Audi R8 2012 Review
I have never, ever been in a car that has garnered as many stares and whispers as this one. And to...
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NINETY minutes. That's exactly how long it took me to confirm the real-world impact of the Mercedes-Benz SLS. During those 90 minutes no fewer than four people ask to have their picture taken alongside the born-again Gullwing.
There are also camera-phone shots in traffic, dozens of smiles and a couple of genuine double-takes. "I knew it was the gullwing. I saw it from my office and I had to come and look. Do you think you could take my picture with it?", says one SLS fan.
He already knows the car costs $464,000 - basic price, no options, no insurance - but he doesn't remotely care. And that's what dream machines are all about...
Anyone can complain about the tight passenger space, the small boot, the wonky back-end design and a dash that looks like every other Benz, but real people are gob-smacked by the Gullwing. It's right up there in Ferrari land as a Lotto winner's dream machine.
It's impossible to do a real-world value assessment of a supercar. The people who buy cars like the SLS typically have millions in the bank and at least three other cars in the garage. So a Gullwing is really a toy.
The best way to judge the price is to look at the order books, and Benz currently has 50 paid-up customers waiting for an SLS this year with a similar number queuing for 2011.
That's nothing compared to a two-year minimum wait for a Ferrari 458 Italia, and the starting price for the Italian stallion is $526,950. And what price do you put on those unique gullwing doors?
The SLS is a first for Mercedes-Benz, as it is the first road-up car developed entirely by its AMG division. That means everything from a special aluminium spaceframe chassis that tucks the engine behind the front wheels to a rear-mounted seven-speed double-clutch gearbox.
There is fully-independent suspension, giant brakes and alloy wheels in 19-inch for the front end and 20-inch for the rear. Everything important in the Gullwing is designed for the job, not just picked up from the Benz parts bin, right down to the pop-up rear spoiler - there is a switch but it's also a speeding snitch with a 120km/h trigger point - and the operating gear for the doors.
One of the trickiest things is the switchable engine-management system, which runs from controlled efficiency up to full manual, with Sport+ as the brilliant intuitive program for keen drivers. The SLS also allows the driver to remove the ESP safety net for track work.
The GLS is clearly channeling the original Gullwing of the 1950s, and not just in the lift-up doors. The front-end look is very similar and so is the overall proportion of the bodywork.
But there are shortcomings, from a windscreen that looks like it comes from a Saab 900 to a droopy rear end which could carry an Buick badge. The car is very, very wide and that gives it a squat-and-dangerous look, as well as a cabin with plenty of elbow room. It can make parking ... interesting.
AMG has done the best it can to make the cabin look unique and there is plenty of carbon fibre trim and brilliant leather, but the switches and instruments all carry the same DNA as Benz's basic B-Class.
No-one is likely to crash test an SLS to give it an NCAP score, but it's a certain five-star performer. The basic chassis is incredibly rigid, it has all the usual Benz safety electronics - from ESP and ABS with tweaking to automatic lamps and wipers - through to a cabin with front, side-head and even knee airbags for both seats.
AMG has even thought about the threat of a rollover, installing pyrotechnic bolts into the gullwing door mounts so it can be blasted off the body if the car finishes upside-down after a crash.
Best of all, the car is so well designed that its primary safety - the ability to avoid a crash, instead of protecting during an impact - is right up with the best cars on the road today.
So it all comes down to this, and this is what the Gullwing does best. It has a thumping V8 engine with the most brilliant sound track, from its deep bass rumble at idle to a cracking, popping exhaust performance when you push it hard on a track.
It belts away from traffic lights, has great brakes, and rides surprisingly well on familiar roads. I was worried by the thumping response over broken concrete roads in Sydney but the SLS is firm without turning nasty on roads I know.
The performance is far beyond what you can sensibly - or legally - use every day but it's also a workable everyday commuter car. The boot is not particularly big, but the car is comfy and relatively quiet for stop-start work and it's also relaxing and enjoyable at freeway cruising pace.
There is a lot to like in the GLS, because it is a usable everyday supercar. It's a thumping, cracking drive that can also be almost as relaxing as the cush-mobile models in the Benz family.
But would I take it ahead of a Ferrari? That's a very different question to be answered another day.
The Gullwing is one of those very special cars and nice to drive. I really enjoy giving the gears a bit of a workout and the noise is ... probably not good for the neighbours. I've never driven a car like the SLS before so it takes a while for me to adjust, particularly to the width. The performance is great but I don't enjoy parking.
Which brings me to the Gullwing doors. Lots of people turn to see them but you have to be careful not to park too close to trees or posts, and they are annoying and hard for me to pull down and shut. Apparently there is an optional strap for pulldown work, but they are not in the test car.
It's a fun drive, although heavy on the brakes. It takes a lot to pull it up. The SLS is completely useless for a family, but people with $500,000 to splash on a toy car will have something sensible as well in the garage so that is unlikely to be a problem.
I think the Gullwing is a great plaything and a unqiue car.
Something very special for the top end of the Benz business.
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