Want to get behind the wheel of more than $1.2 million worth of cars in one day AND punt them around Phillip Island?
If the thrill of owning your own Mercedes-AMG wasn't enough, AMG customers also get exclusive, invite-only access to a series of drive days as part of the Festival of AMG. The Festival involved three AMG Challenge events held throughout the year; at Bathurst, Albert Park and Phillip Island. I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the AMG Performance drive day at Phillip Island, the first level of two courses held at the track.
AMG Evolution is the next step up, providing a more personalised experience with expert instructors offering technical one-on-one racing advice to the smaller group of participants.
Many manufacturers offer similar ownership perks, for example Audi owners may score an invite to sponsored events like the Melbourne International Film Festival, while a new Land Rover owner could receive off-road training as a gift with purchase. When buying a new car it’s worth finding out what the manufacturer offers by way of customer loyalty bonuses.
I had never set four-wheels on the Grand Prix circuit before, and based on what I know of the performance capability of the AMG range, I knew I was in for an exciting experience that would push my boundaries.
I arrived early at the track with butterflies in my stomach and was greeted by an impressive display of Mercedes-AMG models, including the new halo car - the Mercedes-AMG GT S. Tucked away in the mix was the original AMG C36 that marked the arrival of the Mercedes-Benz performance AMG sub-brand in Australia.
That arrival was in 1995 and AMG is celebrating 20 years in Australia this year. Interestingly, two decades ago the C36 had the same price-tag as today's C63. Times have changed! Another fun fact is that the number of AMG's sold in Australia makes us the number one country for sales per capita in the world, and third when it comes to overall sales volume.
After finding out about the history of the brand in the land Down Under, it was time to sit down for a serious safety briefing. There were around 40 cars lined up outside with up to 900Nm under the bonnet. Yikes!
On the menu for the day were the A45, C63 S, E63 S, CLS63 S, CLA45 and SL63. Ranging in price from $75,800 before on-road costs for the A45 through to $386,910 for the SL63, I realised I would be sitting in the driver’s seat of $1,205,670 worth of performance metal. It was a little scary to contemplate the consequences of anything going wrong.
The pressure was on as my group moved to the first exercise - drifting. I was desperate to get this coordinated and kick out a decent slide. With ESC off, we hit Honda Corner; a tight curve, but short. Under the watchful eye of the instructor I hit the throttle and waited for the slide to start, only to be greeted with a fizzer; the rear-wheel-drive C63 S simply cruised around the corner. I needed to bite the bullet and tap into more of the 375kW and 700Nm output from the 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8.
On the next run I managed to spin it around in a circle. Not what I was aiming for but still an improvement.
Finally on my last run I felt the slide start. I spun the steering wheel in the opposite direction, gave it a little more throttle and then counter steered again to pull it back the other way. Success!
The drifting exercise was a little too short for my liking, but any disappointment was quickly forgotten upon our arrival at the next station. Two lines of cars were set up, facing the wrong way down Gardner Straight. It was time to get my drag race on.
Paired up with other invitees, we rotated through the CLS63 S, SL63 and A45. Belted into the $250,000 CLS63 S, I shifted into Sport+ mode and waited nervously for the Christmas tree to flash through orange and turn green. Getting the timing right is tricky as somewhere between the last orange flash and the green light is the time to jump on the throttle.
The 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8 was quick to harness its 430kW and 800Nm, and the challenge was to apply the right amount of pressure on the throttle to maintain traction in this rear-wheel-drive beast. It took some intense concentration.
With a 0-100km/h time of 4.1 seconds, the CLS63 S launched from the line and easily built up speed down the track, recording a time of 8.875 seconds.
Next up, the beautiful hulk of a machine that is the SL63 AMG, priced just shy of $390,000 before on-road costs. It's big but graceful and as I settled in behind the wheel I felt right at home. The SL63 AMG is rear-wheel-drive but produces 100Nm more than the CLS63 S, so I expected to clock a slightly better time. Booting the SL63 down the straight, I crossed the line in a blistering (for me) 8.509 seconds.
Then it was into the Mercedes-AMG A45. Under the bonnet lies what Mercedes-Benz boldly declare is the world's most powerful series production 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo engine, shared with the GLA45 compact SUV and CLA45 sedan and Shooting Brake. It's the wild-child and baby of the Mercedes-AMG family, as well as being the most financially accessible model at $75,800 before on-road costs. This current model produces 265kW and 450Nm and the new one, due late this year or early next year, is expected to pack 280kW and 475Nm.
The all-wheel-drive A45 is a pocket-rocket, and though it feels lightweight compared to the super-size SL63, the mean machine crossed the line in a time of 9.202 seconds.
After throwing some very fast and very expensive machines down Gardner Straight, the adrenaline was pumping as we progressed on to the slalom challenge. Still behind the wheel of an A45, the aim was to keep brake and throttle inputs smooth and steer the car through the cones. Silkily, like a knife through butter.
Easier said than done.
My first run was a bit of a disaster as I pitched the car from side-to-side, never feeling in control at any time before passing through the final gate. The good news was that no cones were killed. I was given instruction to soften my grip on the steering wheel, relax and look further ahead to the next gate.
Jumping into the CLA45 I was determined to complete at least one run feeling in control and coordinated. It took a lot of concentration to fight the urge to stab away at the brake and accelerator, but self-control won out in the end. The CLA45 is also equipped with the clever Mercedes-Benz 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system and it certainly felt like both cars had a solid grip on the track surface at Phillip Island.
The exercises were fast and furious, and the morning was over in the blink of an eye.
After a quick few laps around the Phillip Island track to get familiar, we took a quick break for lunch and prepared for the business end of the day. The sky was starting to turn a depressing shade of grey and a shower or two had been forecast for the afternoon.
Putting on a racing helmet always feels a little strange for a while. The tight fitting helmet went on over a balaclava effectively rendering me deaf, and making it hard to hear what's happening. The extra inch-or-so of helmet height made for a couple of embarrassing moments of bumping my head getting in and out of the cars.
In the afternoon full-track lapping session, an expert instructor was on hand in every front passenger seat, and for safety reasons the cars were limited to 240km/hr. I wasn't sure if I'd get anywhere near that speed; Phillip Island is a challenging track and I had no plans to push it too far beyond my comfort zone.
Heading out of pit lane, it was full speed down the straight then hard on the brakes into Doohan Corner. No worries, turn one was a fast corner and pretty straight forward. There's a slight bend to the right after that and a gentle incline to take into consideration as you set up for the Southern Loop.
Throughout the afternoon I consistently found this section the hardest. It has a double apex and it was difficult to approach the turn at the right speed, on the correct line and hold that line with enough skill to hit the second apex.
After navigating around the Southern loop, it’s a fast run around Stoner Corner. As we made our way through turn three, my instructor was barking instructions to help prepare for turn four, the right-hand hairpin known as Honda Corner. Coming down the incline the instructor was yelling “hard on the brakes” as I drifted out to the right of the track to position the car in the optimal spot to take on the tight slow turn before powering out towards Siberia.
A good speed can be maintained through turns seven and eight, hurtling past the hay shed before jumping hard on the brakes again for turn nine at Lukey Heights.
The hairpin at turn 10 is quite a slow corner, hooking around to the right before you quickly have to spin the wheel back to the left to tackle turn 11. Exiting properly from there allows for decent pace heading onto turn 12, and I was itching to come out from there and onto the straight with as much speed as I could.
Drumroll please... I managed to hit 240km/hr and to be honest I think it would have been faster if the speed limiter hadn't been a party pooper.
Because of the number of people in attendance, we sadly didn't all get a chance to drive all of the models around Phillip Island at pace during the track session. I was assigned the CLA45, CLS63 S and SL63 and scored a few laps in each. My favourite was the SL63, considering that its magic body control made it feel quite slow, but in actuality it was deceptively fast. It was almost relaxing.
I quickly nabbed the E63 S for a run because I hadn't had the chance to drive it. While it and the CLA45 performed well, the CLS63 S was my least favourite. It felt the least settled and I found it the hardest to get comfortable inside.
The day was both mentally and physically exhausting but such an exhilarating experience too. With helmet hair and balaclava affected make-up, I enjoyed the quiet drive back to Melbourne airport and couldn't keep my eyes open on the plane.
The Mercedes-AMG range of cars are incredibly capable and I'm confident my track driving skills have incrementally improved after a day getting to know the intricacies of Phillip Island.
You can read more about the specific models here: