Mercedes and AMG are not shy when it comes to building fast cars. The companies – originally partners, now integrated – have been turning comfortable saloon cars into tyre-shredding cruise missiles for decades. In the maelstrom of electric advances over the last 10 years, including the upcoming Mercedes EQS, one particular AMG seems to have been forgotten.
It was 2011 at the North American International Auto Show. Mercedes’ left-field star of the show was the E-Cell prototype; a wildly ambitious and largely unexpected behemoth of a car, taking the extremely chonky SLS and replacing its legendary 6.2-litre V8 and snappy seven-speed automatic gearbox with a boat-load of batteries and four electric motors.
The 2.1-tonne leviathan coupe had a claimed 526bhp at that stage, but with a battery measuring just 48kWh, the performance never would have lasted long. The charge meter would have gone down almost as fast as the speedometer went up. For context, today’s Nissan Leaf has 40 and 62kWh batteries and you can get a Hyundai Kona Electric with a 64kWh setup.
Though it clearly had an under-sized battery it was an early player in the development of 400v electrical systems for BEVs. Elsewhere it attempted to control its vast bulk with pushrod dampers, lightweight 10-spoke alloys and carbon-ceramic disc brakes. The four-motor setup was intended to offer instant, infinitely flexible capacity for vast performance with epic traction management, torque vectoring and on-the-fly power distribution adjustment, up to a point. It had been developed in Brixworth, the home of Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains; the place where they now make engines for Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
Anyway, it was a prototype and after much fanfare at the time it quietly went away. Two years later it re-emerged as the SLS AMG Electric Drive, sending eyebrows soaring with the announcement that it was going into production at more than half a million US dollars a pop. People generally thought Mercedes had gone crazy. The numbers read as follows: Four 45kg electric motors capable of 13,000rpm delivered a very healthy combined 730bhp and 738lb ft of torque.
Despite still being so massive that driving it along a seaside boulevard altered the tides, the vast and instant performance on tap through huge, sticky tyres made the electric SLS good for a 0-62mph sprint in 3.9 seconds. That was 0.3s down on the ICE version. The 548kg battery was set up to last a little longer than the prototype’s, too, measuring 60kWh. That’s still smaller than what you can get in the top-spec Leaf today, so you’d have struggled to cover long distances unless you were in no rush whatsoever and had easy access to working chargers along the way.
Fewer than 100 were reportedly sold at the asking price of €416,500 plus options – around $544,000 or £353,000 at the time. It was generally pretty well reviewed and since its launch it’s been touted by some as a wise investment. Whether we’ll actually see them crossing auction floors with seven-figure price tags in a few more decades’ time is up for debate until it happens.
What’s for sure is that for a car that’s hardly old, almost everything about it already seems like a relic from a bygone era. Batteries have advanced and come down in price; motor tech has advanced and simplified so using four isn’t really necessary, weights are dropping and chassis are being built specifically with battery drivetrains in mind. The SLS Electric Drive was in many ways a fish out of water, but as a performance pioneer it has to be remembered as an absolute unicorn.
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