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First Drive

Retro review: 2006 Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG

£147,830 when new


  • BHP


  • 0-62


  • CO2


  • Max Speed


  • Insurance


This review was first published in Issue 153 of Top Gear magazine (2006)

In some sort of pseudo-philosophical sense, the S65 AMG doesn’t really exist. It’s one of those things that actually manages to cancel itself out. Yes, it’s another motoring milestone for Mercedes and, yes, it’s yet another engineering pinnacle for the AMG performance division, but there’s absolutely no justification for building, let alone buying, a car like this. So, on the one hand, you have an automotive marvel, on the other, a pointless act of Germanic self-indulgence. On balance, you have nothing.

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First, to the marvel. This car is all about numbers. Under the hood is a six-litre bi-turbo V12 with three valves per cylinder, pushing out no less than 612bhp and 737lb ft of torque. That’s 1,000Nm, which sounds even more impressive. This means the new S65 is the most powerful production saloon in the world. Bar none. It’ll also hit 62mph in just 4.4 seconds on the way to its electronically limited 155mph top speed, making it quicker even than an Audi RS4 or BMW M5. And all that from a car that weighs in at well over a meaty two tonnes.

The mania, at this point, speaks for itself. Few cars weighing quite that much can deal with going quite that fast. It’s not like the S65 doesn’t know how to stop, either. A world first on this car is the inclusion of twin sliding calipers – an idea that maximises performance by reducing heat transfer to the brake fluid like a floating caliper would, without giving up the stopping power of a big, fixed caliper. In a serendipitous nod to the S65’s limo origins, lighter ceramic composite brake discs reduce the car’s unsprung weight, thereby improving ride quality. However, barrelling into a tight bend in a two-tonne stretch (unless you’ve scrubbed off so much speed that your rear passengers are headbutting the dashboard) still just doesn’t feel right. The S65 is huge by anyone’s standards, and nothing this big is ever going to offer you the delicacy of response and reaction that makes driving it hard in the corners seem particularly sane.

In a straight line, the S65 is monstrously quick. What AMG calls Speedshift is a fast and, more critically, smooth five-speed automatic ’box that, alongside a powertrain reinforced to cope with the vast quantities of torque, sees seamless surges of acceleration at the slightest provocation. Some figures from Mercedes underline the point...

Of that 737lb ft of torque, 420 is available at just 1,000rpm. Dial in another 500 revs and you’ve already got 552lb ft. That sort of low-down grunt means a simply staggering turn of speed, whenever and wherever you want it. But honestly, when exactly would that be?

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Merc S65

The car’s feel is still very much dictated by the S-Class’s basic prerogatives. This means there is a lightness and play to the steering and a general sense of detachment from the overall drive that, although demanded by buyers of executive cruisers, is at odds with AMG’s obvious sporting intent. So what the S65 offers you over an S500L, at least in a real-world driving environment, is uncertain.

Except maybe that it looks hard as nails. Standard 19in AMG alloys and beefy side skirts do far better justice to the new S-Class’s oddly distended wheelarches, while a huge front apron with outsized air intakes and similarly chunky rear end, broken up by a pair of massive twin exhausts, complete the kind of repackaging that makes you think of borscht and punishment beatings.

But the S65’s sales pitch gets skewed again by a bone-jarring £145,365 price tag. To put that into a Merc context, the ‘L’ version of the S320 CDI is £58,975, while the 500L is £73,770, and that’ll still hit 62mph in 5.6 seconds. What’s going on in the S65, in terms of re-engineering and exclusivity is undeniable, but whether it is really worth at least twice as much as a standard S-Class is wide open for debate.

Performance flagships have their place. It’s a marketing tool as much as anything else, doing wonders for the model range and brand as a whole. But this sort of mind game works better with a more aspirational demographic. Think BMW 318i driver ordering 18in M-Sport alloys. Who is going to be lured into a normal S-Class under a vicarious performance promise? S-Class buyers are about quality, refinement and class, unless something’s changed fairly radically without any of us noticing.

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If there is a person for whom the S65 AMG doesn’t immediately appear fairly redundant, it’s not really the sort of person you want to acknowledge exists, is it?

Who, after all, feels a real compulsion to spend more than twice as much as they need to on their S-Class, just so they can get to 62mph 1.2 seconds faster, whilst dispensing with very close to twice as much fuel in the process? Who is barking enough to want the door handles driven off their limo, whether they’re in the back or the front? And who, ultimately, values an AMG badge at, by our reckoning, £71,595? Cynical attitude though that may be, and however much of AMG’s sub- cutaneous techno-wizardry it disregards, it’s hardly outrageous to suggest that the overwhelming majority of S65 buyers will be seduced by the flagship status of a bit of badge and spoiler, and are highly unlikely to make much use of those composite brakes or integrated lap timer.

But the buyers are there, and so, despite the cod philosophy, is the S65. It looks terrifying, goes likes Satan’s mistress and is, despite its simple four-door origins, utterly unique. Just remember that you could buy two Audi S8s or have a Bentley Flying Spur and £30,000 in change for the price of an S65. Just because something exists doesn’t mean it makes sense.

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