Thursday 9th June 2005


MERCEDES-BENZ MCLAREN SLR

Naumann Farooq drives Mercedes-Benz's supercar. Does it live up to the hype?

Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR
Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR

This is it folks, the Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR, the most expensive and outrageous Mercedes that you can buy. But exactly how outrageous is it really?

Here's the thing. Just a few weeks ago, I drove an SL55 AMG, aimed right at Ferrari and Porsche. It has the specs to strike fear in the hearts of other supercar owners, but my experience behind the wheel was rather disappointing. I found the car was too soft, the rear-end was not stable enough through tight corners, high speed jaunts were a floaty affair, and the traction control (when on) was a bit too intrusive.

All in all, it felt just like any other Mercedes, which is a bad thing if you want a sports car. So, if you can spend about £90,000 on a sports car, take my advice and buy yourself a Porsche 911 Turbo or a used Ferrari 360, and you’ll be much happier.

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However, if you have about £250,000 to spend on a supercar, your choices are a lot tastier -- which is as it should be.

Walk into a Ferrari showroom, and you’d be tempted to go home in the SuperAmerica, the limited edition 575M with a unique rotating roof. Walk into a Lamborghini showroom, and you’ll be seduced by the awesome Murcielago Roadster, the one Nick Hall recently tested and fell in love with.

And in a Porsche showroom, the mind-blowing Carrera GT is almost impossible to resist. Just make sure that you are an ace manual driver before buying one though, since the clutch travels about only four-inches, and the gearbox has such short throws that while reaching for third gear, you’ll most likely slot it in fifth. Regardless, this is a superb supercar.

As you might be aware of Mercedes-Benz has a supercar too. So how does the SLR stack up compared to the very stiff competition?

The making of the SLR

Mercedes-Benz, a manufacturer that prides itself in making the finest luxury cars, has a division that turns those same fine luxury cars into faster luxury cars: AMG. However, while the engines are great, the cars are compromised due to their humble underpinnings.

So to extract the full performance potential that AMG can provide, Mercedes knocked on McLaren's door. Not only does McLaren make the fastest F1 cars on the grid, it also has the reputation for building the McLaren F1 supercar, the most iconic road legal supercar of the last decade, and the fastest -- until the Koenigsegg CCR and Bugatti Veyron came along.

So the result is an amalgam of Mercedes comfort and convenience, AMG engine and transmission, and McLaren chassis, body and design layout. Thus the front-mid engined layout, the carbon fibre body and chassis, fibre reinforced ceramic brake discs and an active spoiler that aids the car under hard braking are all McLaren’s ideas. And yes, just like the original F1 supercar, the project chief in the SLR program was Gordon Murray, a man who made his name in designing some of the most successful F1 cars of the 1980s.

Driving the SLR

The end result is on Mosport International Raceway for me to try out. I would like to tell you that I had pulled a few strings and managed to convince Mercedes’ press office to let me try their most expensive car on a race track. The truth is, I actually had no idea I would have the privilege of testing the car that day.

I was at Mosport by chance at a private event for providing on-track coaching to owners of some very exotic cars. On the grid were a Porsche 911 Turbo, a Ferrari F355 Spider, a Ferrari 360 coupe, a very modified Subaru STi, an even more highly modified Porsche 993 GT2 -- and a Maybach 57.

The star car was undoubtedly the SLR, which looks truly menacing in its high-gloss black paint finish. Images of Darth Vader came to mind.

As the day went on, admiring the sight of the SLR on the track, listening to its wonderful exhaust, something happened out of the blue. The owner offered me to take him around the track for a few laps in the SLR. I was in the car and tightening the belts even before he finished his sentence.

Press the flush button by the door to open the gull-wing doors, which have hydraulics powerful enough to lift the doors automatically. Getting in is a lot easier than I expected, since cars with unusual doors usually require the contortions of a ballerina. Just try to gracefully enter and exit a Lamborghini Countach and you’ll know what I mean.

Once in, you’ll find the power seat has limited but very useful settings available for you. The backrest stays fixed, but you can raise or lower the seat, slide it and tilt it. Plus, with a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, finding the right driving position took no longer than 12 seconds, which is about the time this car takes to cover a quarter-mile from a dead stop.

Now, ignition time. Turn the key to On, lift the cover on the tip of the gear lever, and press the “Engine Start” button. The 5.5-litre, supercharged V8 awakens with an angry growl. This engine pumps out 626bhp and 575lb/ft of torque, mated to a five-speed automatic gearbox, which has SpeedShift manual shift modes, Tiptronic-style.

Now why does a supercar have an automatic gearbox? Because AMG for some reason only makes cars with automatic gearboxes. Why a five-speed auto instead of six speeds? Because this is the only transmission AMG has that can handle this much power.

So, I slide it into “D” and take off. Instantly it's clear that this is not like any Mercedes or AMG. The steering is beefy, the turn-in very sharp, the brakes can stop you on a sixpence, and the acceleration is just mind blowing.

My first lap was spent just learning how this car works, because it is so different to any car I have ever come across on this track. Mosport is a very tricky track, with hills, drops and off camber turns. But this SLR would just stick around corners like it was superglued to it. No matter what I did, it stayed very composed, pushing into understeer rather than oversteer.

Performance

Then the passenger-owner of the car pointed out the Sport mode, which transforms it from a comfortable GT car to an endurance GT racer. The suspension tightens up, the throttle response gets much faster, SpeedShift reacts instantly -- and the experience just gets better and better.

On the back straight at Mosport -- neither that long nor an actual straight since it has a slight turn in the middle -- I saw 150mph, over 15mph faster than I have driven in any car here.

The reason is simply the engine. The supercharger winds up instantly and punches you forward with a power band that seems endless. On a long runway, the SLR will top out at 208mph. That makes it the fastest car Benz has produced, and the fastest accelerating with a 0-60 mph time of 3.7 seconds.

The speed is truly astonishing. When you press the accelerator, you feel it stopping at a certain point, but that is not the point where the pedal meets the floor. At that point, you press harder still, and it activates a switch behind the pedal, which must be the hyperspace button. Now that the pedal is totally floored, this car just eats up straights at eye popping speeds, all the while filling the cabin with the noise coming from those fabulous four exhaust pipes just aft the front wheels.

Even in sport mode, the handling never felt nervous, the car was always controllable, and an absolute hoot to drive.

I must say, this car positively surprised me. The reports I had read before had written it off against its competition. Yes while the brakes lack total feel, and the centre console is plastic, and both the Carrera GT and the Murcielago are more extreme machines to drive, the SLR is the only hyper-grand touring car on the planet.

A car that can cross continents like a Ferrari 612, yet plays ball with the likes of the Carrera GT on the race track, this truly is the best all-rounder I have come across.

All pictures except the top picture by Naumann Farooq