First Drive: 2014 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series

The 2014 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series is a sensible, everyday supercar that can inspire racecar driver-level confidence in most any driver.

I have long been fascinated with the Mercedes-Benz AMG Black Series line.

By all accounts, these cars have accelerators that turned neck bones into jelly and exhaust that ruptured eardrums. In spite of this, I was still enraptured with the breed.

AMG Black Series cars have accelerators that turned neck bones into jelly and exhaust that ruptured eardrums

Their high-torque engines, wide bodies, and unforgiving interiors set my heart alight. I didn’t care if they were impractical, scary, or expensive. To me, they represented a rare wild streak inside a very dour company. AMG Black is the physical embodiment of unbridled German madness.

Along with my love came an early realization that I would never, ever drive one of these wondrous things. While this was disappointing, I accepted it as a way of the world – just as I accept the tides or, say, the cost of milk.

Then Mercedes called and asked me to drive the 2014 SLS AMG Black Series on the Willow Springs racetrack outside Los Angeles.

Arrival

It was a hot October day, as one might expect, at Willow Springs. Mercedes shuttled us journalists out to the track in its tall cargo vans. When we arrived at the track, we were taken to a white debriefing room full of big-screen televisions and biscotti. There, as we munched loudly on our crunchy Italian treats, we were presented with the facts and figures of the SLS AMG Black Series.

To make the SLS AMG Black, AMG engineers took their already rough-and-tumble SLS AMG and turned up the torque. To be fair, the transformation was far more complicated than a simple torque boost. The SLS AMG Black has more in common with the SLS GT3 racecar than it does with the standard SLS. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

By all rights, the SLS Black is a supercar. It weighs only 3,417 pounds, despite its gullwing doors and massive powerhouse of an engine.

Underneath its ungodly long hood resides the 6.3-liter V8 that makes 622 horsepower and 468 pound-feet of torque. That monstrous power is routed through an AMG SPEEDSHIFT DCT seven-speed sports transmission that can operate both in automatic and manual shift modes.

The SLS Black will go 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds and onto a top speed that would make aerospace engineers blush with envy. This is no surprise, however, as the SLS Black’s V8 is the most powerful combustion engine AMG has ever built. Every one is hand assembled by one man, one engine at a time.

After we journalists had our fill of the brick-like baked goods, and the Germans had stopped shouting facts at us, we were once again loaded into the hulking vans and shuttled down to the track.

Down to the track

You could feel the tension on the bus. High-strength coffee, a presentation about monstrous torque, and multiple van rides really get an automotive journalist’s heart pumping. I watched from the back as my colleagues shifted and squirmed in their seats, leaning back and forth, left and right, trying to see the SLS Blacks we’d be driving.

We finally rounded the last trackside shack and there they were. Five of the most gorgeous hunks of German steel I’ll ever lay eyes on. Rather than five Mercedes beige-gold supercars, our senses were tickled with black, red, yellow, white, and silver SLS Blacks, all lined up with their driver’s gullwing doors open.

Underneath its ungodly long hood resides the 6.3-liter V8 that makes 622 horsepower and 468 pound-feet of torque.

As we clamored off the bus, we were handed head socks and helmets and told to choose our cars. The SLS Black at the front with bright red paint and gaping gullwing seemed to almost demonically beckon me toward it.

Still in a biscotti-fueled blood rush, I stammered around the shimmering red SLS Black and studied it from all angles. It doesn’t have a bad one. Every line of the SLS Black is perfectly shaped. It looks smooth and agile, fast, and menacing all at the same time.

AMG designers flared the wheel arches by a half-inch in the front and a full in in the rear to fit larger tires. Black Series front lip, side skirting, and rear diffuser were also added to improve aerodynamics and also visual dynamics.

Aside from the extremely long hood and gullwing doors, my favorite feature of the SLS Black is its sharp carbon-fiber rear wing, which has been fitted to the trunk lid.

I put on my helmet and ungracefully fall into my red SLS Black. At six-feet-five-inches tall, there’s no real way to look cool getting in or out of a gullwing car. Inside, I found I didn’t quite fit. OK – that’s putting it mildly. I plain didn’t fit. With a helmet on, the seat all the way to the floor, and slouched as hard as I could, I still rubbed the Alcantara-covered roof. Not wanting to be the guy too tall to drive an AMG Black Series, I sucked it up, fired the engine, and awaited further instructions.

2014 Mercedes Benz SLS AMG Black Series back red yellow

After a short, rumbly wait, Maxi, the Mercedes GT3 racecar driver, came by and instructed me to put the AMG transmission into Sport plus (S+), the suspension into Sport, and the traction control also into ESC SPORT. “Do not,” Maxi said without a hint of a smile, “turn the ESC traction control off. You simply can’t handle the torque without it.”

“Okie dokie,” I hastily replied, thrown off by Maxi’s stern directness, slapping the forehead of my helmet in dismay at my own idiocy as Maxi moved on.

Maxi debonairly dropped into his SLS, grabbed his walkie-talkie and instructed us to follow him as his car ripped away with a roar.

On the track

My heart pumping, head rubbing the ceiling, we flew into the first corner. Maxi gave journalist us no warm-up period. We were on it. I gripped tightly the steering wheel and emotionally hunkered in.

After the initial shock wore off, I settled into my new role of supercar tester. I consider myself a fairly competent driver. The SLS AMG Black Series, however, made me a great driver, I felt.

The SLS Black’s 6.3-liter V8’s rev range has been increased from a 7,200 rpm redline to a simply staggering 8,000 redline with the addition of modified camshaft geometry and optimized bucket cam followers, which feature a special coating that is typically used only in race car engines. This means, if you have the nerve to keep your foot planted in the throttle, you can wring all the ponies and torques from the rumbling mass. Following Maxi, I did exactly that.

Normally on the track, I’m a worrier. I am never convinced I know where that line between confidence and collision with the wall lies. In the SLS Black, I surrendered myself to the engineering marvel surrounding me.

Watching Maxi’s line in my periphery, I looked ahead as far as I could see. This, I have learned after some stuttering track laps in the past, is the only way to drive. I came in harder to corners than I normally might, braking later, and rolling back into the throttle harder and sooner on the way out.

At 8,000 rpm, the 6.3 doesn’t sound angry to be churning so hard but rather furious it can’t rev any higher.

The sound of the SLS Black is heavenly. It’s a symphony of anger and burned hydrocarbons routed through a titanium exhaust system – a first for Mercedes road cars. At 8,000 rpm, the 6.3 doesn’t sound angry to be churning so hard but rather furious it can’t rev any higher.

That fury is sent to an electronic-controlled rear axle with a locking differential. The electronic diff features not only shorter rear axle ratio than the mechanically controlled unit, but also boosts driving safety. It locks up on hard acceleration and braking while also limiting yaw around the car’s vertical axis. To translate that engineering jargon: The SLS Black can more competently and safely handle high-speed cornering and highway lane changes.

Following Maxi hard into the uphill lefthander that swooped up over into another uphill right-hander that fed into a curving downhill, I felt the effect of the electronics doing their work. By that, I mean, I didn’t feel it, which is what told me it was working. My driving skill wasn’t keeping that car planted to the tarmac, it was the electronics. I’ll freely admit that.

Also working seamlessly behind the scenes was the suspension system. Although it can be turned up to Sport +, I left it in Sport, in accordance with Maxi’s demands. It, too, is a mechanical masterpiece.

AMG fitted aluminum double-wishbone suspension at all four corners of the SLS Black, with coil-overs that give it not only a wider track but also a more rigid ride than the ‘standard’ SLS.

That stiff suspension pushes four 10-spoke AMG wheels to the road, which are wrapped in newly developed Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires that could handle an incredible traction load at our cornering speeds, which easily topped 165 mph.

2014 Mercedes Benz SLS AMG Black Series rear spoiler

Behind beautiful, matte black forged wheels is perhaps my second favorite part of the SLS Black: the two-piece ceramic brakes. The brakes measure 15.8 x 1.5 inches at the front and 14.2 x 1.3 inches at the rear and bring the SLS Black to a quick and competent stop very time – no matter the breakneck speed. These extremely expensive brakes weigh 35.5 pounds less than the steel and aluminum brakes fitted to the normal SLS, producing a huge un-sprung weight savings.

These outstanding brakes allowed me to shake off my normal ‘brake early and often’ mentality and give into my inner racecar driver. I tried to follow Maxi as closely as I could, leaving the other journalist behind me literally in the dust.

Harsh reality

Lap after lap, my driving improved a bit at a time. Hurling that lustrous red $275,000 car fit for a playboy around Willow Springs, I felt I had found my calling. That was, until I was hit hard with a shocking realization.

Throughout my lap runs, Maxi had been giving me driving directions over his radio: “Brake later. Use more of the track. Watch the torque in the uphill corners.”

I figured Maxi, fighting hard with his standard SLS to shake me on the track, was wearing a headset and would occasionally give me a glimpse in his rearview to gently correct my driving.

In reality, Maxi was radioing with his right hand, steering only with his left, and spent most of the laps not hawkeyed on the tarmac ahead, but instead mostly watching my novice driving in his mirrors, glimpsing forward through his windshield only occasionally.

What a blow. I was being outperformed and outdriven by a man in slower car, steering with his non-dominant hand, who was barely watching the track. I was devastated. My fleeting mental images of driving supremacy were quickly dashed apart.

This insulting epiphany put the SLS in perspective. I was a better driver behind the wheel of the SLS Black – and not because I had unearthed some dormant driving talent. Instead, the SLS AMG Black Series has been so carefully and skillfully designed and crafted that it can uplift and inspire the most mundane drivers.

That alone, I reckon, is a masterful feat.

Highs

  • Mind-altering acceleration
  • Supremely confident braking
  • Knee-weakening exterior design
  • Wondrously angry exhaust note

Lows

  • Small interior space
  • A price tag on par with the Moon Lander
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