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A rehash of a winged miracle

November 13, 2009|DAN NEIL

MONTEREY, CALIF. — It goes about a zillion miles an hour, looks tougher than jailhouse steak and has explosive bolts in the doors, but before getting to the new Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Gullwing, if I may, a nod to the old (1955-1957) Gullwing.

Some years ago I drove a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing in the Mille Miglia, the 1,000-mile road rally around the heart of Italy, and left the tattered bits of my blown mind all over the ceiling. By that time I had driven a fair number of vintage sports cars -- Alfas, Aston Martins, Jaguars, Ferraris -- and found most of them to be poor to downright horrible and spectacularly dangerous. I once drove an Aston Martin DB Mark III in the Bavarian highlands and remember thinking the sensation was like grappling with a crazy old man who meant to throw me out a penthouse window.

The 300SL Gullwing was, in all the ways that matter, the first modern sports car. Not only was it beguiling to look at, it also was immensely secure and confident, with perfect steering and a kingfisher's grip on the road. The only time it got squirrelly was when its enormous gas tank started to go dry. Liberated from a couple hundred pounds of gasoline, the 300SL's swing-axle rear end would ever more urgently want to snap oversteer.

For weeks I was finding bits of plaid upholstery in the most unmentionable places.

The 300SL Gullwing was a revelation, a touch of mechanical divinity, a masterpiece, an icon. What does the SLS have in common with its forebear?

Um, the doors?

To compare the two cars, I concede, is unfair, yet Mercedes itself made the comparison unavoidable. Indeed, it went to a huge amount of bother to build a super-sports car with the trademark gullwing doors. In order to get the doors past the Feds' safety standards, the engineers had to build in pyrotechnic hinges so that, if the car should overturn, the hinges would blow and passengers could escape.

Dear God, that's cool.

Whereas the original 300SL emerged directly out of Daimler-Benz's race program (based on the W194 race chassis with stromlinienwagen styling), the new SLS is churned out of AMG, the company's tuner division, which builds monstrously overpowered street cars for rich idiots. (I mean that in the most loving way.) The Gullwing is AMG's first stand-alone model.

Other differences: In 1955, Daimler-Benz was still a small company desperate to make its bones in the American market. The 300SL was built specifically to pick the pockets of wealthy Yanks. Today, Mercedes-Benz is the Death Star of luxury carmakers, a globe-striding imperial presence, a company so full of itself, it has its own rather enormous museum. The SLS plays like a self-curated retrospective of Mercedes history.

So, naturally, the SLS' styling would tend to be careful, even reductive. In some places it's almost a caricature of the 300SL. The hood, for instance -- all six miles of it -- is enormous, and when you drive fast you've got this absurd priapic presence swinging through corners in front of you. It's kind of embarrassing. The rounded, organic volumes of the 300SL have been digitally reprocessed into hard-milled, technical surfaces, and generally speaking, there's not nearly as much poetry there. Actually, the SLS isn't even all that aerodynamic.

Not all comparisons go against the SLS. The new car is outrageously, deliciously low and wide (front track of 66.2 inches), and when you throw the car around on the track, the center of gravity feels about 400 feet underground. This car can't even spell "body roll."

The old 300SL tended to feel pretty nose-heavy. The SLS, with its dry-sump lubricated V-8 sitting well behind the front axle, has most of its weight near the center of the car. So when you come charging up to a corner with the brakes on fire, you can turn in and lift off the brakes in a way that rotates the car in a beautiful pivot, allowing you to pick up the throttle more quickly on corner exit. Also, several layers of computer logic chatter away in the SLS to keep you from spinning the car -- something the 300SL never had.

The SLS is also vastly easier to get in and out of, as the gullwing door cutouts are much deeper than on the old 300SL. The only problem with the doors is that people tend to brace their hands on the door frame to reach up to close a door, and it would be too easy to close said hand in the door. I suggested door straps, as in the old 300SL, and the Mercedes engineers noted that they are an option. I wonder if hand surgeons offer gift cards?

No matter: If this car is a mere life-support system for a couple of grandiose doors, I have to say, it's worth it. No car makes an entrance like the SLS. To raise the doors in front of a crowded restaurant is to feel the floodlights of envy hit you, the cameramen rush you and Army Archerd -- God rest him -- chase you with a microphone. You have arrived.

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