Eventually, we pop out of the north of the city, and weave our way towards the border with Oman, through small villages, past an enormous cement factory, and occasionally slowing for a plethora of cows sauntering up and down the road. The sand dunes are gone, replaced by layered rocky mountains cast from a hundred shades of brown. With the sun now high in the sky, they tower over the thin stretch of land between them and the sea.
Finally, we reach the border. After a last-minute panic the day before the trip caused by a lack of Omani insurance on the SLS, we now have all the necessary paperwork and passports, and for a small fee we’re waved through. So now, it’s on.
First things first, roof down. It might be years since I came to this road, but I remember at least partially how good it is, and I want to experience the SLS as it should be. Our test car seems to have a slightly dodgy switch, as pulling the control for the roof sees it whirr for a half second and then stop. Several more pulls eventually persuade it to fold away surprisingly simply and quickly into a small compartment ahead of the boot.
Go time. Although an AMG-marked button on the centre console allows drivers to preselect their own favourite set up, I haven’t done so, so I individually turn everything to maximum. The suspension goes to full, the gearbox to manual and ESP to sport. And off we go. To my left, the shimmering azure waters of the Arabian Gulf. To my right, towering mountains with sheer rock faces, and beneath me perfect tarmac. The SLS leaps forward with insistence, accompanied by that growl-to-bark retort from the exhausts that echoes around the open cabin, bounces off the cliff face and comes back at me again. What a sound.
The climb in speed is fast – 100kph takes 3.8 seconds – but it’s the way it keeps piling on velocity that astounds. The delivery from standstill isn’t nearly as brutal as other sports cars I’ve experienced, but the big V8 pulls and pulls as I venture along the Musandam coast. The two-lane road snakes between barriers – without them, a mishap here would culminate in either a smash into the cliff or a plunge into the sea. Both of which I’m keen to avoid, so I try and keep things smooth, squeezing on the throttle and trying to see how much grip there is from the front tyres working hard at the end of the long bonnet ahead of me.
The answer is not as much as I expected, the Continentals running out of stickiness fairly easily, so I adopt a style of lifting off into corners before getting on the power earlier. The rears seem to hold on much better, and with all that grunt heading to them I can feather in the throttle until they start to break, wiggling the SLS’ short rear as the engine starts its concerto again. With so little room for error here I refrain from taking the ESC completely off, but there’s enough slack in the reins to play around, and the slides are telegrapher and progressive – a flick of the beautifully weighted steering and I’m back on track.
The coast road offers up myriad challenges as it works its way north. There are steep hairpins, fast, flat sections and undulating hills, double apex corners and sections that loop around small bays dotted with dhows and fishing boats. There’s hardly any traffic and visibility is excellent, so I’m never worried about meeting anyone else coming the other way.
The result is one of the best few hours of driving I’ve had in years, in a car I really, really like. Sure, it’s not as pin-sharp as a 458, or perhaps even as the SLS coupe, but without driving the two Mercs back to back I’m hard pressed to tell the difference in performance. On this road, pushing to about eight-tenths, with the open air around my head filled with German V8 noise, it’s epically good fun. And so, so fast. At one point a 911 Carrera S shows up, clearly driven by someone that knows the roads, and gives it some. But the SLS is faster, wolfing down any section of straight road with that brawny monster of an engine. It feels like it pulls as hard from 120 to 160 as it does from 30 to 100, there are just endless reserves of power under my foot.
It’s so quick in fact that it almost catches me out on a couple of occasions. Thankfully the composite brakes are up to the task of scrubbing speed off, although the pedal initially feels rather spongy. It improves as the discs and pads warm up, but the first few corners are met with slight alarm as there’s a slight delay between the first push of the pedal and the components biting.
The road is so spectacular that I almost don’t pay attention to the views on offer. Thankfully David is much more alert to that sort of thing, and regularly orders stops to get the right shots. Which just gives me the excuse to razz up and down a bit more. It’s a hard life.
In theory, it should only take about 40 minutes to cover the 45km stretch of road, even quicker at the speed I’ve been going. But I defy anyone with a love of driving, in something vaguely decent, to not want to take longer, and do multiple runs up and down. It’s well into the afternoon by the time we finally arrive, slightly sunburned, into Khasab, and pick our way past cruise ship passengers in the local hypermarket to rehydrate and grab a bit to eat.
It’s been a great day. The SLS may have lost a bit of pizazz to outsiders by losing its roof, but it gains driver appeal by increasing the aural delights via the lack of roof. If it’s been compromised structurally by this change then, driving it today on these roads, months after I last drove the coupe, then I can’t notice it. It might not be quite as razor-like in its handling as some other top-end sports cars of the moment, but it’s blisteringly fast and fantastic fun. I’m glad I waited so long to drive this road again.
*ORIGINAL POST DATE: February 2013
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– Shots courtesy of David Benson
|Mercedes-Benz SLS Roadster|
|Location:||Front / longitudinal|
|Power:||563bhp @ 6800rpm|
|Torque:||479lb ft @ 4750rpm|
|Transmission:||Seven-speed dual clutch gearbox / rear-wheel drive / limited-slip differential / ESP|
|Front suspension:||Double wishbones / coil springs / dampers / anti-roll bar|
|Rear suspension:||Double wishbones / coil springs / dampers / anti-roll bar|
|Brakes:||Ventilated and cross-drilled carbon-ceramic discs, 402mm front, 360mm rear, ABS, EBD|
|Wheels:||9.5 x 19in front, 11 x 20in rear|
|Tyres:||265/35 ZR19 front, 295/30 ZR20 rear, Continental ContiSport Contact|
|Top speed:||317kph (claimed)|