The full history of AMG, when it is one day written, will cite the arrival in 2007 of the C63 as the turning point in the company’s fortunes. Not because it triggered the most significant upturn in revenues – that surely came with the hugely popular 2001 SL55 – but because this was the first AMG which many people felt beat the equivalent BMW M product at its own game. Over 40,000 people bought C63s, and I strongly suspect most of them didn’t regret the decision.
It was a magnificent car – a kind of German muscle saloon that confirmed the essential appeal of that most basic of recipes: wedging a massive motor into a small bodyshell. It shimmied and growled and went like stink, and it looked fantastic.
Mercedes unveiled the new C63 at last year’s Paris motorshow. The specification was difficult to discern in practical terms because we were told the car shared its 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged motor with the new GT coupé – but given that we hadn’t driven the coupé, the reference was rendered somewhat meaningless. So we were left to judge the car by aesthetics alone – and I wasn’t entirely sure. The sculpted flanks of the new C-Class don’t lend themselves to supplementary muscle and I thought compared to the old car it looked a little underwhelming, accepting that the estate version was a very competent styling exercise.
The numbers were undeniably impressive though – the top S model would have 510hp, an 85hp advantage over the new BMW M3.
It wasn’t until I drove the GT in late November that I understood why AMG boss Tobias Moers had an especially mischievous glint in his eye that night in Paris. I’d asked him if he was confident that they’d done enough to allay fears that that losing the gorgeous atmospheric V8 wasn’t a big problem. ‘Not at all – just wait until you drive it,’ he’d replied, sounding disturbingly Schwarzenegger.
The new bi-turbo 4.0-litre V8 wasn’t only a big advance in terms of motive force, but it also carried a rumbustious soundtrack with ample growl and exhaust popping for even the most ostentatious potential C63 customer. All this at a time when the world (except me) was kicking the new M3 for being too mute.
It still isn’t quite the optical kidney-punch I’d hoped for. That’s what I think when I see ten of the new C63 models parked together at Faro airport. If you’d nipped a last-of-the-line 507 wagon on the end of that display, people would have spent more time looking at it than at the new model.
Yes, the wider front arches bring some added stance and the extra rear track fills those spaces more effectively, but compared to the new M3 this is a much more subtle looking machine. Some people will enjoy such invisibility. Ten miles later I’m wondering how something so unassuming looking can spool-up in third gear on a dry surface. The C63 S is monstrously potent from low revs – there’s torque limiting in the first three gears, but even then on a dry surface the car wants to break traction under full power.
And it keeps revving too. The torque management gives the sensation of thrust building through the rev-range, and the noise is so damn good you want to take it out between 6-7000rpm. Those last normally aspirated 507 edition cars were sensational, but this is a better engine. And it makes the C63 a much faster car.
On the road the softest damper setting of the three is the way forward. It’s not plush and I’d want to drive it on a UK B-road to pass final judgment, but on broken Portugese roads it’s not too firm. The heavily-revised electric steering does what the very best electric systems of the moment all do – just enough to not spoil the efforts of the exceptional components around it, but little more. The old car steered better.
That’s about all it did better. Limited cruising range was its biggest problem and the spec sheet of this new model doesn’t bring much reassurance of any improvement with a weeny 66-litre tank, but Mercedes is claiming 30-plus mpg on the combined cycle with the new turbocharged motor and my fag-packet calculations based on some road driving supports the claim. For many people that will make it much more appealing.
The decision to use the trusted AMG MCT 7-speed automatic transmission with wet clutch looks confusing on-paper. The 4.0-litre bi-turbo V8 runs with a Getrag dual-clutch ‘box in the GT sports car (it has a different internal code because of this: M178 for the GT, M177 for the C63, despite sharing identical internals) and even accepting the fact the transaxle configuration would have caused a headache, the MCT was feeling pretty old compared to the competition.
Well they’ve worked hard on it, and the result is a much sharper, more intuitive box of tricks. It also has a higher torque rating than the Getrag DCT, so you get 516lb ft here in the S model, where the swoopy coupé makes do with ‘just’ 479lb ft. You can choose different shift-speeds, or just use the paddles. There’s a slight delay to shifts even in the fastest mode, but I just didn’t have a problem with it. Combined with that mighty engine it makes for a stunning road-car powertrain. In race mode, with the exhaust set to ‘noisy’ it is positively flatulent.
I’m sure the standard spec of these cars will alter according to market, but the general gist is this. The S has 510hp/516lb ft, the base car 476hp/479lb ft – there are small differences in claimed performance. Both can have their top speeds raised above the standard 155mph, although curiously the estate is pegged back to 175mph instead of the saloons 181mph. The S gets the trick electronically controlled differential that can open and lock as needed, the standard car makes do with a normal mechanical locking diff. The open differential is no longer available.
The S also comes with dynamic engine mounts as standard, a specific ‘race mode’ for the Dynamic Select system (dampers, gearshift, engine) and a load of cosmetic stuff to help justify a £13.5k premium over the standard car. Ceramics are only optional on the S and cost £4285.
For extra noise you can opt for the ‘three-flap’ sports exhaust that adds a link pipe between the parallel downpipes to create V8 music. AMG has worked very hard to make this car musical and the optional sports exhaust is especially naughty-sounding.
At the track the C63 S can melt a set of rears in a matter of minutes. On the road the 265-section rear Michelin Supersports are up to the task, but get them hot on the circuit and they take serious pain. Is there another car on sale with over 500lb ft that uses such narrow rears? I can’t think of one. The new M3 peaks at 406lb ft and has a 275 rear.
It’s not a track car, but it’s still a hoot to drive there and very competent if you can resist switching all the systems off and pulling smokies. There’s the usual safety-window of understeer (which can be eradicated by about 3mm of throttle application) and the ceramics are very, very powerful. But even on a big, open circuit like Portimao, it’s the C63’s engine that dominates the experience. It offers vast performance and the way it keeps pulling above 120mph makes me suspect that it’ll win the Autobahn outside lane competition against the other small German hotshots.
The front bucket seats are excellent, but they won’t sink quite low enough for me. The wheel is pleasingly round in light of some recent AMG efforts and the cabin is a chrome-fetishist’s dream environment. Some will find it a little too much, but you can’t ignore the quality or the easy, intuitive workings of the infotainment system. I still find the Mercedes solution much more fathomable than those found in an Audi or BMW. The optional Burmester hi-fi is rollickingly potent.
The front arches are 14mm wider arches each side than on a base C-Class and the front is 54mm longer, but it somehow doesn’t quite have the pugnacious small muscle saloon car looks of its predecessor. Even so it remains a very attractive, quietly powerful machine. The estate is prettier than the saloon to my eyes, and anyone in the market for a compact saloon capable of going very, very fast needs to try one the moment they land in the UK.
And for those who think the M3’s contrived sound signature is too much to bear, this might well be the car for you. I wouldn’t want to call that comparison until I’d done a comprehensive back-to-back test. Either way, they’re both much more talented than any of the immediate competition.