Both sophisticate and animal can co-exist in the growing Mercedes-AMG stable. We test the E53 Cabriolet and C63 S...
When Robert Louis Stevenson penned The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde back in 1886, he probably had no idea the essence of his novella – a tragic tale of a mild-mannered doctor who created a serum which gradually turned him into the smaller but murderously psychotic Mr Hyde – would seep into the fabric of the English vernacular to become the embodiment of behavioural duality.
Fast forward more than 100 years and the term still strongly denotes a primal struggle between the civilised and the savage within an individual. It’s a term that’s become increasingly apt when looking at the recent extension of Mercedes-AMG’s product offerings. It may once have been a raw-boned, V8-hearted brute but AMG is by no means a big, dumb animal. Squeezed by the inevitabilities of rising petrol prices, stronger emissions legislation and the need to tap into a market that increasingly favours product portfolio diversity over tail-happy niche motoring, the Affalterbach firm turned its hand to everything from SUVs, crossovers, hypercars and even MPVs (yes, it briefly built a 6,2-litre V8-engined version of the ungainly R-Class).
The firm’s six-cylinder 53-series models imbue some brawn to the civilised likes of AMG’s own Henry Jekyll: the E53 Cabriolet. While lurking in the shadows, quaffing the evil serum and barely able to contain its aggression is the firm’s own Mr Hyde: the V8-engined C63 S.
With such polar opposites residing under the AMG umbrella, it’s apparent the high-performance division has become an increasingly complex beast. Do the wildly diverging personalities here signify a strange, newfound balance, or is AMG struggling to maintain its identity?
We had our first taste of AMG’s 53-series elixir when we sampled the imposing CLS53, and walked away suitably impressed with what’s sitting on the middle rung of AMG’s performance ladder.
Mechanically, it shares much with the E53. The Cabriolet is underpinned by Mercedes’ MRA platform upon which is perched its latest six-cylinder powerplant; a 3,0-litre inline-six biturbo unit incorporating a 48 V hybrid architecture feeding a performance-enhancing starter-alternator setup nestled between the engine and transmission. This EQ Boost system is tasked with nixing turbo lag by powering an electric compressor which provides boost at low engine speed until there’s enough exhaust gas through the system to bring the turbocharger into play. The result is a modest injection of power of 16 kW, taking the output up to a muscular 336 kW, and a hearty 250 N.m of torque on top of the already generous 520 N.m. It has to be said that, for all the manufacturer’s heady claims of surging linear power delivery and livable fuel consumption, this unit’s application in the drop-top E53 does exactly what it says on the tin.
Plant the long-travel throttle and there’s scarcely any lag. The rear hunkers a little, the smooth inline engine’s purr takes on a more urgent, throaty timbre and the power delivery unfurls in a pleasingly unrippled manner. The E53 is impressively balanced and alert but not unruly. It seamlessly allies with a smooth and responsive nine-speed transmission to rocket the car along at a deceptive pace. Our straight-line acceleration tests saw the E53 achieve a 5,09-second 0-100 km/h sprint time. That’s quick by any standard but particularly remarkable when you consider the car’s 2 068 kg kerb weight. This extra heft is courtesy of the bracing required once Benz dispensed with the roof.
That bracing certainly does its job. Scuttle shake is all but absent, helped in no small part by well-sorted adaptive damping for the air-sprung suspension system. Swift directional changes don’t lead to any body flex. Not that the E53 is likely to endure any tiller-sawing hooliganism. The steering is light and its measured gearing and plentiful electric assistance mean it’s not particularly communicative, while the transmission shows a spot of hesitancy from the shifter paddles.
But it’s by no means clumsy. Much as the good doctor had the strength to grab a candlestick and bludgeon a bloody swathe through Victorian society, the E53 instead practices genteel restraint. It has plenty of power but ably harnesses it within an AWD system. This shares the balance of torque fore and aft depending on the car’s dynamic attitude and which of the three drivetrain-management presets you’ve settled on. There’s ample grip on offer before the nose gradually tracks wide when carrying speed into a tight bend. While not completely outside the realm of the E53’s dynamic abilities, such antics would miss the point. This is a smooth-running, long-legged tourer with a satisfying dose of AMG’s point-to-point punch thrown in.
Further to its fast tourer credentials is the impressive degree to which the electrically actuated rear deflector screen and air-channelling panel above the windscreen protect occupants from wind buffeting, even at high speeds. Taking in the exterior styling treatment which adds subtle performance-inspired touches as a twin-blade grille and large, circular faux exhausts to the Cabriolet’s graceful frame – not to mention the new sports steering wheel and comfy, bolstered seats to its beautifully crafted and well-insulated cabin – the E53 strikes a sporty but restrained figure.
So, the 53 is the more measured and mature side of AMG’s personality, but that’s not to say the atavistic side of Affalterbach’s character has been quashed. Shrugging off the suit jacket and kicking away the stability of AWD, the smaller but infinitely more sinister C63 S shows just how unpredictable a creature Mercedes’ performance arm can be.
...And the wild
With its vertical-barred grille and squat, muscular front apron, the facelifted C63 S looks as though it’s baring its teeth and spoiling for a flight. The guttural, uneven grumble of its 4,0-litre biturbo V8 at low speeds – a sound which becomes even more gravelly and menacing with the adjustable exhaust flaps open – certainly suggests it’s a bit of an animal. But deep beneath that intimidating exterior lurks just a little bit of self-control.
It’s subtle. Nestled among all those fins, vents and swatches of carbon-fibre trim, hanging off the steering wheel’s lowest spoke, is a small array of buttons flanked by an innocuous dial. Prod the small TFT screen on the face of the dial and the drivetrain management system will toggle through six presets: the power-taming slippery; balanced comfort, slightly more lively sport; a hair-trigger sport+ setting; the proverbials-to-the-wall race; and an individual preset which allows you to tailor such parameters as throttle response, suspension and transmission. Within this bouquet of settings is another layer of dynamic presets with varying degrees of steering and damper tweaking according to the car’s cornering attitude.
This configurable thread runs through a 4,0-litre V8 biturbo engine that’s mechanically related to the unit in the AMG GT and pumps a mighty 375 kW and 700 N.m to the rear wheels in traditional AMG fashion. Even when all those presets, rear-axle torque-vectoring and traction control are set to their tamest, the C63 is still responsive to the extent of feeling slightly nervous of the power straining against those electronic safety nets. As you get accustomed to the car, exploring and eventually trusting in the impressive level of front-end grip, the tentativeness between C63 and driver evaporates, and some fun can be had.
Play with those presets and you will soon find a combination that is fluid but thoroughly engaging. While the drivetrain-management system allows some slack in the leash, it still takes a good deal of provocation – even when barrelling into a bend – to provoke the car into anything more than an easily managed degree of tail slide. Further familiarisation with the nuances of that weighty but responsive steering and taut chassis – which does an excellent job of keeping lateral weight transfer in check – shows a playful side to the C63 and will suit both novice and skilled drivers.
It’s a similar story with the C63’s launch-control system. Where rivals’ race-start systems often need to draw breath or refuse to engage when temperatures begin to climb, the C63 is fuss-free and pleasingly consistent. It catapults the car off the line in a reassuringly stable but still breathtaking burst of acceleration. Our test unit’s ability to clock 4,22 seconds in the 0-100 km/h sprint without shimmying about speaks volumes about the C63’s ability to entertain and enthrall.
In all powerful cars with a bouquet of drivetrain-tailoring presets, you will reach the boundaries. It’s at this point, Mr Hyde goes from a mischievous handful to a potential monster. Hold in the traction control-labelled button on the left and an arc of yellow and red flashes up on that small TFT screen. This system, based on the garish yellow dial on the AMG GT R’s dash, now allows you to dial in the degree of traction control.
Staying in the lighter end of the spectrum keeps the safety systems at arm’s length, allowing you to push the envelope with a spot of squirrelling. Venture into the red and, while the C63 doesn’t give the impression it’s out to get you, an educated pedal foot is still required. A careless stomp on the throttle and it’ll turn around and bite you in the seat of your pants.
It’s that slight unpredictability that endears the C63 to a broad audience. Its volcanic power and control systems that can all but dismiss the electronic nannies mean it has the potential to terrify. You must earn this car’s respect; tinker with the settings, push the boundaries of its traction control. Sometimes it will have you wide-eyed with surprise and, at others, you’ll enjoy a feeling of accomplishment. It comfortably ferries you home with a ride that – while not as accomplished as that of the E53 – is less jarring than before.
That bond with the C63 will feel all the closer when you consider this will likely be one of the last rear-wheel-drive AMG sedans of its kind with the inexorable lean towards downsizing and AWD, not to mention V8s, gradually becoming the preserve of more performance-focused models.
It appears AMG’s more diverse approach is testimony to a company whose model line-up now strikes a neat balance between the savage and the serene. The E53’s ability to cosset while serving up eye-opening straight-line shunt is a particularly impressive feat.
However, not everyone wants to sip sherry by the hearth and talk politics. To this end, the C63 S proves AMG can still tear off its suit jacket and go on an almost unchecked rampage. It’s this balanced imbalance – an ability to adapt to polarising personas far better than poor old Dr Jekyll – that makes AMG a complex yet compelling entity.