Mercedes-Benz's startling new take on the gullwing theme of the legendary 300SL impressed RACER staff. But can the SLS handle the demands of a real driver? We asked rookie IndyCar driver J.R. Hildebrand to put it through its paces.
Performance is relative. One man's idea of performance in a car might be acceleration; for others it's the slalom numbers and some people are top-speed junkies. That's why we have different forms of racing and racetracks, from dragstrips to ovals to road courses, and why manufacturers make different types of cars for a variety of customers.
This car, the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, is about going fast. It wants to go fast.
“The car's strongest point is that it hauls ass,” says IndyCar racer J.R. Hildebrand after spending a week with the new gullwing-doored scorcher from Stuttgart. “It's geared to go 190mph [top speed is electronically limited to 197], and it taunts you to give it a little bit extra. I was in seventh gear at 85mph, and you're going by everybody, yet you feel like the car is going, ‘Really? How about five more miles per hour?' So you bring it up to 90, and it says, ‘Is that all you've got?' It's like it's asking you to give a little bit more because it's so smooth, and it's such a tourer. That's where the heart and soul of this car is – on the Autobahn.”
Hildebrand is newly installed with the U.S. National Guard-sponsored Panther team in the ever-more-competitive IZOD IndyCar Series. The Californian has plied his trade in open-wheelers for several years, winning championships in Formula Russell, US F2000 and, most recently, the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights title. He had a couple of IndyCar Series starts last year, subbing at Dreyer & Reinbold for the injured Mike Conway. Now he begins his first full year in the series. He knows some things about going fast.
That said, Hildebrand quiets the speed demons in his head on the racetrack. On the street, he's looking for a different experience, and it points to the one thing that he feels is a shortcoming in the SLS.
“I'm looking for an exciting, raspy car to drive, say, from 0 to 60. I want to be able to get the thing in first gear, hop off the clutch, jump on it and have the thing crossed up through an intersection, no problem. This is not that car,” he says. “My least favorite thing is how tame it is at low speed, how difficult it is to break loose and get a little lively on you. This car well and truly wouldn't allow you to do that.”
That, of course, is the opinion of a professional racing driver, one who gets to practice opposite lock on a regular basis and, on the street, drives a '95 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am with a 396. The car's ability to rein in the driver's enthusiasm may be a much bigger selling point to the general public, and is probably the new way of the world as even the Federal Government is mandating stability control in all new cars. The lack of a full manual transmission, with a driver-operated clutch to release as slowly or quickly as one desires, puts a damper on the tire-smoking fun as well. But to put it positively, Hildebrand notes, “The car's not liable to do anything crazy where all of a sudden you're wondering how you got there.”
With the caveat that the car won't allow the driver to get too wild – one man's negative is another's lifesaver – Hildebrand is otherwise almost gushing in his enthusiasm for the car.
“The car does a number of things incredibly well. The transmission selection is very good,” he says, describing the SLS's 7-speed dual clutch transaxle with four shifting modes – comfort, sport, sport plus and a full manual mode, operated by paddles behind the steering wheel and complete with shift lights above the gauges. “The dual clutching was quite smooth and it's very easy and fun to play with. Downshifting is super smooth and sounds totally badass.“Ergonomically, the car is fantastic,” says the lanky six-footer. “I found it comfortable once I got everything set. I could see it being a squeeze for anybody who's a little bit taller. But I could have driven it on a road trip for a couple of hours; the seats are quite good.”
Menacing looks, trick gullwing doors (complete with exploding bolts to facilitate extraction should the car somehow end up upside down) and butter-smooth shifting aside, for most buyers this car is really about the engine. The 6.2-liter AMG V8 – each one hand-assembled by a single technician – boasts 563hp at 6800rpm; peak torque of 479lb-ft comes at 4750rpm. That will propel the car from 0 to 60mph in 3.7sec.
That's quick. But it's the acceleration beyond that that really put a smile on Hildebrand's face.
“My favorite thing is the emotion that it draws out of you from 50 to 100. It pulls so hard and the gears are just so right on the money. I feel like anything could have pulled up next to me and I would have put it to shame. That feeling of inspired confidence, not just from a stoplight, is hard to find, even in cars that are just as fast. They don't give you that same feeling,” he says.
The guttural V8 – and Mercedes-AMG lets this engine's voice be heard – is indeed a great selling point. But Hildebrand was no less impressed by the car's abilities as he carved some of the canyon roads around Los Angeles.
“I was massively impressed, not only with the feel but for the true balance the car had. Everything worked so well together. It's got massive brakes, so I never got any brake fade and they were quite strong. More than anything, the entire balance of the car and the feedback you got through the wheel were quite good. Along with the well-matched gearbox, it was a really fun car to drive, really easy to drive fast. It surprised me a little bit what it was capable of doing.”
With the cockpit set far back, the engine behind the front axle and the rear-mounted transaxle, the car is very balanced, with a slight 47-53 rear bias – unusual for a car with the engine ahead of the driver. The dry-sump oiling for the engine helps sink it down and give the car a low center of gravity. The result is very flat cornering and a feeling, says Hildebrand, of being “just stuck.”
“It lost grip in a very sort of gradual way and gave you a lot of warning when it was going to happen,” he says.
So, the SLS AMG's tech prevents the driver from exceeding its capabilities. For skilled professionals such as Hildebrand, that's disconcerting. For the majority of the population, it's reassuring.
“For spirited driving, it's very easy and more than fast enough for what you could possibly do with it on the street,” he says. “For the true enthusiast, someone who is looking to drive a car aggressively and get something in return, it's probably not the choice I would make. But on the flipside, I can't say I've driven a performance car of this caliber that I would rather take on a road trip to Vegas.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the February 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.