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Clarkson: head to head in the C63 AMG Black and M3 GTS

  1. What you see here is a BMW M3 GTS and a Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Black Edition. Both are small two-door German saloons. Both have been pumped up to a notch hitherto only used by Spinal Tap. Both have been stiffened and lowered. Both make a proper racket. Both cost more than £100,000. Both go like stink. Both have lightning-fast seven-speed gearboxes. And both are utterly brilliant.

    You’d imagine, then, that they are both very similar. And they are, in the same way that a Chinese takeaway is exactly the same as an Indian takeaway. Both come from Asia. Both arrive on a moped. And both can cause a little discomfort the following morning. But they are completely different.

    Words: Jeremy Clarkson
    Photos: Justin Leighton, Rod Fountain

    This feature was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. At this point, I should declare an interest. I currently own a CLK Black, and it is a tremendous thing. Loud to both the eye and the ear, it’s serious and completely stupid in equal measure. I love that. But, behind the tremendousness, there are some properly annoying flaws. London and back is not possible on one tank of fuel. The sound system is woeful. Full throttle is only a theoretical possibility, and the dismal ride is never worth the benefits you might experience on a track. In fact, there are so many flaws that, in recent months, I’ve been thinking, quite seriously, about changing it for an M3.

    I therefore have a foot in both these camps. I’m as interested in the outcome of this test as I hope you are.

  3. Let’s start with the BMW. Underneath, it’s not really an M3 at all. The steering set-up is different, the suspension is different, the exhaust is different. The inside is different too. Instead of back seats, there is some scaffolding, and, instead of glass, the windows are made from Perspex.

    And then there’s the engine. It’s a 4.4-litre V8, which means more power, more torque and more speed. Nought to 62, BMW says, takes 4.4secs. Flat out, you’ll be doing 190.

  4. And wondering where the Mercedes went. The recipe for turning an ordinary AMG C-Class into a Black Edition is broadly similar to BMW’s. Less weight. Firmer undersides. Fewer seats. And more power. But here’s the thing. The standard car starts off with 480 horsepower - nearly 30 more than BMW has eked from the GTS. The Black offers up 517. Around the Ascari track in southern Spain, a standard M3 is five seconds a lap faster than a standard AMG C63. But I suspect that if you were to race these two, it would be the other way around. The Merc is almost demented.

  5. But do not be fooled by the figures or the specifications. Yes, it may have a wider track, carbon-fibre aero winglets, coilover suspension with adjustable dampers, lightweight pistons, a diff from the world of heavy engineering, carbon-ceramic brakes and a million other bits of motorsport tinsel, but, like its predecessor, it’s not really a serious track-day rocketship.

    Four laps of the Top Gear track with the traction control off, and the rear tyres were not down to the canvas. They were down to the metal underneath the canvas. Four laps. That’s not much more than six miles, and £600 worth of supposedly race-bred tyres had been converted into a cloud of smoke and a wall of noise.

  6. That’s where the BMW is different. Of course, you can hang its arse out and drive like a loon, but the GTS is also able to not do this. It feels much more precise in everything it does. The way it goes, the way it turns. And the way it stops, especially. Its brakes - as is the way with so many BMWs - are simply fantastic.

    Even the engine note sounds like you are playing a finely tuned instrument. Where the Mercedes barks and shouts and makes smoke, the BMW sounds like it’s concentrating on the job in hand. And the blip on downchanges is so beautiful and so technical, you find yourself changing gear not because you want to go faster or to slow down but because you need that aural treat.

  7. I haven’t mentioned the steering yet. Ooh, it’s good. Heavier than the standard car’s, it has a precision and an accuracy I don’t remember experiencing in any other car. Ever. Many think of the GTS as just a hotted-up M3, in the same mould as the old CSL. But it’s so much more than that. The big daft Merc always has the power ace up its sleeve, but, in the bends, the GTS is better. It’s sublime, that car. Mesmerising. If I were to compare these two cars to pets, the BMW would be a cat. Cool. Clinical. Sharp. Canny. The Merc would be a hippo. Utterly, utterly mad, with a tail that whizzes round and round whenever it takes a shit.

    So, if you are choosing between these cars on the basis of how they perform at track days, then it’s the BMW every time. But - and this is important - if you want a track-day car, why buy a modified saloon that is always going to be heavier and more cumbersome than, say, a Caterham or a BAC Mono?

  8. And this brings me on to the next problem. So that BMW salesmen can tell the 50 M3 GTS customers that it’s very serious in the way it goes about its business, all of the road-car flimflam has been ditched. Not just the back seats, but also the door pockets, the air-conditioning, the satnav and the stereo. Sure, you can put all this back, often at no extra cost, but the car I drove was pretty spartan. And with no satnav, it was pretty hard to enjoy myself, because I was always under the impression I was on the wrong road, heading for the wrong town.

    This is where the Merc scores. Because it’s not designed to be desperately serious, you do still get all the toys you would get in a normal car. You even get proper seatbelts, rather than the cock-severing, five-point harnesses that BMW provides.

  9. Yes, the ride in the Mercedes is abysmal - the BMW is surprisingly compliant - but the other problems that blight my CLK (the Zippo fuel tank, the seatbelt clips in the bucket of the seat itself, and so on) have all been addressed.

    You really could use the Mercedes every day but, if you choose to do this, I must give you one word of warning. Do not ever use full throttle unless a) it’s bone dry and b) you are already doing 90mph. If you do, you will have a crash.

  10. Think of this car as a very expensive watch. It can operate when you are 3,000 feet under the surface of the sea. But if you were to go there to make sure, you’d turn into a small, very heavy walnut.

    Provided you remember the power - and especially the torque - is there, but not to be used, you can rumble about in a Black with Chris Evans on the radio and a lady telling you wear to go and the cruise control on. And you’ll be way happier than you would be in the GTS.

  11. It gets worse for Bee Em’s tangerine dream machine, because the rear spoiler, the carbon roof and those silly seatbelts give other road users the impression that, for you, driving is a hobby. And people with hobbies, as we know are deeply suspect. Many are murderers.

    The Mercedes with its flared wheelarches looks silly and flamboyant. It’s a comedy car, a machine conceived, designed and built just to make you smile.

    Like I said at the start of this piece, then, these cars are very different. The BMW is a bit like the McLaren MP4-12C. It’s fantastically capable, but a bit clinical. It’s pure engineering from a company that understands the need for balance. It even has a clutch of horsepower that can be used. Rather than an extra hundred or so which cannot. It is brilliant.

  12. However, I’d still take the Merc. Mostly because it’s better on a day-to-day basis, but mainly because, given the choice of what gun I’d like to fire this afternoon, I’d take a big, noisy .50-calibre machine gun over a clean and efficient sniper’s rifle any day of the week.

    There’s another reason, too. The standard BMW M3 is already so brilliant, it seems a bit silly to spend twice as much on a car that is not, by any stretch of the imagination, twice as good.

    With Mercedes, things are different. The standard C63 is not especially noteworthy, which means it is worth paying extra for the Black. Which is.

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