Winged Lightning
Mercedes-Benz channels its original Gullwing Coupe to craft an all-new supercar.
By Bill Heald

Through the years, even some of the hottest, most exotic sports cars on the road have relied on a certain degree of conventionality in design and construction. But there have been radical innovations as well, like when Mercedes-Benz launched a production version of its 300SL race coupe in the mid-fifties. This beautiful (and eminently collectible) two-seater was not only one of the fastest production cars of its day, it had one of the coolest features ever seen on a sporting automobile: “gullwing” doors. These doors pivot from the roof instead of the body and rise straight up, and yes, when open they look like a seagull’s wings in flight. They are not only wicked-cool stylistically, but functional as well, making access simple (like climbing into the cockpit of a vintage fighter plane).

In an inspired case of being true to the spirit of the original while building the most advanced and powerful coupe possible, Mercedes has graced us with the SLS AMG. This gullwinged flagship supercar is not only exquisitely engineered, meticulously assembled, and extremely exclusive, it also manages to ooze sensual power from every metallic pore. The car’s styling has to be seen in the flesh to truly be appreciated, for like its ancestor it is a deceptively large vehicle with an impressively long hood and a very wide stance. Striking form follows intense function, though, as every aspect of the car is carefully engineered for crisp handling, superb aerodynamics, and ultrastable road manners at extreme speeds.

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Weight management is critical in any racing-derived design approach, and the SLS uses both lightweight materials and innovative architecture to keep the center of gravity as close to the pavement as possible. Critical in this approach are both the design and placement of the massive, 563-horsepower, 6.3-liter V-8 engine (which is built by a single technician whose nameplate adorns it). This mill is located behind the front wheels and the oil is located in a separate tank instead of a conventional sump, allowing for much lower engine mounting than with a conventional oil-pump system. The seven-speed transmission is located behind the seats in true transaxle fashion, and channels power to the rear wheels using a double-clutch system that delivers the precision of a manual gearbox with the effortless operation of an automatic. This allows full-power shifting, or, as Mercedes puts it, “The two clutches control power to shafts that hold seven pairs of drive gears. As a result, shifts can be made without interrupting power by electronically applying one clutch exactly when the other is being disengaged.” This wild gearbox also boasts four modes: Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus, and Manual. Sixty mph arrives in less than four seconds, and the top speed is governed at just under 200 mph. The huge AMG racing-derived two-piece brake discs help haul you in when it’s time to land, or you can order the optional (and ultratrick) ceramic brakes for the ultimate in stopping power.

Finally, if you really want to make a statement that even the SLS can’t fulfill with a mere gasoline engine, Mercedes is developing the SLS AMG E-Cell—a zero-emission version of the coupe that omits the engine and instead uses an electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery pack at each wheel. Performance roughly equals the “regular” SLS AMG, and it may well see limited production by 2015. For now, though, you’ll have to make do with that incredible 6.3-liter V-8, and the knowledge you’re driving one of the most unique, desirable, and potent machines ever made. It’s also hand-built by a dedicated group of experienced technicians with an almost pathological attention to detail. Kind of makes the $185,000 price tag look like a bargain, doesn’t it?

SPECIFICATIONS
Body style Two-seat coupe with gullwing doors
Engine 6.3-liter V-8
Power 563 horsepower
Torque 479 foot-pounds
Transmission Seven-speed AMG Speedshift DCT
Front tires 265/35 R19
Rear tires 295/30 R20
Curb weight 3,573 pounds
 
PERFORMANCE
0–60 3.7 seconds
Top speed 197 mph
Fuel capacity 22.5 gallons/3.7 reserve
EPA mpg 14 city/20 highway
Base Price $185,750
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