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First Drive

Mercedes-AMG C43 review: a sporty Merc, but not quite a baby AMG

£62,645 when new
710
Published: 28 Jun 2022
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SPEC HIGHLIGHTS

  • BHP

    408bhp

  • 0-62

    4.6s

  • Max Speed

    155Mph

Numbers and letters everywhere! What is this, the TopGear wifi password?

Close. The Mercedes AMG C43 4Matic+ is the latest all-new generation of the C43 AMG, this time ditching the old, heavy V6 and going all nu-wave, downsized and complicated forced induction. The powertrain is where it’s all going on here, and it’s not the simplest of systems.

But the basics are that the V6 in the old C43 has been unceremoniously dumped in favour of a much lighter 1,991cc four-cylinder supported by a 48-volt mild-hybrid system and an electric exhaust gas turbocharger, which sounds like an engineering oxymoron, but isn’t.

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So we’re talking around 405bhp at 6,750rpm with 369lb ft of torque, very healthy figures which equate to a slight increase/decrease respectively (previously 385bhp/383lb ft) over the old biturbo six-cylinder. Which seems a bit odd, seeing as most would consider AMG’s to be torque-heavy monsters that don’t rely on revs for their punch.

Still, the interesting bit is the ‘electric exhaust gas turbocharger’ which is essentially a traditional turbo unit with an integrated compact-and-bijou electric motor, which can support the turbine at low revs when there’s not enough exhaust gas to spin it. Thus you get the cheap and cheerful effect of a turbo, with the crutch of electric support where you’d usually get turbo lag. It’s the more efficient, more effective, less spectacular and more millennial version of traditional anti-lag.

But where old anti lag systems would shovel raw fuel into the turbo to keep it spinning - causing many pops, bangs and exhaust flames - this doesn’t do that, because it’s an engineer’s solution rather than a pyromaniac one. But it does work. 

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It doesn’t stop there, either. As well as the lightning trapped in the turbo housing, there’s a belt-driven starter-generator - basically a big bi-directional alternator - which can punt 14bhp-ish the motor’s way in situations where the combustion engine is lacking torque, but it only infills rather than boosts so isn’t added to total output figures. It’s all to aid efficiency and driveability, though you do need to ponder the specifics for a while to figure out what’s supposed to be doing what, and when. This is not the usual AMG recipe of a big engine stuffed into a too-small bay.

Slung aft of the main event, all C43s come with 4Matic all-wheel drive, but in this instance there’s an AMG-specific torque-split that doesn’t vary, so you’re looking at 31:69 from front to rear. Then there’s a nine-speed auto with paddles, called the AMG Speedshift MCT 9G, featuring a wet start-off clutch (which allows for full on race starts), and AMG Ride Control adaptive damping, as well as a standard system for rear-axle steering with the usual bias. So steering the rear wheels in the opposite direction to the front wheels at modest speeds to aid agility, and in the opposite direction when you go fast, to offer extra stability. Got that?

And… breathe. There’s a lot going on here isn’t there?

You’re not kidding - the C43 certainly hasn’t avoided attention. But from the outside, it’s remarkably subtle, and the better for it. There’s the double-ended wing of a front valance, standard 18-inch rims that stretch to optional to 20s, some subtle side sill extensions, two pairs of exhausts bracketing a vestigial Venturi and a lip spoiler for the boot of the saloon. The estate gets a slightly more prominent roof spoiler. After that it’s just some badges, so you’ll have to be on it to spot one at a glance. The estate looks particularly good in a sober colour, and it would make an excellent getaway vehicle. Allegedly.

So what’s it like to actually drive, then?

In a word, rounded. Comfort mode - accessed through the rotary wheel slung under the right-hand side of the steering wheel - is firm but not crashy, and if you cycle through Sport to Sport+, you get progressively firmer damping and tighter body control without ending up punching your own spinal column through your soft palette.

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The engine pulls cleanly and hard right through the rev-range, and the pace on offer is surprising - although it never quite feels like a particularly feral 400+bhp. Even loping through all the gears on a short stretch of autobahn right up to 145mph felt perfectly normal, and there was still a bit more to go. AMG has obviously tried to give the more focussed modes some character - there’s a torque-cut and subsequent thump engineered in during high-rev gearchanges which AMG says has been left in to give a more sporting feeling and to allow marginally faster upshifts - but it feels a tiny bit forced.

Trouble is, it also sounds like a largely synthesised ‘emotional’ soundtrack, complete with fake pops’n’bangs from the exhaust. Sigh. But once you really fling the C43 saloon around some bends and stop overthinking it, it shows massive talent for covering ground. Outright grip is fantastic and the handling largely neutral. It doesn’t feel particularly four-wheel drive, but it’ll nip back into line should you get ahead of yourself on a hairpin.

It’s actually supremely stable, velcro-grippy and entirely predictable, giving it an easy grace when getting somewhere very quickly indeed. And the ‘Race Start’ function (just brake with your left foot in Sport or Sport+, plant the throttle, wait for exhaust to chuckle and then release the brake) is both funny and effective. In fact, overall it feels like the A45’s bigger brother, which is no bad thing.

But where the A45 gets playful on the limit, the C43 just endlessly sticks the landing - it’s an effective car rather than an exciting one. But that’s likely the point. The next-generation of C63 won’t be a V8 stuffed into a C, and will likely be north of 600bhp with a similar drivetrain but electric motors to weigh in on each axle. The C43 needs to be cheap enough and good enough to slip neatly into a line up, which it does very nicely indeed. There’s a lot to like.

That said, you soon find other things to criticise, although more in exasperation than horror. The steering’s not right. It feels artificial in pretty much all of the modes, with a deadness around the centre that makes it feel inert when you start to turn. And that feeling never gets going - it’s like trying to steer with palms that have gone to sleep; direction-change pins’n’needles. The car goes where you point it accurately enough, but there’s not a lot of joy buried in there.

There’s also some irritating thumpiness and hesitation from the ‘box on light throttle around town, and a decent clonk if you find the wrong moment from first to second. Mercedes-AMG says that these were early cars and the software isn’t absolutely finalised, but with the wet-clutch first gear and eight other speeds, you’d expect this unit to be all things to all people. At the moment it isn’t.

Bit lukewarm at the end there. What about the inside and stuff?

In terms of modern Mercedes product, you won’t find the C43 under-equipped when it comes to buttons to push or screens to be dazzled by. It’s immediately impressive, but feels like a bit of an overabundance of options and pointless neon. The wheel itself has a pair of scroll wheels slung under it, one side is bisected to offer damping control and exhaust loudness options, as well as being configurable, with the other changing driving modes. Then there are four spars on the wheel offering about 25 other buttons. And the option of operating it all via either the centre console touchscreen and trackpad. It’s all very nice, but needs paring back, especially when you add in a load of AMG-specific graphics.

The AMG seats are genuinely excellent though, offering brilliant lateral scaffolding and decent bum support even after a few hours at the wheel. They look great too. Standard wheels are 18s, with 19- and 20-inch options, but the car rides pretty well on the big wheels, so don’t stress too much about having the good-looking ones. What is worth shelling out for are the various exterior packages. The standard silver trim, chrome badges and exhaust finishers are a bit showy and can look a bit cheap, and the optional Night Package darkens them all down to black or dark chrome. Much more subtle, no less intimidating. 

Make your mind up, do you like it or not?!

It’s a tough one, this. What’s interesting is the kind of ambient distrust of small-ish four-cylinders in large-ish cars, especially something wearing an AMG badge. It probably depends a bit on your age, but it feels wrong to have an AMG that isn’t some sort of V8.

What the C43 does is leave you idly wondering what ‘AMG’ actually means conceptually - even more relevantly with forthcoming AMG-badged electric cars. Gone are the easy wins of bigger-engine-in-smaller-car fireworks, so the margins are more subtle, the feelings finer. The AMG is now a brand of greater nuance. Which is a weird thing to say, seeing as it always felt that one of AMG’s biggest strengths was lack of it.  

It’s also worth noting that this is one of the cars where AMG takes a Mercedes Benz and gives it an Affalterbach shot in the arm rather than a bespoke AMG product, so the C43 has to fit into a line up. That brings with it marketing and engineering complications; fast enough, but leaving room for the top-end variant. Cheap enough, but not cheap.

Would you have one?

As a daily, the C43 would be a great car. There’s enough poke to make it matter, enough fun and talent tucked away to make it interesting. But you might always regret not taking up the offer of a full-house AMG with deliciously too much grunt. That would obviously depend on the costs involved, but this C43 feels like a sportified Mercedes, rather than a baby AMG. If forced to choose, the estate is the better-looking car, the black-pack the most handsome version of that, with the badges all in dark chrome and the brightwork in black, including the exhaust finishers. So TG would be all about the long roof. It’s a good car, but not quite a great one.

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