Gullwing rekindles

Panamericana glory

Mercedes SLS AMG in Mexico
Mercedes 300 SL drives Highway 190 in Mexico
Mercedes 300 SL, interior
Mercedes SLS AMG, interior
1952 Mercedes 300 SL with SLS AMG in Mexico
Mercedes SLS AMG on Highway 190, Mexico
Mercedes SLS AMG in Mexico, side, action
Mercedes SLS AMG in Mexico, rear, action

FOR those in the know Highway 190 in Mexico is as famous a stretch of road as the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans or the Grand Corniche leading from Monte Carlo.

The list of drivers who have travelled its 1,930 miles reads like a Who's Who of motorsport.

Fangio, Ascari, Bonetto and Phil Hill are among those who back in the 1950s made the route famous as the Carrera Panamericana - the most dangerous race in the world.

Despite its fearsome reputation - 27 drivers died in the five years the event was staged - the race was hailed on a par with the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio.

Now, 58 years after a famous victory, Mercedes-Benz has returned to Central America with the modern incarnation of its gullwing supercar - the 197mph SLS AMG.

In 1952 Mercedes set new standards in the Panamericana with its 300 SL taking first and second places completing the race in a record 18 hours 51 minutes and 19 seconds at an average speed in excess of 100mph.

The event was to last only another two years before it was scratched from the motor racing calendar because of its poor safety record.

Driving the new SLS along Highway 190 it is almost impossible to comprehend the speeds attained by the Mercedes team back in the heyday of the Panamericana.

Following the route taken by the original SL from Oaxaca close to the border with Guatemala to Puebla, some 40 miles south of Mexico City, it took almost six hours to clock up nearly 300 miles.

The SLS is an awesome car with its 6.2-litre V8 pumping out 571bhp. Acceleration is astonishing at 3.8 seconds 0 to 60 and the thunder from the exhaust as grand as you'd expect from a full-blown racing machine.

But the roads in Mexico are peppered with formidable speed humps which have to be negotiated at walking pace - and at an angle to avoid bottoming out in the low-slung SLS - making steady progress impossible.

Nevertheless it is possible to sample the full potential of the SLS on some twisty roads through the cactus fields and mountainous stretches mid-point through the journey.

The aluminium SLS is a seven-speed automatic with a carbon fibre driveshaft and suspension set up developed from Formula One.

With a weight distribution of 47 to 53 per cent this rear wheel drive supercar is incredibly agile.

Opt for any of the pre-programmed sports modes on the transmission and the car comes alive with rapid-fire gearchanges from the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters.

It is beautifully balanced, light and precise to handle and not as demanding to drive as others of this ilk.

To match its performance the SLS can be fitted with ceramic brakes adding extra stopping power and its long wheelbase with wide track means it is well mannered under heavy braking.

In a straight line the power delivery is very brisk, redlining at 7,200rpm and while Mercedes claims the SLS will average around 19mpg we managed just under 15mpg.

The drive is inspiring yet the cockpit with its leather upholstery, carbon fibre trim, climate control and Bang & Olufsen sound system make for added luxury in such a potent machine, now a regular sight on TV as the safety car in this year's F1 Grand Prix series.

Prior to the drive to Puebla we were able to sample an original 300 SL - not the triumphant Panamericana machine but the car which won Le Mans in 1952.

This cherished SL now lives in America but it can still perform as was demonstrated in a 20 minute run along the lower stretches of Highway 190.

Weighing in at just 870 kilos - half the weight of the SLS - the punch from the 3.1-litre straight six is still heavyweight. The engine developed 180bhp but that was sufficient for an official top speed of 150mph.

The crackle and rasp from the exhaust remains totally enthralling but the cockpit, without opening windows, would become an oven in the scorching Mexican sun.

Putting a value on such a car is nigh on impossible. Of the few which appear at auction prices in excess of £350,000 are not uncommon.

The car which carries on the gullwing legend will cost from £150,000 with first deliveries of the SLS due in the UK this summer.

 

 

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