There is an argument that very little technology trickles down from Formula One to the road car world. For example, you don’t see many affordable carbon fibre cars, high-revving engines or button-festooned steering wheels.
In truth that’s probably a good thing. Today’s world is all about saving money and fuel. And it’s fair to say that Formula One is as much about branding and marketing opportunities as it is about world-beating technology.
It can work in the opposite way, however. Get your road car in front of F1’s vast audience and you’re guaranteed significant exposure. Mercedes worked this out a long time ago, which is why the various official and medical cars are all from the German firm.
It’s the same for the safety car, which has changed over the years to whatever was new in the Mercedes stable. And, unless you were under a rock somewhere recently, you can’t have failed to notice the leading performance – literally – of the SLS AMG at a particularly wet Canadian Grand Prix.
Positioned as the marques’ ‘halo’ car, images of the SLS splashing around leading a rag-tag bunch of drenched F1 cars were beamed around the world. In marketing-speak you can’t buy that level of coverage. You can, however, buy the car.
Okay, so only a few people will have the means to acquire it, but for us mere mortals it does beg the question – does the SLS cut it in the real world? Away from demanding drivers, preening celebrity guests and the cameras, the SLS has to cope with speed humps, potholed roads and jealous fellow road users.
At first glance the SLS is an intimidating beast. The car’s bonnet is long and wide, making you doubt your ability to thread it through traffic even before you’re sat behind the wheel. And before you do, you’ll experience the theatrical motions of the car’s gullwing doors. Mercedes makes no apologies for this homage to its famous 300 SL. In fact, the whole car is a modern day tribute to that groundbreaking supercar.
Once behind the wheel – there’s a quickly learnt knack to not hitting your head and deftly sliding down into the car’s bucket seats – your view is filled with that long bonnet. The various controls and displays will be familiar to fans of other AMG cars, but the noise after pressing the starter button will not.
The SLS might use AMG’s 6.2-litre V8 engine, a staple unit for a few years now, but its raucous, hard-edged sound is the result of some serious fettling by AMG engineers. The result is 571 horsepower and the promise of an unlimited 197mph top speed and a zero to 62mph sprint time of 3.8 seconds. With its twin, flush tailpipes emitting everything from thunderous roars to the pops and bangs of a race-tuned competition car, the SLS not only looks the part but sounds it too.
On the road the SLS makes no attempt to disguise its performance potential. Rumbling around town at sedate speeds you know people are looking. It’s partly the car’s appearance but mainly the noise – even at low speeds there’s an urgent rumble from the car’s tailpipes.
Thankfully the SLS is anything but a beast to drive in town. You sit low down and the view forward is dominated by that bonnet, but you soon get used to the cabin layout, the auto gearbox and how to best position the car for roundabouts, junctions and the like.
Predictably, though, the SLS excels away from the city limits. Even if you don’t plan on exploiting its full potential, acceleration is rapid and the engine noise intoxicating. You sit close to the rear axle; the engine is located behind the front axle for better weight distribution and the speed at which the SLS changes direction belies its size. For all the car’s hi-tech driving aids – and there are many – the experience is refreshingly old school and rewarding.
On a track the SLS has the potential to prompt a smile wider than the arc of its powerslide. For all the built-in Mercedes safety aids, the SLS will slide and drift like the best Japanese modified cars. To say it’s a hooligan is an understatement, but this is also true of other AMG cars. Turn all the aids off and it’s amazing what this car can do.
With the SLS Mercedes has created a sublime mix of monster and sophisticated long distance grand tourer. It boasts all the luxury and refinement of an SL, but packs the punch of a genuine supercar. Some rivals deliver a more precise and clinical performance, but there’s something great about being able to rumble along to an old style V8 soundtrack.
And what an engine AMG’s 6.2-litre lump is. Still, for all its mighty power and noise, there’s one thing that trumps it: the car’s gullwing doors. Combining theatre with a surprising dose of practicality, nothing comes close in the ‘wow’ department.
F1 drivers are said to have the best job in the world but I reckon the guy driving the safety car might be the true winner. Having sampled it in the real world I would have to agree.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Model: Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, from £168,395 on the road.
Engine: 6.2-litre petrol unit developing 571bhp.
Transmission: 7-speed automatic transmission as standard, driving the rear wheels.
Performance: Maximum speed 197mph, 0-62mph 3.8 seconds.
CO2 Rating: 308g/km.
By Iain Dooley