In the beginning, ‘Black Series’ was probably a pricey men’s razor, or one of those seedy service-station magazines wrapped in plastic. But now that the SL65 AMG Black Series exists, the name will forever be associated with the butchest, baddest, boldest sports car ever conceived by the Affalterbach power brokers.
This review was first published in MOTOR magazine's February 2009 issue.
The beast simmering before you is the third iteration of the Black Series theme, following 2006’s SLK55 Black and 2008’s CLK63 Black.
The first go-faster limited-edition AMG was admittedly a rather toothless animal, but last year’s pumped-up CLK turned out to be a much more focused piece of kit that even bettered, in some areas, the iconic CLK AMG DTM. And now we have the SL65 AMG Black Series, limited to just 300 units.
At $680,000, this awesome SL easily eclipses the pricey standard SL65 and makes the wonderful SL63 seem comparatively affordable. But is it worth the extra dough?
On real roads, in real traffic, in really bad weather conditions, the Super SL is a must-have for rich hooligans, but it’s almost too much of a good thing for mere mortals. If you ever wanted to know how quickly your licence can be stripped of your possession, take this fire-breathing tarmac-peeler out for a few carefree hours on public roads.
Sure, speed costs. But why is the SL Black so bloody expensive? Because it is practically an all-new vehicle.
True, it looks like an SL on steroids dished up by the Pimp My Ride gang, but beneath the familiar silhouette lurks a fresh component mix which has almost nothing to do with the original SL.
For instance, every single body panel has been redesigned and restyled to measure. Gone is the folding roof, the slim wings, the subtle bumpers, and the run-of-the-mill doors. The new outfit is fabricated entirely of carbonfibre, its eye-catching shape looking like a fusion between a two-door German taxi and Lewis Hamilton’s race car.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but according to AMG, its clientele loves wildly flared wheel arches, blacktop-scraping spoilers, cartoon-size wheels, XXL air intakes and the full range of spats, ducts and winglets. There is no doubt that the SL Black looks Darth Vader-menacing in the rear view mirror of the car ahead, but there is also no doubt that this brick-wall-like frontal area counteracts every wind tunnel effort.
Although AMG claims an electronically limited top speed of 320km/h, this statement does not tell the full story. After all, the limitation is also due to the massive drag and rolling resistance. This car could, in other words, not go any faster, even if the governor was pulled.
The SL Black is 140mm wider than the SL65, but what really matters is that it is also a significant 250kg lighter. And that’s largely due to the aforementioned Carbonfibre Reinforced Plastic (CFRP) body panels, the stripped-out cabin that looks like a sombre mirror cabinet because of the shiny, omni-present carbonfibre claddings, and the heavily revised, aluminium-intensive chassis.
Gone are the softish SBC brakes, the standard suspension layout, and the modest tyre size. Instead, we find fully tweakable race suspension with adjustable dampers, ride height, toe-in/toe-out and camber settings.
Both axles had to be developed and fabricated from scratch, and this includes wheel carriers, struts, tie-rods - the whole kit and caboodle. Since the kinematics were revised at the same time, the carry-over steering is now eight-percent quicker and the response to steering inputs is much more prompt.
Unlike Ferrari and Porsche, AMG still refrains from offering ceramic brakes - not homogenous enough for everyday use, not progressive enough for track driving, it says. All-carbon rotors are in the making, but they probably won’t be available before 2010, when a direct-injection V8 is also due.
A few years back, AMG had planned to develop a turbocharged version of the 6.2-litre eight-cylinder as a replacement for the heavier and thirstier V12. But then this engine was canned, replaced by a state-of-the-art twin-turbo 5.5-litre V8 which is still in the making and is due see the light in 2011 at the latest.
The old three-valve V12 (M275) should’ve been superseded by a new direct-injection four-valver, dubbed M295, in 2010, but when the economy went sour, this engine bit the dust, too. As a result, the old V12 will live on longer than expected in a modified form that meets the Euro 5 emissions standard.
Despite its age, however, the V12 is still a brawny and charismatic kraftwerk that comes in 380kW 5.5-litre guise (in the SL600), a 450kW 6.0-litre (in the SL65 AMG) and, now, this beast – the 493kW SL65 Black.
In both SL65 versions, the bi-turbo engine musters a massive 1000Nm of maximum torque which it spreads over a wide 2200-to-4200rpm rev range. Theoretically, it could whip up 1250Nm, but such energy would have a devastating effect on both diff and transmission.
Consumption? On paper, an acceptable 14.4L/100km. In real life, a frightening 30.5L/100km. The automatic gearbox is still the ancient five-speeder, chosen for its sturdiness and reliability, but when AMG mated the old cogworks to the latest Speedshift electronics, it took the opportunity to add the convenient paddle-shift operation and a choice of four driving modes.
Comfort and Sport are self-explanatory; M1 indicates manual, and M2 quickens the shift action by a further 20 percent. In either manual mode, the black box will blip the throttle during downshifts, and it will hold the chosen ratio no matter what, which is worth remembering when you begin that touch-and-go second-gear overtaking manoeuvre.
While the naturally aspirated V8 of the SL63 - which peaks at 7200rpm - is definitely better off with the more modern seven-gear slushmatic, the SL Black - which peaks at 5400rpm - is well enough endowed to divide the torque pie into five sizeable slices. Thankfully, the shift paddles are attached to the steering wheel, not the column, so they can still be reached mid-corner.
Inside, the SL Black is definitely more track racer than street racer. While export models (including the Australian-bound batch) are equipped with singing-and-dancing power seats, the Euro-spec version is fitted with rock-hard Nappa leather-trimmed CFRP buckets.
These strong, lightweight fixed-back items are indecently body-hugging and are fine for most frames, but taller drivers could probably do with longer seat runners, some sort of height adjustment, more easily accessible safety belt buckles and reclining backrests.
We reckon everyone would prefer more legible instruments. The speedo is calibrated to 360km/h, but the exact analogue speed is near-impossible to decipher, and the digital readout is much too small. The rev-counter display, though, is less ambiguous, and the integrated LED upshift warning lights help, too.
A true nuisance is the squared-off bottom of the steering wheel. In a race car, where legroom comes at a premium and where the rack is go-kart-like direct, this approach can work. But in a road car, an oddly shaped tiller makes steering during humdrum driving annoyingly awkward. Still, it is 15mm smaller in diameter, with perforated sides for better grip.
The pedal layout is another area for criticism, as the brake and throttle are positioned too closely together and at different heights, making it easy to get big feet tangled up down there at the worst moments.
Conditions weren’t perfect when I drove the car on the autobahns and by-lanes around Stuttgart. It had snowed earlier that day and the temperatures refused to climb much above the freezing point, so grip was number one on the wish list.
Unfortunately, the black beast was shod with shaved Dunlop Sport Maxx GTs, tyres that need to be worked pretty hard to make the transition from slippery to sticky somewhere more suitable than an autobahn ice-rink. And this was despite the size of the available footprint – a hefty 265/35ZR19 up the front and fat-slabbed 325/30ZR20 rears.
With the three-setting ESP activated, the 493kW Benz makes you feel like an old woman in this weather. The coupé ac-cel-era-tes as if its transmission was in stutter mode, and even when you have gathered enough speed to frighten fast-lane regulars, every bump and every transverse ridge will trigger the electronic watchdog and its flickering warning candle.
The ESP Sport mode is a much more pragmatic proposition. It keeps both traction- and stability-control intact, but lowers the interference threshold without raising the danger level. Governed by a small army of sensors, ESP Sport permits a certain drift angle as long as the vehicle movements are sufficiently smooth and progressive. Predictably, this is easier said than done when you are dealing with a twin-turbo V12 which takes little time to build up a lot of inertia.
On the winding back roads towards the Swabian Alb, the SL Black calls for a quite specific driving style. Heeling and toeing would help, but since the automatic won’t let you do that, it’s best to change down as you brake for a bend. The extra oomph helps to momentarily destabilise the mighty winged tail, but ideally only so much that you can still massage it past the apex with a minimum of throttle action and a maximum of grip-to-sliding balance.
For a dash of lurid power oversteer, the SL Black is hard to beat, but for your private drift challenge, where only steady slides get full marks, a C63 would be a much more manageable tool. Although, with 1000Nm on tap, traction is a fickle commodity and most of the car’s weight rests on the front wheels, I did not expect quite as much squatting, squirming and wriggling as the SL Black put on in situations that every quattro-equipped Audi would laugh at.
On the motorway, ESP does come to the rescue through those courage-testing ultra-high-speed kinks, even in Sport mode, but despite plenty of aero aids (like that motorised rear air dam), stability is always an issue in the back of your mind.
What helps is the extra dose of compliance AMG has engineered into the suspension. It cushions pitch, yaw and roll, and it makes it easier to respond to classic vices like tramlining and lift-off rear-end vagueness.
The confidence required to exercise total control at nine- or ten-tenths is provided primarily by the steering and the brakes. Quick and accurate, the direction-finder is also well damped and, therefore, well prepared for all irritations, from expansion joints to crosswind attacks.
This trust-inspiring steadiness is paired with a welcome interest in radii, be they constant or unpredictable. True, the feedback is filtered, but only mildly, and the commitment won’t fade if you need to wind on more lock in a hurry.
Appreciating the classics on classic MOTOR
Since the decontented SL Black still weighs 1795kg, it’s good to know that the rack’s responses are sports-car quick, not coupe-style relaxed, and that the stopping apparatus is equally competent.
The brakes bite instantaneously but, thankfully, that reassuring initial bite doesn’t affect the three-dimensional modularity that follows. Deceleration is so brutal that one wishes for a four-point harness instead of the Black’s inertia-reel belt, and the sensational stamina does repeatedly upset the law of physics, as demonstrated by whiffy pads and noisy rotors. So far, so good.
But there’s still the difficult value-for-money equation. True, the SL Black will accelerate in only 3.8sec from zero to 100km/h and top out at a heady 320km/h. But does this make it over $180,000 better than the SL65, which will nail the tonne in 4.2sec and maxes out at 300km/h? Consider too, that a Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano with sequential manual gearbox costs $56,900 less, is just as fast in a straight-line, and offers the romance of the Prancing Horse badge.
As an over-sexed highway cruiser and over-powered boulevardier, the SL65 Black Series is way too extreme, too raw, and almost wasted. But that only justifies the credentials of the monster Mercedes to rise as the new king of the slidemeisters. And to establish itself as Europe’s ultimate contemporary muscle car this side of the Bugatti Veyron.
AMG has produced an entirely new carbonfibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) roof to replace the regular SL65’s folding version.
CFRP is much more rigid, impact resistant and dense than glass-fibre reinforced plastics. In the SL Black’s case, this means that AMG was able to produce a roof that sits flatter than the standard SL’s, while the rear window is now more upright and has actually increased in size.
The Black’s retractable rear wing is also made from CFRP, as are the 140mm-wider front guards, the bonnet and bootlid. All up, this helps reduce weight by 250kg over the SL65.
Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG Black Series
BODY: 2-door, 2-seat coupe
ENGINE: 5980cc 90-degree V12, SOHC, 36v, twin turbochargers
COMPRESSION RATIO: 9.0:1
BORE X STROKE: 82.6 x 93.0mm
POWER: 493kW @ 5400rpm
TORQUE: 1000Nm @ 2200-4200rpm
0-100KM/H: 3.8sec (claimed)
TOP SPEED: 320km/h (limited)
TRANSMISSION: five-speed automatic
FINAL DRIVE: 2.65
SUSPENSION: double A-arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar (r)
STEERING: power rack and pinion
BRAKES: 390mm ventilated/drilled composite discs, six-piston calipers (f); 360mm ventilated/drilled composite discs, four-piston calipers (r); ABS, BA, ESP, TC
WHEELS: 19 x 9.5-inch (f), 20 x 11.5-inch (r); alloy
TYRES: Dunlop Sport Maxx GT; 265/35ZR19 (f), 325/30ZR20 (r)
LIKE: Immense torque, traffic-stopping presence, exclusivity
DISLIKE: Pricier than a Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano; a little unresolved
RATING: 8 out of 10 stars