Driven: 2008 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren Roadster

Shamit Choksey

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.

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