With the bright sun glistening off the Mediterranean, the deep blue sea of the French Riviera is barely separated from the crystal-clear blue sky that envelops us in our mechanical bubble. It’s only a seven-minute helicopter ride from Nice’s airport to the heliport in Monte Carlo. Including an extra security check, the shuttle to the copter end of the airport, and the busy airspace around this playground in southern France, the time it takes to fly is likely about the same as it would be to drive. The appeal, then, is not the speed of the helicopter ride, but the quality of the experience. And so it is with the all-new Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster.
Mercedes-Benz’s droptop version of its fastest and flashiest SLS AMG coupe two-seater arrives for 2012 as a machine that’s about as quick as the coupe, but provides a more relaxed, enjoy-the-freedom driving experience at lower speeds. In the process, the SLS AMG Roadster does away with the coupe’s signature roof-hinged gullwing doors—and with it, the coupe’s most crowd-attracting party trick. With the new soft-top’s roof down and its classic long-nose/short-deck proportions, it’s visually easy to confuse the SLS AMG Roadster with the only slightly less-powerful Mercedes-Benz SL 63 AMG two-seater.
Distinguishing these performance-oriented, two-seat AMG convertibles was a key engineering goal for Thomas Rappel, head of project management of the Benz’s AMG performance sub-brand. Much of Rappel’s team’s work on the Roadster was undertaken with an eye toward differentiating the driving experience from that of the long-running and popular SL, while keeping it close to the hardcore purity of the coupe.
“This is a true sports car, so we had to leave out a lot of luxury features,” says Rappel; this included cooled seats as well as the SL’s ABC active suspension. “We had to make sure there was room [in the market] for the SLS Roadster and SL.”
Therefore, taking out weight from the SLS AMG Roadster therefore became an obsession. It is the first Benz convertible to offer a completely aluminum chassis and body, and it weighs in at 1,735 kilograms, only 40 kilograms heavier than the SLS AMG coupe. This is also a significant 300 to 400 kilograms lighter than the SL 63 AMG, says Mercedes, making the two related droptops more like second cousins than twins.
Mercedes-Benz’s droptop version of its fastest and flashiest SLS AMG coupe two-seater arrives for 2012 as a machine that’s about as quick as the coupe, but provides a more relaxed, enjoy-the-freedom driving experience.
Detail-oriented types will notice that both SLS AMG models make the exact same 563 horsepower and 469 pound-feet of torque, and even with the slight weight gain of the Roadster, Mercedes says they have the same blistering 3.8-second 0–100 km/h times, as well as the same electronically limited 317 km/h top speed. Or just about fast enough with the top down to rip out much of anyone’s hair.
A retractable spoiler helps provide down force at those elevated speeds, which are extreme even for the Autobahn—so hopefully you have a good connection at your local racetrack, as they often require roll cages to be installed in convertibles if you want to do much serious lapping.
According to Mercedes-Benz, their weight-saving focus also accounts for why their priciest convertible (starting at $213,200) is also one of the few Benzes to offer a soft-top instead of the folding hardtop prevalent elsewhere in its lineup. In keeping with the car’s overall quick reflexes, the top disappears in a very fast 11 seconds, and at speeds of up to 50 kilometres an hour. I tried it while moving, and it works as advertised—it’s handy at stoplights because it means you don’t have to keep a line of motorists angrily waiting while the top goes down, which encourages you to drop it more often.
The SLS AMG Roadster’s top is also easier to live with day to day than its hardtop counterpart, which can’t be said for most convertibles. With the Roadster’s regular doors, you may need a wider spot to park in to avoid hitting the cars next to you, but at least the bottom edges of any upward-swinging doors are no longer an obstacle for your head to avoid when you get in and out.
Plus, opening the doors of the Roadster doesn’t require a reach down near the bottom of the door sill, where the tiny, recessed door handle is more exposed to road gunk. Nor does the driver have to audition for Cirque du Soleil in a long reach and twist upwards from the seat to close the door. The Roadster does lose three litres of cargo space due to its undersized trunk, although it is on the more generous side by exotic car standards. But at only 173 litres, you may want to check that your golf partner’s bags will fit alongside yours before offering a ride.
Once inside the Roadster, the same sleek but artful interior greets the driver, the top-retracting button being integrated into the centre console just above the Benz’s aluminum multicontroller knob. Although flat-bottom steering wheels are starting to appear on sporty versions of Volkswagens and Buicks, this one still holds an exotic, sports message, with thumb rests cut like an athlete’s obliques, and a svelte overall look that beckons you to firmly take control.
The SLS AMG Roadster receives Mercedes-Benz’s Airscarf system, which is also available on the SL and smaller SLK; it adds two small vents in the seatbacks to provide the driver and passenger with a layer of warm air. This is one of those forehead-smacking features that makes you wonder why nobody thought of it earlier.
A new AMG Performance Media system changes the large navigation screen to a race-ready telemetry server, with the ability to measure and store 0-to-100-km/h or quarter-mile runs, and access Benz’s launch control system, or Race Start in Benz speak. Like the multiscreen system on the Nissan GT-R, it will give you real-time feedback on any number of go-fast parameters, including G-forces pulled at any corner, engine and torque output, throttle position, and braking force, with the ability to save lap times to try to beat on the next track day.
The system also includes Internet access in Europe and the United States, accessible when the vehicle is parked. It uses the Android operating system to work like a big smart phone, allowing you to surf the web or send and receive e-mails, as well as download apps. The system isn’t yet available in Canada, as Mercedes says there are limitations to what Canadian wireless service providers can offer on tethered systems right now.
Take all these systems together, along with the minimal weight gain for the SLS AMG Roadster, and you have a beast of a super sports car that feels every bit as exhilarating as the SLS AMG coupe—maybe more so, with the top down and its bellowing engine note making my spine tingle as much as the acceleration that pushes me back into those firm and highly bolstered leather seats. The Roadster feels much too wide for the winding and often narrow mountain roads in this part of southern France near Monaco, but its large V8 engine sends instantly obeyed throttle messages to the rear wheels. The 6.2-litre power plant’s position well back of its front axle helps the car’s weight balance, contributing to the crisp feedback through the steering wheel and quick direction changes.
Helping to fine-tune this handling is a new electronically controlled suspension damping system, which, like the transmission’s shift qualities, can now be adjusted to C, sportier S, or track-only S+ modes. Don’t let the C fool you into thinking it stands for Comfort: every position is on a very firm ride spectrum, with Mercedes slyly admitting this by saying the C stands for “Controlled Efficiency”. Along with that stiff ride, I found we heard more rattles with the top up than down, both of which are unusual in a Benz.
Overall, you can’t help but be impressed with the SLS AMG Roadster. It doesn’t have the super flashy looks of its mid-engine rivals like the Audi R8 Spyder or Ferrari 458 Spider, nor does it offer the cushy comfort of a Jaguar XKR or Bentley Continental GTC, as it is a truly hardcore performance machine. Sure, the Roadster may lose some arrival drama with its regular doors, but it gains a whole new level of emotional interaction with its driver thanks to the newly unlimited headroom.