Cars intended to function equally well on road and track rarely work. To a car designer they’re as different as land and sea and you only need to watch a seal try to move down a beach to know how optimising a design for one environment can compromise it for another.
It’s a balance Mercedes has sometimes struggled to find with its AMG ‘Black Series’ products. The first was based on the SLK and proved a terrible car. It had more power than its chassis could cope with and was frustrating on the road and, at times, scary on the track without ever being in the least bit rewarding.
The next one seemed even less promising, based as it was on the mediocre CLK, but against the odds it was inspirational. So hopes were high for the SL-based Black Series, with its 670bhp, twin-turbo 6-litre V12 motor but then swiftly dashed. It was restless and remote on the road and, for all its power, neither capable nor particularly entertaining on the track.
What, then, to make of this new Black Series, based on the C63 AMG coupe but with its pumped up haunches and two-seat interior? On paper not too much. An additional £40,990 over the £57,775 charged for the standard and hardly pedestrian C63, liberates just 53 extra horsepower from its mighty 6.2-litre V8, enough to shave 0.3sec off the 0-62mph time.
Top speed has risen from 155 to 186mph, but only because Mercedes has rewritten the line of code in its electronics to say 300 rather than 250km/h. Both are entirely artificial limits. There’s not even been a massive weight saving: the Black Series SL was 200kg lighter than the donor vehicle, this C-class has a token 20kg less heft to carry.
And yet, when you drive it, you discover another Black Series car that confounds expectations — this time, thank goodness, for all the right reasons. The cabin sets the tone for what’s to come. There are no rear seats in here, and only the slimmest of racing buckets for you and your soon to be terrified passenger. The steering wheel is the same, but now it has a suede rim. Mercedes could have saved a load more weight by throwing away all comfort and convenience items such as climate control and navigation but only at the cost of compromising its sales potential. Unless you stray into the hardcore world of Radicals, Caterhams and Ariel Atoms, customers actually want this stuff in their performance cars more than they might admit. It starts with a bark that would wake half the street were owners of such cars inclined to live in terraces. There’s no getting around it, the V8 cannot help giving a small but deafening whoop simply at the joy of being called to action. You select drive and creep away at idle, muttering apologies to your neighbours as you pass.
Dawn is definitely the best time for you to drive this car and the worst for those who live nearby. It throws its big surprise before you’ve done much more than tickle the throttle. Even on quite tricky surfaces, this is a remarkably comfortable car given its apparent singularity of purpose. It’s not soft — on the contrary in fact — but the suspension is so well damped it takes the sharp edges off every imperfection you hit. If you’re wondering where that extra £40,000 has been spent, I wouldn’t mind wagering that a disproportionate amount went on the dampers.
But it does make you fear for it. Cars that are this nuanced and accommodating at such low speeds have a tendency to come unstuck as effort levels rise. The Black Series SL, for instance, became progressively less manageable the faster you went, to the point that on the track you had to be consciously conservative with entry speeds into corners to stop the power of the engine overwhelming the abilities of its chassis. Not this time. This Black Series model starts good, and then only gets better. On my usual test route, tackled while all sensible people were still in bed, this 1710kg, front-engined, automatic Mercedes coupe brought most readily to mind the memory of the Porsche 911 GT3. Despite the Mercedes’ weight and the positioning of its engine, it has that Porsche deftness, the ability not only to get into a corner on exactly the line you had intended, but then to stay there, rooted to your chosen trajectory, no matter what changes in camber or surface the road might throw at you.
Indeed because it resists understeer more, I’d say it was more reassuring and easier to drive cross-country than a GT3 if, ultimately, probably not quite so quick or communicative. Perhaps more than any other car with this level of performance, the Mercedes makes you confident, confident it will be able to cope with whatever challenge you set it. On the public road this is not necessarily an entirely good thing, because it encourages anti-social behaviour. It’s so controllable you can drive it at outrageous angles of attack without ever using more than your fair share of road. All you’ll do instead is scare occupants of on-coming cars. So if you really want to explore what this car can do, there’s only one sensible place to do it.
But that’s on a circuit, where I confidently expected the C-class’s composure to fall apart. It was so good on the road, it had to go all wrong on the track.
Except it doesn’t. I’ll grant that the road is its preferred habitat and not even some of the best judged suspension settings you’ll find on a road car can ameliorate entirely the unavoidably negative effects of its substantial mass. But it doesn’t get ragged if you slightly overdo your entry speed as did the Black Series version of the SL, it just scrubs off in mild and stable understeer until it’s ready to commit to the corner.
By now you may be wondering why I have got so far through this story without going into much detail about its engine and gearbox. The reason is that the chassis is so good, it reduces these other components to mere supporting roles. The V8 is lusty and sounds great but it’s really just there to get the car to the speeds at which you can best enjoy its handling. The paddle shift gearbox is less good, sometimes pausing before up changes and refusing downshifts even when in its most sporting setting.
Like all Black Series cars, the C-class is built in limited numbers, which is why Mercedes can charge so much for it: people will pay for the exclusivity and the residual value that results. And now that the BMW M3 GTS and Porsche 911 GT3 are no longer on sale, there really isn’t anything else like it out there. A Nissan GTR would be quicker still but, to me at least, nothing like as good either to own or drive. So for now at least, it exists in a tiny little bubble all of its own. Those preparing new rivals for it need to know it’s going to take a hell of a lot of bursting.