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km : Evolution

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15 October 2010

Bartering is a concept deep at the heart of the human experience. I want something you have and I’ll give you my things to get it. Children learn this early on with toys or candy, and when money isn’t abundant, bartering always remains. Here’s a car-related bartering lesson for you: if you want to drive something rare and expensive, it’s best to show up offering a trade. If said trade can’t be equal in monetary value, make sure it’s at least something hard to get a hold of. More specifically, if you want to drive a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing — one of the rarest and most desirable cars ever built — you’d better show up in something impressive, say, its spiritual revival the SLS AMG.



Kilometer first wrote about the legendary 300SL in our Icon series last fall. We photographed a car locally but didn’t drive it, an experience that was both great and sad all at the same time. You can see where this is going. When an SLS AMG showed up at our door for a few days recently, we immediately called that owner and offered him some seat time. Smiles were big. Favors were returned.



Like many new cars, a 2011 SLS AMG doesn’t require a key-turn to come to life, but rather the simple push of a button. However, unlike all other cars, the SLS’ red backlit ignition button flashes to the beat of a starter motor as the 6.2-liter monster under the hood roars to life. In the 300SL, turning a key is just the beginning. We twist the small piece of metal to the on position, but don’t crank the motor yet. Instead, we tug a pull handle to fire an auxiliary fuel pump, then give another handle a few pulls to set the choke. Only then can the final twist of the key happen, and suddenly a 55-year-old racing hero wakes up with a disgruntled yell.



Despite one being a huge, honking V8 and the other a small-displacement straight six, the sounds these cars make — a mish-mash of bass notes, pops, and burbles — are one of the most easily recognized commonalities. If thunderstorms were offered in six- and eight-cylinder models, they’d sound like these two Mercs. When the two travel together, mothers tell their children to take cover.



The SLS and the 300SL really do make wonderful garagemates. The new car was criticized by some when it was revealed for being a little too subtle when the original car buzzed over road race stages looking like a UFO, but on the road the SLS has real presence. It sits low and wide, its light tube taillights cutting precise red slices through the air. And no matter how many times one flips them up and down, gullwing doors never lose their cool. When they’re as thick as the SLS’ though, they do make embarrassing head-on-leather collisions easy. The 300SL doesn’t seem to present the same problem, though it certainly has ergonomic challenges of its own. We’ll just say there’s a good reason why the steering wheel folds horizontal, and that modern day supercar owners have life pretty easy.



The ease of modern supercar ownership doesn’t just apply to passenger space or creature comforts, either. The SLS AMG makes speed a very attainable thing. The steering is direct and weighty, but only by modern Mercedes-Benz standards, which it turns out are quite forgiving. Power from this, the best version of AMG’s best-ever engine, is instantaneous and the company’s first dual-clutch gearbox pounds out shifts in heavyweight blows, all by itself. Mountains can be conquered with latte-in-hand.



Just pulling out of the driveway in the 300SL, I’m feeling compelled to call my grandfather and apologize for my weak and lazy generation. It’s immediately apparent why the great men who piloted this car to victories are treated like superhumans. A high-speed turn of the wheel requires effort from both hands — a low speed twist requires both hands and a good effort from each muscle on up the line to the shoulders. And all of this happens while the left foot is wrestling a stiff, springy clutch with impossibly short travel. The touchy throttle, somehow, is a nice break.



When the rip-snorting inline six is still cold, it takes a delicate touch to make anything between idle and full-throttle return a smooth ride. Once it’s at operating temperature, the situation isn’t much better. The smallest flex of our right toes can completely change the car’s attitude, a feature that isn’t much of an issue on a calm morning drive in the country, but one that must have demanded delicate care on Mille Miglia stages. By contrast, if you’re not happy with the throttle response in the SLS, well, just turn the dial on the center stack to “C,” to make the car act like any run-of-the-mill E-class.



Other than not reminding me to do my stretches before driving the SL, the car’s owner forgot to tell me one other thing before we took off. During the first major braking event after starting, the car pulls to the right to adjust the brakes on that side. On the second stop, it pulls the other way. Then everything’s fine. This car should have a pre-flight checklist.



Brakes, by the way, have come further than just about any other technology in the past half-century. Unboosted, tiny, and quite willing to lock up, the SL’s brakes aren’t much fun for someone hoping to avoid ramming someone’s prized possession into the back of his own very expensive ride home. Climate control takes a close second to brakes for the best sign of progress between these cars, though the old SL’s pop-out side windows do limit the on-the-fly options to glass in the door or glass on the road behind you.



All of the challenges the 300SL present, however, are at the core of its charm. It’s from an era where the “sports” in sports car meant something real for both the car and the driver. No one runs a marathon because it’s easy, and no, the SL wasn’t a novice vehicle.



Thanks to (or unfortunately because of) technology, the people buying supercars today don’t have to go through the same training regimen. With the proper pilot, the SLS AMG is capable of putting just about any car in the world to shame on a track, yet for the guy looking for a status symbol, driving it to dinner won’t be a serious departure from his Mercedes sedan, save the entering-and-exiting procedure.



In a way, these nods to market demands separate the SLS from its mentor, which was a race car first and a street car second. But what made the 300SL so successful in racing was its longevity, durability, and relative (and we do mean relative) comfort, things Mercedes-Benz has since built its brand around. The SLS excels in these fields, where many of its competitors can be finicky, unforgiving, and full of signs of questionable assembly. It’s an extremely capable car that doesn’t forget about the star in its grille. It’s a Mercedes first and a sports car second, and Rudolf Uhlenhaut, father of the SL, would surely approve. And we do, too. As for our 300SL owner? He’s ready to put down a deposit.


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