Top Gear goes underground, quite literally, in the SL65 Black, beneath London in some tunnels. A twin-turbo V12 produces 670bhp, making it the most powerful AMG Mercedes ever…
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The most powerful AMG Mercedes ever, the SL65 Black, hits London’s mean streets
As the Black rolls off the ramps and into London’s early evening gloom, the countdown begins. One single night. For all our begging and cajoling, that’s all the time Mercedes has given us in the Black. Oh, and if it leaves London, moustachioed German heavies will turn up at Top Gear HQ and murder us in new and interesting ways. The most powerful AMG Merc ever, the SL65 Black, the car christened ‘Der Beast’ by its Frankenstein-esque creators, and we’re limited to one night in the most congested, cramped city in Europe.
Just to make things interesting, the previous day has seen the heaviest snowfalls in Britain in 20 years. Snow that’s freezing rapidly to sheet ice on the roads, making 670bhp and rear-wheel drive look a tad suicidal. Still, one night. The clock is ticking. Let’s head underground.
The Blackwall Tunnel seems a good place to start. We spear south under the Thames, a thousand rings of dim, flaxy streetlight whipping backwards over the Black’s flanks as it dives deeper below London. There is noise, and that noise is… whistling. The car is whistling. It’s an ominous, unearthly noise, a murderous chorus of Roger Whittakers rising and falling as the turbos suck frozen air through the tunnel’s south entrance and spit it out behind.
As the lights on the rev counter flash, climb and glow to red, the Roger Whittaker medley subsides. Now there’s raw mechanical noise, a dozen cylinders threshing a metallic, overdriven chorus. Speed, too. The increments on the speedo are ticking off with alarming haste as the Black barrels out of the tunnel and back into the London night.
The Black is wide. Literally, figuratively. The longer you look at it, the more it seems to swell, to flex its anabolically enhanced flanks. Cast your eyes down from the roof: the top half of the Black’s silhouette is stock SL - petite, proportioned, sensible, albeit with a carbon-fibre fixed roof (complete with integral roll cage) replacing the stock folding hard-top - but hit the top of the arches and it all goes steroidal. There’s a full handspan of flare on either side, the stance of a gym-obsessed bulldog in Eighties shoulder-pads.
There’s function behind the hulking form. The Black’s engineers managed to shave 250kg - the equivalent of a pair of sturdy South London publicans - off the SL65’s kerbweight, seemingly by employing the simple mantra, ‘But what if we made it out of carbon fibre instead?’ - the door panels, splitter, diffuser and most of the interior are rendered in black weave. The seats wouldn’t be out of place in the Design Museum just up the road from here: gorgeous, sculpted carbon-fibre buckets, barely an inch thick. No tilt or lumbar adjustability here: you’ll sit where you’re told and be happy with your lot.
The SL65’s mighty 6.0-litre V12 didn’t escape Dr Frankenblack’s knife, either. A pair of massive new turbos, larger air intakes and exhausts boost power from 612bhp to 670bhp - a full 53bhp more than the McMerc SLR, 69bhp more than the Ferrari 599. There’s 737lb ft of torque available, curbed by 20 per cent or so to prevent the SL’s five-speed auto gearbox turning itself into a messy, cog-strewn interpretation of a cheese twist. On a warm, balmy day on, say, a race circuit in the south of France - Merc expects the Black to spend half its life on the track - this would be a wonderful thing to have under the deployment of your right foot. Right now, it’s like having your toe trapped in the pin of a grenade.
Back into the night, and the pin is out. The Black’s rear left wheel catches on a smattering of snow and launches into a lairy, lurid slide across the London night. Jeez. Ease off. Easy. We’re out of the tunnels now, cranking up the big V12 across East London’s industrial wasteland. It’s the sort of area described by property developers as ‘ripe for regeneration’ and by Top Gear as ‘a bad place to crash a hyper-exclusive supercar’. Or run out of fuel. The economy readout flashes 7.8mpg as the tyres scrabble and scrape for grip on the ice-basted roads. This much is clear: on frozen, snow-strewn tarmac, the Black is a nasty little bastard that you don’t want to cross. It’s a car that exists in a realm of grip several continents away from where we are at the moment, a sunny land of wide, sticky roads and gentle, soft verges.
Still, one night. One icy, deserted night. Go again. Christ, this thing is quick. Even in these skating-rink conditions, Merc’s claim of a sub-four second 0-60mph time feels eminently believable. Top speed of 199mph? We’ll trust you on that one, guys.
Traction control is on. Fully on. Even so, there’s enough give in the stability control to allow for plenty of organ-rearranging moments of terror before the electronics kick in to tidy things up. Slide, catch, slide, catch. Wipe palms on jeans. Make weak, terrified joke. Concentrate. An unintended extra millimetre or two of squeeze on the accelerator sends the Black lurching merrily towards a snow bank. With frozen feet and a frozen brain, this is not good news. Time to slow down.
Even at crawling speed, the Black is a visceral experience. Every shard of grit, dumped just hours before, clacks and pings against the undertray, every patch of lumpy snow crunches audibly under the tyres. Manoeuvring on full lock between the desolate warehouses, the diff clunks and heaves, the roof creaks alarmingly. There’s almost zero suspension travel, so the entire car hops and skips over dents and divots.
Still, the Black remains a confusing car. Tough to shake the sensation that it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Elements of it are as focussed and hardcore as they come: the rock-hard springs, the lethal brakes, the sheer stiffness of the thing. But the five-speed auto - even in maximum-attack manual mode - feels numb and slow-witted in comparison. Difficult to know when you’d use the Black: it’s just too noisy, too damn uncomfortable for a loping cross-continent schlep, but too unwieldy, too missile-like for the track.
Rarity alone will ensure the Black’s desirability. Just 350 will ever be built, making even the 500-strong Ferrari Enzo look commonplace. Only eight will reach the UK, at a price of £250,000: a frankly insane amount of money, especially when you factor in the cost of employing your own personal weatherman to alert you to the three days a year when it’s safe to actually use it.
And yet, and yet. For all its too-muchness, for all its bloody-minded, uncompromising bastardishness, there’s something magical in the Black. Maybe it shares something with the snow that glints around us in the morning light: uncomfortable, slippery, downright dangerous in parts, but fascinating. You wouldn’t want it every day, but you won’t forget that one night.
Words: Sam Philip
Photography: John Wycherley