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Monday, November 10, 2008

Driving the Black Hat and Somewhere Ray Bradbury Smiles!

For every wish, there is a price. For every desire, there is a cost. And for every 2010 Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG Black Series there will an owner afraid of his car. Or at least there should be. Because the latest addition to AMG's lineup of Black Series specialty cars is as wicked as it looks.

We say wicked because there's no other way to describe this car. It's menacing and imposing. It's low and it's wide. It's got vents, ducts, carbon-fiber body panels and even a rollover bar to prove its purpose.

And it sounds vicious. Mildly so, at first. But like the train in Ray Bradbury's yarn, it rolls unassumingly into town, then quickly reveals its full potency. Its engine note begins with a sinister burble and ends in a vile shriek of high-velocity exhaust gas and sheer force.

More important than any of this, however, is that the twin-turbo 6.0-liter V12 of the SL Black Series makes 661 horsepower and 738 pound-feet of torque. And that kind of motivation, friends, is nothing if not wicked.

If a Little Is Good...
Punching through the 600-hp barrier seems to be something of a trend these days. We thought it a novelty when Dodge recently rejiggered the V10 in its Viper to make 600 horses. Then Chevy one-upped the Mopar boys with the 638-hp LS9 V8 in its Corvette ZR1. And now AMG is fighting back with this beast.

The message, it seems, is clear. Winning the horsepower wars requires a bigger stick than ever before. And, generally speaking, we're a fan of big sticks. However, we recently drove this car several hundred miles on the road and on the track and can report that more isn't always better. Or necessary.

Because 604 hp isn't enough, AMG retuned the twin-turbo V12 to make an additional 57 hp in Black Series trim. Reshaped waste-gate ducts, larger turbo compressor wheels and more efficient intake plumbing make the difference. The ECU is also recalibrated to handle 12 psi of boost.

Power goes to the ground through a five-speed automatic gearbox with four modes (Comfort, Sport, Manual 1 and Manual 2). Manual 2 is the most aggressive mode, offering 25 percent faster shift speed than Manual 1. Shift paddles on the steering wheel speed your gear selection. The 2.65:1 rear-axle ratio is extremely tall to accommodate the power without risking mechanical failure. There's also a limited-slip differential with a 40 percent locking effect.

What's It Like Out There?
The power-to-weight numbers say that the SL65's acceleration shouldn't be as crushing as that of a Corvette ZR1, but once both cars are hooked up we'd wager it would be a good race. With less engine noise than a Vette or Viper and the sense that you're piloting a bullet train rather than a sports car, the 2010 Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG Black Series sends you a message of ample confidence at speed.

Still, the SL65's driving character is largely a product of its 4,342 pounds, which is 210 pounds lighter than a standard SL65. This much weight in a car this dynamically capable is an unusual and even bizarre combination. This heavyweight package's natural physical resistance to accelerating, stopping and turning is crushed by massive power, huge brakes and a stiff suspension. To a large extent, physics takes a backseat to engineering.

At Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, where we spent an afternoon lapping this Mercedes-Benz, the SL65 AMG Black Series produced an uncommon mix of emotions among those who took the wheel: sheer joy and utter terror. Even experienced drivers accustomed to piloting hugely powerful cars were reluctant to fully disable the car's stability control. Most utilized the SL's liberal Sport mode, which allows small slip angles before the electronics intervene. Few turned it off completely.

Out of reverence for the SL's outrageous mix of power and weight, we spent most of our laps in Sport mode. But after overshooting too many apexes thanks to stability control programming that doesn't get along with trail braking, we found that running fully ungoverned by the electronics was as liberating as it was terrifying.

Fun but Frightening
There's no escaping the consequences of the SL's mass while cornering or braking. As a result, we found less confidence than we'd like in the steering feel as the car turned into a corner. This SL is also very, very stiff, which hurts front grip. More suspension compliance would likely increase grip in many situations.

The transmission is slow to respond to downshift requests. It has the ability to subtly match revs to reduce drivetrain loads to the rear wheels under braking, but this often happens so late that it's self-defeating. This could be because there's ample torque available to exit any corner in any gear and AMG engineers know it. Still, any car that lacks a direct connection between its engine and rear wheels provides less control than we'd prefer for track driving.

The SL's brake system, which utilizes conventional steel rotors, is incredible. Even after hundreds of relentless laps, we experienced only mild softening of the pedal due to fade — one hell of a feat in a car this powerful and this heavy.

The 2010 Mercedes-Benz SL65 Black Series is a very capable track car. And it will be nearly as quick as other cars this focused and powerful. But because of its weight and automatic transmission, we find it less engaging and more difficult to manage than its competition.

The Real World
The Black's ride quality on the road is, well, stiff, which until recently was expected in a car this capable. Chevy's Corvette ZR1 changed the standard of measure, however, so now we're less likely to excuse less than perfect adaptability to highway travel in a car this expensive.

The SL65 Black Series coupes destined for the American market will have adjustable leather-covered seats in place of the fixed carbon-fiber buckets featured in this test car. The carbon-fiber examples save about 62 pounds per seat and offer more support.

The automatic transmission is more at home on the street during normal driving, where it can seamlessly blend gears as easily as the Black Series bends physics. Wood the throttle and response isn't instant, but once the power comes on stream, the electronic babysitting gets under way immediately, reducing boost and leading the transmission to shift to taller gears.

The best part? We witnessed such intervention when conducting this exercise at freeway speeds. And honestly, it's all rather silly. Between the engine's instant turbo response and subsequent boost reduction and the transmission's indecision about which gear to use, acceleration is heavily over-managed. Better control over the powertrain with a transmission that uses a clutch rather than a torque converter — plus some intelligent throttle control — would produce quicker acceleration with 50 hp fewer.

And if you've got the beans to try this with all electronic measures disabled, you'd better have the beans to handle 661 hp trying to outrun your reactions via the rear Dunlops. The SL's traction logic — which limits wheelspin somewhat with brake control — is always active. But don't kid yourself; there is still enough wheelspin to make any driver with slow reactions regret his decision.

Here's something else: This car is uniquely indifferent to speed. In fact, above 100 mph on a smooth road, it is easily the most stable and confident car we've ever driven. This is a good thing, since its top speed is 198 mph. Zero to 100 km/h (62 mph) happens in 3.8 seconds, AMG claims.

It's Got Wicked
These criticisms aside, the 2010 Mercedes-Benz SL65 Black Series will please anyone who can afford such a masterpiece of craftsmanship, engineering and power. Plus, it offers something none of its competition can match: extreme exclusivity and wicked road presence. Only 175 examples will be brought to the U.S. this year, and it looks meaner than, well, anything else made.

Little about the SL Black's wild, wide shape is inconspicuous. People don't know what it is, but no one will miss it on the road. Mostly, this is thanks to a 4.9-inch-wider front track and 4.8-inch-wider rear track. Moreover, the removal of the mechanism for the hardtop convertible (a measure to reduce weight) means this car is now a straightforward coupe, resulting in a whole new look. The rear roof line is all new, while all three rear windows are a different shape than before.

The only panels that the Black Series shares with the standard SL65 are the doors. Every other panel — the hood, fenders, quarter-panels and trunk lid — are all uniquely shaped for this car and are made of carbon fiber.

There's also a brilliantly integrated rear spoiler that stands proud of the rear deck lid by 4.7 inches above 75 mph.

New Underneath, Too
As with other models in the AMG Black Series line, the SL65's suspension is adjustable. The heavyweight air springs and Active Body Control hardware of the standard car are gone, replaced by conventional coil springs and dampers. The suspension is now fully adjustable for ride height, damping, camber and alignment. The steering ratio is 8 percent quicker as well.

It takes big rubber to handle this much power and weight, and the Black Series has plenty. The front wheelwells are filled by 265/35ZR19 Dunlop Sport Maxx GT tires, while 325/30ZR20 examples are in the rear. Forged OZ wheels are also new — 19-by-9.5 inches up front and 20-by-11.5 inches out back.

The brakes are huge, with 15.4-inch two-piece rotors up front and 14.2-inch rotors in the rear. Six-piston calipers are featured in the front and four-piston calipers are utilized in the rear.

It'll Cost Ya
Not surprisingly, the 2010 Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG Black Series isn't cheap. All its badassness is assigned a dollar value which, in many states, will buy you a nice waterfront property overlooking the lake. And a Corvette besides.

The going rate will be an estimated $300,000 when the Black Series goes on sale in the U.S. in January 2009. This might seem ridiculous to those of you looking for waterfront property or American sports cars. But for those who have the means, this wicked new Black Series — a car that will frighten you and your legal counsel every time you even consider turning off its stability control — is worth every penny.