MERCEDES-BENZ SLS AMG BLACK SERIES: DRIVEN
Harris in another SLS but this one isn't electric powered...
Tampering with the SLS is a hazardous exercise though, because its complex character isn't one which will readily accept what is probably best described generically as 'the GT3' treatment. In standard specification the SLS is part 458 rival, but the more you live with one, the more you come to revel in its modern-muscle car personality. It's the car the Viper always should have been, but at a slightly silly price level.
More of the same?
To many the SLS is already fast enough, and it isn't really a track car - although it's actually very competent on a circuit. Simply bunging more performance at it is potentially the same as heaping more raw chili into a Chicken Jalfrezi and expecting an instant Vindaloo.
The normally aspirated M156 6.2-litre V8 is now in its final evolutionary spurt. It has been heavily reworked to produce 631hp at 8,000rpm, some of those extra horses come at the expense of torque, whose peak figure actually dips 9lb ft over the standard car. Still, 469lb ft should give reasonably serene part-throttle progress, and combined with a 70kg weight reduction over the standard car, the Black Series is pushing itself into territory currently owned by very fast cars. For the predicted £230K asking price, it needs to be both fast and desirable.
Some send off
If any motor deserved a decent send-off then the stalwart AMG 6.2 V8 as the one - it was the centre-piece of AMG's ascension over the past decade and what first appeared in a W211 E-Class now has shorter intake runners, altered valve timing, wider main bearings and a more powerful oil system. It exhales through a new titanium exhaust system which alone saves 13kg.
Weight saving measures from both the racer and the Electric Drive bring the kerb weight down to 1,550kg - quite impressive for something this big which retains much of its luxurious interior. Carbon ceramic brakes are standard, the bonnet is carbon, as is the prop-shaft and a lithium-ion battery is fitted. The front wings are 13mm wider, the rears 26mm wider allowing tracks to increase 20 and 24mm respectively and 10x19-inch and 12x20-inch rims to be fitted. Tyres are the brand new Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 first seen on the 918 Spyderpre-series cars.
The suspension layout is the same as every other SLS, but pretty much everything has been uprated, stiffened and made track-worthy. In fact the more you pore over the spec sheet, the more you realise that despite the high sticker price, the Black Series offers an awful lot of extra sexy engineering given its £50,000 premium over the SLS GT. And that's before you've factored in the new electronically controlled differential which looks like a very clever solution for the eternal problem of finding enough traction from something this potent and at the same time avoid it being a understeering nightmare.
Test time was tight in the Black, and limited to a flat race track - which is a shame because I suspect many owners will use theirs on the road. How many of these owners will there be? Not more than 350, according to AMG.
The engine fires with the usual extravagant V8 booooom, but after that all is different. It shudders and jostles and generally feels like it doesn't want to idle. The dual clutch transmission has been recalibrated for faster shifts (and placed a little lower in the car), we're in manual mode with the dampers in the firmest setting. There are two carbon Recaro buckets. The rubber is already warm.
Induction noise dominates everything below 100mph, above that figure the wind stands a chance of competing. The gearshifts are fast by SLS standards, but still can't compete with the 458's whip-crack equivalents - apparently the extra inertia of the AMG V8 cannot allow as fast a shift as the flat-plane Ferrari. Having an extra 600rpm doesn't sound like much, but the entire character of the engine has changed and above 6,000rpm there's a mean, DTM-style induction blare which actually sounds even better from outside the car. It feels every bit as quick as the claimed 3.6-second 0-62mph claim.
The standard SLS turns very well on a circuit: that front-mid-engined layout manages the understeer, so adding a load of track width, some sticky rubber and a clever diff can only be good news. At low to medium speeds, the Black just turns - no fuss, just hit the apex and move on. That electronic diff gets rather lost in the headline numbers, but it's a little stroke of genius and I think we'll see it deployed in several other AMGs. It locks quite tight on the exit phase, but under brakes you can feel it free-up and allow some trail-braking into turns, and unlike the Jaguar version it doesn't fade under continual abuse. It's very impressive.
This car loves fast turns: it's incisive, stable and very secure - best of all it gives the driver real confidence to aim that long bonnet exactly where you want it. The new Michelin tyre is certainly grippy, but it didn't last long around Paul Ricard - you had perhaps two maximum-attack laps before it needed time to cool, but the grip degradation wasn't too sudden and it was very forgiving for the silly oversteer shots. And it didn't destroy itself anything like as quickly as expected. Those monster 402mm front carbon ceramic rotors can handle sustained heavy loads, but the pedal does lengthen slightly over time and they need a good cooling phase to keep them healthy.
So the Black Series is a very accomplished, very entertaining track car. But is it a car that will ever find itself being used in this way? Perhaps - but at £230K it's a lumpy thing to risk burying in the gravel. I love the driving experience, but am not so sure that the SLS shape lends itself to the cartoon extensions of the Black treatment as well as the lesser C-Class - but there's no denying it has presence. Maybe it just needs the proper wing from the GT3 racer to complete the quasi-racer effect?
Me? I'd have it for the doors alone. I just never tire of those doors.
MERCEDES-BENZ SLS AMG BLACK SERIES
Engine: 6,208cc V8
Transmission: 7-speed dual clutch auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 631@7,400rpm
Torque (lb ft): 468@5,500rpm
Top speed: 197mph
MPG: 20.6mpg (NEDC combined)
Price: c. £230,000