It's the fourth lap and I'm beginning to get the hang of getting the most out of the 2008 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG.
Nudge the brakes to settle the rear of the car, flick the steering wheel into the corner entry while grabbing 2nd gear with the shift paddles, then turn sharply but not so aggressively as to accelerate the weight transfer, and finally allow the inside tires to mount the painted curb at the apex as we nail the throttle hard.
An early whiff of understeer quickly but progressively gives way to mild oversteer as the 6.2-liter V8's prodigious reserves are unleashed to the rear wheels and the limited-slip differential goes to work, bringing the tail of the car around on the exit as the tires scramble for traction. Keeping our right foot planted on the floor, the slip angle increases until we're grappling with a full quarter turn of opposite lock.
We can't help but laugh out loud as we grab a fleeting glance in the rearview mirror and see a trail of white tire smoke billowing from behind.
No Stability Control Here
The Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG is making a solid impression at Circuit Paul Ricard in the South of France. In fact, we're wondering if the new BMW M3 will be able to match the C63 AMG's dynamic prowess.
It's not the baritone exhaust note or the straight-line speed but instead the precise handling at the limit that marks the new C63 AMG as a far more sporting proposition than its predecessor, the C55. The new C63 goes beyond the conventions that have defined each and every AMG model for the good part of the past decade, adding a welcome degree of finesse to the driving experience.
But that's not to say the C63 lacks any of the unadulterated performance muscle we have come to expect from Mercedes-Benz's storied performance-car division. It still does the old point-and-squirt routine as well as any rival. In fact, AMG's entry-level model is now more rapid than ever, and it gets to 100 kph (62 mph) in 4.5 seconds, a whopping 0.7 second faster than the former C55 — and 0.3 second faster than the forthcoming BMW M3.
The car's top speed has been limited to 155 mph, although C63 customers will have the opportunity to bring 174 mph within reach by ordering an optional Sport package that includes such goodies as the limited-slip differential and a set of spectacular-looking 19-inch wheels adorned with Bridgestone Potenza REO50A tires, 235/35ZR19s in front and 255/30ZR19s in the rear.
Hardware To Challenge the M3
Based on the new third-generation C-Class, the C63 has been equipped with hardware specifically to counter the performance of the new BMW M3 with its V8 engine. Much like the CLK 63 AMG Black Series, the C63 AMG has a wider front track with exceptionally stiff wheel bearings to withstand higher cornering loads. It doesn't sound like much, but as you set off down the road for the first time, you can tell the difference.
With a quicker steering ratio that yields 2.5 turns lock-to-lock, the steering also feels highly accurate, especially straight ahead where it is terrifically precise. You have an immediate impression of greater agility, added response and better feedback.
AMG has also thoroughly rethought its philosophy regarding electronic stability control. Switch off the stability control by holding down the dashboard-mounted button for longer than 3 seconds and now it remains off. Also there's no further electronic intervention when a predetermined threshold is detected, except under heavy braking when the stability control helps to stabilize the front end as you're bearing down on a corner. But once you get back on the power again, the stability control disengages and there's plenty of opportunity for heavy doses of oversteer — not to mention the ability to light up those sizable rear tires when accelerating with gusto from a standstill.
But wait. There's more! The AMG-calibrated stability control has a Sports mode in which the intervention threshold allows the rear end to step out of line without the electronics prematurely dumping power from the engine and applying the brakes. It seems like the perfect solution for those like us who like to explore what the chassis has to offer but also like the idea of stability control working away in the background just in case something goes terribly wrong. Meanwhile, it's best to keep the stability control engaged during everyday driving.
On the Track and on the Road
The C63 feels more fluid and better balanced than the C55 ever was. It is an altogether more satisfying and accommodating car to drive, and it responds to driver inputs with added sharpness and a degree of communication no other regular production Mercedes-Benz model offers. As it approaches the limit, the chassis balance is almost neutral, and the dynamic boundaries are clearly defined thanks to the clear messages coming through the steering wheel. Exceptional body control makes cornering a pleasure.
Heading off the track and onto the roads around the Circuit Paul Ricard in Southern France, we discover the C63's ride is indeed firm, but soft suspension bushings and a good deal of wheel travel ensure it never gets too harsh or noisy even on poor pavement. It is only really when you hit something abrupt that the stiffly sprung underpinnings and a general lack of compliance in the tires combine to send a nasty shock up through the chassis. Predictably, the 14.2-inch front discs and 13.0-inch rear discs help deliver massive levels of stopping power, although pedal effort isn't high.
Aggression You Can See
The C63 AMG is a real head-turner, with the sort of visual potency to match its on-road muscle. The aggressive good looks begin with a heavily reworked front end that receives a unique bumper, with sizable ducts to cool a whole armada of radiators crammed in front of the engine. It is supported by a special twin-blade grille, headlamps boasting special titanium inserts designed to give them a meaner look, and reworked fenders with heavily flared wheel arches.
Toward the rear there are widened rocker sills, a subtle trunk-mounted spoiler, dark taillight lenses, a quartet of chrome tailpipes and a bumper that incorporates a diffuser to draw hot air from the rear differential. It is all set off by a confident stance thanks to a 15mm lower ride height and standard 18-inch wheels.
Aggression You Can't See
The steel hood has a couple of power domes to provide clearance for the crushingly powerful 6.2-liter AMG V8. While the C55's V8 peaked at 362 horsepower, the normally aspirated AMG V8 ups the ante some 95 hp to 457 hp. By comparison, the 4.0-liter V8 in the new M3 kicks out 420 hp.
The new engine really enhances the driving experience. Throttle response is noticeably sharper than before, and the revs build with a free-flowing intensity and then shut down quickly when you lift the throttle (no emissions-related throttle delay here). With torque peaking at 442 pound-feet at 5,000 rpm, acceleration is effortless regardless of speed. Indeed, it pays to keep a watchful eye on the C63's speedometer, as acceleration can be quite deceptive, especially in higher gears where a lack of strain keeps the noise down.
Despite toying with the idea of equipping its latest sport sedan with a new dual-clutch sequential manual gearbox that is nearing production, AMG has once again used its seven-speed automatic with three different modes: Comfort, Sport and Manual. This seven-speed with its conventional torque convertor has been reworked to apply a healthy blip of the throttle to speed downshifts. Under light loads, the transmission swaps cogs seamlessly, but as you dip into the prodigious torque offered by the engine, the shift action tends to become less than smooth.
AMG Brings You More Than Just Speed
While its engine continues to provide heady levels of high-speed entertainment, the 2008 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG manages to offer much more than pure straight-line speed.
In outright dynamic finesse, the C63 is a far more attractive proposition than the old C55. Indeed, we'd say this car is superior to any other regular Mercedes-Benz model. There's true precision in the way it goes about its business. What's more, it delivers the sort of response you just don't expect from a Mercedes-Benz. In this respect, it is very much a standout.
The big question now is, can the C63 AMG properly challenge the new M3? By week's end we'll be able to give you a subjective assessment, but the real answer will have to wait until later this year when we get a chance to put the two up against each other in anger.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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