Saturday, 2 July 2011

Driven #33:- Mercedes-Benz AMG SLS, Part Two

Fast forward a week. The Glastonbury Festival has been and gone, I have had this years fill of being at one with the trees and the animals, I've let the beat control my body and drank Whiskey from the Jar. It's back to work with a thud and, on my second day back, it was time to make a second 30 mile journey in the SLS.

For whatever reason, when I first drove the SLS I was interested, above all, in finding out what it meant. The ethos of the car, the reasoning behind it, the theory of where it fits into the great scheme of things, all somehow seemed more important than the actual machine itself. Today, for another 30 miles, I am free to concentrate on what it is, rather than why it is.

Whether it ends up as a footnote in history or an important step in automotive evolution, whether SLS's end up used every day or locked away in dusty vaults with Monets and Picassos. The car's worth as an artistic installation is in no doubt whatsoever, but it still remains to be seen whether it lives up to those attention grabbing looks. 

Before deciding if it's excellent or excement, what is it actually meant to be for? Well, after some consideration I can reveal that the answer is, frustratingly, pretty much anything you like. Measured as a car, the only two things the SLS can't do are carry more than 2 people, or be economical. And to be fair, it wouldn't have anywhere near such an appetite for dino-juice if there wasn't the constant temptation to chuck the rev-needle around the dial, just to feel that warm kick in the face again.

On my initial drive I had seen how the platform felt all-of-a-piece, coherrent and well resolved, today I went hunting for road surfaces that might challenge it a little more. OK, it doesn't cosset you and gather you up in its velvety silken hovercraft magic carpet hands, but it's so much less harsh than a bona fide supercar has any right to be. It doesn't crash into potholes, there are no stomach churning thumps through the suspension. It just does everything it needs to keep the wheels nailed to the ground. 

I sometimes worry about the adjustable suspension systems that certain AMG products carry, the Mercedes Airmatic system is very clever but can be caught out by rapidly changing road surfaces. The SLS posesses no such system, it just deals with the road conditions as and when they happen. As a result it feels like it's always poised and ready.

And it is. The whole car, it turns out, is far more about the thrill of driving than just the novelty of its interestingly configured doors. That phallic, extended side profile that looks a touch over-the-top, was necessary to allow them to package that testosterone-imbued V8 aft of the front axle. That makes this a front-mid-engined car. The weight distribution is straight out of the copybook for current best-practice in 2011, supercar edition.

There's nowhere to put the (generic Mercedes-Benz) key, you just keep it in your pocket and thumb the red start button. Do this and the fireworks are deployed immediately. A wolverine snarl fills the air, ack-acking back to a lumpy, dragstrip tickover. A strong pulse throbs from stem to stern and I feel like a Messerschmitt pilot about to take to the air.

Some commitment is needed just to get the car moving. The Sequential Manual box in the SLS works in a similar way to that of any other, and reminds me of the SMG box in an M6, and moving the car gently a is a tricky business. I felt myself quickly developing a pair of brown trousers as I gingerly manoeuvred the SLS out from the sea of non £170k cars and all the time I knew that my work colleagues were watching me. I was trying so hard to make it look like I wasn't really bothered; playing it cool. Then came the issue of whether to take off gently or to aim for the full-bore smoking start. I decided not to be a hero, and to lessen the risk of apocalyptically screwing up in front of the management.

This turned out to be wise, as a police speed trap had parked itself a few hundred yards from the dealership. I passed them at 29mph but they were possibly too slack jawed to have even been looking at their speed-readings. This was fine though, I was settling into my surroundings, running my fingers over the vaguely pornographic red leather, looking for sharp edges or plastics that failed to make the grade. I found none.

By now the roads had widened and the speed limits relaxed. Traffic was thin and equally paced, so I focused myself once more on the task at hand. So far I had been driving the car exactly as it had been handed to me, I had just put it in Drive and ambled along. Now it was mine, I could drive it my way. A look at the dash revealed that the gearbox had been left in Comfort mode, and this obviously had to be rectified immediately. Truth is, if it were my car I'd probably keep it set like this because you get all the noise and performance you really need with no hassle or strings attached. But today that wasn't enough; I was driving an SLS and didn't know when I might do so again.

I pressed the AMG button on that deep transmission tunnel, and found that none of the high-fliers who had driven this beast before me had taken the trouble to set it up. These management types clearly don't know a good thing when they see one. I clicked the dial round from Comfort to Sport Plus:



Immediately the mood of the car changed. I was back in that fighter plane and there were bogies on my six. From a 60mph cruise I clicked back through the ratios into third; about 3000 revs, the changes instant, smooth but definite. The exhaust note had changed from loping muscularity to expectant fervour, and would change again when, bang; I floored the throttle.

The car snaps forward with no hesitation, no squatting, no lightness at the bow, just a crazed lunge towards the horizon. I was expecting violence but was surprised to receive a side order of mild terror that caused me to lift off a touch for the briefest of moments, but I got back on it. Problem was that the acceleration was so profound that I was only a few gear-changes from extreme illegality and almost certain imprisonment. I changed to forth, another rifle-bolt change, another dose of seratonin and a sudden fear for my license saw me lift off again and coast back down to more government-approved velocities. I would repeat this process several times on the journey and every time would be equally thrilling.

So highly strung is that engine, and so sharp is the throttle response that when you lift off suddenly during a bout of acceleration the tacho needle wavers slightly as if held by strong elastic. If feels like there's no internal inertia in the engine, nothing holding it back. It just goes. It's at least GT-R quick, but with added fire and brimstone.

My bank of superlatives had already gone into recievership during my stint on straight, dull roads, but when I pulled onto a local byway the account was foreclosed. The sensation from behind the wheel was akin to controlling a bolt from a crossbow, all that length ahead of you with all that momentum, but with a near telepathic ability to deal with corners. As I mentioned in the first part, you can feel that the car seems set up more for roadholding and grip than outright agility but there is a delicious flavour of slight truckiness that makes it so much more interesting than another ballet-footed supercar. It's no Evora, but it puts its power down so effectively it doesn't need to be.

And here that masterful gearbox really proves its mettle. It's dead easy to be in precisely the right gear for the corner, and even if you choose the wrong gear there's enough power to literally side-step the problem with a bit of lock applied to unstick the rear end. And here's the rub; yes, this actually happened. This is how easy this car is to drive fast. It actually did this itself, I grabbed third when I should have taken second, turned into the roundabout a touch harder to prevent the nose running wide and planted the throttle to prevent bogging down, and the SLS responded with a wiggle of the hips and a pat on the back. Very polite of it.

All too soon I was back in urban environs and reverted the settings to Comfort; innocent mode. The last dance had emptied and the buffet snacks were just crumbs on the tablecloth; party over. I let my pulse drop before landing at my destination, and then made a final effort to disembark looking cool, calm and collected, ducking expertly to avoid bumping my head on the overhanging door. I remote locked the SLS and walked away without a backward glance, trying desperately to look as cool as I felt. Of course, nobody was watching.

I already liked the SLS before today, my earlier drive had demonstrated that it's valid as a car as it is a statement. You could drive it everyday without worry and with no more fuss than you'd have with a diesel A-Class. But now I realise that the SLS is one of those rare cars that manage to combine theatre and drama with actual, useable talent and a real human edge. I have yet to experience a more complete driving machine.

And without a doubt, it's a more than worthy successor to that original Gullwing.