The 460 kW Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren won’t be sold in South Africa, but with its international launch in Cape Town recently, mere mortals had a brief brush with F1 superstardom and could ogle Stuttgart’s technological tour de force.

The 460 kW Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren won’t be sold in South Africa, but with its international launch in Cape Town recently, mere mortals had a brief brush with F1 superstardom and could ogle Stuttgart’s technological tour de force.


Mercedes-Benz’s entry into the supercar market, in partnership with McLaren Cars (which builds the SLR in the F1 team’s home town of Woking in England) has been four years in the making. And production of the hand-built two-seater was apparently delayed twice; first last year when it was pushed back from March to September, and in May this year after F1 kingpin Ron Dennis’ company reorganised McLaren Cars and its managing director, Andrew Walmsley, resigned.


But the SLR, which was penned by South African McLaren F1 designer Gordon Murray, duly made its début at the Frankfurt Show and has now officially been launched in the Western Cape. Ironically, a South African (even if he or she could fork out between the equivalent of R3,5 and R4 million) won’t be able to purchase an SLR because all 3 500 cars that will be built in Woking over the next seven years will be left-hand drive.


In the metal, the long, low-slung SLR is an intimidating sight. It’s an aggressively streamlined carbon fibre cocoon coupled with extruded aluminium frame rails, an F1-inspired arrow shaped nose and twin-fin spoiler. Then there’s a pair of twin exhausts exiting just behind the front wheels on either sides of the vehicle and the elegant scissor-shaped doors swivel seductively skywards with a push of a flap on the car’s shoulder.


The interior of the car is very snug and as can be expected, the seating position is low – very low. The cabin is two-tone and finished in swathes of unique Silver Arrow-design leather and aluminium trim. A starter button is located on the metal shift knob at the top of the gearshift lever. Apply slight pressure with your thumb, and the grid-style flap opens to provide access to the illuminated button.


The SLR has a multifunction steering wheel, which includes paddles to operate the five-speed automatic gearbox (which can be configured for different shift programs: "Manual", "Comfort" and "Sport"). There’s also a switch to operate the airbrake on the boot lid. From 95 km/h the airbrake extends to provide more downforce, and when slowing down it rises to a steep angle for optimum deceleration. State-of-the-art climate control and a high-powered hi-fi system are further creature comforts.


Mercedes-Benz wants to take on the Lamborghini Murciélago, Ferrari Enzo and Porsche Carrera GT with the SLR McLaren and in terms of baggage space – it wins hands down. The SLR has an exceptionally large boot with a capacity of 272 litres.


The coup de grace?


Under the contoured bonnet of the SLR lurks the heart of the beast – a supercharged 5,5-litre V8. That may sound like the same powertrain as fitted to the SL55 and E55 AMG models, but this mill is altogether unique and has been tuned at AMG’s Affalterbach-based test facilities to churn out 460 kW and 780 N.m of torque.


The engine compressor has two screw-type aluminium rotors that can achieve a top speed of 23 000 r/min, forcing air into the inlet of the powerplant at a maximum pressure of 0.9 bar. Mercedes-Benz engineers and McLaren’s Formula One experts designed the mid-engined SLR around this powerplant so that the SLR’s low centre of gravity would "make the Mercedes-Benz McLaren a spectacular handler," Murray said.


Tipping the scales at 1 764 kg, the SLR is claimed to accelerate from zero to 100 km/h in 3,8 seconds. Zero-to-200 km/h and zero-to-300 km/h times are 10,6 seconds and 28,8 seconds respectively.


Mercedes-Benz further says the SLR will reach 334 km/h. However, the company's officials say the top speed would only be achievable on a race track, because traffic volumes on German autobahns make it difficult for German drivers to exceed 250 km/h.


Massive ceramic discs, eight-pot calipers and an aerodynamic rear spoiler/airbrake help the supercar decelerate from 100 km/h to standstill in 2,6 seconds. And should the SLR’s momentum exceed the eighteen-inch Michelins’ grip capabilities, the SLR’s integrated sensotronic brake control and electronic stability programmes will intervene to help the driver regain control of his or her vehicle. Failing that, the high energy absorption characteristics of the carbon fibre composite body panels and combined, front-, side- and knee airbags offer occupant protection in the event of a smash.


The significance of the SLR for SA


Mercedes-Benz’s first supercar is not destined for the South African market, and many aficionados will instead have to wait for a right-hand drive version of the upcoming twin-turbo V12-powered CL65 or SL65 AMG models.


However, the SLR – particularly its front end – provides a strong clue to what the upcoming SLK (due in 2004 or early 2005) will look like, a Mercedes-Benz spokesman said. In the company of the SLR McLaren, Formula One has never seemed so close – but yet so utterly unreal – to the common man.