This feature was originally published in MOTOR’s January 2004 issue
Okay, plugging yourself in requires a certain amount of snakeman-like flexibility; the small door aperture, the slimline bucket seat, the protruding knee pad and the proximity of the taxi-design steering wheel create a somewhat claustrophobic cabin ambience.
But easing into play mode is the easiest trick in the book. Just turn the ignition key (and watch the speedo and tacho needles swing once from lock to lock just for the heck of it), flip up the safety cover on top of the gearlever, push the ‘start engine’ button, floor the loud pedal and brace yourself for the most mental take-off this side of Thunderbird 4.
Sheer, brutal, raw speed is what the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren is all about. The long-nosed, gull-wing supercoupe disappears in a loud cloud of blue smoke, spinning its 295mm wide rear tyres just a tad as it accelerates from 0-100km/h in 3.8sec through to a top speed of 334km/h.
This performance puts the McMerc truly in Ferrari Enzo and Porsche Carrera GT territory – but the Anglo-German luxo-rocket gets there with a five-speed automatic transmission, six airbags, satnav, power seats, electric mirrors and door locks, climate control and Bruckner’s symphony number eight massaging your eardrums via the seven-speaker Bose sound system. In Stuttgart, they clearly don’t believe driving an extreme supercar means doing without life’s little luxuries.
In an era that spoils us for choice when it comes to 320km/h-plus exotica, the SLR is a unique take on the genre. Think Ferrari Enzo performance, Aston Martin Vanquish amenities, Porsche Carrera GT grip and roadholding, SL55 AMG boot space, Lamborghini Murciélago street cred.
They promised us the best of all worlds – but somehow some things went missing during the shift from fiction to fact. Which is probably why, as we cruise down the heavily policed roads from Cape Town to the Cape of Good Hope, the SLR feels more Merc than Mac.
At speeds up to 130km/h, the quick rack and pinion steering has the three-pointed star all over it, accurately determining direction, but without relaying the finer subtleties of the road surface.
The standard Sensotronic ceramic brakes feel wooden, heavy and unresponsive underfoot. And even when you nail the throttle to slip through a gap in traffic, the SLR launches with a get-out-of-my-way growl like one of the big-banger AMG cars. Only harder. Much, much harder. Think SL55 on steroids.
The artificially aspirated 5.4-litre 24-valve V8 shares its basic architecture, cylinder count and forced induction with the SL55, but the specially reinforced all-alloy block features dry sump lubrication. This enables the bent eight to be slung lower in the chassis, improving handling, grip and roadholding.
Each engine is hand assembled by a single AMG engineer, who bolts in a host of goodies like a balanced crankshaft, forged pistons and a pair of air-to-water intercoolers. While Mercedes is supplying the engines, McLaren conceived the front-to-mid installation which is crucial for the car’s evenly balanced weight distribution.
British engineers chose a classic double wishbone configuration, sans Merc’s luxury staples like air suspension, adjustable dampers or active body control (ABC).
If torque had a signature tune, it would sound like this engine: busy, metallic, deep-voiced, a duet of high-mech and high-tech, a turbine with pistons, a rocket with valves. Despite the sexy side-exit pipes, the V8 is an aural non-event from behind the wheel, but from the outside it sounds like serious work being done in a serious manner.
An awesome 460kW is enough to get anyone’s attention, and yet it’s the way the AMG V8 mines a rich, deep seam of pure, weapons-grade twist action – 780Nm from 3250 to 5000rpm, and more than 600Nm from just 1500rpm – that impresses most. With so much torque on tap, the three-mode (comfort, manual, sport) five-speed self-shifter is probably the best possible transmission for this car.
We fiddled with the shift speeds and tried manual mode, but soon got tired of pressing buttons and switched to automatic; it proving surprisingly good at suppressing unwanted upshifts and at dialling
in timely downshifts.
Although Mercedes claims the SLR combines the abilities of a supercar with those of a grand tourer, the cabin is simply too cramped for that nine-hour Friday afternoon dash from Melbourne to Sydney. Or Brisbane. With the engine so far back in the chassis, you’re virtually sitting on the rear axle. The ride, too, is a tad too hardcore for a car wearing the three-pointed star.
The set-up varies from stiff to jittery, and the spectrum of negative acoustics includes ample road noise, plenty of tyre roar and some suspension thump, with a constant flow of minor but nonetheless irritating vibrations to be felt through the steering wheel, floorpan and bulkhead.
Through the twisties, there’s plenty of grip but not enough fluency. More significantly, though, you’re always aware that this is a long, wide, heavy car. At 1768kg, the SLR weighs nearly 30 percent more than either the Enzo or Porsche’s Carrera GT, and an astonishing 55 percent more than Gordon Murray’s epochal McLaren F1.
Legend Series: McLaren F1
It is shatteringly, suck-the-air-from-your-lungs quick in a straight line, though. We found a quiet motorway and trebled the limit – that’s 300km/h and a bit – in less time than it would take to lock a prison cell.
Up to 270km/h, the speed just builds in one long, relentless surge, seemingly reined in only by friction and wind resistance. The next 30 clicks require a little more time, a little more effort and a bigger slice of the 7000rpm rev cake.
The brakes get better the harder you work them, improving in both feel and performance. The Sensotronic system can determine how much braking effort to apply to each individual wheel, and can tell the difference between regular braking for a corner and a panicked stab at the pedal in an emergency, automatically positioning the pads against the discs.
Sensotronic also offers a soft-stop function for smoother city driving, in which it automatically prevents rollback or creep on hills and allows automatic braking in stop-start traffic. With exclusive eight-piston calipers up front, Mercedes’ engineers reckon the SLR will pull 1.3g in a crash stop.
You can feel the SLR settling down onto the road as speed rises and downforce kicks in. At 100km/h the rear spoiler automatically deploys at an angle of 10 degrees, and by 250km/h it’s generating an additional 78kg of downforce, 50kg of it directed to the rear wheels.
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Not enough? A switch on the centre console increases the angle of attack to 30 degrees and the rear wheels get loaded up with another 44 kilos. Get on the brakes and the spoiler tilts to 65 degrees, acting as an airbrake but also increasing the total downforce to 167kg and balancing it almost evenly between the front and rear axles.
There’s no question the Mercedes SLR deserves a place at the top end of today’s extreme supercar pack. It may not have the electric responses and raw-boned edges of an Enzo or Carrera GT, but there’s probably no 320km/h-plus car on the planet, bar the Bentley Continental GT, that’s as easy to live with every day, that’s just as capable of wafting down Park Lane as it is storming down the fast lane of an empty autobahn. But what has McLaren actually brought to this supercar party? It’s a good question.
Dig under the skin and despite the radical front/mid-engine layout, carbon fibre body structure and forged aluminium double wishbone suspension, the fingerprints of Mercedes engineers are everywhere.
While the German SLR taskforce insists that they could never have created this car without McLaren, it’s difficult to imagine Gordon Murray wholeheartedly buying into the idea of a two-seat coupe that weighs as much as a Jaguar XJ sedan for a start. And finally, there is the way it drives.
In its mad, unrelenting, exhilarating rush to V-max, the SLR feels just like the ultimate AMG Benz. To activate the predominantly concealed McLaren genes, it is best to take it to a race track. There, it finally turns into a true supercar. According to the MB lead-footers, their baby will eclipse the entire competition – with the split-second exception of a certain Ferrari Enzo.
Age is just a number on classic MOTOR
2004 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren
BODY: 2-door coupe
ENGINE: 5.4-litre supercharged V8, DOHC 24-valve
POWER: 460kW @ 6500rpm
TORQUE: 780Nm @ 3250-5000rpm
BORE/STROKE: 97.0mm x 92.0mm
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f & r)
TRACK: 1638mm (f), 1569mm (r)
BRAKES: 370mm ventilated ceramic discs, eight-piston calipers (f); 360mm solid ceramic discs, four-piston calipers (r), Sensotronic Brake Control, ABS
WHEELS: 18 x 9.0-inch (f), 18 x 11.5-inch (r), alloy
TYRES: Michelin Pilot Sport; 245/40 ZR18 (f), 295/35 ZR18 (r)
FUEL: 98 litres, PULP
PRICE: $620,000 (est) plus tax
Expect the best right?
This was an early build car – chassis number 10 – and it showed. The A-pillar trim fit was poor, an edge of the seat cushion was loose and the view through the steep screen oddly distorted. There was a groan in the steering through right-handers, a noise from the rear suspension and squealing under brakes – little faults, perhaps, but how much tolerance can Mercedes expect from customers who’ve just paid 375,000 euros, plus tax?
The 500 units earmarked for 2004, plus the 700 pencilled in for 2005, have already been sold, so act now and expect an early 2006 delivery. It'll be interesting to see whether marketing the remaining 2300 is going to be easy.