Letter From America The new SLS AMG Roadster gives a nod to its ancestors while also being functional and powerful.
Jay Leno finds the Mercedes SLS AMG Roadster practically perfect
The AMG part of Mercedes is launching a roadster version of the [SLS] gullwing. I am fortunate and got a first drive of it. Like the gullwing, the roadster is a modern interpretation of Mercedes of the 1950s. For Mercedes, as for British companies such as Jaguar, heritage and lineage are crucial. They're the trump card they hold over Japanese companies who can really only go back 50 years. Mercedes can go so far back they can claim to have invented the first car.
So if two cars came on the market and they're both sort of equally priced with the same performance, you say this is the one; the one with the heritage. That's why th SLS AMG gullwing, and now the new roadster, work. They give a strong nod to their 1950s grandparents. Like the '50s version, the gullwing has a limited audience. The doors are a statement and are for the purist but the roadster is more practical.
My first reaction is that it is not as dramatic as the gullwing. Then you look at the front, which is extremely impressive and really stands out. I know how hard it is to do a modern interpretation of a car like that, with all the safety features and everything.
Initially, the roadster is more likely to be mistaken for a regular Mercedes convertible. The gullwing will always be recognisable; your eye just goes to the roof. For me, with the roadster, I immediately think back to the one of 1959-60 - that front end.
The proportions are nice but I'm always amazed at how physically big cars are now. You can't rest your elbow on the window anymore when you're driving. Those days are gone, but the creature comforts are unbelievable. A hot air vent up around your neck is brilliant. On a cold day you just turn that on. Amazing.
In a Mercedes convertible, when the roof is up you think you're in a closed car. The days of fluttering plastic rear windows are over. I like a closed car. Roadsters are fine and convertibles are fun, but I don't have to be seen. I just like a closed car. To me, the cabin of my Jaguar XK120 is very comforting. I'm like a cat; I like to get in a little space.
That's not to say the convertible won't be a big seller. On the contrary. I think the gullwing and roadster were designed in parallel. These days I think all manufacturers are looking forward; whether you're Nissan or anybody, you come out with your hard top and then, 18 months later, you introduce the convertible. The Camaro did the same thing.
Convertibles were always, from a construction and handling point of view, inferior. A buddy of mine had a mid-60s Lincoln four-door with the suicide doors in the back, and every time he went over railway tracks he'd get this "tick, tick, tick, tick" as the doors moved up and down. Or, if you parked it on an angle, with one wheel maybe two inches higher than the other, you couldn't open the door. That's how flexi-flyer the chassis was. That's just not relevant now. The fact is that you could flip an SLS convertible and that roll hoop and windscreen would hold you.
When I was a kid I did new-car prep, setting up new cars for customers; putting on licence plates, that kind of thing. The kind of thing an 18-, 19- or 20-year-old would do at a car dealership, and I loved it. I would get to drive the Mercedes 600 - still one of my favourites - as well as my all-time favourite, the 6.3.
I would see pictures of that car coming around a track and think, "where is that?". Well, it was at the Mercedes plant in Stuttgart. To test this new roadster I actually got to drive on it, which was great.
You needed to be doing at least 100kph to hold it onto the wall through the bends. It was great fun and you got a chance to see what the car is really capable of. These cars are so much better than the skills of the people who end up driving them.
I read once that Sir Stirling Moss could read newsprint 20 feet away. Well, I can't even see the newspaper at 20 feet. I've been around some of these professional guys at celebrity driving events and they say, "you know, that left rear could have used a quarter pound more air pressure". Really? A quarter pound more air pressure? Whereas I can drive and think, hey, what's that noise? Oh, I have a flat tyre. I didn't even know I had a flat.
When I was at the track I called David Coulthard, who helped develop the SLS. Over the Bluetooth as I was driving he gave me a virtual driving lesson. How cool! Obviously, when someone of Coulthard's calibre has a hand in the development of the car, it's very impressive. He's thinking of the last 100th of a second whereas, for most people, the last 20 minutes is fine. You've got to find that balance.
Mercedes is the classic example of "here's the car you should have versus what you want". Most guys think they want an all-out track racer. I remember driving the Aston DBS with the racing seats and it was the most uncomfortable thing. My back was killing me. I realised then that I like a comfortable chair. But I also like something that goes fast. If you're a single guy, it's like saying, I'd like a supermodel that can cook. The two are completely different but they've got to be able to do both to keep you happy.
That's what I think the SLS does. It's fast, it handles, it's comfortable. It does everything you ask it to do. And that's one of the best double-clutch gearboxes I've ever used: bang, bang, bang. It's so much better than competitors' 'boxes in that price bracket. The car is fairly priced, has a lot of horsepower, speed, exclusivity. And all the things people want in a Mercedes, such as comfort and safety and all of that.
The performance capability reminds me a little bit of high-performance motorcycles. You get a Kawasaki 1400 and you ride it about, and it's fun. It gets you in and out of traffic, it gets you where you're going, it doesn't overheat. Then you get the other side of 4,000rpm and you realise, wow, there's no way I can harness this much power. It's the same thing with the SLS.
You drive it about in traffic or on the open road and it's a nice car, and it's not until you really put your foot down that you realise this thing can really go. But that's a Mercedes characteristic. I have an SLR and it drives like a normal Mercedes until you get to the other side of 4,000 rpm and it goes crazy.
The nice thing about the SLS is you have normal ground clearance. So many cars have so little ground clearance that there's not a lot of practicality. Mercedes always makes sure the car is practical.
Luckily, with the AMG, you can put all your stuff in the boot. The SLR McLaren Mercedes that I have has the most miles of any of the supercars I own, because it's the one I can actually go places in.
You look at those famous Diego Rivera paintings of the 1930s, of car factories in Detroit, and it's guys with huge arms and cigarettes, overhead chains, presses stamping. And then you go to a place like the AMG factory, where they assemble their motors and you realise it's more like a hospital environment.
It's extremely clean, the guys' hands are not greasy and dirty; it's like going to a watch factory. You must have that precision, that level of cleanliness and exacting detail to assemble some of these motors. These motors don't require break-in. They go 12,000 miles before the first service.
They are the only mass manufacturer that hand-assembles each engine. And one guy does the whole thing, which I think gives a sense of accomplishment. The guy puts his name on it. It's a long way from the Monday morning cars or the Friday afternoon cars, which were terrible because the guys were partying the night before. The days when you hoped for a car built on a Tuesday or a Wednesday are long gone.
I think the roadster will be more popular than the gullwing because it's more practical, more accessible. Early Dodge Viper (which had side exhausts) owners all had a burn on their leg from every time they got out of their cars. "Yes, I have a Viper, look at my leg," they would say. It will be the same with gullwing owners, who will have dents in their heads from banging them every time they get out of the car. That's why I think the roadster will probably make more sense.