There are several ways to get to Monte Carlo once you’ve landed in Nice. There’s the train, a 23-minute meandering trek over and through the wooded undulations of the intervening cities that deposits you at Monte Carlo’s downtown station. There’s a taxi, more than 30 times the cost of a train, and it takes twice as long, but it does offer service porte à porte. Or there’s Heli Air Monaco with a fleet of choppers stationed at the Nice airport. Those fine gents can get you to the Monaco heliport in eight minutes, floating past seafront redoubts and over an azure Mediterranean dotted with billions of dollars of sailing and motor yachts.
Of those three modes of transport, only one is appropriate when Mercedes has invited you to Monte Carlo to drive its new SLS AMG Roadster. We offered the appropriate “Mercis” to our chopper pilot for providing a smooth ride.
The SLS AMG was introduced at the 2009 Frankfurt Auto Show. The roadster was engineered alongside the coupe, but it’s taken two years to remove the top for public purposes. It will take you two minutes of top-down driving to begin quoting high school poetry in homage to it: “Come with me and be my love,” you’ll coo, “and we will all the pleasures prove….”
The Villa Key Largo is where we met our day’s work, an angled row of SLS AMG Roadsters lined up along the jetty. We chose a model wearing the newest exterior color, metallic AMG Sepang Brown, a coat that ripples with bronzed silverfish hues in any temperature of light, then goes all brooding matte under cloud and shade. It is one of the nine exterior colors available on the range, to go along with either red, black or beige roof options. It is beautiful. Or, to borrow a descriptive courtesy of British comedy duo Hale & Pace, it’s “a knee-trembling color, a crumpet magnet.”
The roadster is veritably the coupe, tweaked. The engine remains the 6.3-liter (yes, that’s really a 6.208-liter) V8 with 571 horsepower and 479 pound-feet of torque, but has been given revised intake air ducting to reduce pressure losses. Through the twin pipes out back, it continues to emit a subterranean bellow that’s a mating call for monstrosities of the Godzilla family.
Wrapped around it is an aluminum spaceframe and lightly adorned body. The spaceframe itself is seven kilograms lighter than the engine, and roadster’s body-in-white is but two kilograms heavier than the coupe. The mass of the fixed roof has been transferred into trusses behind the instrument panel, the center tunnel, the soft top and gas tank, a carbon fiber support behind the seats, and higher door sills with more reinforcing chambers. All up, the roadster is 88 pounds heavier than its gullwinged brother.
The three-layer cloth softtop surrounds bones of aluminum, magnesium and steel, and stows behind the front seats. It folds into the shape of the last letter of the alphabet in just 11 seconds, only debits you a smidge of trunk space compared to the coupe, and it doesn’t take up any more space when it’s stowed. It will answer your command at any speed up to 31 miles per hour.
With powerplant alight, we pulled down the jetty, past the 100- and 200-meter yachts that reign over the Monte Carlo flotilla. Although the SLS Roadster is a lean cut of meat – its only strip of “fat” being the ample cushion between the grille and the front mid-mounted engine –it is also a wide one. This isn’t a problem through the streets of La Condamine, past the Prince Albert Swimming Pool complex and marina, nor over Boulevard Louis II. Nor is it a problem through the Formula One circuit tunnel under The Fairmont Hotel, where every other driver is giving his exhaust a workout as if testing its thunder against the hell-beckoning drone of a Renault V8 on overrun.
Get out of Monaco proper, though, to neighboring cities like Roquebrune or especially the hilltop hamlets like Èze where the streets take a more narrow, Continental bent, and you’ll be snapped to attention. With a front track just 1.5 inches narrower than a Lamborghini Aventador, even a Peugeot touching the center line in the opposite lane will get you focused on running the slot between it and the right shoulder. When you meet an oncoming truck, that glorious V8 bellow gives way to the sound of both your sphincters at DefCon 5 and Alec Guinness telling you to “Use the Force” as if you’re a young Skywalker trying to put a missile down the Death Star’s air vent.
But no matter your state of relaxation or anxiety, you will look very, very good behind the wheel. The car is unconscionably low – you have to look up to make eye contact with the copious number of women in the equally copious number of Ferrari California droptops cruising the Côte. The removal of the roof eliminates the aesthetic issues arising from the stubby cap atop the gullwing, so that the portion of the car behind the engine appears more stretched out and relaxed. The fixed-roof version also has blind spots so large they should be called eclipses, and eliminating the roof makes three-quarter vision to the rear much better, naturally. Yet the stack of the stowed roof combined with the ground-floor seating means you only see the upper pieces of cars close behind. You can raise the lower bolster, but that robs you of your billionaire raconteur profile, and there’s no reason to acquire such rakish accommodations and then sit in a booster seat. With the roof up, sightlines aft are comparable to a leather-lined, cross-stitched pillbox. But really, why would you be driving with the roof up anyway?
Additionally, removal of the roof positively soaks the cabin in exhaust music, so that any other noise – your passenger speaking, for instance, or actual music through the 1,000-watt, 11-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system – has to work its way through that low-level-earthquake medium. Even with the slot-in wind deflector, the cabin isn’t quiet, it’s sporting. Don’t be surprised if you become a man or woman of few words when behind the wheel. But really, why would you be talking, anyway?
One of the roadster’s most welcome features is its AMG Ride Control suspension, with adaptive damping. Your author drove the coupe at its launch two years ago and found its one-setting-only manners so severe that we still remember the exact stretch of Northern California highway when he thought, “Oh my God, this is annoying.” It was outstanding on the track – the only problem being that it was always braced for circuit use. With the Ride Control suspension, the same recently experienced on the CLS63 AMG, there’s now a Comfort setting that is genuinely comfortable. What we have here, fellow mavens, is a properly grand, grand tourer.
What we also have here, when aimed at Alpine switchbacks, is a properly fettled ballistic missile. Crossing through into Ventimiglia, Italy and turning northward into the mountains, we entered AMG’s warped arcade world: We were like a zig-zagging pinball in reverse, going up instead of down. But since we’re not talking about a lightweight – the SLS Roadster weighs about 600 pounds more than a Porsche 911 and about 80 pounds less than an Aston Martin DBS – the action was is less pinball, more pin-boulder. Yet it was none the less awesome for it.
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