First drive: Andrew Frankel drives the Mercedes SLR

It's a silver medallist

All cars have a natural cruising gait, the highest speed they can reach without really trying. In human terms, a brisk jog. In a 2 litre Ford Mondeo, for example, that speed is about 95mph. In a Porsche 911 it is about 120mph.

It took me some time and a fair amount of South Africa (where I attended last's week's launch) to find a road sufficiently straight and long to discover what constitutes gentle exercise for this new Pounds313,465 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, but I managed it in the end. The SLR's natural cruising speed is 170mph.

At that speed it is comically relaxed. Flex your toes and it surges forward. Floor the throttle and it changes down, so much is there still up its sleeve. The car's top speed is 208mph, but that is only because its aerodynamics are designed to push the vehicle into the tarmac, therefore increasing drag. Without this effect it would do 220mph. At least.

The SLR is the second production car to wear the McLaren badge, the first being the 240mph F1 launched 10 years ago and still the world's fastest road car. Unlike the F1, the SLR is not a true McLaren, but neither is it an opportunistic example of "badge engineering".

The SLR may have been commissioned, styled, powered and paid for by Mercedes, but McLaren did the bulk of the design and engineering and will build the car in its factory in Woking, Surrey, at a rate of 700 per year from April.

Contrary to what its price, carbon-fibre construction and 626bhp output might suggest, the SLR is best not thought of as another rival to road racers such as the Ferrari Enzo and Porsche Carrera GT but one born from the same philosophy as the Aston Martin Vanquish or Ferrari 575 Maranello - only raised on a diet of weapons-grade plutonium.

It rides tolerably well, is quiet enough unless you are on coarse tarmac and it can be serviced by your local Merc dealer.

But at its core beats the heart of a true maniac. Thanks to a supercharged, 5.4 litre V8 motor, it will hit 60mph in 3.7sec and needs little more than 6sec more to double the score. It's fitted with a five-speed automatic gearbox - which can be operated from buttons behind the steering wheel, too - but I'm not sure why they bothered. The engine has so much torque, Mercedes could have omitted the gearbox altogether.

Nor is the SLR just a straight-line machine. In fact, the only thing more impressive than the Mercedes engine is McLaren's chassis. I spent two days going up and down mountains in an SLR and it was late on the second day - and only when I had plucked up the courage to be brutal with it - that I found its limit.

Unless you're certifiable or the road is wet, if you can find a corner, the SLR can go round it.

Which is why I'm going to hate writing these next paragraphs. Freud would have a field day with the car's shape, yet I still love the way it looks. And goes. And handles.

It should therefore be close to perfect, but in fact it's closer to throwing away a winning hand. Even at this price, no car is faultless and the SLR's list of flaws includes steering that is less communicative than it should be and too much cheap plastic in the cabin, which is itself quite confined for tall drivers.

There's also no manual gearbox option and, arrogantly, Mercedes won't let you have one in any colour other than silver or black.

Were I a rich man, all this I could live with. The brakes I could not. Don't misunderstand me: the space-age ceramic discs will stand the car on its nose from any speed you like and last 200,000 miles, but their operation is simply horrid.

Push the pedal a little and nothing happens, push a little more and your nose heads for the windscreen. It's enough to interrupt your flow on the kind of road for which the SLR was born, and around town it's infuriating.

Also, should you brake very hard (perhaps because there's a solid wall of traffic in front of you) the rear spoiler flips up, thereby functioning as an air brake and obscuring your view of anyone about to come piling into the SLR's boot.

And then there's the cost. As I mentioned earlier, the SLR is conceptually closest to the Vanquish and Maranello but you could damn near have both for the same price. Good though it is, it's not that good.

But what really frustrates about the SLR is that the rest of the car is so phenomenally good. Indeed, it's a set of steel brakes and a Porsche 911 off the list price from being one of the greatest sports cars of all time. All the elements are there, its other faults being insignificant by comparison.

Even as it is, it is one of the most memorable cars I've driven since the last one wearing the McLaren badge. The view down that endless bonnet, road stretching to the horizon, V8 thundering as we cruised across South Africa at 170mph, is one that will live in my mind long after the memory of its failings have faded.


Model: Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren
Engine type: V8, supercharged, 5439cc
Power/Torque: 626bhp @ 6500rpm / 575 lb ft @ 3250rpm
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Suspension: (front) Double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar (rear) double wishbones, coil springs
Fuel/CO2: 19mpg (combined) / n/a
Acceleration: 0 to 60mph: 3.7sec
Top speed: 208mph
Price: Pounds313,465
Verdict: Expensive, imperfect, but unforgettable
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars