Exotic drop-tops prove they’re much more than the hair­dresser’s choice

WE LIVE in a sun­burnt coun­try, which neatly sums up why con­vert­ibles aren’t the smartest mode of trans­port dur­ing an Aussie sum­mer. Ger­many loves them, as does the UK, but then rarely, if ever, do these coun­tries ex­pe­ri­ence the 39.5°C cur­rently dis­played on the R8 Spyder’s in­stru­ment panel. As such, its roof, and that of the Mercedes-AMG GT Road­ster, will be stay­ing firmly up, for now at least, lest pho­tog­ra­pher Ja­cobs and I dis­cover what it feels like to be a sausage at Bun­nings on a typ­i­cal week­end.

Drop-tops aren’t MO­TOR’s tra­di­tional fare. Se­ri­ous driv­ers would al­ways choose a coupe, as con­ven­tional wis­dom sug­gests the van­ity pro­ject of re­mov­ing a car’s roof – and let’s face it, con­vert­ibles are all about van­ity – does noth­ing but ruin its per­for­mance by adding weight and re­duc­ing rigid­ity to the detri­ment of ac­cel­er­a­tion, cor­ner­ing, brak­ing and ride.

But is this still the case? Af­ter all, both our pro­tag­o­nists were con­ceived with roofless vari­ants in mind and both are so fast and ca­pa­ble as coupes that you’re rarely ex­tract­ing their full po­ten­tial on the road. Maybe, just maybe, these two are ex­cep­tions to the rule?

The R8 V10 Spyder and AMG GT Road­ster might have been con­ceived with sim­i­lar aims, but their re­spec­tive ex­e­cu­tions couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. The Audi has the cab-for­ward sil­hou­ette and power­boat-like flat rear deck only a mi­dengined lay­out can pro­vide, and it’s pow­ered by a glo­ri­ous nat­u­rally as­pi­rated 5.2-litre V10 driv­ing all four wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch gear­box.

The Mercedes is also es­sen­tially mid-en­gined, but lo­cat­ing its 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 en­tirely be­hind the front axle pushes the driver back over the rear wheels for clas­sic sports GT pro­por­tions. Drive goes to the rear wheels only via a sev­en­speed dual-clutch transaxle; gear­box con­fig­u­ra­tion be­ing one of the few sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the two cars.

Both these cars rep­re­sent the en­try-level mod­els in their re­spec­tive ranges, as ridicu­lous as that no­tion is at this price point. We’re be­gin­ning to en­ter “if you have to ask…” ter­ri­tory here, but for ref­er­ence the Audi starts at $388,500, while the Mercedes be­gins at $283,711. Each pulls off ar­guably the most im­por­tant as­pect of any con­vert­ible: look­ing good. Styling is al­ways highly sub­jec­tive, but to me both these drop-tops are more co­he­sive than their coupe equiv­a­lents, the Audi losing the slightly hunched-back stance of the R8 hard­top and the Mercedes less­en­ing the GT Coupe’s rear-three-quar­ter re­sem­blance to a cer­tain other Ger­man sports car.

If you’re won­der­ing why we didn’t use the $338,711 GT C Road­ster, which has more power and choice chas­sis bits from the hard­core GT R, the an­swer is we tried, but a cus­tomer wanted to drive the GT C we had booked so Mercedes kindly or­gan­ised a GT Road­ster at short no­tice to take its place.

Per­son­ally, that suits me just fine, as to my eyes the colour combo on this par­tic­u­lar ex­am­ple is just about per­fect, the blue-over-black ex­te­rior con­trast­ing beau­ti­fully with the light


beige in­te­rior. It’ll be tricky to keep clean, but it makes the cabin look and feel spe­cial enough to for­get the an­noy­ingly placed gear se­lec­tor (at the very rear of the cen­tre con­sole), un­in­tu­itive in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem and very firm AMG Per­for­mance seats, which thank­fully are op­tional.

The in­side of the Audi feels som­bre by com­par­i­son, its un­re­lent­ing black­ness al­le­vi­ated only by some yel­low stitch­ing and a dash of car­bon on the cen­tre con­sole. It im­me­di­ately wins points by for­go­ing the ridicu­lous fixed-back bucket seats of the track-fo­cused Plus which force a highly com­pro­mised driv­ing po­si­tion – un­less that hap­pens to be ex­actly your driv­ing po­si­tion, of course – but loses them again for the Vir­tual Cock­pit be­ing the sole source of in­fo­tain­ment and nav­i­ga­tion in­for­ma­tion. The dig­i­tal in­stru­ments are clear and im­prove vi­sion by delet­ing the need for a cen­tral screen, but nav­i­gat­ing them seems to divert more at­ten­tion away from the road than the tra­di­tional dash-mounted so­lu­tion. Per­haps we just need more fa­mil­iar­ity.

An­other win for the ‘reg­u­lar’ R8 V10 over its more ex­pen­sive si­b­ling is the fit­ment of adap­tive dampers. The Plus’s pas­sive setup rel­ishes re­lay­ing ev­ery road im­per­fec­tion, but locked in Comfort the Spyder dis­plays sur­pris­ing com­pli­ance for some­thing so fo­cused. Its cre­den­tials as an ev­ery­day su­per­car are en­hanced fur­ther by the slick­ness of its dual-clutch ’box, which shuf­fles through its seven ra­tios un­ob­tru­sively to keep the V10 to a muted hum. Vi­sion is a chal­lenge with the roof up, but other­wise the R8 is no more dif­fi­cult to drive than a TT.

The Mercedes is cer­tainly no hard­ship, but isn’t quite as pol­ished. Both cars dis­play the typ­i­cal dual-clutch hes­i­ta­tion from rest, but the Mercedes slightly more so; adap­tive dampers are op­tional on the base GT and con­se­quen­tially the ride isn’t as set­tled as you might like, a feel­ing ex­ac­er­bated by the odd creak from the A-pil­lars over bumps, which be­trays the re­duc­tion in tor­sional rigid­ity.

The lack of sus­pen­sion ad­justa­bil­ity also hurts the GT Road­ster when you start to delve into its per­for­mance re­serves. A lack of con­trol be­comes ev­i­dent the harder you push, the rear-end wan­der­ing un­der heavy brak­ing and also strug­gling to soak up mid-cor­ner bumps, a trait in­her­ited from the SLS, the plat­form of which pro­vided the ba­sis for the AMG GT. From a driver’s per­spec­tive, the Ride Con­trol adap­tive sus­pen­sion is $3250 well spent. It’s also ques­tion­able as to whether this base Road­ster has ben­e­fited from the steer­ing and sus­pen­sion up­grades ap­plied to the facelifted Coupes as it re­tains the su­per-sharp off-cen­tre steer­ing re­sponse of the orig­i­nal GTs.

Now some con­text: this all hap­pens to­wards the outer end of the dy­namic en­ve­lope, where few Road­ster own­ers are likely to ven­ture. Equally, noth­ing about the stan­dard GT’s level of per­for­mance says ‘base model'; its 350kW/630Nm might rep­re­sent the low­est state of tune for AMG’s M178 4.0litre twin-turbo V8, but it still makes the 1595kg GT Road­ster pre­pos­ter­ously po­tent in a straight line. Af­ter all, 0-100km/h is claimed to take just 4.0sec on the way to a 302km/h top speed.

It also sounds ridicu­lous in the best pos­si­ble sense, its bru­tal bent-eight bark ac­com­pa­nied by so many cracks, pops and bangs it’s like be­ing on the front­line of the Bat­tle of the Bulge. The dual-clutch re­sponds bet­ter than the equiv­a­lent seven-speed MCT found in the C63 et al, though still does its best work left in Sport Plus as man­ual re­quests aren’t al­ways an­swered as promptly as you might like.

In con­trast, the Audi’s sim­i­lar seven-speed dual-clutch re­sponds al­most tele­path­i­cally, the gearchange com­pleted vir­tu­ally be­fore the pad­dle reaches its end stop, and it’s con­nected to one of the finest road car en­gines there’s ever


been. Whereas the AMG’s V8 feels and sounds like the work of heavy in­dus­try, Audi’s V10 feels more or­ganic. Never is this more ap­par­ent than when you se­lect a high gear and ap­ply full throt­tle, the tim­bre of the engine note con­tin­u­ally chang­ing with ev­ery 1000rpm in­cre­ment from a hum to a growl to a roar to a scream as it closes in on the 8500rpm red­line.

Max­i­mum torque of 540Nm at 6500rpm sug­gests a peaky power curve, but de­spite hav­ing to haul a lardy 1720kg – 80kg more than the R8 Coupe and 125kg more than the AMG – the atmo V10 never feels short of urge. Back-to-back with the more pow­er­ful Plus you may miss the ex­tra 53kW of topend fire­works, but in iso­la­tion the Spyder feels out­ra­geously quick, as you’d ex­pect from a car with a claimed 0-100km/h time of 3.6sec. Per­haps its great­est trick, how­ever, is when you’re cruis­ing through a series of bends, us­ing a frac­tion of the engine’s po­ten­tial, only to glance down and re­alise you’re trav­el­ing at an alarm­ing ve­loc­ity.

Ini­tially, the R8 feels a bit too grippy, a bit too quat­tro to be re­ally en­ter­tain­ing. Its new-gen Con­ti­nen­tal SportCon­tact 6 tyres – the same as those fit­ted to the Honda Civic Type R – are awe­some in their pur­chase on the road, but the nar­rower front tyres (245mm front; 295mm rear) and rel­a­tively slow steer­ing seem to pro­mote front-end push. Cer­tainly, the Mercedes is keener to turn into cor­ners.

The key to hav­ing fun in the Audi is to drive through the un­der­steer and have faith in the all-wheel drive sys­tem. Do so and the R8 shuf­fles torque to the rear, al­low­ing it to exit cor­ners with the over­steer an­gle de­ter­mined by the driver’s right foot. ESP Sport is happy to al­low such shenani­gans, though the R8 is friendly enough that the elec­tronic guardian an­gel isn’t a ne­ces­sity. With this door un­locked the Audi be­comes awe­somely en­joy­able, the driver able to con­stantly shift the bal­ance be­tween front and rear slip.

It’s per­haps not the most shock­ing verdict that the $100K-dearer su­per­car is the pick of the two on a chal­leng­ing road, though just how good the R8 drop-top is comes as a sur­prise. In an­swer to our orig­i­nal ques­tion, though, what both prove is that delet­ing the roof needn’t come at the ex­pense of driv­ing en­joy­ment.

As we drive down Lake Moun­tain at the com­ple­tion of our shoot with the sun set­ting and the tem­per­a­ture now fit for hu­man habi­ta­tion, do ei­ther DC or I care about a few ex­tra kilo­grams or a slightly looser bodyshell? Not a chance, be­cause we still have vast amounts of per­for­mance on tap and open- air ac­cess to two of the great­est engine notes the world’s ever known. In a way, their slightly dulled pace sim­ply pro­vides more time to en­joy the breadth of their per­for­mance.

That said, the base Road­ster isn’t the con­vert­ible AMG GT we’d buy. The price jump to the $338,711 GT C Road­ster is sig­nif­i­cant, but the adap­tive dampers, all-wheel steer­ing, wider tracks and re­vised sus­pen­sion set­tings are likely to make it money well spent, not to men­tion the ex­tra 60kW/50Nm from the up­rated twin-turbo V8. Just make sure it’s in this colour combo.

The R8 V10 Plus Coupe left us rel­a­tively non­plussed, plac­ing a dis­ap­point­ing sev­enth at PCOTY 2017; in con­trast the Spyder is one of the best cars we’ve driven in the past 12 months. It rights vir­tu­ally all the Coupe’s ills by be­ing more com­fort­able when driven slowly, yet more ad­justable on the ragged edge. The in­te­rior could use a lit­tle more piz­zazz given the $400K price tag, but with one idle-to-red­line blast of that V10 you won’t care how sun­burnt you are.

CEN­TRE LEFT Vir­tual Cock­pit looks very slick, but its var­i­ous sub-menus can be con­fus­ing to op­er­ate while driv­ing BOT­TOM RIGHT AMG’s ris­ing cen­tre stack cer­tainly looks cool but plac­ing the gear se­lec­tor at the very rear makes it a pain in the bum MAIN...

TOP LEFT R8’s han­dling ini­tially feels too ‘safe’ but dig deeper and the re­wards are there CEN­TRE At mo­ments like these the con­vert­ible pros far out­weigh the cons BOT­TOM RIGHT AMG misses its adap­tive dampers, feel­ing too soft when the going re­ally gets...

MAIN Both cars de­liver on theatre and sense of oc­ca­sion, but it’s the Audi that is the more pol­ished of­fer­ing, as it should be for the price!

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