Thomas Steinbeck is too quick for my note taking, so I put a tape recorder on him as well. The exclamations, the damning anecdotes, and the careening non sequiturs are firing off as if dispensed by the fuel injectors of the Mercedes SLS’s 563-hp V-8.
“Oh my god, this is fabulous. It’s like getting into a P-38 fighter. [To his wife:] Hey, Gail, you’re working till the end of your life so I can afford this car! We’ll be back in two or three hours. [To me:] I have a bar to show you that you won’t believe. My father always said he wouldn’t own a Mercedes because he said that everybody will think he stole it.”
With a gray beard covering a long chin at the bottom of a tapered face—and being a man of letters himself, who has likely had a snort or two before our arrival—the only living son of the late Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck gives the impression, at 66, of being a close facsimile of his old man.
“My father was born in 1902—he went through the Depression. He used to hold his cigarettes like this [vertically] because they burned slower that way. His idea of a car was anything you could run on cat shit.”
We crossed paths with Thomas Steinbeck in California’s Big Sur, where the Pacific Ocean slams in a white froth against the green parapets of the coastal mountains. These are the footlights of John Steinbeck’s stage. Here, on Cannery Row and the Monterey Peninsula, in the Salinas Valley lettuce fields, and among the ranches tucked in the verdant folds of the Gabilan and Santa Lucia ranges, the great novelist set some of America’s best-known fiction, from Tortilla Flat to East of Eden.
Two reasons draw us, in a $202,550 SLS AMG: If there’s a place with a better mix of photogenic roads, plate tectonics and the highway department have yet to create it. And, John Steinbeck was a car man.
His Depression-era characters lived in the dawning age of automobile dependence, and his works are punctuated with odes to jalopies and, specifically, the Model T. In Cannery Row, he wrote, “Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars.” His flagship novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is, in part, a kind of road-trip tale in a 1925 Dodge.
“My father,” says the son, “had a ranch in Los Gatos, and down in the pasture, there was this Model T. Every Sunday, he liked to take his .30-30 and go out there and shoot it up. This went on for several years. And then my father got curious to see how much damage he had caused. He went down to the Model T, pressed forward the spark arrester, or some technique we don’t do anymore, and, for the hell of it, went over and cranked it. It started right up. He swore the Model T was the greatest car in America.”
John Steinbeck would have recognized the SLS as not a car of the people, if only from the lupine snarl of its enormous engine. In his youth, few cars could reach 60 mph. The SLS needs just 3.5 seconds to do so, a time that confers supercar status.
Based on our encounters, most people think the SLS is “that new McLaren,” a reference to the McLaren-built Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, which ended its six-year, 2175-unit run in 2009 base-priced at $500,750. In fact, the SLS’s base price is just $188,750, and it’s slightly quicker than the one SLR we’ve tested. Even the Paycheck Joes we met think the SLS is a bargain, so the car’s prospects seem good.
Thumb the unlock button on the key, and small grab handles pop out of the doors, which lift easily. To get in, stick your right leg into the footwell, pivot your hips, extend your behind, and drop. Then haul in your left leg as you would a mackerel on a line. To decamp, reverse the procedure. And be sure to bend over as if exiting a helicopter, as just about every neophyte bangs his head on those crazy doors.
Don’t look for the buttons to close them.The gas-strut–supported gullwings close only with a long forearm reach or, as my wife mutters under her breath, with the long-forsaken return of chivalry. However, the doors do automatically detach from the car in a rollover crash [see below].
“The Germans are really into explosive bolts,” says Thomas, when we explain this fact about the doors. “The [Focke-Wulf] Fw-190 had explosive bolts on the canopy so you could blow it off and jump out of the airplane. I was a student of [designer] Kurt Tank. Unfortunately, he was building the fighter planes that were killing Americans, but I still think he was one of the greatest designers of all time. He has been my hero for a long time. Genius in action.”
Startup of the SLS is by push button, as is selecting park. The rest of the controls will be familiar to anyone who has driven a late-model C-through-S–class, though the view over the long hood gives the impression of steering an oil tanker from the taffrail.
Compared with the circus tent inside a Ferrari, the SLS’s leather-swaddled cabin is fairly plain. At this price, you get stereo and climate-control buttons from the parts bin and a rather dull, monochromatic information screen between the gauges. Above that, a bank of square lights indicates the approach of redline. The carbon-fiber accents cost $4500, and a 1000-watt Bang & Olufsen thump-a-dumper with illuminated tweeters is $6400.
We continue up Highway 1, a road John Steinbeck worked on during a restless youth. Thomas is driving the SLS no meaner than the various Toyota Priuses he’s owned. “Anybody born in California who buys a new car feels obliged to drive it up Highway 1. This is the most photographed road in the world. What they don’t seem to realize is that, here, you’re coming up the road, and you’re suddenly behind a 40-foot motorhome owned by a geriatric who doesn’t know how to make the turn at Bixby Canyon, which means all your horsepower and all your glory means little or nothing.”
The SLS, hardly a lightweight at almost 3800 pounds, demonstrates how Mercedes has stopped pretending that BMW does not exist. Setups for corners and exits from them are done with clipped palm and foot motions, the torso getting squeezed nicely by the heavy side forces. The 6.2-liter backfires with a nourishing whap-whap! when you lift and shift. The brakes are firm and natural, and there’s even a hint of tug and sag in the steering as it digests the road.
The rear-mounted seven-speed transaxle is a dual-clutch type. Its cogs are aft of the differential, a layout that allows the cockpit to be shoved way back. A knob governs its shift patterns with settings for “manual,” “controlled efficiency” (comfort), “sport,” and “sport plus.” There’s a launch control, but in use, the car was actually slower off the line. The transmission would be like others of its genre if it responded to finger inputs more quickly. As is, there’s an inscrutable half-second pause between button stroke and shift. No doubt this is why the red upshift lights illuminate about a thousand revs early.
When it’s not being tossed around, the SLS impersonates a luxury liner, with decent visibility, an imperturbable desire to track straight, and an ardent fuel appetite (we ranged from 11 to 17 mpg, averaging 14). Road noise is turned down, and the cabin is just generous enough for a relaxed slouch, though anyone over six feet tall may find that the seats bump up against the rear bulkhead before true sang-froid is achieved. The SLS has a few small clutter collectors, but bulkier items—sunglass cases, unused radar detectors, and our copy of The Long Valley—must go in a leatherette pouch on the bulkhead.
“My father came from the Depression era. He bought a car and didn’t get rid of it until it melted into the driveway. He had English cars, not because they were good cars—English cars have always been the worst cars—but because, when you have an English car, you get to hang out with mechanics. He loved garages. That’s where the stories were.”
Button-heavy and buttoned-down, the SLS is a conservative Tory in the parliament of sports cars, appealing mainly to those who already prefer three-pointed stars to prancing horses and charging bulls. John Steinbeck’s own idea of speed and grace was “Pigasus,” the winged horse becoming a winged pig. He often stamped his letters with its image and the Latin words “ad astra per alia porci,” or “to the stars on the wings of a pig.”