It’s always been easier to poke fun at the Mercedes SLR McLaren than it has been to take it seriously. Somehow, the implications that Paris Hilton owned one briefly (before handing it back, no doubt complaining it was too hard to modulate the throttle during full-on 600-horsepower drifts wearing five-inch stilettos) stick more tenaciously to the SLR’s reputation as the David Hasselhoff of supercars than whatever credibility may have been generated by F1 champ Fernando Alonso’s rather longer tenure. How it ended up as an object of mild ridicule associated with desperate, attention-seeking celebrities rather than a serious sequel to the phenomenal McLaren F1 is a long and painful story Gordon Murray – captain and opening bat for McLaren at the beginning of the project – would probably rather forget. Suffice to say, it wasn’t the car he envisaged. Well, it ended up weighing 1618kg, after all… Around 1000 people didn’t agree with Murray, though, and handed over the requisite £300,000 in return for the most priapically proportioned vehicle in history, a car with a bonnet so long in relation to its overall length some wondered if it would be able to pull out of T-junctions without someone standing in the road to guide it. They became part of what Mercedes calls the SLR Club. And it seems that some members who’ve placed their orders for this, the Roadster, have a serious, some might say unfathomable, collecting habit, as they already own a coupe and a 722. The reason for the long bonnet wasn’t that it had a preposterously long engine – Murray’s dream of a V12 was canned early on in favour of a supercharged 5.5-litre V8 mated to a five-speed auto – but a preposterously powerful one (617bhp, 575lb ft of torque), sitting way back in the chassis, comfortably behind the axle line. And, of course, the production car remained slavishly true to the extraordinarily dramatic Vision SLR concept of 1999, lousy aerodynamics included. As the SLR’s mighty motor was quite capable of pushing it through the air at over 200mph, this necessitated quite a bit of ‘correction’, some of it out of view (the flat underbody) and some of it not (the rear diffuser and ‘air brake’-style active rear wing). It all added to the impression of F1-derived engineering for the road and, to be fair, McLaren’s contribution was a defining one, the hugely rigid carbon tub being perhaps the most significant of the technologies adapted from its F1 expertise and, indeed, the F1 road car. Modified for the soft top, the exceptional core rigidity it offers is claimed to be unchanged from the coupe’s. It makes the SLR Roadster, unveiled at Geneva in March and now in production at an eye-watering £350,000, a more enticing prospect than its coupe cousin, promising to kill stone dead even the subtle scuttle wobbles that afflict the mainstream Merc SL65 and in so doing putting some clear blue water between itself and a car that, on paper, all but matches its straight line pace for less than half the price. The SLR Roadster also effectively ends the career of the coupe, not least, Mercedes says, because the two models can’t be manufactured at the same time. To our eyes, the roadster version of the Vision concept always looked the more appealing, it was only ever a question of when it would be made. Mercedes says it went with coupe first, in 2003, to strengthen the association with GT race cars. But, from a visual standpoint at least, it’s hard to imagine that those who’ve held off for the roadster will be disappointed. With the powered fabric hood stowed neatly in the space behind the seats, it’s a fabulous looking thing, far less cartoonish than the coupe but still a fireball of presence with its dragster overtones and stubby, side-firing exhausts snorting shockwaves of infrabass venom. Pure theatre. It looks a damn sight better than the coupe with the hood in place, too, though the fact that it has to be manually latched and locked with a high-torque twist of the wrist – a paltry saving of 6kg over an auto-latching mechanism, apparently – is a shocker. Don’t expect Paris Hilton back any time soon, Mercedes. The SLR’s signature scissor doors that swing out and up on massive hydraulic struts – a kick every time – give easy access to a cabin space that checks in somewhere between cosy and cramped and buts right up against the rear wheelarches. The carbon bucket seats’ backrests are fixed, so you tend to sit a little more upright and closer to the wheel than you would in, say, an SL, though it’s actually very comfortable and not at all at odds with a car that, deliberately or not, is shot through with the charisma of an old school American hot rod. Once behind the wheel, the wows and woes come in about equal measure. Best bits are the instruments, the seats, the sparing use of carbon trim and the look and feel of leather that has clearly come from cows hooked on anti-ageing products. Rather less inspiring is the amount of cheap-looking plastic and the embarrassingly large and shiny SLR badge on the flap that hides the stereo. Then again, everything considered, this probably isn’t a car for shrinking violets or people of a sensitive (or, indeed, cynical) disposition. Snigger, if you want, at the starting protocol that involves flicking open a slatted cover on top of the shift lever and prodding the start button – circled with red alert lighting – beneath. But what happens next isn’t funny. You’ve just ignited arguably the baddest-sounding production engine on the planet. OK, peak power is 383bhp shy of a Veyron’s 1000, but the SLR sounds as if it’s got 2000. It isn’t a pretty sound - not much sense of pitch, little in the way of harmonics. Just industrially generated thunder overlaid with the most monumental supercharger whine, the sort of disturbing multi-track soundtrack noise director David Lynch might concoct to induce a mild state of panic in a cinema audience. And the menace carried in the sonic message is entirely justified on the road. The SLR Roadster weighs just 57kg more than the coupe, so its performance is almost identically mental. 0-62mph in 3.8sec, 0-124mph in 10.9sec, 207mph flat out (with the roof up). And, just like the SLR coupe, this is what the Roadster is best at: covering the distance between one corner and the next like a striking cobra covers the distance between itself and lunch. In the crudest sense, it is a phenomenally rapid piece of kit. The fact that its auto ’box, which it shares with the Maybach, has just five widely spaced ratios seems almost an irrelevance. You never have to wonder what gear might be best for the next overtake – any gear will do. Kickdown, quickened in Sport mode, adds a little more aural Armageddon and a surfeit of shove to the mix, and paddle-shifting allows you to chop up the noise and accelerative forces to taste, rather like Lynch at a mixing desk. That said, this is probably the greatest turn-on, strap-up, smile-to-admirers, squeeze ‘n’ go car on sale. And despite the seemingly ingrained SLR problems – awful brake feel, dead-yet-darty steering and spine-drilling ride (on our car’s optional 19in rims at any rate) – it’s a much more likable steer than the coupe. The rigidity of the bodyshell isn’t just palpably better that the SL’s, it’s hard to think of another chop-top that even comes close. And the management of wind in the cabin at speed is excellent. For all its foibles, driving the car is an event that lingers in your emotions hours after you’ve switched off. After all, Hasselhoff isn’t such a bad role model. The only real difference is he’s an American who’s big in Germany. With the McMerc, it’s the other way round.
|Engine||V8, 5439cc, supercharger|
|Max power||617bhp @ 6500rpm|
|Max torque||575lb ft @ 3250-5000rpm|
|Top speed||206mph (claimed)|