Mercedes SLR McLaren
Any Collaboration Between Mercedes And McLaren Has To Result In Something Rather Special And The SLR Is Just That. Andy Enright Reports
The Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren is a deeply perplexing vehicle. Most preconceptions are useless, especially if you expect it to land somewhere halfway between the Mercedes SL55 AMG and the McLaren F1. Certain aspects of the car’s makeup come as a huge surprise and although there were rumours of discord between McLaren and Mercedes over the design philosophy of the SLR, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed with the end result.
The technical details first. Up front is a hand-built 5.5-litre V8 supercharged engine. Actually up front may be something of a misnomer as the engine’s weight sits behind the line of the front axle, making the car (in modern terms) ‘front mid-engined’. Weight distribution has long been a pet obsession of Gordon Murray, the McLaren man largely responsible for the iconic F1 hypercar, and the SLR offers exemplary balance. In case you were wondering what occupies the space in front of the engine under that priapic bonnet, there are a pair of carbon fibre cones fully two feet long that are designed to disintegrate in the event of a head on collision, thus dissipating the shock loading.
The engine is good for 626bhp and will catapult the SLR to 60mph in 3.6 seconds, and to 124mph (200km/h) in just 10.6 seconds. Top speed is a heady 208mph and the asking price for the ultimate Benz is a not inconsequential £317,565. Although the numbers themselves may be impressive and stand comparison with rivals like the Porsche Carrera GT and the Ferrari Enzo, the SLR is cut from very different cloth. It’s cloth that includes climate controlled air conditioning, an automatic gearbox, a superb CD stereo system that feeds seven Bose speakers. Satellite navigation, electric seats and an electrically adjustable steering column? Check. Tyre pressure monitors, automatic headlamps and front, knee, head and thorax airbags also feature. This ensures that the SLR weighs in at a hefty 1,693kg and Mercedes claim that this luxury kit adds around 240kg to the weight of the car. A bare bones Le Mans version would be even more devastatingly accelerative.
"The McLaren in the genes is the real deal. This is no badge engineering exercise"
The cabin is supremely well finished, as you’d expect when paying this sort of money, but it is small. We’d be the last to cast aspersions as to who the likely customers of the SLR may be, but aside from the usual roster of sports stars, rappers and silver screen starlets, a good deal of the 3,500 car production run will likely be bought by men of a certain age with a predilection for the finer things in life. Which includes food. Even if you’re relatively limber, levering yourself into the confined cockpit, reaching back to haul the beetle wing door into position and adjusting the wheel and leather-trimmed carbonfibre bucket seat to get comfortable is still quite a mission.
Once ensconced, the engine is started by flipping back the top of the gear knob to reveal a starter button. It’s a little bit Thunderbirds but entertaining enough and the engine note when the motor leaps into life is a good deal more feral than the sophisticated clothing would suggest. Drop the shifter into ‘Driive’ and there’s a noticeable thunk that causes the hairs on the back of your neck to rise. The hunkered down driving position and the acres of bonnet visible through the wide screen just add to the sense of occasion. There’s a brutality to the sound that makes the SLR sound like a big muscle car. The exhaust note exits from the leading edge of the doors, giving the sound of rolling thunder as soon as you tickle the throttle pedal.
Clever aerodynamics guarantee zero front and rear lift and a pop up air-brake deploys under hard braking. It’s an interesting feature but slightly alarming the first time it’s witnessed as you will think that the boot has popped open and all of your possessions are trailing down the road behind you. The aerodynamics are one thing, the brakes are quite another. The ceramic discs squeal embarrassingly when cold and feel wooden and truculent at normal speeds, as does the stiff ride, the carbon chassis graunching and groaning over surface imperfections. This is not SLR home turf.
It’s only when the car is given its head that it all starts to make sense. Even at 100mph, the car is shrugging in disdain, pitying your sorry attempts to discover its raison d’etre. Find the right roads or tracks where speeds in excess of 150mph are possible and everything gels, the engine finally capable of showing what devastating shove it has, the aerodynamics gluing the SLR to the bitumen. Quite how many customer cars will ever be driven in this fashion is open to debate but make no mistake, the McLaren in the genes is the real deal. This is no badge engineering exercise.
If you expect a continent crushing GT car, you may come away a little disappointed. The SLR is just that little bit too live to ever offer what could be described as a relaxing drive. Emerging from the car outside the Hotel Martinez on the Croisette at Cannes drenched in sweat with your hands shaking and the roof of your mouth feeling like the bottom of a bird cage would be closer to the mark.
The Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren was never going to be a successor to the F1. As soon as the top brass at Mercedes decreed that for safety, marketing and manufacturing reasons, the car had to have its engine ahead of its driver; that much was set in stone. Many questioned the car’s relevance not only in the face of more focused rivals from Porsche and Ferrari but also in the light of the astonishing performance served up by stablemates like the Mercedes SL55 AMG. The SLR is thus difficult to pigeonhole. It’s too full-on to make a convincing GT car and yet too compromised to offer the sort of track oriented thrills served up by the Porsche Carrera GT and the Ferrari Enzo. It’s a technical masterstroke, a thing of enormous presence and a testament to the engineering genius of the two companies but as a car it doesn’t quite hit the spot. Queuing customers may be more perplexed than they bargained for.