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Top Gear Speed Week: the super saloons

  1. The Mercedes C63 AMG Black Series is beached, 50 yards off the side of the track, facing the wrong way in a field of long grass beyond Hammerhead. Tyres are strewn. Smoke is starting to rise from beneath the front left wheel. In the words of Dr J Clarkson, that’s not gone well.

    It is customary, in this situation, to blame some sort of catastrophic mechanical failure or interruption: tyre blow-out, brake failure, badger attack. But I am a man, of sorts, and therefore I must man up and admit it: the C63 Black Series is here because, approximately 12 seconds ago, I suffered a spectacular shortage in the oversteer talent department and found myself, in the wincing blink of an eye, transformed from Hammerhead Drift Hero into Foolish Man Travelling Backwards Over Grass At 40mph.

    Words: Sam Philip
    Pics: Joe Winsor-Williams

    This feature first appeared in the August 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. This incident is not the fault of the C63: not beyond its mere existence as a 500bhp+ rear-drive machine with entirely turn-offable traction control. The C63 is neither undriveable nor snappy. It has a great wide window of slipperiness, gives you ample warning when it’s preparing to swap ends, and its giant, naturally aspirated V8 delivers its power in a broad, even arc. I could have punted any of these three cars into a field: the Merc was simply the victim of the oh-OK-just-one-more-lap, the let’s-turn-the-electronic-aids-right-off and the make-sure-you-get-this-one-on-camera syndromes.

    Also, there’s a little compression on the exit of Hammerhead that no one warns you about until it’s too late. The smell of burning plastic wafts from the C63. I have no fire extinguisher. I make the Team America distress signal towards the TG crew. Desperately scrabbling for a silver lining to this not-good situation, I wonder if I might have inadvertently happened upon the common strand
    linking the three cars on this test. And that strand is this: while the BMW M5, Nissan GT-R Track Pack and Mercedes C63 AMG Coupe Black Series might look like relatively conventional machines (from the outside at least, and ignoring the C63’s awesome carbon rear wing), they’re actually brawling, fearsome monsters prepared to deposit you in a field if you don’t show them respect.

  3. The combined power output of these three cars? 1,619bhp. Until the Eighties, an entire F1 podium packed less horsepower. Maybe it’s unfair to call the GT-R a conventional machine. Where previous GT-Rs were hyper-hopped-up versions of boggo Skylines, the R35 is a stand-alone supercoupe. But its cultural heritage is far more Everyman than Exotica, even though we’re driving the GT-R Track Pack, the more hardcore version aimed at - and you knew this phrase would hove into view at some point, sorry - ‘track-day aficionados’. That means fresh six-spoke, lightweight alloys - shaving 10kg off the GT-R’s kerbweight - along with sticky new fabric on the seats (sticky enough to hold your bottom slightly more firmly in place while cornering, that is, not sticky enough to trap passing flies or negate the need for seatbelts), stiffened springs and a very definite lack of rear seats.

    I’d love to say the Track Pack feels hugely different from any GT-R we’ve driven before, but it doesn’t: this is still a freakishly rapid sports car with more grip than an Alcantara barnacle. To undergo a full-bore launch in the GT-R - no wheelspin, no scrabble, just crushing, lung-pummelling traction - is to experience pure acceleration.

  4. In fact, maybe the Track Pack does feel a bit different. Having driven R35 GT-Rs on the road, I’d always had them down as cars of phenomenal grip that ran to understeer at the very limit. But flick everything into ‘R’ mode (short for ‘ReallyQuiteDangerous’, I assume) and boot the accelerator out of a corner, and the Track Pack - I discovered with a small squealing noise - will hang its tail out in a proper four-wheel slide.

    You still need to trick the GT-R’s electronic brain into letting you go sideways: chuck it into a bend with too much speed, and you simply get anguished graunching from the stability control and absolutely no turn-in. Slow in, fast out, honourable dorifto!

  5. Executing silly powerslides in the M5 is a rather simpler proposition. The big Beemer bungs all its 560bhp straight through the rear wheels, resulting in either a) shockingly rapid forward progress or b) absolutely no forward progress but a new layer of molten rubber upholstery on everything within a two-mile radius. It’s a great bellowing grizzly, the M5. Not an insult, a compliment. Behind all the electronics and fancy head-up displays and wilfully obtuse gear-selector, it’s a cheerily simple proposition, and far more engaging than those who lament the passing of the naturally aspirated M5 might have you believe.

    Get hard on the brakes or try to turn in too early, and you’re aware of the effect of that big, heavy engine straining the front tyres, but get the nose in and ride it out and the air-stuffed V8 serves up a great slewing chunk of torque, spitting the M5 onto the next straight at the sort of slip angles usually only witnessed at Rally Sweden. This might just be the most fun it’s possible to have on a big empty race track… if not for the lump of matt-black, mud-spattered carbon fibre smouldering by my feet.

  6. The C63 Black. Oh, the C63. This car isn’t just the best Mercedes Black Series yet, but the finest thing to come out of Germany since Eva Padberg. It’s short, it’s wide, it’s insanely powerful and it has a NASA-spec g-force screen. And a huge wing. And holes in the bonnet. If this car doesn’t make your inner seven-year-old bounce off the walls with glee, your soul is officially deceased.

    The only fly in the C63’s wingy ointment is its slow-witted seven-speed semi-auto ‘box, which clings onto gears just a quarter of a second too long, sending you clattering into the rev-limiter with a machine-gun tak-tak-tak.

  7. But, lazy changes aside, the Black is magical. The M5 and GT-R have to be coaxed into a bend, but with the Merc you simply pile into a corner as fast as your bravery reserves will allow, let those huge tyres and widened track do the hard work, and exit in a broadside of smoke and fury. If you could distil all the good noises of internal combustion into an eau de toilette (“Engine: the scent of exploding hydrocarbons”), it’d sound like the Black Series. The C63 is a sordid, transcendental experience that makes you glad to be alive. Erm, right until you crash it.

  8. Which would I take home? If I have to choose, then… all of them? The GT-R for its fearsome traction and off-the-line launchability. The BMW for lazily transporting five people and their luggage, sideways. And the C63 for… well, just look at it. Actually, don’t look at it right now. Right now, it’s a bit alight.

    A man arrives with a fire extinguisher and a stern expression. There are sharp intakes of breath and clickings of teeth and… it turns out I haven’t broken the C63: no more than a small crack in the front clip and a lot of mud in places that should not get muddy. The fire, it transpires, was just a bit of grass wedged in the C63’s radiator. My 40mph off in a £103,000 car has caused approximately £2.50 of damage. Bless you, oh patron saint of flailing oversteer.

  9. But think of it as a salutary lesson, my cock-up. Beware. They lure you into a false sense of security, the C63 and the GT-R and the M5, with their familiar shapes and dashboards and veneer of respectability. But they’re not respectable, they’re maniacal: less iron fists within velvet gloves, more bloodthirsty mako sharks in business suits. Underestimate them at your peril.

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