x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The end of the Mercedes SLS marks the death of a supercar

With the end nigh for the Mercedes-Benz SLS, Kevin Hackett takes a last blast in its AMG Black Series.

The Mercedes-Benz SLS-AMG Black Series is the most extreme version of the German manufacturer’s flagship racer, adding startling acceleration to the SLS’s head-turning gull-wing doors and aggressive styling. Courtesy Mercedes-Benz
The Mercedes-Benz SLS-AMG Black Series is the most extreme version of the German manufacturer’s flagship racer, adding startling acceleration to the SLS’s head-turning gull-wing doors and aggressive styling. Courtesy Mercedes-Benz

It seems like it’s only been around for five minutes, but one of the world’s truly great supercars has been killed off, with no direct replacement in sight. In this day and age, for a company like Mercedes-Benz to cease production of a car like the SLS-AMG is almost unthinkable. It’s acted as a brand halo since the day that it was unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2009, and wealthy enthusiasts in the UAE have taken to it like few other cars. The same can be said for the USA and other markets, but if you want to see a few of these spectacular machines, the best thing to do is walk around Dubai Marina on a Friday night.

The UAE’s love affair with Mercedes-Benz is cast in stone and it’s simple to see why. The German company’s cars were some of the first to be brought into the region and many of this country’s leaders have owned, and continue to own, personal transport graced by the famous, three-pointed star. So the most extreme, most outrageous Merc of them all was always going to be a hit here and the SLS-AMG’s success is well deserved. It’s an epic mode of transportation, but no road going variant is as extreme as this: the SLS-AMG Black Series.

It isn’t the SLS’s last hurrah, as some expected it to be when it was unveiled at the end of 2012 at the LA Motor Show. That accolade goes to the limited-production (just 350 worldwide) – deep breath now – SLS-AMG GT Final Edition. Once the last of those is sold, it will be adios amigo before an all-new, smaller, more-accessible sports car is launched in its place. The GT Final Edition shares the same mechanicals as the standard car, but comes replete with all manner of carbon fibre addenda, while the car that you see here – the Black Series – is an altogether different beast and, while I still had the chance, I begged the good people at Mercedes-Benz to give me the key for a few, adrenalin-fuelled days. After all, this might be the last chance that I ever get to pop open its gull-wing doors and fire up its mighty V8 engine.

Inspired by the GT3 competition SLS-AMG cars that have enjoyed enormous success in events such as our own Dubai 24-hour race, the Black Series is a strange conundrum – a pared-down version of a car that was already light (SLS is short for Sport Light Super), it’s some 70kg lighter than the “normal” car. And yet it’s still luxuriously appointed and has none of the exposed-roll-cage business that you’d find in a Porsche 911 GT3 RS, for instance. Everything else about it, though, is pure race car and it’s astonishing that legislators allow things like this on the road at all. I’m expecting, once I get going, to be intimidated by the Black Series like no other car – including the eye-wateringly rapid Veyron Super Sport. Its statistics really are that mental.

It isn’t the fastest road-going Merc in history (that would be the SL55 Black Series, which punches through the air at 320kph) and it’s electronically limited to 315kph – any faster than that and those gull-wing doors probably open and the thing becomes airborne – but it is, by some margin, the quickest. From rest, you can see 100kph in just 3.6 seconds, and its mid-range acceleration is fierce, with 622hp on tap, along with 635Nm of twist. But it’s that weight saving that really gives the Black a kick and AMG’s engineers have spared nothing when it comes to paring it down.

That 70kg saving was achieved by increasing the carbon fibre quota in the body panels, mechanical components and the space frame. The steel exhaust system was binned in favour of a titanium set-up, shaving another 13kg, and using a lithium-ion battery brought down the mass by a further 8kg. But we do still have carpets, electric windows and all the rest, including a superb Bang & Olufsen sound system, so the Black does stay true to its GT aspirations. It’s just more focused and more raw than ever before.

The seven-speed sports transmission is installed 10mm lower to achieve a reduced centre of gravity and it’s braced against the body by gas-filled struts to keep it still when cornering hard. The transmission’s Sport Plus and Manual modes shift between cogs with greater speed and the driver can now activate Manual mode without having to remove a hand from the steering wheel, by pulling on the up or down shift paddle. But I’ve been warned by a friend, who has already experienced this very car, that I’ll live longer and enjoy the ride far more if I just leave it in “normal” mode. Not that there’s anything remotely normal about this machine.

It looks almost comically aggressive, with carbon-fibre slashes and vents everywhere and a huge carbon spoiler on the boot lid, which is quite handy when trying to close it. There are wider sills and four exhaust pipes at the rear that probably spit fire when downshifting – it’s positively brutal to look at and, if subtlety is your game, you should really go for something else.

The visual dramatics continue when you unlock it with the key fob. Handles sprout from the doors, so that you can lift them up, and, when you do, the world just stops and stares. Clambering in isn’t easy, but once you’re nestled in the bucket seats, it’s actually quite comfortable. But then you have to reach up and pull down the doors, because having electric closers would have added unnecessary weight.

Press the starter button, which glows a bloody red, and the effects are absolutely physical; a deep boom, followed by clattering of all manner of mechanical componentry meshing together. The car shakes itself, even when it’s settled to an idle, and if the doors didn’t grab the attention of pedestrians, then the racket coming from this car’s engine certainly will.

Engage Drive, off we go. The mechanical clattering continues unabated. You can hear and feel every cog, every metallic sinew coming together, and it’s alarming for any uninitiated passenger. But it’s supposed to sound like this – this is what it does. It’s a barely disguised racer and that’s what they all do; it’s just that this one you can actually drive to the track as well.

I’m not heading for the track, though. I’m heading for Hatta with my better half for a late lunch and I’ve warned her that she might want to stop half way and hitch-hike the rest, because it won’t be the most relaxing country drive that she will get to experience. Cruising around Dubai Marina, as most of the examples in this region are duty bound to do, the streets’ unforgiving speed humps cause minor palpitations. The car just about clears them, at less than a walking pace and, when the rear end settles, it does so stiffly, as though there’s no suspension underneath it at all. So no, this is not ideal everyday commuter material.

But unleash it on the open road and it comes alive like few other cars I’ve yet driven. Avoiding the Oman border control shenanigans, I point it the long way round and, quite by accident, discover a brand new road that cuts through the jagged mountains and ends just a few kilometres from the town. It’s one of those joyous, life-affirming stretches of highway – a snaking ribbon of perfect, clean, black tarmac that combines heart-stopping scenery that changes every time that you’re brave enough to take your eyes off the road with beautifully sweeping bends and changing gradients.

The SLS-AMG Black Series utterly devours it. A heavy metal soundtrack engulfs the cabin and conversation is pointless – the fury of that normally aspirated, hand-built masterpiece of a V8 up front takes centre stage and it’s electrifying. There’s so much lateral grip that I’m shocked. I’d been expecting this thing to wave its tail like a thrashing, just-landed shark without any provocation, but it hunkers down and simply gets on with the job of going very quickly indeed.

This shouldn’t be the surprise that it is. After all, race cars should be controllable – tail-happy, sideways, tyre-smoking antics do not good lap times make. To win on a track, you need flat cornering and bags of grip – things this car delivers by the truckload.

Not that it won’t bite if provoked, mind you. Selecting the Sport and Sport Plus functions, which relinquish some of the car’s electronic assistance, should only be done by those with actual skill and, even then, only where there is a lot of space. Because, when it does break traction, it really lets go and you need a really wide road to catch it. As for how it would perform in the rain, well, I hope that I never find out. If the heavens opened when I was driving this thing, I’d abandon ship and walk home. Hit an expansion joint in the road and, even when the surface is bone dry, it performs a pulse-quickening wiggle. In the wet, you’d probably land in Oman.

Stay within your comfort zone, though, and this car delivers a visceral hit that cannot help but bring a ridiculous grin to your face. The violence of its performance never lets up, the throttle is almost telepathically responsive and its limits are stratospherically high. It would take years to master this machine and that’s what marks out a car as something truly special.

Only a masochist would consider it as everyday transportation and, in the few days that I have it in my possession, I have to leave it parked on the street. It’s just too low to negotiate the ramps into my building’s car park and, on at least two occasions, I have to sit waiting for half an hour or more for a space to become vacant. It’s impossible to live with in the city, of that there is no doubt.

But I’ll miss it when it’s gone and so shall you. That cars like this exist at all is reason for celebration and, if you have the means (at least Dh1,035,000), my advice would be to buy one while you still can. As the most extreme version of the most outrageous Merc of them all, its status as a sought-after UAE classic is assured.

khackett@thenational.ae

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