The long saga of the SLR began back in 1999 with two show cars - the Vision SLR at Detroit and the Vision SLR Roadster at Frankfurt - that presaged the nearly identical SLR McLaren coupe. It burst onto the scene in late 2003, about the same time as the Porsche Carrera GT and the Ferrari Enzo. Some 3500 examples of the Mercedes supercoupe were to be built by partner McLaren in a brand-new, surgically spotless factory in Woking, England, over the projected seven-year life span of the car.
Fast forward to mid-2007. Relations between Mercedes and McLaren are allegedly tense at best, and one wonders if the marriage can produce any more offspring. Mercedes allows only that about 1000 SLRs - far fewer than its lofty predictions - have been sold and admits that production will cease in 2009 due to European pedestrian-protection measures. By any calculus, the entire SLR project must be bleeding red ink. So, how does Mercedes salvage what is left of the dream?
It takes off the roof and jacks up the price.
Rest assured, all of the supercar exotica is still here: carbon-fiber monocoque and front crash cones; intricate aluminum subframes; huge, carbon-composite brake rotors; an air brake; the sybaritic cockpit; the scissor-style doors; and of course, the supercharged bear of a V-8 engine. There's also some 125 pounds of additional curb weight, due partly to the new steel bars that have been wedged inside the carbon-fiber A-pillars for rollover protection. "The SLR is the safest roadster in the world," claims AMG executive Wolf Zimmermann. We have no reason to doubt his assertion.
Twist a handle at the windshield header and push a button, and the fabric roof retracts neatly in only about ten seconds. A thin but rigid sheet of aluminum sandwiched between the layers of the roof near the header keeps the fabric from ballooning, an important consideration in a car whose top speed is claimed to be 206.3 mph, which is only 1.2 mph less than the coupe's.
Indeed, outrageous speed, not back-road shenanigans, remains this car's reason for being. The heavy steering around town is well-weighted on the autobahn, and once you learn how to modulate the stiff, bottom-hinged brake pedal, you can drive as fast as the road and your nerves will allow, knowing that you can reel it all in without drama. The engine's position behind the front axle is great for weight distribution, but the SLR's long schnoz still makes this car difficult to place in a corner. And the thick windshield header, encroaching A-pillars, and large side mirrors induce claustrophobia in the cabin and detract from the roadster experience.The SLR was a noble experiment, and its technical brief will remain impressive decades from now, but roof or no roof, it is not the car Mercedes, McLaren, and enthusiasts dreamed it would be.