A big car needs a big stage. And the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren Roadster is a very big car. It’s certainly got a big name, and it is currently making a very big noise. BRRrooaaAAAAAAR-yip! if I’m not mistaken.
Impressive though it is from within, I doubt the sound waves are having much effect on the Great Glen. It’s hard to tell at the moment, since it’s pitch black outside, but rocks that were formed before the continents existed aren’t likely to be that impressed by an SLR. I, on the other hand, might well be. I’ve driven the hardtop version once before, from Milton Keynes to Bruntingthorpe. It was frightening. Not at the airfield (even at 191mph), but on the roads around it, which just weren’t big enough to contain Merc’s hyper-coupe.
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That’s why, today, we’re here. ‘Here’ being Fort William, once an English stronghold used to control Scottish uprisings, now Scotland’s adventure sports capital, and always in the shadow of Ben Nevis, guarding the southern entrance to the Great Glen. This massive geological fault-line bisects the country, running north-east through lochs Linnhe, Lochy (love that one – they must have run short of names) and Ness before exiting into the North Sea at Inverness. Above this imposing natural boundary lie the North West Highlands, the area we’re aiming to investigate. If our expectations are met, maybe we can encourage you to come up here too – and if, as we hope, we find some proper supercar roads, we’ll also be able to determine just how good the SLR Roadster really is.
We’re 90 miles above Fort William by the time the sky starts to lighten. Pre-dawn driving up here poses some unique challenges. There are no street lights, no nearby towns to cause a glow on the horizon, just perfect darkness, pierced only by moon, stars and headlights. It’s not making bonding with the 617bhp Merc an easy task.
Despite those bellowing exhausts, the SLR doesn’t shout supercar at me. Partly this is down to the visual relationship between it and the SL, partly to the brand, which doesn’t have the magnetism of the Italians, but mainly to the SLR’s comfortable, familiar feel. I hadn’t expected that when I pressed the panel, watched the door slide silently upwards, wiggled awkwardly across the wide sill and dropped down onto a fixed-back, thinly leathered carbon seat.
That’s largely the theatrics over. Once inside you’re greeted by the steering wheel: high set, close enough to steer with your elbows. It can be moved (electrically, of course) but I rather like the Group C driving position as it adds an exotic dimension to an otherwise obvious layout. Drive a last-generation SL? You’ll have no difficulty with the trip computer, heating controls or switchgear, but the gearchange controls on the dash might throw you a bit. At the moment the flimsy plastic dial on the left is pointing at C for Comfort, but a click to the right brings M and one more takes you to S.
‘C’ is good right now as we sweep along the A87 past Eilean Donan castle. (You know the one – on a small island in a loch, linked to the shore by a causeway.) But we’re not bagging tourist trophies, so a right on the A890 and a left on the A896 bring us to our first investigation spot: the road to Applecross.
Bealach Na Ba (or, if you don’t want to fret over the pronunciation, the Pass of the Cattle) isn’t the highest road in Scotland, but the fact it climbs to 2053ft directly from loch level in just six miles does give it a certain something. Snow at the summit.
Driving up a 1-in-5-in-places, hairpin strewn, icy road does not feature highly on my list of sensible things to do in a £350,000 roadster with 295-width rear tyres, a two-metre-wide body and sensitive controls, so we leave it at the bottom (next to a sign advising learners, HGVs and caravans to go the long way round) and scout ahead in our Lexus IS-F long-termer.
Scottish gritters are obviously a highly efficient bunch, so 20 minutes later I’m twisting the header-rail latch on the SLR and dropping its roof. Wow. Not the electric mechanism, which is as simple as a Z4’s, but the view. Scotland is the same as any other mountainous region – if you can’t look up, you’re missing out. Even a pane of glass between you and the scenery brings a faintly unreal quality, making it hard to believe you’re actually there, interacting with the landscape, but there’s no escaping it when the roof is removed from the equation. The biting cold, the smells, noise and vulnerability are with you all the time. We’re particularly lucky today, because not only is it not raining, but the sun even puts in a brief appearance, finally clearing the tops of the mountains well to the south-east. It’ll set in the south west less than six hours later, having teetered along a few Munros but provided little in the way of heat.
As driving roads go, Bealach Na Ba isn’t epic – too narrow, too hairy – but the views are. Having twisted and turned over rising moors, leaving Loch Kishorn down on my left, I swing the SLR’s long, prowling snout right into a vast sculpted bowl. Its scale is so immense that I involuntarily hunch behind the wheel, very aware of just how microscopic even the mighty McLaren is here. The road climbs directly up the other side, and it’s there that I find photographer Gus doing some Gregory-an chanting: ‘Brilliant, amazing, brilliant, amazing.’ Safe to say he’s a happy snapper.
The snow is deceptive. It makes this hostile mountain-top appear calm and peaceful, even though the penetrating winds mean we spend every spare moment warming our hands over air vents. We don’t linger long.
Time to press on. Still not something I’m entirely happy doing in the Roadster. It’s got nothing to do with the cost of the car, but the uneasy, unsettled way the chassis goes about its business. Aside from a brief two-lane stretch along Upper Loch Torridon, the A896 is one-car wide and, as with almost all roads south of Ullapool, tracks the valley floor, following rivers and skirting ancient glacial moraine. These roads, which undulate and meander gently through awe-inspiring backdrops, aren’t the best surfaced and so prove a stern test of the SLR’s body control. The carbonfibre tub is massively stiff, so there’s no hint of scuttle shake, but the suspension is less settled. In fact the SLR is decidedly busy, an odd juxtaposition when the lochs we pass are so still.
The non-adjustable suspension is by wishbones front and back, but while the front is stiff, precise and pointy (the weighty steering is hyper-direct and blade-sharp), the relatively softly sprung rear has less poise and control. Doubtless this has been done to keep things predictable, maximising traction and minimising oversteer, but the effects are exacerbated by the front-mid-engined layout. This may be great for balance, especially on track, but it means the driver sits a long way back, almost on top of the rear suspension, the movement of which is consequently magnified. On the A896, I’m not enjoying it much. The SLR is trying hard to act and behave like a Caterham, but that’s hard when you weigh 1825kg. The fact is it feels and drives much more like a TVR and is similarly hard to trust, particularly as the traction control cuts in appallingly late…
Things improve dramatically at Kinlochewe, where we turn left to skirt Loch Maree. The wide, long valley runs straight to the sea and, with a whiff of salt air in its supercharged lungs, the SLR is off. Christ on a bike this thing is fast! It’s the first real chance I’ve had to give it the berries, so on the first long straight I slow down to 25mph, pull the left-hand paddle twice to shift down to third, then flatten the throttle.
There’s just enough time to gird your loins, a momentary delay while the engine boosts power to the supercharger, then the rear end squats and you sense the driveshafts take up the slack before successfully deploying all 575lb ft to a noise like a clan of gorillas beating their chests in time to ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’. Acceleration is the SLR’s party piece, and it’s tremendous, able to add 100mph in one long lunge in one single gear.
It needs a lot of road to do this, as the car’s nose has a propensity to wander slightly, but it’s under braking where you really need to take care. I have plenty of opportunity to discover this while Gus has me driving up and down for various photographic angles. The key problem is the floor-hinged brake pedal. As you press it, the arc it describes naturally lifts your heel off the floor, making it hard to modulate pressure. Combine that with dead travel and a tendency for the front end to snuffle across the tarmac as the tyres seek out a line of least resistance, and the brakes aren’t filling me with confidence. Not once on day one do I hit them hard enough for the airbrake rear spoiler to pop up.
As 3pm passes, the light changes, taking on a warmer, richer tint. Gus and I are near the coast and jabbering excitedly on the radios about the sunset that’ll soon be with us. It’s the coastal sections of this route that I’m enjoying most. There’s more variety to them. Yes, most of the views are made up of the same constituent parts – water, islands and mountains – but it’s the composition and combinations that make this such a startling landscape. The run down the side of Little Loch Broom on the A832 is particularly memorable. By now it’s almost dark, tiny twinkling lights at the end of the loch provide a sense of depth and definition, and the road, which starts high, drops down in one long rush, as if the scenery is trying to engulf you. Wouldn’t be the same in a hard-top…
HAVING STAYED the night in Ullapool we’re back on the A832 the following morning. We’d been promised rain, but instead we have totally clear skies and -7 degrees as we retrace our steps south along the high road towards the Dundonnell Forest. Thick frost makes the scenery look over-exposed, but the McMerc’s V8 is loving the bittersweet air, the supercharger yipping every time I lift off.
The A832 shows the SLR in its best light, providing the best platform for it to perform. The gleaming surface sweeps effortlessly through a backdrop of distant mountains, those side exhausts proudly trumpeting the car’s presence. Right now, the SLR feels pretty damn good. Is this the best road up here, though? Nope. The truth is that the further north you head, the better it gets.
We head back to Ullapool, but this time continue north, first to Ledmore, then past Loch Assynt. For a while, as the wind buffets my beanie and the SLR pummels the road, I try to come up with a single adjective that adequately describes this inspirational, aloof, ancient, tranquil, soaring, weather-beaten wilderness. Majestic is pretty apt.
We sweep from Skiag Bridge to Laxford Bridge, passing the startling concrete curve of the Kylesku Bridge along the way. Why so many bridges? Well, there’s a lot of water up here as we close in on Durness. A lot of water and some of the best sections of road I have ever had the privilege to drive on. The A894 is Britain’s best driving road.
And now, finally, I’m bonding with the SLR, trusting those carbon-ceramic brakes, getting the airbrake to flap up, at ease with the ultra-direct steering, ‘poppy’ rebound damping and the thunderous punch of third gear. Boy can it consume these roads quickly. And yet it still sends out confusing messages. Grand tourer? Emphatically not. Hardcore supercar? The soft-top says not, plus it’s happiest lolloping along at seven-tenths.
Maybe that’s what makes it so well suited to the Highlands. After all, you don’t come here to drive as if the ghost of William Wallace is chasing your sorry English arse. If you do, you’re missing the point, which is to relax, drink in the experience, stop occasionally, gawp at the scenery, feel the rhythm, enjoy the ride, be mesmerised. You must come here, you must do this. You don’t need an SLR Roadster to relish the experience (although admittedly it does help). Just prepare to be bewitched.
|Cylinder block||Aluminium alloy, dry sump|
|Cylinder head||Aluminium alloy, dohc per bank, three valves per cylinder|
|Max power||617bhp @ 6500rpm|
|Max torque||575lb ft @ 3250-5000rpm|
|Transmission||Five-speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip diff, ESP|
|Front suspension||Double wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-dive control, arb|
|Rear suspension||Double wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-dive control|
|Brakes||Carbon-ceramic discs, ventilated 370mm fr, solid 360mm rear, ABS, BA|
|Wheels||9 x 18in fr, 11.5 x 19in rear, al alloy|
|Tyres||255/35 ZR19 front, 295/30 ZR19 rear, Michelin Pilot Sport|
|Top speed||206mph (claimed)|