First Drive: 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster

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.

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