Monday, 4 April 2011

Driven #27:- Mercedes-Benz AMG E63

Sometimes my job is a very wonderful thing indeed. Aside from my more mundane duties, which I like to believe that I carry out uncomplainingly and with aplomb, sometimes I am placed in a special position of trust for which I am very grateful. To my employers; sincerely, I thank you.

For example, last weekend I had to drive over 500 miles into Scotland in a Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG before making the return journey in an equally interesting machine. And as I type these words I realise that I have absolutely no right whatsoever to whinge about work ever again.

In 1971 AMG became properly famous for the first time. It was in that year that their highly modified 300 SEL 6.3, nicknamed the Red Sow, came second in the Spa 24hrs. The 420hp behemoth was blisteringly fast in a straight line but a heavy, lumbering beast in the bends, hence the porcine nickname. That recipe has obviously changed markedly over the years, today an AMG car is developed with as much attention paid to cornering as outright speed. If this wasn't so then the product line would be all but un-marketable.

Today the name AMG is a major selling point in itself, it signifies not just any old Benz. In petrol-gasoline-appreciation world you proudly prefix those initials to your model name, you don't just drive a Mercedes but an AMG Mercedes; a boast typically met by pursed lips and raised eyebrows among those in the know. And of course, convention dictates that the bigger the number, the more firepower and the greater the bragging rights.

The most recent raft of AMGs have eschewed forced induction by super or turbocharging, instead relying on exquisitely tuned normally aspirated V8s, in a variety of outputs. That used in “my weekend car” wields a knee-trembling 518hp. 

On start-up, like any other AMG, you receive a ground shaking aural assault as eight large-capacity cylinders explode into life, before settling into a slightly rough, offbeat tickover that has the whole body of the car gently pulsing with life; throbbing. When you've spent some time with the car you realise that this has been very carefully engineered into the car to make it appear less civilised than it actually is; off throttle it's actually very quiet.

Overnight, staying in a Travelodge for £42, I took the manuals inside for a good bit of bedtime reading, as you do. I read about the performance package fitted to this car, which raises the limiter to a wholly naughty 186mph (a nice, round 300km/h), and adds LOOK AT ME red painted brake calipers. I also made a mental note to have a go at using the Race Start mode again at some point in my life. 

Next day, somewhere near the Scottish border, I would actually have had legitimate reason to use it. On a coastal stretch of the A1 I had pulled into a layby to grab a few photos and to use the phone; this was a busy road and injecting myself into the flow of traffic could be a challenge. This was all the excuse I would have needed. The conditions were ideal; Race Start mode is only enabled when the steering wheel is pointed dead ahead and engine temperature is above 90 degrees. Press a steering wheel button and put your foot to the floor, holding the brake with your other foot (this car actively encourages left-foot braking), the engine is automatically held at 4000rpm. You must then commit to launch within two seconds or Race Start is cancelled.

This mode is not suggested for use on public roads; it's supposed purpose is on private, empty racetracks where you have as much space and time as you could possibly need. To use it on the highway calls for some luck in timing and a decent break in the traffic. And concentration. If Race Control cancels you have to go through the whole set-up procedure again, by which time you've probably missed your launch window.

Realistically, I was never going to use Race Start today. My mission was to get the car to its new owner safely and on time, I couldn't misbehave, no matter how tempting. On this occasion, the Scanias and Volvos were kind to me and I was able to rejoin the carriageway with a minimum of fuss. However, we have had an E63 demonstrator on fleet, and on the supervised occasion that I was able to have a play, I gripped the steering wheel tight and released the brake; the display read “Race Start Active” and 200mg of adrenaline were introduced directly to my cerebral cortex.

Statistically speaking, it's not really that fast. 0-60 in 4.5 seconds is par for the course for ivy league mega-saloons of this ilk, but the numbers are meaningless compared to the way it makes you feel. 

Small vehicles feel fast because you sit so close to the action, big, fast things feel faster still because of the sheer improbableness of the situation. I liken the E63's launch in Race Start mode to a Saturn 5 rocket leaving the pad and overcoming the Earth's gravity. On TV it looks gradual, restrained, but utterly unstoppable and determined. It accelerates at an exponential rate until physics play second fiddle to sheer brute force. An AMG E63 weighs 1840kg, to move this rapidly takes some doing.

Until recently the ferry service linking Harwich, England with Hoek Van Holland, The Netherlands was operated by the HSS (High Speed Ship) Discovery, a massive, futuristic wave-piercing catermaran. Powered by four General Electric gas turbines, the 1996 built ferry was taken out of service because it was massively expensive to run. Now replaced by conventional, and still hugely impressive “super-ferries”, the Discovery is missed for her technological excellence, size and beauty. And her scarcely believable speed.

Every time I travelled on her I was amazed. From my comfortable, stabilised seat I could watch lesser boats as we passed them. We would slip out of the shelter of the harbour and, almost instantly pass through twenty, thirty, until reaching a cruise of forty knots, all this in a boat carrying 375 cars and 1,500 passengers. Rumour has it that fifty was achievable unladen. And all the while we were passing so-called speedboats and their exhilarated crew-members, flybridge motorboats, bow-skywards, trying forlornly to get over the hump and on to the plane, burning fuel in vain in a bid to overcome nature.

On a ship the size of the HSS Discovery, with that much power, or in a car the size of the E63, with that astonishing V8, physics don't seem to matter any more. The feeling is of total, effortless, dominant thrust. Nothing can catch you, nothing can stop you. It's not real, just a sensation, but it's there. This, here, is the raison d'etre for the E63. If it was mine I'd be tempted to adjust the badges to read OMG.

Then you realise that everything else the car brings to the party is just garnish. Delicious, but basically pointless. I have adjustable damping with comfort, sport and sport+ modes. The last one might be used on a track, every once in a while, but unless you're a masochist or desperate to prove how hardcore you are to others; or to make life for your passengers a thoroughly miserable affair, you'll want to leave it in comfort. Even this setting isn't truly pliant, it wouldn't be an AMG if it soothed and mollycoddled you, but it's the right compromise.

There are also multiple settings for the gearbox. Again, Comfort, Sport, Sport+ but also Manual. I used all four for purposes of maximising my experience; Sport+ is notable for the delightful way it blips the throttle on down-changes, complete with little crackles and bangs on the overrun; this car is as much fun when you're slowing down as accelerating. Manual mode is more truly manual than on most similar cars; it won't pussy out and change up for you when you run out of revs, it just angrily flashes the instruments red to spur you to do something about things. Thing is; Sport+ already changes gear so damned quickly it's hard to imagine yourself paddle-shifting any more efficiently than the car can left to look after itself. If it were a conventional seven-on-the-floor stick-shift, I'd be right behind it. As it's strictly paddle-only, manual mode is just something extra to play with. Better to let the car deal with power management, I'll just concentrate on keeping it pointing in the right direction and avoiding obstacles.

My views on a lot of the other stuff in the package are similar to my findings in the AMG S63, this cars bigger, more expensive, more pointless stablemate. There are a lot of luxury features on this car that muddy the water and blur the whole mission statement for the car. For example, the upgraded air-conditioning, providing three separate zones of interior temperature. This means that your rear seat passengers can enjoy absolute climatic perfection at the same time as being hurled from side to side and jostled around due to the cars firm ride and propensity for being thrown into corners. It doesn't really make sense. Nor does the Harmon-Kardon sound system (which still has slightly too bass-heavy a leaning for my ears), unless being listened to at standstill you don't really notice any great improvement in fidelity over the standard kit, there's just too much tyre and engine noise to be defeated for any number of amps and speakers make their presence truly felt. Plus you don't really drive a car like this to listen to music, do you?

But, on the other hand, it makes so much more sense than the S63. It's thirty grand cheaper, faster, better to drive and less morally bankrupt than the big car. There's more sense of fitness for purpose, less notion of an athletically toned rhinoceros charging at full pelt. An S63 is a bastardised limousine, a top-flight banker who has spent time in the gym, taken steroids and thrown its respectable reputation away for its new role as unapproachable city hard-man. The E63 is more like the kid at school you envied forever, who got great grades, was good at everything, excelled at sports, got all the hottest girls and yet still, frustratingly, had a great personality.

For me the E63 is the truest expression of what an AMG Mercedes should be all about. You could live with one as a daily driver, were it not for the trivia of extreme thirst and ownership costs. The C63 frustrates for being too hardcore, too unexploitable in anything less than perfect circumstances. Long journeys become annoying if you're not in the mood to play, at which times you realise that you'd be travelling no slower in a far lesser, more economical car. The S63 baffles me for having abandoned its principles as one of the most refined series production cars in the world, to instead embark on a quest for straight-line grunt. It ends up looking a little silly by comparison to the similarly priced Bentley Flying Spur which offers similar pace without a ride to rattle your dentures and spill your Grey Poupon.

By being the most compromised AMG of all, the E63 is also the best.