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Show, Part III by Ian Norris (9/15/2003)
Lambo goes racing, the SLR breaks cover, and Audi gets mileage from Le Mans.
You’d think they had never seen an SLR before. Come to think of it, they haven’t. And except for the prototype put on display at this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show, neither had we. To get a closer look — and some time behind the wheel — TheCarConnection spent the better part of two days traveling to South Africa.
Going from concept to production has been no mean feat, especially in light of the SLR’s heritage. The designation dates back to the race cars of the ’50s, as well as the 1955 300SLR “Uhlenhaut Coupe.” The show car was strongly influenced by Mercedes’ modern Formula Silver Arrow racecar. That meant the production SLR would have to utilize cutting-edge materials and deliver world-class performance.
Of course, it helps to have an ally like McLaren, which has long been one of the dominant players in the global motor sports circuit. So in early 1990, the partners divided up duties and set to work. McLaren was assigned the challenge of transforming the concept vehicle into production form, along with developing the vehicle’s chassis and suspension. It also produces the so-called “body-in-white” at a new assembly plant near its headquarters in the U.K.
Mercedes took on what was left, including exterior and interior styling, powertrain development, brakes, and safety technology. The German automaker also invested 200 million Euros. Actually, that number is a bit misleading, since Mercedes holds a 40-percent stake in McLaren, which reportedly put up millions more of its own.
That might not sound like much in an industry where even a mundane sedan can rack up a billion-dollar price tag. But during an anticipated run, Mercedes and McLaren plan to produce just 3500 SLRs. Not annually, but 3500 total, at $400,000 a pop. Yet according to Dr. Jans-Joachim Schopf, the man in charge of development and engineering, Mercedes has already rung up enough advance orders to cover more than two years of production with little more to go on than the show car and a few promises.
Let’s face it, when you’re spending this kind of money, you want more than just a fast car. It has to look exotic, and grab attention wherever it goes. There’ve been some changes in the production SLR’s dimensions. The nose and tail have been tweaked a bit. But it’s still got the same, long-nosed profile and sci-fi gullwing doors. Overall, the production SLR is just as striking as the show car, turning heads constantly.
Unlike such supercars as the Ferrari Enzo and Lamborghini Murcielago, the SLR follows the form of a classic GT, down to the front-mid engine layout. That’s going to keep high-performance aficionados arguing for years to come. As for Mercedes and McLaren, they insist they’ve matched the performance of classic, rear-engine supercar designs, in part due to the SLR’s track-influenced chassis.
The monococque consists of three basic components, a front crash structure, an engine cradle and passenger compartment. The cradle is aluminum. All the other chassis parts, as well as the body, are made of incredibly stiff carbon fiber. Using new production methods, there are just 70 parts to the chassis, which weighs in at less than 700 pounds.
In a vehicle of just 3734 pounds, the effect is like being launched from the catapult of an aircraft carrier. Step into the throttle and you’re thrust deep into the one-piece carbon fiber driver’s seat. There’s plenty of sound and fury; Mercedes engineers have put some effort into tuning the sound of the big V-8, though they haven’t completely masked that strangely unsettling blower gear whine.
The engine is mated to a beefed-up version of the Mercedes five-speed automatic transmission. The six-speed simply couldn’t handle all that torque. While the thought of an automatic in a supercar might seem the ultimate oxymoron, we found little to complain about. In sport mode, shifts are quick, precise and quite intuitive. There’s a comfort setting as well as a manual mode, the latter offering three settings that alter the abruptness of shifts. In manual, you toggle the transmission with well-placed buttons on the backside of the steering wheel — or with the gearshift lever.
While we haven’t had the opportunity to confirm the factory numbers, Mercedes claims 0–100 km/h (0–62.5 mph) of 3.8 seconds. Even more impressive, the SLR will launch from 0–200 km/h (0–125 mph) in just 10.1 seconds. Top speed is 334 km/h, or about 208 mph.
Cape of good performance
Speed isn’t the only thing that matters, of course. The composite chassis was as stiff as promised. Though, at times, it actually proved a bit too stiff. On a smooth surface, the SLR seemed almost glued to the road, tracking absolutely on-center. Steering was precise and smooth and, until we neared 140 mph or so, confidence inspiring. Above that speed, it tended to get a bit light, requiring lots of little corrections.
Descending through the narrow, twisty pass towards the quaint wine country town of Franschoek, the SLR negotiated the tightest switchbacks with uncanny skill — except when the road surface got rough. There the carbon fiber chassis and race-tuned suspension could conspire against you, though it wasn’t particularly difficult to bring the car back on track.
Mercedes planners anticipate a number of SLR owners will be taking their car out onto the track. Perhaps, but for those who simply want to test its mettle on the street, the suspension could prove a bit difficult to handle. It’s great on smooth pavement, but would likely shock one into numbness after an hour on the potholed roads of Detroit.
Company officials say they’re considering the idea of offering an optional electronic suspension, but that likely wouldn’t show up in production for at least the first two years. Nor would such other niceties as the Mercedes Parktronic system, which would alert you when you’re about to crunch the long, sloping nose into the back wall of your garage.
When you’re going racing, weight matters as much as raw horsepower, and Mercedes doesn’t want to handicap any driver going up against the likes of the Enzo or Porsche’s new Carrera GT. That means a minimum of sound-deadening insulation. You’ll hear every grunt and roar of the engine, the rumble of a rough road surface and a surprising amount of wind noise.
Call it the supercar irony. The more you pay, the more you give up to the effort to maximize performance. In the old days, some supercar interiors were as unrefined as a Yugo, and they weren’t much more drivable. Mercedes intended to make the SLR a “daily driver.” Indeed, if you don’t mind the noise and the awkward way you have to slide over the wide door sill and tumble into your seat, it’s quite possible to use the car all the time. There’s even a trunk large enough — with 9.6 cubic feet of space — for the weekly family groceries — if you’re planning to cook at home and save some money so you can meet your monthly payments.
With a car like this, however, we’ll overlook the complete lack of cupholders.
One of the more striking visual features of the SLR is the big, deck-mounted flap. It serves double duty, first as a spoiler providing downforce at high speeds. Then, when you need to stop in a hurry, it pops all the way up to act as an air brake. And if the SLR launches like it was shot off an aircraft carrier, it stops like a jet grabbing a carrier’s arrest hook. In terms of stopping power, the carbon fiber–reinforced ceramic brakes are a work of wonder, weighing half as much as steel discs, while developing 1.3 g of stopping force.
But they are also the source of our biggest frustration. The floor-mounted pedal takes a surprising amount of force to engage. There’s a noticeable amount of dead space and it’s difficult to modulate. SWLR Project Manager Christian Fruh admits it’s the most common source of complaint, but insists that’s the price to pay for the SLR’s high-tech brake-by-wire technology, which can do such things as adjust brake force, wheel-by-wheel, in a corner. Think of it as another one of those supercar ironies.
So, when you add it all up, the power and performance, the compromises and idiosyncrasies, does it work out to $400,000? We have to admit that number is well beyond the budget for any member of TheCarConnection. Among those who can afford the likes of the SLR, Enzo, and Carrera GT, the new Mercedes/McLaren effort is more than a bit controversial. But there’s no questioning the sales numbers. Nor the crowd-pleasing power of its exotic design. Even if you won’t take it on the track, you’re going to score big simply parking the SLR out front at a nightclub.
Baboons might not take notice. Everyone else will.
2005 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren
Base price: $400,000 (U.S. est.)
Engine: Supercharged 5.4-liter V-8, 617 hp/575 lb-ft
Transmission: Electronic five-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifts for manual mode, rear-wheel drive
Length by width x height: 183.3 x 75.1 x 49.5 in
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Curb weight: 3734 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 10/22 (prelim., based on European driving cycle)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, knee bags, dual head/thorax side airbags, load-limiting seatbelts with pretensioners, ABS, traction control, stability control, BabySmart system for passenger seat, composite front crush system and carbon-fiber passenger compartment safety cell
Major standard equipment: Electric seats, navigation system, leather, aluminum and carbon fiber interior, premium audio system with CD changer, xenon headlamps, LED taillamps
Warranty: Three years/unlimited miles