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Expert Reviews 1 of 3
By Mike Hanley
October 31, 2008
It's hard to think of a better time to be a luxury performance-sedan enthusiast. If you have about $60,000 to spend, the array of choices available to you is wide, including well-known models like the BMW M3 and newcomers like the Lexus IS-F. Then there's the latest high-powered version of Mercedes-Benz's C-Class: the 451-horsepower C63 AMG, an incredibly powerful, extremely firm-riding version of the entry-level luxury sedan.
The C63 AMG makes a significant break from its German and Japanese competitors by using a time-tested American technique for delivering big horsepower: stuff a big engine under the hood. Think of this 6.2-liter V-8 sedan as a German interpretation of an American muscle car.
If you've stumbled upon this review looking for more information on the regular C-Class, I reviewed that car last year when it was redesigned. Styling Like performance models from BMW and Audi, the C63 AMG receives a number of exterior changes that distinguish it from lesser C-Class trims without diminishing its level of sophistication. A couple of the more noticeable ones include twin bumps running the length of the hood, front fender flares, 18-inch alloy wheels, quad tailpipes finished in chrome, and a few extra badges. There's a kind of seriousness to the C63 AMG's look that would make a Secret Service agent proud (see a side-by-side comparison with the C350 Sport). Ride & Handling Of its contemporaries, the C63 AMG's suspension tuning is among the firmest; the only model that rivals it is the Audi RS 4, which has a downright bone-jarring ride on rutted roads. On the worn roads of Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, the C63 AMG's extra-firm ride isn't enjoyable, as you're constantly tossed around with every road heave or pothole.
It makes sense that Mercedes would give the C63 AMG a firm ride in order to enhance its performance on the track, but the BMW M3 — one of its prime competitors — shows you don't have to sacrifice comfort to the extent that the C63 AMG does in order to turn in an impressive performance on the track. In daily driving, the M3 doesn't ride much more firmly than a non-M sibling, like the 335i, but it can navigate a serious road course like a champ. I haven't had any track time in the C63 AMG, and it may well be a strong track car, but it takes a significant toll on the driver in everyday driving.
The Mercedes' base suspension setup is even more puzzling when you consider that an optional AMG Performance Package includes a limited-slip differential, special brakes, a different steering wheel, a higher 174-mph top speed limiter and a track-tuned suspension. One bright spot in the C63 AMG's regular suspension is that the sedan remains relatively flat when cornering, with limited body roll.
The C63 features an AMG speed-sensitive steering system that provides greater steering feel than the regular C-Class. The sedan feels locked in when cruising on the highway, but it retains some traditional Mercedes characteristics, including plenty of power assistance at slow speeds that makes it easy to turn the wheel. You can, however, feel suspension impacts through the steering wheel when driving on rough patches of road. Going & Stopping Even though its name might suggest otherwise, the C63 AMG has a 6.2-liter V-8 engine under its hood, and it's an impressive engine. It had to be; competitors like the RS 4, M3 and IS-F offer very good V-8s, too. None of those, however, can match the output of Mercedes' monster motor.
The C63 AMG's normally aspirated V-8 makes 451 hp at 6,800 rpm and 443 pounds-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm. Cadillac's new CTS-V bests those figures by significant margins, but its V-8 benefits from a supercharger.
One of the first things you realize when driving the C63 AMG — especially on the highway — is that this car builds speed quickly with a subtlety that's surprising. One time I looked down at the speedometer and was surprised to find I was traveling at 70 mph; it felt like the car was hardly exerting itself. This Mercedes has the kind of power that, if you ever dared test it on public roads, could have you traveling at speeds that would get your driver's license cut up on the spot.
Of course, if you're not in the mood for subtlety all you have to do is mash the gas pedal and the C63 AMG lunges forward with a deep growl bellowing from the quad exhaust tips. This ever-present wall of power lets you pass at speeds that make other cars seem like they're standing still; Mercedes says the C63 AMG can go from zero to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds. Gas mileage is an SUV-like 12/19 mpg city/highway, which incurs a $2,100 gas-guzzler tax.
The V-8's strong torque output makes transmission downshifts less critical here than in cars that have less power. Still, the C63 AMG's seven-speed automatic transmission makes quick kickdowns when you lay into the gas pedal, but it's also always working to make sure gear changes are smooth. This is especially evident when using the transmission's clutchless-manual mode, which is operated by nudging the gear selector left or right, or by using the large paddles attached to the back of the steering wheel. If you let the V-8 rev fairly high before upshifting, the transmission makes sure the next gear engages smoothly.
Even though the automatic transmission is relatively good at delivering a smooth yet sporty experience, the lack of a true manual transmission is going to be a deal-breaker for some shoppers. While that isn't as significant in Mercedes' larger AMG cars like the E63 AMG and S63 AMG, it's relevant to shoppers considering smaller luxury performance sedans like the C63 AMG, whose competitors do offer a stick. That said, Mercedes says a manual isn't offered in the C63 AMG because the demand isn't there.
The C63 AMG has 14-inch front brake discs grasped by six-piston calipers, and 13-inch rear discs stopped by four-piston calipers. The brakes respond to light pedal effort, but bringing the sedan to a smooth stop isn't always easy; the brakes are a bit grabby. The Inside Since its 2008 redesign, I've thought the C-Class has had a rather plain — if nicely crafted — cabin. That opinion carries over to the C63 AMG, as its cabin is much the same as the regular C-Class', though with a few special cues. Those include a unique instrument panel, a flat-bottom steering wheel and front sport seats. The sport seats are much more comfortable than the hard seats in the regular C-Class, featuring aggressive side bolsters that clutch your torso. The bolsters are adjustable and the seats also include upper and lower lumbar adjustments.
One of the more interesting elements of the cabin is the motorized dashboard screen. It's stored behind a panel in the center of the dash, but at the touch of a button the panel backs away and a 7-inch screen rises from the dash. It looks like a miniature flat-panel television, and its high-quality graphics reinforce this impression.
The screen is included with Mercedes' optional Comand system, which features a small multifunction dial in the center console that's used to control audio, navigation and other functions. The on-screen menu layout is why it's one of the more intuitive knob-based control systems on the market, ahead of the likes of BMW's iDrive and Audi's MMI. Less-appealing interior elements include slightly creaky door pulls and loose temperature dials for the automatic air-conditioning system.
Like the M3, RS 4 and IS-F, the C63's backseat is snug. I'm 6-foot-1 and was able to sit back there with the front seat adjusted for me, but I didn't have any legroom to spare. Backseat cushioning is firm. Cargo The C63 AMG's trunk measures 12.4 cubic feet, which is similar to what competitors offer. The trunk is also where the releases are located for the split, folding backseat; there's a handle for each backrest section, and pulling them releases the seatback so they can be folded flush with the cargo floor. Safety Standard safety features include antilock brakes, an electronic stability system, side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags. Features Mercedes offers a few option packages for the C63 AMG. In addition to the previously mentioned AMG Performance Package, which costs $3,990, there's the $2,980 AMG Seating Package that includes higher-quality leather upholstery, memory settings for the driver and front-passenger seats and a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel (the standard adjustments are manual).
The $1,100 Premium 2 Package adds a power sunshade for the rear window, bi-xenon headlights with a washer system and fog lamps that light when cornering for better visibility. Finally, there's the $2,980 Multimedia Package that includes the Comand system with navigation, the 7-inch motorized screen and a Harman Kardon surround-sound audio system with a dash-mounted six-CD changer and 6GB of music storage. Individual options include carbon fiber trim pieces ($2,500) and a kit that lets you play and control an iPod through the audio system ($375). C63 AMG in the Market After a week of testing, I had conflicting emotions when the C63 AMG left my care. Even though the V-8 engine drinks premium gas with environment-be-damned abandon, it was still sad to say goodbye to its powerful performance and burly exhaust note. On the flip side, there were no tears shed at the departing of the sedan's sport suspension, which is just too firm for everyday driving.
And that's the essence of this sedan. Like the Audi RS 4, it offers a thrilling V-8 engine but comes with ride quality that's hard to stomach. For shoppers looking for more of a balance between everyday livability and track-readiness, there's an alternative in the M3, which offers rewarding V-8 power and standout handling but won't rough you up nearly as much as the Benz.