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Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG

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Mercedes E63 AMG
8/10

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Road Test

Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG saloon

Driven June 2009

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The German horsepower war is over. AMG has unilaterally withdrawn. This new Mercedes E63 AMG doesn't carry on the seemingly endless game of one-upmanship that's bedevilled the biggest and fastest German saloons for years now. The proof? There's only 518bhp and 464lb ft of torque available. In the grand scheme of things, that's still a huge amount of grunt, but the Audi RS6 has 54bhp more.

That car was launched last year, and in the olden days of cock-jousting, anything less than 572bhp +1 simply wouldn't have been acceptable. AMG accepts that the limits of what's possible are being reached, that more power isn't delivering a similar increase in driveability.

Step forward the new E63 AMG then. Jump in, travel 50 yards and you can tell the new AMG direction from the chassis - this is the most surprising and best thing about it. The level of feel you get is as good as the best out there. There's great progression to it, so that if it steps out of line, either with understeer or oversteer, the E63 lets you know a long way in advance that's what it'll be doing. The signals through the seat are just right, which is a good job because there's still more than enough power to land you straight in jail.

It's easy to drive because it's so controllable and comforting. On the track this is essential, and on the road, where this car will spend the vast majority of its time in the UK, it helps because it gives you confidence and makes the car more exciting. You feel more in tune with it, which helps you feel at one with the car.

Not that it quite matches the M5. If you want hardcore, the BMW is still the better car - drive it hard and you'll be more richly rewarded. This isn't a fault with the E63's chassis, it's more that the steering in the E63 isn't quite as good as it is in the M5. It doesn't give the same levels of feedback and isn't in tune with the chassis as much. It's precise, but it's not sporty. It lacks edge.

From the limited and track-only time we had, it feels like the ride comfort will be pretty good for a pottering journey, despite the low profile tyres, optional 19-inch wheels and the fact the front air suspension has been changed for normal springs and dampers. But I can't see people using either of the variable damper settings of Sport or Sport Plus on the road. Around the circuit, Sport Plus is great, as it keeps the whole car really stable and body roll is eliminated, but it's mighty stiff. On the road the car will be virtually undriveable in this setting.

The optional carbon ceramic brakes should help though. They're hugely expensive at an as-yet unconfirmed £7,000, but they reduce the unsprung weight at each corner by an enormous 10kg. That should assist with ride quality, and if you're thinking of taking the E63 on a track, you'll need them because the normal brakes faded after only a couple of laps. The ceramics keep hauling you up lap after lap.

If you think this track focus is odd for an E-Class, it's all down to the Americans. Whereas we think of this car as a mini-limo, to the Yanks it's far more a sports saloon, hence the need for it to be more things to more people more of the time.

Just look at the engine for proof. The E63 is still stupidly fast compared to nearly every car on sale, thanks to the 6.2-litre V8. The 0-62 sprint only takes 4.5 seconds, which is 0.2 seconds up on the M5. So there's still a little bit of German one-up-manship. But it's more the delivery of that pace which sticks out - it's suited to the schizophrenic nature of the E63 so you can do lazy touring, or banzai acceleration. Because it's naturally aspirated, instant torque is available from seriously low revs and it's so easily accessible that you'll need to watch your licence in this country. Like all AMGs, it feels fast from any speed, but becomes really ‘wow-that-was-easy' quick over 80mph - 80-120mph is too effortless to be good for you.

Because there's so much torque on top, the engine has to shut down up to six of the eight cylinders when you change gear. AMG has canned the normal E's torque convertor and replaced it with an automated manual - ‘flappy paddles' for the less techy. AMG wanted a fast shift for this new box, but couldn't engineer it to be 100 millisecond-quick with 464lb ft of torque. The fastest way to reduce that torque is to shut off the ignition to the cylinders. Which is a techy way of explaining the gear shift is, for the most part, great - fast enough and fully manual if you so desire.

Be careful what mode you put it in though. Comfort has an annoying habit of changing up seriously early, Sport Plus does the opposite and holds onto the gears for ever. One for the road, one for the track. There goes that bi-polar disorder again. It begs the question as to when you'd use Sport, but AMG thinks it'll be useful as a halfway house. I'm not convinced - I think you'll end up using Comfort or manual most of the time.

But you never notice the cylinder shut off and it does have the added advantage of making a fantastic noise when the gear engages and the cylinders fire up again. Don't think burble, it's harsher than that and it's got more of a rasp to it.

That's another thing the E does better than the M. The M5 sounds far too rough at idle and you need to rev it to feel like you've got something special under the bonnet. The E63 is never like that because it's smoother and meatier. It means you don't have to drive it fast to get aural satisfaction from it.

Good news for your licence and fuel consumption. Along with the driveability soul-searching, AMG has reassessed what its priorities are recently. Power and handling are top, but efficiency has crept up the list. Weight has been reduced this time around, although only by 11kg so it's token stuff, and the Comfort mode on the gearbox is designed to optimise fuel economy. The combined figure is still a painful 22.5mpg, but at least AMG are heading in the right direction. That's 2.9mpg better than the M5.

So AMG is changing its philosophy. Tactility is the order of the day now. There was a limit to how much power these cars could get away with, both physically in terms of grip, and socially in terms of screwing the planet. The good news is that this is only improving them - AMGs are becoming less like blunt instruments. Just look at the stuff they've changed on this version for proof of that - everything forward of the A-pillar is completely different to the normal E.

Taken as individual changes, none of these is massively significant, other than the brakes. And they probably wouldn't help AMG shift its current image (amongst some) of simply being an engine tuner. It wants to be taken seriously as a company that can make fast cars that handle. That previous image was justified - it made an R63 AMG after all - but the latest cars (we're talking the C63 AMG) have proved AMG can do fast round corners as well as fast in a straight line. Overall, the changes on the E63 have had the same effect.

This E63 knows its place among rivals. It sits more towards the sporting M5 than the cruising XF R, but it'll be far more useable than the BMW on an everyday basis. But there's a rather large ‘but'. It will likely cost about £85,000 when it goes on sale in the autumn. That's a staggeringly huge sum of money and is £20,000 more than the M5. Pity.

Piers Ward

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