There are so many things about the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren that don’t make any sense. 

Introduced in 2003 as a coupe, and then later as a roadster, the SLR is a riot of contradictions. It is a carbon-tubbed, high-tech supercar, but, 40 years after a mid-engined layout became the supercar norm, it has its supercharged V8 up front, driving the rear wheels through an old-school five-speed automatic.

The layout may make you think grand tourer instead. But, in part thanks to that carbon tub, the resultant high sills and transmission tunnel, the SLR actually isn’t very spacious, it doesn’t have much trunk space, and much like the original 300SL, it gets kind of hot inside on long trips (despite the A/C). It suspension setup is also fairly extreme for a grand tourer – set up for carving corners at the expense of ride quality, working in tandem with active aerodynamics to keep the car glued to the road.

So what is the SLR, then? It’s a collaboration between Mercedes-Benz – maker of superior luxury cars, and boisterously powerful AMG engines – and McLaren – experts in lightweight carbon construction and studied minimalism. But it’s also symbolic of a power struggle between those companies rendered real in carbon, leather, and metal, a rolling artifact of how the two companies fought over purpose, specification, and direction – and produced one of the most unique supercars of a generation. Gordon Murray, McLaren’s lead engineer, fought for something racy, mid-engined, and ultra-lightweight; Mercedes wanted something with a broader range of abilities; in the end, they both won.

The SLR is, more than 15 years on from its introduction, still a captivating thing to look at, sit in, and drive – largely because it’s like nothing else. Its exaggeratedly long nose, shaped like the F1 cars of the era, yawns wide over a massive engine bay – most of which seems to be air intake, the engine pushed far back in the chassis. While the supercharged 5.5-litre V8 may be in front of the driver, the SLR is, in fact, mid-engined, with more weight over the rear wheels than the fronts – which goes a long way to explaining why its occupants sit over the rear axle, and why the passenger compartment is so relatively tight.

Its mid-engined nature explains the edge to the way the SLR drives, as well. While you sit behind a relatively familiar Mercedes steering wheel, staring at a set of gauges (McLaren logos aside) shared with SLs of the same period, the instantaneous steering response, the way the car almost twitches into bends, is very different. The carbon construction, the weight distribution, and the way you sit so far back from the nose, give the SLR a completely different feel to any other supercar – just as responsive, but unfamiliar, unique, and challenging. 

In 2003, the 617 hp produced by the twin-spark, three-valve, supercharged V8 was world-beating; it’s still a huge amount of power now, particularly when packed into this chassis. It also has a world-beating noise, the side-exit exhausts right in front of the driver and front passenger delivering their signature combination of rumble, crackle, and bang.

 

Eschewing the manual, or single-clutch automated gearboxes proffered by other carbon fantasies of the period, the SLR packs a sturdy five-speed Mercedes automatic – the only transmission the brand had at the time that could handle the V8’s 575 lb-ft of torque. The gearbox, and the relatively relaxed cruising that it permits, adds another dimension to the SLR, and gives it usability and flexibility that similarly-priced cars from the era can’t match: it’s an okay car to sit in traffic with; it deals with long drives relatively easily, heat soak aside; and it’s docile when maneuvering around urban spaces – no fried clutches, no high-strung histrionics.

While the tight cabin and relatively small trunk ultimately mean the SLR is compromised as a true grand tourer, there’s no doubt that it feels special inside. The lightweight bucket seats are carbon-framed but still adjustable, with thin leather pads fastened to them. The materials used for the interior trim are beautiful and feel like they’ll last forever. The now-outdated radio hides behind a metal cover, keeping the interior looking classic and timeless. And there’s a solidity to everything you touch that reminds you why Mercedes-Benz is the oldest carmaker in the world. Of the mid-2000s supercar triumvirate, the SLR is easily the most comfortable, best-equipped, and best-finished.

Because of that, and its unique mechanical and structural configuration for the time, the SLR is a fascinating ownership proposition. It is a car that, in speed terms, will hang with the Carrera GT and Enzo, but that will do it in a completely different way. It’s a car that, in philosophical terms, is unlike any other modern supercar. And it’s an artifact of a very specific point in history when Mercedes-Benz and McLaren were at the height of their collaboration, but still approached road car engineering philosophy in completely different ways. As such, there’s nothing else quite like it – and a coupe or roadster would add diversity and interest to any significant collection.