Iron fist, velvet glove -- Nick Hall reports on a 560 bhp monster
Every so often we hear about neighbours that take a dispute to illogical extremes and, having argued about rights of way and just whose land that bloody hedge is planted on, one snaps completely and stabs his adversary to death with a pair of pruning shears. As part of his defence, his lawyers then argue that a sensible and decent man had taken leave of his senses and ‘things got out of hand.’
Things are much the same in the car world, as the fight over who can shoehorn the biggest engine into a saloon car dropped reason off by the side of the road long ago. Now Audi, BMW and Mercedes are squabbling for the sheer hell of it, and there could be an ugly incident with a lemon-scented face wipe, the sharpest object allowed on flights these days, if the execs ever end up together in first class.
And these domestic squabbles are echoed all over Germany, as the tuners take these overblown barges and drag a few more horses from under the bonnet in a bid to be the biggest and the best. Why? Because they can is probably the only answer Pistonheaders will require.
The Mercedes E55 AMG had already been usurped by the marque’s own CL65 AMG by the time I rolled up to a tiny airfield near Metz, France, to drive Carlsson’s much-vaunted variant – the CK55 RS. When you have 560 bhp, a set of old tyres and a test track to play with, however, that doesn’t matter too much.
“You can steer it on the throttle, you don’t even need a steering wheel,” said Carlsson Director Rolf Hartge, with a happy grin, before heading off on track to prove it. It took just three runs to emulate his sideways style, and prove that this car is more fun that most ‘proper sportscars’ when the traction control is off. Within 25 laps of this circuit that measured less than a mile, the tyres were threadbare and wrecked.
Before the rubber gave way, the CK55 RS proved itself to be the closest thing I have driven to a complete car: providing comfort and control at speeds approaching Mach 1. One hundred and forty mph feels like a walk in the park in this car, so well insulated is the driver from the mayhem at the wheels. It’s an iron fist in a velvet glove and is almost too calm, as I found myself with far too much speed on the clock heading into the braking zone on several occasions.
The front end lifts up speedboat-style as this cabin cruiser launches into the next county. It hits 60mph in 4.5 seconds, and the sensation is more dirty bomb in the back seats than kick in the back.
Carlsson’s machine has 84 bhp more than the standard car, which was hailed as the best sports saloon in the world when it was unveiled. It's all thanks to a remapped ECU, new exhaust and a few other minor accoutrements. These makes a minor impact on the headline acceleration figures but, far more importantly -- and this is the key to all AMG units -- the torque figure is now an epic 575 lb/ft. Just as a comparison point, the Lamborghini Murcielago delivers a piffling 400 lb/ft.
That's a tsunami of torque. Even playing with the paddle-shift gears becomes an unnecessary luxury as there is no lull anywhere along the torque curve and the smooth, uninterrupted progress on offer from the auto box is perfect.
The CK55 RS just acquires speed, relentlessly, while cosseting the driver in lounge room luxury and getting on with the job of devouring huge distances. At 155 mph, when the electronic limiter kicks in on the AMG car, Carlsson’s car will just keep accelerating all the way up to 200mph.
Point-to-point this car is so quick, and intelligent, that it arrives at places before you knew you wanted to go there. That is this car’s major selling point, but turn the traction control off and hit the loud pedal hard enough to kick down the gears, and the sheer violence of the forward motion would humble a fighter jet.
The manual option is worth its weight in gold heading into slower corners, though, as even AMG’s eight-piston front callipers struggled to slow this 1750Kg leviathan from 140 mph at the end of the circuit’s 300m straight. Hartge warned me not to push it hard everywhere, as the brakes would burn out faster than a Big Brother loser’s media career.
The air suspension in this car has been dropped by 30mm, sharpening the turn-in and minimising the pitch and roll. But it’s still a heavy and even the combined might of AMG and Carlsson cannot defy the basic laws of physics. Slow in and fast out in a straight line is the way to be quick here, while sideways is slow -- but much more fun.
This is an insane machine, and there’s no sign of this power struggle slowing up. AMG’s 6.5 litre unit has already made it into the C-Class and BMW has set to work on the M6, so there is certainly more to come. And as soon as they arrive on the scene, an army of tuners descends on the car to drag a little more from this highly tuned units, and make the Most Powerful Car in the World, for a couple of weeks at least.
Compared to the giant CK55 RS, the new SLK320 conversion was always going to be a little disappointing. It remains, however, an implausibly beautiful car in the flesh and, parked next to a Z4 or Boxster, it stands out like a supermodel at a fishwives’ convention.
This version has a variety of aesthetic modifications, including side skirts with integrated cooling ducts, a front splitter, sharp rear wing and a tarted up interior. Carlsson has never been one to overdress his cars, though, and the changes remain relatively subtle.
As the base car has just 163 bhp, the work under the bonnet was always going to be the most important thing and raising the supercharger’s boost, combined with a remapped ECU and new exhaust system, brought the horsepower up to 195 bhp. It’s not huge, but it’s a start.
More of a concern is that, with the traction control on, it suffers from disastrous understeer. With the electronic trickery turned off, and the hard top stowed, placing more weight over the rear wheels, the SLK starts to handle like a real sports car.
Built-in understeer tends to stop talentless drivers sliding backwards into trees, but it’s a frustrating driving experience for the rest of us and it would have been nice to see Mercedes go for an edgier product. At least this new SLK’s manual gearbox is on the money, though, which is a huge positive after the marque’s slavish devotion to automatics.
This car breaks the 60 mph barrier in 6.7 seconds and certainly felt laboured when things got beyond 130 mph, but then it’s only the entry-level model.
The SLK320 and AMG variants will be with us soon enough, and they should have the power to steer on the throttle and, hopefully, will have a little less chronic understeer. If so, the Carlsson-tuned versions of these cars should be something truly special.
Thanks to Jakob Ebrey Photography for the photos.