New Cars+New Gear+New Technology
Flirting With The Dark Side In The Most Powerful Mercedes Yet
* Deep within Daimler-Benz's monolithic enterprise resides an enclave for the Black arts. Conducting their secretive activities as the innocuously named AMG Performance Studio, these masters of arcane technologies are not content to perform such commonplace conjurations as turning lead into gold. Theirs is a greater magic, transforming already marvelous alloys of applied science into machines of extraordinary attributes--as I discovered once again in a day behind the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG Black Series.
The third in a hopefully unending series of Black Series specials, the SL65 Black is so far the most exciting, as well as the most terrifying. A cool head and prudent right foot are needed to keep the twin-turbo V12's 661 hp and 738 lb-ft of torque (electronically limited!) from overwhelming the traction aids, good as they are, which strain to retain a modicum of civilized behavior in a car that can roar from zero to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds and gets sideways even more quickly.
My drive from San Francisco to Laguna Seca began innocently enough, as U.S. roads are not built to accommodate the car's 198-mph top end, and my bank account is not built to accommodate several days' stay in the county jail. But once I began lapping Laguna's iconic road circuit, my velocity became limited not by fear of the law but concern for my ass.
You see, I'm not good enough for the Black, at least on the track. Driving on the street requires the self control of a monk. At full throttle it can make babies cry, grown men weep with envy, and little boys trail along after it like the Pied Piper's rats. And it attracts the law too. Be very careful, or you're going to be arrested on suspicion of something they'll figure out sooner or later.
Transforming the 601-hp SL65 AMG into the track-worthy Black required the wave of a huge financial wand (one reason each of the 175 examples coming to America will start around $300,000), but there's no magic wand big enough to grant me the nads necessary to approach the huge Dunlop tires' limits.
To help protect the unskilled driver and society at large, the Black retains all SL65 safety systems and, thus, much of its weight. So directing more than 4,000 pounds through the track's tight corners made my eyes water with concentration, and made me fully appreciate the special tweaks refined in the Performance Studio's labs and machine shops that turned a luxury car into a scary-fast bellowing beast.
Except for the redesigned twin turbochargers, not much was required to achieve the additional 58 hp, as the hand-built 6.0-liter's innards are plenty stout already. The turbos are newly configured with a spiral cross section that's 12 percent larger, which, together with optimized wastegate ducts, enable higher flow rates and increased power across the rev band. Cooling of the intake charge and engine has been improved by 30 percent more-efficient twin intercoolers, a repositioned radiator, high-performance aspirator, and large vents in the hood. A modified intake air duct and new mufflers deliver a distinctive and wondrous acoustic harmony combining turbo whistle and exhaust boom.
Director of vehicle development, Tobias Moers, and crew attacked the weight problem by fitting uniquely carved carbon-fiber panels in place of the steel fenders, quarter-panels, hood, and trunklid, areas crucial to an improved center of gravity. The convertible top and all its mechanisms are gone, replaced by a composite roof, reshaped windows, and an integrated roll bar. The net result is a loss of some 250 pounds. European models get lightweight race buckets, which would shave off about 125 more pounds, but they can't be fitted to U.S. models because of seatbelt and airbag regulations. I found the fixed carbon chairs extremely accommodating, and almost as comfortable in cruise mode as the leather-covered electrically adjustable seats that come on U.S.-spec Blacks. But crucially, the buckets were far more supportive through the tight bends of Laguna Seca. Owners with a hankering for weekend competition should consider finding a way to swap in the Euro seats.
Comfortable seats or not, there's no disguising the chief indicator of the Black's outer limits, a tautly wound suspension obviously tuned for fast laps. Conventional steel springs and shocks replace the heavier air springs and Active Body Control of the SL65, and, in line with previous Black Series, the whole shebang offers adjustable ride height, shock damping, wheel camber, and alignment for those few with the know-how to read a car's behavior at scary speeds. The massive tires are Dunlop Sport Maxx GTs wrapping lightweight forged OZ wheels, with 325/30ZR20s on the end of a 4.8-inch-wider track, and 265/35ZR19s fitted to a 4.9-inch-wider front track. (Those fulsome fenders aren't just for looks.) Peer within the wheel spokes and you'll find 15.4-inch two-piece rotors and six-piston calipers in front and 14.2-inch rears with four-piston calipers. They deliver fade-free stops in everything but hyperactive mode, when the car's weight-induced momentum starts to catch up to the braking power.
Those same physics are the reason why ultimately the SL Black is still a street car and not a race car. It is possible to completely disengage ESP, except during acceleration, when limits are electronically enacted both to save the machinery and to get power to the pavement in the most efficient way. This doesn't work so well on the track, though, stifling throttle-steer and slowing corner exits. And with the controls off, it's very difficult to keep the nose in front of the rear end at racing speeds. I tried it for a lap and a half and decided the Sport mode, which still allows a degree of chassis yaw before intervention, provided both the thrill and the safety net I prefer in incredibly powerful automobiles.
There's so much power on hand that AMG's familiar five-speed Speedshift Plus automatic might as well be a two- or three-speed. I never reached top gear at Laguna, and scarcely used the paddles behind the steering wheel. There are four drive programs: C, S, M1, and M2. Both manual modes retain the chosen gear and will not change up even at full throttle, M2 with a 20 percent quicker response time. The automatic double clutching on downshifts is cool and reduces the effects of load alteration on the chassis, which is especially crucial when braking for a corner on the race circuit or for safer driving in wet and icy conditions.
But that's all detail and, at the end of the day, is rendered meaningless by the brutish beauty of this latest Black. Let there be more!
2010 Mercedes-BenzSL65 AMG Black Series
Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive
6.0-liter V8, sohc 24-valve, twin turbo
Four-link front, multi-link rear coilover systems; adjustable shock damping, ride height, wheel camber
Six-piston fixed calipers, 15.3-inch perforated rotors (f), four-piston fixed calipers, 14.2-inch perforated rotors (r)
Length/Width/Height (in.):180.6/77.2/51.6Wheelbase: 100.8 in.Curb Weight: 4,200 lb (est.)
Peak Power: 661 hp @ 5400 rpmPeak Torque: 738 lb-ft @ 2200 rpm (limited)0-62 mph: 3.8 sec.Top Speed: 199 mph (limited)