A long time ago, I swore that if I ever bought a Mercedes-Benz it would either be a 300SL roadster – preferably the gorgeous blue one owned by that god of piano-playing, Oscar Peterson. Or, if I didn't have the millions (I assume) necessary, then it would be a smart but usable 280CE – the handsome but subtle pillar-less coupe from the late '70s.
Then came the W220 S-class (that's the 1999-2005 model) which, to my eyes at least, is the best-looking car in that class for the past couple decades, a design classic that does an amazing job of hiding its size.
You can imagine, then, that I was sorely disappointed when it was replaced by the current model. It looked like a slightly more discreet version of that Zsa-Zsa Gabor of cars, the Maybach, which, like an ugly nun, may be one of the world's finest within, but whose exterior won't turn heads for the right reasons. The S-class looked like it was designed by a committee, each member having a very different agenda regarding 1) who it should appeal to, 2) whether it should follow or set trends, and 3) whether looking imposing and having the three-pointed star on the grille would be enough to help it sell.
Of course, familiarity takes the edge off initial impressions and, sure enough, being a Mercedes, being excellent and being imposing has been enough to make the current S-class a huge success, besides which, its two chief German rivals are going through rough patches design-wise currently. The BMW 7-series looks dull, and the Audi A8, though handsome, resembles its smaller A6 and A4 brethren. Say what you like about Mercedes-Benz styling in 2012, but the company is making an admirable effort to keep its company brand distinguished but its models very distinct from one another.
And now I've driven an S-class and I admit that absolute power – as the AMG S63 (RIGHT) has on demand – corrupts absolutely. After a week in one, I couldn't help but praise it – almost enough that I could see past its looks. In standard form, this 5.5-liter biturbo V8 pushes out 536hp and launches you to 60mph from standstill in 4.4sec. With the performance pack (as in our model), that time is lowered still, and the speed limiter is set to cut in at 186mph, rather than 155. Useful to know for somebody, I'm sure.
What's far more important is that it can accelerate like a dragster while also cosseting the driver and four passengers in luxury. There are always question marks over wide, low-profile tires: they can often exacerbate the natural traits of sports suspension and thus ruin the ride of what should be one of the world's most relaxing high-speed cruisers. In fact, the bump-thump of scruffy road surfaces remains isolated in this car, even in Sport mode. Perhaps more surprisingly, tram-lining isn't an issue, even if the steering wheel does feel more dead than in other AMG models.
In most regards, the S-class also feels a lot smaller car to handle than its generous interior space would suggest. It's easy to place at parking speeds, its steering responds fairly well though with no feedback to your fingertips, and it's easy to see out of when reversing (sorry, but I still can't fully trust what's revealed on the screen on the center console).
This engine is more fun than the 6.2-liter V8 it replaced but which is still fitted in the SLS. More fuel efficient, too – an amazing 38 percent savings, despite gaining 15hp (in standard mode). But it is aurally more discreet, too. If you want a car that, both to occupants and those you're passing, sounds like it's going 80mph when it's going 40, then buy the manic-sounding C63. The S63 is about wafting at high-speed but with the talent to go nuts if you want it to.
Without doubt, then, the S63's combination of pace, handling and luxury makes a strong case for itself. But to spend a six-figure sum on a car, I'd have to be in love with it, and I'm afraid that's where it skids off the road that leads to my dream car garage. Benz comes much closer with the AMG CL63 coupe (RIGHT), which a little over a year ago received a mid-life refresh and now looks more aggressive from any angle, yet not ostentatious. (If you want pimp-style, there are enough aftermarket places to modify/ruin the look of your car. AMG, like BMW's M division, judges its aesthetic adjustments pretty much right, so that further tampering with the car's appearance can only be detrimental.) What's interesting, though, is that considering how much common architecture there is between S and CL models – including, in this comparison, the engine – it's remarkable that their differing looks hide differing characters, too.
Despite weighing in only 100lbs less and being shorter by just five inches, the CL feels more nimble than the S straight away and that's got to be a result of having a nine-inch shorter wheelbase. But it also inspires confidence quicker with what seems like livelier steering action and with body control that seems more directly linked to chassis behavior. It's still no Lotus Elise, but nor do you feel like you're guiding a large vehicle. Pull the telescopic steering wheel close enough to bend your elbows a little, and start hustling and you'll feel it want to play along with your dark side. Put simply, it's ready to turn hooligan.
And there's the problem. It really is worryingly easy to find yourself breaking the law, or flicking through turns in a manner that could get you accused of being irresponsible, despite both you and the car being well inside your limits. We threw the keys to JR Hildebrand for a couple of days and, despite the typical racecar driver's disappointment that a car does so much for you, he was seriously impressed with its quiet pace.
“I missed my turn off the freeway,” he said, “basically, because I'd arrived at it so much sooner than I'd expected that I hadn't even started looking for the signs that it was coming up. That's a sign of a seriously quick car.”
Hildebrand, like us, was impressed with the swift action of the paddle shifters – and the noise on the overrun – as well as the sheer quality of the interior. Mercedes-Benz cabins seem granite-strong. However, he was less happy with the brakes. “If you really wanted to use the car's performance, like at a track day,” he commented, “I think you'd want to upgrade the stoppers. It's a heavy car and it's fast enough to get serious speeds by the end of a straight, so the brakes are going to be doing a lot of work.”
It's safe to assume not many people would use a CL63 on a track day, but it truly does feel agile enough to make you want to try it, and that's something you'd never say of an S-class, not even an AMG-built model.
So has the CL63 joined my dream car garage? No. But if I won one, I wouldn't necessarily sell it to fund cars that do belong in there. It's just too good to give up.