You see one rock you’ve seen them all. Except that Jebel Jais is a rock more equal than others.
Watching over Ras Al Khaimah from a height of 1,950 metres, it’s one of the tallest peaks in the country. They’re building some sort of eco-resort up on top, which is just as well, because hopefully the environmentally friendly hotel will help offset whatever CO2 we’re spewing into the faces of helpless goats today. It’ll just come back out the other end anyway…
The goats used to be just about the only creatures capable of mountaineering to the top of Jebel Jais. Now that their hangout in the clouds has been discovered, they’re all sulky down at the bottom. The mountain has been compromised. Not by wheels and the new Mercedes-Benz SL 500, but rather a few dozen Caterpillars chiselling a pass into the rock. Proper Arabian touge stuff. If you look at Google Maps and scroll around the barren RAK rocks, you’ll eventually see a squiggly bit that looks like one fifth of the Stelvio Pass.
So instead of the famous 48 hairpins, you get 8.4. Starved of corners with life in Dubai, I’ll take whatever I can get. Even if I can’t actually get so much as half of the proposed road, seeing as it’s under construction and Caterpillars and extracted earth mounds on a narrow gorge pass pose more of a problem than just being mobile chicanes.
For an epic roadtrip such as this — RAK is an entire hour away from the wheels office — it is imperative we get an early start, lest snapper Stefan tell me one more time how important the light is for the photoshoot…
So I wake up at 4am. I’m at the office by five, and on my fourth cup of vending-machine muck by the time Stefan rolls in. He outlines the plan of attack for the day as he’s getting the photography gear out of his Golf and stuffing it into the boot of the Merc (I always can’t help but wonder how much that hefty photography gear is ruining his Golf’s handling and weight balance… Tsk, tsk. Non-car people, pah.)
As usual I listen to precisely nothing he says because I’m focused on stabbing the traction-control button and gazing intently at the instrument binnacle for the ‘TC Off’ to illuminate.
I stare at it with conviction, almost hypnotically, expecting to manipulate the traction control on to some mystical level that you can’t reach simply by pressing the button, but only with intent belief in the tail-out religion. Okay, so maybe four cups of muck was a bit too many… And just perhaps, the red FIA-approved fireproof Sparco boots are overkill, too. But at least they match the Merc’s seats. Hey, these things are important on a roadtrip.
The SL 500 slithers away from the wheels parking lot and quickly settles into a hum on Shaikh Zayed Road. “Your destination is 121 kilometres away,” but really, before she can even finish that sentence I’ve already figured out on the intuitive Mercedes Comand system how to shut the sat-nav woman up.
Now that the men can finally get a word in, we discuss the Mercedes. Stefan’s first remark is how gaudy the red leather looks. I shift my feet a little further into the footwell and out of his sight...
I start telling Stefan how SL stands for ‘Sport’ and ‘Lightweight’ and how the SL name has been around for 60 years ever since the original 190 SL, and how Stirling Moss immortalised the 300 SL at the Mille Miglia with its infamous 722 racing number denoting the start time of 7:22am, and how his navigator was Denis Jenkinson who pioneered pace notes in a roller map with all the details of the 1,000-mile route listed, enabling Sir Moss to win, and so that’s why Mercedes-Benz released the über-limited SLR McLaren Stirling Moss edition in 2009 commemorating the celebrated victory, and I even saw one for sale once in Dubai, and a VVIP Emirati customer bought it for, like, three million dirhams but he had to beg his family first because he’d already bought himself, like, five cars from the same place, but then I looked over and Stefan was dozing off. I guess it’s just too early still.
The miles underneath the 255 section 19in tyres start rolling away silently, but only after I rock Stefan awake through an Emirates Road highway onramp. The completely redeveloped new SL is for the first time ever made almost entirely from aluminium, making the car more than 100 kilos lighter than its precursor.
The bodyshell is all-aluminium, and much of the suspension components too. Sipping fuel at a leisurely rate, the 4.7-litre twin-turbocharged motor quenches its thirst with under 10 litres-per-100km during its highway stride.
Unfortunately no matter which way I stab at the column-mounted stalk, I have absolutely no idea how to work Merc’s cruise control. Stefan’s suggestion of looking it up in the user’s manual only gets a raised eyebrow from me. But the cruise control system’s ‘limit’ feature is mighty useful, as in most Mercs, since you can just set your limit at 140kph and keep your foot planted. Mercedes wanted this new SL to be more comfortable than ever, which doesn’t bode too well for the car’s ‘sport’ bit.
Yet, actually, the company swears blindly that added luxury hasn’t taken anything away from the chassis dynamics and sporty engine characteristics. If the sat-nav woman were allowed to speak, she’d be blabbering on about the ever-diminishing estimated arrival time as the SL munches away at the road. So I guess we’ll find out about the sporty credentials of this car soon enough.
Stefan and I don’t really mind how long this highway blast takes — well, he does, still periodically yapping about the importance of ideal light — with the fine materials draped all over the cabin creating the perfect environment in which to cross continents. Or in our case, Sharjah.
The cabin is, in a word, luxurious, with an SLS AMG feel to the design, especially prominent with the new shallow and upright dash providing the perfect, unobstructed view out the windscreen. Since the car is now 50mm longer and 57mm wider than before, passengers can enjoy more elbow room if they’re particularly elbow-y.
However the Comand knob is too far back atop the transmission tunnel console, meaning I have to contort a little to use it. Everything else is well thought out, with gorgeous, aluminium air vents, and two available aluminium finishes wrapped around the interior. Unfortunately the folding hard top, which is pretty trick in itself, features a sunroof with a plastic sliding cover that’s as flimsy as a shower door in a cheap motel. And then there’s the laughably tiny gear selector which makes me feel quite weird every time I touch it, like I’m violating it.
The sign says Ras Al Khaimah is 25 kilometres away. I have no idea what happened to the other 96 kilometres but they simply vanished behind the SL 500’s wide rear end. The upright nose and new CLS-esque grille are devouring the humid air ahead, the 435bhp engine feeling no harm done as its cylinders collect the ever-thinning oxygen with a shrug of the shoulders and a seamless flow of power.
Ras Al Khaimah is only just waking up, so a quick wash is due to please Stefan before we quietly tread through town and into Wadi Bih. Just over 13 kilometres of a fast, flowing road beckons, littered with crumbling tarmac at the edges and an abrasive surface elsewhere.
The SL shrugs yet again, utilising all its tricks to make haste. The car’s designers used magnesium in the cover behind the tank, and aluminium all over except in the A-pillars, which are high-strength steel for safety reasons.
Dr Thomas Rudlaff, who was the Merc engineer responsible for the aluminium bodyshell, says the effect of the weight saving is rather like a really fat passenger got out of the car. I gesture Stefan towards the camera chase vehicle…
For me, the more important change in the new SL generation is the suspension package, which all the way up to this point was simply blissful, settling beautifully on the highway and levelling the ride the entire way over. Now in the wadi, it’s time for the suspension to make good on its promises of a sporty set-up, a sprinkling of aluminium components to reduce unsprung mass, and an active suspension system with Active Body Control.
With this 13.3km porous road collecting sand and dust like a clogged sieve, it makes for an interesting experience, as the rear-wheel drive SL refuses to slide gracefully through the tighter turns, instead four-wheel drifting towards the outside while the traction control light blinks in panic despite the fact that I’ve switched it off. Hmm, it looks like luxury does come ahead of performance here… Before we unwittingly cross over into Oman, we make a left turn and an entirely new adventure begins.
Jebel Jais’ peak is somewhere up there in the hazy sky, 30 kilometres along the road ahead. I’ve only got a little over 14 kilometres to play with though, since the Caterpillars have occupied the rest.
The photo op calls for numerous passes up and down, with Stefan perched high upon some rock while I do repeated runs past the cliff faces far faster than necessary for the images. The SL 500 takes just 4.6 seconds to get from rest to 100kph, and on this new surface the rear tyres grip and get going instantly. In fact there’s so much grip I find it difficult to swing the tail out for the camera, especially since the anxious traction control keeps pooping on the party.
I’ve tried everything but the electronics won’t budge, constantly flickering in the background and intrusively interrupting my progress. With sweeping esses and tightening hairpins all over the place, the Jebel Jais road is already as good as any in the UAE, so when the additional 16 or so klicks are open it should be an absolute belter. The SL 500’s engine demolishes the uphills with 700Nm of torque effortlessly defying gravity right from 1,800rpm. For something weighing close to 1.8 tonnes — despite all of Dr Rudlaff’s valiant efforts — the Merc is still as agile as you’d expect a luxurious roadster to be, which is to say it’s no SLS AMG.
The speed-sensitive power steering features a variable steering ratio which isn’t as communicative as it is nicely weighted, whatever your velocity. Yet the SL isn’t the most graceful dancer out there — so much for the tail-out religion — swashing its weight around a bit too abruptly, but it does indeed make some alarmingly fast progress up Jebel Jais. It’s a bit like riding a roller coaster with deep button-tufted leather chairs and cup holders.
Thanks to the fuel consumption which has been reduced by 22 per cent in the 4.7-litre force-fed engine, I have time for a few more focussed runs before we put the SL 500 into its highway stride yet again.
I’ll miss this mountain when I’m done, but I suspect the local goats won’t miss me. Too bad, because I’ll definitely be breaking their peace again, as soon as I get myself behind the wheel of a Dh609K SL 63 AMG.
So if you’ve seen one rock, you haven’t seen them all. Jebel Jais is spectacular. As for the SL 500, let’s just say some Grand Tourers are more equal than others.
Thanks to Emirates Motor Company, Abu Dhabi, for the loan of the SL 500. www.emc.mercedes-benz.com