The face-lifted 2018 Mercedes-AMG C63 S? It’s excellent…if you like this sort of thing.
Too flippant of me? Alright then. AMG’s top-selling C63 range maintains all of the much-loved fire-and-brimstone goodness of the existing formula and improves it in areas important to the fans, to the converted and to the buyers. The same meat-eating German muscle, if better cooked for improved flavour.
This was a bit of an underpinning theme at the international launch of the high-spec C63 S amongst journalists in agreement that here was – in a choice of sedan, wagon, coupe or convertible form – a breed of the right machines “for someone else”. And you can strike some of that up to scribes tasked to curb their inner carnivore in favour of a more nutritionist stance and, frankly, I doubt than any Aussie scribe on location for the Germany launch program could actually afford to own one.
Ignoring sour keyboard jockey grapes, this full-range update is great news for C63 lovers. The beasts are back, fitter than ever once you uncork their fiery goodness. And yet it’s also better behaved as a daily driven prospect. A double win, then, for those who love and buy the breed.
The whole top-selling status might surprise some. Yes, globally, the C63 nameplate outsells AMG-badged hatches, SUVs and more affordable and therefore more accessible – and certainly more diluted – ‘43’ six-banger offerings.
While AMG, under direction of boss Tobias Moers, continues with the increasingly outrageous and unorthodox practice of shoehorning grunty bi-turbocharged V8 engines into medium-sized passenger cars – in the face of Audi and BMW competitors downsizing C63’s rivals from eight to six cylinders – you suspect Affalterbach’s recent purple patch will only get, erm, purpler.
I also suspect the day C63 goes six cylinder – perhaps hybrid petrol-electric six as rumoured – will be the day after AMG’s wondrous biturbo V8 is finally pried from Moers’ cold, dead hands.
Getting back to today, the C63 update brings no extra engine output, no tougher underpinnings and no wider rubber. And improved goodness doesn’t reveal itself much at all on the equipment and spec list.
Bar the new Panamericana grille up front, it’s a familiar exterior look, with new multi-beam LED headlights and a subtle rear styling nip and tuck around the diffuser the only notable changes. Inside, the changes are more distinctive, particularly the elaborate-looking new AMG steering wheel and 12.3-inch all-digital driver’s screen, both stylistic extensions of the regular C-Class face-lift.
The big change in standard Aussie spec is that the race-type Performance front seats have been replaced by more leisurely shaped and arguably comfier Sport pews – driven by buyer preferences, says Mercedes-Benz Australia – with the firmer, more form-fitting buckets now optional.
Most of the conspicuous local spec changes are in window dressing. There’s an updated 10.25-inch media display and infotainment format that finally features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto phone mirroring – hooray! – complete with wireless phone charging, plus 64-colour ambient lighting and some new driver assistance tweaks such as Active Lane Change Assist and Route Based Speed Adaption.
But the important, all-encompassing changes are more subversive. Applying well-oiled, mostly familiar AMG goodness to a revised C-Class (claimed to be the most substantial mid-life-cycle update in a quarter century) while adding neat stuff like a new nine-speed Speedshift MCT auto and race-derived nine-stage variable traction control. Affalterbach has honed and polished the C63 S to produce a package that’s bolder and more boisterous yet also more cohesive and well-rounded.
Perhaps it ought to be better all round. While pricing hasn’t been released at the time of writing, Mercedes-Benz Oz admits that the new C63 Ss “won’t be any cheaper” than the outgoing variants. Expect pricing to start from around $165k or more for the sedan.
First up, the four-door. Jump in, fire it up and it’s immediately clear that AMG hasn’t diluted its feel-good vibe. It doesn’t take a whole lot of blacktop to pass under its Michelin Pilot Super Sports before the sedan begins making its case that this version of the C63 S is closer to faultlessness than its predecessor. In subtle measures, perhaps, though it seems that in a number of areas small improvements have been made in smoothing roughness, sharpening edges and polishing dullness.
Soundtrack? I confess I’ve always favoured a smoother timbre to the biturbo 4.0-litre’s signature ‘gargle’ but with the first hard launch, active exhaust in full Sport+ volume setting, I think “wow, did the old C63 sound this good?”
On song, it’s bolder. Off throttle, it’s more sombre. Drop the drive mode to Comfort, and it’s genuinely quiet – moreso than the supposedly more mature E63 S – yet maintains a nice, thick if muted rumble. Combined, it’s more satisfying, livable and less fatiguing. More fire, more polish.
Back to Sport+, give it the berries, and any preconception that C63 S’s struggle to harness 375kW and 700Nm with assertive traction evaporates in the mildest rear tyre chatter met with hard-pinning acceleration. Be it regular Sport or even Comfort, thrust is right on tap, response is crisp and alert, and there’s grip aplenty. The electronically governed mechanical LSD isn’t new, it just seems to be putting on a better show.
There are six drive modes to choose from – Slippery (low grip surfaces), Comfort, Sport, Sport+, Race (in C63 S only) and customisable Individual – and you quickly discover distinctive tiers from Comfort through to Sport+ on road, with each impressively attuned to its namesake. Better yet, Comfort remains purposeful and flexible enough for spirited driving, while Sport+ is so well calibrated that it’s easily tamed for around town or, in the case of northern Germany, through 50km/h signposted villages.
Next up the wagon: same roads, same pace. And if there’s supposed to be any differences in dynamics or rate of progress, it seems purely academic by the seat of the pants, though the official form guide claims there’s a one-tenth deficit (4.1sec claimed) to the sedan (4.0sec) in the 0-100km/h sprint. As a sucker for hot wagons, I’m instantly drawn more by the more practical steed, be it the fetching silver paint and tan leather combo or the fact that from behind the wheel you notice the body style only once you glance in the rearview mirror.
The regional German roads are typically billiard table smooth, so the jury is out regarding the steel sprung yet adaptively damped suspension’s ride calibration in Comfort. It certainly feels a couple of shades more compliant than my recent experience with the big brother E63 S, though the C is still a little terse at times.
Regardless, the upshot is that the mid-sized C63 maintains a nice muscular character even in its most leisurely drive mode, with crisp steering, a flat stance with eager body control and a willing and responsive powertrain with credit due to the beaut new nine-speed auto. There’s enough of an event in proceeding even when you’re tooling around at a cruise.
I’m a bit of a fan of this MCT (multi-clutch transmission) design proprietary to AMG and used in a seven-speed format by the company’s quicker beasts for quite some time now. Technically, it’s not a dual clutch gearbox as fitted to the AMG GT (called DCT in AMG vernacular) nor a robotised manual. Instead, it’s essentially a conventional automatic, using clutched planetary gear drives in the guts, with a single multi-plate wet clutch 'up front' in place of a traditional torque convertor.
Cut through the technobabble and this MCT design promises the smoothness of a true automatic with the crisp directness of a dual-clutch manual, without the traditional laziness of the former and low-speed abruptness of the latter. Bar occasional first-to-second jitteriness at low speed, the surprisingly short-stacked nine-speed is an absolute gem, highly intuitive self-shifting, amply responsive on the march.
Next up, the coupe. Silhouette and door count apart, the key separators in appearence from the sedan is the broader rear track, imparting a squatter stance exaggerated by 19-inch-front and 20-inch-rear wheel stagger, with wider rubber all round. Unsurprisingly, the slightly quicker (3.9sec 0-100km/h) two-door feels a little gripper and more eager to point through back road sweepers, a touch firmer in ride, but otherwise wrapped in an increasingly familiar, uniform character despite three quite different body styles.
Whichever you pick, it’s a satisfying experience form behind that ornate wheel, where AMG has followed contemporaries Ferrari and Porsche by adding a ‘manettino’-style drive selector dial doubling as a traction controller in Race mode. All our test cars get the hard-core Performance seats that, with pneumatic lumbar adjustment, are more comfy to spend time in than they are to climb into or out of.
The more traditional binnacle for the digital instrumentation is, for my money, vastly more desirable than the vast panoramic screen arrangement in the E-Class, and each of the three distinctive screen designs – twin-dial Classic and Sport, plus ‘central tacho’ Supersport – is slick and clear.
Less conspicuous yet crucial to lifting C63 S’s go-fast game are two systems: the new AMG Dynamics and AMG Traction Control. You really need a track forum to reveal their respective benefits, let alone a rollercoaster circuit such as Germany’s Bilster Berg where its dramatic gradient changes – up to 21 percent in places – present a relentless series of crests and compressions that challenge efforts to get 500-odd horsepower hooked up through just the rear wheels.
AMG Dynamics is a tricky feature, collating driver inputs together with vehicle speed and yaw angle to adjust the chassis’ character using stability control and rear axle torque vectoring. It’s an enhancer of sorts, dulling or sharpening the car’s reactions. It’s designed to be completely invisible to the driver and offers four modes of play - Basic, Advanced, Pro and Master – by progressing from a more ‘tied down’ and predictable state in its most tame setting, to super agile and ‘loose’ at its most challenging.
Back in the sedan, I dial up Race – which defaults to Master dynamic mode – but, unlike the outgoing C63 S, this drive mode doesn’t automatically switch off stability control. I leave it as is, hit the track, and it’s a frustrating couple of tours of the circuit as the ESP system cuts torque over the hotmix’s many crests as the four-door attempts to milk maximum traction. Half of the lap I feel like I’ve got full power, the other half the traction light flickers, pulling a noticeable amount of torque from forward motion. Hmm…
It’s only when I begin to play with the adjustable AMG Traction Control that the C63 S truly comes alive and stops throwing a wet blanket on the white knuckled thrill ride. With the ‘1’ setting designed for wet driving and ‘9’ setting calibrated for “maximum tyre slip,” I start with the middling ‘5’ and instantly the sedan comes alive, metering out ample engine torque to get the chassis powersliding neatly and surprisingly easily through Bilster Berg’s challenging curves. It’s not intrusive and there’s nothing artificial about the way it works either.
This dial-in-traction feature – a direct technical trickle down from GT3 racing – is not a drift mode. It won’t hold a given oversteer angle. In fact it affects traction only and switches stability control completely off once activated. It doesn’t act as a safety net for a lack of driving ability, as demonstrated by the sedan that was following in my car’s tracks for a couple of laps before suddenly and dramatically finding itself in the tyre wall.
If anything, the new C63 S puts a case forward that when dealing with 375kW and rear-wheel drive, the way forward for improving lap times and providing more exciting driving thrills demands a gentle hand via crunching ones and zeros. The quicker you travel and more flamboyant the vehicle attitude, the larger the pear-shaped event should thing comes unstuck. Somehow, AMG’s brains trust has come up with a solution to make the pace hotter and the thrills bigger, without really negatively impacting driving enjoyment through technology. And these are better C63 Ss for it.
Perhaps the big relief is that the C63 S remains a challenge. It doesn’t drive itself. It demands that the driver engage with it, to learn is whims and dial in the right settings or modes, to repay rewards. It's not for everyone, then, but all the better for it.
It’s still the red meat-eating muscle car, still the bona-fide halo car, and a large part of that is that is surely that the model range AMG calls “the cornerstone of the brand” has stuck firm with rear-driven, turbocharged V8-powered traditions.
Let’s hope Affalterbach’s assertion that “the V8 is an unshakeable part of the AMG brand identity” doesn’t return to bite any time soon.