There aren’t many cars that made the kind of supercar-splash that the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren did when it was launched in 2003. So long in the bonnet – packed with a huge, supercharged V8 motor – and so wide and fat, and oozing carbon-fibre-cool; an SLR painted black would slot straight into a Batman movie without any modifications! A beast to behold, and a beast to drive…
I drove the scowling SLR back in the day of its first launch when they were probably the most desirable new supercar for any of the rich-listers. The cost was around £300,000 and big money was changing hands to get hands on one of the hand-built super-Mercs.
It was, and still is, an imposing car to behold. It looks like it’s all-engine, such is the length of the vented bonnet, and that would concern anyone that’s never driven a 617bhp, rear-wheel drive GT car before. And as the gull-wing driver’s door swung gently up and the rich red leather interior graced my nose and eyes with its wafting beauty, I have to admit I was more than a little nervous.
I settled into the driver’s seat and looked around at the sumptuous interior and closed the door behind me. This paradise of leather a carbon immediately reminded me – as if I needed it – that I was about to drive a very expensive car, and one that would surely swap ends on me like a deranged V8 dough-nutter, should I get too ham-footed with the loud pedal.
But I couldn’t even get it started. The SLR was one of the first car to have an engine-start button, and it was hidden under a nifty little flap on the gear shifter. It’s nifty if you know where it is, as it feels like a ‘fire’ button on a fighter jet’s control stick. But, for me, at this high-pressure moment, all I wanted was to twist an ignition key and get away from the staring eyes around me. Eventually, a friendly finger pointed it out, I thumbed it, and the V8 thumped into life.
The rest of the SLR’s operation procedure was pretty standard fare and familiar to me, so I put it in ‘drive’ and caressed the accelerator like it was made of the thinnest glass, and edged out into the city traffic.
I must admit that the official Mercedes-Benz test drive route, through busy city streets, felt wantonly dangerous at the time with its buzzing traffic and killer Transit vans, but the car was entirely insured, and for motoring journos, without an excess, so looking back I had little to worry about. But, at the time, I felt like an unarmed Roman Gladiator in the middle of the Colosseum, with a ring of murderous men closing in on me.
I drove on full alert, keeping a close eye on that so-long bonnet as said White Van Men seemed to want to swipe it off every other second. I let the SLR do the work in full auto mode and simply tickled the gas; warming myself and the car up.
As my confidence grew, so did my throttle inputs, and I soon worked out that if the SLR was straight and the huge rear tyres now nicely warm, that I could give it some go-go and all it would do is growl and fire forward.
And then the addiction started. I found some unrestricted roads outside of the city and let the beast off the leash even more. Slow it right down and then pound the accelerator, and the huge torque of a supercharged, 5.5-litre V8 becomes about as apparent as a nuclear gob-stopper. Instant tarmac-curling torque and the kind of howls, woofs and growls coming out of the side-exit exhaust that only the most miserable man on the planet couldn’t enjoy. This thing is incredibly fast!
In the end I gave the SLR more beans than I thought I ever would when I first sat in it, but I have to say that I’d only give it hell on a racetrack. And a racetrack with plenty of run-off. It’s a beautifully engineered car, but I always had the back-of-the-brain notion that to treat it with too little respect would see it bite me back, hard. An ‘off’ in an SLR will only ever be big!
I loved that car though. So much drama, theatre and aggression, and just so damn fast. Now that I’m ten years down the motoring line in car-life and car-career, I’d definitely like to revisit the snarling SLR. I wonder how they have faired on the used car market? Maybe they’ve depreciation dropped like a too-juicy stone? Erm, no, the cheapest one I’ve found so far is way over £200,000! The SLR might not be so unobtainable in terms of brutal performance any more, but it sure is on the pricetag!
By Dan Anslow