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Mercedes Benz SLS - AMG 6.3 litre V8 Gullwing

In the shape of the gullwing SLS, a racing thoroughbred 55 years in the making,Mercedes Benz has fused historical open-cockpit motoring with the sort of technology usually associated with Formula 1. Sadly, Anthony Ffrench-Constant had just 250miles to give his verdict.

Unlike Volkswagen, who recently wheeled out Le Mans 24 Hours legend Jackie Ickx as their new ambassador at a Jetta launch on the somewhat spurious basis that he, erm, keeps a Caravelle camper van at his home in South Africa, Mercedes-Benz can lay a rather more genuine claim to a working relationship with Stirling Moss.

Moss, relentlessly lauded as the greatest driver never to win a World Championship (In Formula 1 he finished second to Fangio three years in a row and then once, in 1958, to Hawthorn), started racing for Mercedes in 1954.

Back in those hilariously brave, open cockpit and goggles days, a driver’s face would quickly be thoroughly black and white minstrel’ed by a heady blend of exhaust soot, unburned fuel and shredded rubber. On their return to the pits, drivers were accustomed to reaching for the oily rag to try and remove at least some of the accumulated detritus. When Moss pulled in after his first trial for Mercedes, he was met – with a Prussian click of the heels – by a man at attention holding a porcelain bowl of steaming hot water, a bar of soap and an Egyptian cotton towel. ‘Well, if that’s how it’s going to be’ he thought, ‘I’d better sign up…’

There followed perhaps his most famous race victory; the 1955 Mille Miglia, in which, armed with an open-topped 300 SLR, he dispatched 1000miles in a cool 10 hours, 7minutes and 48 seconds, for once beating Fangio in the process. In the same year, Mercedes produced its first road-going iteration of that car, the gullwing doored 300 SL.

This SLS, the natural successor to that legendary brute, has been 55 years in the making, and I have one weekend and just 250miles to find out whether it’s been worth the wait… Now, whilst you’ll inevitably find yourself regularly clocked if driving Italian exotica, a Ferrari or Lamborghini eyeballing these days tends to take the form of a confirmatory glance rather than a protracted stare. But sit in an SLS, and so relentlessly will you be ogled that you’ll begin to fret about having inadvertently left the house without trousers. Never before have I experienced such pressed metal spectator persistence.

To me, the SLS is something of a hymn book on wheels; an extraordinary meld of ancient and modern. In profile, the ancient prevails, with a bonnet long enough to accommodate a family of four on a fortnight’s holiday and the cockpit so far astern that you sit pretty much as far back as possible without actually being on top of the rear axle.

The cab itself is entirely reminiscent of the original car, quite bulbous and rounded, with a remarkably upright windscreen pillar by today’s supercar standards and relatively small door glazing. Indeed, that cabin is so small and low in relation to the overall size of the beast that you’d be forgiven for thinking it had spent time in a classic, earl Harley-style American chop shop.

From dead ahead, though, the presentation is far more modern, and from dead astern (my favourite viewpoint and that most common to other road users) it’s positively futuristic by the standards of the rest of the car, and also reinforces just how massively wide this machine actually is.

That chop shop imagery is heightened by the use of a bespoke, semi-matt paint intended, presumably, to be reminiscent of a bare aluminium racing finish and nod at the cars all-alloy construction. I had to sign a document promising not to take it through one of those threshing mill car washes…

Huge alloys with gold brake callipers denote the presence of ceramic composite discs so large they almost fill the front wheel. Massive stopping power is assured, but you might want to think twice about ticking that £8,140 option box, since they need to be up to operating temperature to work most effectively, and that sort of temperature is achieved only by driving so fast you might as well simply sear straight down to the nearest police station and surrender.

Actually, such self-sacrifice is unnecessary, because most of the boot is a spoiler which pops up automatically when you pass 70mph, thus making it a particularly useful flag for lurking constabulary. Those eye-catching gullwing doors work surprisingly well, too; a handle oozes from low on the door when you plip the key, and minimal effort raises the door. You can’t stand under it, but it’s no aerobic chore to stoop down and clamber over a wide, carbon-fibre dressed cill which already displayed signs of heel scuffing on the car I drove. Not only are Blakeys Segs wearers advised to steer well clear, but the rest of us might consider the wearing of carpet slippers to get over this issue. Just don’t park in a puddle.

And before you ask, the doors are designed specifically to work in Tokyo’s tightest multistorey car park, which means they open to a height of just 1.8metres and, with both doors fully open, the car is only 36 cm wider overall. Sadly, after an entry of veritable street carnival stature, the interior leaves one feeling a tad too village fete for my liking. It’s all beautifully made, of course, but lacks real drama. The only retro touch is howitzer-style air vents finished in a cunning plastic called Noble, which has enough metal in the mix to not only look the part, but also feel cold to the touch first thing in the morning.

Least wholesome is the driver’s instrument binnacle, which shuns traditional Mercedes black-on white clarity in favour of all metal finishes which, as in an Aston Martin (though we are mercifully spared lilac back-lighting here), do the user no favours and aren’t as clear as one would like. Sitting so far back beneath the bonnet that it’s entirely behind the front axle to give the best possible weight distribution in a front engined rear drive car, the most powerful naturally aspirated V8 in the world barks into life with a burst of unsolicited throttle in the manner of all modern performance cars. Start up stealth is out of the question.

AMG’s 6.3 litre V8 has been even further tweak for installation here, now developing a wholesome 563bhp and 479lb ft of torque. Via a dual clutch, seven-speed automatic transmission with flappy paddle override, this will fling the SLS at the horizon, from a standstill to 62mph in just 3.8 seconds, and on to 197mph.

Sitting this far back, you hear everything from the exhaust and surprisingly little combustion noise from the engine itself. Even at full chat, with the exhausts doing their best to replicate the sounds of the 7th Cavalry laying siege to an over amplified bowl of Rice Krispies, little but the oleaginous threshing of expensive metal leaks aft.

On the move, the dual clutch makes for super smooth progress, though manual paddle shift mode finds it a little slow on the uptake by supercar standards. Smooth throttle inputs can be novice-challenging at low speeds too,most noticeably when pulling onto roundabouts from a stand still. Too little throttle leaves you growling nowhere and missing the gap. Too much, by way of compensation, finds you yelling away like a boulder slung from a trebuchet.

At all times, power is, of course, gloriously absolute on demand. But the SLS is at its magnificent best under a somewhat modulated throttle, wherein performance is still sufficient to see off pretty much anything else but progress becomes utterly, deliciously fluid, smooth and effortless.

Artfully putting the whole dubious concept of even Mercedes’ own adaptive trick suspension to the sword, the SLS rides on conventional shock absorbers and double wishbones all round. Though undeniably on the firm side, this set-up offers precisely the long-haul-comfort level of compromise between information and suppleness you’d expect from a car with these capabilities.

Though its balance is sublime and levels of grip and traction are predictably astonishing, the SLS doesn’t, in fact, encourage you to hoon around in the manner of amid-engined Italian. Rather, it offers the very grandest of gran turismo experiences; get in and devour Europe at relentless pace,making absolutely sure you go anywhere via a considerable chunk of Germany for an extended bout of de-restricted face bending.

Destined, I suspect, to remain rare as Hannibal Lecter’s steak, an SLS may be afforded for as little as, um, £168,345. The car I drove was so laden with AMG options and accessories that its price tag actually overhauled its maximum speed, topping out at a thumping £205,680. However, apart from the£5,055 Bang and Olufsen stereo – which is always going to lose out to those bellowing exhausts – I probably wouldn’t bother with any of the extras (£3,425 for a carbon fibre engine cover you’ll never see?). Then again, if you’re in the market for a car such as this, you probably won’t quibble over the odd thirty grand here and there.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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