Monday 29 May 2017

When a boulevard cruiser met the racing-track star

Graeme Lambert straps himself in for two very different AMG Mercedes experiences

I HAVE been sat here, at one of the world's greatest ever race tracks, for nearly half an hour now and the words ringing in my ears are things like "cylinder shut-off" and "right-sizing". It doesn't matter what new car is being launched, no matter how glamorous a location, or even how sporty a brand, each press conference is a veritable efficiency buzzword bingo -- and currently I'm only a few lines away from a full house.

Sometimes you expect it, but other times, like today, it seems a little less apt.

Mercedes-Benz AMG, a brand more known for performance than economy -- and one born from a 1971 300 SEL with a 6.8-litre V8 stuffed under the bonnet -- is definitely not one normally too concerned with such matters. More excess than efficiency, in fact.

Still, everyone has to move with the times, which is why the new SLK 55 AMG has a 'right-sized' engine. Of course, AMG's interpretation is a little different, so the smallest roadster in Mercedes' range now uses a 5.5-litre V8 -- complete with cylinder shut-off and a stop-start feature.

It's big news this engine, for despite being based on the bi-turbo unit found in the E 63 AMG, CLS 63 AMG, S 63 AMG and CL 63 AMG models, this naturally aspirated powerplant makes this SLK both the most powerful and most efficient ever.

The cylinder management system is all new, and will shut down four of the eight cylinders at low revs -- allowing it to lay claim to being the most fuel-efficient V8 anywhere in the world.

On the drive to the circuit, it performed seamlessly -- the only real indication to the number of firing cylinders is the display between the speedometer and rev-counter. According to the PowerPoint presentation laid before us, it all accounts for a combined consumption figure of 8.4 litres/100km, and a Band F friendly CO2 output of 195g/km.

But we're not really here for the computer-generated numbers, impressive though they are. Efficiency is eschewed for excitement, and down-sizing disregarded for driver-involvement, which the SLK 55 AMG has in spades. In a straight line, the 422hp SLK 55 AMG will dispense with the 0-100km/h sprint in only 4.6 seconds -- and there's a rumble and roar from the exhausts loud enough to upset the noise police. In fact, find a tunnel or wall-lined road and the pops and bangs from the four outlets are an intoxicating aural delight.

It's no stranger to bends either, with relatively feelsome steering and a suspension set-up that treads the fine line between compliance and control. That beautifully engineered metal folding roof soon makes itself known though, either up or down, as the weight clearly affects the car's reactions. And while the automatic gearbox is smooth and efficient when left to its own devices, in manual mode the upshifts can be tardy -- especially when nearing the redline.

But it's no track star this SLK 55 AMG; it's much more of a boulevard cruiser -- which is a job that it excels at. The C 63 AMG Black Series, however, well that's a different story entirely.

And so it's without as much as a bingo-busting buzzword in sight, it's on with our helmets and off with our eco-conscious heads. It's not often you're given the chance to slip behind the newest and most track-focused cars AMG has ever produced, and the opportunity to follow legendary racer Bernd Schneider around the Laguna Seca circuit is even rarer.

But there's no time to stand on ceremony. We're barely finished being strapped in and we're off, tearing down the pit straight before I've even drawn my first breath. Keeping up with Bernd shouldn't be a problem -- obviously he'll have been briefed to maintain a sensible pace, pandering to the mixed ability of those following him.

Which is why I'm surprised to find myself hanging on tightly to the wheel, conceding that our entry speed into what looks like a serious first corner must be OK. The car must be able to do it. Bernd can clearly do it. It's time for us to have faith, follow suit and do it ourselves.

And then we've nudged the apex and have left the corner behind, once again foot to the floor in a bid to stay on his tail. It's a game of cat and mouse that continues for a few laps, and one that has my heart pounding.

It's made all the easier by the car though, equipped with a 6.2-litre V8, it's the most powerful C-Class ever. There's 517hp, and more importantly 619Nm of torque, at the driver's disposal.

It's all deployed onto the tarmac via an extended track, 19-inch wheels and a set of race inspired coilover suspension -- which can be adjusted to the owner's specifications. The 0-100km/h dash is dispensed with in less than four seconds, and top speed is a very unenvironmentally friendly 300km/h. Oh, and despite its track intentions, this car is totally road legal.

It's thanks to the car's 'performance media system' that we discover that our frighteningly quick (to me at least) pace is actually 10 seconds down on Bernd's best lap time. It's the smile permanently etched on my face at the memory of this pair of AMG's latest cars that matters though, not this deficit in pace.

They might be some of the most efficient models, but if it's good enough for AMG, well on this instance it's more than good enough for me as well.

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