There’s no denying that Mercedes-Benz has always been one of the “phattest” car companies around. But for recent decades of entertainers and athletes, the most popular rolling bling out of Stuttgart has generally been on the fat side. CLs, G-Wagons, and Maybachs, of course, have been the name of the game, whether it be the rap game, or a ball game (be it round or oblong). The less gargantuan, but sportier SL convertibles, on the other hand, have gotten little love since the days of “Magnum P.I.,” a lamentable reality that now figures to definitively change with the arrival of AMG’s new open-top supercar.
Admittedly, the new SLS AMG Roadster that is the subject of this review is not exactly an SL convertible, but more properly the open-top version of the recent SLS Gullwing supercar, which Mercedes understandably considers a separate entity in terms of model designation. The SLS Roadster does, nevertheless, share the same DNA as the SL-Class, as both are, at the very least, conceptually derived from the iconic 300 SL Gullwing of the 1950s, and the concurrent SLR racecar. The old school Gullwing was similarly joined by a companion 300 SL Roadster shortly after its debut, and that open-top car is the true antecedent of the jaw-dropping SLS AMG Roadster that Santa Claus piloted last winter during a series of Christmas-season television ads. No one will be surprised to learn that I have never driven a flying sleigh drawn by nine magical reindeer. I did, however, get a week behind the wheel of the SLS Roadster, and it’s hard for me to believe that the mythical sleigh could possibly compare.
Though it’s often difficult for me to find true deficiencies with the premium-segment cars I’m lucky enough to cover, the SLS Roadster is a particularly flawless example of automotive engineering. Patiently indulge me, if you will, while I list the car’s faults: 1. there’s a bit of a blindspot when the top is up (which Mercedes addresses with a standard-equipped blind-spot warning system); 2. it’s a little difficult to get in and out of during certain parking scenarios if the top is up; 3. the back-up camera display does not automatically activate in reverse unless the navi screen is already powered on. That’s it… Three issues—a pretty short list of very marginal negatives. It may be irresponsible of me to write, but the AMG-designed SLS Roadster is a damn-near perfect sports car, with prodigious acceleration and braking, effortless handling with connected steering, gorgeous exterior design, impressive build quality and an impeccable pedigree. And to boot, the top goes down.
As with the SLS Gullwing, the heart of the Roadster lies in a new-generation naturally-aspirated 6.3-liter V8 that is designated the “M159.” Mercedes claims it is “one of the world’s most powerful naturally aspirated V8s in production,” and a demonstration of the car certainly does nothing to dispel that notion. Generating 563 horsepower and 479 lb.-ft. of torque, the M159 is mounted roughly a foot behind the front axle, improving the car’s overall balance. This placement, in combination with a rear-mounted 7-speed dual-clutch transaxle, contributes to a front-to-rear weight distribution of 47:53—an ideal ratio that clearly contributes to the car’s superior handling. A dry-sump lubrication system eliminates the need for a traditional oil pan, allowing Mercedes to place the engine unusually low for improved center of gravity. The result is a chassis that is physically situated for optimal handling even before one iota of suspension tuning or springing has been implemented, which both have, incidentally, been done in spades.
With four different adjustable transmission modes and three different suspension settings available, the SLS AMG Roadster hits 60 mph in 3.7 seconds and peaks at an electronically limited 197 mph, attention-getting numbers that are no less impressive in person. Typical of Mercedes’ legendary build quality, the Roadster rumbles north of 100 mph with the sure-footedness of a tank, while effortlessly sliding through freeway connection ramps at 80 mph. Rumble is the key word, here, as the exhaust system allows the M159’s eight cylinders to bellow with extreme zeal, snorting constantly and coughing emphatically when the accelerator is released. Most sports cars in this segment will show some balls when specifically summoned, usually with a baffle system or a sports exhaust of some kind that engages at a designated rpm. The SLS gives you the business at all times, regardless of settings, and there’s a welcome purity to that concept. There’s no leaving your driveway unnoticed in this car.
Of course, when you ratchet up the transmission/engine control dial from Comfort to Sport, the motor takes on an even nastier tone, particularly so when the dial is twisted one more setting to Sport Plus. A further twist engages a manual, paddle-only mode, which features an awesome LED shift-prompter housed in the center instrument panel that provides a Formula 1-style shifting experience. Leave it in Sport Plus and engage the Sport Handling mode with the press of a button and a Racing Start function is enabled that allows the car to optimally blast off with proper torque distribution minus any inefficient tire burnout—a great gizmo to try on the pristine surface of a track, but less ideal for imperfectly surfaced roads, as my fishtailing gravel-spew of a launch attempt attested.
It should be noted that the SLS features a true F1-style dual-clutch configuration that aficionados of such cars will know well. For the uninitiated, one clutch engages odd-numbered gears while the second clutch engages even-numbered gears, leaving each clutch to independently prepare for whatever sequential gearshift might occur next, a system that has been proven in racing to deliver the quickest automatic shifts available. Stock-in-trade for companies like Ferrari and Bugatti, the dual-clutch set-up lends the SLS the kind of motorsports gravitas that eludes thinly disguised and inferior shifting systems found in some competitors.
With the top down, the roadster offers a true nirvana of a driving experience, with unfettered visibility, a high-waisted enveloping windowsill that cocoons passengers, and a surprisingly effective Airscarf system that blows warm air onto occupants’ necks from a vent in the headrests. In combination with seat warmers and a strong climate control system, the Airscarf provides magical and comfortable drives with the top down in colder temperatures.
Though the three-layer power soft top offers exceptional insulation from the outside environment when raised, taller drivers should beware. For quarterbacks and point guards, that is, the Roadster’s snug fit is like a batting glove, a comfortable fit that isn’t merely ideal for the job, but rather feels like an extension of oneself. Unfortunately, lineman and power forwards will likely not agree, as drivers much taller than 6’ 3” face an imminent close encounter with the soft top’s low ceiling.
Though the SLS Roadster actually starts at less than $200K (and this is probably the only time I’ll ever suggest that such an MSRP is a relative bargain), the DUB crowd will be particularly interested to know that all sorts of carbon fiber trim packages are available to trick-out this menacing speed machine to the max, and take the MSRP well above $220 large. My test car featured two such trim packages that cost $4,500 each, as well as a $5,400 carbon fiber engine compartment cover package that not only clarifies the car’s seriousness of intent, but makes the SLS almost as pretty to look at with the hood open. Throw in an optional 11-speaker, dual-subwoofer, 1,000-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system that was designed specifically for this car (another $6,400) and you have a Benz worthy of the flashiest spitters and long-ball hitters. And believe me, this one will leave those CLs and G-Wagons in the dust while turning way more heads.
Base retail price: $196,100.00 As tested: $224,275.00
Hand-built AMG Dual Overhead Cam 6,208 cc V-8
Seven-Speed AMG Speedshift Dual-Clutch Automatic Transaxle with Paddle Shifting
Max Power: 563 bhp at 6,800 rpm
Max Torque: 479 lb.-ft. at 4,750 rpm
Acceleration: 0-60 mph in 3.7 seconds
Max Speed: 197 mph