On a conscious level, the Mercedes–Benz SLS AMG is a cynical marketing ploy designed to milk the memory of Mercedes’s 1950s motorsport achievements. But listen to one at full throttle in a tunnel and all is forgiven. The SLS AMG makes the most viscerally wonderful supercar noise since Ferrari invented Ferraris.
I walk to work. My 30-minute commute takes me across the 1150-ft tunnel below Budapest’s Castle Hill, designed in 1853 by the Scottish engineer Adam Clark. It’s not a bad place to listen to cars, but while I may have heards Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and NSX’s in there over the years, the first time I was literally stopped dead in my tracks was when an SLS AMG entered the tunnel.
The big deal about its noise is that it’s the first modern supercar I’m aware of whose noise is not an homage to Ferraris. Take the Audi R8. It’s a stylistic and mechanical marvel too good for this world, and it’s magical in every way, but the noise has no truly original character: it’s a well-executed vespid Ferrari scream.
On the other hand, the SLS is, for lack of a better word, a monster. What makes the noise hard to appreciate online, and what’s taken me two years to write this post after Lewis Hamilton and Dr. Z first showed the car at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show, is that the noise is mostly an interplay of deep registers, which doesn’t reproduce very well on the earphones and laptop speakers where 99% of non-real noise reaches us these days. It’s a guttural, complex, frightening growl with a hint of Corvette C6.R at Le Mans. The first thing that came to mind, standing slack-jawed in the tunnel, was that this is what AMG’s famous Red Pig must have sounded like at Spa in 1971. Downshifts come with proper booms more at home with open-piped race cars. The proper term, I believe, would be cracklesnortpopboom.
A few days later, I heard another one, this time without the acoustic aid of Clark’s tunnel. It was puttering along at 20 mph in second gear, and it sounded no less vicious.
What we’ve got here is an entirely original take on what a supercar should sound like. It must be a bit ridiculous to feel a deep, sad longing for a Mercedes under the age of 60, but I’m afraid that’s just what I felt when I waved goodbye to both Benz and tunnel. Go find one and ask the owner to make it cracklesnortpopboom. You will never listen to a Ferrari the same way again.
Photograph by Mike Pan