Ride & Handling
Cars in this class tend to ride firmly, and the SLS certainly does, too. It's livable, but some competitors are softer without sacrificing performance. The Audi R8, Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 and Lamborghini Gallardo, among others, employ adaptive suspensions to broaden the range between comfort and sport.
While Mercedes also offers a track-optimized performance suspension, which is firmer still, I was plenty impressed with the dynamics of the standard setup. For a front-engine car, it carries a lot of weight over the rear wheels. The front/rear weight distribution is 47/53 percent. It helps that the engine is mounted aft of the front axle — and that the transmission and the occupants' ample American rear ends are in the back. You would expect the tail-heaviness to make the car skittish; while you can definitely hang the tail out, and there's some lift-throttle oversteer, fat Continental ContiSportContact rear tires, rated 295/30 R20, keep it in check. The car is well-behaved, predictable, controllable. In short, it's a lot of fun.
Mercedes kindly provides a sport mode for the electronic stability system so you can test the waters before diving in with your $183,000 wetsuit. The steering is precise and pretty well weighted. Though there isn't a ton of steering feedback, there's much more than in the average Mercedes, where the sensory level always underwhelms.
Under the Gull's Wings
In some ways, the gull-wing doors ease entry. Because they open upward, they require minimal space alongside the car, allowing tighter parking arrangements. Did you ever find you couldn't open a car door because of a high curb? It would have to be an epic curb to interfere with the gull's wings. Getting in recalls a convertible or T-top: The raised door takes a notch out of the roof. On the downside, the side sill is pretty wide, and you have to vault it to drop into the seat. The most difficult part, I found, was negotiating my right foot past the turn-signal stalk, which I suspect would eventually have snapped off if I'd had the car much longer. As it was, I started the engine a couple of times only to find the high-beams on.
You sit low in the SLS, but not much lower relative to the street than in comparable cars. Unfortunately, you sit quite low relative to the raised doors. My first time in, I regressed to the role of a kid, hopping up and down in my seat trying to get ahold of something dangled out of reach by a demonic older sibling. Ultimately I found that reaching the open door wasn't too bad for someone with chimpanzee arms like mine, but I had passengers who just plain gave up. More than one even assumed the doors would be motorized. Rather than suggest they grab on and ride the door down like a parachute, I closed it for them. Chivalry isn't just alive in the SLS; it's required.
When set all the way back, the driver's seat is workable for a 6-foot-tall driver. I would have inched it back farther for added comfort if I could, but it wasn't a problem. The urge to raise the seat is natural because the hood is long, but once you reach a certain height your noggin starts to contact the center rib in the ceiling, which dips down lower than the door segments overhead. The backrests have one side-bolster and two lumbar adjustments in the form of three rocker switches on an awkward pod at the front of each seat's bottom cushion.
Visibility out the front isn't bad, despite the long hood. It isn't easy to gauge precisely where the front of the car ends, though, and the standard sonar proximity sensors are far from fail-safe. I have a Mercedes-star-shaped dimple in my garage door to prove it. The view directly to the rear is actually quite good because the rear window wraps around. The curb-side C-pillar is a bit wide, though, and it complicates backing out of parking spaces. The backup camera helps, but it's mounted low and offers as good a view of a corner of the license plate as anything else.
Overall, interior quality is quite nice. The red leather in our test car was beautifully crafted, and there's a good deal of real aluminum. The design is uncluttered, including the center control panel, but practically everything I don't like about the SLS falls into that 2-foot span.
For one thing, our car had an optional AMG Interior Carbon Fiber Trim package, which covers the center console and adds small trim strips to the doors. Sometimes this sort of gray-black weave looks good, even in unexpected places like the Aston Martin DBS, but it didn't work for me in the SLS. What's more, the standard-issue finish is true die-cast aluminum, which looks sharp, if a bit bright. It could be worse, though: Another option package doubles the price and adds even more carbon fiber inside.
More gripes about the center console include the stereo module, which looks like a lift from the lowly C-Class, and the brittle feel of the ventilation system knobs. Then there's the T-shaped gear selector, which is a triple disappointment: As mentioned, it's not a manual; the dual-clutch seven-speed automatic it controls is a bit sluggish to respond; and it's an electronic toggle shifter, in the BMW style, rather than the tried-and-true mechanical type that moves through a gate.
Storage & Cargo
The SLS' cabin isn't long on storage space. There's some covered storage in the form of a glove compartment, but the center console, once again, isn't much help. Its two compartments are both small and shallow, though there are two reasonably deep cupholders. There are no door pockets, but that's excusable; anything inside them would be on your head as soon as you opened the door. As any beachgoer can attest, you don't want a gull dropping anything on you.
Perhaps more important, the trunk is almost generous, with 6.2 cubic feet of volume. The R8 has 3.5 and the Gallardo has 3.9 cubic feet. It's also a decent shape; we got two golf bags in there. Too often, the trunks of supercars are formed out of whatever void was available, and sometimes it's tall and narrow or shallow. At worst, the SLS trunk's floor is a little lumpy.
The SLS AMG hasn't been tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As a high-priced, low-volume model, it likely never will be. The car has eight airbags, including the front pair, two knee airbags, seat-mounted side-impact torso bags and side curtains that deploy upward from the doors, because the usual location above the windows obviously wasn't an option. The door hinges attach via pyrotechnic fasteners — essentially exploding bolts. If the car rolls and comes to rest on its roof, the hinges pop after a few seconds' delay so the doors can be pulled out sideways.
Standard safety equipment includes antilock disc brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control. Read the full list of standard features.
SLS AMG in the Market
At more than $180,000, the SLS AMG sure isn't cheap. The R8, my favorite car, is below $150K. That said, Audi has never been able to command the premium price Mercedes has, regardless of performance. Further, the Gallardo is around $200,000, and Ferraris start at above $190,000. Even more important, the SLS' price looks like a bargain compared with the SLR McLaren. During my time with the SLS, several people said it's about time Mercedes has a supercar. That was the problem with the SLR McLaren: Its half-mil price tag made it so rare that most people have never seen one. As for the SLS AMG, I guarantee you'll be seeing them wherever exotic sports cars congregate.