Although the new Mercedes AMG SL65 Black Series appears to be a car entirely out of tune with society right now, there’s something very obviously compelling about a new Mercedes that costs £250,000 and which is speed restricted to 199mph, particularly if you are a fan of fantastically expensive, ludicrously fast cars.
What’s more, when you look closely at what this car can do, and how it achieves its many goals, it’s not quite the fuel-quaffing leviathan it would appear to be. The whole idea of AMG’s Black Series philosophy is to take regular AMG products and make them leaner and more efficient – as well as faster and more powerful. Hence the reason why the Black SL65 is, in fact, 5% LESS thirsty than the regular SL65, mainly because it weighs so much less in the first place – 250kg less to be precise.
What we are looking at here is a two-seater, front-engined supercar that’s made from some of the most exotic materials on earth, with a twin-turbo V12 engine that can propel it from 0-60mph in 3.8sec and from 0-124mph (200kmh) in 11sec dead. That puts it in the same league broadly speaking as the Porsche 911 GT2, Ferrari 599 GTB and Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4, all of which cost considerably less than the AMG but none of which are as exclusive in terms of production numbers.
As you may or may not know, this is the third of AMG’s Black Series cars, the first being the SLK of 2006, the second the excellent CLK of 2007. As intimated they are each intended to be more focused versions of existing AMG products, and unless they have two seats and a fixed roof they don’t comply with the Black Series rules, hence the reason the regular SL65’s folding metal roof has been ditched in favour of a fixed item made entirely from carbon fibre. As is the bonnet, boot, spoilers and splitters.
Even so, you still have to make do with AMG’s rather ancient five-speed automatic gearbox, whereas with the far cheaper SL63 you get an infinitely more sophisticated seven-speed semi-auto. Why doesn’t the Black get the seven-speeder as well? Because it can’t handle the V12’s torque, not even in its reduced state of tune, and on the track this turns out to be one aspect of the car’s performance that doesn’t work as well as it should. There are gaps in the gear ratios on a circuit, although on the road you are rarely aware there’s anything amiss.
On the other hand, there’s no doubting how committed AMG has been towards the chassis. Not only is the steering faster, featuring just 1.7 turns across the locks despite an almost identical turning circle, but the suspension has been completely redesigned to deliver optimum control as well. There are proper track-spec coil over dampers at the front and the entire multi-link rear suspension is now adjustable, so if a customer wants to change the way their car handles, AMG will duly oblige.
Which is just as well because, in its standard tune, the SL65 Black does understeer. I drove it for a morning around the Laguna Seca Raceway in California and generally had a ball on the circuit. The way the car fires itself out of corners, with virtually no body roll and surprisingly good traction, is quite astonishing.
Even with the three stage ESP switched off there is, amazingly, not much wheelspin so long as you aren’t a complete berk with the throttle, and the suspension control – and the brakes – are pretty mind-boggling for a 1870kg car. The steering, too, feels much sharper than in any other SL, allowing you to pin the nose to apexes with far greater accuracy.
As for the raw performance, it’s incredible. There may be other supercars that make a better noise than the surprisingly refined SL Black, but there are few that can level with it when you put your foot down at the beginning of a long straight, and there aren’t many of those at Laguna Seca.
Having said that, the SL Black isn’t perfect. On the road, so stiff is the suspension that the ride is beyond firm, it’s almost non-existent. Even the smallest road scars cause the frame to shudder quite violently, while over bigger ruts you just have to hang on and hope that your eyeballs don’t fall out.
But the most significant issue with the car is the way it ploughs on – understeers – on the circuit, no matter what you try to do with the throttle to counter this. It either pushes on a bit if you try quite hard, or a lot if you try very hard, and although AMG points to the fact that customers can alter the set up of their cars thanks to the adjustable suspension, surely they could have designed it to be less understeering in the first place?
The flip side to this is that, just as AMG claims, the car is extremely stable at the back end and is, for the average customer, very easy to drive for a 200mph hyper-car. And in saying this they do have a point. But you can’t help thinking that they need to trust their customers a little more with the standard set up. It’s not as if this is a mass-produced car, after all.
But the interior, while perfectly decent in layout and look, doesn’t sit too comfortably with the £250,000 price tag, not when you compare it to the far more seductive cabin of the cheaper Ferrari 599 GTB. Apart from a white rev counter, a pair of high-sided bucket seats and one or two flashes of carbon fibre on the dash, there is little else to distinguish the Black’s cabin above the regular SL65’s. That’s a fairly major disappointment, pretty much from the moment you open the door and climb aboard.
The engine note, too, is not exactly synonymous with the amount of money AMG is asking customers to part with. Although around two thirds of SL Blacks will, says AMG, be bought by people already familiar with the brand, they are still looking to attract over 100 new customers with this car, and that means people who drive Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis, all of which deliver more drama through their exhaust systems.
Which leaves AMG in the enviable position of having created a car that, in most ways, is sensational but which is far from perfect overall considering how much it costs, yet entirely confident that it will sell each and every example it builds. When the car was announced at the beginning of this year AMG had originally counted on selling 30 examples in Germany with the vast majority going to the United States.
One thing’s for sure, AMG is on the up right now. The SL65 may not be the perfect supercar but it is massively, heroically impressive all the same. As is the fact that AMG’s market share is up by 25 per cent year on year in 2008. Recession, what recession?
Mercedes AMG SL65 Black Series
0-62mph 3.8sec (claimed)
Top speed 199mph (claimed)
Torque 737lb ft ft/2200-4200rpm
Power to weight 354bhp/tonne
Torque to weight 394lb ft/tonne
CO2 emissions n/a
Economy 19.6mpg (combined)
Range 274 miles
Kerb weight 1870kg
Fuel tank 80 litres
Boot 270 litres
Engine layout V12, 5980cc, twin-turbo petrol
Installation mid, longitudinal, rear wheel drive
Specific output 111bhp/litre
Compression ratio 9.0:1
Gearbox 5-speed automatic
Front suspension four link, adjustable coil over dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Multi-link, adjustable coil over dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Steel ventilated discs all round, 390x26mm front, 360x26mm rear
Wheels magnesium alloy, 19in front, 20i rear
Tyres Dunlop SP Sport Maxx; 265/35 ZR 19in front, 325/30 ZR20in rear