The return of the Jedi

Merc has launched the spiritual successor to its award-winning 300SL-the SLS AMG. BT More travelled 20,000 km to drive the car on the La Carrera Panamericana, the scene of the supercar's earliest glories.

Vikrant Singh        Print Edition: June 27, 2010

La Carrera Panamericana was Mexico's answer to Italy's Mille Miglia, a road race that ran between 1950 and 1955 to celebrate the opening of the Panamericana highway linking Mexico with the rest of America. At the time, the Mexicans thought a race on the new road would put them on the world map and attract exciting business opportunities.

La Carrera achieved the former quite magnificently with every racer worth his salt dying to make it to the start line, and many did. But it was the interest of the big automotive marquees that really put the race on the map. In the third edition of the race in 1952, Mercedes-Benz burst onto the scene and took the race by storm with its drivers Karl Kling and Herman Lang winning first and second spot, both with the 300SL. But in the same year, La Carrera Panamericana got christened 'the most dangerous road race in the world'. The road surface was terrible and the corners unforgiving, lined with cliffs on one side and a deep valley on the other.

Then there was the scorching heat and extreme changes in altitude. By the time the Panamericana was called off, in 1955, 25 lives had been lost. The 300SL was almost another casualty of the race. Coming around a long right-hand bend in 1952, at almost 200 kmph, Kling's car encountered a flock of vultures on the road. One bird went straight into the front windshield, knocking his co-driver and navigator Hans Klenk bleeding and unconscious. Still, when the race ended, on the top step of the podium were Kling and the bloodied Klenk.

Thus, were born two legends: the La Carrera and the 300SL. The latter's legendary status could in part be put down to its fabulous looks. The streamlined body and the gullwing doors were unique for a car at the time as was its unique build, which was both sporty and light. So great did the legend become that Mercedes later put the 300SL into production as a road going model in 1954.

And now, the company has launched the spiritual successor to the 300SL-the SLS AMG. To drive it, I had to travel 20,000 km across three continents over 47 hours and change three flights. You see, I was going to drive the car on the La Carrera Panamericana. Any less would have been an insult to the legend. Today, the route is a mix of long undulating stretches and flowing twists; garnished with tight bends and banked hairpin corners thrown in for good measure. The surface is mildly broken in most places but, compared to 1952, it's a lot safer and much less demanding.

Today's SLS is a supercar with a gloriously powerful engine, a low slung stance and enough engineering competence to tick all the right supercar boxes, like low centre of gravity, near equal weight distribution front and rear and a rigid bodyshell. Plus, the car's ride quality, even on this road surface, takes you by surprise. It's firm but it never jolts you around. Of course, this isn't what you really want to know about a supercar, but in India, this particular attribute is bound to hold the SLS in good stead.

Its superpowers become abundantly evident the moment you start driving. The throttle response, for starters, is lightning quick. Then, there's the acceleration which sees the SLS hit 100kmph in just 3.8 seconds. In the driver's seat, the pull isn't as vigorous as the figures suggest. It's potent no doubt, but a lot calmer than some of the other supercars available in India.

It does nonetheless warp your sensation of speed. It's nearly impossible to see the needle crossing 100kmph, because by the time you look down at the speedo after having hit the throttle pedal with maximum force at standstill, it's already gone past 200kmph without losing any momentum whatsoever.

Equally invigorating is the SLS' handling. It isn't as involving as a Lamborghini Gallardo, not with its steering feeling a tad mute, but it can certainly go around corners. In fact it flows unrestricted through a series of bends helped by the sharp and predictable turn in, reigned-in body movements and loads of grip. In fact, unless you chuck it really hard and abruptly around a bend, it doesn't even kick its tail out. And this is a rear wheel drive. After some prodding, we did get it to oversteer but, even then, the ESP brought it back in line within no time.

You clearly feel the ESP cutting in, but it's not as pushy as other Mercs. The SLS then, is a fantastic car, no question. And the six-odd Indians who've already put down their money for it will find themselves grinning every time they strap themselves in. Having said that, the SLS still lacks the ferocity and involvement you expect from such a car. Be it the linear power delivery, relaxed gear changes or the lack of steering feel, it leaves you with an impression of the SLS being more of a fast touring car than an out and out supercar. And that's a pity.

(The writer is Road Test Editor, Auto Bild India)

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