Long Live the Hammer
You activate Drift mode in the new 603-horsepower Mercedes-AMG E63 S 4Matic+ by tapping the dynamic toggle switch to Race mode, turning all the electronic no-fun nets off, placing the transmission in manual mode, and finally pulling both paddle shifters toward you. Supposedly, a prompt then appears and asks if you really and truly, no jokingly want to electromechanically decouple the driveshaft that powers the front differential. I say “supposedly” because Drift mode was disabled in all three of the latest descendants of the original Hammer I drove on the launch of the new AMG E63 around Faro, Portugal.
I should clarify—I drove them on the street. The two examples of the bruising sedan I played with on Portimão’s superlative Autodromo Algarve International Circuit did in fact have Drift mode intact, just like American customer versions will have when the W213 E63 S goes on sale sometime in the summer of 2017 as a 2018 model. The thing is, the red misty mental space of a racetrack seemed like the wrong place to experiment with a feature AMG wouldn’t even let us attempt in public. Why no Drift mode? AMG needed to get around 100 journalists from all over the world testing the cars within a couple of weeks. They couldn’t lose any cars. Do I like the excuse? No. Do I understand it? Sure. How is the new E63, then, sans Drift mode?
I’ll start with the engine because like with all AMGs, that’s the heart of the matter. You should know that unlike the previous E63, which was only available in North America as an E63 S, American buyers will have a choice between the 563-horsepower, 553-lb-ft of torque non-S kiddie version and the fully mental 603-horsepower, 627-lb-ft of torque S variant. Either car packs AMG’s now-ubiquitous 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8, known internally as the M177. For E63 duty, both power and torque are up in part because the comically named “hot inner V” turbos are now twin-scroll turbochargers. In addition to the twin-scrollers, the engine packs new pistons, a new intake manifold, new intercoolers, and updated software. AMG also throws a bone to fuel efficiency; it’s the first time a variant of this engine is available with cylinder deactivation. In Comfort mode only, of course.
A new nine-speed transmission known as the AMG Speedshift MCT is bolted to the potent V-8. Fans of the previous E63 will note that the old transmission was a seven-speed MCT. That MCT stands for multiclutch technology even though there’s actually only one traditional clutch. There is, however, a wet clutch that replaces the torque converter. AMG claims that the new nine-speed gearbox is a touch lighter than the seven-speed one it replaces. The transmission sends power to two output shafts, as all E63s are all-wheel drive. The last E63 we got was also AWD, but it had a fixed torque split with 33 percent to front axle and 67 percent to the rear. The new E63’s torque split is continuously variable depending on what the car needs, hence the somewhat clumsy descriptor, 4Matic+. To illustrate this, we saw a video of an E63 lapping the Algarve circuit with a graphic showing the front-to-rear torque split. Through corners where traction was needed, the torque split was 50/50. By the end of the front straight, 100 percent of the power was being fed to the rear wheels. The front wheels never get more than 50 percent of the power.
I only got to experience the E63 S 4Matic+, which is the only version coming to America. From here on out, we’ll only be thinking about the S version. The evaluation cars were shod in sticky Pirelli P Zero rubber, 265/35R20 front, 295/30R20 rear. Track is also wider on both axles compared to the standard E-Class. Launch control is Porsche-simple: Push the brake pedal to the floor in Sport, Sport+, or Race modes, bury the throttle, and release the brake. The car is off like a projectile from a main gun. AMG is quoting 0–60 mph in 3.3 seconds for the E63 S (3.4 for the slower version), and their estimate is conservative. The last-generation E63 S we tested in 2014 produced 577 hp and 590 lb-ft of torque, made 60 mph in 3.4 seconds, and ran to the end of a quarter mile from a dead stop in 11.6 seconds at 121.8 mph (196 km/h). It also weighed 4,511 pounds (2046.2 kg). AMG says that the new car weighs about the same (I’d guess another 100 or so pounds (55.3 kg) heavier), but the seat of my pants is telling me that the extra power, grip, pop from the new transmission, and smart AWD system will allow the new car to shatter the old E63’s records.
With the technical briefing part of the review aside, we can get to the meat of it: How does the new E63 drive? In a word, monstrously. For the past year, I’ve been running around Los Angeles in a Dodge Hellcat: 707 horsepower, 650 lb-ft of torque, 4,530 pounds (2054.8 kg), and an eight-speed automatic transmission. Funnily enough, it’s based on an old E-Class, the W210, which is one of the few good results of the ill-conceived DaimlerChrysler merger of equals. The E63 feels as if it could snap the Hellcat in half. The forward thrust of the M177 coupled with bullwhip-crack shifts from the nine-speed and the tarmac-hugging grip of the AWD rockets you forward in a way rarely felt in the sedan world. The Audi S8 and the Insane/Ludacris mode dual-motor Teslas come to mind. But this might feel more brutal than all of them. Public roads seem like child’s play. This car just eats them alive. Even in the wet. The E63 very well might be the ultimate in alpha dog executive transportation.
Then they let us loose on the track. Well, not exactly loose. We followed instructors around the undulating, 2.9-mile-long circuit. Each pro driver was in an AMG GT S, which although down on power—just 503 hp—were 800 pounds (362.9 kg) lighter than our E63. I can tell you that up to 155 mph (249.5 km/h) the E63 runs dead even with the GT S down the big front straight. No easy feat, as the zaftig coupe runs 11.4-second quarter miles. I can also tell you that I was getting traction control warning lights all the way past 140 mph (225.3 km/h). In other words, as the E63 became more and more rear-wheel-drive biased, it was trying to spin its back tires.
The one problem area for the E63 is high-speed braking, specifically composure while slowing down. It’s true that getting into the ABS from 155 mph in a downhill braking zone is no easy task for any vehicle, but I felt the E63 squirmed around too much for me to be comfortable. Part of the problem was that the air suspension was most likely at the end of its travel, and the track dipped. The massive carbon-ceramic brakes themselves up to the herculean task of lassoing all that runaway bulk. We were running three-lap sessions, and the fade was minimal. I did manage to cook the brake fluid a bit, but I never lost stopping power—just a bit of pedal feel. In the other two big braking zones, the E63 felt tied down and composed, but admittedly we weren’t travelling anywhere near as rapidly as we were into the first turn.
Cornering was interesting. Obviously, the E63 is not only heavy for a track car but also front heavy. When I strictly followed the line laid down in front of me by the instructors, understeer became an issue. However, if I flicked the rear of the car a touch sideways before fully committing to a corner, I could get away with less steering input and therefore get to the power sooner because the front wheels were closer to pointing straight than turned. That technique involved a lot of work and was definitely not the quickest way around a racetrack. However, it did help to eliminate front-end push, and it was fun to boot. Try to avoid tight corners if you can. Flowing sweepers are no problem. Although it’s definitely not a track car—and AMG admitted as much—the E63 S’ capabilities mean it can somewhat hang with proper sports cars. That’s pretty impressive for a big sedan if you ask me.
That last sentence might be the best way to sum up the Mercedes-AMG E63 S 4Matic+. The E63 is going to do well come comparison test season. No one knows anything about BMW’s upcoming G30-based M5, so taking it off the table, you’re left with the 597-hp Audi RS 7 and 640-hp Cadillac CTS-V. Comparing the Audi to the Caddy, the AWD RS7 is the straight-line king, whereas the CTS-V is a track savant. The E63 seems to me, with its variable AWD, to be able to take the fight to both and probably even win. Time will tell, but until then, rest comfortably in the knowledge that the new E63 does nothing to tarnish the legend of both the mighty sedans that came before or AMG itself. Long live the Hammer.