First Drive: 2011 Mercedes Benz SLS AMG mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. Click image to enlarge

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By Tony Whitney

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2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

San Francisco, California – Please don’t call it “the new SLR McLaren.”

Mercedes-Benz is emphatic that its magnificent new SLS AMG bears no relationship to the now-discontinued earlier supercar and is based on an all-new platform. Also, the SLS was developed and engineered by AMG itself, rather than Mercedes-Benz – a “first” for the manufacturer’s famed tuning division which normally devotes itself to engine building and tuning.

It almost goes without saying that given recent events in the world of Formula 1 and the plans for a stand-alone Mercedes-Benz team, McLaren was never involved in the new car at all and is at any event readying a supercar of its own.

First Drive: 2011 Mercedes Benz SLS AMG mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG; photo by Tony Whitney. Click image to enlarge

There’s an interesting – if tenuous – Canadian angle in that the SLS’s aluminum bodywork is built under contract by a European arm of Canadian firm, Magna International.

The SLS AMG won’t arrive in North America until well into next year as a 2011 model and no prices have been announced yet. Reports from Europe say that orders are already being taken for the SLS at a starting price of 149,000 euros (around 234,000 Canadian dollars) but this is no guide at all to what the sticker will be here. More than likely, the Mercedes-Benz marketers and accountants in North America are still working this out.

What is clear is that the car will likely cost about half the price of its predecessor and is thus another example of the people at Mercedes-Benz sharpening their pencils to meet the demands of prevailing markets – something they’ve been doing with great success right through their various product ranges. The SLS is no “cheapie” by any stretch of the imagination, but now the Stuttgart automaker’s supercar is highly competitive in its segment and promises to be not that much more expensive than a “full house” SL model.

First Drive: 2011 Mercedes Benz SLS AMG mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
First Drive: 2011 Mercedes Benz SLS AMG mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG; top photo by Tony Whitney. Click image to enlarge

The SLS borrows all kinds of wonderful styling details from Mercedes-Benz sports cars of years gone by, but above all, its gullwing doors reflect Mercedes-Benz’ heritage. They hark back, of course, to the truly memorable 300 SL of the mid-1950s – a car that even today is a breathtaking sight for anyone with the least interest in fine cars. Other reminders of the 300 SL are the wide radiator grille with its huge three-pointed star and the intakes on the hood and flanks. The SLR McLaren had what might be called “semi gullwing” doors hinged at the windshield pillar, but the SLS doors pivot from the central part of the roof, just like the fabled 300 SL.

Gullwing doors are exceptionally difficult to engineer and that’s probably why so few cars have used them over the years. One AMG engineer told me that the doors on the old 300 SL were a “masterpiece of simplicity” but that back in the 1950s, designers didn’t have to contend with side impact protection and other aspects of modern cars. When AMG decided to go with gullwing doors, they actually tried to track down any remaining engineers who had worked on the 300 SL, but sadly, they had all long passed on.

In practice, the doors work well. Even at their widest “swing point” they don’t protrude that much, though I took the precaution of parallel parking my test car when I stopped for coffee, rather than parking between two other vehicles and face the horror and embarrassment of being “trapped.” It’s a bit of a stretch to reach the door to pull it shut and this should be done before fastening the seatbelt. AMG did consider a hanging strap to help with this, but ultimately considered it “too fussy.”

First Drive: 2011 Mercedes Benz SLS AMG mercedes benz luxury cars first drives
2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG; photo by Tony Whitney. Click image to enlarge

But enough of doors and let’s take a look at the SLS as a high performance “exoticar.”

Power comes from a 6.3-litre V8 with dry sump lubrication that develops 571 horsepower and 479 pound-feet of torque. Obviously, this engine is an AMG development, and each unit is hand-assembled by one technician at the division’s plant in Affalterbach, Germany. The plant has a hospital-like cleanliness about it and visitors are usually mightily impressed to see the technicians trundling their engines around the assembly shop on wheeled trollies from one station to another until they’re complete. The assembled engine is “signed off” by its builder and you’ll find the name of the AMG employee responsible on a nifty little plate located on the engine cover.

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