Possibly this is a lack of culture speaking, but more than two hours of singing in a foreign language and only knowing it's over when a fat lady sings just does not do it for me. Luckily, this trip to the opera wouldn't end with me sitting in the stalls, peering through binoculars on a stick and fiddling with a clip-on tie. Instead, I was on my way to Opera, to drive a 460-bhp Mercedes SL 500.
It may be a new name, but Opera Design is steeped in tuning heritage, as it's actually an offshoot of Hamann Motorsport in Bavaria. BMW and Mercedes owners couldn't agree on the day of week, such is their tribal nature, and so Richard Hamann created a whole new brand as he continues to expand his empire, now offering tuning for Ferraris, Porsches, MINIs and a range of SUVs.
Opera, with all its overtures of an educated audience, is solely concerned with the three-pointed star. While its fully loaded SL is certainly a visual and aural experience, the last thing that came to mind was an evening with Pavarotti. He couldn't compete with the noise for a start.
This Opera comes with a heavy bassline that drowned out my BMW Z4 3.0 test car from 50 paces. With only mild modifications to the ECU and major work to the exhaust, this car has 360 bhp, but the ground-shaking rumble from the replacement underbelly unit suggests so much more.
It's so loud, the SL announces its presence from several blocks away; deaf people feel it coming.
Over-the-top cosmetics have just as much to do with the car's sheer presence. From the front, the tarted SL is remarkably similar to the SLR that's currently the toast of motoring tinseltown.
It has the same twin-wing configuration swooping dangerously close to the ground and a number of other sculpted touches. This remodelled front end sharpens the appearance of the nose, and three-time DTM Champion Hamann reckons it reduces the lift on the front end after spending countless hours on the test track and helps keep this 4,000-lb beast planted to the road. Of course, the aero kit won't work as well with the electric roof down, but then you're unlikely to fancy cornering at 140 mph with the wind in your face.
Side skirts with integrated aluminum fins add to the road-hugging look, and Hamann can even replace the cabriolet's heavy stowaway hardtop with a weight-saving carbon skin--should the customer want to deny themselves the luxury of open-topped cruising with the biggest soundtrack going. I wouldn't, and would live with the extra mass.
A wing and integrated diffuser have also been developed as part of a new rear-end panel. And the customer can even specify a bonnet-mounted spoiler, which might be a touch too much.
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 supported by gas-powered shock absorbers. Simply put, they look the absolute business.
Opera's car isn't 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 put something other than a giant black disc on the nose--like an angry spot on a cheerleader's face--it would certainly rival its far more exclusive relative.
This car looks theatrical, a driving experience in the making that would look at home in downtown L.A. in front of a crowd or flashing down the Pacific Coast 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 plush leather seats cosseting me as the car launched forwards. The interior is a bit much, with serious expanses of leather and some wood. Certainly the SL has already captured a devoted number of the affluent youth market, which previously eluded it, with the SL range. This is Opera's target market, and some of the modifications available have success written all over them.
Some may simply opt for the cosmetic job, but with engine mods ranging from a replacement ECU to capacity increases and total overhaul of the SL600 Biturbo, Opera can take a fine automobile and turn it into a missile.
On the move it feels even 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, and the auto gearbox that seems to jump between ratios almost too eagerly.
A manual gearbox would have been nice, and the Merc does have a Touch Shift semi-automatic change mechanism to choose when to shift. But with this car's reservoir of torque--398 lb-ft (540Nm) at 2800 rpm--and the driver adaptive seven-speed auto's willingness to drop one or even two gears with a hefty shove on the accelerator, it isn't necessary.
Drive like a hooligan, and the car will head to its limits in support, holding on for more revs and providing a strong kickdown. Relax, and the SL will chill with you. It's a user-friendly auto all around.
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 175 mph and dash to 60 mph in 6 sec., but it's the true power in the midrange that stands out.
This is real-world overtaking performance and, despite hulking round approximately 4,000 lb, the 24-valve V8 is more than willing. It was always a torquey engine, but Opera's ECU has taken it to the next level--delivering its 360 horses at 5500 rpm, compared to the original model's 302 bhp at 5600 rpm. Another 59 lb-ft (80Nm) of torque with the right map provides a healthy shove in the back when darting out of traffic, too.
Power is nothing without control, and this SL has been lowered by 35mm and sits on wheels up to 20 in. in size. The already sharp SL hugs the road much better than its predecessor due to the minimal pitch and roll in corners.
The SL is still a luxury sports car, rather than an out and out racer for the road, but it certainly proved effective at impressive speeds round Bavaria's country roads, and Opera has given it even more of and edge. When driving an $85,000 car with approximately $55,000 of modifications, it's always a little difficult to press to the limit, but this car felt totally composed at 20 mph faster than I was comfortable with in the twisty bits.
Mercedes' original ESP can take much of the credit for this, comparing the driver's course, steering and braking inputs, and comparing the lateral acceleration, rotation and individual wheel speeds. ESP then slows down the individual wheels--which basically means the car will catch pretty much any mistake you care to make before you know you've made it.
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 jewelry on their Merc.
Braking was well catered for by Mercedes in the first place, with eight-piston calipers, so Opera didn't have to mess there, which was nice.
For all its pluses, though, this car conversion costs more than EUR45,000 on top of the basic SL500--which isn't cheap to begin with--and the exhaust kit alone costs almost EUR10,000. 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 EUR20,000 more for a genuine firebreather that is actually 2 mph faster than the all-conquering SLR and can match it in a straight line--hitting 60 mph in 3.9 sec. Now that machine has 628 lb-ft (1120Nm) of torque, 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 appetizer, then the main course will be immense.