Friday, March 4, 2011

Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG

Whatever your opinion of its exterior styling, the most expensive and brutal E-Class more than lives up to the promise of its disciplined design and somewhat less disciplined price tag.
If your money ($260K in the case of our optioned up test car) doesn't buy you a work of art, it does buy you a work of considerable engineering accomplishment and versatility. With engine, transmission and suspension mapping covering what's likely the broadest ambit on the market, the E63 is everything from a scorching track-ripper whose traction and stability controls can barely keep up, to something as urbane and manageable as the next E down the ranks, the $181,360 Avantgarde-spec E500.
That $57K difference buys you a lot -- on paper and in the metal -- starting with the superb hand-built 6.2-litre, 386kW V8, which is beautifully matched to the SpeedShift seven-speed paddler (AMG's dual-clutch semi-auto) as used by the W211 E63.
With 100km/h coming up in just 4.5 seconds, this is the car that has you dropping the back windows at traffic lights to hear it taking off. You don't even have to take off fast to enjoy the music, though it helps.
For those in need of more butch, the $13K performance pack option adds 40 per cent locking on rear diff and dial-up ride control, allowing the driver to shift damping levels to suit their skills and road conditions.
By replacing the conventional E's air suspension with steel coil springs up front, but keeping the multilink rear end air sprung, AMG has also managed to retain a civilised ride throughout. It's a best-of-both-worlds arrangement, allowing for a more organic connection to Earth where it counts while retaining the self-levelling benefits of pump-up systems.
Mixing and matching the suspension's Comfort, Sport and Sport-plus modes with the transmission's four shift algorithms can turn the car from urbane pussy cat to bellowing, hard-sprung wildcat at the touch of a couple of buttons. There is, of course, a blinding array of combinations and commensurate sensory experiences between; those blinded by such technology might do well to save fifty thou and look at the E500.
The steering is what you'd expect: loads of feel and a nice, tight turning circle of 11.3 metres. Dialling up Sport-plus sharpens it up noticeably as it reels in the ESP. It's surprisingly easy to get it skittering on the rough, especially in hard cornering.
A complete arsenal of the world's best restraint technology still struggles to channel 630Nm of torque to the ground, even on decent tar. Get it on a tight, twisting road and it's easy to send the ESP warning light apoplectic in the lowest settings.
The E63 comes in Avantgarde spec as standard, but with extras like dynamic side bolstering in the front seats, which automatically inflates and deflates side to side on cornering. All told, the seats have more electronic switchgear than some entire cars, and it would be a fraught body indeed that couldn't find a comfortable driving position here.
Current Benzes aren't as flashy on the dash as some counterparts, but they're hard to fault ergonomically (although I'm with colleague Ken on their habit of putting the cruise stalk where the indicator should be -- it takes more getting used to than it should).
Beyond the usual leather, premium audio, satnav, front and rear climate control and electric everything, the interior is alive with luxury touches like the subtle pelmet lighting in the dash and the doors.
Most importantly, there's E-Class space. Our test car spent plenty of time with five adults aboard with no complaint from anyone, although big people would find the centre rear seat a struggle over any distance -- it is rear-wheel drive, after all.
Fuel economy? No surprises here. Over a week in Sydney with an overnighter in the Blue Mountains, we came nowhere near the official 12.7L/100 km.
By the time it went back, we were recording close to 17L/100 km, although this was more about human 'error' than anything wrong with the machinery.
All up, the AMG E63 is an unusually satisfying machine. It reminds me of Patrick Swayze in the movie Roadhouse -- a PhD-qualified engineer moonlighting as a nightclub bouncer. 
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