Daimler plans to invest US$11 billion in electric vehicles, Audi is deep into the development of its e-tron quattro SUV that will take on Tesla’s Model X from 2018, and BMW is preparing to re-energise its EV strategies following the less-than-spectacular sales performance of the i3. In this orgy of eco friendliness, you’d be forgiven for surmising that Germany’s premium automobile brands were preparing to abandon their ever-escalating arms race in petrol-powered cars, which has given us compact family runabouts whose engines comfortably produce out-puts somewhere north of 350bhp, and super saloons and station wagons with firepower sufficiently formidable to challenge – if not completely annihilate (or at least not quite yet) – Ferraris, Lamborghinis and McLarens.
At last year’s introduction of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, the company’s sixth-generation contender in the executive segment, much was made of the intelligent technologies that enable the car almost to drive itself; of the fuel efficiency and reduced emissions of its internal-combustion, hybrid and, eventually, all-electric powertrains; and of the mix of high-tech and light-weight materials that go into its construction. Here too, as very little was mentioned about extending the limits of performance or handling, you might reasonably have assumed such matters were no longer a high priority.
But how wrong you would have been. For, just nine months after the E-Class’s global launch at the Detroit motor show, the company whipped the covers off the most powerful variant of the model ever produced, a large and luxurious automobile with a big, old-fashioned petrol engine – a super saloon so unconscionably fast and multifariously adept it verges on the scarcely believable.
The numbers alone make mind-boggling reading. The flagship Mercedes-AMG E 63 S 4Matic, which I recently experienced during two epic days of driving in southern Portugal, is just seven centimetres shy of five metres from end to end, and with fuel and passengers loaded on board tips the scales at more than a couple of tonnes.
Yet the wayward geniuses at the Benz performance arm’s Affalterbach skunkworks have massaged its 4-litre biturbo V8 engine – hand-built and personally certified, as are all AMG-badged motors, by a single technician – to produce in excess of 600bhp, as well as a mammoth 850Nm of torque. And that, along with its brilliant Speedshift nine-gear multi-clutch transmission and one of the trickiest all-wheel-drive systems in the business, endows this most extreme of all the E-Classes with the speed, muscle and agility of a world-class athlete (which, seeing as how Mercedes-AMG clinched a further brace of Formula 1 championships last year, is only as it should be).
That the E 63 S can hurl itself from rest to 100km/h in just 3.4 seconds certainly sounds impressive, but it doesn’t even begin to convey the feeling – at once exhilarating and scary – of being catapulted headlong towards the horizon in a large, fast, heavy and extremely noisy object. It’s a sensation so intoxicating that when driving this car you’ll experience it rather more often than is prudent.
And the madness doesn’t stop there, because while Mercedes “sensibly” limits the E 63 to a maximum speed of 250km/h, it then goes and offers a Driver’s Package that mischievously recalibrates the electronic governor to permit even higher speeds – nudging 300, to be precise – which no one driving a large and comfortable four-door saloon would sanely ever contemplate. Who said the Germans lack a sense of humour? If you can somehow ignore the none-too-subtle bodywork enhancements, the stealth-cool lustrous matte-grey paintwork, the wider track and massive rubber, and the rear spoiler, diffuser and fat quad exhausts, this E 63 test car doesn’t look too different from the more sober variations on the current E-Class theme – which means it resembles a slightly scaled-down S-Class. Much the same goes for the interior, which deftly contrives to be high-tech (the dashboard is a gleaming plank of digital-information displays), gorgeously comfortable and, with a rainbow palette of mood lighting, unusually snazzy.
Front passengers sit in low, body-clenching AMG Performance buckets that are already familiar from hotter versions of the C-Class and do a marvellously supportive job whenever one of the more extreme driving modes is chosen from the Dynamic Select menu. Switch back to Comfort, however, and the E 63 wafts serenely on its air suspension exactly as a luxurious executive barge should – and as it also comes with the full suite of intelligent drive systems you could, should you so desire, relax and let the electronics do the work.
Not that I imagine anyone who gets behind the wheel of this big Merc will contemplate any such thing. The E 63’s fully variable 4Matic system, which also incorporates an electronic limited-slip differential and has been developed specifically for this car, continuously monitors torque distribution and seamlessly shifts from all-wheel to rear-wheel drive depending on traction requirements. The engineers have even developed a “drift mode” that gets you sideways and the tyres smoking by diverting all power to the rear wheels, though this, we were told, was disabled on our test cars (clearly the Teutonic appetite for laughs has its limits).
What all this means is that the 63 S has vast reserves of traction and grip, and is a thrilling car to drive, yet as it’s also preternaturally controlled when cornering at speed it’s not even half as crazed as its outrageous performance might suggest. In fact, as this ingeniously engineered chassis is more than capable of dealing with such immoderate helpings of power, the impression is more of incredible sophistication than bludgeoning brute force. Likewise, its superb steering – direct, precise and full of feel – imparts huge confidence, as do the optional carbon-ceramic brakes that perform tenaciously and without even the merest hint of fade for the duration of my drive.
Of course, I have to come back to the logic-defying velocity of the E 63 S and the responsiveness of its drive train. That bulge in the car’s bonnet isn’t purely for looks: it enables placing the pair of twin-scroll turbochargers within the engine’s “V”, which by reducing the distance between the blower and the cylinder helps improve throttle response no end. Add that to the mountain of torque that can be summoned in any gear and at any speed, as well as that fast-shifting gearbox, and no wonder flooring the AMG’s accelerator results in a rush akin to hurtling down a ski jump in a shopping trolley.
I could talk about the crystal clarity of the E 63 S’s Burmester sound system, though I hardly recall hearing it above the insane high-decibel engine noises. I could tell you about the cylinder-deactivation technology that turns its V8 into an economical V4 without you even realising it, but I don’t think you’d care. I could complain about the gear selector, which for some reason Mercedes insists on mounting on the steering column rather than the console, though it’s not a major issue.
Instead I’ll say that far from becoming a sideshow to the onslaught of electricity, the internal-combustion arms race is heating up once more – and this superlative new addition to the arsenal impresses not only as Mercedes-AMG’s most potent weapon yet, but also the edgiest, the most accomplished and easily the most desirable of all the current combatants. Things are likely to get hotter still just months from now, when an estate version and a new BMW M5 join the fray, though we’ll have to wait at least two more years until the arrival of the next-generation Audi RS6 triggers automotive Armageddon. To that I’ll simply add: bring it on.
MERCEDES-AMG E 63 S 4MATIC
Engine: 4-litre twin-turbocharged V8
Transmission: nine-speed multi-clutch automatic
Max power: 603bhp
Max torque: 850Nm @ 2,500-4,500rpm
Max speed: 299km/h (Driver’s Package)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h in 3.4 seconds
Kerb weight: 1,955kg