Monday 24 January 2011

Driven #17:- Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG

If you're shy and retiring, and a your yearly bonus ain't what it once was, you might well eschew the baroque excess of a Maybach in the knowledge that a long wheelbase S-Class is more than enough luxury car for most people. The extra few inches in wheelbase over the regular car are found in greater rear legroom, all the better for allowing you to relax in the reclining, heated rear seats. Sunlight through the glazed rear roof panel sets the mood, an electric blind for that and all rear windows can be deployed should things get a little too heated. It may run short of the Maybachs electrochromatic roof, but is nicer than the pop-up glass panel in an old Fiesta.

Of course this particular S-Class has had a testosterone injection from Mercedes psychopath division, AMG, making it something of a specialist proposition. Casting an eye over the bodywork, this ain't no stealth bomber. Trinketry abounds; the signature “6.3 AMG” badge appears on the flanks, as do huge vented and drilled discs as well as a set of 19” AMG wheels which, I hate to say, manage to look slightly effete on a car of this magnitude.

Of course, the usual S-Class attributes of a magnificent interior, superlative build quality and unparalleled image and reputation can be taken as read. No need to cover old ground again, let's concentrate on what makes this one different.

For the uninitiated, ttarting the S63 is quite an event. With Keyless Go it's a one button operation, best performed at 4:30 AM so that everyone living in your street gets an early alarm call. When given spurs the AMG erupts, a course, full blooded cacophony which starts with a feature roar, before settling to a top-fuel dragster burble. To get things rolling you knock the column mounted transmission controller (it's all electronic, so saying gear selector feels like a lie) into drive and release the electronic parking brake, both familiar to drivers of the regular S-Class.

Trickling through town a long-wheelbase S-Class never feels like a particularly huge and unwieldy car, but to some extent the AMG treatment seems to undo some of that magic. Perhaps it's because you can always hear that threatening exhaust note, perhaps because you constantly worry about the fact that you're driving a £110k car. But compared to an S350 CDi, a car that makes threading through urban traffic more relaxing than executive relief from the plumpest lips you could possibly imagine, you find yourself constantly thinking, concentrating, steering around potholes and bumps that you would otherwise drive straight over without a moments hesitation.

The S63 is honestly not a particularly easy car to drive smoothly at low speeds, the enormous brakes tend towards the grabby, and throttle is a little digital at traffic-jam speeds. I would forgive this of any other AMG, the SL, SLS etc, but in the S63 this behaviour feels a little at odds with the S-Class persona, as do the active seats with their bolsters that automatically inflate to hold you upright in fast corners. This is a great idea when you're attacking the twisties but it becomes tiresome at 15mph in a one-way system.

Any AMG, though, of course comes to life when allowed off the leash. Once out of the gridlock I flick the Advanced Body Control system into Sport and go off in search of apexes to clip. Credit where credit's due, the S63 has the reflexes of a sports car. The steering seems responsive, there is virtually no roll and you can place the car anywhere there's enough space on the road, and here we run straight into a caveat; it has the responses of a bloody enormous sports car. Anybody who tries to tell you that an S63 magically shrinks around you to M3 size when you take it by the scruff of the neck is a lying rotter, The S63, while it responds and obeys with aplomb, is simply too big for me to feel totally connected to. And while it reacts quickly to steering and throttle inputs, its massive kerbweight cannot wholly shake off Mr Newtons influence; the rules of physics still apply. Overall though I'm willing to overlook this as an acceptable handicap; there can be no argument that the S63 handles improbably well for such a colossus.

On less arduous roads it's good to see that the S63 can still perform the typical AMG party-piece. With 525hp to call on from the normally aspirated, rev-hungry V8, playing silly buggers with the throttle is endlessly amusing. Any increment of acceleration is dispatched with unholy pace and it's delicious that such a behemoth of a car should be able to lunge towards the future with such determination.

Pleasingly, only serial Benz fetishists could possibly tell the nose of the AMG apart from any other S-Class as it looms in the mirror, few are aware of what it really is. Of course, as you blast past (as quickly as possible for best dramatic effect), the quad tail-pipes and monstrous angry yell issuing from them rather gives the game away.

This is the AMG way. Big, brash, subtle as a brick in the face. The S63 will cleave its way through the air to its 155mph limit with consummate ease, tens more mph can be had with the pulling of a few plugs. There are fast saloons out there, fast limos even, but none do things quite like the beastly AMG. It's a unique feeling from a unique car.

When I finished playing I adjusted the ABC from full-on anger to a comfort mode that’s only lightly aggravated and settled down. I set the cruise to an only slightly illegal figure and the spitfire war-cry settled to a baritone rumble.

Then I noticed that Life on Mars by David Bowie was playing on Radio 2, and I adjusted the very good standard MB hi-fi to interior-filling volume. It was then that I had a mini-epiphany that caused me to question my own values and beliefs.

I sat there in my perfectly contoured, ventilated and AMG embossed captains chair, idly fiddling with the AMG race timer, wondering exactly what the point is in this car? I started off my S63 experience in the back seat of a static car, marvelling at the sheer comfort and space of that business-class rear lounge. Could it be enjoyed with a battle-of-Britain scream constantly in the background?

AMG have treated the S-Class in exactly the same way as they have all other models of the Mercedes range, making it faster, louder, harder and generally less sane. This is what they do; the AMG business model, a very popular product among moneyed extroverts around the world. Unfortunately though, this time I can't honestly tell you the AMG operation has been particularly successful.

In the S63, the spirit of the S-Class, what separates it from the army of expensive executive-class saloon cars and makes it special, has been lost. That dignity, that air of unruffled effortlessness. It feels like a retrograde step when the similarly priced, similarly fast S600 V12 has all that refinement intact. The fact that this particular machine is in long-wheelbase format is all the more mystifying. LWB “esses” are usually chauffeur driven, the driver enjoys refined power while the captain of industry astern enjoys silence and smoothness. Factor in Sports Mode and Le Mans exhaust histrionics and your passengers better prefer thrash metal over Mozart. Even driven as gently as is physically possible, the S63 simply isn't as pleasant to travel in the back of as even the humble S350.

It's then that you remember that the S63 is compromised, too, at what an AMG is supposed to excel at; it's just too huge to be thrown around a racetrack and show anything like the agility of its smaller namesakes. And anyway, no enthusiastic driver would opt for a long-wheelbase version of any car, which further questions just who the hell this particular machine is aimed towards. In fact, if you're driving yourself why bother with the S-Class at all when you can have the more handsome, more indulgent CL coupe for similar money?

If you're a chauffeur and rear-seat comfort matters but speed is paramount, choosing the S600 is blindingly obvious. If you want to play racing driver in the front while those in the back are punished for their success, plump for the S63. It's irony on wheels. That foul-mouthed exhaust note clashes with the Lear-jet interior with hilarious effect and that's where the core appeal lies. It's terrific fun, but for me it no longer makes a particularly good luxury limo, and when all is weighed up and in the cold light of day, it makes for a slightly pointless AMG.