What exactly qualifies one car to call itself a ‘supercar’ and another not has been the subject of endless debate ever since the phrase was coined and passed into common parlance by the English-speaking motoring media in the early 1970s. And while I have been a willing participant at any number of what often rapidly become rather silly discussions, for myself I have always been happy enough to know one when I see one.
The earliest I know is the 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL, more usually referred to as the ‘Gullwing’, though you may argue with at least equal coherence that the title should belong to a Bugatti Type 55, Alfa 8C, Lamborghini Miura, or who knows how many other cars. All I can say is that having taken part in a Mille Miglia re-run in one and seen how it would cruise at – not ﬁnally attain, mind, but reach and hold without apparent great effort – a genuine 130mph, no car in my experience is more deserving of the adjective ‘ﬁrst’. For a supercar, surely, has to be more than simply very fast if it is not merely to be thought of as a high-performance car, or an extreme sports car. A supercar has to be effortless too, capable of both pace and grace. Or so it seems to me.
So you’re making a big promise when via the medium of those innovative door apertures, you invoke the SL’s memory more than half a century later. Conceptually, this new SLS is the closest thing to a successor for the 300SL Mercedes has yet made, and not just because of its doors.
Unlike the slow-selling McLaren-built SLR, which was an unhappy confection of technologies from conﬂ icting eras (a carbon tub and body, powered by an old engine and ancient gearbox), the SLS appears more cohesive, a design conceived, developed and completed entirely by Mercedes’ in-house AMG tuning division. Its body and structure may be made from simple aluminium but it still weighs less than the carbon SLR. And though its normally- aspirated 6.2-litre V8 engine delivers a little less power than the SLR’s twin supercharged 5.4-litre V8 (571bhp vs 626bhp), I’d bet my house that the SLS would be quicker point to point, not to mention, at £157,500, being substantially less than half the price of the frankly not very good SLR.
But that’s not the point, for there are many quicker ways even than this of reaching one place from another. If the SLS is really to succeed the SL it must add another component to its obviously ﬂ ashing speed by consuming distances with seven-league boots ease.
I collected the SLS from the glassy Mercedes-Benz World facility at Brooklands and pointed its interminably long nose down the M4, not just because that way lay Wales and mountains but also because, tediously enough, how it copes with a three-lane environment will determine an owner’s enjoyment or otherwise more than anything else.
It felt precisely as I’d hoped – firm and controlled but not harsh. Combined with a cabin with more space than my 6ft 4in frame requires, this is a four-ﬁgure car, one in which dispatching a thousand miles in a single day would be an engaging challenge, something you might do out of choice rather than necessity. I like, too, the look of the sparse, functional interior and the way you can pull the steering wheel close your chest.
But the exterior has yet to work its wonders on me. Mercedes styling is more miss than hit at the moment and while parts of the SLS work – the cabin area and nose in particular – the car’s silhouette looks like something designed in the States rather than Stuttgart, combined with a back that looks styled without reference to the front. Brieﬂy I acquainted it with an original SL and it is somewhat understating the truth to say that, visually at least, the encounter with its effortlessly gorgeous ancestor did the SLS few favours.
Beauty is here, however. Beauty in the snarling sound of its motor and majesty in the way it slings you down the road, its performance quite sufﬁcient to elicit all manner of expletives from even fairly brave passengers well used to fast cars. This is joyous, riotous performance which would make you wonder how it could possibly be legal were it not for the fact that, almost all the time, it is quite clearly not. It lays temptation before you in a way that the very best Ferraris do, and through the medium of its super-quick, close ratio, paddle-shift manual gearbox implores you to give into it.
Perhaps all this could have been guessed by looking at the car, its positioning and speciﬁcation. More surprising is what happens when you ask the engine and chassis to swap roles and engage the former merely as a means of supporting the latter. I’d expected the SLS to be what I call an 8/10ths car, one that indulges its owner to a very high limit but thereafter was concerned only with keeping him or her safe. And there would have been nothing wrong with that. But that is not what transpires.
In fact, the only thing I guessed right was the grip which, with a transaxle gearbox providing the traction, an engine mounted just ahead of the driver and weapons-grade tyres, is predictably prodigious. What I failed to anticipate was what happens if you drive the SLS as its maker intended.
The clue, I think, is in the identity of that maker, because only when you remind yourself that this car is not just all AMG, but AMG’s ﬁrst-ever stand-alone project, does its hyper-responsive handling suddenly makes sense. For, heaven be praised, this is a not a particularly easy car to drive very fast. Of course you can leave the electronics engaged and never be any the wiser, but if you want your skills as a driver to receive a workout that’s rare to ﬁnd in any modern supercar, let alone one with its engine in the front and gears that can change by themselves, an SLS on the right road will provide it.
It feels a little foreign at ﬁrst, but that’s merely a symptom of sitting so far aft of the car’s yaw centre that when the tail moves, you move with it. You don’t have to worry about the front because unless you are suicidally inclined it will always stick, but judging the exact point at which its mighty traction is overwhelmed and the short, sharp transition into oversteer occurs takes some learning. And when you do, you learn also that the SLS’s reactions are entirely predictable, just rather fast.
In its combination of massive speed and splendid civility the SLS embodies the true spirit of the supercar, as I was always sure it would. But in its ability to engage and reward it goes one step beyond to earn its place among the very best driver’s cars of any description. And it is this exceptional talent which means that, after 56 years waiting, the 300SL has at last a true and worthy successor.