Every experience we’ve had with Mercedes-Benz’s new eighth-generation E-Class has been a positive one. From the near-stately luxury of the E350 and E550 sedans to the sporty thrills of the E-Coupe to the “ineffable joy”of the E-Cabrio, we’ve been big fans. Except… we all seem to end our reviews saying something like this, “While there is no doubt that the [whichever E-Class] is a first rate automobile, we can’t help but wonder what the AMG version would be like.” Well friends, let me tell you.
It’s like driving veal. No, the E63 AMG is smoother than that. It’s like driving veal fat. Citroëns wish they had rides as glassy. Potholes, ruts, expansion joints (i.e. Interstate 5 near Downtown Los Angeles), it really doesn’t matter what the road surface is like. The E63 wafts you over it in serene comfort. And should you (somehow) become uncomfortable, just switch on the massaging seat. The max setting is stellar. “Wait a second,” you say, this is an AMG product. It’s not supposed to be all soft and cushy. Well, I’m kind of pulling a fast one, because I’m talking about driving the E63 with all of the adjustable stuff turned off. This is also known as “Comfort” mode, and truer words have rarely been printed in an owner’s manual.
Of course, situated just in front of the gear selector is the AMG Drive Unit button that firms up the suspension in one of two ways. Push once for “Sport” and once again for “Sport Plus.” Unlike the majority of cars fitted with such functionality, this button makes a world of difference. With Sport Plus engaged (who has time for regular old Sport?), moving at 110 mph with four grown men inside is like puttering about in traffic in any other car. Talk about an Autobaun cruiser, talk about a gentleman-thug. There’s just no drama. Blame it on the E63’s curious suspension set up.
There’s an age-old problem that goes something like this: The weight on a car’s front end is fairly static, specifically a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive sedan. However, the weight pressing down on the rear axle fluctuates. With four adults and a week’s worth of luggage, we could be talking a quarter of a ton – or more.
Most trucks have a perfect solution for this problem: Leaf springs. Of course, Mercedes-Benz would rather re-buy Chrysler than go down that path. Multi-link rear-ends with gas-shock dampers (like you’ll find on most performance sedans, including the lesser E-Classers) can’t adjust to the added and arbitrary weight. They require additional rear-spring stiffness to keep the car semi-level and this hurts ride quality. AMG’s answer: Air suspension, but only in the rear.
Air suspension? Won’t that make the E63 all soft and floaty like an Audi Allroad? No, as the front end is still stuffed full of huge coil-over, McPherson strut goodness. Seriously folks, the springs are freaking massive. I’ve seen wider springs on trucks, but never a car. The shock tower is nearly the width of my hand span. Sitting inside those big, bad coils are dampers actuated by something called AMG Ride Control that not only constantly monitors the driving situation to control body roll and ride quality, but it can stiffen the shocks at the touch of the aforementioned button. Combine with a 2.2-inch wider front end and the self-leveling air-suspended rear and you have a sports sedan par excellence.
Then there’s the transmission. A decade ago, the motoring press was wowed, and maybe more like bowled over, by the fact that the BMW E39 M5 had a six-speed manual. None of its competition came so equipped. Guess what? The E63 AMG also lacks a third pedal. But it’s not a dual-clutch ‘box. So it’s horrible, right? Actually, completely and totally wrong. We’ve long felt that the Mercedes-Benz seven-speed automatic is one of, if not the best, slushboxes in the business. The only thing is, this seven-speed isn’t that unit – it’s not even a slusher.
Called the AMG Speedshift MCT seven-speed, the E63 AMG’s transmission drops the torque-converter in favor of a wet clutch setup. That means moments of inertia interruptus typically associated with power-sapping automatics are gone, especially if you have the transmission set up correctly. Like the suspension, the E63’s transmission is multi-way adjustable – five ways to be precise. There’s Comfort, which shifts well if not a little too abruptly. Sport holds the gears longer, though again, we really didn’t spend much if any time in Sport because of Sport Plus.
This setting is really how all automatics should behave. Want to keep the engine spinning all the way to redline? Not a problem. When it does shift, the shifts bang home as if you were doing them yourself. Using a lead pipe. Not only that, but particularly hot-footed shenanigans are rewarded with little explosions in the pipes when unburned fuel hits the hot exhaust. You get rev-matched downshifts, too. During my all-too short time with the E63 AMG, this is the transmission setting I used second most.
The favored setting, of course, was Manual, as in full manual. Not only full manual, but fully-controlled paddle shifts that happen in 100 milliseconds. You know what else shifts that quickly? The Nissan GT-R, but only when the transmission’s in R-mode. We’re talking screaming-mimi fast, and much more rapid than you could manage with a shifter and a clutch. True, some automated manuals out there can swap cogs a bit quicker (the Ferrari F430 Scuderia can change gears in 60 milliseconds in “Superfast” mode), but do they have an air-conditioned, massaging driver’s seat, let alone a radio? Don’t think so.
There’s a fifth mode for the transmission, indicated as “RS” on the selector. That stands for “Race Start” and it’s a fancy, 24 Hours of Le Mans-inspired way of saying launch control. The routine is now familiar. Hold this, push that, pull the other thing, left foot on the brake, right foot to the floor (to get the engine to hold steady at 4,000 rpm) and then finally dump the brake. When you do, you are treated to a brief moment of wheel spin and then the computers take over. Assuming you keep your right foot in it, the stability control takes over and optimizes both engine torque and shift points.
According to Mercedes, Race Start is the quickest way to launch the car. According to me, you won’t notice any difference between RS and just going for it in full manual. Plus, if you choose the latter, you get to pull the trigger (fine, “paddle shifter”) yourself, which is always more fun. One final note, getting the E63 into Race Start is tricky (Hint: Hit the AMG button) and it took me a good five minutes to get it to work. In short, you don’t need it.
Oh, yes, the AMG button. Aside from an adjustable suspension and gearbox, the E63 AMG also features a three-stage version of Mercedes’ Electronic Stability Control (ESP). You have ESP On, ESP Sport and ESP Off. (Curiously, you need to select ESP On to get into Race Start.) With so many buttons, it will take you a minute to get on the road in the morning. Or you can just punch the AMG button. This moves the suspension to Sport, the transmission into Sport Plus and the stability parameters to ESP On. Kick the throttle and beat everyone in your neighborhood to Starbucks – or any neighborhood for that matter. Better yet, you’ll be able to slide your tail out entering the freeway in ESP On.
As you’ve probably noticed, I’m saving the best for last. This engine goes like a bomb, a 6.2-liter, 518-horsepower, 465-pound-feet-of-torque V8 nuke. Peak power happens at a fairly lofty 6,800 rpm (you’ll know because the tachometer suddenly lights up red) and peak torque occurs a bit lower down the rev range at 5,200 rpm. The miraculous hand-built (and signed!) unit is every bit as fantastic as you’re imagining and most likely hewn from Urim and Thummim. Put it this way: the big, lumpy V8 is able to move a 4,300-pound sedan to 60 miles per hour in 4.5 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 12.7.
With all the limiters pulled, top speed is who knows how fast, but I’d bet north of 190 mph. Then there’s the sound that the mighty V8 makes: Angry, guttural, aggravated and very, very masculine. Even at idle, it sounds like it’s pissed off and ready to dish out some wrath of God-type violence. Street legal sedans don’t sound like this. Are there other four-doors out there with more power? Yes, but certainly not many. Will any E63 AMG owners be bothered by this fact? Not in the slightest. Besides, this bad mutha’s naturally aspirated unlike all the other more potent sedans around. Long story short, AMG’s big hammer of a V8 rules.
When you put all of the above together – that motor, that transmission, that suspension – on your favorite back roads, magic happens. Literal mechanized magic. The E63 has a big AMG badge on the trunk, so you expect it to be crazy-fast going straight. It is. That said, AMG products aren’t supposed to handle the way the E63 does. Or at least they haven’t in the past. Yet the E63 flips the script, brilliantly, confidently so. Like all proper super sedans (the Maserati Quattroporte springs to mind), the E63 shrinks when you toss it into a corner. Even better, the grip is never ending. Even while trying my hardest to drive the 19-inch Continentals off the wheels, I rarely heard any tire squeal. That’s how fundamentally sound the chassis is. And you’d never suspect that this car weighs more than two tons. Again, it’s magic. Pure and insanely complex, but magic nonetheless.
The E63 AMG’s driver’s seat is equipped with active side bolsters. Turn the car to the left, and the right bolster squeezes the right side of your rib cage. And vice-versa. Thing is, the E63 can change direction so fast that it beats the bolsters to the punch. In other words, the car is faster than Mercedes’ servos. Still, the active bolsters serve to provide a comforting hug, as if to tell you that you’re doing it right. Odds are, in the E63 you are doing it right, even if you’re just standing still.
For the E63 is a mega-sleeper. The sleeper’s sleeper. Actually, the E63 AMG follows BMW’s E39 M5 pattern very closely. There are only subtle visual clues to give any hints about what lies beneath. A badge here, some bigger brakes there, big (and inaccurate) 6.3 badges in the front fenders. But to the casual car observer, it’s just another E-Class. Similar again to the E39 M5, only the E63 is severely more powerful, shifts much quicker and handles better.
Is there anything I don’t like about AMG’s medium-sized (believe it or not, the S63 is about 500 pounds heavier) rocket sled? Yes, and these are a stretch, but here goes. To put the E63 in Park you don’t use the gear selector. Instead you press this tiny, cheesy-feeling plastic button that’s totally out of place in the otherwise gorgeous, high-quality interior. I wish the shift paddles were bigger and mounted to the column instead of the wheel. Also, sadly, $93,075 is more than I’ll ever be able to afford. Those three admittedly small items are it, and there’s always depreciation, so let me close with this: If the E63 AMG is not the very best car currently on sale, it’s awfully close. Superlative is only the half of it.