Hardcore SLS Roadster oozes charisma

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IOL mot pic mar9 Merc SLS Roadster 1

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Mercedes SLS AMG roadster recalls the era of the 1950s SL while not turning the design into a pastiche of the original. And what a sound that V8 makes!

There’s more to the Mercedes-Benz SLS than its groovy gullwing doors – as anybody who’s ever driven one will attest.

Ridiculously cool styling, enormous power, a rock ‘n roll soundtrack and very competent cornering ability make this a gentleman’s grand tourer with the soul of a thoroughbred sports car.

I’m glad to say that the new roadster version continues in the same vein, contrary to the nudge-nudge wink-wink jibes that tend to follow open-topped cars around. There’s nothing emasculated or watered-down about the open-sky SLS, and though its roof may have gone soft, it’s still a hardcore sports car.

In at least one respect more hardcore, because the V8 sound is more up-close-and-personal without a steel roof to mute it.

Of course the roadster does lose those iconic gullwings and will probably be featured in fewer coffee-table books as a result, but it’s still an arresting shape that grabs the attention like a pole dancer at a bachelor party. It’s a classic roadster design with a short tail and a long bonnet stretching regally out in front, mixing elegance with aggression in a design that honours - but doesn’t imitate - the legendary 300SL of the 1950s.

SOFT TOP SEALS OR PEELS IN 11 SECONDS

IOL mot pic mar9 Merc SLS Roadster 2

Leather, wood and carbon fibre make for a classy cabin. But the seats arent the most comfortable over a long distance.

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As sexy as they are, the SLS coupé’s gullwing doors aren’t too practical for shorter folk who have to really stretch - or even lift themselves out of their seats - to close them. The SLS roadster’s conventional doors are easier to use, though they do need a surprisingly hard push to close.

The electric soft top seals or peels in 11 seconds (at driving speeds up to 50km/h), and stashes away neatly in the boot without taking up a lot of space. At 173 litres, the roadster’s boot is just three litres smaller than the gullwing’s.

The key numbers of the two cars are the same, in terms of the potent 420kW and 650Nm outputs made by the 6.2-litre normally-aspirated V8 engine mounted under the phallic bonnet. What’s different is that the roadster weighs 40kg more due to the extra body strengthening required by the absence of a hard roof.

Happily this isn’t enough mass to slow down the car in any meaningful way. Using the Race Start function packaged with the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, our SLS roadster test car dispatched the 0-100km/h sprint in a toupé-losing 4.5 seconds at our Gauteng test venue - just 0.3 secs slower than the SLS gullwing we tested back in 2010. Benz claims an even angrier 3.8 seconds is attainable at sea level, which is about the same time it will take to dry your hair when driving along at the (governed) 317km/h top speed.

HEAVY-METAL CONCERT

The SLS always feels intoxicatingly fast and lusty, and it’s always accompanied by a bellow that could shake the nuts off a squirrel. In the SLS coupé the metal roof mutes the V8’s growl to some extent, but in the roadster you’re right there headbanging in the front row of the heavy-metal concert.

Past Benzes, even the sporty ones, have sometimes been accused of being aloof to drive, but the SLS is a supercar that puts the enthusiast driver in the thick of the action. Though reasonably heavy at 1660kg, the car is no fast-in-a-straight-line but clumsy-in-the-turns GT. With its mass-saving aluminium body, double wishbone sports suspension, and transaxle layout (engine in front, gearbox in back) which distributes the weight very effectively, the SLS turns out to be a grand tourer with a distinct racing edge. It has brisk responses and sharp steering that will make drivers seek out twisty mountain passes.

AMG RIDE CONTROL

The optional AMG Ride Control allows the hardness of the suspension to be adapted to suit the prevailing road conditions - and your mood - and the stability control and gearchange points can also be set to your preference.

In comfort mode the Merc’s ride is firm without being spine-splintering, so from that point of view it’s a car that you can live with daily, but the ground clearance is very limited and the belly tends to scrape in driveway entrances. And while the big brakes are very effective in bringing this fast-moving beast to a quick halt, the pedal’s too sensitive in slow-paced driving.

Inside, the SLS is a hand-crafted blend of posh sportiness, combining luxury cowhide with matt metal or carbonfibre trim. The optional Airscarf system blows warm air from vents in the head restraints, so you can drive topless in winter.

My gripe is that the AMG sports seats, while body-hugging in the corners, aren’t the most comfortable I’ve sat in over a longer distance.

VERDICT

Though generally known as a stiff-upper-lip brand, Mercedes knows how to let its hair down when it comes to its high-performance cars. Together with the solid engineering and sober efficiency of Benz repute, the SLS roars with charisma and makes you feel like a rock star every time you get behind the wheel. Which is what a R2 764 200 sports car should do. -Star Motoring

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