave the ’box to its own devices and gun the car down the epic highway.

Fun in the SLS comes easy. The double wishbone setup all around and a low centre of gravity enable the car to charge around corners quickly. There’s magnetic amounts of grip from the 265/35 R19 front tyres and the 290/30 R20 rears. Cross 120kph and a rear wing pops up — now there is more downforce and better grip. It has just a hint of understeer, giving it none of the tail-happy attitude that can land inexperienced drivers in the ditch. But push it hard enough and you will get the SLS sideways, just like Kling and Fitch did back in the day, and the ESP is there to get you out of trouble as well.

The steering is quick throughout, allowing for rapid changes of direction — but a bit more road feel and weight would have made it truly satisfying. On stretches where the tar runs in uneven ruts, I need to keep a very firm hand on the wheel. The ride, however, was unimpressive. Despite its front-engine, rear-wheel-drive config, this SLS is clearly no Grand Tourer. The ride is rather ungracious over roads that are just a couple of notches below perfect. That too in the least stiff C-mode! The roar from the tyres is also considerable and is accompanied by an assortment of squeaks from the interiors.

With the luxury of the optional carbon ceramic brakes, braking efforts must be toned down as the 402 mm front discs bite with alacrity. But it’s rather easy to modulate the brake pedal. Corners tighten imperceptibly and the SLS carves them without a fuss.

The SLS AMG is a fine machine. It’s just that it’s a little too hard-edged to be a GT, yet not quite enough to be an all-out supercar. Hardcore drivers might prefer to wait for the lighter, more powerful, SLS Black series. That should also settle the GT/sportscar debate once and for all.

What’s clear is that those gullwing doors are sure to get you plenty of attention every time you open them, making the Rs 2 crore price-tag somewhat worth it.