I'm not going to lie, I was a bit nervous before getting the 2014 Mercedes-Benz SLS GT AMG Black Edition on the track. Sure, it's got those elegant gullwing doors to charm the sense out of you, but it's a genuinely intimidating machine. And I think a little bit of trepidation is healthy, since everyone should be a little nervous before doing anything with a monster.
And, let's face it, as sleek and handsome as this car is, it is most assuredly a monster. After AMG gets their labcoat-sleeved hands on it, the SLS GT Black Edition is a 4100 lb, 622 HP beast that can go from looking lovely parked to a mile-a-minute blur in 3.5 seconds. It's low and wide, and the hood appears to be about the length of a standard-size bowling lane.
So, sure, physical presence is a big factor in the intimidation, but so is the $275,000 base price. Add $16,000 if you want it in yellow, which, (in the alternate universe where I had this sort of money and everyone has a floating croissant over their heads giving them advice) I would. That kind of money will buy you a house in many parts of the country.
(Full Disclosure: Mercedes-Benz and AMG wanted me to take this on a track so very badly they gave me the roadster version to drive out to Willow Springs, and then ignored all the letters — including an impassioned plea from the United Way — that suggested I was in no way worthy of such an honor.)
So, the more-than-all-my-organs-are-worth price and the tricky, unfamiliar Big Willow track conspired to make my first laps in the SLS pretty tame. Eventually, after enduring the withering looks of disgust coming from AMG's talented racing drivers, I got comfortable enough to let a little more loose on the track, and the result was a substantial amount of respect for this car. And a big-ass grin.
Our own lovely Travis did get a chance to track one of these before, briefly. While he's a much better driver than me, I think we came to similar conclusions, and I ended up with a lot more time in the car. So, eat it, Travis.
Before going into how the SLS AMG Black Edition performs on the track, let's just go over some of the differences between this and the normal SLS GT. It's about 100lbs lighter, has 39 more horses (but loses 11 ft-lbs of torque, which is made up for with a higher-ratio final drive), can get to 60 a tenth of a second sooner, but is, oddly, 1 MPH slower in top speed, which is still a defiantly absurd 196 MPH.
It's also got a wider track front and rear, a special gas-filled strut engine brace for its front/mid-mounted 6.3L V8, many more carbon fiber parts and bits, a titanium exhaust system, and some differences in interior materials. All the interior bits are absolutely top-notch and everything is either leather or alacantra or metal and feels fantastic, even if Mercedes' name for their fancy interiors is 'Designo,' which sounds like what a crappy movie thug would call anyone sitting at a drafting table.
Crawling in through the gullwing door is always fun and pleasingly feels like entering a spaceship. If you're a littler sort of person like me (lots of Ashkenazi/Hobbit genetics) actually grabbing the open door to close it can be a challenge, but once inside everything feels snug but not claustrophobic at all.
The seats are like a luxury seat and a racing seat made sweet sweet love on a leather bed, and they're wildly adjustable, including a series of internal bladders to add tight bolstering, sort of like a Temple Grandin Hug Machine. My only complaint was that the controls for the air bolstering system are right under your right knee, and if your legs aren't really long it can feel awkward right there in the bend of your knee.
But who cares about awkward knee bends? Let's talk about driving this thing. You'll first notice that the sound is pretty amazing. A bit less showy than, say, the F-Type V8, but more imposing because of that. It's a deep rumble that sounds like its coming from deep within that massive hood. It's a sound that gets better as you get more in tune with the car, when the idea that you're causing the sound really starts to sink in.
Starting up, you may notice that the seven-speed sequential-shift transmission (transaxle is mounted at the rear to help keep the 53/47 weight distribution) doesn't really coast — you let off the gas when it's in first, and you'll feel it slow you down. That's a good hint that this car seems to like a pretty heavy foot.
The acceleration is incredible. We were trailing AMG's skilled drivers around the track, and they encouraged a pretty quick pace, which was alarmingly easy to reach, if not necessarily maintain. Uphill travel doesn't phase it a bit, and when I quickly peeked at the speedo on the long straight I saw we were hitting 130-140, and the car had plenty more to give, even if I didn't.
We were instructed to leave the traction control and the various robot guardians on, which made sense considering there was a couple of million worth of cars out there in the hands of non-race pros on a tricky track. While driving, you could certainly feel it working to keep everything composed, but it didn't take away from the experience at all. Especially when you consider the alternative.
Driving this car hard (at least for me) around the track was a very physical experience. Part of this has to do with the athletic nature of the car, and part with the track itself, which is full of elevation changes and off-camber turns and some alarmingly bumpy tarmac. The steering is well-assisted and never numb, and really loads up in a hard turn. As you brake, and weight shifts to the front, you can really feel it in the wheel, which grows surprisingly heavy and takes real effort to maintain position.
This isn't a bad thing at all, even if it is a bit demanding. You get a real sense of the scale of the forces acting on the car, and that helps you feel what's going on. It's honest, and makes no attempt to remove you from the action, which, frankly, you need to know about. Same goes for the lateral forces — in a fast sweeper turn you're bracing hard with your foot and your body is leaning deeply into the turn. I could feel the back end stepping out ever so slightly a few times, just enough to keep things exciting, but overall the car remained very composed.
There were a few points where there was some initial understeer coming into a turn, but on the whole the SLS AMG Black is impressively neutral. This holds no matter what suspension settings you have, though the maximum setting (both lights on the little button) is really stiff, and over Willow Springs' bumpy parts almost was too jarring at high speeds. Keep in mind, I'm no racing pro, so a more skilled driver may be fine with it.
The brakes are these massive two-piece carbon-ceramic discs the size of pizza trays, and they stop the car incredibly well. It's like a giant invisible bouncer puts his meaty hand on the front of the car firmly, but calmy, without making a scene, but it's clear you're not getting in. That's how it feels to stop — it's hard, but steady.
After three five-lap sessions, you climb out of that hatch sweaty, maybe a little shaky, and happily exhilarated. Sort of like what I imagine prom night with a grizzly might be.
The SLS AMG Black Series seems to be a wildly capable racing car. I'm sure Mercedes will have some real successes with the ones they're racing, but I have no idea if the people who will buy these have any intent of taking them to the track at all. I guess there's people who'll spend about 300 grand on a car with a $16,000 paint job and then happily whip it around a track, but I don't know them, and I suspect they have staffs of people to keep it that way.
If I can be so bold as to give these people a bit of advice, it may be this: I'm not sure the Black edition is really worth the extra money over the regular SLS GT. The black series gives you about 40 HP more, a touch less torque, a 1 MPH slower top speed (though at 196/197 MPH, who gives a shit) and one tenth of a second quicker acceleration to 60. So while there are performance improvements, they're not earth-shattering.
The regular SLS gullwing gives just as much amazing street presence — nobody's going to ignore a non-Black Edition one of these, and while I get the exclusivity of the Black is a big deal to some folks, it's not like you're seeing SLS crowding every Target parking lot as it is.
But what really made me realize this was that AMG's pro driver was in a regular SLS GT on the track, leading all us journalists in the Black Series ones. And he, of course, managed just fine. Someone like him could really wring out the extra performance of it, sure, but I think in the hypothetical world where I had this sort of cash to throw around, I could manage, somehow, to be just fine with a normal SLS.
Though I may spring for that $16,000 paintjob. I love yellow cars.