D. John Booth, Contributor
Two hundred and forty kilometers an hour (or 150 mph) going into the 35-degree banked turn and I take one hand off the steering wheel to turn the air conditioning down to 16 degrees Celsius (61 F). Damn, it's hot in Barcelona. Isn't it supposed to mainly rain on the plain in Spain?
Exit the 180-degree bend and punch it. The Mercedes' five-speed automatic tranny kicks down a gear, the revs pulse to 6,000 and we rocket ahead as if we're overtaking a trawling 18-wheeler. At 270 kilometers per hour (this early version of the SLR doesn't have "MPH" on its speedometer), I get really brave and take both hands from the steering wheel admittedly, they remained a hair's breadth away, just in case anything went awry.
Stupid, yes, but then I've never driven anything quite as stable at speed as this brand-new German supercar.
Punch it again and the silver speedo needle swings to 300 km/h (out of a possible 360!) fast enough to make rumors of a 336 km/h (210 mph) top speed believable. Again, all with the unflappable calm of a sedate 60-mph crawl to the cottage on a Friday night. Cripes! Don't forget that we're supposedly taking things easy, as these are one-off prototypes.
Forget everything you've read about Mercedes-Benz's new SLR. Ignore all the pictures that marginalize the original Vision SLR concept as a warmed-over SL500 with a few strategically placed scoops and flares. And pay no mind to your cousin Vinny, the family's resident, Camaro-owning car expert dismissing the SLR as little more than a puffed-up AMG-tuned Mercedes roadster with chrome wheels and a sticky set of tires.
For, if there's one thing that's evident from the first glimpse of Mercedes' über supercar in the flesh (or carbon fiber, as it were), it is that the sleek-bodied SLR is every bit as exotic as Ferrari's unobtainable Enzo and Porsche's outrageous Carrera GT. In fact, badging it a Mercedes-Benz may be selling the SLR short. When the car is publicly unveiled for the first time in Frankfurt later this year, it will no doubt be the reported 600 horsepower (final figures are yet to be officially released), 591 pound-feet of torque or sub-four-second 0-to-60-mph time that will grab the skeptics' attention. But the heart of the car, the essence of what makes the SLR so very very special, is hidden deep beneath the hand-sanded monochromatic black and silver (the only colors initially available) bullet body styled by Peter Pfeiffer (senior vice-president of design) at Mercedes-Benz's design house.
What you can't see (but what prospective owners can watch as it's assembled at McLaren's new Technology Center in Surrey, England) is a chassis only slightly removed from Formula One technology and arguably the most technologically advanced in the world. The entire superstructure is made of carbon fiber (with some pieces reinforced with polystyrene foam) bolted to an aluminum engine cradle so exquisitely cast it wouldn't look out of place in the Guggenheim. In turn, two carbon-fiber cones, designed much like the nose cones on McLaren's F1 racers, serve as the deformable crash barrier for the SLR's front bumper, absorbing four times as much energy as a normal car's steel crumple zone. More importantly, McLaren claims that the entire chassis is more than twice as strong as any Mercedes sedan and an incredible five times as rigid as the new SL500.
What is evident, even in the heavily disguised preproduction prototypes we tested, is that the SLR owes little other than its grille-mounted three-pointed star and Stuttgart's trademark cat's eyes headlights to the garden-variety Mercedes roadster. Looking far more like a 575 Maranello than any SL of recent vintage (though there are styling touches, like the gullwing doors, dating back to the original of the mid-'50s), the SLR's hood is seemingly miles longer, the windshield much more dramatically raked back and its stubby cabin biased distinctly toward the rear with a Ferrari-esque high tail. That's because, while Mercedes mandated the SLR's front-engine layout, McLaren's chief engineer, Gordon Murray (he penned the BMW-powered McLaren F1, generally acknowledged as the fastest "production" car on the planet) favors midengine formats. The compromise was to move the driver rearward and place the engine aft of the front axle, literally under that radically sloping front windshield. Reportedly, Murray was after a 53/47 percent rearward weight bias, but had to settle for what other manufacturers would call an ideal 50/50 split.
It makes no never mind, as the SLR is as stable as Appalachian granite. Though we were supposed to be limited to a conservative-for-mad-European-testers' 155 mph at IDIADA's humongous 7.5-kilometer banked oval just outside of Barcelona, more than a few scribes, including yours truly, tempted the ire of the Spanish security guards by throttling up to 185 mph. Even at those supralegal speeds, the SLR was as unperturbed by the Spanish tarmac's bumps, heaves and cracks as a normal car would be at 65.
All of the credit goes to the aforementioned chassis, especially the F1-inspired flat-bottom tub, complete with inlet ducts and a rear diffuser that conspire to literally suck the SLR into the pavement with aerodynamic downforce. Antony Sheriff, managing director of McLaren Cars, also credits the SLR's adjustable rear spoiler. The 200-millimeter-wide rear panel lifts between 10 and 30 degrees during high-speed driving (though it automatically flips up to a steep 65 degrees to act as an air brake when emergency braking is called for) and is said to greatly enhance high-speed stability by increasing rear downforce and moving the aerodynamic center of pressure rearward. Such was the SLR's inherent ability that none of the assembled journalists could sense any difference with the spoiler in place or retracted. It must have been making a difference, though, because whenever one of the test cars sped by the pits with the foil up, its wake boomed far louder than SLRs passing with the spoiler down.
It was a little harder to evaluate the SLR's cornering ability, however. The IDIADA skid pad, used for some basic slalom and cornering tests, was a low-friction surface, so final determinations of the SLR's cornering ability will have to wait.
What can be gleaned is that the McLaren's all-independent, double-wishbone suspension is incredibly well balanced with just a hint of initial understeer easily turned into sportier oversteer with just a jab of the throttle. Mercedes' ESP stability control system is also a little more liberal in this guise, allowing more slip than is normal before applying the brakes to bring the car back into line. And unlike some other Mercs, it can be completely shut off.
Surprisingly, the standard wheels are only 18-inchers, a far cry from the 20-inch monstrosities becoming almost normal on sports cars. Mercedes used them because they allowed the use of higher-profile tires (bespoke Michelins designed specifically for the SLR) for a better ride. After all, Mercedes' intention is that the SLR be a Gran Turismo in the flavor of Ferrari's 575 Maranello, even though its performance is closer to the no-holds-barred Enzo. Those wanting a little more from their SLR can opt for the lower-profile 295/30ZR-19 rears and 245/35ZR-19 fronts (the 18-inchers are the same width) mounted on even flashier wheels. Hidden from view are the massive carbon ceramic brake discs, sturdy enough to handle all the heat generated by the front eight-piston calipers trying to stop a car from the ridiculous speeds the SLR is capable of.
The skid pad test was also designed to give us a taste of the AMG-tuned V8's acceleration. Power is massive thanks to the engine's supercharger, with abundant torque available right from idle. At high speeds, that outsized tri-star emblem in the grille turns out to serve a dual purpose (besides humbling drivers of lesser cars). It's hollowed out and serves as the high-speed ram-air inlet to the biggest intake plenum chamber I've ever seen. Acceleration from a standing start is as ferocious as one would expect, and though no official figures have been released, 3.8 seconds would be a good guess for the 0-to-60-mph time.
It would be even quicker but for two Mercedes decisions. First, the company mandated that the SLR have a full complement of safety goodies (airbags, air curtains, traction control, SBC brake control, etc.). It also equipped the car with upscale interior accoutrements such as a navigation system, seven-speaker Bose audio system and a six-disc CD changer (located in the trunk) so Gordon Murray's initial projection of a 3,100-pound curb weight has ballooned somewhat. Though you may see other reports estimating the SLR at over 3,500 pounds, my best guess would be about 3,350, or just a bit more than the published reports for the Enzo.
It's also Mercedes' doctrine that all its AMG-tuned engines be mated to automatic trannies, in this case a five-speed (the newly announced seven-speed couldn't handle all the torque). A six-speed manual would definitely make the SLR feel sportier and accelerate quicker. As it is, it is most assuredly the fastest thing with a slushbox. It's worth noting that the SLR does offer an automanual mode (gears are changed by levers on the backside of the steering wheel) and that the manual function offers three levels of shifting speed (and, therefore, severity). I'd guess that it will only be a matter of time before prospective customers whine enough for Mercedes to change its tune and offer a manual.
I could only find one possible flaw in the SLR's performance. In truth, it's more a matter of personal taste than a fault. Nonetheless, it's worth noting that the SLR sounds like a big old American muscle car. From the outside, it reminds me of the way nifty side pipes pound out a traditional Motown basso profundo tune. Inside, the SLR sounds like a breathed-on Corvette without the valve clatter.
This is one exotic that is likely to turn on Johnny Six-Pack as much as Thurston Howell the III. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that those with almost half a million dollars (the only pricing Mercedes would officially commit to is "the $300,000 range") might expect something more akin to the howl of a high-revving V12 or the bark of a V10 for their post-tax cut glut of cash.
Also, Mercedes may be confusing potential clients as to which of its super cars is truly its flagship. The company recently announced the introduction of its SL65. This AMG-tuned beast gets a 612-horsepower and 724-pound-foot version of the Mercedes' monster twin-turbo V12. Despite its greater output, the SL65 is unlikely to challenge the SLR in the speed and handling departments as it will be much heavier. Nonetheless, exactly why Mercedes wants to divert the hoopla from the SLR is an interesting question.
Also open to question is the SLR's interior. Not because it's not up to snuff but because most of it was covered with felt, keeping what was obviously red leather trim away from prying eyes. What was evident is that the center console's styling is not unlike the Chrysler Crossfire's but with far greater quality it uses an all-aluminum finish. A horizontal lever in the middle controls the orientation of the rear spoiler/air brake. Two large rotary buttons are provided to control the automanual transmission's shifting programs and an SLR-badged door hides the audio and navigation system.
Way nifty is the starter button hidden beneath a little flip-up door on the top of the gearshift lever. And in keeping with the race-car-for-the-street theme, instrumentation is sparse with the blue-hued speedo and tachometer dominating the IP. And, of course, there are the phenomenally easy-to-use gullwing doors a key part of the SLR's heritage. One area that may cause prospective owners heartaches is seat adjustments. Currently, the twin buckets are adjustable fore and aft and the entire chair can be tilted as well. However, the seat back cannot be reclined vis-à-vis the seat bottom, meaning the angle between your legs and back is fixed. My lower lumbar found the angle just a little too acute. And, according to Sheriff, changing that angle is impossible since it would require re-crash testing the whole car. That said, McLaren will customize the seats with various thickness pads to suit various girths.
Job one for the SLR is planned for November of this year with deliveries starting in early 2004. The company plans to make only 500 a year for seven years. Even at the incredibly steep price that McLaren's participation dictates, I expect there's going to be a waiting list for delivery of SLRs for years to come.
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