On my first lap of Willow Springs International Raceway in the $275,000 Mercedes-Benz SLS Black Series supercar, I elect to be driven. I’ve never been to this track before, and Mercedes has brought along a pro race-car driver.
I’ve heard a lot of things (“insanely fast” and “really hairy”) about “Big Willow,” which sprawls against a bluff in the bleak Californian desert about 90 miles north of Los Angeles.
The same could be said for the SLS AMG Black Series coupe. The Black Series is Mercedes’s most extreme example of the SLS AMG, with 622 horsepower and 468 pound-feet of torque. That’s more power than many race cars.
I’ve driven the regular $201,500 SLS GT on raceways before, and I am about to evaluate how much faster and better performing the Black Series is over that car.
With options the Black costs almost $300,000. Would a buyer get his money’s worth? First I’ve got to learn the track, a 2.5-mile snake coiling over desert hills, with a series of long and tricky straightaways. A 196-mph-top speed car and an unfamiliar track. Good luck with that.
I step into the car with Maximilian Gotz, a young German driver with slicked-back hair, to get a sense of what’s what. We’re off, and he immediately blasts the gas. The sound of the 6.3-liter V-8 is rough and thrilling, the acceleration immediate.
We bound into a tight left hand corner, over a slight brow, then track out to the right. Diving into a long fast sweeper, he barely touches the brakes. A thin layer of sweat spreads under my helmet.
The AMG is designed as a street car with race car credentials. How many owners will actually bring it to a place like Willow is a good question.
The carbon-ceramic brakes are meant to suffer through repeated hard stops without fading, and the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires are soft and mushy with almost no tread for the best possible traction -- just this side of actual racing tires. They’re lousy in rain or the cold, by the way.
The Black Series is lighter than the regular SLS, wider, with better aerodynamics and quicker steering. More focused for intense driving.
Up a sharp hill that wends up the brow of the bluff, around a sharp corner, down the other side, a quick left, over a hump which unsettles the suspension, then a long straightway where Gotz is driving flat out.
Then the worst part, turns 8 and 9, a long stretch of curving track shaped like a mushroom. Incredibly fast, it tightens into a decreasing radius.
Earlier, another journalist pointed at the expanse of loose desert dirt and said, “Get on the gas too soon, and you’re going off the track there.” He noted a section of green wall, far away, where a Mustang once crash-landed after going off the track and became airborne.
Big Willow is fast. And rather scary. My turn. I open the SLS’s signature gull-wing door, avoid bumping my head, get my seating position right, fire up the engine and head out.
The first section is simple and the SLS Black is well-mated to the track. Despite the very long hood, the car is balanced. Still, 469 lb-ft of torque is a lot to handle, and the short travel of the gas pedal is not to my liking.
The back section of track throws me. Lap after lap I slow down where I don’t need to, and speed up where I shouldn’t. I once get too close to the track’s edge and spook myself. You don’t want to be the guy who takes the $300,000 supercar skidding into the dirt.
Am I impressed? I am. AMG has pulled out the stops on the Black. It’s the most exotic looking SLS, with deep, sexy scoops running under the doors, and black carbon fiber inserts hugging the side air intakes. A fixed wing at the rear keeps the car better planted at extra-legal speeds.
The interior is still comfortable, but the coupe comes alive when you’re traveling over 120 miles per hour. The racetrack is the place it makes its home. Only buyers who are serious about that extra potency will find it worth the extra $75,000-plus over the regular, 583-hp SLS GT.
Still, I’m frustrated and time is running out. I get in with a colleague who has raced at Willow for years, and his line around the back section is different. The mysteries of turns 8 and 9 begin to unravel.
We switch seats, and I let the Black do its thing. I’m only beginning to test the boundary of it and the track. The limits are high and the consequences serious.
As I slam through the back straight, tires howling, I realize that in a car like the SLS Black, it can’t be any other way.
The 2014 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series at a Glance
Engine: 6.3-liter V-8 with 622 horsepower and 468 pound-
feet of torque.
Transmission: Seven-speed double-clutch automated manual.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 13 city, 17 highway.
Price as tested: $299,550.
Best features: Ease of use despite extreme abilities.
Worst features: Lack of nuance on gas pedal; you often bump
your head on gullwing doors getting out.
Target buyer: The weekend track lover.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)