The SLR is everything an exotic car should be--toy for the gentleman racer, collectible for the guy who has to have everything, and technological orgy for gearheads. The SLR was conceived in the way an exotic car should be--by an overachieving group of designers, engineers and drivers, who developed a car they would like to drive at the track as well as to the track.
This front/mid-engine, carbon-fiber-rich supercar was not built for long treks to the ski slopes, although it's full of the expected amenities and electronic handling aids. Evoking Mercedes' stellar racing heritage, the SLR is well suited for joy rides on a closed circuit, where it was born and raised and where its place in the cosmos is most convincing. The SLR feels as much competition car as luxury GT...and why not? Mercedes-Benz enlisted one of formula racing's most accomplished enterprises to help design and build this extraordinary automobile, so it's no surprise that the SLR's persona is brash and demanding of its driver. It needs to be noticed, and to ignore its provenance is to tempt expensive fate.
The SLR is an extremely fast exotic. It's vein-popping fast: 0 to 62 mph in 3.8 sec. It's leave-all-common-sense-behind fast: 204 mph is its stated top speed. And it feels and sounds every inch of it. Even while idling, the 5439cc eight-cylinder engine burbles bass notes like a celestial organ, and then, when the 24 valves are at their most frenetic and the supercharger is shrieking like a banshee, the SLR roars its presence like the Road King it is.
As an exotic car should be, the SLR is just as stimulating sitting still as when it is busting through the air at full chat. It has style enough to captivate an eye for hours, exploring its curves and contours, extracting function from the cacophony of visual information radiating from the carbon-fiber bodywork and array of wings, ducts and vents. It's the sort of machine that hoards the attention of everyone within reach of ears and eyes. It screams for scrutiny, a walk-around, a closer study from every angle. You want to touch it, sit in it, let the waves of mechanical noise wash over you. There is much to know about this low-flying fighter--a 54-page technical paper from Mercedes only begins to touch on the SLR story and the magnitude of the effort and cost of bringing this car to life, but it's enough to know that all of Daimler-Benz's resources were made available, including its aerospace division. (To get more detail on the SLR's many systems and equipment, log on to europeancarweb.com)
A production run of only 3,500 SLRs will be spread out over seven years, with some 200 destined each year for U.S. showrooms. The official MSRP? Let's just say it's fluid, depending somewhat on the dollar/Euro exhange rates, but when this was written, early in 2004, $400,000 was a ballpark figure. The actual transaction prices of this highly coveted, limited-production supercar are up to the wealthy of the world, and they've already gobbled up the first three years of the U.S. allotment. Jay Leno reportedly got the second SLR. Number one to the U.S. was reserved for Mercedes.
The car is assembled at McLaren in England, but the engines come from Germany, and only the best AMG engineers assemble this, the first powerplant developed entirely by Mercedes-AMG. It's done upstairs from the shop which puts together all other AMG engines but still follows the tradition of a single technician overseeing the powerplant's completion from start to finish. All aluminum, the 5.4L sports a screw-type supercharger, water-type charge air cooling, dry sump oiling, forged pistons (moving within special race-tech cylinder walls) and four catalytic converters. Two stainless steel pipes exit the gasses from just behind the front wheels, a placement that not only echoes the famous SLR racers of the '50s but also allows the car's undertray to remain flat for aerodynamic stability--Mercedes says the SLR is the first car of its type to generate downforce.
The relatively featureless bottom-side of the car is a stark contrast to the aggressive styling elements. The nose and twin-fin front spoilers (key aids in front-end downforce) are nods to McLaren's F1 cars, and the twin-headlamp light cluster is reminiscent of Mercedes production cars. However, it's in sideview that the SLR makes its closest connection to the legendary "Uhlenhaut" racing SLR coupes of the 1950s.
As they did in the SLRs of yore, the side gills vent heat away from the engine compartment, though now they're much larger to accommodate the massive power and two large mufflers that lead into the side pipes. Also evocative of the Uhlenhaut coupe are the scissors-type doors, which are different in concept to the original gullwing arrangement and are superior in operation and space efficiency. They look tremendously cool, too. Operating them takes little effort, and a nice touch is another nod to the past--a leather loop is used to pull the door closed.
Built entirely of carbon-fiber composites, the bodyshell and chassis echo McLaren's F1 experience with the design and manufacture of the expensive stuff. The two structures weigh about 30% less than a comparable steel vehicle, and their energy absorption during a crash is four to five times better than metal components. Two conical carbon-fiber composite members provide frontal crash protection and are bolted to a forged aluminum engine cradle that's in turn connected to the carbon-fiber bodyshell. Mercedes says this "cage" is the largest single hunk of carbon-fiber ever shaped, and it indeed is an impressive bit of materials forming. Protection against tail-enders is by two internal carbon-fiber longitudinal members, and side impacts are addressed by the wide composite door sills, two aluminum profiles in each door, door-mounted head/thorax airbags (augmenting the front- and knee-level airbags) and the high-strength carbon-fiber structure of the seats.
These single-piece buckets are one of the few elements of the SLR which seemed forced. They're snug and highly bolstered, which is good, but there's no adjustment for seatback angle, and the one set by Mercedes--28 degrees--wouldn't have been my particular body's first choice. The option of differently sized seat cushions helps varied body sizes get a proper fit. The SLR's well-tuned all-aluminum double wishbone suspension, aggressive running gear and massive ceramic compound brakes provide a huge safety net for those who might get carried away by the engine's monstrous potential. Extra grip also comes from the trick "airbrake" spoiler that rises from the trunklid.
The wishbones are forged aluminum, and the lower strut geometry was designed for negative camber as the springs compress through the corners, ensuring optimum contact with the road. Yet another reflection of the SLR's connection to F1 is the front stabilizer bar's position above the front axle, another aid in keeping a smooth underbody. Standard wheels and tires are 18-in. 10-spoke light alloys with 245/40s and 295./35s; five-spoke 18s are a no-cost option with the same tire sizes; and optional 19-in. turbine design wheels can be ordered with 245/35s and 295/30s. Michelin worked closely with Mercedes on the rubber, which is unique to the car.
Fiber-reinforced ceramic brakes are at all four corners--eight-piston fixed calipers and internally ventilated 370mm discs up front and four-piston fixed calipers and 360mm solid discs at the rear. Advantages include long life, low fade, low maintenance and lower weight, and though they are incredibly efficient at pulling the 3800-lb vehicle to a stop, it still took time to get used to Mercedes' electronic braking--it required a very deft touch to bring the car to a halt smoothly and was one of the only systems on board that compromised a totally integrative experience.
Marvelling at the specs and styling can go only so far to justify the SLR's existence, so, to the point: How does it drive? Is it just a faster, lighter SL? No way; unlike Mercedes' other two-seaters, the SLR not only quicker, it's a full assault on the senses. Yes, the aural aura from the powerful engine and rich nasal stew of hot compounds provide nourishment to the car freak's soul, but it will pound you over rough roads.
Given a smooth surface, the rewards are great. This was demonstrated by McLaren test driver Chris Goodwin, who showed the car's true colors during hot laps around Kyalami Circuit in Johannesburg. As he slid the car around the hilly circuit, I observed a well-balanced car being driven on the edge by a master. The lack of a long straight kept speeds to a modest level, but the way the car squirted from corner to corner, between the stabs of ceramic brakes, revealed a platform aching for competition, Watch the FIA GT series.