Review and road test of the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster (2011-2014)
THE GERMAN OPEN
By Jonathan Crouch
Supercar heritage doesn't just belong in Italy. Mercedes-Benz has plenty of it too and drew on much of it when in late 2011, it brought us one of the fastest and most desirable designs the German maker has ever unleashed upon us: the SLS AMG Roadster.
(Roadster 6.2-litre V8)
At 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.
In November 2011, these classic models got a successor, this car, the SLS AMG Roadster. On sale for only two years, it turned out to be just as rare - and will be just as desired by future generations.
What You Get
Convertible cars the world over have a drawback: they're very rarely a dynamic match for their fixed-top coupe counterparts. This is due to simple physics. Take a shoebox. It's pretty rigid with the lid on but take its top off and it flops about everywhere. Cars do the same, which is why convertibles don't tend to drive as well as coupes.
This Mercedes is different. You see, it isn't a coupe with the roof lopped off. This car was designed from the outset to be a roadster, with all the strengthening already integrated into its all-aluminium chassis. From the very beginning, this SLS was created to ruffle your hair. Which is why, if anything, this Roadster version is better balanced than its fixed-top stablemate.
It was also created to be driven - and driven hard, not just to be looked at. Which is why the engine is set so far back behind the line of the front axle to improve the handling. How does that work? Well, imagine pushing a shopping trolley around a store with a case of beers at the front. It'd be a right handful to steer around a corner wouldn't it? But bring that 24-pack to the back of the trolley and you'll swivel it round no problem. Same principle here.
Enough though, about the engineering. Just look at this thing. 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 the 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.
What to Look For
Many of examples will have done very low mileage and will have been very carefully looked after. Just in case, watch for kerbed alloys, uneven tyre wear and service records not fully stamped up. To be honest, you're unlikely to have issues in any of these areas. Most original buyers will have cosseted their cars. Still, it's worth taking the time to make sure there are no faults or cosmetic issues, as even relatively minor problems could be costly to resolve.
(approx based on a 2013 SLS AMG Roadster ) If you can afford to buy and run a supercar like this, then you probably won't be too worried about the cost of replacement parts. Bear in mind though that even a water pump could set you back over £250 and even a headlight bulb will leave you with little change from £100.
On the Road
We're going to let you in on a little secret here. Many supercars aren't all they're cracked up to be. Yes, they look great and they can go fast in a straight line, but most of them lose their lustre when you really want to drive them. Then you find all of the compromises that come with form over function and, after the novelty's worn off, end up wishing you were in something less temperamental that you could see out of and wasn't such a pain to park.
Mercedes-Benz doesn't make supercars like that. It didn't back in the sepia-tinted days of the Fifties and it hasn't here. But you don't buy something like this for sense and sensibility, too much of which was served up by the brand's first modern era pin-up performance model, the disappointing SLR of 2004. There was nothing especially memorable about that car: this one's very different.
OK, so it doesn't have the SLS coupe's jaw-dropping gullwing doors, but the design of this model series didn't originally envisage them anyway. The SLS was created on the stylist's sketchpad exactly as it is here, roof-less, uncompromising and sensational. This Roadster version is actually 40kgs heavier than the fixed-top, 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 a little rotary dial by the auto gearstick and it'll help the big, bullet-proof 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.
Just listen to it, as you can so much more easily in this Roadster model with the roof down, a retraction process possible at speeds of up to 30mph. What's on offer isn't the highly strung exhaust note of an Italian diva car. What you'll be hearing under that dragstrip of a bonnet is the most powerful naturally aspirated V8 powerplant in the world, the handiwork of a single engineer at the AMG plant in Affalterbach, Germany who will have hand-built the 571bhp engine and will have stuck a plaque on the inlet manifold with his name on to advertise the fact. So if it goes wrong, you'll know who to call.
This isn't a car that's defined by its numbers or its facts. Instead, the SLS experience is all about sensation, how it makes you feel. Imagine rolling along the Promenade des Anglais in Cannes on the most super-saturated summer's day, making the beautiful people look that little bit less luminous. That's what this Mercedes can do. It has that X-factor. Call it charisma, authenticity, whatever you like, but the result is the creation of something that's more than just a very fast sportscar. 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.
At least you won't need too much practice to achieve the perfect getaway. This Roadster's RACE START mode will guarantee you a perfect launch every time. Left foot on the brakes, ESP Sport mode engaged, RACE START programme selected. Engage first gear, floor the throttle and then as soon as you sidestep the brake pedal, the car will rocket off the line, cleverly sniffing out every last bit of grip available, wet or dry. Childish? A little. Fun? Oh yes...
An 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 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 if you're buying a supercar from the 2011 to 2015 era. 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 this 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.
Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster (2011-2014) review by Jonathan Crouch