Photos: Zerin Dube & John Kucek

The idea of removing the roof from a supercar is about as heretic a concept for diehard auto enthusiasts as scalping a baby bunny would be to a card-carrying PETA member. Hence the personal crisis I’ve been having in the days since driving two of 2012’s most over-the-top topless sportsters: the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster, and the Jaguar XKR-S Convertible. What I’m grappling with, as an enthusiast, is the thought that truthfully, I’d rather have either of these beasts in drop-top form than their coupe counterparts. Blasphemy? Read on to decide for yourself.

I find myself faced with the two aforementioned lust objects on a typically hot and sunny late spring morning in South Florida; Key Biscayne to be exact. For the unfamiliar, Key Biscayne is a small island situated just a few minutes’ drive south of the downtown Miami skyline, a hamlet for multi-millionaires and the service industry that coddles them. Accessed by a toll bridge, isolated by a 5 mile stretch of parks and causeways, and largely devoid of hustle or bustle, it’s as deserted a place as you’re likely to find within earshot of the Miami metro area. In this setting, it takes something special to raise a local’s waxed eyebrow.

Enter the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster. Actually, make that a white-on-white SLS AMG Roadster, with matte black multi-spoke 19”/20” wheels and a thundering exhaust note capable of making Skeletor himself curl up in a ball and suck his thumb. Anyone who can’t come to terms with spending the additional $41,300 over M-B’s own SL63 Roadster with the AMG Performance package for a piddling 6 horsepower gain is missing the point entirely. This car has presence. It won’t be ignored; the shape is long, flat and pointed like an offshore powerboat, with a gurgling exhaust note at idle that continues the theme of sitting partially submerged in the water. I’m ready to drop the throttles and watch 479 lb-ft of torque push the bow skyward.

At this point in the SLS coupe, you’d be ducking under the gullwing door, ungracefully banging your head in the process and heaving your body over a wide doorsill. If you’re the claustrophobic type, you’re going to feel sealed up inside like a cadaver in a body bag, that destination ensured should you forget to keep the shiny side up and are hence unable to swing those gullwing doors free of the ground. No such problems arise in the roadster. You’re free to work on your tan, pivot your head to observe all your adoring fans and jealous on-lookers, and revel in the noise of the exhaust and the rush of the wind. And my god, what a noise it is. The sound unleashed when all 563 horsepower are summoned is akin to slowly ripping a classical 15th century tapestry in half, volume amplified to the 10th power. When big-bore naturally-aspirated V8 engines are relegated to the history books, this will be the one that defines the breed in terms of sound quality. Only lucky onlookers get the best acoustic waves in the hardtop; in the roadster, you’re in the audience, front row center.

In addition to a killer new soundtrack, the best elements of the SLS coupe remain unfiltered. The seven-speed AMG Powershift double clutch gearbox (the same Getrag unit as that in the Ferrari 458 Italia, albeit with different programming) bangs shifts home with instant precision. Turn-in and steering feel are as unfettered as a front-mid engine car’s should be, and grip from the rear 295/30-20 tires is unimpeachable at legal speeds. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that cutting the roof off the SLS AMG coupe seems to have made the roadster not one iota more torsionally flexible; if anything, turn-in might be more eager by comparison, owing to a lower center of gravity. There will be those that continue to buy the coupe for its many perceived virtues over the roadster, namely the trick “look at me!” doors. For perhaps the first time with a soft top variant, poseurs should look elsewhere- the SLS AMG roadster is the real deal.

By comparison, the XKR-S convertible lacks the hardcore cred of its coupe sister. On a car with as much open acreage as this one, a tin top is still a virtue. However, the main benefit of the roadster lure- open air motoring and an increased sense of speed, owed to both an enhanced exhaust note and the air rushing around you, is still here in spades. And thankfully, as with the XKR-S coupe, the outstanding 550hp supercharged 5.0-liter V8 is still ready, willing and able to light up the back tires at a moment’s notice.

What the Jag lacks in visual drama compared to the SLS AMG, it makes up for in its detail execution. Multiple carbon fiber hides gave their lives for the XKR-S’ adornment, with a prominent front spoiler, rear wing blade, and rear diffuser all decked out in the stuff. Further murdering-out comes in the form of gloss black grilles and grille surrounds, side vents, and window trim, and 20-inch “Vulcan” wheels (no doubt owing their name to the famed 3.0-liter OHV Ford engine powering greats such as the Aerostar). Coupled with the gorgeous paint and fantastic leather racing seats, it makes for a visual statement nearly on par with the Mercedes. Despite the fabric roof, onlookers will know the Jag is built to run. With a 186mph electronically-limited top speed, it’s got the gusto to back up its looks.

While this big cat is packing another 400-plus pounds over the SLS, from a rolling start up to semi-legal speeds (meaning lower-triple digits), there’s very little between them. Credit the torque-rich supercharged mill, which generates 502 lb-ft of twist. Although that’s only 23 more torques than what the SLS has on offer, all of it is available from just 2500 rpm. To summon the German’s torque, the tach needle will need to swing through 4750 rpm before you get more than your sweaty palms can handle. While both exhaust notes will get onlooker attention in a hurry, the SLS has the more refined and expensive soundtrack. The Jag generates a guttural roar so loud that even the supercharger whine is fully masked, leading one to believe engine output is far greater than the 5,000 ccs on offer. The 6-speed automatic even does a good impersonation of a twin-clutch ‘box, although it is caught out on occasion.

In measurement areas other than acceleration, though, the SLS is the decisive victor. As befitting of its nearly $90,000 dearer as-tested price tag, the SLS feels like a bespoke exotic. The stitch and grain of the leathers and the quality of the components, 1000-watt Bang & Olufsen stereo especially, is in a completely different league than the Jaguar. While the XKR-S is limited in its production numbers (only 200 will come to the US during its production run and only 25 of those being convertibles), this doesn’t change the fact that it’s built on more or less mass-produced bones. The core interior pieces, unibody and underpinnings are much the same as can be found on a “downmarket” XK, while the SLS AMG is essentially a hand-built and focused product designed from the ground up to be a supercar. This one-off nature comes across in the way the car goes, stops, steers, sounds and even smells. Ever wonder why the SLS AMG turns into corners with such alacrity, especially when you consider its significant weight and size? Pop the hood and your eyes will scan a long time rearward before spotting the engine; everything ahead of the front axle is related to cooling and induction, and the longblock is situated much further rearward, improving the car’s overall weight balance to 47% F/53% R and lending it with uncharacteristically accurate steering and crisp turn-in for a big, bruising Benz.

The XKR-S, fine as it is, can’t help but come across as somewhat plebian by comparison. This is no knock against the Jag, though. It’s a true performance car, delivering an accelerative punch only barely overshadowed by the SLS AMG, and all the real-world shove you could ever want or need. Cornering is flat, grip is immense, and the steering is accurate, if somewhat overboosted in comparison to the Mercedes’ system. The transformation from coupe to cabriolet has occurred seamlessly, although it must be said, not as seamlessly as the SLS. There can be an occasional shake or shudder over rough pavement, but nothing on the level of lesser large chop-tops like the Mustang/Camaro pony cars or Infiniti G37. They might go unnoticed altogether were it not for the stoic nature of the AMG’s structure.

Plenty of happy Jaguar customers will be swayed just for the relative value quotient; $88,575 separated our two well-equipped testers, enough to park a modestly-optioned 911 Carrera in your garage next to the Jaguar. Spring for the $231,325 Mercedes and the kids will need to thumb a ride to school. Sticking to base prices only, the gulf shrinks to a somewhat more reasonable $58,100, though still enough for a Camaro ZL1 to join your stable. At these price points, value probably isn’t the top consideration for buyers.

For the lucky few, the SLS AMG represents what is perhaps the ultimate interpretation of the roadster concept; a car that doesn’t detract from the driving experience through a noticeable weight gain or loss of structural soundness, but instead adds to it in the form of the open-air sound and sensation.

2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster

Base price: $196,975

Price as-tested: $231,325

Options included: Designo Mystic White exterior ($2,300), Designo Porcelain/Black leather ($750), Carbon fiber engine covers ($5,400), Carbon fiber trim ($4,500), Red brake calipers ($1,000), AMG Performance Media ($2,500), Extended interior carbon fiber package ($4,500), 19”/20” AMG 10-spoke Forged Wheel- black ($3,400), Carbon fiber exterior mirror covers ($1,900), Bang & Olufsen 1000 watt stereo system ($6,400), Gas guzzler tax ($1,700)

2012 Jaguar XKR-S Convertible

Base Price: $138,875

Price as-tested: $144,375

Options included: Heated windshield ($375), Carbon fiber engine cover ($2,000), 20” polished Vulcan wheels & bright pack ($4,000)

 

Mercedes-Benz provided the SLS AMG, insurance and gas for the day.

Jaguar provided the XKR-S Convertible, insurance and gas for the day.

            

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John Kucek

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