First Drive: 2004 Mercedes Benz SLR mercedes benz first drives
Photo: Tony Whitney. Click image to enlarge

by Tony Whitney

As most enthusiasts know by now, the SLR was built almost without regard to cost using carbon fibre for the bodywork. A cooperative effort between Mercedes-Benz and the folks at McLaren who run the West McLaren Mercedes Formula One team, the car was conceived as a modern-day version of the awesome SLR sports racing cars of the mid 1950s. Mercedes calls it “a grand turismo for the 21st century” although some of us at the launch thought “race car for the road” might be a better description.

First Drive: 2004 Mercedes Benz SLR mercedes benz first drives
The author with the SLR McLaren. Click image to enlarge

This a stunning-looking car by any standards and it would probably upstage a Ferrari Enzo or Lamborghini Murcielago if placed alongside. It’s a long time since I drove a car that drew quite as much attention from fellow road-users as the SLR. Many of the styling cues harken back to the 50s SLR era, while the nose has a hint of Formula One racer about it. The doors swing upwards at the touch of a latch on the sill, but dragging them down again proved more of a chore. Some of us in Cape Town thought power doors would have been a good idea, but maybe there are technical barriers to that.

When I first climbed into the car, I felt for sure I’d crack my head sooner or later getting in and out, but I never did, as it happened. Over the two days I drove the car around the beautiful Cape Peninsular, I developed a kind of “SLR crouch” to get in and out – something owners will no doubt adopt too. The trunk is fairly roomy in this front engine, rear wheel drive two seater, but interior oddment space in the cockpit is not great.

First Drive: 2004 Mercedes Benz SLR mercedes benz first drives

First Drive: 2004 Mercedes Benz SLR mercedes benz first drives
Photos: Tony Whitney. Click image to enlarge

Of course, one of the big stories with this car is its carbon fibre bodywork. Carbon fibre has been used for some years in the aerospace sector – even for structurally critical military aircraft components. The material is also used for rudder units and wing flaps on several passenger aircraft. Use of the material has grown widely in the field of performance bicycles and most road or mountain bikes nowadays use at least a few carbon fibre components. According to Mercedes-Benz, carbon fibre offers the strength of steel or aluminum, but is generally 50 per cent lighter. The SLR features a carbon fibre monocoque or, as Mercedes puts it, “passenger cell.” Since carbon fibre has very good energy absorption, the vehicle structure is highly crash-proof. The engine is mounted to the front of the main body structure using huge aluminum castings bolted to the carbon fibre “firewall” area. Ahead of the engine are a pair of conical carbon fibre elements combined with the structure to absorb a frontal collision and provide maximum passenger protection.

According to Mercedes-Benz, the SLR is the world’s first series-production car to have a front crash structure manufactured entirely from carbon fibre. Right now, it’s very expensive indeed to build a carbon fibre car body, but implications for future passenger vehicles made from this material are clear to see. Incidentally, even the seat shells on this car are fabricated from carbon fibre and these have adaptable bolsters for people of differing girth.

Perhaps the best indication of things to come for more mundane cars is the SLR’s use of SMC, or sheet moulded carbon. The wide panel just below the rear window, which extends to form the trunk lip, is moulded from SMC. It doesn’t have the look of carbon fibre with its ribbons of material showing through the transparent epoxy-like binder, but it’s just as light and strong. One engineer connected with the project hinted to me that Mercedes-Benz would not get involved in a supercar selling for several hundred thousand dollars and set for very limited production without regarding it as a testbed for less expensive volume production models. The SLR weighs 30 per cent less than a comparable steel car and this makes a big contribution to performance.

First Drive: 2004 Mercedes Benz SLR mercedes benz first drives

First Drive: 2004 Mercedes Benz SLR mercedes benz first drives

First Drive: 2004 Mercedes Benz SLR mercedes benz first drives

First Drive: 2004 Mercedes Benz SLR mercedes benz first drives

First Drive: 2004 Mercedes Benz SLR mercedes benz first drives
Photos: DaimlerChrysler. Click image to enlarge

SLR power comes from an AMG developed supercharged 5.5-litre V-8 developing an awesome 626-horsepower and mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission with semi-manual mode using steering wheel buttons. It uses dry sump lubrication and despite its raw power, it meets new European emission rules which come into place for 2005. Acceleration from zero to 100 km/h is given as 3.8-seconds and the top speed is 334 km/h. Even on South Africa’s excellent backroads, we were able to top 260 km/h before the rippled surface induced a mild feeling of instability. There’s no doubt that we’d have been well over 300 km/h on a smoother Autobahn with no traffic around.

Mid-range torque is astonishing and the car takes off with neck-snapping response. The power comes on in waves and there seems to be no stopping the beast – until you resort to the huge Brembo brakes with ceramic (carbon composite) discs. Incidentally, there’s an air brake that pops out of the rear deck under hard braking – it was fun to see it slide into place when you jammed the anchors on with a bit of verve. It really seems to help the normal brakes when you want to scrub off speed quickly. Vintage car buffs will remember that many of the SLRs of the fifties used a big air brake at the rear of the car to provide a bit of help for the huge drum brakes used back then. Interestingly, this wing doubles as a spoiler too, adding downforce at speeds over 95 km/h. The new SLR also boasts side exit exhaust pipes – two on each side – just like the classic models.

The SLR is more of a race car for the road than a mild mannered tourer. Any amount of throttle brings on an angry growl and the car is quite noisy at high speeds. “Teutonic Viper” was the term some of the attending scribes were using – perhaps unkindly. Mercedes told us that there was still work to be done on the brakes, which functioned superbly at high speeds, but were less happy around town. They need more driver-friendly modulation and there’s a squeal to be dealt with too. Generally speaking, this car gets better and better the faster you go and would probably give a good account of itself in a top class endurance race “right out of the box.”

Handling is similarly superb and the car goes right where it’s pointed almost regardless of speed. Suspension is by double wishbone front and rear using massive aluminum castings. The steering is a tad on the heavy side at anything less than higher speeds, but enthusiasts will prefer this to overly light steering. The car is equipped with Mercedes’ Sensotronic Brake control (SBC) and Electronic Stability Program (ESP) and this was put to the test to some extent when we ran into rain showers near the Cape of Good Hope. With more than 600 horsepower on tap, though, one tends to drive with a very gentle right foot in the rain. The car was very poised and predictable on the Cape’s winding mountain roads and the brakes really got the job done when the odd baboon jumped out in front of us.

On the road, the SLR proved to be the most exciting car I’d ever driven – and I’ve piloted my share of Ferraris and Lamborghinis. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you pass a level of experience, the car is tremendously rewarding under any conditions.

Obviously, it would take a very experienced race car driver to explore the outer limits of a car like this and we had an opportunity of sitting alongside one for a few laps of the Kyalami Grand Prix circuit near Johannesburg. Regardless of lap times, the brakes never lost any degree of effectiveness and the car could be driven into corners at almost frightening speeds.

First Drive: 2004 Mercedes Benz SLR mercedes benz first drives
Click image to enlarge

Clearly, this is one of the most desirable sports cars to come along in years. It has truly outstanding styling, astonishing performance on every front and one of the most reliable badges in the industry gracing its nose. Without doubt, this will be a very expensive car when Canadian prices are announced. The figure being bandied around in South Africa was 350,000 euros. Even at that price, there are reputed to be 70 firm orders on the books in Canada alone. Order one now and expect to wait at least three years for this very limited production supercar.

As for South Africa, I can only say that I’ve never travelled among friendlier people at every level of society. It’s a wonderful country to visit even if you don’t have a Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren to tool around in.

Connect with Autos.ca