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Review

FIRST DRIVE: Mercedes SLS AMG Roadster car review

26/09/11

Some people say German cars have no passion or emotion, but they've clearly never met this beast. The Mercedes SLS AMG Roadster is the soft-top version of the SLS AMG Coupe, which you might know better as the safety car at Formula 1 races.

It was a big decision for Mercedes to make a convertible SLS, because it automatically had to lose the Coupe's star feature; ‘gullwing’ doors that hinge at the top, like on the iconic 1950s Mercedes 300 SL, or the DeLorean in Back to the Future. Open-top driving has an allure all of its own, though.

One of the key reasons convertibles make such involving sports cars is that you can hear the engine and exhaust so clearly, and this engine really needs to be on your list of things to experience.

Forget swimming with dolphins – this is the kind of thing that stays with you, especially when the thunderous clamour coming from the exhaust is bouncing straight back off walls and cliffs into your heart as you climb your way into the French Alps.

The noise is like nothing else. It’s a sensory atom bomb that shoots down every nerve in your body and makes you wonder why you ever spent any of your time doing anything other than charging up and down the Roadster's gears.

It's also quite lively, stepping ever so slightly sideways on exiting a corner under power before digging in and firing itself off down the road with the kind of shocking intensity only supercars can deliver. It's a truly intoxicating car to drive.

It's not all passion, though; there's a bit of fiddling to be done before the SLS Roadster can be unleashed. At one end of the automatic gearbox's four settings there's Comfort, for quieter driving and generally respectful motoring.

Then by degrees Sport, Sport Plus and Manual increase the power available, the speed of the gear changes and the ferocity with which they're made, along with a fair degree of popping and banging from the exhaust by the time you get to Manual. The suspension also has three settings, from highest comfort to most aggressive.

It’s a car that’s quite sensitive to driving styles. There’s noticeable lateral weight transfer which can make the car feel cumbersome in fast left-right-left turns, for example, and it generally responds best to a ‘slow in, fast out’ style of driving rather than trying to achieve maximum corner speed.

The Manual gearbox mode gives the driver the most control, but not quite enough. A flick of the right hand paddle on the advice of the gear shift lights won't change up a gear before the engine hits its rev limiter. The system isn't as quick or intuitive as some, but like with the need to tailor your driving style, it's the kind of flaw that makes the car that bit more appealing because you have to bond with it to get the best from it.

It’s not such good news inside the cabin. The leather trim is lovely and the seats are just right for a continent-crossing sports car, but the everyday items are disappointing. Most of the switchgear is taken straight from Mercedes cars much lower down the range. Even the key could be from an A-Class, and potential SLS owners might object to the interior's lack of a 'special' feeling.

On the outside, the available matt finishes like Arctic White are stunning and really do stand out. Just don't take it through a car wash, because you’ll ruin it. If for some other reason you need to put the roof up (like you live in Britain and it's raining), it takes just 11 seconds at speeds up to 30mph, and is as quiet as a church mouse. It uses special materials and a glass rear window to keep wind noise to a minimum.

The SLS Roadster will sell on its looks alone. You can bet a number of cheques will have been signed on the day it was unveiled at this year's Frankfurt Motor Show. But it's not just a stunning design; it's got buckets of character and as much safety technology as Mercedes actually knows about.

That means it loses some of the sense of danger that some supercars possess. For some buyers, the raw thrill and risk of driving something like a Koenigsegg fast is the chief motivator, but the SLS offers passion and astonishment at every turn while never feeling lethal. It's a remarkable piece of engineering.

FACTS AT A GLANCE Model: Mercedes SLS AMG Roadster, £176,895.

Engine: 6.2-litre V8 producing 563bhp and 479lb.ft of torque.

Transmission: 7-speed automatic gearbox driving the rear wheels.

Performance: Top speed 198mph, 0-62mph in 3.8 seconds.

Fuel economy: 21.4mpg.

CO2 rating: 308g/km.

  • Enginespetrol
  • Power5 (high performance)
  • 0-60 mph
  • Economy1 (poor fuel economy)
  • CO2g/km
  • Insurance groups1 (very high costs)
  • Airbags
  • Seats2

Motors.co.uk value verdict:    stars

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