Your garden-variety Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren is no shrinking violet. Snuggled up against the firewall is a 5.4-liter supercharged V-8 that cranks out 617 insane German horsepower. The exhaust outlets, jutting out of the front fenders just ahead of the doors, blast their sound track directly in the driver's face. The doors open upward. The window sticker flirts with a half-million dollars. And the styling? Good lord.
The SLR's hood is so long that if the front bumper arrives at dinner on time, the driver's seat will be a half-hour late. The SLR auditioned for the role of the Batmobile in the last Batman movie, but it was deemed a little too over-the-top. The bodywork contains enough scoops and slashes that Mercedes and Saleen recently signed the landmark Aero Aid Nonproliferation Pact to prevent one of them from unleashing a car made entirely of spoilers.
But too much is never enough, so what we need, obviously, is a wilder SLR. Mercedes is happy to oblige, upping their supercar ante with the new SLR McLaren 722 Edition. The 722 is like the base SLR, only faster, rarer, and more expensive. Now, please bear with me while I explain why it isn't quite crazy enough.
When I first heard of the 722 Edition, I naturally figured that it would have 722 hp. "Nice," I thought. "DaimlerChrysler realizes that when its own Viper is putting out 600 hp, the ol' flagship needs a fresh infusion of beans." Well, it turns out that the 722 Edition got more power, but it's an evolutionary improvement: 650 horses, up from 617. It's also lighter by about 90 pounds and has 128 percent more downforce at the front end, courtesy of a new carbon-fiber front splitter. The "722," incidentally, refers to the number on Stirling Moss's 300SLR that won the 1955 Mille Miglia. That car wore number 722 because Moss and his co-driver started the race at 7:22 a.m. (If naming cars after a time of day is to become a trend, I can't wait for the Buick Lucerne Early Bird Special Edition.)
Mercedes introduced the 722 Edition in Dubai, where one morning I'm handed the keys and told to go on my merry way. Mercedes throws in a route book, and when I say I'll probably just use the navigation system, one of the Mercedes men laughs at my navet. "There's no navigation system," he says. "What do you think this is, a Lexus?" This brings to mind Martin Lawrence's dis of Will Smith's Porsche 911 Turbo in the movie Bad Boys, when he learns the Porsche doesn't have cupholders: "Limited edition? You damn right it's limited."
I try to follow the route book, but after ten minutes it's clear that attempting to read directions while driving a McLaren SLR in Middle Eastern traffic is the kind of multitasking that's going to end with splintered carbon fiber and tearful recriminations. I give up on the map and simply follow the road out of the city, and eventually I blunder onto the jackpot: a beautiful, lightly trafficked road out in the desert. I do a recon run to ensure there are no speed cameras. Let the games begin.
So, what would you do with an SLR on a remote, deserted road in a country that your insurance agent has never heard of? You'd do exactly what I did. You'd turn off the traction control and stomp on the gas and learn that even in desert heat with wide tires, 650 hp trumps traction (and that when the burnout hits third gear, you're going sideways whether you like it or not). You'd try to beat your personal high speed of 168 mph, set on this same road last year in a Porsche Cayenne Turbo S. And, after hitting 180 mph in approximately the time it takes to ask, "Do they cut off your thumbs for speeding here?" you'd take a stab at V-max.
I'd always heard that the SLR is a high-speed stress case, something like being strapped into a 200-mph carbon-fiber bobsled. I don't know about the standard SLR, but evidently the 100 hours that the 722 Edition spent in the wind tunnel wrought a major improvement. Because behind the wheel of the 722, I'm not the least bit apprehensive about reaching over to the passenger seat, picking up my digital camera, removing it from its case, turning it on, and shooting a video of the speedometer. At this point, I'm driving at a constant speed. A few minutes later, I stop and review the video and see that my constant speed was 206 mph.
You can say that I'm an idiot to take a hand off the wheel at 206 mph, let alone start playing with my camera, and in fact, I initially thought so myself. Certainly, I'm comfortable driving fast, but Roy was comfortable taming tigers and look how that turned out. But the bottom line is that the car is so screwed down that driving 200 mph truly isn't scary. It's just thrilling and fun.
So: Back to my assertion that the SLR isn't wild enough. Disproven, right? Well, no. Because, as I was banging through the first few gears on my way to Ludicrous Speed, the thought that I couldn't get out of my mind was not, "This is a singular experience that only a half-million dollars can buy," but, "This is a lot like a $70,000 Corvette Z06." The basic specs and the numbers bear that out--both cars are front-engine, rear-wheel-drive V-8 coupes with similar zero-to-sixty times (about 4.0 seconds). I'm sure that once you're doing 150 mph, the SLR asserts its horsepower advantage, but the fact is that you can experience near-SLR performance in cars that play in a much different field. This is both good news and bad news.
The good news is that 600 hp is the new 500 hp. The 2008 Viper puts down 600 horses. Bob Lutz is going to start strafing puppies with his fighter jet if Chevy doesn't build a 600-hp Corvette. Then you've got the Porsche 911 Turbo, which will whip all of them off the line, thanks to its all-wheel drive. I'm not saying the SL65 AMG or the 911 Turbo or even the Z06 are cars for the common man, but they're a hell of a lot more common than the SLR McLaren. For instance, Porsche sold more 911 Turbos in North America in January (189) than there are SLR 722s (a mere 150).
My take on the SLR McLaren 722 Edition is irrelevant from a sales standpoint, because all 150 of them are already sold. I'm more concerned with the rest of us who are living vicariously, arguing at bars over who builds the best supercar, mythologizing our automotive heroes. And if two companies with the stature of Mercedes and McLaren are going to team up to build a supercar, why not make it the craziest supercar ever? Think less Lamborghini, more Bugatti Veyron.Come on, guys: next time around, double the horsepower. You can double the price, too. I won't mind.