Saturday Drive: Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster

The car:

2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster


The power:

563 horsepower and 479 pound-feet of torque from a 6.2-liter V-8 engine mated to a carbon-fiber driveshaft and a seven-speed, dual-clutch automated manual transmission moving the rear wheels

The speed:

Zero to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds

The bragging rights:

The quickest car currently in Mercedes' stable

The price:

The Roadster starts at $198,675 including destination and a $1,700 gas-guzzler tax. As tested: $242,675

The details:

The SLS Coupe goes topless. Mechanically, the cars are identical, with the roadster adding just 88 pounds in the form of minor structural reinforcements and a power-operated soft-top roof. Heck, even trunk space is about the same. Even better is that the roadster's roof disappears in just 11 seconds and drivers can operate it up to 30 miles an hour.

According to an AMG engineer, the SLS was originally designed to be a roadster, so structural rigidity was part of the car's DNA from conception. That the SLS Roadster is being made available only now is merely a marketing move by Mercedes-Benz; AMG says it's been ready since the coupe was launched in 2010.

As with the coupe, all SLS Roadsters have five transmission settings: Controlled Efficiency, which starts the car in second gear and keeps things gentle and soft; Sport, which increases shift times by 30%; Sport+ and Manual, which shift the car in a scant 100 milliseconds; and Race, which is essentially a launch control system that will hurl you at the horizon like you slept with its girlfriend.

The test car seen here also came with the optional $2,500 AMG Dynamic Suspension, a feature with three stiffness settings: Comfort, Sport and Sport+. Other options include the $12,500 carbon ceramic brakes; $14,400 worth of carbon fiber draped over every imaginable surface including the engine bay; $3,400 wheels that are 19 inches in the front and 20 inches in the rear; a $6,400 Bang and Olufsen sound system; and a $2,500 system called AMG Performance Media, a frighteningly distracting software system that tracks and displays on the navigation screen data such as engine output and throttle position, a g-force meter and laps times.


Aesthetically the SLS remains the same, though the side profile is arguably better looking on the roadster because the rear half of the roadster's greenhouse is shorter than the coupe's, which makes the decklid on the roadster seem longer and flatter for more balance with the long hood up front.

Oh, that hood. Longer than a summer day in Stockholm, it harkens to a lost era of motoring when cars had similar proportions; an endless expanse of metal hiding immense, burly power, followed by a passenger compartment and trunk that seem only an afterthought. It's hard not be swept up in the romance of driving a roadster like this. It is utterly seductive. Although little rivals the grace and drama of pulling up to your destination in the SLS Coupe and sweeping open its signature gullwing doors, the SLS Roadster gives you a timeless, open-top experience better suited to drinking in the unapologetic sound of the SLS' V-8.

What's interesting about the SLS, in both coupe and roadster form, is that it isn't a particularly good-looking car. Even the paint on the model I tested, which should be named Indiscretion Red, couldn't hide a blunt front end and large rectangular grille that is highlighted only by a dinner-plate-size MB logo. The rear is wide and low and looks slightly alien, like that baby Will Smith delivered in the first "Men in Black."

But taken as a whole -- the long hood, the high beltline and cabin that envelops the passengers, the vehicle's width and proportions -- this car has road presence you'd expect on something that costs as much as a small condo. Returning to a car with a more conventional shape is a downright disappointment: You immediately miss the mini flight deck out front, and the mere act of driving no longer feels special.

The drive:

The flip side of having such an expanse of car in front of you is that it takes a little getting used to piloting the SLS. But it's worth the time. Once you adapt, you are treated to a very capable driving experience.

Because the car was engineered from conception to be a convertible, it has all the structural rigidity you want. The car stays securely planted on the road and moves with athletic deliberation. The engine is mounted behind the front axle for optimum weight distribution, so despite that long hood, it's easy to point the car quickly.

But the best feature about the SLS Roadster, one only heightened when you drop its roof, is the engine. One of the most powerful naturally aspirated V-8s on the road, it's loud and proud and has none of the staid refinement you might expect from a Mercedes; this engine did not go to finishing school like the others. The sound is deep, throaty and gloriously unrefined. Someone at the company is a NASCAR fan and is channeling their inner Kyle Busch, aggressive tendencies and all.

The roadster is quick off the line and accelerates forever, and when you do finally lift your foot off the throttle, you're treated to some of the most delicious exhaust overrun -- that profound popping and cackle -- that you can find this side of a racetrack. You can keep your gullwing doors; putting the top down and bathing in the roadster's aural moxie is a fine trade-off for me. Also laudable about the SLS Roadster is its approachability. You can use this car as your daily driver and pay no toll of practicality as you do with other supercars. It's comfortable, quiet (when you want it to be) and easy to manage around town.

I have only a pair of complaints about this car. The first is the gearbox. I'm not sure whose stopwatch said shifts happen in 100 milliseconds when the transmission is in Sport+ or shifted manually, but that timepiece probably needs a new battery. Even though this is a dual-clutch setup, tugging on the paddles doesn't compel the car to shift as immediately as I'd like. This was especially noticeable when downshifting.

The second complaint is relatively minor, but it's noteworthy because this is a car that can cost a quarter of a million dollars. Mercedes-Benz recently updated the design and layout of the center console for many of its cars. It's an intuitive, classy and aesthetically pleasing space for the controls for the stereo, climate and navigation system. The same basic layout is on almost every 2012 Mercedes, from the C-Class sedan to the CLS sedan/coupe thingie to the new SL hard-top convertible. But not on this SLS Roadster (or the coupe). Instead, the most expensive vehicle in the company's lineup has the previous, and now outdated, layout.


Perhaps Mercedes figured no one would notice. With an engine that sounds like this and a convertible top to drop when you need a breeze, it's likely you'll never even look at that center console.


The take-away:

I'm sorry sir, I'm having trouble hearing you complain about no gullwing doors over the roar of my V-8 and the extra-legal speeds blowing through my hair.