It's an interesting time for Germany's premium performers here in North America. Audi isn't offering any RS models – at least not until the long wait for its TT RS ends. BMW is still cruising along with M3 sales and its new price-leader 1 Series M Coupe while we look forward to the next M5 in May 2012. Over at Porsche, the 911, after a record 30 variations on the 997 theme, is almost ready to give way to the 991 generation – a car we expect to test this fall.
Into this lull before the next blitzkrieg jumps the revamped 2012 Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG. And while we've just driven it in idyllic southern France, it won't actually arrive in the U.S. until mid-September. At least the folks in Affalterbach assure us that U.S. dealers will continue to get a steady stream of the current (and much loved) E63 right up until this freshened one arrives. Of course, if you can't wait for the 2012 E63, there are similar AMG treatments on sale in the CLS-, CL- and S-Class.
For those fortunate few who already have one of the final 6.2-liter naturally aspirated V8 E63s on order, DO NOT CANCEL! Even though this new E63 with its M157 biturbo 5.5-liter V8 is a thing of greatness, we so love the outgoing car's booming M156 powerplant that you should harbor no regrets in welcoming the 2011 model into your garage. Still, we'd be lying if we didn't report that the updated model is slightly improved in certain ways. Better still, Mercedes-Benz is spreading the message that the E63's base pricing will not go up at all, so it should still start at $87,600.
The swoopy new $94,900 CLS63 AMG was first to market with this exact powertrain earlier this year, and the same 518 horsepower (between 5,250 and 5,750 rpm) is found here – a corral that can be increased to 550 ponies if you opt for the $12,900 AMG Performance Package. Similarly, the new E63 shares the CLS' 516 pound-feet of torque between 1,750 and 5,000 rpm (pumped up to 590 lb-ft with the Performance Package).
We arrived at Bernie Ecclestone's excellent Paul Ricard circuit to find a brace of fully dressed E63 AMGs equipped with AMG Performance Packs, carbon-look interior and exterior pieces and $10,000-worth of carbon ceramic brakes. Great cars, all, but it was for this reason that we made a beeline to the standard E63 AMG for our road drives.
On both circuit and street, we enjoyed how mighty yet smooth the E63's 5.5-liter was with every dab of the throttle, regardless of whether we stayed in gear through a curve or downshifted on a straight to dip into the V8's deep well of torque. Given the day's ideal conditions, we felt secure in switching the AMG-tuned ESP to its Sport calibration. The 19-inch Continental ContiSportContact rubber (255/35 ZR19 96Y front / 285/30 98Y rear) stayed well planted as we roared along, letting go in some curves to just the right degree whenever we laid into the throttle. We never found the need for any overactive steering corrections – even at the heights of the four-door's lateral acceleration envelope. It was all so steady and sensible – and really quick, with the proper limited slip differential of the track cars' Performance Package aiding every decisive transition.
Then out came Mercedes brand ambassador and 13-time Formula One grand prix winner David Coulthard to treat us to a few hot laps. Knowing David a bit at this point, whenever we're tossed together under these circumstances, the goal isn't really to turn the quickest times – it's to enjoy the best thrills and laughs while still hitting the apexes. Out of all this purposeful pushing and sliding, Coulthard told Autoblog, "What I find so good about this E63 now is the bite of the low-rev torque when I need it. The 6.2-liter was also fun to play with, but this biturbo just gives me more and does it more eagerly out of the turns especially."
The now slightly lighter 4,050-pound E63 (227 pounds less than the CLS63 AMG with which it shares underpinnings) felt balanced through even the most exaggerated long bends at Paul Ricard. "Testing Formula 1 cars here is really tough," Coulthard informed, "a few of the curves are just so long and the outside tires really don't like that stress for that long. But the street tires on this [E63 AMG] seem to handling it pretty well." Conditions for this test were around 85 degrees with a beating sun, so the car's dynamics were truly put to the test.
Through the hardest prolonged driving, the E63 showed us that it has come to play even harder than the outgoing car. Like the 2011 model, the new car's handling is helped by a front axle that's some 2.2 inches wider than regular E-Class models, but the driving enjoyment really does all come down to the power and torque characteristics of its lighter biturbo V8.
As ever, the noise, vibration and harshness work on this E63 AMG is industry-leading stuff, but all the same, you can still occasionally hear the wind-up and breathing of the twin Garrett Honeywell turbochargers – a fairly new AMG sound that harmonizes enjoyably with the sound emanating from the E63's four rectangular exhaust tips. As on the CLS63 AMG, peak boost pressure on the base car sits at 14.5 psi, while our track cars' boost was let out to 18.9 psi. Whether driving on Paul Ricard's perfectly manicured corners or the sunny and empty provincial French roads surrounding them, the E63's throttle is a clear improvement over the 6.2-liter car. Average fuel consumption, thanks mostly to the high-pressure direct injection on the new motor, has also improved by some 22 percent.
As for the important ability to slow this burly executive, we can't help but vote for buyers to splurge on the E63's optional carbon ceramic discs. The whole carbon ceramic craze has forced this once-harsh technology to come a long way in terms of everyday refinement. We easily modulated the braking action in all circumstances, and the discs themselves grind and shriek far less than they once did. Whenever we needed the brakes to go to eleven on that scale of ten, the E63's platters did the job better than just about any other stoppers we know. As well they should – the discs measure a mondo 15.8 inches up front and 14.2 inches out back.
To go with the E63's wider front axle, the AMG-specific electrically assisted variable rate manages to feel quicker (it defaults to a tighter 14:1 ratio) without coming across as numb or overly robotized. In this case, the aforementioned front axle with its increased negative camber has nearly everything to do with our increased confidence. In addition, a new development with the system is that the power assist only engages when steering is actually taking place, a move that saves fuel along with other updates like a new start-stop system.
Just as on the CLS63, we continue to like the seven-speed AMG Speedshift MCT transmission and the very comfy new E-Select shift lever the more we use it. Of course, there are also the intuitive shift paddles on the updated steering wheel with its flattened top and bottom sections, and a more colorful information display in the gauge cluster also helps freshen the interior.
Just as you might, we couldn't help but set some time aside to play with Race Start on Paul Ricard's back straight, and it's quicker to 60 mph than ever (See the Short Cut video above to watch it in action). We set a personal best time of 4.1 seconds, but using Race Start lacks drama. Sometimes, it's just more fun to disable all of the stability trinkets and put the gearbox in Manual mode on the console dial. A little rubber smoke never hurt nobody.
You'll be happy to know that we also had a brief shot at the E63 AMG sport wagon – a model confirmed for North America. Just as we feel in the Cadillac CTS-V Sport Wagon, driving a lightning-quick and growling family hauler is a uniquely wonderful sensation. This E63 wagon is a handsome package, too, though white would definitely not be our color choice. Regardless, having the AMG Performance Package that bumps the speed limiter to 174 miles per hour in a vehicle that can load up to 68.9 cubic feet of stuff is an amazing thing. Sadly, E63 AMG wagon buyers won't get to select a manual shifter like Caddie shoppers can, but our brief joyride had us doing more smiling than worrying about getting shifty. With its standard panoramic moonroof, the sport wagon ought to cost slightly more than the sedan, around $90,000, but it's every bit as entertaining and sure to draw more stares.
Tearing it up in the handsome E63, we couldn't help but think just how good the upcoming 553-hp BMW M5 will need to be – particularly since we know it will tip the scales with at least 200 more pounds than the Merc. For that matter, we sincerely hope Audi makes its next RS6 more of a contender in the corners (and that they make it available to North Americans!). Never to be discounted, will the much less-expensive 556-hp Cadillac CTS-V, which is almost identical in its dimensions to this E63, conquer all? What about the supercharged 5.0-liter Jaguar XFR?
The field is shoulder-to-shoulder with strong competition like never before. Our initial instincts tell us that the E63 AMG – particularly with the optional Performance Package – will be tough to beat for all-around excellence.