The Clarkson review: Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series (2013)

Crikey, the Terminator has joined the Carry On team

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At present your car’s annual tax bill is based on how much carbon dioxide is emitted from its rear. And not since William III’s window tax have we seen anything quite so stupid. You might as well levy people on how many armpit hairs they have.

My problem with taxing a gas is that to cut down emissions of it, cars are being ruined. Hopeless electric power steering is now replacing the “feelsome” hydraulic systems of old because it is less of a drain on the engine. Double- clutch gearboxes are replacing smooth slushmatics because without a torque converter the economy is better. Which means less CO2.

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It’s probable that fairly soon the last V8 will roll off a production line somewhere in the world. I like V8s. They are inherently unbalanced, which is what makes them sound all gruff and rumbly. But each cylinder has to be fed with fuel and why feed eight when technology means you can now get as much power from feeding six?

This means the turbocharger is back with a vengeance. And while many of these blown engines are incredibly good, and remarkably free of noticeable lag, you know as you sit there that the throttle response has to be dulled. Which is the same as giving a connoisseur of fine food a plate of Smash. It’s nearly mashed potato, and yet it just isn’t.

And it’s all going to get worse. Because every year the madmen in charge insist on less and less carbon dioxide and the only way to achieve that is for cars to burn less and less fuel. Which, to start with, will mean more hybrids, and then as the lunatics keep on going, cars that are purely electric.

I have nothing against electric power at all, except for the total impracticality and the fact the emissions are simply being made at power stations rather than under the bonnet, but I do suspect that when we are all humming around the place in near silence we shall miss the good old days of crackling exhausts and instant responses and limitless range.

And that’s why I’ve been thinking: is there another way of taxing cars that keeps both the ecomentalists and the petrolheads happy? And I believe there is — tax weight instead.

Weight is the enemy of everyone except for the gun-toting, attack-dog enthusiast in a few Southern states of pick-up truck America. But despite this, cars keep on getting heavier and heavier. It’s our fault. We demand more space on the inside, more luxury equipment and more rigid safety cells, all of which makes a car fatter.

But if engineers can make an engine produce 130bhp per litre of capacity —and Mercedes has done just that — then surely they can build a safe, big, well-equipped car that needs mooring ropes to stop it floating away at the lights.

Dragging extra pounds around means spending more pounds at the pumps. And that means more emissions, which is bad news — if you believe that sort of thing — for Johnny Polar Bear. So tax it. I certainly won’t complain because weight also blunts a car’s performance — not just its acceleration but its ability to go round corners. A heavy car will never be as much fun to drive as a light car.

I am particularly keen to have a go in the new Alfa Romeo 4C, which on the face of it sounds a bit hopeless. It costs around £45,000 yet it only comes with a four-cylinder 1742cc engine. That’s white-collar money for blue-collar power. And yet this is a car that tips the scales at just 895kg — about half what the vehicle on your drive weighs. It therefore doesn’t need a big engine: 237bhp — the stuff of hatchbacks — will give it a power-to-weight ratio of 268bhp per tonne. And that’s the stuff of full-blooded supercars. Along with more than 40mpg, which you’re lucky to get from a Toyota Prius. Frankly, if I were in charge, the 4C would be tax-free.

To get the weight this far down, Alfa Romeo has gone the extra mile and then it’s gone round the corner and kept right on going. The wiring, for instance, is made as thin as possible. And the chassis is a carbon-fibre tub that weighs about the same as a loaf of bread. It’s going to be good, this car. I can feel it in my bones.

And now I’m going to unpick every single thing I’ve just said by reviewing a car I have driven. The Mercedes SLS AMG  Black Series. A lightweight car that isn’t quite as good as its heavier brother.

To recap. AMG-badged cars are semi-lunatic versions of ordinary Mercs. Black Series cars are semi-lunatic versions of the AMGs. I have one, a CLK. It’s bonkers.

But bonkers in a good way. Because it’s not really built to go round a track as fast as the laws of physics will allow. It’s not a Porsche or a Ferrari. Yes, it’s lighter and more powerful than the standard AMG car, but these modifications have only been made to increase my smiles per hour. It’s built to be a laugh.

It’s much the same story with the standard SLS AMG. Oh, sure, it has a carbon-fibre prop shaft that weighs only 4kg and an engine that can read Latin. But you try going round a corner quickly. The tail will swing wide and pretty soon you’ll be making more smoke than a Second World War destroyer. You’ll also be giggling like an infant.

With the Black Series, though, Mercedes has put its sense of humour back in the box and gone all sensible. Odd that. It is normally so carefree. But whatever, the SLS AMG Black Series now has a Ferrari-style electronic differential that tames the rear end. It also uses exactly the same gearbox that Ferrari puts in the F12berlinetta. Though in the Mercedes it’s tuned to last.

Oh, and try this for size. While the 6.2-litre V8 develops more horsepower than the standard unit, it delivers 11 fewer torques. That means less fire and brimstone when you put your foot down. And then, finally, various bits and bobs are now made from carbon fibre, which means less weight . . .

It should be good. And on a track it is. Very good indeed. Way faster than the standard SLS. But if you’re going on a track, why use a pantomime horse that’s been converted? Why not get a car that was built to be quick in the first place? A much cheaper Porsche 911 GT3, for example.

And on the road? Well, it still has all the creature comforts and the ride’s not bad, so it feels quite similar to its heavier, slower brother. But it now comes with lots of showy spoilers and flaps. Imagine Kenneth Williams pretending to be the Terminator and you’re sort of there.

I still love the standard SLS. I like the shape, and the noise and the hysterical muscle-car handling. It’s one of my favourite cars. It makes me happy just thinking about it.

The Black Series doesn’t. It’s trying to be something it’s not. If I wanted a serious car I’d wait to try the new featherweight Alfa 4C. I’m doing just that tomorrow. And that makes me happy as well.

Verdict ★★☆☆☆

Proof that Mercedes has had a humour bypass


Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series

6208cc, V8
622bhp @ 7400rpm
468 lb ft @ 5500rpm
7-speed automatic
0-62mph: 3.6sec
Top speed:
20.6mpg (combined)
Road tax band:
M (£1,065 for first year)
L 4638mm, W 1939mm, H 1262mm

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