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A 4WD Mercedes-AMG E63? Sounds wrong…

Yes, the new Mercedes-AMG E63 is a 4Matic. But it’s also rear-wheel drive. It’s the first car in the world to be both, purely. There’s some clever tech at work here, centred around the nine-speed gearbox and Drift mode, but let’s start with the basics.

The new E63 uses the 4.0-litre twin turbo V8 that we’re all familiar with from the C63, GT and a heap of others. Here it develops 563bhp and 553lb ft of torque. Thanks to 4WD, that nine-speed MCT multi-clutch transmission and launch control, it’ll hit 62mph in 3.5 seconds.

Or 3.4 seconds. Because there’s also an S model. That has 604bhp (yep, that’s more than the new GT R will have…) and 626lb ft. Both are limited to 155mph, but you can have that upped to 186mph. Pricing hasn’t yet been announced, but it’s not likely to change that much from the current model, so reckon on about £75,000 for the standard version and £84,000 for the S.

Is it only power that separates them?

It would be hard to justify an extra £9,000 or thereabouts for an extra 41bhp and 73lb ft alone, so Mercedes-AMG has sweetened the deal with a host of little temptations – and one big one.

So the S has bigger brakes – 390mm front discs instead of 360mm (although both can be had with 402mm carbon ceramics instead), a Track Pace app, dynamic engine mounts and an electronically controlled torque vectoring rear differential instead of a mechanical locker.

The big difference is that the S is also the only one with Drift Mode.

Right, tell me about Drift mode.

To do so I’m going to start at the business end of the drivetrain and move backwards. So the engine. Not just lifted straight from a lesser 63 and given a software tweak. There are new lighter pistons, air intakes, a charge air cooling system, cylinder shut-off (between 1,000-3,250rpm in Comfort mode) and most importantly a pair of twin scroll turbos.

Twin scroll means that instead of exhaust gases from all four cylinders on each bank being fed through one pipe into the turbo, they come in through two. This smoothes out the air pulses and improves response and torque at low revs.

Power then arrives at the nine speed gearbox. It’s the first time AMG has used this transmission, and since it had only ever had to cope with a maximum of 516lb ft of torque in a Merc, the internals had to be heavily revised. New materials, and a wet clutch for first gear to enable repeated full house launches without overheating – the oil keeping the temperatures down.

This then feeds into the centre clutch pack. From here driveshafts run forwards down the right flank of the engine and backwards to the rear differential. It’s a compact housing and yet it’s able to send all the torque – 626lb ft, don’t forget – to either axle. In Drift mode it opens the clutch completely, disconnecting the front, so drive only goes to the rear wheels.

Best use Drift mode sparingly, if at all. In fact, maybe just the knowledge that it’s there is enough

So it’s not an artificial system controlled by the ESP like the Focus RS?

Absolutely not. To get it you have to put all the settings into maximum attack – Race mode, manual gears and traction control fully off. Then you pull both paddles, a screen pops up asking you to confirm you really do want Drift mode, you confirm with the right and there you go – a 600bhp rear drive super saloon. With no traction control. 

Sounds like a recipe for a crisis at every Cars n’ Coffee.

The potential for abject embarrassment and a massive repair bill coming hot on the heels of a “watch this…” as you approach a roundabout with three mates in the car is colossal. Best use Drift mode sparingly, if at all. In fact, maybe just the knowledge that it’s there is enough, because it’s largely irrelevant, isn’t it?

Clearly not for us wanting to capture smokin’ sideways pics to tempt your eye, but Drift mode would only have been genuinely relevant if Merc’s new 4Matic 4WD system had been pap. But it’s not, it’s really good. Say you’re in a third gear corner, revs around the 3,500rpm mark. Get back on the power in an Audi RS6 and you’ll get some push at the front end.

Not in the E63. It’s more rear-biased – not to the point of oversteer unless you really clog it, but it seems to feed an instant burst of torque to the rear to tighten the trajectory, then juggle the torque between the wheels to hold a neutral stance until you’re straight. You’re not really aware of all this going on as the behaviour is smooth and seamless and natural, but the more I drove it, the more impressed I became with it. It’s not only fast and effective, but really involving and entertaining.

Each tyre is worked hard by a system that seems to be uncannily able to push torque around the place, so the engine can give more, and the speed you carry out of corners is remarkable.

Is the steering good?

Up to a point. On the way out of a corner, perhaps carrying a dap of oppo, it feels pretty heroic, but although the weighting is good there’s not much feel in it. Out of corners is better than into corners, if you like. The Merc makes up for this by having very little slack – you turn, it goes. It grips hard and – most commendably of all – I didn’t find the variable rack objectionable. I always knew where I was with the steering – it was positive.

The whole car is positive in fact. Where the BMW M5 feels plush and comfortable and you sink into thick seats, the Mercedes is more ‘at you’. The chairs are firm and relatively thinly padded. The ride is taut, there’s a fair bit of tyre roar. It’s a good enough daily driver, but just as with the last gen model, this is a more aggressive car than the BMW.

As a result the plethora of Driver Assist systems feel out of place here. A semi-autonomous E63? No thanks, I’m happier driving this one myself.

How’s the engine?

I had my doubts about it because I wasn’t sure at what point the 4.0-litre unit, given more weight to shift, might start to feel out of its depth compared to the old 5.5-litre twin turbo. I thought lag might be an issue, that low down torque might suffer.

Not a chance. This motor is core to Merc’s future – they’ve invested hugely in its ongoing development and even churning out over 150bhp per litre it remains utterly well mannered. OK, there is a bit of lag until you’re beyond 3,000rpm, but there’s something really enjoyable about shoving it in fifth at 1,500rpm and feeling the turbos spool and the car really get its shoulders into it.

But the really special stuff happens above that. It’s absolutely rampant through the mid-range, charging all the way to the 7,000rpm cutout without let-up. And it sounds so, so good as it does it. AMGs do, don’t they? And this despite weighing 1880kg – which to be fair is only 35kg heavier than the outgoing car, commendable given it’s now hauling the 4WD gubbins around.

Launch control must be entertaining…

I’m glad you bought that up. Merc have made it much easier to use – as long as you’re in Sport, Sport+ or Race you just put your left foot on the brake, right foot on the throttle, the system detects you want a full house getaway, dials up 3,500rpm and when you release the brake off you blast. I couldn’t believe how effectively it got off the line. Some systems baulk or flash the traction light or slip the clutch. This thing just disappeared.

This is a statement car from Mercedes. A slap down to Audi’s RS6 and BMW’s M5. This is Mercedes-AMG laying down the challenge

3.4 seconds to 62mph, right?

Er, no. Just for a lark I took our Racelogic timing gear out to Portimao. With photographer Simon Thompson in the car with me, plus probably 40kg of kit, it hit 60mph in 3.2 seconds and 100mph in 7.3secs. The fastest we’ve had out of an Audi RS6 is 3.3secs and 7.5secs and that didn’t have the extra bloke and kit in it.

Standing quarter in the Merc was 11.42secs at 124.3mph. These are near identical numbers to the new Honda NSX. In a few months time Merc will announce an estate version of this car. Calls for a drag race, don’t you think?

Absolutely. So the gearbox copes fine?

I’ve never been a massive fan of Merc’s MCT transmission, but AMG has clearly given it a thorough overhaul. The shifts are crisp and immediate and carry enough sense of occasion to make it feel interactive.

The ceramic stoppers on the car are mighty, as well. Not a great amount of pedal feel, but good bite, little fade and confidence inspiring – much like the steering, really.

What do you think of the way it looks?

You can make your own mind up, but I think the front end’s swollen arches are tremendous. Massive openings in the front for all the air give it real aggression, and I really like the wheels, too. The back is a little more anonymous.

Big shout out for the cabin. The quality of the carbon work is exceptional, the driving position is ace and there’s more equipment than you’ll ever figure out how to use. It feels expensive. Still not sure about the twin screen set-up and controlling it via thumb pads on the steering wheel – it’s a bit of a fiddle and a faff and that’s not really what the E63 is about.

You haven’t told us what it’s like in Drift mode.

Stupid, mad, brilliant, hilarious. Don’t go near it in the wet, because the back will snap out of line and beyond the point of no return in an instant. But at higher speeds on dry tracks it’s immensely controllable. As long as you’re not picking up the tyre bills. 626lb ft does do some damage…

But it’s the broader point this set-up makes that’s more interesting and important. This is a statement car from Mercedes. A slap down to Audi’s RS6 and BMW’s M5. With some cars you can just tell that they’ve gone the extra mile. This is Mercedes-AMG laying down the challenge. You can sense the engineering and investment and focus. I’m sure a lot of it will trickle across to other models (imagine an A45 to take the fight to the M2, perhaps), but the E63 is the first, the line in the sand.

Mercedes-AMG has stolen a lead on Audi and BMW and everyone else you’d call a rival for that matter. They’ve led, and whether owners ever use it or not, the ability to be two cars in one – drift hero and safe winter option – and to cover each base so comprehensively with no electronic shortcuts, means others will surely follow. I bloody loved it.

Specs

3982cc twin turbo V8, 4WD, 604bhp, 626lb ft, 31.7mpg, 207g/km CO2, 0-62mph in 3.4secs, 155mph (186mph with AMG Driver’s Pack), 1880kg, c£84,000 est

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