Blown wide open

Heat, dust and three of the finest drop tops ever to turn a wheel. Not all road trips are created equal

WORDS ANDY ENRIGHT PHOTOS ELLEN DEWAR

THE ROAD ahead has turned to sand. As had the last one and the one before that. We watch the bitumen taper to nothing as a yellow strip bisects the brown landscape to a hazy horizon. A speck on the skyline coalesces into the inevitable white Toyota trayback, its driver slowing to check if weíre okay. This trio of European supercars couldnít have arrived at a more alien environment. As the sun hits its zenith, itís too hot for cicadas or birds. Your soles bond to the patched and battered blacktop if you stand still for more than a moment. After some brief discussion, itís agreed. Weíve found just about the perfect place to test these open-topped blue-bloods.

If thereís next to no dynamic penalty involved in choosing the open version, why wouldnít you?

Were you in the market for a supercar, the Venn diagram was usually composed of serious drivers and show ponies, with little to no overlap. Pilots and polishers. The drop-top versions almost always inhabited the latter circle, representing the preferred choice for the affluent but attention-starved. As such, they tended to attract a healthy dose of derision from those who figured they knew what they were doing behind the wheel. To this crowd, a 911 Cabriolet or a Diablo Roadster was an aberration; an exercise in missing the point. And that heuristic worked for them until fairly recently, but the latest generation of cabrios, roadsters, spiders, targas Ė call them what you will Ė has proven that thereís next to no dynamic penalty involved in choosing the open version. So why wouldnít you? Thatís what we are here, gently desiccating in western New South Wales, to find out.

Itís not a comparison per se. How could it be given the huge gulf in price between the three cars? Call it a celebration of the current state of the convertible art with each car providing context to the others. The most accessible, relatively speaking, is the Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster at $283,711, packing a 350kW/630Nm 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 that drives the rear wheels through one point of commonality between all three cars: a seven-speed transmission. Next up is the $388,500 Audi R8 V10 Spyder, the only naturally aspirated car here, generating 397kW and 540Nm from its 5.2-litre behemoth. Youíll need to fork out $526,888 for a Ferrari 488 Spider, but given that Maranello usually prioritises a bigger options spend to get your name higher on the waiting list, itíll probably be a fair amount more. Maybe not the $665,033 of this particular Bianca Avus example, but what price do you put on 492kW and 760Nm from a 3.9-litre, dry-sumped twin-turbo V8?

Iíd already heard Ponchard bemoaning the firmness of the AMG GTís seats so choose the Audi for the long drive west out of Sydney. After a couple of minutes spent jiggling the electric seat adjustments, I come to the conclusion that I donít fit in this car. If youíre tall, the Audi isnít a great choice. Aside from my head creating an involuntary bubble roof, the monoposto Ė that curved arch that encircles the area in front of the driverís seat Ė gives a hemmed-in feel, not helped by the only convenient storage interfering with your left elbow. For all its styling curlicues and virtual display slickness, there are times when the R8ís cabin packaging can feel surprisingly klutzy.

Despite boasting a centre console that looks as if it could house a sequoia log rather than a driveshaft, the MercedesAMG GT is a better choice for covering serious kilometres. The engine ticks along with just a subtle bass hum, your hip point feels lower than in the R8 and the seats, although undeniably firm, are generously cut, with a greater measure of available recline than the mid-engined R8. Despite being the only car here without an engine behind the driver, the GT nevertheless manages to deliver the worst rearwards visibility. That T-rex action to reach the awkward gear shifter is inexcusable too.

After levering editor Inwood out of the Ferrari, I discover why heís so reluctant to sample the German offerings. The cabin feels huge and airy, with a low centre console, acres of space for your feet, comfortably the most head and elbow room and the most comfortable seats. Best mirrors too. With the suspension set into Bumpy Road mode, it mops up the worst of the Hume without transmitting shocks through the chassis. The engine is muted enough to be able to enjoy the stereo without having to dial it to 11. Itís an unexpected side to the Ferrariís character that I never saw coming but this low-stress feel to the blown engine has me a little uncomfortable knowing whatís to come.

After the long highway stretch is completed, we refuel and photographer Dewar informs us that the photography for this feature will be conducted with roofs down. Itís clear that weíre going to get a very good feel for how well these cars work with tops stowed. Realising that Iím likely to burn to a crisp, I buy a truly terrible hat in the servo and have a play with the roof mechanisms. The Ferrariís is undoubtedly the slickest, flipping its piano-black hard panel over and hiding it beneath the rear deck. You sacrifice the coupeís glazed-in view of the engine, but thatís the only aesthetic compromise youíll need to make. Operable at speeds up to 50km/h, it drops in 14.5 seconds.

The AMGís centre console looks as if it could house a sequoia log rather than a driveshaft

The AMGís simpler fabric roof requires just 9.5 seconds to stow but is devoid of the street theatre thatís fitted as standard at Maranello. Of the cars here, the Mercedes seems to make most sense as a convertible. The proportions suit an open car, and while the rear of the coupe is undeniably beautiful, the Roadsterís merging ellipses look purposeful and almost hydrodynamic, like the flanks of a requiem shark.

The R8 offers less of a cohesive aesthetic. From some angles it looks swollen and frumpy, with a multitude of convex curves on the superstructure aft of the cabin, a short, almost apologetic front end and that strange, almost vestigial sideblade. But catch it at the right angle Ė usually a high rear three-quarter or from low straight behind and it brings a visual drama that eludes either of the others. The fabric roof is slower to stow too, taking a yawning 21 seconds in total.

With the roof down, the Mercedes suffers the least wind buffeting, and the Airscarf system allows you to manage the temperature at the back of your neck. The Ferrariís acceptable if you keep the side windows up. Drop them and youíll get a bit of a beating as speeds rise. The Audi suffers from the most buffeting, at one point trying to smother me with my own hood.

So the Audi has its flaws as a convertible. Packaging, aesthetics and wind isolation are issues. However, youíll forgive all of that when you find a decent road, switch the car into Dynamic and start pedalling it in anger. The V10 has always been an angrysounding engine. Itís not the beautifully melodic sound of a great eight, rather itís something thatís brasher, more dramatic. I think this engine actually sounds its best in the mid-range, when you witness that hairraising flexing of its muscles at 6000rpm, the timbre just starting to develop a manic Stuka dive-horn overlay. Peak power arrives at 7800rpm, at which point youíve only got another 700 revs to play with before youíll need to pull the right-hand plastic paddle and feel the next gear shunt brutally home. Back off and thereís a volley of crackles and bangs from the exhaust. Raise the roof, drop the tiny rear window and you can dispense with the hat and still enjoy the soundtrack. Itís huge fun and, sadly, feels a bit end-ofan-era. Get íem while theyíre hot.

After the start-up bark of the Audiís V10, the AMG sounds about as clean as Sir Les Patterson trying to consume an oyster, its dirty slurp of turbocharged hot-vee settling to an agreeably muscular thrum. Then thereís the Ferrari. After the 2800rpm flare of revs on startup, it settles to a disappointingly well-mannered 1000rpm hum. We need to discover the 488ís other personality, so we settle on a road that peters out into farm tracks and dry paddocks, trace it back to where it climbs a scarp slope, flick the wheel-mounted manettino to ĎRaceí and turn up the wick.

Twist and shout

Chopping the roof off a car tends to have a catastrophic effect on torsional rigidity, often halving the original figure. Even underfloor cross-bracing is no substitute for a roof when it comes to stiffening up the chassis. Audiís R8 V10 coupe requires 40,000Nm of torque to twist its chassis by one degree. The Spyder? Just 19,500Nm will bend the drop-topís chassis by the same amount. The MercedesAMG is strengthened along the sills, between the dash and windscreen surround, between soft top and fuel tank and also cross-braced behind the seats. No wonder it feels so burly.

AUDI R8 V10 SPYDER

Drive Select switch on the wheel allows for rapid shifting between drive modes, while the tabbed HVAC controls and wallto-wall Virtual Cockpit are slick design touches. The Audiís also the only one of the trio that offers the choice of gear selection with the lever as well as the paddles. Unfortunately it squanders this advantage by getting the shift orientation the wrong way round. After the theatrics of opening the roof, popping the engine cover is inadvertently hilarious, a metallic ping opening a tiny flap propped up by midget gas struts (see pic above specs, p111).

FERRARI 488 SPIDER

The 488 boasts great seats and the most space. Roof up, the soundtrack is big on turbo whistle, but drop the window behind your head and the annoying higher frequencies are drowned out by beefy exhaust timbres. Weíre still not sold on the overly busy steering wheel nor the trio of displays in the main binnacle, but materials quality has taken a step on from the 458 and none of the interior parts rattled or creaked, unlike both the German cars tested here. The optional front lift system gives the 488 real utility in town, although itís hardly the acme of discretion, chuffing loudly at 50km/h when the nose automatically drops.

MERCEDES-AMG GT ROADSTER

The feeling that youíre sitting on the rear axle of a long GT car isnít borne out by the figures, the AMG GT Roadster featuring the widest track and shortest wheelbase of the three cars featured. Its benign front-engined weight bias, well-judged roll response and appropriate tyre selection means that it always telegraphs its intentions clearly. The selection of buttons and dials on the wide centre stack gives instant access to customising the way the GT Roadster drives. Those two switch blanks at the base? Theyíre normally used for damper settings and exhaust.

Forget the 458. Really. Yes, the old car sounded better in the last 2000rpm or so, but the 488 is just so much quicker and more capable that it has its predecessor well covered, even in Speciale guise. From 4000rpm, you hear this demented hissing as air is pulverised through intakes to feed those gluttonous turbochargers and from that point on, your right foot feels as if it has the power to kick the car along the road as if itís hardwired to your synapses. Turbo lag is imperceptible; you just perceive this monstrous muscularity. Itís one heck of a powerplant. You might well find yourself trying to wring a top note out of it that just doesnít exist, prompting a shimmying interjection from the rev limiter, but if thatís the price of progress, call me a convert.

Itís accessible in a way that you wouldnít expect from a car thatís nearly two seconds quicker around Fiorano than an Enzo and which would leave an F40 almost seven seconds in arrears. The hydraulically assisted steering is quick at 1.9 turns lockto-lock, but it never feels neurotic or darty; just endowing the 488 with otherworldly agility. The stability control system is one of the best Iíve ever used and can play clever with oversteer with its Side Slip Control software. Likewise, because visibility is so good and the ceramic brakes so reassuring, itís a car you gel with rapidly. The Spider shares its adaptive dampers and steering rack with the old 458 Speciale but never feels harsh.

Drive hard over pockmarked surfaces and you will notice chassis flex, however. In Bumpy Road mode, I first wondered whether that was just a pattering front end, but firm things up and itís clear that thereís some scuttle flex and a fizzing through the wheel rim thatís not quite full-blown rack rattle but speaks of a slight shortage of torsional rigidity. Itís nothing that spoils the party, but compared to a carbon-tubbed car like a McLaren 650S itís a minor demerit point.

Thatís not an accusation you can level at the Mercedes-AMG GT. It feels about as flexible as Margaret Courtís opinion on same-sex marriage. After the Ferrari it also feels a bit of a boat, but switch it into Sport+ and it gets its game face on. That impression of wallow you had from always being in too high a gear disappears and the talent in the chassis is revealed. Itís the only one of the trio that you rarely drive by ear or, as a result, by paddle, but the transmission logic proves more than sharp enough. The steering, which feels disappointingly light at low speeds, offers enough heft to let you know whatís going on at that distant front contact patch and the harder you drive the GT, the more youíll admire its dynamic cohesion. It has its shortcomings, though. The pill-boxslot view out of the front windscreen is a limiter on fast undulating roads where youíll find yourself craning like a horny Galapagos tortoise to sight a vanishing point. Yet itís the first car of the three that youíll feel comfortable driving to the limit of adhesion, at which point the steering chatters, and your bottom describes a long, lazy arc around the front axle. Itís huge fun.

Spider versus the dunny seat some sort

Letís put the 488 Spiderís of context. From 0-200km/h, through the quarter mile and from 100-200km/h itís quicker than a McLaren F1. It obliterates all of the 458 Specialeís acceleration numbers and only the Lamborghini Aventador SVís all-wheel drive traction off the line saves SantíAgataís blushes in a straight line blast. Donít buy a McLaren 570S Spider and think your $90K saving will let you keep up. Unless you plough that budget into go-faster bits, youíll be left trailing in the 488 Spiderís wake. If you want a significantly quicker open-top, youíre into the realm of mega-money hypercars. Itís that rapid.

After the AMGís attempt at trying to bludgeon physics into a pulpy mess, the Audi feels altogether more balletic. Itís still a bit of a porker, tipping the scales at a big-boned 1720kg, but it disguises its mass beautifully. The all-wheel-drive chassis lets you pick up the throttle early without troubling the ESC, and itís possible to smear the R8 out of a corner under full power, with all four wheels in a tiny attitude of yaw. In extremis, the Audiís latest software can direct up to 100 percent of torque to one axle, but most of the time the multi-plate Haldex clutch, located between the propshaft and front diff, usually seems to be balancing drive smartly between the two. With less tyre on the road than the other pair, the Audi can be pushed into this lovely neutrality surprisingly easily, but your exit strategy sometimes requires a bit of pre-planning, because youíll want to be plugged into some meaningful torque.

Turbo lag is imperceptible in the 488; you just perceive this monstrous muscularity

It always feels faster than it actually is thanks to that soundtrack but after the others, thereís a slightly breathless quality to the Audiís torque response. Thatís inevitable really, given that itís normally aspirated, but you need to manage the R8ís revs in a way that you donít with the AMG or the Ferrari. The steeringís not perfect either. Thereís a heavy caster effect whichever mode youíre in, and itís too light in Comfort and a little gluey in Dynamic. Donít feel tempted to tick the options box marked ĎDynamic Steeringí, however, which brings a weirdly inconsistent variable ratio/torque setup. The Audiís ride, roadholding and handling buy it enough credit such that youíll forgive the fact that its steering isnít top drawer.

Having endured a locust plague and a slightly panicked search for 98RON juice, we arrive at the end of the road, with sand marking our turnaround point. Thereís no decision to make as to which is Ďbestí. All three present a strong case, but itís the car thatís arguably the most flawed that comes across as the one with the most soul. The R8 gets under your skin. It feels the most authentic of the bunch, with a delightfully harmonious fusion of engine and dynamics.

The Ferrari is befuddlingly good at almost everything but itís hard to escape the nagging feeling that itís a little synthetic; a Stepford Wife of a supercar. Its styling lacks the organic, simple curves of the 458 and its engine, while a stupendous technical achievement, almost feels Germanic in its relentless efficiency. On virtually every objective basis, this is the best car here and it excels at things you probably wouldnít expect, but it might well be easier to admire than to love. Thatís unexpected too. Money no object, it would be hard to look beyond.

Which leaves the Mercedes-AMG GT. What it lacks in delicacy, it more than compensates for in terms of guts and clout. It nails the brief as a convertible better than the others and does so for less without ceding a great deal in terms of excitement. Conversely, the car that looks most like its coupe sibling, the Ferrari, probably imposes the most noticeable dynamic compromises. Many will still feel itís worth it for the almost overwhelming torrent of sensation that pours into the cabin with the roof down at full noise.

This is no comparison though. You could make a case for any of these three, which is what weíd hoped for at the start of this trip. Weíre tired, sunburnt, bug-splattered and a little off-course but we got what we came for. ďYou blokes okay?Ē asks the guy in the Toyota trayback.

ďYeah, Iíd say so,Ē says Inwood, grinning. ďPretty good actually.Ē