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Friday 19th March 2004


OPERA DESIGN SL

Nick Hall went to Germany to find an SL for those that want to be noticed

Mercedes may be grabbing the headlines with its SLR model, but Opera Design has a steady line of medication for the Stuttgart marque’s much-loved roadster that provide a passable alternative to the most exclusive car on sale right now for much less money.

Opera Design might not strike a chord even to those in the tuning and niche manufacturer business, but it’s really an offshoot of Hamann Motorsport in Bavaria.

Ace BMW tuner Richard Hamann created a separate brand because BMW and Merc owners fight like cats and dogs, so the Opera Design brand was born and he set about creating a visually stunning SL with the performance to back it up. There are now a range of modifications available for the SL500 and SL600, with something to satisfy every budget and penchant.

How many horses?!?!

While the 718bhp SL600 wasn’t in the workshop when we visited, we ‘made do’ with a run in the SL500. This car came directly after a mildly modified Ferrari 360 on the test schedule, and the noise wiped the Prancing Horse from the memory.

This Opera comes with a heavy bassline, a raucous bellow that would drown the loudest baritone. Following with the hood down on the BMW Z4 3-liter we’d taken on the trip, hard on the gas to even live with the car in front, my machine was drowned completely by the rumbling reverberations of this awe-inspiring engine.

In truth the ECU mods and sports exhaust take the horsepower levels up to just 360bhp, which is still significantly more than the machine that has been accused of being a hairdresser’s sportscar in its time is used to, but the noise feels worth far more. Then there are the cosmetics.

Looking Good?

From the front the fully tarted up SL is remarkably similar to the SLR that is currently the toast of motoring tinseltown. It has the same twin-wing configuration swooping dangerously close to the ground.

This not only sharpens the appearance of the front end, it helps keep this 1600kg beast planted at speed, which is no bad thing, but this is clearly more about the look and the optional bonnet spoiler – left off our test car - may be just a step too far.

Outrageous side skirts with integrated aluminium fins add to the road-hugging look and Hamann can even replace the hard-top with a weight saving carbon skin. A rear wing and integrated rear diffuser have also been developed as part of a new rear end panel.

And then there’s the crowning glory, as with the SLR the Opera Design machine has gullwing doors. After reinforcing the basic shell at the front end, especially around the front pillars, Opera fitted its trademark doors that are supported by gas-powered shock absorbers.

It’s not quite a mirror image of McLaren’s superstar, but it is close. The SL looks stunning from every angle, and if the company could have blanked off the giant black disc on the nose - like a dirty blackhead on the nose of a glamour model - there would be nothing to fault. Of course it’s hardly conservative, but people with those kind of criticisms should never set foot on the forecourt of this tuner.

USA meets GMBH

This car looks theatrical, a driving experience in the making that would look at home in downtown LA in front of a crowd or flashing down the Highway. In fact this car looks far too West Coast to be German at all, and is a hit in waiting on these fair shores.

It also retains all the luxury you could expect in a Mercedes roadster, too, with an expanse of leather and the electric leather seats cosseting me as the car launched forwards.

On the move it feels faster than it is thanks to a mischievous hint of wheelspin in the first two gears, quickly swept up by the advanced electronics on board, the soundtrack from Valhalla and the auto gearbox that seems to jump between ratios almost too eagerly.

A manual gearbox would have been nice. But with this car’s reservoir of torque, 540Nm at 2800rpm to be precise, and the box’s willingness to drop one or even two gears with a hefty shove on the accelerator, it’s not a necessity.

Midrange Muscle

This car takes off with only minor encouragement and is far more eager than the original SL. The speed limiter has been deactivated, and the mighty SL will now reach 175mph and dash to 60mph in approximately six seconds, but it’s the true power in the midrange that stands out.

Lowered by 35mm the all-new SL hugs the road much better than its predecessor, while refusing to sacrifice the comfort factor. Of course the Opera car can’t soak up all the bumps quite so well, but that’s the tradeoff with a lowered car and this machine certainly felt refined enough to satisfy the kind of person that would want this kind of performance and cosmetic jewellery on their Merc.

For all its pluses, though, this car conversion costs more than €45,000 on top of the basic SL500 – which isn’t cheap to begin with – and the exhaust kit alone costs almost €10,000. And those shopping for a Merc in this kind of price range may be tempted to go the whole hog and opt for the 718bhp SL600 Biturbo.

Of course the base car is more expensive, but the conversion only costs €20,000 more for a genuine firebreather that is actually 2mph faster than the all conquering SLR and can match it in a straight line – hitting 60mph in 3.9 seconds Now that machine has 1120Nm, limited to 1000 to prevent the drivetrain ripping itself apart, which is a true tidal wave of power waiting to chew ruts in the road.

Few cars in the world come close to Opera’s flagship in terms of brute strength. How this machine feels on the road is something that will have to wait for a future piece, but if this is just the appetiser then the main course will be immense.


Author: Nick Hall