Here’s a dirty little secret about supercars. Virtually every manufacturer of mega-motored hot-rods want to flaunt their version’s supreme status, the proof of its worth, the straight-line speed and g-forces that they can boast. Eager to establish said bona fides, virtually every manufacturer of something fast and furious directs a few lucky auto-scribes toward some closed course or another where we might bear witness to its racetrack pedigree.
So far so good; who wouldn’t want to flog something with pretensions to racecardom around some famous racetrack with no limitations save talent (sometimes not much in evidence) and nerve (sadly, often too much). Capture on video the unadulterated joy that is motoring a supercar at full chat or put pen to paper the thrill of horsepower without restriction, and it’s pretty much every petrolhead’s dream come true.
But here’s the thing: virtually all of them severely limit how much abuse we are allowed to inflict upon their precious steeds. All manner of excuses are proffered – the aforementioned “your enthusiasm doesn’t match your talent”, the simple logistics of the many versus the few (the hordes of journalists scrambling to get in precious few cars), or, as often is the case of Italian automakers, simple hubris. But none are the real reason that access is so limited; the bald-faced truth is that they simply don’t have confidence in their cars.
Oh, they know that they’ll go fast, but they’re not nearly as confident of how long they’ll go fast. For instance, if the brand in question ends with “i” , there’s a good chance that its slick steed will frag its transmission, or its engine electronics will do a proverbial blue screen of death. Those who laud the GT-R as a giant-killer should know that, yes, the overreaching upstart can indeed humiliate much more established brands in a straight-line shoot-out, but it can only do so about five times before its launch control gives up the ghost. Mighty BMW, they of the supposedly robust daily-driver supercar, limit their new M cars to about 10 laps of any given track, since any more reduces their tyres to a spongy mess and the brakes to molten metal. Even Porsche, admittedly more confident than most brands, still doesn’t allow unfettered access lest a turbocharger or some ancillary start puking oil (and, yes, dear reader, each and every one of the examples cited above has happened to Yours Truly).
But not Mercedes. Throughout the long day (and for the three days previous that welcomed waves of other abusive auto-scribes) that we spent flogging AMG’s new SLS Black round the extremely demanding four kilometres of Willow Springs Raceway’s “Big Track” in California, never once did Mercedes restrict the phenomenal abuse that its most powerful car was suffering. (At 622hp, the naturally aspirated SLS Black is endowed with exactly one horsepower more than the SL65’s 621hp, twin-turbo V12.) Four cars started the day and were flogged mercilessly; the same four were happily revving to their limits when the sun went down. Respite was little and the cars circulated endlessly until the super-grippy Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s were ground down to their cords. Then, quick as a Nascar pit stop, the melted rubber was replaced (with spares flown to California from Europe, so rare are these Michelins) and the Blacks were flogged once again. It should be noted that Willow Springs is a high-speed track, notoriously hard on both engine and rubber, and yet our rapid Mercs shrugged off the task as if it were no more than a quick toddle down to the local supermarket. No brakes faded, no engines overheated; and, as I mentioned, this had been going on for days. It’s as impressive a display of durability as I have ever seen.
The Black’s big 6.2L V8 now revs 800rpm higher (redline is now 8,000rpm) and, in so doing, produces 39 more horsepower. The kerb weight has been reduced about 70 kilograms by rendering the entire exhaust system in racing-grade, ultra-lightweight titanium, while the brakes, both lighter and more fade-resistant, are carbon-ceramic. Those Michelin Sport Cups are wider (the rears are a whopping 335/30ZR20, the fronts an almost-as-humungous 275/35ZR19), the suspension firmer and even the suspension bushes, the connecting point between suspension arms and the body, are 50 per cent more rigid for better steering feedback. Argue all that you want that this is the SLS that should have been all along, but never doubt that the Black is a supercar.
Turn 8 at Big Willow, for instance, demands that you go piling into the big right-hander at almost full-throttle, with only those short on bottle really applying the brakes. But then, at full speed, with the tyres already squirming around at the edge of adhesion, you’re expected to start feeding in the Black’s carbon ceramics to shave off enough speed to make the diabolical, “how-late-is-this-apex?” Turn 9. In most front-engined cars, even the very sportiest, you’re walking a traction tightrope, trying to turn and brake at the same time, the poor tyres already struggling for grip. In the best of cars, even the fanciest of mid-engined Ferraris, the easiest solution is to just back off the throttle, coasting towards the turn-in point being the best guarantee that you will actually, well, turn in.
Not in the SLS Black. Charge through normally constitution-testing Turn 8 and then, as you get more confidence in the Black’s almost transcendent traction, dive into Turn 9 as if you’ve never seen anyone crash there. Revel in front-end grip that defies every effort to induce confidence-sapping understeer. And wonder how the same car, minus the upgraded Michelins and firmer suspension, is so squirrelly in stock form. Every single one of Big Willow’s nine turns presents immense challenges to even the best of race cars, and yet every lap sees my foot deeper into the throttle and harder on the brakes. Truth be told, I’m not convinced a mid- or rear-engine car – cue the comparisons with Ferrari and McLaren – would inspire any more confidence around here.
The 6.2L’s 8,000rpm redline also aids the proceedings, those 800 extra revs allowing less shifting between corners. Not that the gear changes from the slick-shifting, paddle-operated seven-speed manumatic cause that much delay. That said, the Black’s 3.6 second zero to 100kph acceleration time is but 0.1 seconds quicker than the standard SLS GT (and because of its shorter gearing, it’s actually slower on the top end by 5kph), so stoplight bandits would be better served saving their money.
Nonetheless, the engine is a gem, literally screaming every time that it touches 8,000rpm. Again, it’s worth noting that the big V8 does this lap after lap without complaint, its seemingly indestructibility the result of the Black’s wider main bearings supporting the stiffened crankshaft, higher tensile bolts making sure that connecting rods don’t stretch and a revised dry sump oiling system said to scavenge as much as 75 litres of Mobil synthetic per minute at full chat. That something so fast, so single-purposefully sporty, could also be so robust makes this one of the toughest cars that I’ve ever driven.
It is also the very best sports car that AMG has ever produced. It’s most certainly worth the US$43,800 [Dh160,886] bump that Mercedes is demanding for the SLS Black ($276,000) over the basic GT version ($232,200) here in the UAE. And while direct competition is necessary to determine whether the Black really can bear comparison to the mid-engined Ferrari and McLaren, it’s almost certainly the best front-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports car ever made. Make no mistake, the SLS is now definitely a supercar.
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