Some things bear repeating. For instance, I tend to harp on about how value trumps price and that you shouldn’t ever settle for the mundane just because it’s technically the safer choice. As if to prove my point, the automotive gods at Mercedes-Benz have created the AMG C63 S: the world’s most perfect expression of the automotive experience. Well, almost.
(Full Disclosure: I flew to Florida on my own dime and was given a C63 S AMG for five days, a full tank of gas, and no instructions other than “don’t break it.” )
When reviewing a performance car, any automotive journalist worth their snark will refer to racing-only phrases like “snap understeer” and “on-center,” while patting themselves on the back for being so darn knowledgeable on what a car should feel like.
The issue with me is that all the cold, calculated statistics that serve an entire population of Internet bench racers means jack shit to me, and- at the risk of sounding condescending to the stat queens out there - I’m not sure it really means that much to anyone else, because the experience a car can deliver is the only thing that truly matters over time. I’ll explain.
Take, for example, your parents’-basement-variety console video game. It’s a collection of short, novel experiences repeated over and over until your brain gets the signal that you’re not getting the endorphin rush you used to, so the game gets tweaked slightly, rams those same pleasure receptors with dopamine for a short while, and Microsoft sells another billion copies of Halo 9: This Time It’s Personal. It’s formulaic and predictable, and exactly why there’s less variation of experience year over year with the most popular selling games.
With cars, every single day can be a choose your own adventure RPG with real stakes, costs and kicks to your pleasure centers, the pinnacle of said experience being attainable by only the finest and clearly insane automobiles the world has to offer.
Enter the Mercedes-AMG C63 S. New for 2015, and these days powered by a compact 503-horsepower, twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8 engine. The same engine from the mighty AMG GT, packed into a humble sedan. Not bad at all.
I’m told black is a slimming hue, but not when it’s wrapped around a sculpted four door behemoth masquerading as the movin’-on-up Merc. The subtle metallic sheen of the dark paintwork made the AMG-specific arches and flares pop, and I sure as hell wasn’t one to argue with something that went to such lengths to tickle my proverbial pickle. I opened the door and was instantly met with a vast network of untreated wood, aluminum and the right kind of plastic. It was apparent that no small amount of time was spent hashing out the details of every color and material combination available, all of them absolutely fit for the job at hand - except for the suede on the beefy AMG steering wheel. Suede sucks.
I loaded two large suitcases in the trunk, which was one-and-a-half bodies deeper than my 15-year-old S-Class and took the C’s silver key that was identical to the one on my 15-year-old S-Class and started the car.
Oh, my word.
The uninitiated few who haven’t been awake for the past few years might not know that performance cars, despite returning gas mileage that would prompt a jumping high five from Obama himself, now sound more crackly and pornographic than a ‘60s Corvette with a 454 and a muffler delete via sawzall. Other than the almost illegally loud Jaguar F-Type and comical Dodge SRT-4 models, the C63S AMG has the most imposing and chill-inducing startup sound of any car I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in.
On start, the variable exhaust flaps swing open for about a second or two - the exact amount of time to deliver a rich and guttural growl before bringing it down to a level that wouldn’t have your HOA file a noise complaint behind your back.
In the dozens of times that I’ve experienced the car’s starting ceremony, it was an event that never overstayed its welcome.
However, and much to the chagrin of hard-parked hipsters, the AMG C63 S wasn’t built to be ogled in parking lots, nor was it built to scare sleeping neighborhood cats. The car’s reason for being was to be an unadulterated automotive sensory overload.
As I placed the car into drive on its polished aluminum, column-mounted, electronically-controlled stalk, I heard the idle fluctuate ever so slightly as the 7-speed AMG SPEEDSHIFT wet clutch transmission got ready to engage its first gear. A slight dab of throttle got the car to jerkily lurch forward and release its engaged electronic parking brake - a necessary addition, since the transmission doesn’t have any way of stopping the car from moving via a traditional parking detent, also known as the thing that your lead-foot grandpa keeps breaking.
First gear came and went. By the time I was at highway speeds, six other gears had made their presence known with zero lag between shifts, even in the no-thrill, all-frill Comfort mode; one of five possible drive modes that transform the car from unfinished beta test to poised world-beater.
As it’s always better to hear bad news first, it must be said that driving in Comfort mode was an absolute let down. As it was the car’s starting setting and I couldn’t figure out how to change any other mode to default, it’s entirely possible that owners will have to switch the car out of this mode every time they drive somewhere. It took a second to do, but when a car’s asking price is knocking on the door of $90,000, slight annoyances can be the difference between buying a car from Affalterbach and throwing your money at something with an M in its name.
What Comfort mode is supposed to do is numb the experience of driving the car - it makes the steering lighter, makes the throttle body open less and allows the transmission to shift with less ferocity and at a lower RPM. The idea is that you can simply put the car on auto-everything mode and it’ll do its best impression of a plush S-Class with a pituitary gland disorder.
Except that doesn’t happen. It curbs the throttle response in such a way that taking off from a light requires more throttle than you’re used to, and with the sizable turbos spooling up somewhere after idle, the engine fights itself to stay within the preset parameters, all so the car won’t feel overwhelming to the underwhelming individual behind the wheel. My wife and reluctant travel companion, lover of smoothness and hater of everything with “sport” in its title, only complained about the jerkiness of the car in traffic when in Comfort mode. With my opinion echoing hers, I’m pretty sure that’s the scientific definition of consensus.
This ill-fitting mode also featured a stop-start system that was worse than useless when the plan included driving the car around anything resembling traffic. In practice, it was a complete mess. The beefy-sounding starter took a second to engage the flywheel and start the car after it got the signal that I removed my foot from the pedal, and the not-quite-automatic transmission took another second to engage first gear. For the duration of my lengthy drive, I left this feature off and I’d wager that it’d be the same with any prospective owners. Comfort mode - not even once.
However, it’s not exactly smooth sailing when you put the car into shit-has-hit-the-fan Sport+ and Race modes. When the electronically adjustable suspension system is put in anything other than Comfort mode, the shock absorbers make life somewhat unlivable when the rubber band Pilot Sports wrapped around the enormous 20 inch wheels hit anything larger than your average Florida pothole, known in the other 49 states as an alligator.
The trick is to set everything up before you set off, in the car’s Individual mode. I had the engine management set to Race, the exhaust flaps in “look how cool I am” Sport+ mode, the suspension in Comfort, and the transmission in Manual because performing quadruple downshifts when a lane opened up was the only religious experience in my life that I’m currently willing to relive. I rank it in the top ten driving experiences in my life, and I’ve driven Alex Roy’s Morgan Three Wheeler in the rain.
That feeling, however, pales in comparison with the C63 S’s absolutely startling launch control. As I entered a lonely, dead end road and engaged race mode for maximum fwahh, I held down the brake and clicked in both paddles, as I was instructed by the car’s digital owner’s manual. A prompt came up with the same excitement that I’d get at an ATM that just asked me to swipe my card again. I confirmed, held both pedals, then lifted my left hoof as if the floor was lava.
The second you have the green light from God to open the taps on a C63S AMG, a few things happen. Fuel barrels into the cylinder with tremendous pressure, the deluge fueling the combustion cycle again and again, bigger and bigger with each passing rev.
An unmistakeable bass line emerges from the already screaming exhaust note and the tires, devoid of any alarming noise, do their damndest not to convert themselves to smoke entirely - they’re not great at it. You gaze at the now flashing instrument cluster to see if you’re within reach of a published “sub 4 second” 0-60 time and realize that you left legal ten seconds ago.
The grippy $5000 carbon ceramic brakes on the C63S’s front axle did a phenomenal job of slowing the car down without any semblance of fade during butt-puckering stops, even though the conventional brakes in the rear had a nasty knack of pouring brake dust all over the wheel - a fact I triumphantly mentioned on Twitter without giving any reasonable context.
With that metric ton of praise behind me, I must confess that there were certain things on the car I found absolutely unacceptable, especially for a hand-built Merc.
First and foremost, the front seats were beyond terrible. If I were to describe the impossibly stiff AMG Sport seats in one word, they would be downright Kardashian - they looked good in pictures and were quite expensive (at around $2000 for the “upgrade”), but the second you need to use them for anything they become an uncomfortable pain in your ass.
The three hour drive on the single lane road from Miami to Key West became a grueling test of which one of my spine’s many overworked disks would bulge first. By the time I reached the southernmost tip of the United States, my ass was so devoid of feeling that it needed counseling for three years. Hand to God.
AMG, here’s a bit of real talk: Don’t include these idiotic sport seats in a high-powered everyday car because you’ll give people the hope that the car could actually be used every day, when instead you’ll just be granting the chiropractors in the area a license to print money. The reason why you don’t put carbon fiber-backed bucket seats in the S65 AMG is exactly the same reason why you should refrain from doing it in the C-class. The average buyers of the C63 S don’t have bones made of adamantium. Please, cut that shit out so I won’t have to buy pillows at the supermarket just so I can drive your lovely car without cracking a rib.
Next, the car’s infotainment system was a nightmare. I’d like to think I’m fairly tech savvy and a decent enough problem solver. Hell, I’ve owned four Mercedes Benzes in my life and still drive one daily. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out how to input my hotel’s address using any combination of keys and knobs on the center console. I resorted to voice commands for nearly all of my navigation inputs, but thanks to Florida’s insanely long addresses, it often took a few tries to get it right.
While I’m sure that other people might be quicker on the draw than I was, I can imagine the proud owner of a new C63S taking their family out and then seriously straining their relationship after ten minutes of “Menu...Settings...Is it Navigation I press? What about...No...I don’t want to go home, I’m already hom....fuckFUCK...OK, OK, OK, let’s turn off the car and try again. DAMMIT NOW IT’S STUCK ON THIS SCREEN!” Hilarious for sure, but not exactly the crowning achievement of the Mercedes-Benz luxury experience.
And, as if to throw salt on the wound, the C63S’s Burmester audio system, built with laser-cut metal tweeter grilles and fancy sounding name, is significantly less punchy than anything installed in a destined-for-Hertz bargain basement Chrysler Sebring.
That’s it. The seats, the infotainment system, and the hilariously bad Comfort mode. Otherwise, this AMG is perfect, or at least damn close to it.
Despite anything that can’t be bolted off or on the car with relative ease, the car as a whole - apart from the obvious comparisons to BMW’s M Line, Audi’s S Line, or Cadillac’s V line - represents a spectacular value for your new car dollar. It shares the engine with the twice-as-expensive AMG GT while retaining all of the gorgeous lines, adds the practicality of a four door, and blends in well enough that you won’t have to explain what you paid in taxes to looky-loos when you’re filling up the reasonably-sized gas tank. Its Steering Assist system, coupled with radar-guided Distronic cruise control can virtually drive the car for you, although it’s nowhere near as complete as Tesla’s autopilot.
It does have a few faults - mainly things that can be changed out with an option or two left unchecked at sale time, but the experience of progressively easing on to the throttle to realize that the car will only stop accelerating way, way out of your comfort zone, is how car enthusiasts are born.
It doesn’t urge you to drive like a madman, but it does remind you that the option is always one purposeful paddle shift away. As a car, it’s great. As an automotive experience that one can buy without the risk of the novelty wearing off anytime soon, it’s a revelation.
You can’t exactly buy it for the price of a value meal, but it’s a hell of a lot of car for the money.
Photo Credit: Freddy “Tavarish” Hernandez