I will never forget the automotive situation in the mid-2000s: I was in my teens, I was just starting to drive, and Ferrari, Porsche and Mercedes rolled out three of the single coolest cars that had ever existed: the Enzo, the Carrera GT and the SLR. It was direct competition among supercars; the kind we only ever see once a decade or so, if that. And it occurred just as I was reaching my peak of teenage car interest.
At the time, I loved all three supercars equally, much in the same way that today’s teenagers surely love the LaFerrari, the McLaren P1 and the Porsche 918 Spyder. And also like today’s teenagers (and, well, everyone), my friends and I played endless rounds of "Would you rather?" with the Enzo, the Carrera GT and the SLR. The answer — at the time — was never obvious. We just knew that all three of those cars were very, very cool.
The market has not agreed with us.
The Enzo, as everyone knows, has reached stratospheric values, as Ferrari models have somehow managed to become even more collectible in the last decade than they were in the past. Carrera GT values initially plummeted — then they rocketed back up. But the SLR has been largely ignored. Values dropped, and then they dropped some more. Today, an SLR is worth half as much as a Carrera GT, even though the Mercedes was more expensive back in 2005 — and an SLR is worth about 15 percent as much as a decent Enzo. Considering all these cars came out at the same time, and considering they were roughly the same price back then, I had to ask … why?
And so I flew to Nashville a couple of weeks ago to borrow a Mercedes SLR from a viewer. I spent several hours with it — in it, around it, discovering its quirks and ultimately driving it — and I’ve formed a few ideas. But before I get to that, some important information about the SLR.
The first bit is a general overview. The SLR (which was offered as a coupe or a convertible) used a head-turning, if controversial, design, with a massively long hood and crazy-looking wheels. The engine was a 5.4-liter supercharged V8 with 617 horsepower and 580 lb-ft of torque, mated to a 5-speed torque-converter automatic transmission, and it propelled the car from zero to 60 in around 3.4 seconds. Most interestingly, the SLR was developed in conjunction with British sports car manufacturer McLaren — and it was built in McLaren’s U.K. factory, a little-known fact about this "German" car.
The second remark is a little more interesting: As some of you knew, I recently toured Jay Leno’s garage while filming an episode of his CNBC show. Not only does Jay have an SLR, but he has it parked proudly next to his McLaren P1 and F1 — two automotive icons. I asked him about the SLR, and he told me he thinks it’s a misunderstood car: While it came out at the same time as Carrera GT and Enzo, Jay said, the SLR was never supposed to be a twisty-road sports car. Instead, it’s at home doing incredibly high speeds on incredibly fast roads — and it’s very good at that.
With that in mind, on to the SLR experience. I’ll start with styling, which is probably the most controversial part about this car. Personally, I love how it looks. I love the long hood, I love the crazy wheels, I love the strange F1 car-inspired nose. I know a lot of people find this car ugly, but I’ve always found it exotic. At least it doesn’t look the same as everything else, like modern McLaren models.
More interesting are the SLR’s quirks — like, for instance, the side-mounted exhaust pipes right below the passenger compartment. Or the crazy-looking hood, which opens to reveal something similar to the Batman logo, due to its cutouts for headlights. Or the fact that an enormous portion of the center control stack is devoted to adjusting the rear wing. You can see the rest in the video. You can even see where I found a new storage area that’s probably entirely unknown to most SLR owners.
But most interesting of all is the way the SLR drives. I’ll say this straight away: Jay Leno is right. This car is not built to handle. The hood and engine compartment take up the entire first half of this car, to the point where you’re sitting over the rear wheels, like in a Dodge Viper. The result is that the front end feels very heavy, and the car doesn’t feel especially athletic. When you turn the wheels, it’s almost like you’re sitting in back and you give someone else the command to turn the wheels, and then you feel every bit of the car rotating around in front of you. Handling is reasonably sharp, and body roll is composed, but this doesn’t feel light on its feet like a Porsche or Ferrari. If you wanted to master this on a racetrack, you’d need to spend a lot of time behind the wheel, learning the physics.
But Jay Leno is also right about the SLR’s main benefit: speed. Speed, speed, speed, speed, speed. Most cars from this era used either a manual transmission — where you have to dial up the speed yourself — or a sequential manual transmission, where you felt every gear change in the outdated shifting system. This one uses an old-school torque converter, which isn’t great for quick gear changes — but it sure manages to deliver smooth, unbroken, airplane-like acceleration. I’ve driven a lot of fast cars that feel frenetic and energized. Hit 100 mph in this thing and it feels like it’s barely broken a sweat. It also sounds like it may lift off the ground at any moment.
So the Mercedes SLR hasn’t developed the following of the Carrera GT and the Enzo, and maybe it doesn’t deserve it: There’s no fully bespoke engine, the driving experience won’t satisfy most sports-car enthusiasts, and the Mercedes badge doesn’t quite have the cachet of Porsche and Ferrari — even with McLaren’s involvement. But this thing is still a highly exotic supercar, with highly exotic construction and a highly exotic look — and it’s one of the most brutally fast vehicles I’ve ever encountered. I’ll always have a soft spot for the SLR, even if others don’t — and I’ll always remember how it felt when I stomped on the throttle and it accelerated to massive speeds without even breaking a sweat. Find a Mercedes-McLaren SLR for sale
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.