First Drive: 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster

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.

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