x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Road Test: 2013 Mercedes-Benz SLS Roadster

The Mercedes-Benz SLS Roadster is one souped-up supermodel but a supremely engineered one.

March 6, 2013 (Abu Dhabi) Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster Abu Dhabi March 10, 2013. (Sammy Dallal / The National)
March 6, 2013 (Abu Dhabi) Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster Abu Dhabi March 10, 2013. (Sammy Dallal / The National)

Oh no, there it goes again. I've just driven over a really slight speed bump and I can hear and feel some no doubt spectacularly expensive scraping going on. It's horrid. How on earth do drivers of these cars cope around Dubai? Because, while the SLS AMG Merc is an extremely rare supercar in other parts of the world, here they're pretty ubiquitous. Having said that, though, how many times have you clapped eyes on one like this? The SLS Roadster is turning its fair share of heads and I'm not a natural exhibitionist - can I cope with this thing for four whole days?

Of course I can, and whenever I open this car's taps and let that monstrous V8 engine do what it's born to do, I don't care about how many people see, hear and feel this extraordinary vehicle.

For anyone who views the SLS as a one-trick pony thanks to its gullwing doors, the Roadster might initially be a bit of a letdown, but they'd be wrong. Having forfeited its party piece for two, really small aperture, normal doors has, to my eyes at least, actually improved the looks of the car. With a folding canvas roof that gives a more pleasing profile when raised and disappears completely when lowered, the Roadster is a seriously good-looking machine. But the SLS is about more than showy appearances. The SLS could quite rightly claim to be all about that incredible engine.

The thundering heart of the SLS is always making itself known. It permeates every aspect of this car's character - a physical wubwubwubwubwubwub noise at tickover, rapidly evolving when you put your foot down into a wall of sound that makes the V8 appear to be gargling on a heady mix of double cream, masonry nails and broken glass. If you're not sold on the looks, the hilariously addictive soundtrack will get you every single time. That car alarm that's just started blaring in your street was probably set off by an SLS rumbling past it - it really is that physical.

So, looks and noise aside, what does the SLS Roadster bring to the table? Sadly, after the shock and awe of its lithe body, the interior plays things a bit too safe. It's all a bit normal, although it's beautifully screwed together - a good job, too, because that engine would shake it to pieces otherwise. It's certainly a cosy environment, with everything (including your passenger) in very close proximity, but that sense of oncoming claustrophobia can be banished at the mere tug of a switch, as the electrically powered roof retracts in just 11 seconds, even when driving at speeds up to 50kph.

Back to that engine. It sits so far back in the chassis that it's completely behind the front axle, meaning the SLS is actually mid-engined. The bonnet stretches out into infinity and you're almost sat atop the rear wheels - the closest I've come to driving a modern equivalent of the original Jaguar E-Type. Initially imposing, the SLS Roadster soon makes its approachable side known, however, by being a deft handler. On corners where I fear the car might bite me like some hissing cobra, it actually feels planted, secure and often benign.

It's not really ideal for normal supercar hooning, though. Its natural mode is GT and, as a long distance cruiser it excels. The engine note, though always present, relaxes at speed and provides no annoyance, and its huge energy reserves make for effortless overtaking moves. Stump-pulling torque to the tune of 650Nm is extremely useful sometimes.

In city traffic, it can be a pain, and I'm not just referring to its ludicrous low ride height (which is compounded by the sheer length of its wheelbase). The throttle seems quite digital - either on or off - and that can make for some embarrassing low speed maneuvers. After all, everyone is looking. The paddle shifting twin-clutch sequential gearbox can be a bit slow to react, too, but get it onto a long, open (and speed bump-free) road and you wouldn't want to be in anything else.

Yes, the SLS Roadster is a silly car. It's a wealthy person's plaything and is as dramatic as road cars get, yet it is also a supremely well engineered, thoughtfully designed and sufficiently refined cross-continent road weapon that takes few prisoners. I understand the appeal of these cars, I really do. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to negotiate another speed hump. I may be some time.

khackett@thenational.ae