The Mercedes SLS Roadster continues a rich vein of form for AMG. Jonathan Crouch drives it.
Ten Second ReviewSupercar heritage doesn't just belong in Italy. Mercedes-Benz has plenty of it too, something the German brand hopes that buyers will be reminded of whenever they see its SLS AMG supercar. The most exclusive version of this model is the open-topped Roadster. Can one of the fastest and most desirable designs the German maker has ever unleashed upon us match up to exotic rivals?
BackgroundAt Mercedes-Benz, there's a streak of competition pedigree hardwired into the corporate DNA. From the Silver Arrows of the 1930s and the exploits of Moss and Fangio in the Fifties to the way that in latter years, Mercedes has provided engines for some of the greatest names in Formula One: Hakkinen, Schumacher, Raikkonen, Hamilton - all have been powered by the Three-Pointed Star.
Celebrities too have found the Stuttgart brand's appeal irresistible ever since the achingly beautiful 300SL Gullwing first made its appearance at the 1954 New York International Motor Sports Show and became first choice for the famous, everyone from Grace Kelly to Sophia Loren. The version most wanted was the Roadster model that arrived in 1957, one of the most desirable convertibles ever made - and one of the rarest, particularly in race-prepared SLS form, built to challenge the might of Maserati and Ferrari in the prestigious American Sports Car Championship.
Its modernday successor, this car, the SLS AMG Roadster, will be just as rare - and just as desired by future generations. In fixed-top coupe form with its unique gullwing doors, this design has already stopped the celebrity set in its tracks, with an endless list of high profile owners forsaking Ferrari and turning Teutonic, Eddie Murphy, Mark Wahlberg, Floyd Mayweather, Boris Becker, Jonathan Ross, Jay Kay, David Beckham and Roger Federer all among them. All now have their eyes on this car, the SLS in its most desirable form.
Driving ExperienceThis SLS Roadster is actually 40kgs heavier than the fixed-top version, but potential owners shouldn't worry; just think of it as another crate of Dom Perignon stuffed into the tiny trunk out back. The extra bulk certainly doesn't affect the performance. Select either 'Sport +' or 'Manual' mode on the AMG Drive unit that's accessible via this little rotary dial by the auto gearstick and it'll help the big, bullet-proof 571bhp 6.2-litre V8 up-front storm to 62mph from rest in just 3.8s, a solid rush of power that'll keep coming until a line of software stops the fun at 197mph. All part of an old-school approach to the supercar segment. No fancy turbos, four-wheel drive or adaptive suspension. Just rear wheel drive, ordinary steel coil suspension and lots - and lots - of power. The result is an experience to remember.
Of course, in driving such a car, you don't always want an experience to remember. After all, a supercar is often at its worst when you're merely collecting your dry cleaning. And here? Well, it's true that an SLS is built for brutal acceleration, sideways tyre squealing and midnight three-figure runs on autobahns. But it's also been created to flatter you when you're just parading along, so civilised in normal use it's easy to forget how comically over-endowed it is in the acceleration department. The ride's excellent, there's a silky-smooth twin-clutch gearbox, it's got sensible ground clearance for speed humps and you can see out of the thing. So much so that sometimes, it lulls you into a sense of mundanity: you're back in the ordinary world.
But then the road opens up, you plant the throttle pedal, the engine roars and you suddenly find yourself having to think and act really quickly. And as your heart begins to pump, you start to realise that perhaps this car might be a bit better at the whole going fast business than you are. Still, practice makes perfect.
Design and BuildConvertible cars the world over have a drawback: they're very rarely a dynamic match for their fixed-top coupe counterparts. This one's different because it was designed as an open-top from the outset.
As for the aesthetics, well, it's hard to know where to start with some of the detailing. From the delightful gear shifter to the lustrous nano-particle paint finish, the inbuilt lap timer and the beautifully finished jet turbine-inspired air vents, this car is jam-packed full of the sort of considered design touches that come with this sort of price tag.
Take the fabric convertible roof - quite a piece of work. Available in black, red and beige, this triple-layer hood retracts in just 11s at speeds of up to 30mph and folds cleanly in a compact Z-shape into the area behind the seats, the central roof section neatly doubling up as a tonneau cover for the roof compartment. It's been tested against almost every climatic extreme on the planet and might just be the most advanced soft top ever built.
What's more, it doesn't eat into your boot space. There's still 173-litres of room back there, just 3-litres less than the coupe and still enough for a golf bag. You might want to be a little bit careful with this wing at the back though. It deploys automatically at 70mph, which might be a bit of an advertisement to the police should you whistle past on a motorway. Just have the excuse ready that it can be activated manually.
Market and ModelIf you're thinking of buying this car, then you probably won't be agonising over how you're going to pay for it. Nevertheless, you'll be interested to know how it financially fits into the most exclusive segment of the open-topped supercar market. And the answer is that it takes a comfortable middle ground. You'll need a budget of around £180,000 for this car, which makes it about 10-15% pricier than, say, a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder or Aston Martin Virage Volante. But 10-15% more affordable than convertible Spider versions of the Ferrari 458 Italia or the Mclaren MP4-12C.
The premium of just over £8,000 you'll pay for this car over its coupe counterpart doesn't buy you any more equipment - but then, you'll be wanting to have quite a say in that yourself. It's almost unheard of for an SLS AMG to be delivered to a customer in baseline trim, which by the way runs to lightweight magnesium sports seats, a multifunction steering wheel, a three-mode stability control system, a thumping stereo and advanced satellite navigation.
Of course, it's possible to really push the boat out with an 11-speaker, 1000-watt Bang & Olufsen sound set-up, a glistening Alubeam paint finish or an all-carbon fibre interior. You might also want to specify a set of ceramic brakes, for the kind of money that'd put a family hatchback in the garage next door.
Cost of OwnershipIt was F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone who once said when questioned why he continued to work when he could never spend the money he'd accumulated that 'wealth was just a way of keeping score'. It's a similar thing when it comes to the cost of supercar ownership, something that at this level, you mainly measure in depreciation, a far bigger hit for owners than fuel or tax issues (21.4mpg on the combined cycle and 308g/km of CO2 if you're interested). Residual values in this sector of the market are like popularity ratings. And you don't want to find yourself in something that nobody wants.
Which is why the wealthy taker a keener interest than you might think in cost of ownership figures across the supercar set. Even fuel economy is important - not in terms of cost but in terms of operating range. You don't, after all, want to be brushing your brogues on filling station forecourts any more often than you need to be, hence the importance of this SLS's 95-litre fuel tank, quite large enough for trans-continental travel.
SummaryAn exclusive money-no-object German supercar was once a thing of the Fifties. Hollywood film stars drove them back then, but in the modern era, you'd have something low-slung and Italian. Or would you? The SLS has changed things in this sector. It's dynamic, it's desirable and, best of all, it's different.
Which is what really matters in this segment. In many ways, a Mclaren MP4-12C is merely a copy of a Ferrari 458 Italia. Were you to be fabulously wealthy, you'd need only to choose one or the other. But an SLS AMG, particularly in Roadster form, is a car many would want to own whatever else already lay in residence in their air conditioned timber-framed garage.
Best of all perhaps, ordinary people love it. In an age when pin-up performance cars often excite more jealousy than passion amongst passers-by, this one just makes them smile. You get the thumbs-up as you power on and when you arrive and park up, kids want to take pictures. The world seems a better place. This, you see, is something very special. A supercar with soul.