Oh, Mercedes, you taunt us with your AMG performance figures, seductive exhaust notes and devilishly good looks. It's no wonder we had our driving shoes on within seconds of receiving confirmation of a spot on the AMG Driving Experience held at Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond, CA.
At the heart of it, Mercedes-Benz did what few manufacturers are prepared to do. They focused on the most important thing there is: seat time.
Our journey started at LAX Airport, where we were presented with a parking lot full of AMG models, ranging from the C63 AMG Edition 507 all the way to the G63 AMG, CLA45 AMG and SLS GT Roadster.
We hopped into our selected chariots and drove an hour or so to the desert racetrack. From that point on, almost all our time was spent on the track. Words can't articulate how awesome the next two days were.
We were on the Streets of Willow course - a shorter, tighter, slower track, in comparison to its brother "Big" Willow Springs over the adjacent fence.
Our choices were the new CLA45 AMG, E63 AMG S (both sedan and wagon) as well as the C63 AMG Edition 507. After selecting our ride we followed one of Mercedes' pro drivers who set the pace in an SLS AMG GT.
We weren't sure what to expect from this small, all-wheel drive sedan with its odd shape and intoxicating boosted four-cylinder engine, but we had a feeling it would be impressive. And it was. What we weren't expecting was to be blown away by the CLA's speed.
From the skidpad leading onto the front straight, we were able to experience the CLA's 4.6sec sprint to 60mph. This is absurdly quick for such a car.
The impressive pace was made possible thanks to a dual clutch seven-speed transmission and the world's most powerful four-cylinder motor, with 355hp and 332 lb-ft.
Putting the power down was effortless thanks to the 4Matic all-wheel drive but, as expected, there was some significant understeer if you entered the turns too hot. Slow-in, fast-out: the tactic suited the CLA perfectly and let us maintain a good pace on the tight track, although far from the SLS, of course.
Control was the overriding impression of the CLA45. It can be driven quickly and safely by just about anybody, and it'll make you giggle with all its pops, burbles, whooshes and whistles.
This was a car you want to own, play with and enjoy. It was a pleasure to feel it dance on the track, proving its AMG DNA was firmly rooted in its composition.
C63 AMG Edition 507
Let's face it; the C63 has many adoring fans. Granted, it's in need of an update, which will be taken care of soon but the Edition 507 boasts sexy matte paint, creamy leather upholstery, 507hp thanks to SLS AMG engine internals, and 174mph top speed. The C63 didn't need any of these upgrades, but the enhancements made the car just that much more appealing.
On the road, it was a joy, even if the auto transmission didn't always obey your inputs. The sound from the 6.2-liter V8 was intoxicating, and the drift-on-command behavior was second to none.
On the track, however, the coupe was quickly overwhelmed. There was little feedback from the front tires, so understeer was often evident but with a stab of the throttle the back-end was dancing behind you.
Fun? Most definitely. Quick and nimble on a tight racetrack? - You'd be better off in the CLA45.
E63 AMG S
No four-door saloon we've ever piloted has been so beastly. If anything would be overwhelmed by Streets of Willow and outpaced by the SLS AMG, we'd have guessed it would be the E63. But in truth, we were completely, utterly wrong.
The S model cranks out a stomach tingling 577hp and face melting 590 lb-ft of torque from its 5.0-liter twin-turbo V8. This would have been insane in a RWD platform, so the standard 4Matic AWD was an appreciated gift.
Even better was the balance, providing immediate turn-in with high entry speeds, minimal correction and enough torque and traction to slingshot you out of any corner. In fact, the pro driver in the SLS ahead mentioned he couldn't go any quicker on the same track. In fact, we're confident the E63 AMG S could lap Streets of Willow faster than the SLS.
The E63 is a magnificent machine, and the fact it will still oversteer and drift, thanks to 70% of the torque at the rear wheels when needed, made it that much better. Every gentleman racer should own one of these.
For the second day we'd get to sample "Big Willow" and experience its high-speed turns and gradients in another mouth-watering AMG car.
SLS AMG Black Series
The SLS "Black" is what we think the SLS should have always been: raw, loud, and fantastically visceral. It causes mouths to salivate and hands to tremble in its presence. It's a stunning vehicle to behold and just begs to be driven.
Had we taken it on the public roads, its strongest points could never be explored, but on Willow Springs, one of the fastest, most intense racetracks in Southern California, we were in the ideal spot to discover what the Black Series was all about.
The step from the SLS GT to the Black Series is along the lines of the step from an Audi A4 to the R8. The improvements were enormous and I'd never felt so confident in a car or hit as many apexes so perfectly as when I drove the SLS Black.
This was my first experience at Big Willow and I was warned about its intimidating nature. But after five laps I knew my braking points, turn-in points and where to stay flat. The car was more communicative and direct than anything I'd driven before. The limits were mind-blowing.
Our lead driver, Maximillian Gotz, had recently won the 24 Hours of Spa in a Mercedes SLS GT3, and was more of a driver with one hand than I'll ever be with two. We were chasing him in an SLS GT and we won't toot our own horns, but he couldn't shake us. Over the radio he admitted he was at the limit of the GT and at several points I was forced to back off for him. That's what the SLS Black can do for you!
The traction control was brilliant. Left in Sport+, you could explore some tail happy freedom. However, the car was downright fast in a straight line. With 622hp on tap and 468 lb-ft of torque, the thrust is unrelenting. And, unlike all other AMG models with the 6.2-liter V8, the Black Series revs to a cloud-kissing 8000rpm.
The transmission was Ferrari-aggressive, with gear changes coming instantaneously, as if the paddles had sent signals to the gearbox before your finger got there.
Max eventually hopped into an SLS Black Series himself, so we could finally drive the cars at ten-tenths, and that's when his skill was more obvious... After 20 laps in this extraordinary vehicle, we were high on adrenaline and gasping for water.
The SLS AMG Black Series is a masterpiece. It's one of the only supercars that truly makes you feel like a hero. Granted, it's something like $75000 more than the SLS GT, but on the track it seemed like a bargain. Tossing $275000 around never felt so good. It's a supercar that seemed to be worth every penny, so I'll start saving mine now!