There are many settings in which you'd expect to find a Mercedes-Benz SL. Yacht clubs, country clubs, and prominent valet spaces are but a few of the native habitats of the species Mercedea Convertibula Flagshipius. But one place you don't expect to see a Mercedes SL-and in particular the 604-hp, $179,000 SL65 AMG-is an environment to which it's surprisingly well adapted: the nitrous-huffing, rubber-burning, mullet-combing land of the drag strip. Like a CEO who rips the sleeves off his Armani suit to enter a barroom arm-wrestling competition, the 'roided-up SL65 is a muscle-bound meathead under its tasteful duds. But does a twin-turbo V-12 a drag racer make? On a balmy Florida evening, we head to the Friday Night Drags at Orlando Speed World to find out.Speed World might be the only place in the greater Orlando area where the parking lot is filled not with rented Caravans and bedraggled parents but with 700-hp Supras and motorcycles that hit 150 mph in a quarter-mile. If more kids knew about these thrill rides, Space Mountain would be as empty as outer space.
The SL65 AMG is the only Mercedes at the track. In fact, it might be the only German car at the track, save a lone Jetta or two. The lot is filled with a diverse enough array of cars, but they all fall into two major categories: American Iron and Sushi Sleds. Racers are grouped according to elapsed time, and the SL lands in lanes 1 and 2 (under 12.99 seconds) with the serious bad boys-over here, you're not talking mere Corvettes, you're talking Corvettes on nitrous. One such animal in front of me in line is adorned with a sticker on the rear window that says "Fuel Slut."
Not that I'm driving a Geo Metro. Think of the SL65's output this way: it's kind of like having an SL500 with two engines, since its 604 hp conveniently (too conveniently?) doubles the 500's 302 horses. Except that analogy isn't quite accurate, because the SL65 actually more than doubles the torque output of that hypothetical twin-engine SL1000. Despite that silly power, the number of drive wheels remains the same, and hence, in the age of the all-wheel-drive Lamborghini, the SL65 is a throwback in that it is a complete and total bastard. Turn off the traction control, and try making a right-angle turn away from a stop with half throttle. Here's what happens: there's a split second when it pulls smartly away with no drama whatsoever. Then the turbos check in, and the next thing you know, you're going sideways and fielding calls from shady art dealers who mistook your face for the one in Edvard Munch's The Scream.
Picture any given car doing a burnout, and you'll probably imagine a high-revving engine as the soundtrack. The SL65 will incinerate its rear tires while turning 2000 rpm. Very disconcerting, that. All the way from 2000 to 3000 rpm, the hand-built V-12 hammers the pathetically inadequate 285-section-width rubber with 738 lb-ft of torque. That amount of torque isn't uncommon-in fact, Mercedes itself makes another engine that cranks out 700 lb-ft. But that one goes in school buses. The SL65's rear tires aren't just bringing a knife to a gun fight, they're bringing a pair of left-handed safety scissors to a nuclear war. So I know in advance that if I don't want to be laughed back to the gator farm by the guy driving the V-8 Chevy S10, I'll need to make like a Real World cast member and hook up every time I get a chance.
There are a couple of time-honored drag-strip traditions in which the SL65 just can't participate. The first is pointless engine revving. Guys sit in a line for an hour with their hoods up, letting their engines cool. They push their cars forward in line rather than start them. Some pack dry ice around their intakes. Then they get near the front of the line, put their helmets on, and all of a sudden, it's a deafening cacophony of unmuffled V-8s redlining in neutral. "Ah, crap," they must think, "I could try to keep my engine as cool as possible and thus maximize my chances of performing an excellent run, or I could make a really loud vroom-vroom noise while I sit here . . . ah, the hell with it."