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The Stig versus the Mercedes SLS Black

  1. I have a question. Who is Sunday Jonathan, the man who has seemingly scrawled his name across the engine on this Mercedes SLS Black?

    There are probably more important questions that need to be answered, but this one’s bugging me. I diligently write the name in my notebook and temporarily switch my attention to the tyre-warmers. Does a road car really need them? There’s another question due some ponderisation.

    But here they are on a bright yellow road car called the Black. A bright yellow road car with 622bhp, adjustable suspension, carbon-ceramic brakes, carbon torque tube, titanium exhaust and a racer’s attitude. A bright yellow car that, were the hydraulic lift removed, looks like it might have the sheer force of will to remain exactly where it is now, four feet off the ground.

    Words: Ollie Marriage

    Pictures: Justin Leighton

    This article first appeared in the April issue of Top Gear magazine 

  2. There’s a squeak from the corner of the pit garage, the steady, repetitive squeak of a trolley wheel, and a chunky mechanic hoves into view bearing the car’s final component on a porter’s cart: The Stig. Man in white meets car in yellow. Nothing. Not a flicker. It’s only when the fat wheel jackets are removed and the car is lowered to the polished floor that Stig comes to life. He climbs abruptly aboard, and there’s an instant wumpf as eight cylinders pound into life. He’s off. As the long bonnet noses out into the sunshine at Paul Ricard, I swear I see a white hand stroke the black Alcantara steering wheel. 

  3. It’s full of fuel and running on fresh Michelin Pilot Sport Cup rubber. That’s around 15 minutes of abuse before he’s back in, 15 minutes for me to work out how I can distract him, not just so I can have a go, but because I need that car, registration S-LS 6342, in one piece. You see, in 17 hours’ time, as Monday morning gets underway, I want to be 600 miles away from here in a small village called Affalterbach in southern Germany, trying to locate Sunday Jonathan. Pondering this, I stroll into the pit lane. Fifteen seconds later. I have a plan…

  4. In the distance, much screeching can be heard, and, every so often, there’s a bellow and snarl as the SLS Black thunders past on the main straight. From where I’m standing, it seems as though the air is being ripped open. The thing sounds titanic.

    But not for long, not the way Stig treats it. The SLS doesn’t look haggard as it rumbles back down the pit lane, trailing a light fug of brake and tyre vapour. It looks energised. I keep waving him on, past the spare tyres to the bay where two other SLSs are parked. One’s electric blue, and, er, electric, the other’s matt black and, well, not electric. A GT3 racer, no less. At this point, I let nature take its course. Well, in so far as it’s possible for nature to have any say over a binary being that now seems to be emitting little cooing bleeps. 

  5. Safe in the knowledge that’s the last I’ll see of The Stig for a while, I tumble into the Black’s deep racing bucket and reach up for the doorhandle. Can’t reach. That’s new. In the ordinary SLS, the handle is grabbable by my fingertips, but AMG decreed that the driver needs to sit lower in the Black, so I now have to rest a buttock on the sill to close the door. This is a small change, but an indication that AMG is prepared to sacrifice elegant entry to achieve its ends with the Black.

    What are those ends exactly? Well, as far as I can work out, to create a track monster that also works on the road. Now, the standard SLS isn’t the GT cruiser that many reckon it to be, but neither is it especially good at circuit work. Body control is a little wayward, and the handling is a tad snatchy when you’re really on it. Gearbox is slow, too. 

  6. All this, I’m promised, has been addressed. The Black is 70kg lighter – of the body panels, only the doors are carried over; the other panels have swollen to cover the increased track widths that make the car 13mm wider at the front and 26mm at the rear. There are now dampers on the front-mounted engine and rear-mounted transaxle to minimise movement of the 6.2-litre V8 and seven-speed double-clutch gearbox, tyre widths are up, yet the wheels are a kilo per corner lighter, there’s a lithium battery, a carbon bonnet and an ability to rev to 8,000rpm.

    Big deal, you might think, an extra 800rpm, but allowing pistons, 102.2mm across, to pound up and down those bores 133 times a second isn’t the work of a moment. AMG claims it’s had to fight for every 100rpm beyond the standard SLS’s 7,200rpm limit. It’s taken 20 months of work. There’s even a new coating for the bucket tappets. Whatever they are. 

  7. There’s a dense energy to the way it gathers pace down the pit lane, taut and slack-free, no slurry porridge between right foot and rear wheels. The bonnet is endless, framed in the windscreen by a pair of dashtop B&O tweeters, the presence of which I find somewhat perplexing. Likewise, the blindspot warning triangles in the mirrors. Oh well, I may well be thankful for the luxury touches later tonight.

    Any suggestion that they may be indicative of a lack of focus is quickly dispelled. The Black takes to the track with hunger and determination. It’s so much sharper and better controlled now, rampant down the back straight, and stable and decisive into quick turns. Rather than pivoting under you like a mid-engined car would, there’s still a sense that there’s a lot of weight sitting over the front wheels and another chunk on the rears, and it’s your job to manage the resulting under- and oversteer. 

  8. But now you can manage it, you can gather up slides tidily. And all the while you’re having a whale of a time. I mean come on, with that thunderous V8 whipping you into a state of excitement, the diff hurling you out of corners and the gearbox snapping home every shift with clinical efficiency, how could you not have a good time? This SLS now does precisely what you ask of it without asking you any tricky questions back, and literally the only doubt in my mind as I head back to the pits is over the softness of the brake pedal, which I’m inclined to blame on Stig. I love it, not like you love a Porsche GT3, but more warmly and openly. 

  9. 9pm. The Black is so full that my wallet has been wedged into the doorhandle. Photographer Justin’s and my elbows are fighting for ownership of the centre console, and 1, Daimlerstrasse, Affalterbach is in the satnav. I’ve had another couple of attempts at deciphering the underbonnet script (pictured above), but I’m sticking with Sunday Jonathan.

    My chief concern is that I don’t have the earplugs that AMG’s head ofdevelopment Tobias Moers recommended. I’ve trusted him implicitly ever since he told me the adjustable rear wing was a “gimmick”. Oh well, it’s not like the V8’s unpleasant to listen to. Watch out, France, here we come. 

  10. I’d love to tell you that what we did next was open up the taps and belt north at 150mph, flicking Vs at the gendarmes, but what actually happened was Justin attempting to settle down for a nap in a fixed-back seat after introducing me to the retro joys of Nostalgie FM, and me, having gassed it a few times, flicking the cruise control on. Hours pass. Grandmaster Flash fades into Bros fades into T’Pau. Some stopping for fuel occurs (we’re averaging 17.9mpg, fact fans), but ears are undamaged and the Black is rock solid on the road. The ride’s not at all bad, either. Honestly. Well, apart from the way it slams against expansion joints as if they stand proud of the surface, but, otherwise, surprisingly acceptable. 

  11. We hit Lyon at midnight. Lyon has tunnels. And the SLS has short gearing, the final drive reduced by 20 per cent to improve sprinting. Basically, its ratios are stacked like a hot hatch’s, but here you have 622bhp to jet you between the change-up points. So these quiet tunnels become echo chambers for second, third and fourth gears. Occasionally, fifth, sixth and seventh too, as this is an engine which, to my ears, sounds best in the rumbly mid-range. The upgraded gearbox is beltingly good to use now, the kind where you pull paddles just for the hell of it. Ought to be retrofitted to the standard SLS.

    Tiredness starts to kick in once the Lyon adrenalin has filtered out. It’s a long way up to Dijon, Besançon and the German border. That’ll be the next adrenalin kick, but getting there, well, between lulling satnav tones, companionable snoring and V8 throb, I’m beginning to feel a touch tired. Nope, it’s no good. I’m going to have to get Justin to drive. 

  12. I spend my downtime wriggling in a chair that only accepts bodies in one upright position. This is not a car for a weekend away with your wife. The standard SLS
    is, but this one is a road-trip-with-a mate car. And Justin and I are on a road trip, and at 3am or so, with me back in the driving seat, we cross into Germany.

    Round white sign with black diagonal line. That’s the delimit post. Funny how that alone reaches the parts a can of energy drink cannot. Throb and growl give way to roar and bellow as the Black tears up the night. It’s so responsive, so joyful to be let loose. We see 290kph (180mph) in the dead of night, at which speed our main beams seem pitifully inadequate and I suddenly realise that my reaction times probably aren’t too hot. 

  13. So, despite the distance markers to Karlsruhe now seeming to be measured in metres, I cross back into the slow lane. And, at 150mph, the Black squirms. Justin whimpers. The Black, so stable otherwise, does not like truck ruts.

    Soon after, and from Justin’s point of view, not entirely disappointingly, there are road works, then a grey dawn timidly gets going, and then we have an encounter with an SLS Roadster (brunette WAG riding shotgun, natch) and finally we’re there. A small, neat village 20km north of Stuttgart. Affalterbach. AMG HQ. 

  14. There is no entrance gate as such – you drive straight  into the midst of smart factory buildings. A thousand people are employed here, but I’m only interested in finding one: Sunday Jonathan. The man whose name adorns ‘my’ engine. Sunday’s done a fine job, I reflect, as we park by a likely looking security hut. The V8 has run faultlessly, failed to flash a single warning light and been beyond addictive, so, well done, Sunday. Funny name, mind you.

  15. Turns out the security guard is quite used to AMG owners turning up on spec wanting to shake the hand of the man who built their engine. And it’s easy to track him down – he’s one of only three that have been trained to assemble the SLS Black engines. So, five minutes later I’m shaking hands with Sivadas Inthrathas (pictured above), congratulating him on a fantastic job and telling him his handwriting needs a bit of work. 

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