When you’re told you will be driving an electric car around a racetrack, seldom do you get excited. It’s not that you won’t have fun – driving a Nissan Leaf on-track is enjoyable – but you’d rather be driving something with more power than your typical airport rental. At the Paul Ricard circuit, in southern France, I had the chance to drive an electric race car, the $522,000, 740-hp Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Electric Drive, also known as the fastest production EV in the world.
As we arrived at the track, we were ushered into a decked-out pit lane garage, with cut-away cars showcasing technology, and a beverage station against the back wall. Immediately a blue glow, glistening in the Mediterranean sun, caught my attention.
Peering out of the garage, I saw a Mercedes SLS garnished in the most eye-catching, over-the-top, ghastly chrome blue coloring. Next to it was an equally flamboyant aluminous yellow version. The Day-Glo colors typically not seen on vehicles outside Sir Elton John's garage are just the beginning of what make these cars unlike anything else in the world.
The SLS stands as Mercedes’ flagship model, boasting super-car performance, aggressive styling, and a price tag fitting only the wealthiest of speed freaks; when you add AMG to the title, these attributes only heighten. Unlike other supercars, these were attached to 22kW power outlets, readying for a select group to sample their revolutionary bite.
What makes them incredible? For starters, they have four electric motors – each powering a separate wheel, a unique set-up in the world of electric cars. This makes the SLS Electric all-wheel drive, but its benefits run deeper. By powering the wheels independently, with magnet synchronous motors, the torque can flow precisely to each corner. A button on the center console chooses between three settings: Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus. Comfort is the least aggressive, leaving the car with a healthy chunk of understeer. Sport provides more power to the outside wheels during cornering to create a neutral balance, whereas Sport Plus delivers the most aggressive torque vectoring, turning the car into a tire-smoking drift-machine.
As I readied to climb into the bright yellow gullwing, an AMG engineer read the spec sheet out: “740 horsepower, 738 foot-pounds of torque, zero to 62 mph in 3.9 seconds. This is the most technologically advanced electric vehicle ever made,” he said. “With today’s capabilities, you cannot achieve more.”
As I fastened my seat belt and adjusted the seat position, the AMG engineer jumped in the passenger seat. He began explaining how closely they worked with the Mercedes Formula One engineers, given their experience with batteries used in the team’s KERS system.
The high-voltage batteries consist of 12 modules, each with 72 lithium-ion cells. Regeneration occurs during deceleration, but the rate can be increased or decreased by clicking the paddle shifters behind the suede-wrapped steering wheel.
Batteries delivering this much power need an equally impressive cooling system. In the SLS Electric, two low-temperature cooling circuits ensure the conditions remain optimum. With a three-phase, 22-kilowatt charging system, the 60 kWh batteries can be charged in just three hours. With a normal plug, it takes around 20 hours. A full charge can take the SLS 155 miles.
Having become more familiar with the mechanics of the SLS Electric, I was ready to hit the asphalt. An AMG button on the center console reduces power, responsiveness, and generally makes the car docile. Like the torque-vectoring button, there are three settings: Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus. We started out in Comfort.
With an eerie silence (there is a button that makes fake engine noise if you prefer), we pull onto the track. You have to press the throttle hard and it feels remarkably calm (and slow). But that is exactly what you want in Comfort mode: a car that cruises effortlessly in day-to-day traffic. After a couple of laps, the AMG engineer looks at me with a smile and says, “You ready?”
“Indeed I am,” I reply, as he presses the button, skipping Sport mode altogether, moving straight to Sport Plus and igniting the full muscle of the SLS Electric.
Immediately the car sprung to life, life a giant swordfish fighting a tourist's hook. The entire 748 ft-lbs of torque is available with every touch of the throttle. We turn the torque vectoring system to Sport Plus too, engaging the most aggressive driving dynamics possible. It was time to see what this astounding piece of engineering could do.
The steering is amazingly precise, light, and nimble. It’s worth noting that the weighty electric motors and batteries add roughly 1,200 lbs. over the standard SLS AMG. That’s a lot, and you would think it drastically kills performance. No doubt you can feel it, but a 1 cm reduction in the center of gravity, due to the excess mass being fitted on the floor, helps offset the deficiency.
The weight does produce more body roll, and, with torque vectoring in Sport Plus mode, the back end wants to slide incessantly. It does so, however, in a way that’s controllable — and a hell of a lot of fun. But if that’s not your style, going back to Sport mode delivers the perfect neutral balance. The ability to dramatically adjust the handling is amazing, modifying the car’s behavior to suit your individual needs.
With such a surfeit of instant torque, you might think the throttle would be jerky and unpredictable. It isn’t. Due to a longer drive ratio, powering the car up to 155 mph, the initial launch is not as demonic as you’d expect, or perhaps even desire. Without question, it’s extremely rapid, but it’s not as quick as the SLS Black Series — even though it has more total power — due to its hefty weight.
Despite this, the car’s performance on track is astonishing. Is it as good as its brutish combustion engined twin? No. But it doesn’t have to be. The technology is fascinating and proves that EVs can be dynamic and exciting to drive.
Amazing creations, such as the SLS Electric, are not immune to problems, however. As I exited a hairpin bend, the whistle from the motor stopped. I ground to a halt, with warning lights illuminating the dash in illegible German. From what little I could translate, it appeared to be a fault with the batteries.
Despite the engineer’s obvious embarrassment, I showcased a grin from ear to ear. After all, who drifts an EV? But, with the SLS Electric going on sale in June, problems like this are worrying.
As I returned to the garage, other journalists looked on with a level of intrigue rarely detected. The SLS Electric made an impression on everyone. It’s like glimpsing into the future, with its bold colors, revolutionary technology, and mind-blowing price tag.
Yet despite the excellence of the SLS Electric Drive, it wouldn’t replace the traditional combustion engine; but, if I had half a million bucks to blow, it would make a fabulous sidekick. It’s not available in America, so I’d have to move to Europe, and I’d probably need some new shoes to match its effervescent styling. I’d likely have to befriend Sir Elton John, too, but it’d all be worthwhile. After all, it’s an electric supercar that can drift.