It's cool and gusty as we exit the bus at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch, a private motorsports country club roughly an hour's drive west of Las Vegas. Snow had blanketed the area overnight and they're calling for rain, but wild horses couldn’t drag me away from the 2010 AMG Performance Tour.
1. All but one AMG car uses the AMG-built 6.2-liter V8 with power ranging from 450-hp to 563-hp.
2. The odd one out is the SLK55, with a 5.5-liter V8.
3. The SLS AMG is the first ever ground up vehicle to be built by AMG.
4. AMG is named after its founders Hans Werner Aufrecht (A) and Erhard Melcher (M), with the G coming from Aufrecht's birthplace, Großaspach.
5. After decades as an independent entity, AMG joined forces with Mercedes in 1999.
Mercedes-Benz has produced a lip-smacking spread of eight different current AMG models for us to experience, including the C63, E63, CLS63, S63, ML6, SLK55, SL63 and the all-new SLS AMG.
Before turning us loose, however, we're met inside the upscale clubhouse by a team of Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy instructors eager to help improve our driving skills, starting with the basics.
There are about 20 of us (in different shapes and sizes) and, since we'll be getting in and out of the cars all day long, finding the correct seating position will be critical to our enjoyment. Here's how to do it:
Start by lowering the seat all the way. Then adjust the seat base forward or back so you have a good bend in the knee when pushing the pedals all the way down, and with your left foot on the dead pedal. Next, adjust the seat back so there's still a good bend in your elbow while the steering wheel is turned. Your body should be upright enough that it supports itself without leaning on centre console or door.
Men have a tendency to sit too far back, while women tend to sit too close to the steering wheel. Regardless of your sex, the steering wheel should always be held at nine and three o'clock, with the hands roughly level with the shoulders, and elbows dropping below.
Holding at 10 and two only lets you turn the wheel 120 degrees in either direction while nine and three equates to no less than 180 degrees either way. Use the dead pedal to support your body weight when turning the wheel to reduce arm fatigue.
Finally, after setting the rearview mirror to see as much as possible out the back window, use a reference point well out from sides of car to eliminate blind spots when adjusting the side mirrors.
With that and more classroom theory out of the way, we pair off and head to the awaiting vehicles for some advanced braking, cornering and vision exercises to get a feel for these high-performance machines.
The first exercise is all about trail-braking – taking your foot off the brakes slowly so as to maintain traction at front wheels – and late-apexing – braking and turning in later so as to lengthen the straightaway and accelerate sooner.
Next, it's over to the slalom course for vision exercises. Race car and professional drivers already know that vision is the most important skill any driver should have, regardless of the vehicle. Your goal is to look as high and far ahead as possible. Visual scanning and peripheral vision are most critical when avoiding potential danger on the road or race track. If nothing else, always remember to look where you want to go, not at what you're trying to avoid. We all have a tendency to steer in the direction we're looking.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF AMG
Calling themselves “engineering, construction and testing specialists in the development of racing engines,” Hans Werner Aufrecht (A) and Erhard Melcher (M) started AMG in 1967 in an old mill in Burgstall, Germany. The 'G' in AMG actually stands for Aufrecht's birthplace, Großaspach.
By 1971, AMG had its first major success in international motor racing. An AMG Mercedes 300 SEL 6.9 driven by Hans Heyer and Clemens Schickentanz gets a surprise win in its class and second place overall at the Spa 24 Hours race that year.
AMG went on to achieve more success and recognition in the German Touring Car Championship and DTM throughout the nineties. The pinnacle, perhaps, being the CLK-GTR, which dominated the FIA GT Championship in 1997 and 1998, winning it all outright both years.
Mercedes-AMG was formed the very next year, and, though the tuner turned many average Mercedes-Benz models into autobahn-burning dream machines via enhancements done on the assembly-line over the years, the 2010 SLS AMG is actually the first vehicle designed entirely by Mercedes-AMG in-house.
Following lunch and a brief Q&A session, everyone dons the appropriate skull wear and heads back out to the paddock for orientation laps before we're finally let loose on the track for some open laps.
Here, driving in small groups behind a pace car, everyone gets a chance to pilot a few laps in every AMG that's on hand. Whereas the morning pace was a bit slow for those with previous track experience, it picked up markedly when left to our own devices inside the cars throughout the afternoon.
Despite their many similarities – big horsepower, AMG brakes and sport suspension, for example – each vehicle's unique characteristics require different inputs to yield the same results. The S63 AMG is a good example: its weight and length cause it to fall behind the pack, but it still hauls ass out of corners while remaining quiet and comfortable in the cabin. On the other side, the E63 is less cumbersome through sweeping turns and you can bury the throttle sooner.
The ML63 AMG might be an even better example. In fact, because it's a big SUV, the instructors say it might very well be their best training tool since it requires a lot more finesse and patience to drive quickly around a track like this. And, while I disagree with their opinion in the first matter, I agree with the latter as I nearly had it up on two wheels going over the hump between turn three and four on Spring Mountain's 1.5-mile race track.
The convertibles are a bit exuberant too! The SL63 AMG hardtop is the only vehicle in the bunch sporting Michelin tires and the brakes on this car are just nutty with tons of initial bite force. The tires themselves seem to warm quicker than the Pirellis and Continentals worn by the others, making for more exciting in-laps.
Though it's much smaller and less powerful, the fact you sit directly over the rear axle in the SLK55 AMG makes for an exciting ride in twisties and tight corners.
The C63 is perhaps the most well-rounded horse in the stable. With a $57,350 entry price, its 450-hp AMG V8, seven-speed automatic Speedshift transmission and optional rear limited-slip differential (a $2,000 option) make it a very competent machine. It's well-balanced and predictable in short and long corners and those stout brakes are resisting fade well.
An optional AMG P31 development package is bringing 30 more ponies to the party, speed limiter deletion, a carbon spoiler, bright red calipers and more for $5,950. What felt like my best lapping session of the day comes in this car and, even with nearly $14 grand in optional kit, its excellent performance-to-value ratio isn't going unnoticed by the group. Skip the unnecessary premium package and carbon interior trim options and the C63 AMG is even more impressive.
Then there's the 2010 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG! At more than triple the price as equipped, this Le Mans Red metallic modern gull-wing coupe is the stuff dreams are made of.
The exhaust note from AMG's 563-hp V8 is like music to the ears and, while the car does cost more than an Audi R8 5.2 FSI with the R-Tronic DSG, the SLS AMG offers more power (from a V8 too), true rear-wheel drive performance and even sexier looks (did I really just say that?). In all seriousness, if I had the cake and could eat it too, I would. Having had the opportunity to drive both machines in (different) track settings, a fully-loaded SLS AMG is my new favorite.
While a powerful engine lets you experience the heart-pumping thrill of going fast, I found myself marveling over the gigantic carbon ceramic AMG binders that fill out the optional 10-spoke wheels. They generate heaps of stopping power, and make late-apexing a breeze.
AMG's rear transaxle-mounted dual-clutch seven-speed transmission (say that 10 times fast!) produces lightning-quick shifts while a standard rear limited-slip differential brings gobs of power and grip together so drivers can experience the robust acceleration coming out of corners.
It's fitting then, that the day ends after a couple hot laps riding shotgun with AMG Performance Tour chief instructor Danny Kok in the SLS. Even though he doesn't have that much seat time in this car yet, he's driving it hard and the car is loving every second of it. If it were able to, I'm certain the gull-wing coupe would echo the grin on both our faces.
Stay tuned to AutoGuide.com for our full review of the SLS AMG.