What are the first words that comes to mind when you think Mercedes-Benz? For me, it's quality, status, uninspired, elegance, reliability, common, power, safety… Yeah, you noticed a couple of negatives in there, right? Uninspired only in the sense of when someone makes it big, becoming a Benz owner seems to be the default setting that the majority turn to. As for the word “common,” I'm afraid that comes of living in Orange County, Calif. It's easy to become very blasé about Mercedes-Benz, especially when the RACER offices are barely five miles from the biggest M-B dealership in the world. That's why so many owners wishing to then make their purchase look unique take the aesthetically laughable upper-class pimp route.
To be fair, though, it's not like the marque doesn't deserve its prestigious reputation, so one can hardly blame those who aspire to having a three-pointed star on the grille of their second-most expensive purchase. But I bet not many describe their Benz as fun. Yet that was the overwhelming feeling I had after just a couple of drives in the 2010 AMG E63. Five days later, I added the words “perfect compromise” to the list of potential adjectives for it. I admit I've never been more surprised by a Benz.
Why? Because a year ago, the C63 had appeared to have much of the ingredients necessary – great power-to-weight ratio, sharp turn-in, 0-100mph time under 10sec, and stunning braking – but I'd been happy to hand it back. The constant noise, the bone-jarring ride in thinly padded seats, the sluggish upshifts and a not-quite-Mercedes-standard interior were disappointing. It was a great ally when using its huge performance potential, but a literal and figurative pain in the backside for the majority of the time. If one was to be kind, you'd say it felt like a track-day car. To be more harsh, it felt like a Mercedes-Benz that had been modified by someone who didn't mind voiding its warranty.
Its bigger sibling, by contrast is a wonderful machine. With a choice of three suspension settings, the E63 can look after the driver whether he wants a machine that cossets him after a long day at work, or one that thrills him enough go carving up mountain passes at 6 a.m. In other words the traditions of Mercedes-Benz and of AMG have come together to make one great car.
The engine is the naturally aspirated 6.2-liter V8 which is available in seven of Mercedes current models. In the C-class it's tuned to 451hp, in the ML and CLS it's rated at 503, while in the E, S, CL and SL it produces 518hp. With the exception of the lower tuned C, however, the E is the lightest of the seven graced by this magnificent unit, and it feels that way. It's no surprise to discover it hits 60mph from standstill in just 4.3 seconds. More importantly, it feels razor-sharp once it's time to change direction. Pitch the E63 hard into a 100-degree corner and you feel slightly foolish to have had your left foot hovering over the brake pedal to dab away its understeer. Whether it's the grip from the 255/40 R19 Continentals or the electronic stability control, it just turns and – after the ESC mothers the outside rear (they're 285/35 R19s) – goes. Hard.
What AMG does to Mercedes-Benz as well as the M-sport tuners do to BMW is find ways of controlling the car's body so it can keep up with its chassis. Switch the dial on the center console to S+ or M Shift (manual) and you can almost imagine that, as well as speeding up the gearshifts and firming the suspension, the car's body is being pulled down to a more ground-hugging stance, shrouding those front and rear uprights a little closer. It's all in your head, of course, but damn, does it ever tune the driver into the road surface. Through the butt at least.
The steering, however, is light in the manner of a mid-'90s Jaguar, and as uncommunicative as a teenager born around a similar year. It's less hypocritical than the C63, which gets heavy but is still numb, but in both cars, the driver's most minimal input is reflected in the car's trajectory. It's just that it takes quite a few fast drives to get to the level of faith required to exploit the steering's precision. While we're on the subject, be ready for expansion joints on curved and uncambered high-speed on-ramps onto freeways: at its hardest suspension setting, the tail will twitch just a couple of inches sideways.
That's not the setting you'd want on a wet or greasy surface, however. The selection of the Comfort setting adds just the right amount of suppleness to the rear air springs to help him or her anticipate the edge of adhesion before being obliged to feel it. In other words, you can turn down the three-stage ESC even in unfavorable conditions and still feel completely secure.
The Comfort setting is exactly right for taking the 35mph cruise over the wounded concrete and scabby asphalt downtown. Nestling into the wonderfully comfortable 14-way adjustable sports seat with the 14-speaker harman/kardon unit pushing out the Isley Brothers' “If you were there” made me very glad I was here. It was one of those moments that made me wonder if a car actually needs to be larger or more comfortable than this if there are never going to be more than four people on board. Rear-seat passengers had no complaints regarding head or leg room in the E-class. The fact that this luxury car can turn from divine to devilish with just a twitch of the right foot just adds to its allure.
So does having the choice of semi-auto or fully auto shifts. In stark contrast to the C63, we found the upshifts on this E to be perfect using the steering-wheel mounted paddles, while downshifts were slightly laissez-faire. The fact is, however, that the seven-speed gearbox is near perfect in fully auto form, adapting to reflect the driver's mood, so that eventually the right-hand paddle was used to just change up early when not wishing to attract attention through the sound of a growling V8 fed through dual twin exhausts. The cabin allows in just the right amount of exhaust and engine noise, in this writer's opinion.
Subtlety is the name of the game in the car's external appearance, too. As with the C63, AMG has done just enough to the E-class shape to enhance it without turning it into a “Look at me!” car. The current E-class's styling has raised some debate, and it certainly won't win awards for its looks, but in my opinion, the E's squared headlights and rectangular tail lights suit the overall appearance of the sedan far better than they do the forthcoming coupe and convertible.
The perfect compromise doesn't come cheap, though. At a suggested retail price of $85,750, the AMG E63 is some $30k more than the C63 and our particular example came in at a puckering $102,245. Replacing the wood trim with carbon fiber seemed worth it at $2,800, as did the optional 19-inch wheels (standards are 18) at $2,250, and the wonderful Panorama sunroof at $1,070. But thereafter, the options that appealed to me were tied into packages. Active Curve illumination from the bi-xenon headlamps and real-time traffic data from the fine GPS system are good, but I don't need my back massaged as I drive. And while there are chagrin-inducing moments in rush hour when I wonder if a blind-spot assist should be made compulsory on all cars surrounding me, this particular one seemed over-cautious and certainly no substitute for being observant.
My only real gripe in terms of standard equipment beyond the light steering is that the cruise control stalk is still where the turn signal stalk should be. Again, you could argue that an owner would rapidly get used to this. But it was on my final day with the E63 that I automatically hit a lever and failed to shed speed approaching a turn while failing to indicate my intended directional change. Maybe I'm slow to adapt or maybe Mercedes has made a dubious choice of location. What's wrong with having switches on the steering wheel?
If you're willing to accept the price and don't tick too many boxes on the options list, a Mercedes-Benz AMG E63 could be all the car you'll ever need. The next BMW M5 is going to have to be stunning to beat this.