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A half-million-dollar car bids farewell

There aren't many SLR McLarens trolling around Toronto. "Very few," says the guy from Mercedes-Benz. "They're not like Ferraris or Aston-Martins."

Published August 7, 2009
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There aren't many SLR McLarens trolling around Toronto. "Very few," says the guy from Mercedes-Benz. "They're not like Ferraris or Aston-Martins."

PHOTOS: A-door-able cars

What he's trying to suggest is that the half-million-dollar Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren is super-exclusive – a true collector's piece. Now that it's no longer made, he may have a point. The problem is that when it was being built, from 2003 right up until this summer for a planned production run of seven years, not enough people wanted to buy it. Why not?

It's a lovely car, for sure. While I was sitting in traffic on Spadina Ave. last week, a clean-cut, middle-aged man felt the need to walk across a lane of cars to lean into the top-down roadster I was driving and offer a compliment. "That's a beautiful car, a beautiful car," he said, before turning back to the sidewalk without a backward glance.

Of course, it's more than just beautiful. Automakers all like to have something truly special in their lineup, even if it is outrageously expensive or limited in numbers, so that buyers of their lower-priced vehicles can feel related to such an aspirational product. Because it sits at the very top of the line, it's known as a "halo" car.

Since the SLR is more than twice the price of the next most costly Benz, it easily assumes that crown for Mercedes.

The SLR is big, at more than four-and-a-half metres long. Close to a metre of that is unseen by the low-slung driver; it is not a car that should be driven nose-first against a parking curb.

The long hood needs to accommodate the 5.5-litre V8 engine that sits entirely behind the front axle – an arrangement intended to provide a slight rear weight bias for more predictable handling.

And yes, it's low. When I sat in the thin, moulded driver's seat, my pants seemed to skim the ground. At six-feet tall, my eye level was just a metre above the asphalt, which, to be clear about this, is less than the height of an 18-wheeler's tires. It's just as well the car compensates for many things with more than 620 hp.

When it was introduced as a 2003 production car, Mercedes announced plans to sell 500 a year. But it's fallen far short, selling perhaps half that. The hard-riding coupe was discontinued in 2007 and replaced with a more powerful (and expensive) "722" version, which sold out its limited run of 150. The 650 hp car is named after the 300SLR, Number 722, with which Stirling Moss won the 1955 Mille Miglia rally.

More to the point, the topless roadster, which Mercedes said would never be made, was brought out in 2007 to replace the regular coupe. It weighs about 60 kg more and has been selling fairly well to the wealthy Californians who live more for appearance than track times.

But the convertible I drove last week was discontinued early this summer, replaced by a super-limited run of 75 "Stirling Moss" specials – twice the cost and more than 100 kg lighter than the 722, thanks to a lack of air-conditioning, roof, and even a windscreen. You'll need goggles. Talk about a car for purists.

So where does this leave the run-of-the-mill SLR McLaren? Out to pasture, that's where.

Which is too bad, because as I say, it's a lovely car. Quirky, but lovely.

It's a car for performance driving, not leisurely cruising. But it's not a Ferrari 599GT, or a Lamborghini Murcielago, either of which win the exotic Italian stakes.

It was designed by the legendary Gordon Murray, responsible for the just-as-legendary McLaren F1, who demanded lightness above all (SLR stands for "sport, light, racing").

This explains why the car has thin carbon-fibre-backed seats instead of AirScarf seats that warm the neck, available on other open Mercedes. They don't bend, though they tilt and raise and lower and now, for the American market, are available in "double-wide." ("Where there's a will, there's a way," says the man from Mercedes.)

But Murray left during the car's development, supposedly arguing over what he considered the compromises that Mercedes was insisting upon for driveability. He probably lost the battle over the unnecessarily complicated brake-by-wire Sensotronic Brake Control, which effectively muffles feedback from the massive ceramic brakes. Full on, they're great and good to 1,200 C. Any less than that and they're never quite right, tough to judge for the right amount of pressure.

He probably lost the battle, too, over the final refined drive, which gives a comfortable ride in climate conditioned, Bluetooth luxury. The roadster apparently has softer suspension than the coupe (presumably to satisfy those double-wide Californians), though it tips the hat to performance with a lack of coffee cup holders, door cubbies or even an iPod connector.

The stereo does, though, for some bizarre reason include a cassette tape deck.

This does not mean it's a gentle, easy-going drive. Make no mistake: This can be a loud and violent car. Stamp on the gas to wring your money's worth out of the $5,000 federal gas-guzzler levy and the side-mounted pipes will roar like a guttural banshee. You'll rocket to 100 km/h in 3.8 seconds; keep your foot pinned and the cops will clock you at 200 km/h just 10.6 seconds from the traffic light.

Don't even think about saving gas. You'll be somewhere north of 20 L/100 km (14 m.p.g.) even without the theatrics.

Turn off the ESP control and the $800-a-piece back tires will shred as the car hops madly in its fight for purchase. Grip the wheel tight – this wide-tracked monster will skitter left and right as your hands twitch from the g-forces.

Squint through the heat haze rising from the hood vents and the road ahead will ripple like a desert mirage. The SLR will hit 300 km/h in less than half-a-minute and not top out until somewhere over 330 km/h. Then those humungous brakes will haul you back down again before you know it.

You'll be impressed, but OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino won't be, and nor will the judge. That's when you'll learn the hard facts about depreciation of initial value over time as the car sits parked for a year.

New SLRs have never wavered from their current base price of $495,000 (U.S.). Second-hand SLRs drop their value rapidly, though. After all, the market has a number of options for the well-heeled prospective SLR buyer.

Aside from the aforementioned 599GT and Murciélago, Bentley offers the undeniably gorgeous and equally powerful Continental GT Speed convertible for considerably less money. Similarly, Aston-Martin will sell you its Vanquish with enough left over to fund seven years of medical school.

Wait a year or so and Mercedes will sell you the smaller, in-house-designed SLS AMG two-seater, designed to assume the halo with its gull-wing doors and familiar, but even more highly tuned, 6.3 L V8.

And if you really want to save money, you can get a similar experience driving a Dodge Viper or a Ford GT. As an added bonus, their spark plugs won't cost $10,000 to change every four years; the mid-mounted engine must be dropped to access the rear four cylinders.

But their doors won't attract attention like those sexy butterfly doors. And their hoods won't say Mercedes, and their side panels McLaren.

And if you can afford to drop a half-million dollars on something because you like it, maybe that's important. The man from Mercedes thinks so, anyway.

mrichardson@thestar.ca

Mark Richardson is the editor of Wheels. He can be reached at mrichardson@thestar.ca