What is it?
This is arguably the most driver-focused Mercedes-Benz road car ever: the SLS AMG Black Series.
The SLS AMG Black Series looked aggressive enough covered in disguise when we rode in it late last year, but as it sits in the pitlane at the Paul Ricard circuit in France, its engine turning over with a lumpy idle, you get the feeling that all it lacks are race numbers attached to its bodywork. It’s certainly a long way from the standard SLS GT we drove a couple of months back.
Beyond the deep new front bumper, with integral carbonfibre splitter, and front wings that have been widened by 13mm, it is the long, contoured carbonfibre bonnet with integral air duct that really sets it apart. Further back, there are deep new sills with cooling ducts for the rear brakes, rear wings that extend out by an extra 26mm and a reprofiled rear bumper with a more substantial diffuser.
AMG’s latest Black Series model also comes with an optional aerodynamic package that has additional winglets on the outer corners of the front bumper for improved cooling of the front brakes, as well as a prominent carbonfibre rear wing on the bootlid in place of the standard retractable one.
The SLS Black Series has benefited greatly from the existence of the SLS GT3 race car and SLS Electric Drive. Various lightweight components and construction solutions from both allow it to hit the scales 70kg below that of the SLS GT, at 1550kg.
Key among the developments brought to the Black Series model is a new carbonfibre torque tube, through which the propshaft runs. As well as being much lighter than the standard aluminium arrangement, it is also claimed to be significantly more rigid for greater structural integrity. The bulkhead behind the seats is also now made of carbonfibre, again increasing the overall stiffness.
The real showpiece, though, is the engine. The naturally aspirated 6.2-litre V8 adopts myriad detail changes, including revised valve gear with altered cam geometry and revised bucket tappets, a new intake system, reconfigured belt drive, optimised crank assembly and an entirely new water and oil cooling system.
Power increases by 59bhp to 622bhp, which trumps a Porsche 911 GT2 RS. Maximum power arrives 600rpm further up the rev range, at 8000rpm. Torque has been reduced by 11lb ft in the interests of low-end tractability, going from 479lb ft at 4750rpm to 468lb ft at 5500rpm.
What is it like?
Mercedes has never been one to believe that extreme supercars should be stripped-out affairs, even one as obviously competition orientated as this. Lift the gullwing door and you’re treated to a genuinely luxurious interior that boasts swathes of leather, polished carbonfibre trim applications, shiny white-faced instruments and a well-proportioned multi-function steering wheel.
The driving position is terrific and the carbonfibre-backed seats, although sparsely cushioned, are excellent. I’m surprised not to see a full race harness, but a regular three-point belt instead.
On the run from the pitlane exit to the first corner, it is obvious that this is far more than your regular SLS GT. Throttle response is much sharper and AMG’s big V8 revs more freely, with added urgency. And the noise it makes, even on part throttle, is absolutely fabulous.
The geometry of the double wishbone suspension remains intact, but the elasto-kinematic properties have been heavily revised. The SLS AMG Black Series suspension is 50 per cent firmer up front and 42 per cent firmer at the rear than the SLS GT. The substantial 275/35 R19 (front) and 325/30 R20 (rear) Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres are the same as those set to appear on the Porsche 918 Spyder.
It’s meant to be suitable for the road, but there’s a lack of compliance even on the smooth bitumen of Paul Ricard. As we get up to speed, the whole car feels remarkably rigid. And you quickly become aware of the downforce provided by that rear wing. In its handling, the SLS Black Series doesn’t do much wrong at all. For a front-engined car, it is incredibly well balanced.
There’s some turn-in understeer on the circuit as you introduce heat into the tyres, but even before you’ve got some laps under your belt and managed to get your head around the terrific whip-crack sharpness of the revised steering and heavily reconfigured front suspension, it feels a very different proposition from the SLS GT.
It is much more immediate in its reactions, far less cosseting and wonderfully planted, with very little body roll even in some of Paul Ricard’s tighter infield corners. Like that of the SLS GT3, the chassis is now bolted directly to the body. The spring, damper and anti-roll bars have all been heavily upgraded as well.
Traction in the dry is excellent, all the more impressive through the adoption of a new electronically controlled rear differential lock The new arrangement not only saves weight but is also noticeably faster to react to a spinning rear wheel, making the SLS Black Series keener in its ability to place its power down than any other rear-wheel-drive AMG model, although there’s still sufficient power for a heavily pegged throttle to overcome the purchase of the rear tyres in handling mode. Yes, it’s possible to hold a slide.
The great thing about the handling on the standard suspension set-up is that it allows you to confidently explore the dynamic limits. You can immediately feel you’re on top of it, relying on the subtle interventions of the differential lock and stability control to keep it pointing in the right direction. If you do put a foot wrong, it is progressive enough to let you off the hook, so long as you’re quick enough with the correction.
The claimed performance figures are startling: 0-62mph in 3.6sec and a top speed of 196mph. And it sounds every bit as mesmerising from within the confines of its leather-lined cabin as it does from the outside. The internal changes made to the engine give it a hardened mechanical demeanour at any revs.
But it’s nothing compared with the deep blare of exhaust, whose intensity and volume have been increased significantly over the already wonderful-sounding SLS GT through the adoption of a new titanium exhaust system, which, at 17kg, is a full 13kg lighter than the standard steel arrangement.
But regardless of how much AMG talks about the software changes that it has introduced to its seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox to make it more responsive to a click of its steering wheel-mounted paddles, it remains the weak link within the driveline. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the action of the compact transaxle, which is quite smooth on part-throttle upshifts. But it lacks the explosive cog-swapping efficiency required to match the heightened qualities of the engine as you extend it towards the 8000rpm red line.
Braking performance is very much limited by the purchase of the standard Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. The 402mm front and 306mm rear ceramic discs enable massive decelerative force; it’s instant, with a surprising level of feel within the pedal.
Should I buy one?
On most levels, this car is a resounding success. It’s easily the most focused and exciting to drive of AMG’s five hardened Black Series models to date, even if a bunch of question marks remain over its overall usability and suitability for extended periods of public road driving.
Around the track, the SLS AMG Black Series provides the full and complete Le Mans experience in a way that no other Mercedes model has, short of perhaps the CLK GTR homologation special produced in a limited production run of just 25 back in 1997.
And the breathtaking £230,000 that Mercedes is expected to ask for it here in the UK? It’s the price you pay for what is perhaps the most thrilling and certainly among the most accomplished performance cars to flaunt the three-pointed star.