REVIEW DATE: 23 May 2007
Few supercars can match the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren for sheer visual drama. It's now available as a roadster. Andy Enright reports
As impressive a technical achievement as the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren is, it's fair to say that the car has attracted mixed reviews in the press. As an all-out hypercar, the SLR is a little compromised compared to the best Porsche and Ferrari offer. As an extreme roadster, the SLR makes far more sense.
The driving experience of the SLR coupe was the story of a magnificent engine meets a moderate chassis. Up against the Porsche Carrera GT and Ferrari Enzo, the SLR always came third. It just couldn't match the immediacy of response of these two rivals. It has outlasted the pair of them though and the introduction of the Roadster is smart in two key ways. Firstly, the Roadster will always be cut a little more slack from a dynamics perspective than a coupe, and secondly, the front engined, rear wheel drive chassis layout lends itself well to the development of an elegant roadster body style.
Performance, as you'd expect from a car with 626bhp from its AMG V8 supercharged engine, is perky to say the least. It'll get to 60mph in 3.6 seconds and keep going until 207mph. Mercedes claims that conversation is still possible at 124mph. Perhaps you'll need a bullhorn at 200mph+. The SLR experience is always memorable. Drop the shifter into 'Drive' and there's a noticeable thunk that causes the hairs on the back of your neck to rise. The hunkered down driving position and the acres of bonnet visible through the wide screen just add to the sense of occasion. There's a brutality to the sound that makes the SLR sound like a big muscle car. The exhaust note exits from the leading edge of the doors, giving the sound of rolling thunder as soon as you tickle the throttle pedal.
Up front is a hand-built 5.5-litre V8 supercharged engine. Actually up front may be something of a misnomer as the engine's weight sits behind the line of the front axle, making the car (in modern terms) 'front mid-engined'. Weight distribution has long been a pet obsession of Gordon Murray, the McLaren man largely responsible for the iconic F1 hypercar, and the SLR Roadster offers exemplary balance. In case you were wondering what occupies the space in front of the engine under that priapic bonnet, there are a pair of carbon fibre cones fully two feet long that are designed to disintegrate in the event of a head on collision, thus dissipating the shock loading.
"Most buyers in this bracket want instant impact. This car delivers.."
The roof opens and closes semi-automatically in less than ten seconds and is offered in three colour finishes. Unclip the roof from the windscreen header rail and gently lift it and the electric motors will do the rest. The SLR always sported an exceptionally rigid chassis and this Roadster version is no exception, boasting a level of torsional rigidity that's beyond any other production drop top and is better than many esteemed sports coupes. It looks the part as well, the hood folding unobtrusively away, leaving a very sleek line.
Rather curiously, the most serious rival to the SLR McLaren Roadster comes from within the Mercedes-Benz stable. The SL65 AMG is only 5bhp shy of the Big Mac's power output and, given that traction rather than horsepower is going to be the limiting factor in most real world speed trials, is little slower. On paper there's about 0.7s in it to 60mph but given that the SL65 AMG is less than half the McLaren's price and is said to be eminently tuneable, if you're after the fastest Mercedes model around, I'd be tempted to take the SL to somewhere like Brabus, give them £50k and tell them to have a go at it. Of course, the downside is that your car will never stand out in a row of Ferraris and Lamborghinis, something that could never be said for the SLR McLaren Roadster.
It's extremely well equipped for such an extreme vehicle although some of the plastics finishes are a little, well, plasticky. Safety equipment includes carbon-fibre crash elements, steel-reinforced A-pillars and two fixed roll-over bars. The comprehensive specification also features adaptive airbags, knee and side airbags as well as seat belt tensioners and a tyre-pressure monitoring system. There are also leather-upholstered carbon-fibre bucket seats which can be individually adapted to the driver and front passenger by means of differently sized seat pads; dual-zone automatic air-conditioning; a BOSE premium sound system; a multifunction sport steering wheel with gear-change paddles, and a navigation system with integral radio and CD player.
When customers are in the privileged position of being able to spend over £300,000 on what is effectively a plaything, costs such as insurance and economy are rendered rather moot. A slightly more pressing concern is depreciation, but the tiny production capacity at McLaren's Woking factory will ensure that the market is never going be over saturated with SLR McLaren Roadsters. If anything, this convertible model should hold up better than the coupe as historical provenance is on its side and only a handful of very specialist cars such as the Pagani Zonda Roadster and the Spyker C8 Spyder can in any way compete.
Although some of the same issues that affected the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren coupe are exhibited in the Roadster (wooden feeling brakes, an interior that lacks a certain polish and an overall package that mixes the raw with the refined in often unexpected doses), the Roadster makes a more convincing case for itself. It brings all the excitement of the coupe version with an element of raffishness and insouciance that will have moneyed buyers queuing up for.
The drama of the beetle-wing doors, that 626bhp V8 - the automotive equivalent of Wagner's Gotterdammerung turned up to 11 - and the caricature profile all lend the SLR Roadster massive presence. Forget notions of performance, handling or roadholding. Most buyers in this bracket want instant impact. On that score the SLR Roadster scores a solid ten out of ten.
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