Thursday, December 22, 2011

My new love: a Mercedes SLS AMG

Who loves you baby?  Just like Telly Savalas, you'll feel like a card-carrying member of the player's club when you're driving the Mercedes SLS. Or maybe a wealthy French playboy on his way from Nice to Monaco to place million dollar bets at the craps table. And regardless of how fast it may be, you can't escape the paparazzi when driving this car. Everywhere I went, people were whipping out their phones to snap a picture of this beauty.

But despite how nice it may look on the outside, driving it is an even better experience. With the 6.3 liter V8 burbling and popping away, and the long bow rising as you accelerate, you feel like you're at the helm of a cigarette boat for the road. And the choppy west side highway added to the illusion by making it feel as if I were motor-boating on a rough lake.

Yes, I really lucked out when I stopped by the Classic Car Club this morning and noticed that the Gullwing was still there. Being one of the newer and more popular cars, it's hard to get your hands on this one. The woman who handles the reservations confirmed that no one had booked it, and asked if I'd like for it to be washed. After having a brief out-of-body experience and pinching myself to see if I was dreaming, I think I just said "It doesn't matter".   She took that as a yes, and 20 minutes later, the silver bullet was washed and ready to go.

I  took my usual route up the Merritt Autobahn to the back roads of Greenwich, Connecticut and had plenty of opportunities to get a feel for the car's handling.  Just as Rolls Royce used to say, "it's adequate". There's nothing you can throw at this Mercedes that it can't handle including  the many bumps, potholes and road imperfections you'll find in the Northeast. 

And of course, the power is incredible. I don't think I even managed to completely floor the throttle because the acceleration is so ferocious. In an era when Mercedes is strapping turbos or superchargers to nearly all of their engines, it's a nice surprise to find that this engine is naturally aspirated. There is ample torque everywhere, and though the redline is at a relatively tame 7200, you rarely get a chance to go that far on public roads.  Disabling the traction control will get the tail stepping out pretty quickly and it's clear that this car is capable of extreme hooning. But being the refined and relaxed gentleman that I was today, I did not indulge (too much).

I typically put more value on performance, clutch pedals and high revving engines, but this car had me re-thinking my priorities. Whereas the Ferrari I took out on Tuesday had me laughing maniacally and constantly revving it to redline, today I was perfectly happy to just cruise at 60 mph with a contented smirk. In the real world of potholes and traffic jams, this is a super car you can enjoy every day.  And while I'm sure it would be perfectly at ease power sliding around a track, you don't necessarily feel the need to engage in any tomfoolery with this car.  Whereas I felt a bit strung out after my day in the 430, this car had me feeling more like Mitt Romney's hair.

The whole interior is beautifully crafted and understated despite the red leather seats. There's nothing tacky or cheap feeling here. Even the air vents turn as if they're mounted on ball bearings, so smooth is there operation.  The headliner is made of rich, black suede, and everything else is covered in smooth leather or aluminum all perfectly stitched together.  And I'm happy to say that I have no idea who makes the stereo for this Mercedes. Unlike many high-end cars, the SLS doesn't have Bose, Bang & Olufsen, or Harman Kardon logos scattered all over the place.  Some discrete AMG logos on the seat backs and the Mercedes symbol on the steering wheel are the extent of the branding.

Despite the no-name stereo, the sound out of the speakers was excellent. The ipod hookup in the glovebox worked well,  and I was soon listening to "Lovely Day" by Bill Withers. With the spring-like weather we had in New York today, it actually could have been a perfect day were it not for the traffic.  But with my new-found positive attitude, I used the time to try out the out the car's "infotainment" system. The Mercedes COMMAND system resembles older versions of BMW's iDrive and can be equally annoying to use. There's a small wheel in the center console and 2 buttons: back and clear. No short-cuts to go directly to the radio, navigation or telephone menus.  It took me a while to get the hang of it, and even then, it was never quite intuitive. But despite the clunky nav interface, the radio faceplate has a nice Braun calculator, minimalist look about it.

I ended up using the clunky voice command to enter an address into the navigation system. You have to say the city, state and street separately as opposed to the single sentence that some other systems allow. Siri she's not. The nav lady sounds like she could use some Xanax. She tends to end her phrases with an anxious-sounding upward inflection. And the directions themselves are a bit odd as she'll say things like "Turn right..drum 1/2 a mile".

While the car's  onboard phonebook was filled with useful entries such as "Dd" and "CCc", I could not get it to sync my phone's contacts. But then, if I owned this beast, I'm sure I'd have a live personal assistant to take care of boring details such as programming the nav system or calling friends to tell them how awesome my car is. 

Rounding out the electronic fun is an "AMG" menu buried in the car's computer that contains a lap timer  as well as water, oil and transmission temperatures. There's also a Ferrari-like dial that allows you to easily select various modes for the transmission and throttle response. To be honest, I couldn't really tell the difference. And with so much torque, the 7 available speeds are more a way of deciding how much noise you want to make at any particular moment.  An AMG button lets you save your favorite setting for quick access. On this car it had been programmed to select "Sport plus with traction control on". Probably a smart move.

I headed back into Manhattan quite low on gas. Yes, the SLS drinks faster than a Bavarian at Oktoberfest averaging somewhere around 11 mpg.  But that concern was soon swept away by the constant smiles, thumbs up and waves I got. Everyone loves this car. When I finally pulled into a gas station to fill up, the gas station attendant was beaming and just kept saying "nice car man". And as I swung open the gullwing door, some teens in a Honda Civic drove by screaming and cheering. Even Kim Kardashian would be hard-pressed to get this much attention. You'd expect Manhattanites to be pretty jaded about nice cars, but nearly everyone stopped and did double takes as a I drove by. It's hard not to feel a little like you've just cured cancer.

As I pulled back into the garage, the man who greeted me asked how it was. I  kept smiling and repeating superlatives and he just nodded and said "I know".  Now that I've recovered enough of my faculties to use my words again, I'd say that the SLS combines the performance of a super car,  the feel good factor of a classic muscle car, and the beauty and comfort of a great GT car.  I'm thinking quite seriously about selling my apartment and moving into one soon.

Starting up the SLS Gullwing

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Drove a Ferrari F430 today

I drove a Ferrari F430 today. It was a 2005 model in rosso corsa (red) with over 85,000 miles!  That's pretty rare to find as most Ferraris tend to be garage queens with less than 20,000 miles on them. This one belonged to the Classic Car Club of Manhattan and sees much more use than single owner cars.  And while it's led a long and hard life, today was my first time driving it (or any Ferrari for that matter). Though I wish I had discovered the club a long time ago, they recently introduced a much cheaper membership option that I can actually (barely) afford.

                                             T'was the night before Christmas

When I arrived at the club to pick up the car, I spent a good 5 minutes just staring at it. Sure, I've seen them before on the street, but today was different because soon it would be mine!  One of the staff members fired up the engine and my heart really did start pounding. The sound is just so incredible; alive and raw. Put 8 Ducatis in a blender along with some tiger blood and you might come close.  And 6 years and multiple drivers still could not mask the scent of Ferrari leather. I wish my apartment could smell this good.

The door opens with the help of a tiny door handle that yields a solid and satisfying click.  The seats seemed firm but very comfortable. And having briefly sat in its older brother, a Magnum-style 328, the driving position seemed quite good with well placed pedals and space to rest your left foot.   There is almost no visible plastic; nearly every surface is covered in leather, aluminum or carbon fiber. The circular air vents, radio and turn stalks are pretty much the only plastic you see. And nearly everywhere you look reminds you that you! are! in! a! Ferrari!  There's even a little badge that reminds you of Ferrari's F1 championships in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, and you guessed it, 2004.

As you'd expect, almost nothing is where you'd expect it to be. The mirror controls? In the center console. Window swtiches? Next to the radio. Door locks? On the door, but where you'd expect the door release to be. Strangely, the lock switch only locked the doors and I never did figure out how to unlock them again without using the button on the key. The "frunk" release is located on a row of identically shaped switches next to the steering wheel. The horn is activated by pressing a button embedded in the wheel's right thumb rest.

The owner of the club had shown me pictures during my orientation of epic crashes (mostly involving Ferrari F355s) some of which had ended with the cars being burnt to a crisp. These images flashed through my head as I inched past some port authority cops and a few occupy wall street type cyclists. At the first stop light the car decided to toy with me and not shift into first. Being an F1 style gearbox (or flappy paddle as the Brits like to say), there wasn't much to do other than try again and hope for the best. The dump truck behind me wasn't amused and leaned on the horn. After what seemed like an eternity, the car finally decided to shift into first.  But despite its high mileage and Italian provenance, nothing else would go wrong with the car that day.

Accelerating onto the West side highway, I became aware of just what a beast I was dealing with. It felt as if the car was urging me to accelerate harder and harder. Up until about 5k, it seemed like a very fast car. After that my neck snapped back and I started laughing maniacally.  Downshifting to 3rd brought on such a satisfying "blat" from the exhaust that I just wanted to do it again and again. It is the first "automatic" I've driven where I didn't miss having a clutch pedal. And the shifts  are fast and smooth. I'd always read such awful things about  sequential manual transmissions that this was a surprise.  If you told me it has a dual clutch style gearbox I'd have believed it. 

The rear visibility was much better than I expected and the view itself is, of course, amazing because you're looking at the top of the engine and its  red intake runners.  You can see it rocking on its mounts when you rev the engine. That activity alone could easily occupy me for a day or so.  And the heat from the engine becomes quite apparent after about 30 minutes of driving. I don't think I'd ever need to  use the heater in this car.

I headed up to the back roads near Greenwich, Connecticut to get off the highway and have some fun. After getting stuck behind various slow moving traffic, I lucked out  with a long,  empty stretch of curvy road on route 22.  Composing my downshift opera while taking corners was fun, but these roads were clearly child's play for this car. And I wasn't about to push my luck on a cold winter day in a feisty exotic.

Being the chronic button pusher that I am, I had to try playing with the various settings on the steering wheel mounted manettino.  In addition to  adjusting the stability control, it also affects the suspension and gearbox. In any model below "sport" the computer will shift for you at redline. In "race" mode it is content to let you bang off the rev limiter. There's also an auto mode that is activated by pushing a button on the center console. It really should be labeled "granny" because it shifts at about 3k and I quickly tired of it. On the lower modes, the suspension can be surprisingly supple. That's all relative though, because even running over a manhole cover feels a bit like hitting a pothole. I ended up keeping it in "sport" mode most of the time which is probably what most owners do.

By this point, I was down to a half tank of gas and decided to stop. I was happy to find a nearly deserted, self-serve station for this task.  No sooner had I congratulated myself for remembering that the gas cap was on the driver's side did I hit my first obstacle. The click I heard after hitting the gas release switch was just a tease. The cover would not budge. After trying various combinations of pushing and pulling on the cover, I got back in the car. It finally dawned on me to turn the key in the ignition and try my luck again. Sure enough, the cover flew open. Same thing goes for the glove compartment in case you're wondering. I guess it's Ferrari's version of a security system. The gas cap itself is a satisfying solid metal piece like something you'd  find on a 60s race car.

So, all of the cliches are present and accounted for: handling on rails, spine tingling exhaust noises, leather smoother than a lamb's foreskin, head-snapping acceleration,  if you have the means i highly recommend one. Other than needing to be in the top .01% to comfortably own and operate on of these things, are there really any downsides?  I understand now why God (or Satan) invented Porsches. A more upright driving position and bit more practicality make them easier to use on a regular basis. While I was comfortable during the 100 miles I had it, I don't think it would be my first choice as a road trip car.   And as beautiful as it is, I have to admit to preferring the sleek, understated simplicity of an Aston Martin. Or the approachable, feel good factor of an American muscle car.  But with access to 40 cars, making  these tough choices is something I'll be able to do over the next year.