LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – Circuit Paul Ricard has kilometers of runoff. The track is exquisitely maintained and should be the setting of the French Grand Prix, again, especially when you consider its owner is Bernie Ecclestone himself. So who’s afraid of 600 horsepower (converted from the European count of 622 horses), just 47 ponies (60) more than your garden-variety Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT? Who’s going to notice if you’re the auto journo to overcook it in a corner and spin into that runoff, kick up some pebbles and flat-spot the tires?
This is to preface Your Humble Servant’s laps in the new Mercedes AMG SLS Black Series, which were spirited enough, if not quickest of the day, to learn about the car.
It’s no high-strung Lamborghini, in that it’s very easy to drive. Handling dynamics come quickly and intuitively, including how willing the two-seat gullwing car is to rotate its tail, though with the invisible hand of stability control ready to keep you from thoroughly embarrassing yourself. The big sports/track car feels light on its feet, which are gummy Michelin Sport Cup 2s. There’s a big rear wing appropriate for its track-worthiness and a badge on the rear deck. The wing adds .31 inches to the SLS’s overall length.
AMG shortened the 6208-cc “6.3 liter” engine’s runner rings, optimized cam timing, ignition angle and connecting rods for higher cylinder pressure, powertrain engineer Jorg Gindele says. The special tuning cuts maximum torque by 9 pound-feet, to just 468. Horsepower now peaks at 7400 rpm, versus 6800, and the engine redlines at eight-grand, up from 7200 rpm.
AMG credits Mercedes’ Formula 1 program for the SLS’s weight reduction. A carbon-fiber torque tube, titanium exhaust, lithium-ion starter battery and carbon-fiber hood shave off 156 pounds versus the SLS GT. Mercedes estimates this saves you 0.1 seconds on to a 3.5-second 0-60 mph run, though top speed is 1 mph slower, at 196 mph. Must be downforce from that rear wing.
Mercedes isn’t talking U.S. price yet, though we figure Americans will get a bargain, paying about $250,000, while Europeans must shell out 249,900 euros. The savings might come from depriving U.S. customers of the snugly bolstered AMG seats because of airbag regulations. Not much more than 100 will come to America.
With that volume, there’s no need to scrape some underbody and flat spot the Sport Cup 2s. I’ve got the third SLS Black Series in a train of three led by Mercedes-AMG brand ambassador and retired DTM champion Bernd Schneider.
On the second lap, I accelerate out of 90-degree right-hander Turn Three too hot and the tail swings hard left. I quickly correct with some oppo to beat the stability control. A few laps reveal how light the nose and tail can get. This handling quality encourages early and abrupt braking, so you can “settle” the car for the turn. The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission’s paddle-shifters make it easy to concentrate on the other issues involved with finding your way around Paul Ricard. The sheer power of the engine and the relatively large size of the sports car’s body may prompt a conservative approach to learning the circuit’s line. But that’s probably just me, as I’m more comfortable with smaller, less-powerful sports cars.
How do you explain, then, the heavier, more powerful SLS AMG Electric Drive? The car’s battery pack, a 12-module unit each with 72 lithium-ion cells housed in a carbon-fiber monocoque, power the four wheels through four electric motors that make 740 horsepower and 738 pound-feet of torque. Top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph, and with more than 1100 extra pounds over the standard SLS GT, the 0-60 mph time is about 0.2 seconds longer, at 3.8.
On a short coned track off the main Circuit Paul Ricard, the SLS ED in Comfort mode yaws and understeers like an S-Class. Scroll past Sport to Sport+, and the four electric-powered wheels “torque-vector” the car through turns. Balance the car right, and you can steer it quite effectively with the throttle pedal.
The paddle shifters control the level of brake-regeneration. Turn it way up with the left paddle and lift-throttle will bring it to a stop from slow to moderate speeds. An electric “exhaust” note plays a synthetic hum that sounds like a low key on an electric piano though I preferred to run silent, run deep. A high-speed, 22-killowatt home charger needs just three hours to fully juice it up, though a conventional charge takes 20 hours. AMG says the car has a 150-mile range, though it’s much less if you race the car, something I’d like to see.
Like the Black Series’ sport seats, the Electric Drive won’t make it to the U.S. because its special structure won’t meet our crash standards. Too bad; surely there are a few Hollywood types who would shell out the equivalent of 416,500 euros – about $545,000 – to roll up silently to the Academy Award red carpet and emerge from under a gullwing door.