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Driving Mercedes-AMG’s wildest supercars
TG treads very carefully in the SLS, SL65 and C63 Black Series cars. And the SLR Roadster
You wouldn’t mess, would you? These are four of the meanest, angriest, and most powerful Mercedes-Benzes ever built for the public road. Three are the result of the Black Series skunkworks. The other is the lovechild of a tie-up with McLaren, and among the most divisive supercars of all time. It’s C63 Black, SL65 Black, SLS Black and SLR McLaren Roadster. Quite the selection of heavy German metal. Where to start?
Speak of the devil. The SL65 Black looks like it was wrought by Hades, in his flared disco trouser period. It’s a ludicrous machine. You’ve heard the stories. Of a certifiable, 661bhp bi-turbo V12 being craned under the bonnet, with torque reigned back from a possible 1,220Nm to ‘just’ 1,000Nm, so the rear tyres had a hope of coping. Out went AMG’s seven-speed automatic, powerless to control the onslaught. An ancient five-speed automatic was resident in this Black Series.
The first thing you’ll notice upon vaulting the park bench sill and dropping into the plain SL cabin is that AMG appears to have forgotten to install padding on the seat frame before it left the factory. It’s the hardest, most punishing experience imaginable, until you get rolling and feel the ride.
Though, as your biology teacher explained, the brain blocks out pain when faced with great peril, so your fight/flight response is far too busy dealing with the Black’s blatant attempt at driver GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm) to worry about eyeball-vibrating suspension. This chassis is simply all out of ideas. The traction control light blinks feebly on part-throttle through first, second and third, up until a brief surge above 4500rpm finally lets fly. Immediately, the redline intervenes. Wait for fourth, and the traction control’s back. Strangled. That’s the SL Black under acceleration. Did I dare disable the traction control to completely let 661bhp have its wicked way? You must be joking.
The crazy thing is that the SL Black’s V12, though suicidally powerful, isn’t really an event. You get a faint hum, muffled by turbos and panicked jabs of intervention from the overworked traction control. No shriek, no roar. It’s the silent assassin. A proper monster. If anyone tells you modern cars are sanitised, point them in the direction of this 21st Century widowmaker.
Time for something a tad more manageable, like the C63 AMG Black Series in a rare red-black-red livery. This one even has regular AMG seats rather than the optional Recaro buckets. It beckons with its approachable, ‘I’m just a friendly, stanced C-class’ demeanour.
We’re often a bit fickle in the car world. So quick to lock onto what’s new and next, the recent past is quickly dismissed. Two laps of the rev counter in a C63 with this splendid M156-code V8 on board will remind you that the dinosaur supplanted by the new 4.0-litre hot-vee bi-turbo job doesn’t deserve to go quietly into that good night. The Black Series’ 6.2-litre V8 was outfitted with rotating internals of the SLS AMG, developing 517bhp against a Performance Pack C63’s 457bhp. So yes, the recently deceased Black Series does still feel very, very fast.
In truth, it feels like a nicely sorted all-rounder, but not as track-ready as the fixed wing and front canards hint. It’s not a Porsche GT3 rival, really. It’s more of a C63 that’s sunk a couple of jars and is on its best form. The gearbox slips changes through but lacks a modern DCT’s crispness, and there’s inertia in the movements. In other words, it’s meant to be a road car, not a Nürburgring kerb-crawler. I rather like that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. But in this stratospheric company it’s almost the token repmobile. If a welcome relief from the wantonly scary SL.
Next contender please. The Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren Roadster. Probably the most settled, accepted version of the Anglo-Germanic super-GT: finally allowed to be a show-off cruiser, after showing up too heavy and dimwitted of gearbox to be a proper supercar, and too cramped and plasticky inside to set new GT benchmarks. As part of the early Noughties’s Holy Trinity with the Enzo and Carrera GT, it always stuck out somewhat.
The Roadster was the SLR’s swansong, brought out in 2009 shortly before the SLR was unceremoniously retired. This one is perfectly specced with Palladium Grey paintwork, a 300SL-aping red leather cabin and carbon accents on the classic turbine alloys.
Despite the prodigious value, the SLR is immediately nowhere near as intimidating as the similarly powerful SL Black. Getting in is more of a fiddle, stooping under the butterfly door into another stiff carbon bucket to find the cockpit is rather cramped and the pillars invasive to line of sight. Whoever was in charge of control placement had some fun too, hiding the ignition barrel behind the oversized steering wheel, the starter button beneath a flap on the gear lever, the door handles on the sills and the window switches just ahead of them, next to your thigh. Most strange, but exceedingly charming.
There’s mismatch all over the SLR, between McLaren’s lust for low mass and motorsport precision, and the sledgehammer Mercedes heart. The carbon doors and bonnet feel feather-light in your hands, but rouse the 5.5-litre supercharged V8 and the entire car rocks with thunder and snorts through four side-exit pipes sandwiching your ankles. It’s a rude baritone, with a wailing supercharger soprano piercing the din as the revs build. The steering’s just as heavy-duty, yet modern Ferrari hyperactive. Placing that phallic front end with such preposterous responses is like trying to ring a doorbell using a snooker cue.
If you were going to get all pernickety about the SLR you’d say the damping feels mismatched too, stiff up front to cope with the razor sharp turn-in and squidgy out back rear to cushion blows to billionaire bumcheeks. And you’d pick holes in the visibility, switchgear and price to conclude anyone who bought an SLR instead of a Ferrari 599 was certifiable. But it’s simply not worth doing so, because that bombastic engine rights so many wrongs. Everything you’ve ever read about the mind-melting, WWII fighter aircraft soundtrack is so, so right. The flatulence, the rawness, and that maniacal shriek on top – it’s addictively exciting. And fast too. The five speed auto (yes, just five gears and a torque converter again) is intergalactically geared to ensure a 335kph top whack, but the SLR surges through its ratios with indomitable potency.
After the SLR, Mercedes’ next supercar took itself less seriously. Oh, it still had a V8, rear-drive, a paddleshift gearbox and look-at-me doors, but the SLS was half the price and twice the fun. Sending the Black Series crew to work on it could have resulted in something overbearing, but in fact, it created AMG’s masterpiece. Only fifty were produced, weighing 70kg less than the standard car, at a claimed 1550kg. Absurd, given the sheer size of the SLS. The results of turning the muscle-bound gullwing into a bona fide Ferrari F12 rival are stunning. For my money, it’s the finest driver’s car ever to wear the Mercedes star.
And unlike the other three cars we’ve looked at today, that’s because it’s not just dominated by the engine. Not quite. Okay, the 6.2-litre V8 that develops 622bhp and revs out inertia and friction-free to 8000rpm, is undoubtedly the race-spec star of the show, but the gearbox, the considerate damping and delectable messages fizzing from the Alcantara steering wheel all hold their own too. Ironically, it reminded me mostly of McLaren’s glorious 675LT, another usable supercar shot through with aero and power to create a road-going motorsport experience, and succeeding magnificently.
And praise be to the noise. Once you shimmy into an SLS, reach up and pull that thick gullwing shut, you immediately feel very enclosed. The letterbox windows only add a cocooning nature to the expensive-smelling Alcantara-swathed cockpit. But the way that V8 just tears into the cabin, gurgling all the low-down chunter of the C63’s 6.2 but spicing it with Ferrari levels of shock and awe as it tops out is spellbinding. And it shows just how far The Very Fast Car has come in a mere decade, because it’s got all the theatre that a Black Series should, and it’s more of a class clown than Gotham’s Joker. Words: Ollie Kew