Tell Me I'm Wrong: Mercedes SLR McLaren

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

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

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (120) Join the discussion on the forum

  • carnut360 20 Feb 2013

    I was lucky enough to spend a day at McLaren, with a factory tour and then down to the top gear test track to drive the convertable SLR.

    Personaly i thought it looked pretier than the ordinary SL, but not that much, then to drive..Wow...certainly i think it was the fastest car in a straight line that i have ever driven, but there was a distinct lack of personality, the gear changes never felt as immediate as they do in say a Ferrari, it was too easy to drive in automatic and the manual mode was just lifeless..

    McLaren technology center impressed me greatly, perhaps the car just did not live up to the impression of the company, to me it was just a fast mercedes.. with enormous servicing costs just buy the equivalent AMG or the new SLS and you will have at least the same ammount of fun.

  • WCZ 20 Feb 2013

    rubystone said:
    Hmmm not sure about your last statement. The GT1 was massively expensive and laughably impractical. Ironically, the very uesability of the SLR is often quoted as a reason for people's dislike of it. Mclaren seem to have managed the same trick with the MP4/12C...
    Supercars shouldn't have to be practical! the SLR has lots of character, and the CLK-DTM is a fantastic car too

  • cris9964 18 Feb 2013

    Sorry Dan - I think you are wrong...

    I had a brief (20 miles) drive in a 722 and found the steering far too sensitive (too highly geared), the ride overly harsh, the brakes wooden and the throttle mapping exceptionally aggressive.

    It reminded me of a TVR Cerbera - when you approach it you see the grand tourer shape and when you drive it, the NVT characteristics feel like that of a track/race car.

    Compared to a Murcialago/599, it did not compare - let alone to a Carerra GT or Enzo I'm sure (which I have not driven)

    Oh and the interior plastics felt like those of an RX8

    I think they didn't have the budget to develop it fully.

  • ralphrj 18 Feb 2013

    terenceb said:
    Totally agree,although as already stated,the interior was not really 'special'.
    I had a small connection with the SLR in 2006/7 through my work at MB.

    IIRC the interior was originally to have been a McLaren design but very late in the day this was rejected (I never found out the reason as to why) and replaced with a MB design. The last minute nature of the decision meant that the interior was never as well made or thought out as it should have been and (despite allegedly costing £8.5k per car) looked cheap.

  • C36 Nico 18 Feb 2013

    g3org3y said:
    Over the w/e I rewatched the Top Gear SLR versus powerboat episode. Must admit the SLR looked (and sounded) brilliant.

    Give that it is now getting on a bit, how is it stacking up reliability wise compared to equivalent Ferraris/Lambos etc? Certainly JC made much of the fact that it seemed solid and not plagued with the foibles/issues associated with exotic supercars of that price.

    As an everyday supercar, what else is there? Porsche 911 turbo I suppose (though still A LOT cheaper new)?
    M155 engine bulletproof, passive damping, loads of shared parts with the lesser SL models.

    Seems like a dream of an ownership proposition to me given the cars abilities.

    Mercedes has always done reliability well and I suspect the SLR is no different.

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