Versus the competiton:
In efforts to mop up every last buyer, manufacturers can’t seem to leave well enough alone.
So they build limited editions to poke the performance devil and stir the cowboy way lurking in a lot of us. These beefsteak brands cost bigger bucks, most sneer at automatic transmissions, some are inspired by European sedan racers, and all are an absolute hoot.
BMW takes a perfectly satisfying 325i sedan, tightens the suspension, mounts high-speed tires on larger wheels, massages the engine for more horsepower, and whelps a 150 m.p.h. screamer called the M3.
Ford’s Special Vehicles Team makes similar magic with the venerable and flexible Mustang. The car’s 5.0-liter V-8 is inflated from 215 to 240 horsepower, an air dam and spoiler are added, suspension is lowered, and a reptilian badge in your rearview mirror may be the only warning that you are about to be smoked by a Mustang Cobra.
Volvo is in the field with its 850 T-5R, where T stands for turbocharged and R means racing and the whole is a Scandinavian wolf in family sedan cladding.
Now come Aufrecht, Melcher and Grossapach. Or AMG. Who do for the Mercedes-Benz C-Class what Richard Simmons does for patio potatoes by converting overweight, gentle snoozers into feisty, finely muscled pieces of work.
Aufrecht (engineer Hans-Werner) and Melcher (former partner Erhard) and Grossapach (the German town where Aufrecht was born) start with a bread-and-bratwurst Mercedes-Benz C280.
It’s a pleasant enough car for old parsons and new lawyers. But several wild dreams removed from the C280-based sedans AMG prepares for the European Touring Car Championship.
Mercedes-Benz in northern Germany initiates the C36 transmogrification by fitting a stock C280 with several factory improvements borrowed from heftier, more expensive lions in the line.
A beefier differential is bolted aboard to handle the C36’s increased engine power. Larger disc brakes are installed to make sure that which goes faster also stops more securely. A more responsive steering box, shorter springs and industrial strength anti-sway bars are added for a stiffer, more positive ride.
The car also is mounted with 17-inch wheels and Bridgestone Expedia tires showing profiles low enough to appease those who cruise Compton in custom pickups.
Then the work-in-progress is trucked from big city Bremen to rural Affalterbach, where AMG’s young Frankensteins begin removing and dismantling the engine, transmission and most of the interior.
One man, one engine is the standard as the C280’s 2.8-liter in-line six swells into the C36’s 3.6-liter power source. Cylinders are bored out and the piston stroke lengthened. Forged aluminum pistons are added.
A new camshaft and crankshaft are installed. Cylinderhead exhaust ports are enlarged. Sterner commands are programmed into the Bosch engine-management computer to optimize benefits from the enl arged fuel-air intake and altered valve timing.
And so a 194-horsepower engine good for fast touring through pretty scenery becomes a 268-horsepower street fighter built for ugly times wherever big dogs snarl.
Cosmetologists pick up the C280-to-C36 journey here, adding a deeper, under-bumper front air dam, side skirts and a new rear apron. Also twin rectangular chromed tailpipes and plainer, five-spoke wheels.
AMG and C36 monograms, of course, are Liberace-liberal. On instruments and carpets. On wheels and rear deck. On gearshift knob and wheels. There’s also a light gray leather insert on the dark gray, leather-covered steering wheel to remind us this is indeed a kustomwagen.
And so a $36,000 C280 becomes a $50,000 C36.
With a question: A price differential of $14,000 is a pretty obvious difference, but is the C280/C36 performance margin as distinctive?
With an easy answer: Not only is the C36’s athleticism immediately notic able, the car adds a fresh dimension to this business of honing mid-city four-doors into hot rods.
For the pendulum of BMW’s M3, Ford’s Cobra and Volvo’s T-5R swings much closer to performance. Their bare knuckles show. Any display of good manners is strictly a pretense and there is no easy way to leash the beast. Attempt something dramatic and there is noise, heads swivel and frowns accuse you of being the politically incorrect marauder.
But the C36 has a dual personality and it is in perfect balance. Driven mildly it loses none of that integrated feel and solid footing so characteristic of Mercedes; the security of knowing you are safe inside something heavy designed to protect and coddle. Decide to explore the upper reaches of this car, stab the throttle, and driving becomes more a matter of hanging on and enjoying the exhilaration as the C36 growls and exerts its authority.
Yet even at pace, driven to its extremes, the car is far from unruly. Everything is achieved without ruffling nerves and poise of either car or driver. The C36 makes no noisy announcement that it is about to eat everything in sight, and doesn’t strut hard in search of praise when victory is done.
There’s even high purpose to owning a car that runs from zero to 60 m.p.h.in six seconds and cruises all day at 120 m.p.h. without stops for water.
For with those performance numbers comes great torque, the basic force of automotive propulsion. With such a surplus of power, a car easily runs ahead to where traffic has cleared. Or sprints past doofi who have yet to realize they have no right of way when wobbling at 45 m.p.h. onto a freeway full of 70 m.p.h. traffic.
Refinement and elegance, of course, are usually the first casualties of enhanced performance. Whether the product be cars, ballplayers or rock stars.
And exuberance typically smothers smoothness. But in the C36, polished engineering produces a versatility that allows the sophistication of Mercedes, and its heritage, to hold fast. Certainly the marque’s social image survives the transformation.
Oddly, on a car where everyone has worked so hard and systems perform so well, there is an oversight in the steering. Even in the fast-ratio steering box that is part of the conversion.
It is far too vague for a car of this ability. Point and go is the expected result of moving most steering wheels. Point, go, now correct back to the intended line, is more the practice in the C36.
Small flaws of the C280 also slop over to the C36. Shifting the automatic from park to anyplace remains a strange wriggle, much like tracing the back nine on a miniature golf course. The C36 will not be available with a manual transmission, an item usually last on the wish list of typical Mercedes owners.
Despite a thinking gearbox that reads your right foot and shifts accordingly, the response to urgent calls remains a little hesitant. Even d ownshifting the automatic before a turn doesn’t seem to keep revs up. So the car is inclined to hesitate before finding the power to move smartly through and out of the corner.
Still, the C36 is an ultra performer that clearly hasn’t compromised the quality and comforts of a Mercedes. Nor does it have the brooding, black look of something that will scare the buttons off your shorts.
Mercedes will build 1,000 C36s this year and ship 400 to the United States. Then it will discover how many enthusiasts are prepared to buy a high-performance car that costs $14,000 more than a BMW M3 and $25,000 more than a Mustang Cobra.
Our guess is about 400.
1995 Mercedes-Benz AMG C36
Cost Base and as tested: $49,800. (Includes leather upholstery; power sunroof; dual air bags; automatic transmission; automatic climate control; alarm; power windows, locks and seats; 17-inch alloy wheels; Bose sound system; anti-lock brakes, and traction cont ol.)
Engine 3.6-liter, 24-valve, in-line six, developing 268 horsepower.
Type Front engine, rear-drive, high performance sedan.
Performance O-60 m.p.h., as tested, 6.2 seconds. Top speed, electronically limited, 155 m.p.h. EPA fuel consumption, city and highway, 18 and 22 m.p.g.
Curb Weight 3,549 pounds.