Reflecting on a Mercedes-Benz AMG Track Day

Rosamond, California — On pit road, I was surprised by a face familiar from childhood. Squatting on my haunches, I stared into the hawklike eyes of the 2014 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series. The Black resembled a favorite plaything from my grandmother’s house, the red-orange, plastic 1963 Mercedes-Benz 300SL in the small toy box she kept for us kids. This handful of SL excelled on the esses and chicanes only I could see on the floor.

Now the shock of recognition was sharp. That toy had billowed and become a very formidable automobile. The vividly white Black was about to go onto the Big Willow course at Willow Springs International Raceway. For the next five screaming laps, I would be gripping the wheel one of two Blacks, both of us journalists following a third one driven by our guide, an ace German hotshoe. Thanks to this track day, featuring the entire Mercedes-Benz AMG lineup, the dream of an eight-year-old was about to come true.

“So stop the gawking, man!” that eight-year-old said. I took a seat and closed the winged door, sealing myself inside the dark cockpit, and pressed the button that made the 622-hp engine bull-snort.

“Corvette lickspittle,” the V-8 said. “Jaguar folderol.”

“Right,” the kid replied. “And $276,800, including shipping and handling, is fourteen times the price of the house our family bought in 1963.”

The warm-up lap was hair-raising enough. But then we attacked the nine-turn, 2.5-mile course, flying down the homestretch at 130 mph before lightly squeezing the mighty brakes, flicking the shift paddle twice, and turning left into Castrol corner and possible oblivion.

The AMG sub-brand’s proliferation

Founded in 1967, AMG, the performance division of Mercedes-Benz, now offers 20 models in the United States and is heading for 30 by 2017. In another year or so, the total will include a second AMG exclusive, the SLC, little brother to the pathbreaking SLS and a competitor for the Porsche 911. Tobias Moers, AMG’s good-natured, sandy-haired chairman and chief executive chuckled when asked about the SLC, saying of the rumor, “It’s not totally wrong, but let’s wait and see.”

Operating in what Moers called the “country town” of Affalterbach, about twenty miles from Stuttgart, AMG has refined a philosophy to which the turbocharged gasoline engine is central. “In the near future, for all automakers, there will be just turbo engines, gasoline engines,” he said.

BMW’s tri-turbodiesel six-cylinder engine is of interest, he agreed, recalling the 2002 Mercedes-Benz C30 CDI AMG, the European model that was a precursor. But he noted the gap between gas and diesel engines “is getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” and diesel opens the way only to “a very limited market.”

In the press conference at the track’s media center, plenty of news came forth, including the mention that the Mercedes-Benz S63 4Matic will debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show with 577 hp, a 0-to-60 time of 3.9 seconds, and a price tag of $139,500.

A slew of cars and no shortage of power

The Willow Springs track day presented 41 AMG vehicles–sedans, coupes, wagons, convertibles, SUVs–with a combined 16,248 hp and 23,430 lb-ft of torque. Next door to Big Willow, the twisty and rough 1.8-mile Streets of Willow highlighted the capabilities of the all-wheel-drive cars. Here, I sized up the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG, which goes on sale in November.

At $47,450, the CLA45 is the entry-level to AMG-ness. This newcomer is not the world’s prettiest car. A porcine snout betrays its front-drive basis, and in profile the opposed semi-elliptical character lines seem contrived. Under the hood, though, it claims the most powerful four-cylinder engine in production, a 2.0-liter unit with output of 355 hp and 332 lb-ft. Fitted with a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox (synchronizing rings are reinforced with carbon-fiber linings) and all-wheel drive, among many other upgrades, it looked like the right tool for the task at hand.

In the driver’s seat of the CLA45 AMG, I could have selected the Momentary M driving mode, which holds off upshifts until redline. Instead, I chose Sport, as well as the Sport handling mode. Setting off, it became clear why a buyer would be happy with this new creation. There’s strong acceleration, for one thing. The chassis and suspension offer sharp turn-in, well-controlled body roll, and plenty of bite. On exiting the turns, the nose pushed and the transmission could have kicked down sooner (it actually seemed flummoxed on occasion), but in the end I’d been rewarded with five very entertaining laps.

Over the road in roadsters and a G

Besides the track experience, a fleet was set aside for road tests in the surrounding desert. This allowed the experiment of sampling three open-top cars. The SLS AMG GT roadster came up first and pretty much ruined me for the others, but of course a $206,000 moon shot will do that. (It was $237,505 as tested, fully trimmed with must-have carbon fiber and packing the Bang & Olufsen 1000-watt sound system at $6.40 per watt.)

The GT roadster proved unbelievably athletic over crests where the two-lane blacktop conformed to the desert’s contours–a pure pleasure to drive even with only 583 hp, some 39 hp less than the Black Series. And the saucy black-and-white-checked upholstery won my heart. In comparison, the SL63 AMG and SLK55 AMG seemed a little passé.

The oddest effect was derived from following up these three convertibles with a run in the G63 AMG. Stepping on the accelerator made this fossil truck come to life like a bed of charcoals in a Weber kettle. Yet it wasn’t the forward surge that most surprised me. Instead, the well-controlled body motions raised my brows. I suddenly understood why the G63 AMG so thoroughly satisfies the desperate need for locking differentials in Southern California’s finer neighborhoods.

A supercar keeps the Big Moment at bay

Playing hare and hounds on Big Willow with the ace hotshoe and one other journalist’s Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series resulted in what I can only call the Febreze experience. Just as Mercedes diesel models now have a reservoir of the urea solution that’s sprayed into the exhaust stream, neutralizing oxides of nitrogen, so too the Black must have a few gallons of that renowned air freshener onboard, injecting it somehow, somewhere as a way of sanitizing the driving experience.

This big coupe went into production in August with the main purpose being to make you forget it’s a supercar. Yes, the engine roars, but other exotics are more thrillingly sonic. With the driving mode set at Sport Plus, the neutral handling enables even a so-so driver like me to hit the marks and hold the lines on this fast, technical track; the tail never wiggled. The fat tires (275/35ZR19 front and 325/30ZR20 rear) were chewing up asphalt as if it were nothing more than brown sugar crumbles on a muffin.

Prior to now, I’d only driven Big Willow in Hondas, so the speed and cornering forces frayed my synapses, yet the Black hadn’t fussed. On the sixth lap, for cool-down, my palms erupted with sweat. Had a pipe broken inside each hand? The next driver would have to deal with wet Alcantara.

Stopping the car on pit road, I pushed the shifter forward, where I’m accustomed to finding Park. Unknown to me, though, in a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series, Park is engaged by pressing a console button, so the transmission was actually in Reverse. As I set about opening the winged door, the car crept backward and bumped the other journalist’s. Little damage was done, but the scorn of a certain eight-year-old has been hard to bear.