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launch-review

2020 Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S review

International first drive

The quickest, arguably most sonorous SUV in its class gets some key cabin improvements. It's no quantum leap, but a welcome mid-cycle tweak.
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The unashamedly ridiculous Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S range has been given a series of running changes focused on vehicle dynamics and infotainment rather than mods to the growling V8.

This upgrade comes at an opportune time, given the imminence of BMW’s brand new X3 and X4 M models (watch for our review tomorrow), and growing fanfare around Italy’s ferocious Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio and Britain’s Jaguar F-Pace SVR. The range remains bifurcated, comprising the family-focused GLC wagon and the swoopy-roof GLC Coupe.

So what’s new? First there are new-look LED headlights, running lights and tail lights, redesigned quad pipe tips, a slightly different shape to the grille opening, and a more revealing view of the engine cooling parts thanks to mesh removal. There are also new 20-spoke, 21-inch wheels as an option, which look great.

Honestly, though, you’d need to have an eye for detail to spot the changes. Or be an AMG staffer. However, the changes are more evident inside. The lower portion of the faux carbon-fibre panelled and leather-surrounded fascia is the same, but the 10.25-inch screen is new, and runs the MBUX operating system unlike the Mercedes-AMG C63.

Of course, it all looks a touch ad hoc compared to MBUX’s layout in the new-from-ground-up A-Class, first-ever GLB and co, where the centre screen and driver instruments are all integrated in one large piece. A running update is no time for a complete cabin redesign, it seems, so the hardware looks familiar.

Still, the horizontally-scrolling user interface is easier to navigate, and in the GLC63’s version shows specific homepages depending on the driving mode you’ve selected (comfort, sport, race, etc), with diagrams showing your g-forces, accelerator or brake use percentages, the torque vectoring, and tyre pressure and temperatures.

Operating MBUX is both simple and confusing. The old rotary dial has been replaced by a trackpad that any laptop user will be well across. The system also operates via touchscreen unlike the old car, a tiny touch-sensitive pad on a steering wheel spoke, gimmicky camera-based gesture recognition, or conversational voice control.

This latter directional-mic setup is activated by the voice command ‘Hey Mercedes’, works as well as Siri or Alexa, and has an impressive list of functions from changing the radio station, finding a destination, dialing your phone, and even asking for the passenger seat heater to be switched on. I found that last one out through experience, trolling a colleague on a baking hot European summer’s day.

The downside is any time you happen to say the world 'Mercedes' in idle conversation, the system chimes in and asks what you want, cutting whatever audio you're listening to like a rude party guest. You can switch the voice assist off but unlike BMW's version, you can't change the callout that invokes it.

As well called out in the regular GLC review, there’s a cool augmented reality navigation mode pilfered from the EQC, in which a moving blue arrow is laid over the top of live front camera footage, and juxtaposed with a conventional overhead map, pointing you in the right direction. It seems naff, but swiftly becomes useful.

This centre screen combines with a 12.3-inch digital instrument readout with an AMG-specific ‘Supersport’ layout, with all manner of information menus that a touchpad on the other wheel spoke sorts through. The information overload is topped-off by a head-up display projecting onto the windscreen, replete with an AMG ‘Track Pace’ view with circuit graphic, bends, braking points, speed and times.

Below each of the brand-new suede-ringed steering wheel’s main spokes are small plastic hubs, with a dial on the right changing your driving mode, and two buttons on the left being shortcuts to change the exhaust noise and damper stiffness. They’re handy shortcuts, but both look and feel flimsy.

The back seats remain pretty spacious in the regular GLC, with rear vents and climate controls and comfortable leather seats. The boot is a decent 580 litres in capacity, and little switches in the loading area flip down the middle seats gracefully.

The Coupe’s headroom in the rear is much tighter as you’d expect, for anyone over 180cm in particular, and the boot is 15 per cent less capacious despite having a larger aperture. At the same time, it’s more practical than your average GT passenger car, which it’s clearly trying to pilfer sales from.

What about underneath? Well the engine’s no different. It’s still the thumping 4.0-litre biturbo V8 with the two turbos nestled inside the cylinder bank ‘V’, on-demand piezo injectors, continuously adjusting intake and exhaust camshafts, variable-controlled oil pump and exhaust flaps adjusted electronically by buttons. It’s all sitting on dynamic engine mounts to improve the downsides of NVH without detracting from the ‘N for Noise’ part.

Each is assembled from the block by a single person, who follows the unit from station to station and signs a metal plate attesting to their work. Mercedes-AMG claims the GLC63 S is the only model with a V8 in its class since the Bimmer and Alfa rock force-fed sixes, but let’s not forget the Jaguar F-Pace SVR’s 5.0-litre supercharged bent-eight now…

The AMG S versions’ donk makes 375kW of peak power between 5500 and 6250rpm and 700Nm of torque between 1750 and 4500rpm. That’s the same power output as either the Alfa or BMW, but 100Nm more torque than either. The AMG’s lighting quick 3.8-second 0-100km/h sprint time is also three-tenths faster than the BMW and half-a-second faster than the Jag, and matches the somehow almost 300kg lighter Alfa.

If there’s one thing AMG knows how to do, it’s making an engine sound ferocious. This one has a deeper, more guttural note than the Alfa’s screaming six, but lacks the Jag’s hints of supercharger whine. It’s probably the meanest-sounding of the bunch, though, like Darth Vader gargling Listerine. Launch control off the lights in torrential rain results in four-wheel spin off the line.

The engine is mated with a tweaked nine-speed multi-wet-clutch gearbox using only one input shaft unlike a conventional DCT, with paddle shifters available for the manual mode, assisted by a shift-prompting light in the instruments. It handles rapid-fire downshifts easily in Sport and Sport+ modes. Manual mode won’t override you.

The AWD system is rear-axle biased, but an electro-mechanically controlled clutch connects up the front axle, with the car’s brain making split-second calls on how much torque is needed at the front. It’s fully variable, at least theoretically. There’s also an electronically actuated rear-axle limited-slip diff that stops needless torque being wasted on a tractionless rear tyre on either side.

The final piece of the driveline puzzle is the set of six driving modes that adjust the LSD, AWD system’s torque movements, ESP, throttle calibration, steering resistance, suspension stiffness and gearbox shift map. In Race mode on a closed circuit, the electronic intervention is extremely limited. Naturally, for city driving, you can have the car in cushy comfort setting but with the exhaust sounding its meanest. (I call that the Chapel Street mode.)

Dynamically, you get three-chamber air suspension with mode-dependent damper response, going from slightly stiff in Comfort to bone-jarring in Sport+. It has to be said, this thing is never quite the sort of cushy daily some buyers might long for.

There’s speed-dependent steering that loads up nicely, but this is a near 2.1-tonne SUV, and it can’t fight physics in the same way a low passenger car might. At the same time, it’s the fastest SUV around the Nurburgring’s North Loop (7:49,369), about two-second quicker than the lighter Stelvio, the former record-holder. Does it hustle? Well, use that as your answer…

From a seat-of-the-pants perspective, accelerating hard out of corners is fussless, with shedloads of grip at all times and little of the power oversteer tendencies of the RWD C63. For the lack of rear-biased insanity, it’s quicker both off the line and point-to-point because of the way it puts its power down. It’s lairy in the same way as fluoro socks inside tailored suit pants are.

Stopping you are ventilated, perforated compound discs at both the front and rear axles, with six-piston fixed callipers used at the front and single-piston floating callipers at the rear. Don’t bother with the optional ceramic composite brakes unless you regularly hit the track.

There are also more driver-assist functions to option, expanding on the usual stuff like AEB and blind-spot monitoring. The active cruise control system brings the vehicle to a halt and can automatically get it going again, and can talk with the traffic sign assist system to adjust to speed limits (contingent on global region). There’s a new auto lane-change assist function and an emergency swerve system, and a trailer-reversing assist.

In terms of pricing, it’s hard to see much changing on the MY20 model over the MY19’s price of $165,395 plus on-road for the wagon and $172,400 for the Coupe (what’s the extra $7000 for?). If this is the case, that’s about $7500 more than the X3/X4 M Competition, $15,000 more than the Alfa Stelvio Quadrifoglio and $25,000 more than the F-Pace SVR.

If you buy one, money probably isn't a huge issue. But be aware that three services purchased upfront with 12-month/20,000km intervals on the MY19 car cost $4050, and the MY20 uses the same engine, so expect no change of note. That's a fair whack.

Yet the Mercedes-AMG works at what it’s designed for. Like most AMGs it blends old school American V8 noise with German engineering nous and hints of Italian charisma. In either body it looks and sounds brilliant, and has all of the bragging rights covered. It’s the most logically illogical purchase in class.

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