"That's not a good car for around here," said the clerk at Casey's Corner Store in Bozeman, Montana. She was straining to see over the heavy snow accumulating on the mini mart's window to look at our red Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster, which was parked near the Exxon pumps. "Here we practically all drive Subarus."
With that she gestured with her left thumb across the station parking lot covered with fresh white powder. "That's my Forester over there. Your car's beautiful, but you guys are nuts."
Four days into a five-day blitz from sunny Santa Monica, California, to chilly Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota and back, who was I to argue with her? After all, the lunacy of taking a 563-horsepower, rear-drive, two-seat convertible supercar into the northern heart of the Mountain time zone in the middle of a cold February was exactly what Editor in Chief Scott Oldham had in mind. He wanted to do something insane with the car as long as Edmunds.com had it in its long-term test fleet.
But the insanity goes beyond merely the physical fact of running 1,600 miles there and 1,600 miles back in such a short time. It's also inherent in the two personalities involved. Scott's a driven, goal-oriented, relentless machine; he'll forgo food, water and social interaction to accomplish what he sets out to do. "Eating is just a time suck," he explained during the trip. Meanwhile, I'm the sort of guy who can stretch a one-hour task out to a full week.
Scott and I have been friends for 20 years. But we'd never put our friendship on the line like this before.
Day One: Santa Monica, California, to Provo, Utah
To prepare the 2012 Mercedes SLS AMG for snow duty, Scott ordered up a set of Pirelli Winter Sottozero Serie II high-performance snow tires. Specifically engineered to perform in the slush and cold of winter, the big Z speed-rated Pirellis (265/35R19s in front and 295/30R20 out back) have a relatively open tread face and "Interactive Brickwork Siping" that are supposed to cut through snow down to pavement for traction no matter how sloppy the conditions. My fear was that they'd be loud and I'd be stuck with a steady droning in my ears.
With the new tires mounted on the stock wheels, the Mercedes SLS AMG Roadster didn't look ready to head for the arctic when I saw it for the first time that Wednesday morning. Instead it looked like it should have been fighting for a parking space at the Riviera Country Club.
The trunk of the SLS isn't big, but we had packed light and the lid latched after some persuasion. What I wasn't prepared for was how snug the SLS cockpit would be. Compared to its gullwing-doored coupe brother, the SLS roadster's conventional doors are easier to enter and exit — if not actually easy. But to make up for the lack of a roof, there's a large bulkhead behind the seats that adds lateral strength to the structure. And that bulkhead meant the seats could only go back just far enough for my legs to be comfortable. There wasn't going to be any sprawled-out snoozing for the shotgun passenger during this trip. It was going to be close quarters all the way.
Along Interstate 15 north from Southern California to Salt Lake City, most of what exists is empty nothingness: boring desert with interspersed crumminess. And if nothing else, that nothingness proved that the snow tires weren't going to be any louder than stock. It was the first good news of the trip.
Then, as we approached the Nevada border, a huge installation appeared to the west. Three tall towers surrounded by mirrors. "Come on, let's go look," I begged.
Pulling off the road just short of Primm, we approached the massive towers that looked like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But as the road ran into a security shack, the truth came out. "It's a solar generating project," the security guard told us. "The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating system." The mirrors direct sunlight at the towers and heat the fluids inside them. Those in turn generate steam that turns turbines. Kind of cool to think about. But then again, there is this thing called... night.
Finally we blew into Nevada and soon, Las Vegas. Then, at the northern edge of Sin City, the tire pressure warning system began squawking. So much for this trip being uneventful.
The right rear tire pressure was dropping. It was already down to 29 and falling. We pulled off I-15 a few blocks before civilization ended for the next 300 miles and found the off-ramp led almost immediately to the Ted Wiens Complete Auto Service Center. It was easy imagining the worst, with us spending a couple of days waiting for a new 295/30R20 Pirellis to be air-shipped in from Tire Rack.
"I hope you can fix it. We're on our way to Mt. Rushmore," Scott told the technician as he removed the wheel and tire. "Why?" the tech queried. "Because" was Scott's one-word answer.
A trip through the dunk tank tracked our leak to a loose valve stem. With it tightened down (and after checking the other three) and the tire pressures reset we were back on the 15. And 380 miles later, we pulled into Provo where the outside temperature was down to 19 degrees Fahrenheit and snow was falling.
Calamity avoided. Fate would be tempted again the next day.
Day Two: Provo, Utah, to Rapid City, South Dakota
It's almost 700 miles from Provo to Rapid City (mostly up and across Wyoming) and Scott was ready to attack as soon as dawn broke. But I made a suggestion even he couldn't resist.
Kirkham Motorsports builds some of the very finest Shelby Cobra replicas and a whole series of truly spectacular Cobra replacement parts. Founded by brothers David and Thomas Kirkham in the early 1990s, the small company has facilities in Poland and Provo. We dropped by unannounced at 9 a.m.
"Our cars start at about $100,000 and go to the moon," David said as he happily guided his uninvited guests into the shop. Inside we found the moon in the form of a new Daytona Coupe finished in a brilliant polished aluminum skin. It's a car that isn't just breathtaking, but pulls your lungs out through your mouth. Mt. Rushmore was going to have to work hard to top this. Like having the four stone presidents singing in harmony.
The trip across Wyoming's grassy plains was quick and increasingly snowy. "It looks like The Shining out here," Scott observed. "Like it's just going to get worse and worse."
The SLS itself was utterly stable even as the roads grew ever more sloppy. Even on those rare occasions when the tires lost their grip, the SLS's electronics compensated quickly and seamlessly. We could have stuck a plow on the front of the thing.
At about 2:30 in the afternoon, a small rock hit the SLS's windshield and put a chip in it. Scott was driving. So it was his fault.
We landed at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Rapid City about midnight into cold but surprisingly mild weather. "Rapid City is in the 'Banana Belt,'" a local explained to us the next day. "North of here they never have summer. But this is about as bad as it gets here."
Day Three: Mt. Rushmore to Billings, Montana
The next morning the weather was so mild we put the roadster's top down, did a few snow donuts and drove deep into the beautiful, heavily wooded Black Hills.
Guarding the road from Rapid City to Mt. Rushmore is a full regiment of tourist traps and second-tier hotels. And virtually all of them were smart enough to be closed for the winter.
But Rushmore itself, a national monument, was open for business and uncrowded. "Where can we get a good photo of the car with the monument?" Scott asked Sue, the nice lady selling us our parking pass. "Just go around the bus lane," she told us, and so we did. There it was, a fantastic shot with the SLS looking rugged covered in ice and dirt, and the four presidents looking noble and stony.
After 30 minutes of soaking in the majesty of Gutzon Borglum's creation, we hit the road again, to pound across Wyoming and into Montana.
In eastern Montana the weather remained mild so we kept the roadster's top down and headed along the state's Route 16. With the road mostly straight and mostly empty, and with nothing to see except rolling hills and the occasional state-built rest stop, Scott rolled into the SLS's throttle and let the big Mercedes stretch its legs.
The 6.2-liter V8 went from a purr to a growl to a rumbling roar as the car built speed across the winter brown vegetation. Hammer down, we were now coming up on trucks that seemed miles ahead of us in mere seconds. Incredibly, the wind rushed over and around us, but we were practically undisturbed in the cockpit.
Outside temps were in the high 20s, but the SLS's seat heaters and wind scarfs kept us toasty over 300 miles with the top stowed away. In fact, cold was not the problem. Sunburn, however, became an issue.
Most Mercedes SLS roadsters will be bought by rich guys who cruise the west side of L.A., the loop in Chicago or along the FDR in New York City. But it's here on the empty highways of Montana that the greatness of this car can find expression. This is an amazing machine built to consume miles in big, giddy gulps, not do high-profile trawls along Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. And for those few minutes of high-speed cruising, Scott and I both knew we were doing something spectacularly rare.
But you can't outrun the weather.
And as we pulled off 16 to rejoin the interstate, we hit a white cloud of snow. The top went up and our speed dropped to a 40-mph crawl amid drifting flurries. By the time we stopped for lunch we were sharing the roads with snowmobiles. After lunch we were looking to fall in behind a plow.
"Now this is looking like the beginning of Fargo," Scott said, referencing the Coen brothers' 1996 movie. "It's driving into an ocean of white. It's getting goofy." Still, we hit Billings in time to eat dinner at The Olive Garden — along with everyone else in Billings.
Day Four: Billings, Montana, to Las Vegas
Scott was noticeably irritated about the fact that we'd only covered less than 400 miles between Rapid City and Billings. "No more easy days," he said from behind gritted teeth. "We're kicking ass today. Vegas or bust." That's just about 985 miles through Idaho and Utah. And it was snowing. More The Shining than Fargo, but snowing nonetheless.
At Bozeman we jumped on 191 southbound and drove through several hundred miles of God's country, through the western edge of the Gallatin National Forest and Yellowstone National Park. Then, in the town of West Yellowstone we stopped for lunch with the other snowmobilers and picked up Route 20, which would wind through the Caribou-Targhee National Forest and eventually hook us back up with Interstate 15.
Fortunately the roads were empty most of the way. Then we hit the urban sprawl of Salt Lake City early that night. All along Interstate 15 through the Salt Lake metro area, cars seemed to be spinning off into guardrails and snow berms. "You can almost predict which ones are going to crash," I said to Scott. "Just look for the clapped-out Saturns and half-maintained Hyundais. They're going to wipe out in front of our eyes."
Right then an early 1990s Nissan Pathfinder pulled up along our left flank. "Watch out!" I yelled out almost instinctively as the Pathfinder began to wobble in its lane. Scott turned his head to see just as the old Nissan's driver over-corrected and the SUV began to spin. And with a sickening metallic clap, it hit the concrete K-rail. "Whoa," Scott exclaimed while extending the word to about four syllables through his New Jersey accent.
But once past SLC, the snow abated and the road opened as I-15 dropped down out of Utah and into Nevada. We were at the Las Vegas Courtyard by Marriott before midnight.
Day Five: Las Vegas to Santa Monica, California
"If you hadn't been in the car, I would have driven straight to Santa Monica last night," Scott asserted in the hotel lobby the next morning.
"If you had driven past Las Vegas last night," I came back, "I'd have killed you and buried your body in the desert." But that was an empty threat because we both knew there wasn't enough room in the car for a shovel.
With only the short 280-mile blast between Las Vegas and Santa Monica left, Scott indulged my appetite with a trip to the breakfast buffet at the Bellagio resort. When we pulled up at the posh hotel to valet park, the attendant looked at the filthy car admiringly. "Looks like you've done some serious driving," he said as we headed inside.
"Damn straight," I said. "More than 3,200 miles in five days. What's the point of having this car if you don't do something like that?"
Although Scott found the Mercedes to be comfortable, I wasn't very happy in the 2012 Mercedes SLS AMG. There's simply too much me and not enough cockpit. But as I unloaded my stuff from the supercar in Santa Monica and got into my truck to head home, I was convinced that its greatness has nothing to do with comfort. And it has everything to do with adventure. Even adventures as pointless, and literally monumental, as this one.
Scott and I are still friends. I think.
See our Mercedes SLS AMG Road Trip gallery for all 168 images.