It’s a great Did You Know factoid that AMG wasn’t involved in the first express-spec E-Class.
When Mercedes decided five years was long enough for the original (1985) M5 to have had its own way in the mid-range sports sedan arena – longer if you count the M535i – the Stuttgart brand sought the help of close-neighbour Porsche to create a muscled-up, V8-powered version of the W124 sedan.
AMG, as a tuning house, would take that 500E (later E500) a step further as the E60 AMG, though today of course it’s not just integrated with the carmaker but a fully fledged sub-brand.
Today’s Mercedes-AMG E63 may no longer indicate the engine capacity under the bonnet and feature turbocharging, yet it doesn’t waver from the persistent V8 formula.
It seems BMW’s M Division has also settled on the bent-eight. M5 engines had climbed from six cylinders all the way up to the E60’s V10 before paring back and adding turbos for the motor fitted to both the last and (in upgraded form) latest model.
Engineering uniformity doesn’t stop there, because after Mercedes last year switched the E63 permanently from rear drive to all-wheel drive (the previous model was available in both forms in some markets), the 2018 BMW M5 follows suit.
BMW’s M division cites a similar reason to its rival: it’s the best way to allow customers to fully exploit cars that are now producing up to 450kW. Or to put that figure another way, not far off the 627hp the 1993 McLaren F1 was putting out (with a BMW V12) to establish itself as the world’s fastest production car for a decade.
The BMW M5 and Mercedes-AMG E63 have a different remit to that supercar, of course. Beyond executing rapid performance, they must also perform the everyday executive car role. Senior executive, to be specific, as these models aren’t for lower pay grades.
The Mercedes-AMG E63, which went on sale mid-2017, is available in two versions, the most affordable of which is $209,900. The spend needs to be upped by $30,000 for the full-juice E63 S – the version we have here that produces 450kW/850Nm rather than ‘just’ 420kW/750Nm.
There’s more than a power upgrade for the $239,900 E63 S. There’s a different style of 20-inch wheel (cross-spoke design, forged alloy), AMG Night Package exterior styling cues, switchable AMG exhaust system, electronic rear limited-slip differential, active dynamic engine mount, AMG Performance seats, AMG Performance steering wheel, extra Nappa leather for the cabin, plus a digital TV tuner and wireless smartphone charging.
BMW Australia is partying like it’s 1999 with M5 pricing. The new model’s $199,900 price tag is only $1400 more than what you would have paid for the (revered) E39 M5. The only snag is that with numbers limited to 50, they’re already accounted for.
From October, the only option will be the $229,900 M5 Competition, which will bring a touch more power, slightly quicker acceleration, and upgraded suspension (among other things). And no supply limitations, we’re told.
The ‘regular’ M5 is still bristling with plenty of items you won’t find on any other 5 Series. There’s a carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic roof for the first time on an M5, M Compound brakes, M Sport exhaust system, Active M diff, M Dynamic Mode, M Head-up Display, and M xDrive.
We’ll get to exploring all those later, but first – from the driver’s seat – to determine whether the M5 and E63 S cabins elevate themselves sufficiently above lower-spec 5s and Es.
Aside from AMG lettering on the centre console, the E63’s seats and steering wheel are the most obvious indicators you’re not sitting in an E250. They’re racy touches – literally with both the Alcantara applied to the quarter-to-three hand-grip section of the steering wheel, and the seats that feature slots for six-point harnesses.
The AMG Performance pews further look the part with a mix of smooth and perforated leather, off-white piping and grey stitching. The bolstering is aggressive, though there’s electric adjustment.
We’d like to adjust the firmness of the seats, though. They feel like someone turned the cushioning into Sport+ mode.
They were noted by multiple testers, and it may be worth considering the $3400 Active Comfort Package that brings AMG Sports seats (with heating/ventilation) along with other extras including tri-zone climate control and heated outer-rear seats.
We’re not sure about woodgrain trim in an AMG, either, though that’s interchangeable, while the classy IWC clock is a nice contrast to the high-tech, dash-dominating dual digital display that looks like the world’s widest iPad.
A swap into the M5 finds a familiar overall cabin theme to a 5 Series, yet also several distinguishingly sporty touches.
There are M Sport brand stripes on seatbelts, blue and red M Sport stitching on the steering wheel, patterned-metallic trim inserts, a red starter button, and anodised-red toggles on the steering wheel – which give the driver one-touch shortcuts to two customisable car set-ups.
The P-shaped (for Performance?) gear lever is also exclusive to the M5. There’s something sportier, too, about moving a lever through a dog-left action for reverse and a snap right to engage drive compared to using the E63’s steering-wheel-mounted wand.
We’re pretty sure no-one has ever chosen between an M5 and E63 based purely on cabin space and practicality, though just to cover it off, there’s plenty of rear leg room in both cars – with the Mercedes just edging knee space and under-thigh support. The BMW counters with some extra rear head room.
The E63’s boot is a touch larger – 540 v 530 litres – and looks more usefully shaped for larger luggage.
The quality of both cabins is commendably high – proof that BMW and Mercedes have responded to the gauntlet long laid down by Audi. If there’s one blemish in the otherwise impeccable M5, it’s the B-pillars finished in cheap-looking hard plastic.
BMW opts for a classic-contemporary hybrid approach to its instrument panel: digital dials encircled by physical surrounds. We also appreciate how the BMW blends physical buttons with a digital display in one focused area for heating/ventilation.
Mercedes adopts a similar approach, though the functions the buttons/dials change are shown higher on the centre/left digital display. It’s only a minor detail, as both cabins are generally excellent in terms of ergonomics.
All-round vision isn’t perfect in either. The M5’s side mirrors can interfere partially with an average-sized driver’s view around town; the E63’s A-pillars are more visually obstructive – reminiscent of the VE/VF Commodore in the way they can block the driver’s sight into right-handers.
Both speedos extend to 330km/h. The E63 will hit 300km/h as standard. The M5 requires the $2250 Driver’s Package to remove the 250km/h limiter for a 305km/h top speed (while BMW Australia also throws in an advanced BMW Drive Experience course).
Irrelevant figures away from a German autobahn, of course. More pertinent is how they get to about a third of those speeds. And, based on official claims, there’s nothing between them: 0–100km/h in 3.4 seconds.
Ignore the former AWD E63 that wasn’t available in Australia, and that figure is a huge step for both models.
A decade ago, the E63’s V8 was 6.2 litres. It’s now just 4.0 litres, yet the employment of two twin-scroll turbochargers ensures power and torque have climbed significantly to 450kW and 850Nm.
BMW has stuck with the previous M5’s 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8, though modified it – new, enlarged turbos, higher fuel injection pressure, modified exhaust manifolds and revised lubrication/cooling among this list of tweaks – to eke out more performance.
The 441kW output is identical to that produced by 2014’s M5 30 Jahre special edition, though torque jumps 50Nm to 750Nm.
The E63’s torque number may be higher, though it’s produced in a narrower range: between 2500 and 4500rpm, whereas the BMW’s peak pulling power runs from 1800 to 5600rpm.
The upshot on the road is that these two cars are ridiculously rapid through the gears for what are ostensibly luxury sedans extending nearly five metres in length and weighing about 1.9 tonnes. There’s a sense the E63 S pulls just that bit harder from its mid-range, though it could be a visceral trick played by the Merc’s more vocal V8.
With settings amped up to Sport+, the AMG’s V8 sounds almost psychotic next to the M5 – a guttural bellow that’s utterly addictive to the ears and complemented by extroverted pops and crackles from the exhaust on the over-run. It’s a noise you imagine would receive a standing ovation from NASCAR fans.
It’s the kind of aural experience that could tempt even the most mature businessperson to just be a little bit naughty.
The M5’s V8 embraces revs as much as the E63’s, but not only is it less natural-sounding – piped through the speakers – it’s also more muted.
Illustrating different engineering mindsets, too, are the models’ separate exhaust buttons. Engaging the E63’s makes the exhaust louder (if not already in Sport+ or Race), while pressing the M5’s softens the pipe music. It’s not a bad sound by any means (especially outside the car), though it leaves us harking back to the E60’s epic V10…
Interestingly, no dual-clutch transmission is to be found here. The E63 adopts a nine-speed multi-clutch automatic, while the M5 ditches the former model’s seven-speed DCT to link its V8 to a more conventional eight-speed torque converter auto.
Both gearboxes are superb at providing smooth, well-timed shifts when the drivetrains are set to Comfort, and capable of quickening the cog-swapping process when the driver ups the pace and the mode setting.
This is where the paddle levers best come into play, with the M5’s delivering the faster response times in our testers’ shared opinion. It also features a selectable three-mode shift speed.
Divert to a set of interesting roads and the M5 and E63 confirm neither is merely a straight-line hero. Or that, after several decades, they’ve suddenly determined that Audi’s quattro approach was the right one after all.
Firstly, each car is defaulted to a rear-drive bias that brings the front wheels into action as required for optimum traction. Secondly, they’re both variable all-wheel-drive systems that allow the driver to have a major say in how and where power is distributed. That includes preventing the front axle from having any active role at all for pure rear-driving dynamics.
BMW and Mercedes clearly want you to be absolutely certain you want circa-600hp going to just two wheels without electronic aids, as it’s not a straightforward process in either, though slightly more complicated in the AMG.
In the M5, the stability-control switch on the console needs to be held for a few seconds before you can then select 2WD from the M xDrive menu page. However, you can then customise one of the M steering wheel buttons so it’s a single-press activation.
The E63 is a three-step affair: switch off stability control, select Race mode, then pull both paddle levers towards you to finally activate what Benz calls Drift Mode.
And that’s an apt name, as these set-ups are essentially for smokey-tired slides on a racetrack.
We know they work from our experiences of the cars on a track, but we stuck to AWD modes on the road – where the respective interactions of front and rear axles are impressively seamless. There’s still plenty of mid-corner adjustability to explore and an abundance of traction, yet both exhibit a high degree of immunity to understeer.
The M5’s drivetrain-mode sweet spot is the M Dynamic Mode/4WD Sport, which raises the intervention threshold of the front wheels when some slip is detected from the rears. That also requires an initial press of the ESC button, though again it can be more quickly accessed by pressing one of the two red programmable MDM buttons on the steering wheel.
There’s impressive traction even in damp conditions, though you’re arguably left marvelling more at the M5’s delicate cornering balance. There’s a deliciously nuanced behaviour to the way the M5’s front end leans subtly into a bend before the weight makes a diagonal, mid-corner transfer from inside front to outer rear wheel.
The steering isn’t quite as brilliantly communicative as the rest of the chassis, though in Sport+ there’s extra weighting that comes to the fore without spoiling the wheel’s natural fluidity. Accuracy is pin-sharp, too.
No worries about paring speed in time for corners, either. The M5’s standard-compound brakes are strong and easy to modulate, if occasionally squealy around town.
Ceramic composite brakes are a $16,500 option if you’re contemplating any track days. Mercedes asks $9900 for its more durable brakes, which were fitted to our test car and worked well in both normal and hard driving.
The E63’s steering would also welcome some extra feel, but is equally likeable for its variable weighting – which makes it easy to twirl around town while hefty in quick driving – and linearity. It doesn’t self-centre as naturally as the M5’s steering.
While the AMG doesn’t have a fancy, weight-saving carbon-fibre roof like the M5, it weighs only 25kg more – 1880kg v 1855kg. (The M5 also manages to cut 15kg over the previous model despite increasing in size while adding more tech and all-wheel drive.)
As with the M5, it’s not just during acceleration that the E63 belies its size and mass. It feels as genuinely agile as its rival.
The main difference to cornering attitudes is that the Mercedes sits that bit flatter, its air suspension firmer than the M5’s conventionally steel-sprung arrangement regardless of modes.
That includes Comfort, where more suppleness and absorptive abilities might have been expected from an air-sprung suspension. The E63, while offering more compliance than a C63 and settled enough on freeways, simply doesn’t take the edge off expansion joints and bumps like the M5.
On rough city roads, the Mercedes’s ride becomes brittle, though we’re not suggesting you couldn’t live with the E63.
The M5 can be thumpy, but it’s only ever a noise, and the ride barely any less relaxing than that of a 530i.
And whereas the E63’s tyres make a deafening roar across coarse country-road bitumen, the M5 is comparatively quiet.
The difference in comfort levels becomes chasmal once you take the seats into account. Whereas those rigidly upholstered AMG Performance seats aren’t ideal when driving the E63 for successive hours, the M5’s chunky but wonderfully supple leather padding can be savoured all day.
For M and AMG loyalists, of course, there is no choice here.
'Go hard or go home' could even be the catchcry/motto of the Stuttgart-biased tribe, and they do get the car that reaches a higher excitement peak – primarily because of that ferocious-sounding V8 and the complementary exhaust histrionics.
The AMG’s bodywork bulges that bit more than the M5’s, too, though as ever neither German carmaker goes overboard.
The BMW is not without its muscular touches: rippled bonnet, side vents, wheel-arch-consuming wheels and M-trademark quad exhausts (and not faux exhaust exits like the AMG’s).
And it’s how the M5’s driving experience mirrors its exterior’s balance of grace and aggression that is the key to its elevation above its mighty rival.
The M5 has the ability to cosset driver and passengers in a manner not dissimilar to a standard 5 Series. Then, find an open road, press a red MDM button, squeeze the throttle, rotate the steering wheel, and the immensely satisfying and entertaining BMW stirs ghosts of M5s past.
The steering feel and slightly contrived engine noise possibly prevent the F90 from displacing the E39 as what is widely regarded as the best M5 ever. Yet in the here and now, the sixth-generation model is a modern great.
Of these two rivetingly excellent super-sedans, it’s the M5 that edges a mighty battle as a model that transitions most effectively between pinstripe suit and race suit.