Pros: Iconic gullwing doors never fail to turn heads; potent performance backs up the slick styling; price is reasonable amid comparable exotics
Cons: Rear-end styling is controversial; gullwing doors make ingress and egress awkward; transmission not always responsive to manual paddle shifters
Introduced in 2009 as a nostalgic yet forward-thinking nod to the mid-century-era 300SL, the Mercedes-Benz SLS is the first car entirely designed and developed by Mercedes-Benz tuning house AMG from the ground up, and it's every bit the stunner it has been ever since the old days.
The two-seater SLS's backbone consists of an aluminum spaceframe weighing only 531 pounds. The structure isn't as extreme or expensive as the carbon fiber chassis that underpinned the late SLR, which was a joint venture between Mercedes-Benz and McLaren, but the contemporary layout was optimized with a keen eye toward performance.
A hand-built 6.2-liter V8 producing 563 horsepower and 479 lb-ft of torque is positioned rearward in an otherwise massive engine bay, and it mates to a rear-transaxle seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, helping facilitate a 47 percent front/53 percent rear weight distribution. Inside, supple leather trim and available carbon fiber or piano black finishes round out a luxurious but purposeful cabin.
The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is priced at $189,875; a Roadster version is available for $196,975.
Comfort & Utility
Drivers looking to make a strong visual statement with a high-priced exotic should do well with the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, but if they're seeking exceptional comfort and utility, they probably won't find ultimate satisfaction here. Despite its large footprint, the SLS's cabin is a relatively compact space, and its proportions are dictated by those famous upward-swinging doors. Climbing inside is a bit of a chore, and head bumps against the roof are a fairly common occurrence. The trunk only holds 6.2 cubic feet of goods, and cabin storage compartments are few and far between. Its seats, although comfortable and form-fitting during routine driving, can start feeling a bit firm on longer journeys due to their heavily bolstered contours.
Don't let its space-age doors fool you: from its aluminum spaceframe to its mighty V8, the SLS AMG's technology is more than skin deep. The engine lacks the sophisticated turbochargers found in all but one other AMG model (the C63 AMG Coupe), uses exhaust headers designed by McLaren for optimal efficiency and sonic sexiness. A torque tube mates the engine to the rear-mounted transmission and helps achieve greater chassis stiffness, while the driveshaft is constructed of carbon fiber for lighter weight and more strength. Even the brakes feature an optimized structure with cast iron discs mated to an aluminum center section using stainless steel pins. At $12,500, carbon ceramic brakes are an option as well. Other optional tech-related items include an AMG adaptive suspension system ($2,500) and an AMG Performance Media package that includes throttle, engine, tire pressure and g-force telemetry ($2,500).
Performance & Fuel Economy
How does Mercedes-Benz differentiate the SLS's performance from that of more attainable sports cars in its lineup? That recently became a little tougher, since the new SL550 and SL63 AMG have inherited a similar aluminum spaceframe beneath their redesigned skin, which helps endow those cars with a greater power-to-weight ratio and improved handling.
The SLS still manages range-topping performance thanks to its 563-hp mill, curb weight of only 3,573 pounds and tightly tuned suspension and drivetrain components. Zero to 60 mph is achieved in a scant 3.7 seconds with the aid of launch control, and top speed is electronically limited to 197 mph.
Don't go looking for stellar fuel economy here: the normally aspirated V8 is only capable of extracting 14 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway.
The Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is equipped with a three-stage stability control system, massive brakes and standard blind spot assist, but its most noteworthy safety feature was engineered to protect its occupants in the event of a rollover accident. Because the upward sweeping doors might trap passengers if the SLS landed on its roof in a wreck, AMG engineered a pyrotechnic system that automatically blasts the hinges off the doors, enabling a (hopefully) quick escape from the wreckage.
This golden age of turbocharged performance makes the normally aspirated SLS AMG seem like a throwback to another era, and the simmering growl of its V8 at startup certainly reinforces that notion. But pulling the leather wrapped aluminum shifter into D and roaring down the road uncovers this snarling two-seater's modern traits.
The engine bellows with bold urgency under hard acceleration, and the dual-clutch seven-speed acts briskly and smoothly as the SLS roars ahead-although it's best to leave it in automatic, since manual shifts introduce a slight but perceptible delay into the gearshift process. While its lengthy snout suggests unwieldiness, driving the SLS on twisty roads reveals that this is actually an entirely different beast. Steering feels quick and direct, and that seemingly immovable nose changes direction with disarming ease. The V8's sound is even more invigorating when the accelerator is released and exhaust backpressure creates a popping, racing-car-like growl. Thanks to its taut suspension, which can be adjusted to three stiffness settings with the optional adaptive setup-Comfort, Sport, and Sport+-the SLS negotiates turns with crisp responsiveness and outstanding grip.
And the superlatives earned by the engine are equally appropriate for this car's handling. Depress the traction control button for a couple of seconds, and the Dynamic handling mode is triggered, enabling generous slip angles and wheelspin before the stability control system comes into play.
Its ride is firm in any mode and noticeably more jostling when the sportier setting is selected, but the SLS AMG is still a grand touring machine in the great front-engine, rear-wheel-drive tradition, as opposed to mid-engined offerings like the Audi R8 or rear-engined oddities like the Porsche 911.
Other Cars to Consider
Audi R8 - Despite its mid-engine layout, the R8 is philosophically quite similar to the SLS AMG. The Audi starts at $118,450 in V8 form and moves up to $153,250 for the V10 version. This counterpoint from Ingolstadt offers similarly unique styling, predictably potent performance and a strong sense of occasion.
McLaren MP4-12C - Packed with a carbon fiber chassis and more technologically advanced underpinnings than the SLS AMG, McLaren's $229,000 MP4-12C is a track-oriented take on the mid-tier exotic sports car. The McLaren's upward and outward-sweeping dihedral door design also boasts its own unique "Look at me!" calling card, while its relative rarity is sure to attract drivers who don't want to slot into the standard Porsche/Ferrari mold.
Porsche 911 Turbo - More snug and more sparsely appointed than the SLS AMG, Porsche's 911 Turbo starts at $137,500. Its 500-hp flat-six and all-wheel drive help it achieve a 0-to-60-mph time of 3.5 seconds. Although it's an outstanding performer with time-tested styling, the relative commonality of the Porsche 911 makes it an incrementally less special car than the SLS AMG. Despite that, it continues to attract legions of purists with its undistilled performance.
If this is your kind of car, and you can afford it, go ahead and indulge. Whether to get the Roadster or the Coupe is strictly a matter of personal choice.