The closest thing to a big electric supercar in my life until now had been the defunct (and ugly, in hindsight) Honda Dual Note concept first shown in 2001 at the once-popular Tokyo motor show. It used all the electricity from the power stations that Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan managed not to destroy.
This one is real. The SLS E-Cell was talked about a lot right at its launch in 2009 and I've been dogging the heels of the Daimler villagers in Stuttgart and Affalterbach ever since. Then came the urgent call: The prototype, painted an appetizing matte "Lumilectric Magno" with matte-black everything else, would be left for testing on the Norwegian coast at the oil-derrick-servicing Kristiansund aerodrome.
Electric unripened-banana-colored supercars + 24-hour daylight + Norwegian coast = fun times for all. And you can't beat the salmon during the breaks in driving action.
Oh, and there was David Coulthard, too, right. He's retired from Formula One but still making the automotive circuits. I just wish that on the flight up he'd held up a warning flag prior to asking me if I'd yet joined the Mile High Club. The funniest things happen in business class.
Coulthard was just down from Brussels for 24 hours or so and had some time before heading to Germany for some DTM testing with Mercedes. He's a brand ambassador now, so he was joining our group for some publicity stills and video at the E-Cell's wheel.
And by the way, I proudly joined the Mile High Club somewhere between Oakland and Burbank back in 1985. What-do you say "no" when a Formula One guy asks a thing like that?
You cannot miss the SLS E-Cell's Emergency color scheme. If you have your back turned, however, you would miss it since it is truly silent. Those four electric motors make not a whisper at parking lot speeds. There's a low whine as I hammer the pedal and then the kickdown final inch, but other than that the car does have a very nice purr to it when switched on and standing still if you have your ear pressed to the fender panels.
So, first the filthy-minded yet somehow irresistibly chisel-chinned Coulthard took the SLS E-Cell for a whir. He returned to the helicopter-packed tarmac all smiles. Tough always to tell if these ambassadors for brands are just in ambassador mode, but he seemed to really like the silent SLS.
Then it was my turn. For all the kilograms dropped from ripping the M159 6.2-liter motor out of the SLS AMG, not to mention all of the emissions bits and entire exhaust system, we get back 992 pounds with the four electric motors, three-section lithium-ion battery pack assembly scheme, power electronics unit, and single-speed Getrag gearbox and transaxle. The good part is that all the weight is, as on all such current situations, kept very low down in the body, so there are good driving effects. The effective yaw point goes lower here by 23mm (0.90 of an inch). The bad part is that it's just plain pig-heavy at 4,585 pounds, especially in this early prototype form.
And this is a strict prototype, I must warn you. Incredibly open-talking and intelligent SLS E-Cell project maestros Daniel Semmler and Jan Feustel were not shaken or stirred when I leapt from the car after a spirited 44-mile-long jaunt and announced that the thing was damned heavy and that this was most likely due to the fact that the current steering setup is bloody awful-nay, dangerous.
Good thing, too, that they therefore had us doing this in remote Norway with its golf-cart speed limits and non-existent Norwegian traffic.
Both Semmler and Feustel looked right at me and said I was exactly right. Then they pointed out the whys. First, though the 525-hp car is technically all-wheel-drive with the four Brusa electric motors from Switzerland, the power and 650 lb-ft of torque from zero rpm are forever 50/50 split right now and there is no fancy torque vectoring yet on board either fore-aft or side-to-side. In addition, the steering strategy is only now getting the attention it deserves and this is a very complicated bit in making sure the SLS E-Cell is a dynamics king among poseur plug-in princes.
So, I went with what I was handed. And Daimler/Mercedes/AMG and all others who entrust us supreme almighty know-it-alls with early prototypes are to be vigorously applauded and patted too hard on their backs. This is the best and most constructive way of developing a car for humans imaginable: use human dummies.
Then we hit the airport tarmac in between medivac and oil derrick helicopter take-offs and landings. First, big, hard accelerations for a kilometer or so, then a gripping slalom section on the way back to the nervous technicians. The striking thing here was the hurtling momentum in the midst of all the silence. The feeling is awesome awesomeness and thankfully the five-stage regenerative brakes work wonderful wonders in their turn. Thank the Nordic gods on that one.
Things were good on the slalom too, and that's not me just being an ambassador. The normal SLS can get squirrely in tight dynamics, the rear end flinging itself around a little too much from an over-eager throttle with all the chassis nannies switched off. Here, however, with the lower and greater weight, plus four-wheel drive of a sort, the slides are totally controllable and a letting-off of the go pedal wrangles things in really well without any braking usually. What I'm saying is that the normal SLS really would be well served by an ultra-sophisticated all-wheel-drive system.
Brake regeneration to the 324 Kokam lithium-ion battery cells happens via a new-thinking system. The SLS still has those anodized aluminum shift paddles at the steering wheel. Notice that? Well, no, they are not there to shift up and down through the single-speed gearbox. They're there for when you find your available battery energy falling below 90 percent and you are in a sailing or off-go-pedal situation. There are five stages and the dash lights indicate how many of these stages are available to you depending on your level of charge. You can accordingly "shift" up and down between these with the paddles. Cute, but I don't feel it really adds anything to the technology apart from a little involvement. Not evil, certainly, and the paddles are just sitting there anyway begging to be used.
Current range is 150km (93 miles) and the technicians are pushing hard for 200km+ (±125 miles). The three separate-but-equal 108-cells-per battery packs-one at your feet, one through the tunnel, one between you and the luggage-together take relatively normal amounts of time to recharge AC or DC. But the prototype didn't even yet have a cut in the panels for a plug-in point, so it's hard to address.
The guys on site at least said that the E-Cell SLS will make 100 km/h (62 mph) acceleration in a time that equals the normal SLS, 3.8 seconds or so. To 200 km/h (125 mph) they say it's currently at 11 seconds. And that's 4,585 pounds of curb weight, which number engineer Semmler insists upon getting to just below 2 tons by the time SLS E-Cells start leaving the production line.
Everyone insists, too, that these will be buyers' cars, not goofy leasers' toys.
Slammin' salmon. And we all discovered why the SLS E-Cell guys were so excited about the car's prospects in supercar-unfriendly Norway (at least 100 percent taxation over the price of the car). Turns out the money grubbing Norwegian governors let all electrics go tax-free! Could this make the SLS E-Cell a high-volume seller up here?
Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG E-Cell
Four-wheel electric engines, three-section lithium-ion battery pack, all-wheel drive
Four 98-kW electric units; 8300-rpm redline
Single-speed Getrag unit for each wheel; constant 50/50 torque split at present
Pushrod damper and spring front; SLS multilink rear
Ceramic composite rotors, 402mm front, 360mm rear; ABS, ESP
Wheels and Tires
Forged one-piece black aero wheels, 19-inch front, 20-inch rear; Tires: sidewalls were scraped clean to hide specs
Peak Power: 525 hp @ 12,000 rpm
Peak Torque: 650 lb-ft @ 0 rpm
0-60 mph: 3.8 sec.
Top Speed: 150 mph*
*limited to save battery charge