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Motoring: Mercedes Benz SLR gives you 600,000 reasons to smile

Nauman Farooq | Interrobang | Sports | August 29th, 2005

This is it folks, The Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR, the most expensive and outrageous Mercedes that you can buy. But exactly how outrageous is it?

Here is the thing, just a few weeks ago, I had a go in a SL55 AMG, which is supposedly a Ferrari and Porsche basher. It sure has the specs to strike fear in the hearts of other supercar owners, but my experience behind the wheel was rather disappointing. I found the car was too soft, the rear-end was not stable enough through tight corners, high speed jaunts were a floaty affair, and the traction control (when on) was a bit too intrusive.

All in all, it felt just like any other Mercedes, which is no bad thing, but nothing special either. So, if you can spend $180,000 on a sportscar, take my advice, buy yourself a Porsche 911 Turbo or a used Ferrari 360 and you'll be happier.

However, if you have about $600,000 to spend on a hypercar, your choices are a lot tastier (as they should be).

Walk into a Ferrari showroom, and you'd be tempted to go home in the SuperAmerica, the limited edition 575M with a unique rotating roof.

Walk into a Lamborghini showroom, and you'll be seduced by the awesome Murcielago Roadster. The open-topped version of the best Lambo ever made.

Walk into a Porsche showroom, and the mind-blowing Carrera GT is almost impossible to resist. Just make sure that you are an ace manual driver before buying one though, since the clutch travels about only four-inches, and the gearbox has such short throws, fifth feels like third gear.

Now, Mercedes has entered a car to do battle with the likes of the above mentioned hypercars, so how does the SLR stack up compared to the very stiff competition.

Well that is what I am here to find out, but before I tell you about how it drove, I would like to tell you how it came to be.

Mercedes-Benz, a manufacturer that prides itself in making the finest luxury cars, has a division that turns those same fine luxury cars and makes them faster. I am talking about AMG. However, while the engines are great, the cars are compromised due to their humble underpinnings.

So to fully utilize the performance potential that AMG can provide, Mercedes knocked on the door of the company that makes not only one of the best Formula-One cars on the grid (just look at the results of the last two F1 GP's), but also has the reputation for building the F1 supercar, the most iconic supercar of the last decade, and which also had the top speed record, until the Koenigsegg CCR came along.

So the result is a morphing of Mercedes comfort and convenience, AMG engine and transmission, and McLaren chassis, body and design layout. Thus the front-mid engined layout, the carbon fibre body and chassis, fibre reinforced ceramic brake discs and an active spoiler that activates under hard braking are all McLaren's ideas. And yes, just like the original F1 supercar, the project chief in the SLR program was Gordon Murray, a man who made his name in designing some of the most successful Formula-One racing cars of the 1980's.

The end result is on Mosport International Raceway for me to try out.

Actually, I had no idea I would have the privilege of try this car out on this day. I was at Mosport because I recently joined The Velocity Group, a company that caters to all your automotive entertainment. So if you want to drive your car, or the cars from the company's fleet on the race track, you can. Plus, if you want to rent some exotics to drive around in for a few days, they will provide that for you too.

On May 24, The Velocity Group was hosting a private event, to give on-track coaching to owners of some very exotic cars. So on the grid, there was a Porsche 911 Turbo, a Ferrari F355 Spider, a Ferrari 360 coupe, a very modified Subaru STi, and even a Maybach 57. The star car was undoubtedly the SLR, which looks truly menacing in its high-gloss black paint finish. Images of Darth Vader came to mind.

As the day went on, admiring the sight of the SLR on the track, listening to its wonderful exhaust, something happened out of the blue. The owner offered me to take him around the track for a few laps in the SLR. As you can imagine, I was seated in the car and adjusting my seating position even before he finished his sentence.

Press the flush button by the door to open the gull-wing doors, which have hydraulics so strong, they lift the doors up automatically. Getting in is a lot easier than I expected, since cars with unusual doors usually require the contortions of a ballerina (just try to gracefully enter and exit a Lamborghini Countach and you'll know what I mean.

Once in, you'll find the power seat has limited but very useful settings available for you. The backrest stays fixed, but you can raise or lower the seat, slide it and tilt it. Plus, with a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, finding the right driving position took no longer than 12 seconds, which is about the time this car takes to cover a quarter-mile from a dead stop.

Now, ignition time, turn the key to the on position, lift the little cover on top of the gear lever, and press the button that reads “Engine Start”.

Press that and the 5.5 litre, Super Charged V8 comes to life with an angry growl. This engine pumps out 626 hp and 575 lb/ft of torque. This is then mated to a five-speed automatic gearbox, which has SpeedShift manual shift modes, ala TipTronic. Now why does a hypercar have an automatic gearbox? Because AMG for some reason only makes cars with automatic gearboxes. Why a five-speed auto instead of six-speeds? Because this is the only transmission AMG has that can handle this much power.

So, I slide it into “D” and take off.

Instantly you get the feeling, this is not like any Mercedes or AMG I have ever come across before. The steering is very beefy, the turn in is very sharp, the brakes can stop you on a dime, and the acceleration is mind blowing.

My first lap was spent just learning how this car works, because it is so different to any car I have ever come across on this track. Mosport is a very tricky track, with hills, drops and off camber turns. But this SLR would just stick around corners like it was super glued to it. No matter what I did, it stayed very composed, pushing into understeer rather than oversteer.

Then my passenger, the owner of this car, pointed out the Sport mode, so quickly I put it into sport mode, and this transformed from a comfortable GT car to an endurance GT racer. The suspension tightened up, the throttle response gets much faster, and the experience just starts to get better and better.

On the back straight at Mosport, which is neither that long or an actual straight (since it has a slight turn in the middle of it), I saw 240 km/h. That is 26 km/h faster than I have done in any car here.

The reason behind it is simply the engine. The super charger winds up instantly and punches you forward with a power band that seems endless. On a long runway, the SLR will top out at 208mph (335 km/h), that not only makes it the fastest car Benz produced itself, but also with a 0-60 mph time of 3.7 seconds, it is also the quickest Benz too.

The speed is truly astonishing. When you press the accelerator, you feel it stopping at a certain point, but that is not the point where the pedal meets the floor. At that point, you press harder still, and it activates a switch behind the pedal, which must be the hyperspace button. Now that the pedal is totally floored, this car just eats up straights at eye popping speeds, all the while filling the cabin with the noise coming from those fabulous four exhaust pipes just aft the front wheels.

Even in sport mode, the handling never felt nervous, the car was always controllable, and an absolute hoot to drive.

I must say, this car surprised me, in the positive way. The reports I had read before had written it off against its competition, and while they were right about the brakes lacking total feel, and while the Carrera GT and the Murcielago are more extreme machines to drive, this is the only hyper grand touring car on the planet. So, a car that can cross continents like a Ferrari 612, yet plays ball with the likes of the Carrera GT on the race track, this truly is the best all-rounder I have come across.

Now for that CAN$600,000 to raise, I shall get on that right away.
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