Review and road test of the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren (2004 - 2009)
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Subject to some fierce depreciation, the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren hypercar is now coming into the realm of the merely very expensive. Having garnered mixed reviews since launch, the SLR is an intriguing vehicle but one which isn't a low-involvement purchase. Wait a while to net true bargains.
When Mercedes-Benz announced its intention to collaborate with McLaren on a hypercar, the results were bound to be spectacular. When it comes to sheer automotive theatre, the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren certainly doesn't come up short. As a driver's tool, it is crushingly effective. As an ownership proposition it's not quite so cut and dried. Used examples are now filtering onto the market having suffered quite swingeing depreciation.
Models Covered: 2dr Coupe/Convertible [5.5 litre V8 petrol (722)]
The first thing to do when considering the SLR is to forget the McLaren F1. The SLR 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 press launch, held in South Africa, resulted in questions raised about the car's ride, its braking and its relevance.
Sales were initially fairly brisk, the car going on sale for just over £313,000 in April 2004, but this market isn't large and moneyed buyers are always looking for something faster and more outrageous. Cue Koenigsegg and Bugatti to pull the rug from beneath the SLR. Mercedes responded with the 722 Edition, a more focused version of the SLR that addresses some of its shortcomings but still never made a convincing sportster. Launched in early 2007 and packing 650bhp, the 722 was followed later that year by the best of the SLR stable, the Roadster. When the Roadster appeared, the SLR had sold just 1,200 of the planned 3,500 cars of the SLR line's projected seven year lifespan but top brass were bullish about its prospects and pointed out, rather triumphantly, that the SLR had seen off the Porsche Carrera GT and the Ferrari Enzo.
What You Get
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.
Standard equipment includes climate controlled air conditioning, an automatic gearbox, plus 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.
The cabin is well finished, as you'd expect when paying this sort of money, but it is small and there are some surprisingly cheap plastics on display that should really be ball-burnished aluminium. A good deal of the 3,500 car production run has been 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.
The Roadster's roof opens and closes semi-automatically in less than ten seconds and is offered in three colour finishes. Unclip the roof from the windscreen header rail and gently lift it and the electric motors will do the rest. The SLR always sported an exceptionally rigid chassis and the Roadster version is no exception, boasting a level of torsional rigidity that's beyond any other production drop top and is better than many esteemed sports coupes. It looks the part as well, the hood folding unobtrusively away, leaving a very sleek line.
What to Look For
With only three valves per cylinder, no direct injection and a relatively low-tech supercharger, the SLR's engine is by no means the last word in sophistication and reports have stressed its sheer unburstability. Check the rear tyres as even with the ESP stability control switched on, the rears chirrup from a standing start with anything other than a very measured amount of throttle. SLRs are relatively easy to check for crash damage and with such a small number of cars in the country, dealers such as Mercedes Benz World at Brooklands will tend to have a good handle on the histories of individual cars.
(Based on a '04 SLR) A headlamp unit for the SLR retails at around £450 while the Pirelli Pilot tyres are around £1,200 a set. Front brake pads are £110 a pair and rears £80.
On the Road
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 650bhp engine will fire the SLR 722 Edition to 60mph in 3.4 seconds, and to 124mph (200km/h) in just 10.2 seconds. Top speed is a heady 209mph. Fast enough for you?
Had the SLR been launched in any year other than 2004 - when the Porsche Carrera GT and the Ferrari Enzo also appeared - it would have probably have enjoyed a good deal more success than it has. As it stands, it rather paled in comparison with Weissach and Maranello's finest and has subsequently been rendered almost irrelevant by newer and more talented series production cars such as the Ferrari 599GTB and the Lamborghini Murcielago LP640. As it stands, it remains an oddity, albeit a breathtakingly dramatic and historically significant one.
Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren (2004 - 2009) review by ANDY ENRIGHT