We bring the , the Lamborghini Murcilago, the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, and the Porsche Carrera GT together in one place. You’re about to learn exactly what it’s like to live with the four fastest cars on sale in America.
You’ve devoured every word the automotive press has written about them. You’ve memorized their almost unbelievable technical specifications, marveled over their futuristic constructions, pored over cutaways and power curves, and tried to get your pointy little heads around performance numbers that seem nearly incomprehensible for roadgoing production cars.
Some of you actually have plunked down the suitcase full of stacked and banded C-notes for your place on the short list for your favorite, and we suspect that more than one of you have ordered all four.
Still, we have found the one test that could be most useful to supercar fans still on the fence, a test that (most cleverly) gets Automobile Magazine back behind the wheels of all four of the fastest cars on sale in America one more glorious time.
We drove them for a couple of days without their professional handlers, for the sole purpose of telling you the truth about what it’s like to spend a regular day with the four-member 200-mph club. Our own pace (fast), our own roads (fast), our own nickel (Courtyard by Marriott, sorry). For those of you keeping score, that would be 2339 horsepower and $1.3 million worth of test car. And for the worrywarts among you, yes, we stashed them at Virginia International Raceway in a guarded, gated, locked, heated facility.
It would be the first time for a U.S. road trip with both the Porsche Carrera GT and the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. Although both the Lamborghini Murcilago and the Ford GT have been driven on American roads, this would be the first extensive drive of all four hero cars by anyone, anywhere. After more than 300 miles on the sometimes not so smooth but always twisty two-lanes surrounding the gorgeous VIR facility, roads that wind back and forth through rural Virginia and North Carolina, we have a story to tell.
But first, you want to know if we pegged the needles, right? Well, we didn’t drive 200 mph. We’re not that stupid. But with the least powerful of our four-car dream team churning out 550 horsepower (the Ford) and the slowest 0-to-60-mph sprint an eye-blinking 4.1 seconds (the Murcilago), it was pretty easy to find oneself north of the triple-digit line on the speedo. Virginia (along with the inconsequential-to-speeders District of Columbia) still bans the use of radar detectors, which didn’t deter us in the least from enlisting the support of Paul Allen and his company’s most famous product, the Passport 8500 radar detector, one per car. We left Virginia with driver’s licenses intact.
Let’s jump into a car. OK, let’s not. The damn door is in the way. At least, it’s in the way of the Lambo’s cockpit, the SLR’s cockpit, the Ford’s cockpit . . .
“You want the short story?” barks technical editor Don Sherman. He’s a barker, that one. “Porsche. No weird doors.” Thank you, Don. But let’s jump in and drive around all day anyway, shall we?
Ouch! And a few swear words for the Ford, with its sneaky head-banging door, which, like the original, includes a goodly amount of roof attached to its upper edge when opened. If you don’t wriggle carefully into and out of the down-on-the-ground cockpit, that lurking upper door extension will surely “nut you,” in the words of our foreign-born executive editor, Mark Gillies, who is blissfully unaware of our more southerly anatomical use of the word. As Sherman so astutely points out, no one would have minded if Ford designers had made a slight deviation here from the original GT40. One wonders if Ford racing greats Bruce McLaren or Denny Hulme ever “nutted” themselves on the original’s diabolical door. The other problem is trying to slither out of the GT in a tight parking situation. “Paint a patch of black on the outer roof as a tip of the hat to the original,” Sherman suggests, “and make the door glass frameless like Porsche did with its GT. Then this car becomes a daily driver instead of a Sunday special.”
Flash is a serious component of a supercar’s livability. You either want flash or you don’t. If you do, skip the Murcilago. As much as we laughed uproariously and pointed at the Countach‘s scoops and wing flaps and ailerons and spoilerons, we kind of miss the supercar outrageousness so shamelessly exhibited by the Countach and so noticeably missing from the Murcilago. At least in comparison with its three compadres here. Since when is the Italian car the most understated of the wild bunch? Humph. Maybe since the Germans took hold. Why, then, is the Murcilago’s haphazard cockpit, with buttons and switches sort of slapped onto the wide, black center console, not a gorgeous Audi-inspired triumph of art? At least, the optional drilled aluminum paddle shifters are a flash of exotica. And it still has those wild-in-the-streets scissor doors that flick up with an upward boink of an elbow against the leather door bolster. (Senior editor Joe Lorio admits that these are the doors that “nutted” him most often.)
The Murcilago has the narrowest seat, with the oddest seating position: knees splayed out with steering down low between them. Come to think of it, with the power on and the engine roaring, the whole effect was like Slim Pickens riding the bomb in Dr. Strangelove. It wasn’t bad, but you wouldn’t want to have the hot-fudge brownie sundae special for dessert too often.
The McMerc, as the SLR McLaren is so distastefully referred to by our younger staff, has the flashiest, most baroque exterior, with its pointy F1-inspired snout; mid-’50s-era racing SLR sidepipes, engine vents, and scissor doors; deeply dished sills; nineteen-inch wheels; and what Lorio refers to as “all of the current Mercedes styling cues turned up to eleven” done up in gorgeous luminescent silver metallic paint. “Mean and expensive-looking; very Gotham City,” Gillies notes.
Its interior is an extreme version of the same. The whole effect is irresistible to the masses, who recognize that it is not simply your average $100,000-plus Mercedes. Love it or not, the cabin is the most civilized of our four. You can see out the windows, carbon fiber and padded leather abound, there are places to stow the sorts of things you shouldn’t be toting in a supercar (cell phone, BlackBerry), the trunk can take a golf bag, and state-of-the-art safety systems are a given. The engine start button, hidden under a vented aluminum flap atop the shift lever, enhances the sideshow experience, especially at night when it glows red.
The Porsche definitely sizzles at street level, looking every inch the Le Mans prototype it pretty much was before Porsche pulled the plug on that plan. Its odd proportions are universally described as sculpture, pure art, and looking as Italian as the Lambo looks German, despite its lack of goofy doors. Removing the carbon-fiber roof panels (and completely filling every inch of the front trunk with them) not only makes the Carrera GT look extra cool but also makes it easier to hear maximum shriekage from the mid-mounted 605-hp V-10 racing engine. Gauges are in Porsche’s usual overlapping-circle configuration, and a lovely stack of wood forms the ball atop the six-speed manual shifter lever. You actually can see out back, though it’s just a sliver framed by the inside bars of the roll hoops.
The real Night of the Living Dead machine, the car that brings everyone from passersby at a local mall to half the paddock at a VIR race meet directly to its side, the car that brings workers from a dealership running across a busy highway to the gas station where it is being refueled, the one that nearly knocks over the guy with a “GT I WISH” vanity plate on his Mustang, is the Ford GT. “Can I sit in it?” “Will you take my picture next to it?” “Will you open the hood?” “Do you need a special tool for the wheel nuts?” “Will you take a picture of it with me and my truck?”
Good Lord. When we try to hide behind a barn at VIR for a peaceful photo session, racing drivers, security people, corner workers, and just plain bystanders make a pilgrimage up the drive like a line of ants to a picnic, mindlessly walking into our photo shoot, just to look in the GT’s window.
Could you live with that kind of attention?
Maybe you couldn’t live with its massive, world-obscuring A-pillars or the fact that you’re the last to know what’s over the hood’s horizon because you can’t see far enough out of the teensy windshield or over its bulky parked windshield wipers. And since you can’t see anything out the rear, either, you might wish to readjust the rearview mirror as Sherman did to catch your throttle action, blipping smartly amid the wall-to-wall view of the bulging, rear-mounted, supercharged 5.4-liter V-8. Most entertaining.
So is the tidy lineup of raceresque gauges and the row of switches below them that operate various functions such as fog- and headlights. The seats don’t look like much, but they deliver exceptional comfort and support, according to Sherman, who drove the 700-plus miles from Ann Arbor, and creative director Richard Eccleston, who delivered it home. Biggest bitch: nowhere to stow stuff, including luggage. Cargo nets on the seatbacks just don’t seem enough. Eccleston also suggests Ford lose the cheesy Focus key fob. “It’s not a nice thing to sling down on the bar,” he says.
In sum: The Italian car looks German, the German cars look Italian, and the Ford makes the dead rise up and walk the earth.
The four superheros sort themselves out even more dramatically on the road, as much when burbling along at low speeds as when being pushed into triple digits.
The SLR is most surprising. Expecting the plushest, easiest-going road machine, we find instead a nervous Nellie that develops a severe tic when faced with anything less than glassy-smooth pavement. As Lorio mentions, cruising down a two-lane at a casual 80 mph (all of these cars find squirting to 80 mph from a stop to be ho-hum) is “a white-knuckle experience. The SLR’s need for steering correction is constant. Each tiny movement of the wheel threatens to send the car into a ditch or over the yellow line. Yikes.” The SLR positively hates lumpy roads, and the wheel twitches and fights your hands. The handling at four-tenths is so nervous-making that it is easiest to skip the Touchshift manu-matic lever and either use the wheel-mounted shift buttons or just dial up automatic and concentrate on staying in the lane.
Gillies is the only one among us who has had track experience with the SLR and points out that everything “seems to be geared toward warp speed, where it is very good. Brakes and steering really liven up at ten-tenths, and it sounds like a low-flying warbird. But at four-tenths, there is no tactile delight. The brakes can be annoying.”
Sherman agrees: “Mercedes-Benz set the Wayback Machine wrong. It should have gone to the ’60s, not the ’50s. This whole car is an uncomfortable mix of sport and luxury. The ride is punishing, the drive unsatisfying. A superpowerful engine mated to a track-tuned chassis with French stitching to take your mind off the flinty ride, heavy steering, and awkward control responses.”
“It’s easy to find the Mercedes in this car but hard to find the McLaren,” adds Lorio.
The Murcilago, on the other hand, is surprisingly deft despite its needlessly heavy ride. “It feels smaller the faster you go,” remarks Gillies. “In many ways, it’s quite compliant and super-stable at high speed on crowned roads.”
The 567-hp V-12 engine issues stirring sounds, especially during warmup, where Sherman notes “it coughs and rattles like some high-strung WWII fighter.” Gillies describes it as “gorgeous, with torrents of torque and power and a lovely, deep-throated noise that is more mature and sophisticated than the Porsche‘s F1 screaming.” The Porsche shrieks, this bull snorts.
It is terrifically entertaining and unbelievably, brutally fast. Just as entertaining is each downshift. There is so much torque available across the rev range that you don’t really have to downshift all that much. But each blip of the down paddle is accompanied by a big, blatting engine fart that cracks us up every time it happens.
The Murcilago’s overall feel on these twisting back roads is fast, hard, and edgy. After the Porsche, you would also describe it as wide, flat, and huge. In tight turns, it feels square; the outside front corner dips and plows a tad, then the inside rear takes the load as the road straightens out. Four-wheel drive is immediately noticeable during a brief squall, but when it lets go, it lets go big-time (as Sherman finds out during high-speed cornering shots at a local airfield). “I’m doubtful that the benefits offset the weight penalty,” he sniffs. “It doesn’t feel optimized for balance at the cornering limit.” We get the feeling that you wouldn’t want to press the brakes for long, either.
You can press anything-brakes, miles, hours-all day long at the wheel of the Ford GT. And we do. Sherman declares it “sufficiently comfortable for eleven or twelve hours in the saddle; fast and strong to the touch.”
Eccleston finds it amazingly quiet at high speed, and Gillies notes the “light steering, quiet engine, easy shifter, light controls, and a wonderful, supple ride at touring speeds.”
Push it into a turn, and it’s as near neutral as you’ll find in a road car. Push it hard enough to make the engine growl and the blower kick in, and the steering firms right up. The chassis is nicely balanced (43.6 percent front/56.4 percent rear) and puts the power down so well you won’t notice the missing stability and traction control systems of the high-dollar competition.
(We really do have to stop for a second and mention price. The Ford stickers at $141,245. That’s about half the price of the Lambo and more than $300,000 less than either the Mercedes or the Porsche. That’s if you can find one at sticker. We’re seeing as much as a $75,000 premium on eBay-peddled GTs, which still makes entry into the 200-mph club a bargain.)
Lorio feels that the Ford is the easiest of our four to drive and the most like a racing car in looks, “a rather charming combination. Clutch and gearbox are super-easy. It’s very American in that its engine gets the job done but isn’t terribly sophisticated or exotic. It doesn’t zoom to the redline or sing an aria, but it does rocket the car down the road.” Rocket, indeed. Feeling too normal? Step on the throttle. The GT‘s 550-hp V-8 keeps things real.
Now, let’s talk Porsche.
Lorio: “The sound of the Carrera GT revving its engine is straight out of pit lane at the Indy 500. There is absolutely nothing else like it.”
Sherman: “The engine zings like a buzz saw, the steering is crisp and sure, the chassis grips as if tied to the road by steel cables. It makes all the sounds and swings that car enthusiasts live for.”
Gillies: “Enough power to send you straight to jail for a long time. Fourth is good for 140 mph plus, so I don’t know where you would ever see max revs in sixth. The Mulsanne, maybe?”
We love the Porsche. It’s no secret that our affection begins with one of the most amazing engines ever to live in a production car. With 605 hp and 435 lb-ft of torque, it can be hard to stay on top of your moves. Step on it, and you’ve reached the redline. Upshift, and . . . you’ve reached the redline. Upshift again, and you can break the tires loose. Upshift again, and the power is still pouring on like nothing you’ve felt in your life except on a racetrack. The last thing on your mind will be to turn on the radio.
The quality of the Carrera GT’s ride is astonishing, despite its monster wheels and tires, which do follow road grooves enough to notice. But it takes a real cow path to unnerve this car. Steering is alive in your hands, and lateral acceleration blows the others into the weeds.
It stops the way it goes-like, now-its nonmetallic brakes parking the Porsche eighteen feet shorter from 70 mph than its closest competitor, the SLR. Everything about the Carrera GT is intense, including how much fun it is to drive.
To be honest, your coolness can be compromised by the extremely touchy clutch. The recommended procedure is to let it out without touching the accelerator pedal, easing neatly away from a stop. But if you get a little nervous (say, at an uphill stop with maybe a Ford GT waiting close behind you), you might be tempted to give the accelerator a little goose. You will surely stall. Lorio suffers a worse lapse of cool when, upon stalling, he finds the just-delivered Carrera GT to have a dead battery and has to ask some locals for a push. He recovers because he is still in the Porsche, now bombing down the road, wondering “what the poor people were driving” that day, as dear departed Aunt Red used to say.
So this is the end of the story. Living large with an SLR would work if your backyard were the Virginia International Raceway. Otherwise, you’d do well to change into more sensible shoes to make this a daily driver. If you like the flashy looks and intend only to potter, you’ll be happy.
Without the others around for comparison, the Murcilago looks exotic and sounds as if it could start mid-pack at Indy. It’s a breeze to drive but a bitch to see out of around town. Still, it’s a steal at $279,800.
Steal this. A Ford GT at $141,245 is an unbelievable opportunity to own, drive, and enjoy the hell out of a faithful rendition of the ’60s Le Mans winners. As fast and strong as it is, the GT is also easy to drive and predictable at the limit. The drawbacks? Limited forward visibility and the need for a minivan chase vehicle to haul your cell phone, your hankie, and your briefcase.
The clear, unthreatened winner at any price is the Porsche Carrera GT, your own personal prototype, street-legal racer. Its striking presence will suck the air out of any parking lot. You will grow addicted to its monstrous power and revel in its everyday livability. You will surely endanger your driving privileges.
We are devastated to part with the Porsche at the close of day, but Sherman weaves us a rosy tale at bedtime:
“When very good boys and girls who love cars finally clear the Pearly Gates, one of these machines is waiting for them to enjoy. No cops, Virginia roads, engine warmed, fuel needle stuck on full.”
Forever and ever.
Can we get an amen?