Steve Moody takes the new Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG for a test drive.
W e Britons are a stoic bunch. Having seen hordes cowering under umbrellas, eating soggy picnics as Union Flag paper crowns disintegrated, I conclude that our malevolent weather systems don’t defeat us-they define us. This cussed attitude to meteorological vagaries is reflected in our car choices. We buy more convertibles than almost any nation, in the hope that we can fling the roof off as the first watery rays appear.
Any convertible is fun in ideal conditions. I drove a horrible gold Vauxhall Astra cabriolet for a rare good summer. Nut brown by August, I came to love the rattling thing for the golden days it delivered. But there’s risk in no roof. A week in Cornwall was ruined when an armada of itiner-ant seagulls performed bombing runs on an uncovered Saab cabin.
So, with the recent conveyor belt of bleak cloud and torrential rain, I felt trepidation when taking delivery of the SLS AMG Roadster. It has a dark, poky cabin with bad dials and no view, plus many hundreds of horsepower, which make it desperate to cause an unscheduled swerve into a nearby ditch. It’s so long that the rear wheels can be spinning in one county when the front ones are bullocking along in another.
Then, amazingly, the sun came out and, roof down, I tiptoed off. It’s an intimidating, 16ft-long beast: the cabin is almost over the rear wheels and the vast prow stretches ahead like a speedboat. It’s frighteningly fast, and the gales sweeping through the cabin accentuate the sense of a rocket ship. But it’s a special feel, because for all the advanced electronics, carbon fibre and ‘unobtanium’ materials, cars from Mercedes’s AMG motorsport division are rather retrospective in nature.
Other fast cars are bafflingly quick, clinging onto the road using laws of physics invented in computer games and emitting high-pitched wails. AMG cars are different. This large, slower-revving, 6.3-litre V8 sounds like a propellor-driven fighter plane. The SLS will corner in supercar-hard fashion, but it’s really a very grand tourer. It’s best just to enjoy the comfy ride, the splendour and the noise. It’s even easy to drive if you’re not hurrying.
In some ways, the SLS harks back to motoring in a different age. It reminded me of a day I spent perched like a grinning meerkat in the tiny navigator’s seat of a priceless 1950s Mercedes racer as Stirling Moss, in blazer, tie and loafers, powered us around lanes near Bristol. I’ll never forget the face of a chap in a Mondeo at some traffic lights as we roared up in the iconic SLR 300. ‘That’s Stirling Moss,’ he mouthed. As the lights turned green, we were gone with a waved hand, a flicked wheel, squealing tyres and a gleeful look from the co-pilot.
There’s a gullwing version of the SLS, which apes the road-going classic Sir Stirling’s racer was based on, but the doors are a mock Tudorish affectation. The original 1954 300SL needed them because its Sputnik-age construction garnered all its strength through the doorsills. The SLS, roof or not, is inherently stiff, so I prefer the soft top because it delivers a more fulsome experience, blending machinery and scenery in a symphony of noise, smell and metal. As long as the weather stays fine and the gulls aim their bombs elsewhere.
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