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.
The Route de Col de Brouis is a concrete boa slithering its way up the cliff's edge on its way to Brouis, our rest stop, through tunnels and past nearly abandoned villages scarred by the acne of abandoned stone buildings, broken windows and rusted industrial works. It is a brilliant test of the go-fast game with sweepers to test at-speed cornering stability and mid-curve undulations, tight-blind corners where the rock face juts in into the apex to test quick steering jinks, construction crews placed strategically around blind corners to test the six-pot carbon brakes up front (in back are four-pot calipers straddling cast iron discs), and the occasional ancient Citroën Berlingo coming around yet more blind corners, in your lane, tilted up on its outside wheels like a drunk camel, to test your sangfroid.
For this, you press the AMG Ride Control until both lights illuminate, beyond Sport, to Sport +, for the firmest damping and the least intrusive ESP program. Then you turn the driving mode dial to from C (for "Controlled Efficiency"), past S and S+, to M (for "Manual"). That sharpens the throttle and transmission responses, with the V8's throttle flaps going wide open in just 150 milliseconds and shift times cut in half to less than 100 milliseconds.
For further thrills, you can turn on the AMG Performance Media, introduced with this car, and replace the nav screen with a series of digitally reproduced analog dials that monitor everything from fluid temperatures to power and torque output and throttle and brake position, to acceleration and quarter-mile times, to G-forces. You can even teach the system a racetrack – it comes with the Nürburgring and Hockenheim pre-installed – and keep track of lap and programmable sector times. Since you won't have time to watch the screen while you pilot – well, not if you're doing it right – you can download the information to a USB stick in the glove compartment and bask in your own motoring afterglow.
All that is in a world far, far away, however, once you work the gas pedal and the tires. The V8 roars as it sucks in air and spits out hundreds of horsepower and pound-feet, the tires quietly grope the tarmac beneath and the SLS Roadster leaps to 60 miles per hour in 3.6 naturally-aspirated seconds. With yachtloads of gumption on hand, you're never short of might. You could run up to fifth gear and down to second for hairpins, taking advantage of the double-declutching that keeps rapid downshifts from upsetting the balance, but even through the 180-degree bends, you could leave the convertible in third and easily claw out of most apexes. It feels as if not a lick of energy is lost in chassis twisting, either, as the roadster has been engineered to require 18,000 Newton-meters of force to flex a single degree, and later on, we would discover that it is still compliant enough not to end up on three wheels while navigating hairpins with insanely cambered apexes.
With two of your fingers on the metal paddles behind the thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel, your right foot burying the throttle and brake as the mountain demands, your eyes fixed just beyond the end of a snout as long as Montana, and somewhere beside your right hand the red dot on the G-Meter caroming all over its sphere, your head is filled with the buzzing of three killer Bs: Brutal, Breakneck, Brilliant. Here again, though, pay attention: as with the coupe, it will be kind to the competent, but take your mind off the task and the back end is ready to swap places if you've turned off the babysitters. The SLS AMG Roadster is not the Ferrari 458 Italia, nor is it meant to be – but the SLS AMG Roadster sits at the same table in terms of how well it does everything it does.
For when it's time to slow down, as we did when we reached the Auberge du Col de Bruis, we remembered and could enjoy the fact that we were in a Mercedes. Tucked among the thick Espresso Brown leather – a new color for this year – are the Airscarf system in the headrests to blow climate-controlled gusts on delicate necks, leather-lined roll-hoops with integrated mesh, rather wide Alcantara-bound A-pillars, eight airbags and screen after screen of motoring, technology and safety aids. And also that 1,000-watt B&O auido that, having eased off for a breath and a café, you can finally hear again should you wish. It would be the perfect ride later on that evening, sashaying through the groves of pink buildings jutting from Monégasque cliffs, headed to our seafront room in the Le Mèridien Monte Carlo to enjoy a glass of wine and meditation to the sight of billions of dollars of yachts lolling just offshore.
But first there was coffee and pastry to be had, along with some assistance from Anouk at the Auberge, who was kind enough to demonstrate the working of the softtop. As I handed her the key and she admired our Sepang Brown wonder, she noted, in a Franco-Belgian accent as seductive as the convertible itself, "This is a beautiful car."
She could not be more right. The SLS AMG gullwing might be the most badass SLS, but make no mistake about it, this, the roadster, is the perfect SLS.