Unlike BMW's M division, which put itself on the map by creating drivers' cars out of normal BMWs, AMG's cars - often the product of applying ludicrous power to regular Mercedes cars - make the ultimate I-outrank-you statements. And when your neighbors have an AMG in the driveway, there's only one way to beat them - an AMG Black Series.
To own a Black Series is to join an exclusive club, and this, the third Black Series, is the most expensive and most powerful yet. The first Black Series, based on the SLK55, was not exported to the States. The second, the 2008 CLK63 AMG Black Series, was one of our favorite cars of that year - a $135,000 fire-breathing, track-ready monster. And now, the SL65 AMG has been unleashed on North American soil. Deliveries start in January of 2009, with 175 of the 350 total SL65 Black Series produced headed for our shores. The sticker price will be right around $300,000 - a shocking number indeed. But the SL65 BS is the most powerful Mercedes-Benz ever made, and it's a relative bargain compared to the Mercedes-McLaren SLR Roadster, which costs $200,000 more.
The more expensive SLR's 5.4-liter supercharged V-8 produces 617 horsepower and 575 lb-ft of torque, numbers that are easily trumped by the Black Series. It has a 6.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-12 that produces 661 horsepower and 738 lb-ft of torque. Mind you, just like other AMG twin-turbocharged AMG V-12s, this engine is detuned to protect the transmission - it would otherwise produce 885 lb-ft. Increased power comes courtesy of additional cooling (both for the engine and for the intake air), a less restrictive exhaust, and larger turbos. Maximum boost is about 11.6 psi - and the bigger turbos help maintain that boost level even at high revs. The result is a V-12 that's less diesel-like in its power delivery, with a broad torque curve that doesn't fall off suddenly at high engine speeds.
The transmission is the same five-speed automatic that other V-12s get; it remains the only gearbox in the company's arsenal that can cope with this much torque. Equipped with a two manual modes (one shifts more quickly than the other), the latest version of this aging gearbox will hold whatever gear you select, and will match revs to help prevent the rear end from coming loose during downshifts.
With this much power on tap, however, it's very easy to get the rear end loose. Under full throttle, the insane power can turn the SL's Dunlops into dust on dry pavement, even at speeds approaching the triple-digit mark. And it's not for a lack of size - the rear tires are enormous at 325/30 ZR-20. (Up front, the SL Black Series wears nineteen-inch wheels, wrapped in tires measuring 265/35 ZR-19. The larger rear wheels and tires were chosen for extra stability under power.) And even when the SL's tires are able to put down the full power, the rear end walks left to right in a sinusoidal oscillation - one AMG engineer explained the phenomenon as a result of a resonant interference between the axles and limited-slip differential - we prefer to think of it as the result of the earth's crust being torn open.
Mercedes predicts that the SL65 AMG Black Series will accelerate to 62 mph in 3.8 seconds - but with traction a limiting factor even at 60 mph, that figure does little to convey the true thrust you feel from behind the wheel. Perhaps it'll help to note that the SL has to be electronically restrained to 199 mph.
At that point, AMG engineers admit, the SL is nearing its top speed anyway. The enormous fenders and aggressive aerodynamics create more drag than the standard SL - which would be able to achieve around 220 mph with this engine.
According to AMG boss Volker Mornhinweg, Black Series stands for lighter, faster, and more powerful. We've learned about faster and more powerful, but the SL Black is also significantly lighter than the regular SL65. AMG was able to shave 210 pounds from the car. Unlike all other SLs, which are convertibles, the Black Series wears a fixed carbon-fiber roof with integral roll bars and a pop-up rear spoiler. Additionally, the hood, front fenders, and front and rear valances are made of carbon fiber - the only standard SL body parts are the doors and side mirrors. (European-specification SL Black Series realize an additional 340 lb weight loss by deleting the side airbags, replacing the door panels with carbon fiber, and using one-piece racing buckets in place of the U.S.-spec car's electrically adjustable sport seats.)
Additional weight savings comes from the elimination of the standard SL's electronic braking system and Active Body Control. Instead, the Black Series uses conventional hydraulics to actuate enormous calipers and rotors: 15.4-inch cross-drilled rotors in the front, straddled by six-piston aluminum calipers; 14.2-inch cross-drilled rotors in the rear, each with four-piston calipers. The SL's active suspension system has been replaced with much lighter, simpler coilover-type suspension with conventional steel springs. Surprisingly, eliminating ABC doesn't strip the SL of its fabulous body control, as the Black Series demonstrates almost no body roll or pitch.
With an eight-percent quicker steering ratio and the enormous V-12 and wide wheels limiting the amount of steering lock, the flat-bottom steering wheel makes only two turns lock to lock. The car's turning radius is enormous, a problem that's compounded by a low, delicate, and very expensive carbon-fiber splitter - and the oil cooler that's mounted directly behind it. The car's steering is accurate and offers good on-center feel, though nothing like the feedback in the CLK63 Black Series. Effort builds very nicely - light on-center, the steering becomes quite heavy at maximum cornering, reminding the driver of the car's near 4500-lb weight.
The SL generates enormous grip, helped no doubt by its wide-body stance. With track increased by more than four and a half inches up front and four inches in the rear, the Black Series is a very wide machine. When you're far enough away to see only its proportions, you'd think it was a Ferrari or Lamborghini coming up behind you. On the highway, the SL's interior is quiet, peppered with the drone from the V-12's exhaust. From the outside, the engine is loud, but it's not the heart-warming shriek of the V-8 AMGs - it sounds more like a jet helicopter than a muscle car.
We had the opportunity to drive the Black Series both on the street and on the track at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca - the latter definitely being the preferable locale for tiptoeing up to the SL's very high limits. At track speeds the Black Series is astonishingly composed. The thrust of the V-12 is commendably controlled despite the inherent turbo lag. A short time after you apply throttle, the boost hits like a heavyweight boxer, and will knock the Black Series' rear end off line. Despite the weight AMG was able to remove from the car, the enormous V-12 up front means that under a steady throttle the Black Series is prone to understeer. The SL63 AMG is better balanced, thanks to its lighter V-8, and is far more throttle-adjustable, since the normally aspirated engine's power delivery is immediate and linear. The lesser SL's electronic brakes offer no feel, however; its narrower track make for less ultimate grip; and its engine provides less thrust. The much less expensive SL63 may be more communicative, more visceral, and more fun, but on a big racetrack like Laguna Seca, which rewards high-power cars, it's not as fast.
Despite Laguna Seca's reputation as a track that's very tough on brakes, the Black Series' brakes never faded. After a handful of very hard laps, initial bite moved farther and farther down into the pedal travel, but the pads - smoking at times - continued to offer excellent stopping power. The SL's stability control system has a Sport mode, which allows fluid, smooth track driving with little risk of power-induced oversteer. With ESP fully switched off, the SL's understeer becomes less pronounced, and gentle applications of throttle helps rotate the SL's tail. The transmission's downshifts are almost imperceptible, and combined with the smoothness of the V-12, it's often necessary to peek at the tachometer as you're entering a corner to ensure that you're in the gear you want. Sideways drifts can happen suddenly when the turbos spool up and dole out more power than you thought you had asked for, must be corrected immediately to avoid a spin - the huge turning radius doesn't allow the drift angles that other SLs can maintain.
So it's not a drift star - but to insinuate that it is would be to misinterpret the mission of the SL65 Black Series. The Black Series is meant to be the ultimate SL, and it is. Its 175 U.S. customers are waiting in line to buy it because it's the fastest, meanest, and baddest Mercedes-Benz on the planet. Whether they're dreaming of laying a hundred-foot-long stripe of rubber on their way out of the dealership or just can't wait to caress the Black Series' bulging fenders once it's home in their garage, they'll be getting exactly what they paid for - ultimate one-upsmanship, Mercedes-style.