Mercedes SLR McLaren | PH Used Buying Guide

Plush, ambitious, and monstrously powerful, the Mercedes SLR McLaren was a supercar like no other

By Tony Middlehurst / Sunday, November 21, 2021 / Loading comments

Key considerations

  • Available for £235,000
  • 5.4-litre supercharged V8, rear-wheel drive
  • Refreshing alternative to the modern supercar
  • Thundertastic AMG motor with extra whine
  • Basic coupes might be undervalued
  • Maintenance and parts can be a bit pricey

Search for a used Mercedes SLR McLaren here

OVERVIEW

Let’s get straight into it. Daimler-Benz had partnered up with McLaren’s F1 team in 1995, taking a 40 per cent stake in the British company.

At the 1999 Detroit show a Mercedes-designed and built Vision SLR concept coupe appeared, followed by a roadster version later that year at Frankfurt. SLR stood for Sport Light Racing. Long-nosed, sleek, and aggressive, with many a hat-tip to both the ground-breaking SLR of the 1950s and the F1 cars of the time, these carbon-fibre bodied concept grand tourers elicited enough of a reaction to green-light the four-year development programme of a production coupe in collaboration with McLaren. (Note for reference. Even though we know the letters are in the wrong order we’re going to shorten it to MMSLR, or just SLR, from now on.)

The finished SLR came out in 2003 and cost £312,000. It had to be special. Vying for the big money at the same time were the 660hp Ferrari Enzo and the 620hp Porsche Carrera GT, both of which were quite a bit lighter than the MMSLR. McLaren’s Gordon Murray had been invited to tell Benz’s chassis people what revisions he would suggest to turn the Vision into a top-end supercar that could compete with the best front-mid-engined cars.

After pointing out that the Vision was a front-engined car with a tiny boot and then bashing his way through the Stuttgart wall of resistance, Murray got to work on rejigging the whole design, re-engineering and repackaging the car around a glued four-piece composite chassis. He moved the engine back to a new position one metre behind the front bumper and half a metre behind the front axle. He binned the massive, heavy pneumatic suspension struts and shifted the fuel tank from its high position above the rear axle.

Pretty much everything bar the styling – the engineering, assembly and development – was done at McLaren’s surgically clean Technology Centre production line in Woking. There were butterfly doors and active aerodynamics consisting of a flat floor, a rear diffuser, and a rear spoiler/brake that rose automatically at speed and that could be reset to a steeper angle by the driver. The aero package necessitated the side-exit exhaust pipes that became the SLR’s visual (and aural) calling-card. Despite the entire body being fashioned from carbonfibre the overall weight still ended up on the wrong side of 1,750kg, so Mercedes’ Sensotronic electro-hydraulic carbon ceramic disc brake system was specified.

The engine was a dry-sump M155 5.4 litre 24-valve V8, based on the M113. Running to a new 500rpm higher limit of 7,000rpm, it was the first production engine to be hand-built entirely in-house by AMG. In partnership with twin intercoolers, a twin-screw supercharger generated 13psi of boost. To handle the grunt Mercedes bolted on its battleship-spec five-speed AMG Speedshift R transmission rather than the newer seven-speed box that was filtering through the less punishing cars in the M-B range.

What the five-speeder lacked in sophistication and speed of response it made up for in its dogged refusal to be cowed by the mighty motor. In-gear acceleration was stomach-compressing and comfortingly repeatable. The 30-50mph lunge was over in 1.7sec and the 50-70mph increment didn’t take much longer, at 2.4sec. At launch it was the world’s fastest automatic car.

Variants began to appear from 2006, beginning with the 722 Edition, a reference to the race number of Stirling Moss’s 1955 Mille Miglia-winning 300 SLR. Running 19-inch six-spoke alloys and 390mm front brake discs (up from 370mm) on 10mm lower and stiffer suspension, the 722 Edition had new front and rear aero, tinted lights and a carbon/leather/Alcantara cabin. Power rose to 650hp, and torque went up to 605lb ft at 4,000rpm, lowering the 0-62 time to 3.6sec and marginally increasing the top speed to 209mph. 150 were built.

A soft-top Roadster version arrived in 2007. It was heavier than the coupe at 1,825kg and a fair chunk more expensive, too, at £350,000, but it still had butterfly doors. A soft top version of the 722 was shown at the 2007 Frankfurt show for production in 2009, again limited to 150 cars. In the same year 21 stripped-out 722 GTs were built by Ray Mallock for a single-make SLR Club race series. These were pukka race cars featuring a full aero kit with a big fixed wing, integrated pneumatic jacks, modified Eibach suspension, bucket Recaros, steel racing brakes, plexiglass windows and a roll cage. 671hp and 640lb ft running through a reconfigured transmission gave a 0-60 time of 3.3sec and a drag-reduced top end of 196mph.

Although the SLR was officially discontinued in May 2009 there were two last hurrahs for the car. One was the 2009 SLR Stirling Moss, a 75-off run of 650hp roofless (and screenless) ‘speedsters’ harking back to the classic Moss/Jenkinson 300 SLR Mille Miglia racer. The Moss was 200kg under the stock SLR’s weight. The 0-62 time was 3.0sec and its top speed 217mph if you could put up with that much wind in your face, even with a helmet on. You could only go into the hat for a Moss car if you already had an SLR McLaren and you had approaching £1m sloshing around in your offshore account.

Over a year later, at the end of 2010, McLaren’s Special Operations division (MSO) announced the creation of a McLaren Edition SLR which put a new body kit, lightweight wheels, titanium exhaust, ECU tune and suspension set up onto existing SLRs. This programme ran between 2011 and 2013 and was restricted to 25 cars, a mix of coupes and Roadsters. We’re not sure how many of these red-badged Editions were actually bought – not everyone was impressed by the styling – but the odd ones that come up for sale today typically go for around £400,000.

More recently a retrospective customisation programme has been put in place by McLaren in response to the requests of SLR owners ‘to put a bit more modern McLaren’ into their SLRs. For £121,500 plus VAT they could have a new body kit, intercooler, exhaust, interior retrim, wheels, and steering setup fitted to any SLR to turn it into an ‘SLR by MSO’. It might seem a lot, but it was a nice modernisation process that positively refreshed the SLR drive, and the price did include the cost of a full repaint for the tricky to treat carbon fibre bodywork.

Although the total SLR production run was supposed to be capped at 2,000 cars it’s said that either 2,157 or 2,176 were actually built. Still a tiny number for Mercedes but quite a large number for a car hand-built by McLaren and costing well over £300,000 new.

Even so, as a used purchase today rarity does come into it. You’re unlikely to see more than a handful (i.e., fewer than ten) on sale in the UK at any given moment. There were seven SLRs on PH classifieds at the time of writing, three of them ‘POA’, but even from this small sample we can see that some models are fetching big money. Here’s a low-mile 722 Roadster for 799,000 euro. A Moss can fetch well over £1.5m.

Against that background, an SLR at under £250,000 could start to look like a smart buy. YouTuber Manny Khosbin clearly thinks they’re a good investment, as he’s just bought his ninth. Remember that this is a three-second 0-62, 200mph plus, carbon fibre bodied hyper-GT that will keep just about any other car honest in a straight line and even around a track if you’re handy and brave enough. We’ll point you in the direction of SLRs for sale at the end of this story, but right now let’s look at why you might want one in the first place – and why you might not.

SPECIFICATION | MERCEDES SLR MCLAREN (2003-10)

Engine: 5,439cc, 24v V8, supercharged
Transmission: 5-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],500rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],250-5,000rpm
0-62mph (secs): 3.8
Top speed (mph): 208
Weight (kg): 1,768
MPG: 19.5
CO2 (g/km): 357
Wheels (in): 9 x 18 (f), 11.5 x 18 (r)
Tyres: 245/40 (f), 295/35 (r)
On sale: 2003-2010
Price new: £312,000
Price now: from £235,000

Note for reference: car weight and power data are hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it’s wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.


ENGINE & GEARBOX

Fans of the AMG rumble will love the SLR as it’s rumble squared. There were only five gears in the box, but the massive torque meant that it could probably have managed perfectly well with three, or even two. Fifth gear delivered 207mph, which is quite something when you think about it. We couldn’t find any info on what revs it was doing at that speed but if we assume it was at the peak power figure of 6,500rpm, at the national speed limit of 70mph it would be barely ticking over with not much more than 2,000rpm on the tacho. That sort of long-leggedness made it a wonderfully relaxing tourer. If you could hit the official 26.2mpg extra-urban figure you’d be getting over 550 miles between fills from the 97-litre/21.5-gallon tank.

How long would you be able to resist giving the engine its head, though? You could easily live your entire life in the giggly low-rev rumble zone and still be ahead of just about everything else on the road, but at some point, you’d definitely be wanting to hear the machined moan of the supercharger. Put them together and you’d be seriously motoring with mpg figures in the low teens and, we promise you, no negative thoughts about a shortage of gears. The absence of a dual-clutch gearbox could seem tiresome and old-fashioned, but you might be glad of it if a fault develops. In the Chassis section following this one, you’ll discover just how quick the MMSLR can be in the right conditions and with the right bod behind the wheel.

Three driving modes were accessed via the left-hand rotary knob on the central console: Sport, Comfort (which did away with first gear on start-off and changed up through the box at lower rpm) and Manual mode, which was operated by the main gear selector or by two buttons (not levers) on the steering column. The right-hand rotary console knob accessed three modes within Manual, namely Sport, Supersport and Race, which progressively sharpened up the gearshifts. Between those two rotary knobs was a fin-shaped knob to operate the rear air brake, which you could flap up and down in Test mode when you were stationary, or perhaps with a note of thanks taped to it for anyone who’d just let you out into the traffic.

SLR servicing is not really comparable to what you’d expect from, say, a Ford Focus. For a start you wouldn’t want to take it to a dealer without an SLR-trained technician on the staff. Some say that the SLR needs a special lift to get it up in the air to avoid the risk of shattering all the glass in the car. Even if you get away with bunging it on a normal lift, that’s just the start. Before you can get into any work that needs doing under the car there are about 180 undertray screws to remove. That’ll cost a pretty penny on its own in a suitable M-B dealership. Then you get into the real costs. Which are potentially considerable.

YouTuber and Cannonball Run record holder Ed Bolian recently bought Paris Hilton’s SLR. He took it into his local M-B dealership for an oil change and came out with a quote of $2,105 (£1,560) for an A service. They also handed him an impressive estimate for the items they thought might need doing on top of that. The total for the whole list including tax came to $34,500, or £25,700 at current exchange rates.

Admittedly the car had only been serviced once in the previous decade, and you probably wouldn’t bother taking the dealer up on things like a new fuel cap tether ($100/£75) or a key fob battery ($50/£37), but would you be happy to spend $1,250/£930 on replacing ‘deteriorated’ brake cooling ducts, $1,350 (just over £1,000) on an OE main battery, or $1,350/£1,000 on new passenger door weather stripping? Presumably you would if you wanted to return the car to standard and had literally no cares about money, but what about $1,350/£1,000 for broken brake line mounts? $500/£373 to fix a screen washer nozzle? $965/£720 for a coolant system flush? $1,265/£944 for a brake flush? $2,500/£1,865 for a passenger door strut? Nearly $4,300/£3,200 for a new bonnet roller track and struts?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, UK SLR servicing and parts costs do not spring up in the public domain, but you’ll get the general gist of it from these US costs. This is not a car for the faint of wallet. The engine can be partial to a drop of oil, consuming maybe a litre every thousand miles. There’s a note inside the fuel cap reminding you to check the oil level on every petrol fill. You can’t really see that happening, but it covers M-B at least.

That Paris Hilton car also developed a bad fuel smell, flagged up on the dash by a ‘fuel system malfunction’ warning. This came up at the same time as an air-con malfunction. Thoughts on that one homed in on the fact that the AC compressor on this car (and on some other M-Bs) was also used to cool the fuel.

Reflash/resets can rectify quite a few SLR problems of this type and are not that expensive, relatively speaking.

CHASSIS

All other things considered, the SLR’s non-adjustable coil-spring suspension was remarkably conventional. Tasked to handle the car’s weight and power it was somewhat compromised. There are obviously good points to be made about the lack of complex hydraulic suspension, but the payoff on the SLR was a ride that was a bit knobbly on rough British roads and maybe not firm enough on smooth tracks, where body control seemed a touch rudimentary. The heavy steering wasn’t hugely confidence-inspiring either, hardly a shock in view of the yawning gap between the wheel in your hands and the ones supporting the front end of the car.

Although in combination with the boot air brake (which automatically pops up to its lower level at 60mph) the Sensotronic ceramic brakes were undoubtedly highly effective in extreme use, to the extent that they could catch fire after repeated severe applications, many drivers found them quite wooden in everyday use, with a bonus squeak as you came to a stop. The heavy throttle would have felt familiar to many old-time Mercedes owners too.

Don’t dismiss the standard SLR’s overall handling though. As with the brakes, it improved the harder you drove it. The ESP was switchable. Courage and not a little skill were required to exploit what that opened, but if you were willing and able, so was the SLR. In the hands of a very good driver, it destroyed the previous table-toppers around a certain well-known TV track, chopping the best part of three seconds off the times set by the Lamborghini Murcielago and Pagani Zonda. Jay Leno says that his one is ‘solid as a rock’ at 200mph.

Upgrading the standard turbine-style 18in alloys to 19s added £7,000 to the bill for your new SLR.

BODYWORK

When the SLR came out in 2003 the lump of real estate ahead of the windscreen seemed impossibly long, but now that the SLS has become a familiar sight on our roads the older car is starting to look almost elegant. Unusually, its heavily gilled carbon fibre clamshell bonnet was front hinged, floating in an almost surreal fashion on beautifully fabricated supports once you’d lifted it through its initial de-latching movement. Be careful not to bump or damage the bonnet, however, as replacing one could cost you over £90,000.

In typical McLaren, Ron Dennis-style, there were only two ‘colours’ available for the SLR, black or silver, albeit with much bigger than normal metalflake particles for extra pop. There was a recall for poorly fitting windscreens.

INTERIOR

This is maybe the most underwhelming aspect of the MMSLR. Hop behind the wheel – all SLRs were left-hand drive by the way – and you might think you’ve been reborn as a Hamburg taxi driver. The steering wheel, instrumentation and centre console were lifted straight out of the SL, where they already looked a bit low rent.

Mercedes had form in this department. The 1997 CLK GTR was a full-blown GT endurance racer on the outside and a CLK 200 on the inside. The idea was to convince owners of common or garden Mercs that their cars weren’t that different to megabucks exotica like the GTR, but of course what this extreme range-stretching exercise also did was make owners of GTRs wonder why they’d just laid out a million quid for a view that they could have bought from Mike’s Motors for a grand. That’s simplifying it obviously, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the cabin drama in an MMSLR is more aural than visual.

There were some nice touches though. You could fire up the motor using just the ignition key, or you could turn the key and then press a start button underneath a flip-panel atop the gear selector. Releasing the central cubby lid on UK models revealed a built-in Nokia mobile phone with a special blue ‘spanner’ button which put you straight through to the McLaren factory for assistance.

The carbon-backed seats were customised for each owner. Along with the steering column they were electrically adjustable for angle and rake, but all in one piece rather than the usual back and seat arrangement. Getting out of the car on the driver’s side, under the wheel and across the wide sills, was made easier if you slid the seat back. From the inside you opened the door via a really cool handle positioned between the seat and the sill, which is where you’d also find the window and seat control switches.

The B-pillars got you sweating when you were entering a main road at an angle, but the boot was usefully large at 272 litres, and it was supplemented by neat compartments behind the seat. Talking of sweating, those side-exit exhausts made it unwise to roll your window down on a hot day, although the thunderous rumble almost made it worth the broiling. Air conditioning systems have been known to fail. Red aniline leather was a £7,000 option. An owner-exclusive SLR chronograph watch cost £8,500.

PH VERDICT

Maybe it was the size, maybe the cost versus cachet equation wasn’t quite right, maybe it was a bit too brash. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, the Mercedes SLR McLaren didn’t carve out a big or legendary niche for itself. World champion boxer and frilly shorts pioneer Prince Naseem Hamed had one, but he received a jail sentence for an overtaking manoeuvre that went horribly wrong.

You probably won’t fancy one if your idea of a supercar is whipcrack throttle response, whippet-quick direction changes and whip-’em-off Italian design house styling. If on the other hand you’re the sort who gets a strange trouser sensation from watching a Vulcan V-bomber doing a full throttle low-level pass, you think the E-Type long bonnet look is still the way forward, and you’ve got the readies, it should definitely be on your short list.

As you may have gathered earlier, at least part of the reason why the SLR is still relatively cheap to buy, given its exotic construction and fearsome performance, is the cost of running one. If money is still something you must consider, SLR parts and maintenance costs have the potential to turn your hair white on the spot. Looking hard at the paperwork on any car you’re thinking of buying, not just an SLR, is always standard advice but it really does go double for one of these. Find a car with the right service history and you’ll be in for a unique and hopefully not too expensive (compared to more modern and more complex supercars anyway) driving experience that works equally well on either a chilled vibe or a boot to the floor basis. Not every supercar provides that sort of choice. Nor will those other big-name cars offer the same ‘ooh, what’s that?’ appeal in the Lamborghini and Ferrari-clogged thoroughfares of Knightsbridge.

You might also reasonably hope that depreciation won’t be much of an issue with an SLR McLaren, either. Indeed, considering the current values of its contemporary rivals the CGT Porsche and the Enzo, you might find it difficult to imagine them dropping much below their current base of £235,000.

The most affordable SLR on PH Classifieds at the time of writing was this 2005 14,000-miler at that exact sum. Here’s a 2008 Roadster with just 2,000 miles recorded – not so cheap at £309,990.


Search for a used Mercedes SLR McLaren here

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