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Speed Week: Deutsch Marques

  1. Solarbeam Yellow paint. On a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series, with the optional naked carbon-fibre aero package. This is a retina-kicking machine. As it hits its stride on the autobahn out of Stuttgart, everyone else on the road gets streaks in their vision and a brief auditory trauma. The re-engineered Black Series version is the SLS turned up to somewhere way beyond 11. Every time a tiny chink opens through the traffic, the car is onto it: V8 thunder cascading from its titanium exhaust, yelping forward like an over-scale firecracker. It is the emperor of the autobahn.

    Photos: Dom Romney

  2. But the fellow who’s recently fallen awkwardly down through the aperture of its gullwing door and into its snug, dark driver’s post is less emperor, more gibbering serf. I’ve driven a lot of fast cars (fairly) fast, but this one leaves a first impression of such brutal sharpness that I don’t mind admitting I start out intimidated. At a dawdle, it’s juddery and rattly. But speed isn’t easy, either: when the road really opens up and there’s the chance to get close to the theoretical and legal 196mph top speed, my right ankle refuses to stay extended. Aiming the car between the barrier and a lorry being sucked backwards at three-figure speed needs a steady hand, and the steering’s nervy directness isn’t helping.

  3. No matter, there will be ample time to let the relationship blossom. We have this car and two more to keep it company for a lovingly mapped journey through five countries, culminating in two days with the rest of this month’s cover stars at a most spicy race track. “We” being a convoy chosen from the holy trinity of German premium factory tuners. The in-yer-face entry from Mercedes AMG, plus its rather more reserved-looking compatriots from Audi quattro RS and BMW M. Top Gear’s Team Germany.

  4. The Audi RS6 is a machine for the relentless acquisition and retention of momentum. The 560bhp V8 engine sounds soft, and its initial responses are gentle, but don’t be fooled. Those well-upholstered arms will catch you in a bear hug and hurl you forward on the twin-turbo cyclone. On the autobahn, its ease and stability insulate you from the speed. You sit there in your quilted leather throne, wondering how many bankers they had to skin to get a perfectly aligned pinstripe for the trim veneer, and, shucks, you’ve used up an entire country.

  5. So we hit the speed-restricted motorways of Austria and Switzerland. Adding another flag to our tick-box list, we dip into Liechtenstein. The Prince’s castle gazes down on this mountainous little kingdom of evident prosperity. Yet, on a Saturday afternoon, the shops and cafes are shut. Pavements are empty. A sterile place, indeed. And women got the vote here only in 1984. It’s a favoured domicile for those who consider Switzerland too socially liberal and too fiscally transparent.

  6. Ten minutes in Liechtenstein is more than enough for us. Back in Switzerland, the mountains dominate our vision and our thoughts. They even affect the illumination and the colours here in the valley bottoms, the narrow sky providing a theatrical spotlight that paints the springtime meadows and woods in near-fluorescent greens. We peel off the motorway after Chur and begin a gentle ascent of the westwards valley, between chalet villages and meadows of big-eyed cows where Family Robinsons are gathering the hay. Lovely, but not enough to distract us or delay us from the pull of what lies just ahead: three juicy high-mountain passes.

  7. I climb the first of them in the M135i. There’s a lot to like. On the motorway, its seats and ergonomics and peacefulness. Up here, most of all, its engine, the lovely 3.0-litre turbo six, which always has answers and always provides them with tuneful relish. Cars like this have scuttled down to four cylinders, but the torque and joyous harmonics make BMW’s alternative a jewel. The grip’s strong and the ride supple, so it’ll get its efforts onto the roadway and scorch out of hairpins. The M135i is small and handy and fun, but it’s not quite as precise or communicative as I’d hoped it’d be. But as the road narrows and gets gravelly and treacherous with meltwater, it’s more or less keeping the SLS in sight. A bargain.

  8. But the Audi is the one that laughs in the face of difficulty. The addictive ease of its any-revs propulsion and its immense traction pin you, giggling, to the seat. Fast Audis have always done that. But this one also has better weight balance - the old RS6’s V10 has given way to a V8 and it’s moved further back, and there’s aluminium in the body. Around a bend when the inevitable understeer arrives, you just floor it and the diffs will cancel it out, tracking you around the arc. Yes, you’re a bit of a passenger, as there’s not much steering feel or sensitivity, but its sheer face-bending effectiveness truly moves the needle. Especially given that it’s also acting as pantechnicon for several bulky hundredweight of filming gear.

  9. At the top of the Oberalp Pass, there’s a lighthouse. Swiss joke. It marks the source of the Rhine. There’s also a railway alongside the road, and we run alongside a train for a minute or so. You can see the ripple of eye-swelling excitement run through the carriage of schoolkids as they clock and gawp at the SLS.

    The road sweeps and swerves its way down to Andermatt, and then we get to do it all again, over the even more epic Furka Pass. That one’s smoother and more open. A place where the SLS gets to play boss. We end the day tucked into a cleft between these epic mountains at Obergoms. Next morning, we get up early, not because we must, but because we can; filling the dawn sky above us are the giant ranges among which the Nufenen Pass wriggles its way up to 2,478m.

  10. It’s a wide and well-surfaced road, absolutely no one else is around at this hour, and I’m ready to have a crack at the SLS. This is the moment I’m going to have to man up. Or, because Top Gear isn’t a ‘men’s magazine’, person up. This is a car of the utmost engineering diligence. The SLS engine was already close to the internally combusted pinnacle, but for the Black Series it’s been meticulously revised to allow it to spin to 8,000rpm, and make 622bhp. Overall weight is significantly cut, its bodywork widened over distended suspension and tyres, its brakes strengthened.

  11. Oh, my, what an engine. On the map, the road looks like a spring, and the Black Series compresses it with hilarious power. At low to middle revs, the V8 sounds like a rockfall, and it could very possibly cause one as it tears its way up to where the shift-up lights go crazy. However lag-free and comparatively quick-reacting AMG’s turbo engines might be, they’re dimwits beside this free-breathing, instant-acting, N/A powerhouse.

  12. But it isn’t the immense force of the engine’s high-rev fury that’s striking me, it’s the way the car keys itself into the road. Even my first circumspect efforts see the rear tyres catapulting me away from the hairpins, and so, gradually, I squeeze the throttle earlier and earlier, and keep finding more. Eventually, the brilliantly calibrated Sport ESP setting gets the back of the car gliding sweetly outwards, needing an easy children’s menu of steering correction to keep it all shipshape. All the while, it’s wonderfully garrulous about what it’s up to. And the steering’s quickness, which so spooked me on the autobahn, is suddenly my friend. We climb through meadows, into trees and out again into mossy scrub, then rock fields and eventually snow. Meltwater occasionally sheets across corner apexes and exits, but still the SLS’s huge tyres cling. This car sits among the absolute greats.

  13. At the top of the pass, the road becomes the base of a trench gouged through snow two or three times as deep as a man is tall. We stop, peer out at the vista the other side, up at cobalt sky and brutally sharp peaks, across to glistening snowfields, down at a road that dips and arcs its way into pillowy layers of gauzy cloud. Silence prevails, but for the ticking of cooling engines and brakes, and three drivers drawing awed breath.

    This is why you get up early. By the time we’ve zigzagged back down the pass and got ourselves breakfasted, hordes of coaches and Harleys are clogging the main road along the valley floor towards Martigny. But we shake them off for one more pass, overlooked by the might of Mont Blanc, into France.

  14. After Chamonix, we’re on the chain of autoroutes towards Top Gear’s almighty track convention. It’s all changed on these roads in these past couple of years, with far stronger enforcement of the 130kph maximum. A lowish motorway limit laxly enforced, like we have at home, makes driving more interesting than a high one rigidly policed. In France now, everyone sets their cruise control at about 135kph and you all move along in a tedious conveyor belt. It feels slower than it is, because there’s no variation between vehicles, especially not at weekends when HGVs are banned. An overtake blocks the outside lane for ever. Stuck behind a car doing that in the UK, I’m inwardly screaming, “S**t, or get off the potty.” But here in France, I’m just another culprit.

  15. Still, by dint of not stopping, we tuck the kilometres under us. After Lyons, the countryside begins to crumple up again into the hills of the Auvergne. Then, above them all, the near-perfect cone of the Puy-de-Dôme. Visible from 30-odd miles away, it’s our target. At its foot, the race circuit of Charade. Our rendezvous is 17:00. We arrive at precisely 16:59. What else did you expect from Team Germany?

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