Highway 101 just south of San Francisco, and the orderly lines of traffic are holding a steady 65 miles per hour (105 kilometer per hour), placid and in no apparent hurry. California calm.
The roof is down on your $224,000 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster and the feral burble of the V-8 engine is even louder than the sharp snap of wind in your face.
That hunk of rumbling metal, with its furious pistons and hot oil, seems to be talking directly to you, a voice that smokes unfiltered cigarettes and gargles whisky.
Let me loose. Free me.
A California highway patrolman on a motorcycle idling on the inside shoulder reminds you why letting the SLS Roadster loose is not a good idea. Yet, it’s impossible to shut out its persuasive urgings.
As a reincarnation of the famed Mercedes SL Gullwings of the 1950s, the convertible SLS supercar is a quintessential West Coast ride. The original coupes and roadsters are pricy collectors’ items today, defined by clean lines and (in the coupe’s case), exotic pop-up doors. You’ll rarely see a more beautiful car.
Mercedes introduced the $190,000 SLS AMG coupe in 2009. It was a spiritual successor, with a 6.3-liter, 563-horsepower engine in its belly and a set of top-hinged gullwing doors. Less pretty, far faster.
The 2012 convertible model was recently released and it starts just south of $200,000. The roof is canvas and since the doors can’t hang off of it, the car loses the gullwings. That might seem as if you’ve just negated the whole point, but the SLS makes the transition to a convertible surpassingly well.
The body is extremely low and wide, as if a titan had squished it down with a massive thumb. These distorted proportions appear even more exaggerated without a top. Same supercar, fewer inhibitions.
Lower the roof electronically in just over 10 seconds, trigger the engine, and the next part of the equation becomes clear. There’s no sound insulation between you and the engine.
No surprise, it’s best when your foot pins the accelerator mercilessly to the floor. Which might remind you that, like the coupe, the convertible is rated to travel at up to 197 mph.
Too bad there’s no road in California where one might do such a thing legally.
Even around stoplights, the power of the SLS is irrepressible, like being in the belly of a slow-moving wave way out to sea. It looks placid enough, but there’s a deep reservoir of power. The SLS surges through its lower gears, eddying through third and fourth -- but you can cause it to tsunami at a pedal push.
The transmission is only available as a seven-speed double clutch; you can leave it in automatic or click through gears using the steering-wheel paddles. The interior on this particular car is a mix of bright red leather, nice stuff, and carbon-fiber (a $9,000 option). Racy and rich.
Off the highway, for the sake of both a change of scenery and safety of keeping your driver’s license, you might head over the hills toward the Pacific, randomly choosing back roads. Even on narrow lanes the ride is firm and dependable, with predictable turns and good steering.
The car’s width is a liability on some lanes, especially a very narrow road that runs along a wooded mountain ridge, passing through Christmas-tree farms lightly shrouded in mist. If you meet another vehicle coming the other way, it will be tough to find a place pull off into the rocky shoulder, especially with the low nose.
(A hotel valet in Monterey can attest to this after returning the roadster with the bottom of the front fascia chewed up and a fresh scrape on the paint.)
It’s chilly in the higher elevation, but rather than put the top up, you turn on the seat warmers and Mercedes’s clever system that blows warm air directly onto the nape of your neck from the seatback.
What’s a California car without a dash along Highway 1? It can seem like the world’s most overrated road until you’re actually swinging through the curves, and you recall why it’s so beautiful and fun. With the top down, you really get a sense of the crashing waves below you, and the salt in the air.
But then the sun goes away and a few wet dots appear on the windshield. Rain. You could stop and put the roof up. Instead you add in throttle and the car happily responds, going ever faster. The cabin remains dry.
Who says you can’t outrun the rain? It might be the best excuse you have for letting the SLS Roadster run free.
The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster at a Glance
Engine: 6.3-liter V-8 with 563 horsepower and 479 pound-
feet of torque.
Transmission: Seven-speed double-clutch automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 14 city, 20 highway.
Price as tested: $224,275.
Best feature: Noise, when the top is down.
Worst feature: Trying to keep to legal speeds on the
Target buyer: The Californian who likes his speed in top-
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)