Does the world need a GTI version of a car this brisk? It’s here anyway | by Andrew Frankel
Engine: 6.2 litres, 8 cylinders
Power: 620bhp @ 7400rpm
Torque: 468lb ft @ 5000rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed double clutch, rear-wheel drive
Top speed: 196mph
For a company with such a usually sure touch, the calibre of Mercedes-Benz’s ‘Black Series’ products has been wildly variable over time. You will recall that these cars are the fastest of the fast, the ultimate expression of in-house tuning company AMG’s abilities.
All have two seats and fixed roofs. Although not limited in numbers, Black Series cars are never in production for long and never more than one model at a time. Naturally enough, given the real commercial purpose behind these cars, their timing is arranged for the model’s run-out phase not just to score proper money for a small number of soon-to-be-discontinued cars, but also to sprinkle a little sunlight on their less muscular brethren as they do. The first was the SLK 55 Black Series of 2006 – a misjudgement from Mercedes as rare as it was startling.
In the race track environment for which it was allegedly born, its handling veered sufficiently between incompetence and malevolence to make me want to get out. Even AMG engineers eventually admitted privately it had been rushed into production before it had been properly developed. But the next car, based on the CLK, was a masterpiece. So much so that if you can find one of just 31 imported into the UK, you’ll still probably need to pay £70,000 or more for a six-year-old, left-hand-drive car. Despite a far more pugnacious appearance, on the track it was everything the SLK failed to be: fast, forgiving and for those versed in the art of oversteer, fabulously good fun.
I’m still wondering, then, how they failed to reach such standards with the next car, the SL65 AMG Black Series. It’s not as if they didn’t try hard: to create it Mercedes designed what remains even today its most powerful engine – a 6-litre twin turbo V12 with 670bhp – and made the first hard-top SL by engineering a carbon fibre roof as part of a diet that dropped the SL’s weight by more than 250kg. The idea was sound and the visual execution magnificently menacing, but for all its colossal speed the car was slightly insipid relative to expectations. It still felt heavy, was out of its depth on track and wanted to understeer its way through every corner.
And so the see-saw fortunes of these cars continued. The most recent Black Series, based on last year’s C-class, swiftly became my favourite road car for its combination of track-day thrills and surprising on-road civility.
But I guess all along Black Series fans were wondering what would happen to the SLS supercar if given the treatment. It’s a car that’s hitherto been denied to us because the SLS has remained in production. But now its time is limited – sales will stop early next year to make way for a new, more affordable Porsche 911 rival – so Mercedes has produced what, on paper at least, should be the finest road car in its long and illustrious history, and in that I include all versions of the McLaren-built SLR.
Like all Black Series, the SLS is a lighter, stiffer, more track-focused version of the host car. Unlike its forebears however, it’s based on an already light and stiff chassis, so AMG’s scope in these directions was limited. Even so weight is down 70kg to 1550kg or, put another way, fully 80kg lighter than the more expensive Ferrari F12.
The engine is still a venerable 6.2-litre normally aspirated V8 and in this, it’s final iteration, its output has been raised by 59bhp to 622bhp. More significant is substantially lower gearing, a new electronic limited-slip differential, a wider track (front and rear) and spring rates raised by an average of almost 50 per cent. And, of course, no Black Series offering would be complete without a plethora of wings and spoilers.
I didn’t like it much at first. There are some supercars – the Aston Vantage V12 S springs most readily to mind – in which you feel comfortable and confident from the off. On any road in any conditions, you can’t turn the wheel without it reassuring you about whose side it is on. The SLS is not like this.
Truth is, all SLS road cars have been a little tricky to drive (unlike the GT3 race car, which is utterly vice-free), but I was still a little disappointed. In cold, dark, wet conditions I could feel the diff and see via flashing dash lights the safety systems working harder than they should to keep me pointing in the right direction. An F12 is far easier to drive.
But some cars reward time spent getting to know them and this is one of them. Thanks to the stiffness of its suspension and the compound of its Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, the SLS Black Series is a car that needs to be in its preferred surroundings – dry, open, quiet and fast roads with a ground temperature of at least 10deg C – before it starts to behave as you’d hoped it would all along.
When it does however, a mesmerising experience awaits. This is a car that will always keep you busy and that’s just how I like it: one of my problems with a car like the Porsche 911 Turbo S, which is £90,000 cheaper and probably quicker both point to point and in a straight line, is that it wants you to sit back and relax while it does it all for you. I don’t want to be a passenger in any car, let alone one like this. So in the SLS you have to work to manage its mass, keep it balanced and feel for the traction limit. This is a front-engined car that turns in like a mid-engined machine and will never, ever understeer – but if you are presumptuous about how readily it will accept power after the apex, it will slither and slide like an
old-school front-engined GT.
It is a strange skill set for a car to possess: it has the speed of the state-of-the-art supercar it is, yet the feel of something altogether older. It seems like the best of both worlds and, in the correct conditions, it comes close to achieving it. Indeed there were times when I wondered if there was anything on sale I’d rather be driving.
But there were also many more times when I’d have happily forsaken it and climbed instead aboard a diesel-powered C-class. In the right place and time the SLS Black Series is wondrous, otherwise it’s better off parked.
For a more mainstream machine this would be a disastrous, terminal flaw. But for something as exotic and specialised as this, I think such a tight focus is forgivable. Anyone who has almost a quarter of a million pounds to spend also has a garage full of machinery more suited to the conditions in which the SLS struggles. It can therefore be saved for only those journeys to which it is inherently suited.
Of course this makes it a flawed and limited machine, but you can say exactly the same about the Ferrari F40, which remains my favourite road car of all time. Both remind me of Longfellow’s little girl: ‘When she was good, She was very good indeed. But when she was bad she was horrid.’ I felt much the same way about the SLS Black Series.