Monday, 21 March 2011

Driven #25:- C63 AMG vs C350CD

The Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG and its less expensive, less specialist little brother, the diesel fuelled C350 CDi Sport live at different reaches of the same price-list. They're salt and pepper, coffee and cream, scotch and soda. One loud and rambunctious, one coldly efficient. Or are they?

My major driving task for today saw me spending serious miles in both cars, looking for some kind of verdict, I didn't quite know what. After a day in two black leather saddles, what had I learnt?

In a C63 AMG you sit in a bog-standard C-Class seating position, behind an utterly conventional dashboard. The instrumentation is no different to normal, except for the AMG lettering below the tachometer. The only real difference is the existence of an extra menu to the usual settings, trip, service, navigation and audio menus. This extra offering is labelled simply AMG. Helpfully it includes engine and oil temperature gauges, so you can save your DTM aspirations until everything declares itself ready.

There are a pair of ridiculously figure hugging bucket seats which force anorexia on anybody who doesn’t fit the slot. Also inviting you towards hoonism is a pair of proper, businesslike gearshift paddles. Made from cast metal, and pleasingly cold to the touch, they are positioned perfectly for instinctive gearchanges. Aside from all this, though, and your innate knowledge that this isn’t a regular car, it doesn’t really create that much of an atmosphere. It feels like a top of the range C-Class. Until you start it up.

A brief turn of the key, that 6.2 litre V8 shudders into life and any illusion of the ordinary is rudely shattered. The engine seems specifically designed for start-up impact. The revs surge on the button, emitting a violent YADDER before settling to a low large capacity rumble, with faux-lumpiness skilfully programmed in. It sounds raw. Untamed. Slightly intimidating.

With a foot on the brake, slide the conventional automatic gear selector into D, and release the anachronistic parking brake. With a little load on the engine the car settles down from its drama-queen tickover to little more than a low-pitched murmur. The car proves remarkably docile at low speeds, thanks to it having a conventional automatic gearbox. It suffers none of the unpredictable surginess you can experience in cars with sequential manual gearboxes, like the BMW M5. Don’t worry, though, there's still an unmistakable growl of V8 underlining everything, as if waiting to release it.

So I do. With the gearbox still in wussy comfort mode, where gears are changed at lower revs for smoothness and economy (Economy! In this! The very thought of it!) so there was a brief hesitation until all hell broke loose. Then all hell broke loose.

The wide tyres struggled to contain the mountain of torque and power they were being asked to process, there were distinct hints of wheelspin even during roll-on acceleration with the stability control switched in. Acceleration, even in this mild setting, was profound. There are around 450hp to play with, depending on the weather, and sixty comes up from rest in a little over four seconds. The noise, too, is biblical.

It’s slightly schizophrenic in nature, as with most AMGs over the years. When summoned forth the exhaust note bellows as war-like a cry as any well tuned V8 ever did, but off load it makes its best attempt to sink into the background with all the tyre noise, as would a powerful regular executive car. The full theatre is still available on demand, though. At the prod of a toe the car erupts with a blood curdling thrash-metal soundtrack. 

It encourages you to misbehave far, far too much. The temptation to kick down to a lower gear, just to hear that noise, never goes away. The side-effect of this is that, if it were mine, my driving license would last a matter of days.

To be honest I can only test this cars handling to within my abilities as a driver and the roads I had to play with. To get the most out of it I would need far more space, a track or an airfield. Nonetheless, it’s clearly a very capable machine, able to do things that would take far bigger balls than I have, but it feels to me slightly like a blunt instrument.

Despite having what is famously the most direct steering ever fitted to an AMG spec car, I never got the same feeling of control that I get from, say an M5, or even an E63. It’s probably just me being hopeless, but I always felt a little too much like a passenger strapped to a rocket. On a road strewn with roundabouts every couple of hundred yards, braking hard and putting lock on to negotiate the obstacle, I didn’t feel confident that the front tyres would have enough grip to overcome the understeer I was expecting. Turned out to be absolutely fine, of course, but I didn’t feel as confident as perhaps I should have.

It’s a shame, because the C63 positively demands that you have fun with it. If you put it in manual mode, which you really, really should, you can imagine yourself on Brands Hatch circuit, trying to get a nose ahead of David Coulthard. Being utterly honest, being an automatic gearbox with a manual over-ride, there is a detectable hesitation as you change gear. It’s not as instantaneous as a sequential manual box, but the huge torque does a good job of disguising it. The changes are still quicker than I could ever make with a conventional manual box, though, and unlike ordinary MB slushboxes it doesn’t chicken out and change up automatically when you run out of revs, it simply flashes the dashboard lights red to remind you that you’re being silly.

It probably encourages hooligan antics more than any other car I’ve driven. It was inappropriate for me to indulge today, on these roads, but the C63 politely requests that you do the best to destroy your rear rubber as quickly as possible. Every corner becomes a tail-hanging drift opportunity. You sense that this car is more about fun than precision, and why not.

On the motorway, though, the joyous relationship becomes a little strained. If I adopt the mindset of somebody who, far from just testing the car for a magazine article, has to live with it every day, I can imagine the gloss wearing a little thin. The ride, obviously, is extremely firm and reacts badly to potholes and motorway expansion joints. Of course it is, that’s the kind of car it is. But there are other uber-fast saloon cars that don’t feel like they’re punishing you all the time for not taking it by the scruff of the neck.

Then, stupidly, there’s the brute power. It almost impossible to make a gentle, subtle overtake manoeuvre in this car, every time you pass somebody it’s by an increment of forty or fifty miles per hour. Of course, most of the time you want to, but you find yourself doing it just for the sake of it. My passengers would become car-sick in short order if I made this a habit, which would likely prove inevitable.

And the economy. Again, it’s almost pathetic that I should mention it, given the context of what this car is. But I couldn’t get any more than twenty two miles per gallon (UK) from it. Yes, I was misbehaving a little, but what C63 owner wouldn’t do the same? I reached my destination knowing that I had driven a great car, but also that it was totally wasted on me and on daily use on our cramped, pockmarked roads.

My return vehicle was a C350 Diesel, in Sport trim. This gives you an AMG appearance package that, although lacking some bonnet bulges and extra grilles, has more than a flavour of C63 about it. This one also boasted the upgrade 18” wheels, for an even more dynamic stance. Only when you take a seat on the rather more humdrum looking sports seats do you notice how special those little AMG details really were. The basic sport interior seems slightly dowdier, even when similarly equipped. 

Start the three-litre diesel engine and there is absolutely no drama whatsoever. The sound is that of a heavy truck idling some distance away, a complex, multi-timbred sound, not unpleasant; certainly not by diesel terms. But of course totally lacking the emotional charge of that NASCAR-like C63.

And that basically sums up my hundred-mile journey home in the C350 CDi. No drama, no fuss or nonsense, just quiet, refined efficiency. But here’s the rub; it’s very, very fast. In real, usable terms, the big diesel demolishes journeys every bit as quickly as the C63 does. Overtakes are instantaneous, the deep mine of diesel torque seems constantly poised and ready to go. On the twisties you’re never going to have even a slim percentage of the fun that’s obligatory with the C63, still the regular C-Class Sport always was a tasty handler anyway. The C63 just guilds the lily.

If you could flick a switch and turn the C63 into a C350 CDi for when you’re not attempting a flying lap, it would be pretty much perfect. For what it is, it’s absolutely brilliant, and to play with every now and again it’s never anything less than a riot. But I spend more of my time driving at 80% than 110%, and the 350CDi more than caters for my whims, even allowing me to go stark staring mental when the mood takes me.

It’s not a better car, just an easier one to live with, which is freakin’ obvious, really. But if your pockets are bottomless and you want every drive to be a frenzied attack to your systems, the C63 is everything you ever needed.