These are mean streets. Of course, the Streets of Willow Springs aren't your local neighborhood thoroughfare, but a tightly winding road course designed to challenge even the best race cars and drivers. So, what better place to test out the new Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series?
Launching out of the pits, we blast down the first straight, building momentum fast, as we fling the nimble little coupe into the first corner. The Streets are tricky and it's easy to set yourself up wrong, blasting out of one corner and into another, yet despite the speed we're building up, Mercedes' road-ready race car is surprisingly forgiving of mistakes and each lap flies by just a little bit faster—until we get the signal to pit and let one of our colleagues join in on the fun.
A proper introduction is probably in order. The base CLK is the German automaker's downsized two-door, sold in coupe and cabriolet body configurations. The CLK63 is the V-8-powered upgrade offered through Mercedes' in-house performance division, AMG. The Black Series is the newest twist on the two-door theme, a limited-edition, road-legal race car that could readily lay claim to being the ultimate street fighter.
The basic CLK design is reasonably attractive, if nondescript. In Black Series trim, it becomes much more of a visual standout. The flared wheel arches are the most notable change, providing extra room for wide, 19-inch Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tires. A larger air damn, up front, also sports oversized air inlets, critically needed to feed air the coupe's V-8 wants to gulp down. Additional inlets supply a secondary transmission cooler. The exterior changes are completed by a carbon-fiber diffuser under the rear bumper.
Slip inside, and you'll quickly notice the absence of rear seats. The Black Series coupe makes no pretenses about purpose. Weight matters, extra seats don't. Once you're behind the driver's seat, you'll notice the unusual, flat-bottomed steering wheel. Whether it has any real impact on driving, we're not so sure, but it does make it a bit easier to hump in and out of the car.
Shifter paddles are mounted immediately behind the wheel, within easy reach. That's good news for those who prefer to run the coupe's seven-speed automatic in manual mode. The oddly-shaped lever that replaces the center console's normal shifter isn't meant to be used for changing gears. It's designed, instead, to select your preferred shift mode.
The Black Series edition truly puts the driver in control. You'll have the option of setting such things as ride height, shock damping, and even suspension camber, should you so choose.
AMG's street-legal offering also gets massive, track-ready, composite brake discs, the ones up front measuring 14.2-inches, the rears a still sizable 13.0-inches. Considering what this beautiful beast is capable of, you'll need plenty of stopping power.
There are relatively few big changes to the standard CLK63's engine. The Black Series' sport exhaust bumps the pony count up from 475 to an even 500 hp, while a limited-slip differential ensures the car sticks to the tarmac.
Fire it up, and the Black Series coupe settles into a confidence-inspiring burble that makes you anxious to get out on the track. The throttle is intuitively responsive, to the point where it feels like a natural extension of your own foot. Flat out on the Streets of Willow, 0-60 times fly by in barely 4.1 seconds. Mercedes officials reveal they've electronically limited the top end to 186 mph.
Amateur Turned Pro
On the road, this is the sort of car that makes an average driver feel like a pro, while the professionals discover new opportunities to blow away the competition.
True, there are some drawbacks to using an automatic transmission, rather than a stick or even the sequential manual box offered by the likes of BMW's M models. Mercedes' torque converter does sop up a little of the 6.3-liter V-8's power, but it also smooths things out for everyday driving. That's a more than reasonable trade-off, we came to accept after spending the rest of the day driving back from Willow Springs through the Angeles National Forest and into some of L.A. 's crowded urban highways.
The blind turns and sheer drop-offs of the park road are even less forgiving than the Streets of Willow Springs, but the Black Series coupe was more than a match, letting us hang tight to the tail of a local biker who repeatedly tried—and failed—to shake us off.
Like the car's throttle response, steering is incredible precise and intuitive, the CLK rocketing through turns like it was on rails. On track and off, one could use steering and throttle inputs to precisely position the car, and in manual mode, the electronics would not cut in at the wrong moment, as they might on a non-AMG model, curbing power or trying to yank the car out of a controlled drift. Better yet, with the modified suspension, there was virtually no body roll whatsoever.
At $135,000, or nearly $40,000 more than the "standard" CLK63 AMG (sold only in cabriolet body style) all this doesn't come cheap. AMGs aren't for everyone and the Black Series even more so. Mercedes intends to ship only 350 of them to the U.S. for the 2008 model year. If our experience is any indication, we don't expect them to last long on dealer lots.
For the longest time, true performance fans tended to dismiss Mercedes, and for nearly as long a time, they were right. The German automaker tended to build soft and wallowing sedans and coupes designed more in the fashion of American boulevard cruisers than Autobahn chargers. AMG began a dramatic transformation in Mercedes' performance capabilities and with the addition of the Black Series, the brand is truly due its street cred.
2008 Mercedes-Benz CLK 63 AMG Black Series
Base price: $135,000 plus $770 destination
Engine: AMG-built 6.3-liter V-8, 500 hp/470 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Seven-speed automatic transmission (six-speed manual standard), rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 183.4 x 72.2 x 53.8 in
Wheelbase: 116 in.
Curb weight: 3948 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): N/A
Safety equipment: Anti-lock brakes, traction, and electronic stability program; dual front, side,
and curtain airbags
Major standard equipment: Dual-zone climate control; power windows/locks/mirrors; power front seats; leather upholstery; AM/FM/CD/satellite radio; keyless remote; specially contoured aluminum shift lever, engine "start-stop" button; alloy wheels; Bluetooth hands-free interface
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles