The evening before Mercedes-Benz’s public relations department flew us from Frankfurt, Germany — where we’d seen the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG roadster make its official debut at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show — to the South of France to drive the car, they took us to dinner. Our Mercedes Viano shuttle van made its way from the glass towers of the financial district to the village of Konigstein, northwest of the city, where it wended its way along tree-lined roads through a large park before pulling up in front of a spectacularly grand old hotel. As we alighted from the Viano, we recognized the setting, Villa Rothschild Kempinski, and remembered when and why we’d been there before. It was July 2007, and it was to drive the Mercedes-Benz SLR Mclaren roadster.
The SLR McLaren roadster, as you might recall, cost a half-million dollars, even more than the SLR McLaren coupe that it followed. Although it was a technological tour de force, all carbon fiber monocoque and front crash zones, aluminum subframes, and even a racing-style air brake, it was hobbled by overwrought styling and a general lack of dynamic cohesiveness, especially at very high speeds. It did not sell particularly well, and the joint operating agreement between Mercedes-Benz and McLaren also lacked cohesiveness, resulting in a distinctly unhappy marriage. The two parties eventually agreed to disagree, and McLaren went on to develop its own supercar, the MP4-12C (which was not its first supercar, of course; that honor goes to the legendary F1). Mercedes, for its part, turned its attention to re-creating its legendary gullwing sports car. The resulting SLS AMG has been warmly received both by the editors of Automobile Magazine and by the sorts of people who are inclined to spend $200K on a gullwing coupe.
Now, Mercedes has an SLS roadster, which sacrifices the drama and, quite honestly, the hassles of gullwing doors for a retractable soft top and exterior lines that are, to our eyes, more pleasing than those of the coupe. More important, the SLS AMG roadster costs about $200,000, or some 60 percent less than the SLR McLaren roadster that was not nearly as good a car. Now, that’s what we call progress: for the price of an SLR McLaren roadster, you could buy two SLS AMG roadsters plus an SLK55 AMG! As for Villa Rothschild Kempinski? It was just as splendid as ever, and probably more expensive. The dinner was as grand as you would expect in an establishment with “Rothschild” in its name, and it was all the more enjoyable with the knowledge that the next day, we’d be driving the SLS AMG roadster down on the Cote d’Azur. Yes, we know, life is difficult for us motoring journalists.
The lineup of SLS AMG roadsters on the shorefront of Cap d’Ail, adjacent to Monaco, was breathtaking. We could choose among SLS AMGs in bright Le Mans red, cool mystic white, brooding obsidian black, and traditional Imola gray. We drove a white car with red interior first, and a red car over cream and black later, but we also spent a lot of time drooling over the cars slathered in sepang brown paint, a new hue for AMG, which basically looked good enough to eat.
The SLS makes convertible life easy. The fully automatic fabric roof lowers in only 11 seconds and doesn’t impinge on the available trunk space (6.1 cu ft), and you can operate it up to 31 mph. Forward visibility is pretty good, and the A-pillars don’t encroach into the cabin the way they did in the SLR McLaren roadster. Looking out over the long hood, you see the two sets of black mesh air vents just below the windshield, but the front corners of the car disappear from view. A rearview camera is, of course, present and welcome. Mercedes-Benz’s Airscarf system, which blows warm air onto your neck, is optional.
You push the red-and-black engine start button to fire up the 6.2-liter naturally aspirated V-8, an engine we’ve grown to know and love over the past five years. The SLR McLaren had a supercharged 5.4-liter SOHC V-8, and with its 617 hp and 580 lb-ft of torque, it was a great beast of a powertrain, yet we’ve never pined for it when we’ve driven the new SLS AMG coupe or roadster. Ignore the misleading “6.3” badge on the flanks of the SLS; this engine displaces 6208 cc and makes 571 hp at 6800 rpm and 480 lb-ft of torque at 4750 rpm. The 6.2 is all noise, good noise, delivering lots of snap, crackle, and pop on the overrun. Gun it and savor the high-pitched shriek. Release the accelerator pedal an inch or two and listen for the big exhaust burble and bubble. We’ve heard this V-8 concert before, of course, in the SLS AMG coupe, but it’s a whole new experience in the open air, like when the Boston Pops moves from Symphony Hall to Tanglewood in the summer. You find yourself constantly downshifting for more shriek, lifting for more burble, and then hitting the gas for the sheer thrill of the forward momentum.
The SLR McLaren made do with a conventional five-speed torque-converter automatic transmission, while the SLS AMG roadster, of course, has the same seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, in transaxle configuration, as the coupe. It performs brilliantly, whether you’re creeping around tourists in front of the casino in Monaco (they loved the SLS roadster) or storming along the mountain roads that crisscross the French-Italian border above the Mediterranean. The paddles are fixed to the steering wheel, not the steering column, and although they deliver crisp, fast shifts, we found ourselves wishing we could quickly pull back on both of them to put the transmission in neutral, as one does in a Ferrari. Why? Because then we could blip the throttle at will, igniting the dry-sump V-8 and its feral exhaust for the pleasure of bystanders, before re-engaging gear and blasting away. Not that operating the gearshifter — -which is shaped, very coolly, like an airplane’s thrust control lever and which has a Neutral setting — -is any sort of hardship. But why does AMG make us push a separate button for Park rather than just having it be the farthest-forward detent in the gearshifter’s movement?
On the road, the SLS AMG roadster gives up virtually nothing to the coupe. The curb weight is 3660 lb, about 88 lb heavier than the gullwing. Top speed is, in theory at least, 197 mph, although we came nowhere near that on the crowded freeways of the Cote d’Azur. Compared with the coupe, the roadster has thicker side sills and additional supports for the structural cross member at the base of the windshield frame. There’s an additional curved brace between the strut towers of the rear suspension, between the soft top and the gas tank, and another brace behind the seats to support the roll-over pop-up bars. The aluminum space frame weighs only a scant five pounds more than that of the coupe. As with the coupe, the roadster’s body panels are aluminum.
What this all equates to is an open-top car of incredible rigidity, with no discernible cowl flex, body creaking, or other apparent compromises in torsional stiffness. This car feels tight. And its steering is just as good as the coupe’s: very precise, with just the right amount of heft and lots of feel. The nineteen-inch tires provide loads of grip, and the chassis is utterly predictable, which made it easy for us to ascend the twisty E74 two-lane from Ventimiglia, on the Italian Riviera, to the tiny village of Breil sur Roya, up in the French Alps, with much speed and little drama.
As in the coupe, in the roadster you can rotate a switch to choose among C for Comfort, S for Sport, S+ for Sport Plus, and M for Manual modes. In S+, it’s easy to slide the rear end a bit and have some fun without fear of making a $200,000 mistake. The AMG Drive Unit allows you to select your own personal vehicle setup, in terms of throttle and transmission response and suspension firmness. AMG Performance Media, a new feature that will also make its way into the SLS coupe, allows you to dial in a variety of telemetric displays on the navigation screen such as lateral and linear acceleration, fluid temperatures, braking performance, and engine output. Most of the data are presented in a lineup of three digitally simulated dial instruments with red needles. For example, one available screen shows, left to right, how much of the 480 lb-ft of torque you’re using; how much of the 571 hp you’re using; and what percentage of throttle you’ve engaged. It’s all fun stuff for amateur track days, and the home screen image for AMG Performance Media shows, what else? An outline drawing of the Nurburgring Nordschleife. The system also includes an Android-based internet connection that’s available when the car is stationary.
Electronic playthings aside, the SLS AMG roadster emerges as a serious, open-air grand touring machine. It amazes us in its ability to combine performance with usability. There’s nothing about it that makes you think, oh, I could never drive this every day. On the contrary, you could and you would drive it every day. This car is a delight, whereas the SLR McLaren roadster was, ultimately, a disappointment, a cynical means of prying a half-million dollars out of rich guys’ bank accounts. From the way it looks, to the way it drives, to the way it feels when you’re inside it, the SLS AMG roadster is a very desirable machine and a relative bargain. Downsides? The car is very wide, at 81.7 inches including mirrors, so it can be difficult to gauge where you’ve placed it on a narrow, congested street or road. And as endearing as the rumble and roar of the V-8 is, it doesn’t recede sufficiently when you simply want to trundle tranquilly along a city street. Aside from those quibbles, the only dilemma the SLS AMG roadster presents is one of haberdashery: what color, what leather, what trim would you like? We’ll take sepang brown over designo light brown, please.
2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster
On sale: Now
Base price, estimated: $198,000
6.2-liter DOHC V-8
Horsepower: 571 @ 6800 rpm
Torque: 480 lb-ft @ 4750 rpm
7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Wheelbase: 105.5 in
Track, front/rear: 66.2/65.1 in
Length x width x height: 182.6 x 76.3 x 49.6 in
Turning circle: 39 ft
Cargo capacity: 6.1 cu ft
Curb weight: 3660 lb
265/35ZR-19 front, 295/30ZR-20 rear
Performance (per manufacturer):
0-62 mph, 3.2 sec
Top speed, 197 mph