Lifestyle

2008 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG


The C63 AMG adds $20,000 and hundreds of horsepower to the basic C-Class for otherworldly speed and grip

German supersedans. Bah! Who needs them?

Me, it turns out. Badly.

In the past few weeks, I've been coddled by the likes of BMW's grabby, forceful M3 and Audi's no-prisoners RS4. (You can understand how coming home to drive a big-ass truck from the Big Three has left me big-time disappointed at my new lot in life.)

But there is hope--hope that I'll get a second chance at driving the new Mercedes-Benz C63. Journos are testing it this week in Arizona, and it goes on sale in April, but I drove it last fall around the time of the Frankfurt auto show and came away amazed.

I drove the C63 in the hills to the west of Frankfurt, Germany, from Autobahn to quintessential cobbled streets, on a brisk morning. And even having been drawn in by SL65 and SLK55 AMGs in the past, I wasn't prepared for the fluid ride, spot-on handling and shrieking power of what is easily the most bad-ass C-Class Mercedes ever has built.

The C63 isn't the first baby Benz to get the AMG treatment--but in general, the smallest four-door AMGs, ever since the first massaged C-Class set foot on earth in 1993, have been quieter, slower creatures than the fierce four-door fighters from BMW and Audi.

Consider this the counterpunch. The C63 AMG adds $20,000 and hundreds of horsepower to the basic Benz C-Class--and brings with it otherworldy speed and grip, and a flashy makeover to boot.

Like the other members of the holy trinity of European supersedans, the C63 makes sense at Autobahn speeds. But is it useful and entertaining in the land of 80-mph speed limits? And is the C63, the sleeper of the bunch, the best?

STYLING

Step up beside the C63, and it's clear that something wicked has overtaken the C-Class, muted its sometimes awkward look with out-there fender flares, louvered grille inserts, and capped it off with a new hood bubbling with twin bulges. Unlike, say, an old Mitsu Eclipse, those ridges aren't of porno proportions. They're more primeval--like ritual scars. if you look closely, you can almost see the ur-C intent beneath.

A deep chin spoiler tucks under the front end, punched out with big air intakes and outlets and chrome-circled fog lamps; the fenders are studded with AMG 6.3 badges. Following the deep character line that rises to the tail, the rear skirts and tri-finned air diffuser are there, in theory, to help with airflow, and not just to intimidate anyone behind you in the left lane. Twin pipes LED taillamps and a small spoiler on the decklid make the AMG transformation complete.

The AMG body kit comes in all its glory, but Europe's 19-inch wheels on the C63 don't make the trip Stateside. Instead we get 18-inchers.

Clamber into the C63's cabin and special, coddling sport seats nestle up about perfectly. Multi-adjustable and bolstered in the right places, the seats are stitched with a special pattern, I think for better butt grip. The C63's steering wheel is flattened on the bottom -- a gimmick that I kind of like, also found on Audi's S5 and R8 -- and shift paddles ride behind the three-spoke wheel, which frames a set of red-needled AMG-specific gauges.

The fun gauge is a slice of the central display that includes a lap timer under the "Race." When you see it, that's your cue to decide if you really meant to hop into that nice GL550 sport-ute instead, because from there on, it's a blur of a ride.

PERFORMANCE/FUEL ECONOMY

The C63 AMG is powered by the first engine developed entirely by AMG - a 6.3-liter V8 that produces 451 horsepower and 443 lb-ft of torque for breathtaking acceleration times of 4.3 seconds from zero to 60 mph. If you're ballparking the competition, the Audi RS4 sedan checks in at 4.6 seconds and the BMW M3, at roughly 4.8 seconds. Top speed is 155 mph, but a special option on the order form for the 2009 model year that will remove the limiter and let the C63 drill its way through the troposphere at 186 mph. (That package also adds an Alcantara steering wheel, composite brakes and a locking rear differential.)

Mercedes' captive AMG engineers penned the V-8 engine in the C63 with nothing but hellraising in mind. A rigid engine block made of aluminum alloy gets four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, a variable intake manifold, and a special lining for the cylinder chambers that cuts down on power-sapping friction. The rippling soundtrack? That's a natural V-8 noise unfettered by much of anything. It makes me feel more like a man. I believe it would make even Playboy Playmate Kendra Wilkinson feel like a man, but my texts aren't being returned.

The AMG engine is teamed to a seven-speed automatic with shift paddles, a regular shift lever, and special programming that gooses the gas a bit before it changes down a gear. Smoothing out downshifts, this also makes it more sure-footed on the track. In manual shift mode, the transmission won't automatically shift at redline like most other transmissions of its type--it hangs on to gears, as if to see what you have in mind. It also operates in "Comfort" and "Sport" mode, which offer slightly slower shift responses, and a chance to catch your breath.

HANDLING AND RIDE

It may look like a C-Class, vaguely, from the outside. But the C63 has been so thoroughly revamped, it really bears less resemblance to the base baby Benz than you'd guess from a quick walk-around.

The re-engineering keeps the C63 at a fighting weight, while upgrading the capability in its chassis, particularly the front end--all so owners can go from "showroom to track to garage," Mercedes says.

The body itself gets major changes, but not stylistic ones. The C-Class' hood, front fenders and decklid are replaced with aluminum versions on the C63 to shed pounds and lower the car's center of gravity a little. At 3649 pounds, the C63 is fairly trim for a car with its broad performance envelope and with five seats.

The front suspension gets the most radical changes, nearly a total redesign. The track's been broadened by 1.4 inches (which is why the wheelhouses wear those flares), and stiffer shocks and springs also get new bearings, and a stiffer stabilizer bar. Along with the specially tuned rack-and-pinion steering, Mercedes says the new setup is 100 percent more rigid than in the C-Class, which enables the C63 to turn in more precise steering control, and gives the car far higher cornering capability, not to mention far more road feel than the standard C-Class.

The rear suspension gets a revamp, too, with a half-inch wider track and stouter components to handle the power generated by the Corvette-sized V-8. Large disc brakes front and rear are ventilated for better cooling, which means they don't fade even after a half-dozen panic stops, and use six pistons to grip the front rotors and four on the rear.

My stints in the M3 and RS4 were filled with brilliant maneuvers--or so I like to think. I wouldn't have guessed the C63 would be the most satisfying. Its handling is easily the equal of the other two, with a touch sharper steering. At this rarified space, it's tough to quibble unless you have a decided preference for Audi's all-wheel drive, but it's clear that the C63 turns in as sharply as the BMW, rides better than the RS4 and accelerates faster than either of them.

UTILITY/COMFORT/SAFETY

Remove the hero costume from the C63 and it reveals itself to be as humble as the C-Class in some ways. There's decent room all around for four passengers (not the five claimed, unless you live in Middle Earth), a great list of standard gear, and a complete set of safety gear with some essential AMG tweaks.

Sliding into the C63's cockpit, the front seats don't seem to have eaten up any more room than need be. This C-Class body is about four inches longer overall, and two inches wider, than the previous version, and the result is plenty of side-to-side room and less of a cramped feel than the last version had. The center stack of climate control, audio and pop-up navigation systems has button disease--lots of identically-shaped controls with sometimes indecipherable icons printed on them. Most of the panic that sets in on first glance--like you've been dropped at the controls of a 737--disappears as you get used to the placements, but there's still plenty going on.

In back the C63 shows off its least accommodating side. Headroom is tight, leg room is impossible unless the front seats are powered all the way forward, and the claustrophobics won't be happy. The black upholstery adds to the sense of confinement. The trunk space is big enough for a family's long weekend of luggage, though.

Safety equipment is inclusive and exclusive. The C-Class' standard anti-lock brakes and traction control and six airbags are intact. The stability control system, though, has been updated for the sporting pain that can be inflicted on the C63. It's a three-mode setup that can be completely turned off (ESP OFF), or operated in a conservative setting (ESP ON) that intervenes to help prevent spins. The third mode, ESP SPORT, allows a considerable amount of wheelspin and drift, restoring some of the fun that gets dialed out when the system is ON.

QUALITY/FEATURES(

Ordinary C-Class sedans have above-par fit and finish, in our experience. The C63 benefits even more from the special treatment given by AMG, and on our test car it was hard to detect any visible flaws.

It's no wonder the C63 needs all 451 horsepower, because the trim and gear fitted inside and out could fill a larger SUV. There's all sorts of standard gear: power everything, a sunroof, Sirius satellite radio, an AM/FM/CD player, leather seats and the seven-speed automatic.

The C63's instrument package also includes a lap timer, for the race-minded, and the C63's seats are reason enough to opt for the AMG model. My favorite feature of all, though, is probably the console storage space hidden under a tambour -- there are real cupholders there, not the ridiculous pop-up ones that broke twice in my old C320 Sport.

Options include a harman/kardon audio system available with a six-disc DVD/CD changer and iPod connectivity; Bluetooth connectivity; a navigation system; and Sirius satellite radio. In addition, there's a 4GB hard drive included with the upmarket audio system that rips CDs and includes track information to display on the audio panel. The system can play music from DVD and from memory cards, too. The Premium package with bi-xenon headlamps, headlight washers and a power rear sunshade is $1080; the audio package with nav and voice control runs $2950, as does a Nappa leather seating package. And that 186-mph performance package? A cool $3900.

VALUE/CONCLUSIONS

The C63 AMG goes on sale at Benz showrooms in April 2008, starting from $54,625 including destination. If you're paying attention, that's $150 less than a BMW M3 sedan, and more than $15,000 less than Audi's RS4, which comes with standard all-wheel drive, 19-inch wheels, and carbon-fiber trim.

It's hard to assess value at this price point. It's pure emotion--and the desire to have a race car while still being the driver for more than one passenger. Given Mercedes' more conservative tuning with the past AMG C-Class, I thought the M3 would keep its niche of one as the entry-level player in this speedy class.

And yet, it's the C63 that has the most audacious look, arguably the fastest performance to 60 mph, and the biggest surprise factor. That's a major change--and a major throwdown challenge to Munich.

So while you go tearing around the hinterlands in the tightest-handling, fastest and also cheapest German supersedan, you might be asked to keep it down to a dull roar.

I'll understand if you can't.

2008 Mercedes-Benz C63

Base Price: $54,625 (est.)

Engine: 6.2-liter V-8, 451 hp/443 lb-ft

Drivetrain: Seven-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 186.0 x 70.7 x 56.6 in

Wheelbase: 108.7 in

Curb weight: 3649 lb

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 12/19 mpg

Safety equipment: Dual front, side and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control

Major standard equipment: Dual-zone climate control; power windows/locks/mirrors; heated power front seats; leather upholstery; AM/FM/CD/Sirius satellite radio; keyless remote; cruise control; power tilt/telescope steering wheel; engine immobilizer; sunroof; alloy wheels; Bluetooth hands-free interface; 18-inch AMG wheels(

Warranty: Four years/60,000 miles


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