What do you reckon goes on in the volume-planning departments of big carmakers? Intense research by serious-looking blokes staring at digit-crammed screens? Or something closer to a roulette wheel or one of those novelty Magic 8-Balls?
It’s a question raised by the wagon version of the 2019 Mercedes-AMG E63 S – a car denied to Australian buyers despite its general excellence and our considerable enthusiasm for other AMG models. The official logic is that the GLE63 S offers pretty much the same mechanical package with a market-friendly SUV body shell. Either that or 'Outlook Not So Good' showed up on the marketing department’s 8-Ball. Having just driven a right-hand-driver version in the UK, I can confirm that we’re being denied one hell of a car.
If that sounds like subjective opinion, let’s move this one over to the numbers. With the recent retirement of the ‘C7’ Audi RS6, the AMG’s claim as the brawniest station wagon in the world is unassailable – let’s not even pretend the Panamera Sport Turismo qualifies as a true lugger – with the ’63 S getting the familiar 4.0-litre turbo V8 in 450kW tune.
Luggage capacity is another Top Trumps category killer, with the E63 being one of the biggest wagons in the world: 670 litres with the rear seats in place, a van-like 1820L with them lowered. (To save you the bother of looking, the only tourer with more volume being sold anywhere in the world is the Skoda Superb wagon with 660L seats up and 1950L with them down.)
Nor does the E63 S wagon bring significant dynamic compromise over the saloon. Acceleration is barely diminished, and even more incongruous in such a sensible-looking hauler. On Merc's numbers the wagon turns in a 3.5-second 0–100km/h time, just a tenth behind the time claimed for the four-door. I can confirm that a full-bore start feels equally ludicrous, with the same combination of savage longitudinal G-forces and a soundtrack that gets brutal under hard use.
The wagon is heavier – 2060kg makes it 105kg pudgier on the official EU figures – and most of that extra mass is located higher up, even with the vast loadspace empty. It feels like a chunky beast, and there's no doubting the forces involved when trying to turn the ’63 into a fast corner on a slippery surface. (Britain in February – of course it was raining.)
But the clever all-wheel-drive system plays its hand intelligently and allows the E63 to carry hugely more speed in poor conditions than would ever be possible with one of AMG's V8-powered rear-drivers. It doesn't feel as composed and detached as an Audi RS model; the powertrain's rear torque bias is obvious in slower turns and under bigger throttle openings. The E63 can even be persuaded into well-contained oversteer in its more permissive Sport stability mode.
Overall, the big Merc feels much more dynamically secure than a family car with so much power probably should, and the steering feels much more natural than the disconnected helm of the outgoing RS6, too.
As with the saloon, the AMG's refinement level falls some way short of the regular car. The Airmatic suspension does a fine job of controlling body motions, but even the softest Comfort mode has an edge to it, and there's noticeably more road roar at a cruise than the sepulchral hush of a regular E's cabin. Counterintuitively, I found that turning it up to Sport actually seemed to smooth out progress over rougher road surfaces.
Somebody with a keen sense of humour had also specified the test car with carbon-ceramic brakes – a seven-grand option in the UK. Conventional brakes would add a little unsprung weight. Unsurprisingly, I never felt I was running short on retardation, and there was none of the graunching or lack of low-speed bite sometimes experienced with carbon systems. I'm still not quite sure how many buyers are likely to tick the box, though.
But while the E63 S can go bloody quickly, it's most impressive when being driven at a relatively scant percentage of its huge ability. You could spend years listening to the V8 without getting bored of it; the low-down burble is as much a part of its appeal as its operatic top end. The nine-speed auto ’box might suffer from an overdose of ratios, but combines both rapid changes under direct control and a decent impression of a slushmatic when left to its own devices.
The test car also came with the no-cost Comfort seats in place of the standard overly intimate Recaros. They lack a bit of lateral support in quicker stuff, but I'd take them every time for longer journeys.
Then there's the novelty of blending in so well in something so outrageously fast. The popularity of lesser E-Class wagons in the UK – inevitably fitted with diesel engines – gives the E63 flocks of sheep to hide itself within. Apart from badging and the ever-present V8 burble, it might as well be one of the four-cylinder oilers wearing an AMG bodykit. Pretty much nobody notices it until you decide to flex your right toe and unleash hell. It also gets the same Drift mode as the saloon, which turns it purely rear-drive and de-energises all the stability guardians. That would be fun in the IKEA car park.
Not that the E63 S is particularly well suited to the overcrowded British road network. Speed enforcement isn't as brutal as it is in Australia, but even cruising substantially above Blighty's 70mph (112km/h) motorway speed limit, the Merc feels like it's barely ticking over. The optional Drivers' Package had increased the limited top speed of our test car from 250km/h to 300km/h; something I'd love the chance to experience on a limit-free section of autobahn, ideally with a couple of dogs wearing flying helmets in the boot.
British prices don’t translate directly into dollars, of course, but the wagon’s £91,290 tag is just £2000 more than the saloon. By the standards of Merc option pricing, that has to qualify as being an outrageous bargain.
Other running costs are high, of course. The E63 S’s V8 has the ability to deactivate four cylinders to boost economy, but only the very gentlest steady-state cruising saw the symbol that shows this is happening illuminate on the dashboard. Official EUDC consumption is a respectable 10.8L/100km. I averaged a less impressive 15.2L/100km over 400km of mostly sensible progress. With a litre of 98 currently costing the equivalent of $2.35 in Britain, that’s an expensive habit.
Doesn’t stop me from wishing I could afford to feed it, though.
Engine: 3982cc, V8, twin-turbocharged
Transmission: Nine-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power: 450kW at 5750rpm
Torque: 850Nm at 2500rpm
Top speed: 300km/h (mfr claim, limited w/ ‘Drivers’ Pack’)
Weight: 2060kg [EUDC]
MPG: 10.8L/100km [EUDC]
CO2: 246g/km [EUDC]
Price: £91,290 (UK, unavailable Aus, but works out to AUD$165,000 directly)