Klaus Nesser, CEO of Mercedes' Maybach and SLR divisions stood in front of a room, facing a gaggle of eager journalists waiting to hear the details on Mercedes-Benz's newest and most highly anticipated supercar, the 2008 SLR McLaren Roadster. He seemed to be searching for the right approach with which to begin his presentation. Then, as if having been struck by a moment of clarity, Nesser grinned and got right to the point. "Well, we took the top off." And with those words, we were introduced to the fastest convertible on the planet.
Built at McLaren's Woking, England facility, the new roadster, aside from its ability to drop its top, differs very slightly from its coupe counterpart. And that's the most important point Nesser intended to make. Mercedes wanted this roadster to be as close to the coupe as humanly possible. Both share virtually the same carbon fiber body structure, aside from the roadster's fixed rollbars and steel-reinforced A-pillars.
And just like the coupe, the roadster embodies the spirit of the SLR racers from the 1950s blended with the today's Formula One engineering. Demonstrative of this synergy is the fact that the roadster is assembled just fifty meters from where the F1 racecars are put together. Practically side-by-side.
Mercedes' decision to outfit the roadster with a fabric top makes good sense. Not only does it spare the car from the unnecessary weight of a heavy retractable hardtop, but it gives the roadster a classic, throwback feel - it even locks down manually. Made from a new ballistic-like material, the top is not completely soft; it has a harder squared-off section directly overhead to prevent it from ballooning at very high speeds. But its best feature is that it goes up and down in ten seconds flat, which will prove invaluable every time a mild spitting turns into a sudden downpour.
With an expected half million dollar sticker price - about a ten percent premium over the coupe - Mercedes claims to be offering more than just a car. "We're selling a lifestyle," Nesser proudly states. For five hundred grand, it's a lifestyle few will ever be lucky enough to get acquainted with.
But what really seems to be for sale here is pure, open-air exhilaration, brought to you by AMG's 5.4-liter supercharged V-8. Yielding 626 horsepower and 575 pound-feet of torque, this is the only Mercedes powerplant that actually breathes through the three-pointed star up front. It's tied to an AMG speedshift R five-speed automatic transmission. And with that, Benz claims a 0-to-60 time of 3.8 seconds and a top speed of 208 miles per hour.
From our time spent on the Autobahn with the roadster, we have no doubt that these numbers are right on the mark. If this car shines anywhere, it's on long, open straightaways with no speed limit - which will certainly make it difficult to fully enjoy here in the States. But as we made our journey from Frankfurt to the hamlet of Geisenheim, there were those moments when the traffic in front seemed to just part like the Red Sea. Taking the cue as divine intervention, my right foot pressed down until it could go no more.
Letting out a raspy growl, the roadster rocketed toward the horizon. It wasn't long before the speedo's needle climbed past 300 kph, and stayed there for a good twenty seconds. The chassis felt glued to the road even at these speeds. The tires - 245/40 ZR 18s up front and 295/35 ZR 18s out back - became one with the road. The cockpit was exceptionally well-shielded from the wind, despite having the top down, and the SLR was so smooth and firmly planted that I actually felt relaxed. It wasn't until later, over dinner, that I broke out into a sweat - when I stopped to make the calculation from kilometers to miles per hour. 300 kph is 186 miles per hour. Yikes.
Now when it comes to normal motoring, the McLaren roadster proves to be a very different animal. Its handles corners with competency thanks in part to its front and rear double wishbone suspension, but doesn't deliver the elevated precision of many high-end sports cars. As far as slow speed maneuvering goes, the SLR is an absolute bear. Three-point turns are cumbersome due to its long front-end and wide turning radius. And very high-effort steering and limited visibility add to the overall difficulty when weaving through tight parking lots. Of course, since most SLR owners will never find themselves in parking lots, this will only be a source of frustration for disgruntled valet attendants.
Visually, the roadster's lines are every bit as wicked as the coupe's. Its shell looks like an exoskeleton with its ribcage-like air vents. And the side exhaust pipes are integrated just behind the front tires. The raised butterfly doors look even cooler when the top is down. You'll feel like a superhero getting into this thing, but climbing out is another story. It's difficult to look cool when you have to fight to exit a vehicle (I clumsily stumbled out and then looked around to see if anybody saw me). It's not as bad as the Lotus Exige, but it definitely takes some effort.
Inside the SLR, passengers find superb fit and finish. After all, this is a tremendously expensive automobile. But for its price tag, the interior does not engage you like you think it would. The racing-style cabin features a two-tone color scheme and unites such materials as carbon fiber, aluminum, and leather. But the sport bucket seats are not beyond anything found in the AMG performance car line-up. And aside from the McLaren badging, the gauges look common, as do the controls. The most attractive interior feature seems to be an old-style navigation system. It does not have a map display, but instead, straightforward "arrow indicators" that still do a fine job in keeping you from getting lost.
Mercedes has not released production numbers for this vehicle, but one thing is for certain: the model will be very limited in availability.
The SLR roadster is a lot of things. It's a status symbol. It's a supercar. It's also a lot of money - it'll cost the same as a pair of Lamborghini Gallardos. But in the end, it's something automotive enthusiasts have been salivating over for quite a few years: It's an SLR McLaren. And as Klaus Nesser will tell you, it's one with the top off.