Wildsau’s Wheelhaus: 2012 Mercedes-Benz AMG SLS Roadster (Review)

The AMG SLS. Where do I begin?

Maybe I’ll start at the beginning of this story. I received correspondence from one of my readers – here is a direct quote: “Would you be interested in reviewing an AMG SLS? I have a connection.”

I responded, trying not to sound too excited, advising that would be lovely. Turns out the reader who had contacted me WAS the connection, and was being modest – because he is also the owner of the car.

Not just a car, my friends. This is an idea. This is a vision, brought to fruition by a team of people passionate about the past, the present and the future. It’s a nod to a car of lore, and a step into what’s coming at the same time. Much of what I experienced and want to share with you about the AMG SLS is emotional. Before I start feeling all poetic, let’s get some of the facts and numbers out of the way.

The AMG SLS is the star attraction in the Mercedes-Benz show. Everything else is an opening act. You’re looking at way over CDN $200,000 for front-row seats here. I was going to write “If you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it”. But that line seems silly to me, because I’m German and I’m cheap, and even when I know I can afford something, I ask. I ask twice and three times, knowing I’ll probably walk away with it for less. Just so you know, that probably won’t work with the SLS.

 

Under the Hood

The work of art under the hood is a hand-made (and signed by the gentleman who got his white gloves dirty when he built it) naturally-aspirated V-8.

They call it a 6.3 Liter V-8, but as we Germans are wont to do on occasion, there’s a tiny bit of exaggeration. The true displacement is 6208 cubic centimeters. As we men know, size does matter and who can blame the fellows at AMG for rounding up for the sake of … pride? Whatever the argument, 6.3 Liters of unadulterated V-8 sits there. Menacing. Glowering at you. Daring you to take a stab at it.

It’s impressive enough on paper. 563 horsepower can be slung onto the pavement, should you brave it to 6800 RPM. Twist comes to the tune of 479 lb.ft of torque, available at 4750 RPM. All this hot sauce gets pushed through an amazing dual-clutch transmission and a light-weight carbon fiber driveshaft, and to the rear wheels.

Performance? Sure. 0-60 mph in 3.8 seconds. Just think about that. I actually can’t think about it as quickly as the car can make that run. Hey Wildsau, what’s the top speed? Not that you’ll ever see it in North America, or probably anywhere else, but it’s 317 kilometers per hour. Hellooooo! That’s 197 mph for our American-speaking friends.

What else do you want? Tire sizes? Fronts are 265/35-19s, and the rears are massive 295/30-20s. Oh-so yummy. Curb weight is a chunky 3825 pounds. It’s no fly weight, this SLS, but it never gives you the impression it wanted to be one. The fuel tank has an 85 Liter capacity, which is just fantastic, because all you need to know about the fuel economy is that this is a thirsty machine. If that comes as a surprise to you, please stop reading now and never come back. OK, fine – if you need to know, it’s rated at a combined driving cycle average of 13 L/100 km (18 mpg). Believe me when I tell you that you’ll never, ever see that kind of mileage. But who cares? Eco-weenies aren’t the ones buying this beast. Cool people like you and me are. Right? Anyone? OK, well cool people with pockets that are deeper than mine are wide.

 

The Drive

This is what this car is all about. Driving. The SLS is a gentleman racer. It’s a smooth operator. In comfort mode, the ride rivals that of any Mercedes. The transmission shifts imperceptibly and the engine purrs as you cruise around town. It’s all a jolly good time, and you’ll look quite tony with your scarf gently flowing in the wind. It’s an easy car to drive, and a very comfortable one at that.

But that’s not the only thing you’ll want to do. The complete experience involves most, and sometimes all, of your senses in this car and it’s one that’s tough to put into mortal words. It starts when you hold down the starter button. Nothing happens for a split second. And then it’s as if the car reaches around itself, gathers up all the oxygen in the vicinity, injects enough fuel to make bad things happen, and sets the whole thing on fire. It seems as though the world shakes around you as it turns over the engine and fires up, and the initial roar will frighten small children and reduce adults with a generally weak constitution into the fetal position. The first time I fired this car up was in the owner’s garage and truth be told, I may have soiled myself.

You can toy with a few things on the console. The comfort mode can be snicked over to Sport, Sport+ or Manual, allowing you explore different and progressively more aggressive programming modes for the transmission and suspension.

And finally, there is the AMG button. No fanfare, no rah-rah lights. Just a simple button. But oooohhhh daddy, it makes a difference. It knocks all the settings to Fun. Everything about the car seems to get a little more tense. The suspension, the transmission, even the exhaust note – everything crackles to life, the car just feels electric and suddenly begs you – no, COMMANDS you to come out and play.

Give it a little gas, and your mind is caught in a strange black-hole vortex where it can’t compute which facet of your experience is more awesome. The ability to surge forward at a relentless pace, or the sounds the car makes while it’s doing that. Truly step on it, and that experience is multiplied to infinity. The exhaust note changes from a wonderfully lumpy velvet rumble under light throttle to an indescribably delicious bellow. There’s little I can compare it to. The thing it reminded me of most was when I heard some NASCAR drivers practicing on an oval track once. The V-8 produces this incredible baritone blaaaattt, and as you stay on the gas, there’s a perfect little flatulent blip between each gear. You’ll marvel at how fast this transmission shifts when you ask it to, yet it remains smooth, smooth, smooth. Stay on it, and you’ll blast through the quarter-mile in an astounding 11.7 seconds, flying through the trap at 201 km/h (125 mph).

Another reward comes when you let off the gas, and the snap, crackle, pop of the exhaust fills your ears as the engine brakes. The aural signature of the SLS is nothing short of stunning and I can say, without reservation, that this is the best-sounding car I’ve ever driven.

Though the sound alone might be worth the price of admission, that’s not all there is to this performance. The SLS has the ability to push you back in your seat at any speed you choose, whether from a standstill at a red light, or at 80 km/h on the freeway. Depending on what drive mode you’re in, the transmission can take a second to get to the right gear to do the job, but that short wait is glorious because when it happens, nothing else matters. The SLS, although breathtakingly fast, is naturally aspirated, and therefore builds momentum rather than making its power all at once at low RPMs. Sure, that’s less efficient, but let’s be honest. You’re not buying this car to save fuel. You’re buying it for the experience, and there’s simply nothing like a big displacement V-8 going through the motions to do what it does best. It rewards you with buttery smooth power delivery and a life-flashes-before-your-eyes ride as it cycles through each gear – right up to its 7200 RPM redline. 7200 RPM, people.

Steering feel is a bit number than you might expect but it works well. There is a decent amount of feedback. Turn-in isn’t what I’d call crisp, but is surprisingly quick, considering the dimensions. As I mentioned, the ride is fantastic. What seemed strange to me at first was that I found a little bit of body roll around corners. That’s not a knock against the car – it stays, relatively speaking, quite flat and the handling is sublime. You will feel the weight of this car in some situations, particularly longer sweeping curves. Around a few cloverleaf on- and off-ramps, I felt the SLS reminding me of the heft it’s schlepping around. Occasionally the SLS will lurch and porpoise a bit as you hit dips in the road that the wheelbase and proportions don’t agree with, and road irregularities around corners didn’t tend to play well with its suspension either.

There are clearly a lot of electronics at work to keep the silliness at bay. AMG mode lets you start steering this car with the rear end, but reigns things back in before you start looking like an uncouth idiot. You can place the car into Sport traction mode, which lets you hang things out at the back a bit. Hold down the traction control button long enough (like about 10 seconds long enough) and it will actually shut the electronic grannies off. I love that you need to commit to pushing that button long enough, as if AMG is saying “You sure you want to do this? You want to risk everything? Are you sure you don’t want us to look after you while you’re having fun at the wheel? OK, fine. She’s all yours.” And then… you’re on your own. It wasn’t my car, and it had very few kilometers on it, since it’s only a couple of weeks old, and I already thought that it was plenty of fun in AMG mode, thank you very much. The moment I figured out how to turn all the traction goodies off was followed by the moment where I turned everything back on again, thank you very much.

Maybe while we’re discussing heft, we can cover the topic of girth too. This is a wide car. Like really, really wide. Driving in urban situations makes the roads feel just a bit narrower than ever before.

The brakes are simply incredible. They are light, very easy to modulate, perfectly linear and tremendously powerful when you call on them. Here’s a number to chew on – the front rotors are a staggering 15.35 inches in diameter, lovingly clamped by 6-piston aluminum calipers. For reference, my first car had wheels that were smaller in diameter than these brakes. Mmmm-hmmm.

On a side note, you can opt for carbon-ceramic brakes as an upgrade package. They save some weight, and likely perform better. I don’t understand why you’d go for them, when the “stock” ones are this good. Maybe if you’re hitting up the track a lot. Which I’m sure a lot of SLS owners do. Ha ha.

The visibility out of the car is fantastic for the front view and the sides. The rear view is bisected by the tiny blade of glass that separates the rollover hoops. With the top up, the rear view is very restricted, and shoulder checking is nigh impossible.

It doesn’t matter how you drive this car. Whether you’re tooling around town, or blasting down a freeway, it’s a beautiful experience.

 

Exterior

Once again, words don’t do much to convey a sensuous shape like this. Classic proportions, with a touch of hyperbole. A long hood (that’s where the hyperbole comes in), low roofline, relatively high beltline, short deck. Wide. Oh my, is it wide. You’ll find no sharp edges, but rather gentle, deliberate creases flowing over the body. A gorgeous side scallop (starting with a faux air vent) that makes its way almost to the back of the door. A gaping mouth in front with beautifully integrated headlights, and a massive three-pointed star in the grille – a nod to the SL of yore. A hood that seems to go on forever, adorned with functional heat extractors. A relatively sedate-looking rump with chunky rectangular exhaust tips, smoothed-in tail lights, and an integrated air brake, should you need it.

This car’s owner chose black 10-spoke AMG rims. I’m not a fan of black rims on cars, but wouldn’t take this one any other way. It really looks good on this color, and makes the brakes and the red AMG calipers jump out at you.

With the top down, I find this car arguably better looking than the hard-top gullwing coupe, and it is, in my humble (but always right) opinion, one of the best looking convertibles I’ve seen. With the top up, the SLS looks good too, the rear of the top blending its lines nicely with the rear deck slope. It’s a terrific-looking car without getting too out there and trying to do too much.

Does the SLS get a lot of attention? Does Dolly Parton sleep on her back? I’ve definitely never driven a vehicle that garners as many looks, comments, nods and stares from people. Two guys did u-turns to catch up with me at a light just to ask a question or shout a compliment. Thumbs-ups occur every minute or two, and driving in the city with the top down allows you to hear the admiring commentary from every second party on the sidewalk.

 

Interior/Tech/Convenience

There’s not much to say here. The materials are incredibly beautiful. Everything you can touch is either upholstered with gorgeous leather sporting contrasting stitching, or carbon fiber trim.

The seats are very comfortable, and perfectly bolstered. They are heated, and fully adjustable, including how closely the side bolsters hug you.

It’s not a big car. I was always comfortable, but I took a friend who is well over 6 feet tall for a ride and he noted that the legroom was at a bit of a premium – with his seat back all the way, his legs were still bent. Things can definitely get a bit claustrophobic with the top up.

In front of you is a great steering wheel with paddles for manual gear changes, and behind it sit a pair of lovely silver-faced gauges. They’re easy to read, but the speedometer hilariously goes up to 360 km/h. Which makes the usable part of the speedometer (for North America) the first inch and a half on the bottom of the dial. Between them is a monochrome, multi-function driver information screen.

The center of the dash holds a screen, controlled by Mercedes’ joystick, rotary-knob COMAND interface. It’s not the most intuitive system, but once you get used to it, it works well. Below that, a jumble of hard buttons controlling the media system and the phone, and at the bottom of the stack, an automatic dual-zone climate control system.

This car had the optional upgraded Bang & Olufsen audio system. It sounds incredible top-up or top-down, and the reflective sound “lenses” on the dash are lit up as super-cool little pyramids in the dark. That’s all fine and dandy, but I never found myself caring much, because I was listening to the symphony crashing out of the tail pipes instead.

The SLS has front and rear parking sensors, as well as a back-up camera. The most important are the front sensors, because there is simply no getting used to the length of that hood. You’ll think you’ve got a ways to go and you’ll be surprised at how soon the front sensors will be shouting at you to stop – which is very nice, because it would be a shame to crunch that handsome front end into a parkade wall.

 

Details

A Mercedes innovation called Airscarf sits silently below headrest level – integrated into your seat. It’s just a small air vent. The point? It blows warm air onto your neck and head to make the top-down driving experience more comfortable. When I first read about this feature a few years ago, I thought it was one of the dumbest things I’d ever heard of. Having now driven a Mercedes ragtop, and used this feature, I can attest that it is, in fact, brilliant. It’s inobtrusive, and at lower speeds, it automatically adjusts the airflow level to ensure optimum comfort. In true Mercedes-Benz fashion, there are three levels you can set it to. They’re not just going to ensure your neck and head stay warm, they’re going to let you decide just how warm you want it. Love it!

The A-pillar in the SLS is a sight to behold. The car doesn’t make a big deal about it, but obviously any car that wears the three-pointed star (not to mention one that can sneak up on 200 miles per hour) will be built with safety in mind. I loved how sleek and blade-like, yet massive, the A-pillars are in this car. And that the windshield frame is clad with Alcantara on the inside. Nice.

The top operates with a precision and smoothness that has to be experienced. It’s virtually silent, and from the moment you either push down or pull up the sculpted lever in the console, I timed it to be about 11 seconds. That’s quick.

 

The Verdict

This is the most expensive, exotic car I’ve ever been able to drive for an extended period.

The AMG SLS is difficult to categorize, because it does so much. What I took away from this experience is that this is a car that sets out to do most things very, very well. The engineering is clearly there, but sits quietly, waiting, under the stunning aluminum bodywork. It doesn’t trumpet it out, because the intelligence and the engineering seem secondary to the emotion you feel when you gaze upon its lines and its proportions.

It’s comfortable, and even provides enough trunk space for a few big soft bags – enough for a road trip for two.

It’s fast. Fast enough to slot it in near the pinnacle of performance and amongst exotics that provide barely a fraction of the comfort and driveability.

It sounds … I can’t even describe it. If you consider mechanical sounds to be music like I do, you will love the Sonata in Awesome that the SLS plays, continuously. Yes, the track is on repeat, but you won’t get sick of this song. And under full throttle, this symphony will make people around you feel acutely aware of an impending Apocalypse. They’ll be looking behind the SLS for four horsemen.

It performs. It handles well, and remains stable at insanely high speeds – even with the top down. As a matter of fact, it’s easy to have a conversation at highway speeds with the top down. It never feels like a hyper-precision instrument, but never comes across as a blunt-force weapon either. It fits in right between the two, and in terms of a car that you just want to drive, that makes a lot of sense. I appreciated that I never had to work very hard to wring a lot of performance out of a beautifully-crafted convertible car. That says a lot.

The car is solid. Not like the “oh yes, it seems to be built well” kind of solid. No, like the SLS appears to have been carved out of a solid ingot of awesome solid. That kind of solid. Even with the top down, the SLS felt to be one of the most rigid cars I’ve ever driven. Think about that.

WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was somewhere in the middle. She loved the looks of the car, and said it rides really nice. What she wasn’t a fan of was her hair getting messed up when we drove with the top down, and she said the sun was in her eyes too much. I can’t make this stuff up, people. Some folks are made for convertibles, others aren’t. We also hit up one of our home decor boutiques on the weekend, and she was appalled that most of what she wanted to buy wouldn’t fit in the trunk. In other words… BEST. CAR. EVER.

To have driven it over a weekend was an experience I won’t forget. I love that AMG made the car they wanted to make. I love that not everything here is pure function. Not everything here tries to compete with something else out there. I love that there are a full 46 inches between the front of the car and the front of the engine block because that’s simply where they wanted things to be situated. I love that one German dude hand-builds the lump of power under the massive hood, and that the car allows you to wield that power with a delicately-gloved hand or an iron fist – the choice is yours.

I got to experience something special in driving the SLS. It is truly a supercar.

That a reader trusted me with his SLS, shortly after taking delivery of it, made it even more special.

I can’t express enough gratitude to this reader for the immeasurable generosity of giving me his car for three days.

In terms of my driving experience, this made my year.