The sun is slowly sinking into the Atlantic Ocean, a fire in the sky matching the color of Lanzarote’s volcanic shores. My hair is blowing in the brisk breeze, even before I slip key into ignition, but perhaps that’s appropriate, for even parked on this craggy bluff, the Mercedes-Benz SLR seems a car in perpetual motion.
Busloads of tourists surround us, drawn more to the machine than the stunning scenery. But that’s been the case since Mercedes’ supercar debuted at the 1999 North American International Auto Show. Sleek, silver and wantonly sexy, the SLR coupe — and the roadster that followed a year later — bear the unmistakable stamp of Mercedes’ wildly successful Formula 1 race program. Coupe and roadster share a dramatic, knife-edged nose lifted almost whole from the Mercedes-powered McLaren F1 racer. The Silver Arrow has captured both Driver’s and Constructor’s Trophies for two years running.
The automaker’s goal is to take that heritage and technology and translate it into street form with an automobile only a few could ever imagine owning, never mind mastering. While production is still three years away, The Car Connection was given the rare opportunity to take the SLR roadster for a run down the winding shoreline roads of Lanzarote, the eastern-most spit of volcanic rock in the Canary Islands chain.
One doesn’t need to drive the SLR to fall in love with it. The double-winged front end is unmistakably F1, even without the open wheels. The entire vehicle flows like a scarf in the wind, delicate and yet impressively aggressively. Often, when a coupe is transformed into a roadster, there seems to be a compromise in character, as if the conversion was accomplished with a blunt instrument. Yet both SLR designs seem complete, if familial, with their own character, like confident, fraternal twins.
2002 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren
Popping open the roadster’s gullwing door — which are easy to lift, thanks to gas-pressure springs — we slip into the deeply contoured leather seat. Where some manufacturers attempt to capture a retro style, the SLR’s interior is lusciously high-tech, though certainly not cluttered in the manner of the Mercedes S-Class. There are two small, circular pods, both easily seen through the oval steering wheel, and each containing several gauges. There’s a pop-up CRT on the top of the center console, and a series of circular control clusters trailing down the console to a joystick-style shifter. Toggle the stick up to go into gear, down for neutral, left or right for park and reverse. We expect to see steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, much like you’ll find on Mercedes-McLaren Formula One cars, once the SLR goes into production in 2003.
The SLR comes to life
Firing up the engine, we nudge the lever into drive, a big "D" popping into view in the right gauge pod. But before we take our foot off the brake, our Mercedes co-pilot, in his thick German accent, suggests we be gentle on the throttle and sparing on the brakes. It is not a request. Despite the police escort that has been lined up to sweep the roads ahead of us, the waterfront roads of Lanzarote are not designed for high-speed testing. And, after all, this is a handmade prototype originally built for the stage, not the street.
2002 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren
We slip out of the parking lot and, with our motorcycle escort leading the way, shoot down the narrow, winding road, a sliver of tarmac sliced into the tortured, other-worldly lava fields. Even with its unrefined, prototype suspension, the SLR maneuvers with aplomb, though it takes a moment to adjust to the odd wheel shape — and the tight and slightly twitchy steering. As we reach our turnaround point, we barely tap the brake pedal, but the big Brembos grab without hesitation, firmly bringing us to a halt. The return trip goes all too quickly, racing past curious onlookers fixated by the arrow-shaped SLR.
Just how much does the SLR we’ve driven reflect what will roll off the assembly line? Quite a bit, we’re told, though for the moment, at least, production plans are limited to the coupe. But with all the attention the roadster is winning, we wouldn’t bet against its addition to the lineup. We’d expect to see minor changes in the interior. It was, after all, designed to delight auto show crowds. For production, it needs to match the needs of its driver. Exterior design will pose a challenge to bring the SLR’s front end into compliance with global crash standards. But company insiders seem confident they can remain true to the concept car’s form, with the distinctive F1 double wings.
Plans call for Mercedes to supply the supercharged V-8, with its supercharger and water-based charge air cooler, as well as the transmission and safety gear. McLaren will supply most of the rest of the components, then assemble the SLR at a plant in Woking, England. "This is the first time for this approach," notes David Larsen, the Mercedes-Benz specialist who’ll oversee U.S. marketing and distribution of the SLR. The two carmakers intend to invest about $200 million in the project.
With bodywork of carbon fiber and other exotic, lightweight materials, look for a curb weight of under 3100 lb. With all that power, this will be one fast car, with 0-60 times likely to be well under four seconds and top speeds approaching the 200-mph mark. Mercedes has made no bones about its goal of producing the world’s fastest production car.
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