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Friday 15th February 2013


TELL ME I'M WRONG: MERCEDES SLR MCLAREN

Why the Mercedes SLR McLaren isn't the disappointment many painted it to be


I'm going to flip the usual Tell Me I'm Wrong format on its head and say a car most people reckon was seriously flawed is actually one of the best supercars of the modern era. Yep, I'm telling you the Mercedes SLR McLaren is vastly underrated.

Vision SLR concept of 1999 laid foundations
Vision SLR concept of 1999 laid foundations
Let's get the case for the prosecution out of the way first. Yes, the SLR was saddled with a torque convertor auto, snatchy carbon brakes and oddly twitchy steering. And, yes, given its fancy all-carbon construction it should have weighed half a tonne less than its eventual 1,768kg. But while the supercar purists scoff I'd contest that Mercedes actually nailed exactly what supercar buyers ACTUALLY want, not what many, manufacturers included, think they want.

The enemy within
The SLR faced two significant problems. First, it was a contemporary of the Ferrari Enzo and Porsche Carrera GT. Meanwhile newcomers like Pagani and Koenigsegg were really starting to establish themselves and the ever-present Murcielago flourished. And into this blundered the SLR, carbon-bodied but heavy, exotic and expensive but with a planned production run of over 3,000, outrageously fast and furious but saddled with a five-speed slushmatic. McLaren brought provenance and carbon expertise but the partnership that had delivered two F1 world championships on track was apparently less harmonious in creating a road car. A new-age McLaren F1 this was not.

Productionising carbon construction not easy
Productionising carbon construction not easy
But the biggest competition was internal. Because for a third of the money you could have an SL55 with essentially the same engine and gearbox. That the SLR, to the untrained eye, resembled and even sounded like a glorified SL really didn't help. Second time round Mercedes learned the lesson and went in-house, the SLS successfully managing the distinction between its supercar and the 'regular' AMG ranges.

And now, while Enzos close in on seven figures and Carrera GTs are considered a bargain at 300 grand, the SLR finds itself on the same potential shopping list as a secondhand SLS. That's a detailed comparison for another time but could you really consider the McMerc's flawed genius against the sure-fire grin fest SLS?

SLR not the hoped for McLaren F1 successor
SLR not the hoped for McLaren F1 successor
Would you? Could you?
I think you could. Even a decade on, an SLR in the flesh is still an event and more than dramatic enough to steal the limelight from its more accomplished successor, as the number of phone cameras pointed at it as we photographed this car outside Mercedes-Benz World in Brooklands attests. A nearby SLS, meanwhile, was totally ignored.

Awkward profile view aside, the SLR has aged extremely well indeed, the design far more exotic, aggressive and cohesive than that of the SLS. As dramatic as the latter is, it's a 'junior' supercar in the 458 and Gallardo league, but the SLR remains the real deal. Then there's the cachet of that all-carbon construction, the significance (and challenges) of Mercedes and McLaren productionising this to the relatively mass-market. Making a handbuilt carbon supercar is one thing; doing it in the thousands and to meet the quality standards of a mass-market brand like Mercedes quite another.

Each 'beer barrel' silencer displaces 19.6 litres!
Each 'beer barrel' silencer displaces 19.6 litres!
It's not an entirely daft prospect to run either. The M155 engine, a dry-sumped evolution of the supercharged M113 5.5-litre at the heart of the AMG line up in the early 2000s, is proven, tough and well within its parameters even with more than 600hp. Likewise the gearbox, slushmatic or no. And for all the exotic construction it's a relatively simple car, with passive dampers and generally proven tech shared with many contemporary Mercs. Most barely cover a 10th of that, but you could do 10,000 miles a year in this car and face no bigger concerns than any other top-end Merc. It's surprisingly cramped and loaded with too much generic Mercedes switchgear but highly strung it is not.

On the pace
Monstrously fast and hugely charismatic it is, though. 626hp is still more than ample and the way it goes about it leaves nothing wanting. McLaren's input makes itself felt with discreetly clever aero to permit an SLS-humbling 209mph top speed; AMG's with good-old fashioned V8 muscle that sees off 0-125mph in a frankly still astonishing 10.6 seconds. That V8 broadcasts its Ride Of The Valkyries pomposity through side exhausts, ostensibly to create an aerodynamically flat floor but, really, because they're just wildly cool and exotic. As is the variable spoiler cum airbrake, which quietly references that used by the 1955 Le Mans 300SLR (yes, that one).

Air of exoticism survives, 10 years on
Air of exoticism survives, 10 years on
The immense stiffness and curiously darty steering contrive to make it feel a lot more exciting than its glorified SL shape might suggest too, the comedic proportions meaning the front end appears to swing on a vertical axis located somewhere behind you. It's an odd sensation but all part of the SLR's unique character, the infamously grabby brakes modulated by a change in pad compound later in its life. An SL55 might not trail too far on paper but an SLR is in a different league, even if it needs a lot of space to really strut its stuff.

In context
And you know what, the gearbox kind of fits with the rich, torquey power delivery. If you've got a racing engine's narrow power band you need fast, urgent gear changes. But the SLR is immense in any gear, at any revs and the lazy shift really isn't as much of an issue as you'd think. Besides, lingering in-ratio and letting that pneumatic drill engine note and overlayed supercharger howl build, build, build is one of THE great supercar experiences. The manual mode is usable but you'd want one with the proper paddles introduced by the 722 Edition (650hp, faster gearshifts, 44kg less and a couple of tenths off the benchmark sprint times among the revisions) in 2007.

Look back 75 years for the true inspiration
Look back 75 years for the true inspiration
In period the SLR appeared confused and outclassed by its rivals. But time has given us opportunity to put it in a wider context. Comparing it with cars like the Carrera GT, the Enzo and the Zonda isn't really appropriate. Look further back to a previous era of opulent but technically advanced and blisteringly fast supercharged Mercedes. Ones with really long bonnets. Cars like the 540K Autobahn-Kurierwagen. With that heritage in mind it begins to make sense. An SLS is a better car by pretty much any rational or quantifiable measure. An Enzo or Carrera GT more exclusive, focused and extreme. But the SLR is a special car and one whose flaws that irritated at the time are now part of its charm and quirkiness.

And even if you don't buy that argument there's always those side exhausts.



Mercedes SLR McLaren timeline

1999 (Jan) Vision SLR concept unveiled at Detroit with 5.5-litre engine and 557hp
2001 (March) Orders open for the SLR and Maybach in UK, £500K of deposits at £25K a time made within five weeks
2003 (Sept) SLR McLaren unveiled at Frankfurt; first public appearance
2006 (July) Sets London Land Speed record of 175.7mph
2006 (Sept) SLR 722 coupe unveiled at Paris motor show, limited run of 150 built2007 (May) SLR Roadster confirmed
2007 (June) SLR Roadster makes first public appearance at Goodwood Festival of Speed
2008 (Oct) SLR 722 S Roadster shown at Paris with 650hp, limited run of 150 built
2008 (Dec) SLR Stirling Moss announced, limited to 75 examples
2009 (May) End of SLR Roadster production; Stirling Moss Edition production runs June-December, car only available to existing SLR customers


MERCEDES-BENZ SLR McLAREN
Engine:
5,439cc V8 supercharged
Transmission: 5-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 626@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 575@3,250rpm
0-62mph: 3.8sec
Top speed: 209mph
Weight: 1,768kg (EC)
MPG: 14.8mpg (NEDC combined)
CO2: N/A
Price: c. £150,000







Author: Dan Trent