You don't just show up in a Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren; it sort of presents itself, like George Hamilton, with an unspoken "Ta daa!"
So when we presented ourselves in a Kmart parking lot, pressed the buttons so the doors floated up on their hinges like a butterfly's wings and finally emerged, onlookers were disappointed. We should have been famous, or at least familiar in the way you recognize that enthusiastic guy from the Appliance Direct commercials. We were neither. Just two guys who had somehow gotten the keys to a $465,650 car.
The SLR McLaren -- McLaren is Mercedes-Benz's partner in Formula 1 racing and that company actually assembles the car in England -- is a piece of rolling sculpture. It exists for no reason other than for Mercedes to say, "Look what we can do." Much of the body and chassis is built from carbon fiber, like a Formula 1 race car. The engine is a 5.5-liter V-8 with a supercharger and twin intercoolers that pumps out a heady 617 horsepower. Top speed is limited to 207 mph. It can go faster, but Mercedes thought 207 mph was enough to, say, be able to merge into lunar traffic in front of the Jetsons.
Base price of the 2006 SLR is a flat $450,000, and believe it or not, there are options. The "Silver Arrow 300SL Red Leather" upholstery, named for the car's spiritual ancestor, the 300SL, costs an extra $9,900. Every SLR I've seen has that upholstery, as it's difficult to imagine a customer who says, "Sure, $450,000 is fine, but no way can I afford the leather." It's likely SLR customers just have their personal assistants hand the salesperson a bank draft to fill out.
Not surprisingly, SLR customers must pay a $3,000 federal "gas guzzler tax," thanks to the EPA-rated 13 mpg city driving, 17 mpg on the highway. That's on premium, of course, or whatever is beyond premium. Destination and delivery add $2,750, as apparently the SLR is flown from the factory in first class.
In terms of price, this is rarefied air; no current Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin or Maserati comes close. Porsche has the Carrera GT, a 605-horsepower sports car with a V-10, for about the same price as an SLR, and there are hand-built specialty cars such as the Saleen S7 in that well-heeled neighborhood. But with an SLR, you have the reassurance that you can actually drive one every day and not worry about it breaking down. Sort of an Everyman's car for the conservative billionaire. There's even a decent-sized trunk with 10 cubic feet of space, plenty for a set of golf clubs.
Really, that's the biggest surprise with the SLR, and with all of the Mercedes models that have been massaged by AMG, the Mercedes in-house hot-rod shop: The cars, though blisteringly fast, seem content to putter along in rush hour traffic or handle carpool duty, should your carpool group consist of no more than one person. The SLR is particularly driver-friendly. Mercedes sees no need in surrounding the driver with enough gauges and switches and dials to intimidate a Learjet pilot. You just sit down, and it feels like a regular car.
That sensation changes when you start the SLR. The V-8 engine, though quieted through odd side exhaust pipes and vertical mufflers, still has enough aural presence to let you know it has capabilities. Slip it in gear -- the transmission is a five-speed automatic, because it's the only transmission the company has that can handle the engine's 575 pound-feet of torque -- and you're away.
There are two ways to enjoy an SLR: Drive it and look at it. It's a shame you can't do both at the same time.
On the road, the SLR's ride, though undeniably firm, is never uncomfortable. Grippy Michelin tires -- P255/35ZR-19 up front, and P295/30ZR-19 in the rear -- are designed specifically for the car, and they do their part. So do the electronic nannies, such as electronic stability control, which are there to save you from yourself. Brakes, using enormous ceramic composite discs, are phenomenal. One of the few complaints we have heard about the SLR is that the brakes squeal, but they didn't on the test car. Seats, made from leather-covered carbon fiber, are excellent.
With the supercharger, power is instantaneous. From a standing start, Road & Track magazine's test indicates that you can hit 100 mph in 7.5 seconds. That feels about right.
The SLR's styling seems polarizing: I like the long-hood, short-rear-deck design, but I'll admit the profile is a little busy. The engine is mounted quite far back in the car, thus achieving weight distribution of 49 percent of the weight on the front axles, 51 percent on the rear. A balance of 50/50 is ideal, and this comes awfully close.
Mercedes plans a total run of 3,500 SLRs during a seven-year period, so exclusivity is guaranteed. Really, that's the only way you can justify the price: The all-new 2007 Ferrari 599 Fiorano with a V-12 engine will do most anything the SLR will do, and it costs about $200,000 less. It's odd discussing a Ferrari as though it's a low-cost, value-minded substitute, but in this case, it's appropriate.
But when you're talking about any vehicle more than $50,000, really, it's all academic -- if you want it, and can afford it, buy it. Look for ways to explain your decision later.
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith can be reached at 407-420-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the list price of $465,650, you get...
A 5.5-liter, 617-horsepower supercharged V-8.
Front, head, knee and thorax air bags.
Carbon-fiber bucket seats.
Ceramic disc brakes.
A $3,000 gas-guzzler tax.
But you don't get...
A CB radio.
A gun rack.
A back seat.
Zero percent financing.