From where I write, sitting in a Mercedes SLS AMG beside the gullwing coupe's launch route in California, I'm being treated to occasional fly-pasts from sister cars. Usually I wouldn't scribble here; I'd write later from my notes. But during this morning, on the roads you see here and on a nearby race circuit, I've found the SLS quite hard to pin down; I'd rather nail my opinion than let it wander off again.
I've read a lot about this car without really finding out what sort of sports car it is – whether it's a GT akin to a Ferrari 599, or a more agile sportster like a Ferrari F430.
What's certain is that the SLS will have no shortage of competition when it goes on sale next June. Buyers of AMG's first complete car won't see change out of $240,000. That's Ferrari 458 Italia money but a figure that also leaves the SLS open to fire from anything from a 911 Turbo to a Noble M600, and a field encompassing Astons, Bentleys, the Audi R8 and Lamborghini Gallardo. I will be astonished, too, if McLaren later pitches the MP4-12C's camp much farther away.
None of those cars, of course, has the gullwing doors that define the shape of the SLS, as they did its spiritual predecessor, the 300 SL. It's not controversial to say the SL is prettier, particularly from the rear. This morning a pair of locals told one of my colleagues that the SLS's rump looks like a Lexus SC430's. Harsh? Perhaps. Accurate? A little. That said, though I initially reeled at the pictures, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the SLS in the metal.
I'll be honest, though; I expected more from inside the SLS than I found, in advance of a few hours pounding some Californian highways. It's not the best place to try a new supercar, but it's a part of the world that has more than its share of them.
Mercedes talks of the SLS having an airplane-inspired cockpit, but apart from ducking under the door like you're crouching beneath a helicopter's blades, there's not too much that's avionic about it. The air vents are supposed to resemble jet engines (perhaps a four-blade prop) and the stumpy gear lever a throttle (and maybe it does). But that's it for inspiration.
The dash is square; strong horizontal lines are meant to accentuate width, but they also highlight a lack of imagination. The overall finish is fine but the choice of materials lets it down in places. The leather's great and the surfacing is classy, but the audio controls, heater controls and dials have more than a hint of silvered plastic about them. Their fonts are slightly clumsy, at once feeling both low volume yet medium quality.
The SLS's seating position is excellent, if not its visibility or access. You sit low, between a large sill and a high transmission tunnel, which makes entry tricky and closing the door trickier still.
To allow enough room to get in and out, the doors swing high (still low enough to allow a hefty whack on the head), and it's quite a stretch to reach the handle to draw them shut. Kids will have to stand. I'm sure there could've been an elegant solution involving a strap.