Sometime before the end of this century, humans will travel to Mars. The longest manned journey ever attempted will take the explorers at least 34 million miles over the course of many months, at best. The vehicle necessary to support such an odyssey will need to be spacious, comfortable, technically advanced, incredibly safe and very powerful.
Before plotting the future spacecraft's design, we suggest the engineers take a close look at the 2012 Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG for ideas.
Of course, we don't think the S63 is fit for interplanetary travel – micrometeorites and ultraviolet radiation would likely wreak havoc on its expensive and vogue matte finish Magno Platinum paint – but we do feel it is one of the most spacious and luxurious rocket ships that someone outside of a space agency can put in their personal hangar.
During our week with the AMG-tuned S-Class, its four wheels never left the surface of planet Earth, but we did load it up and make a long weekend trek to Palm Springs. How did this twin-turbocharged sedan handle the long outing and subsequent run into the mountains? Does it drive ponderously, or is the big Benz agile and athletic? Most importantly, what's not to like with this two-and-one-half ton almighty giant?
Before rocketing off in an S63 AMG, it's essential to put the four-door sedan in perspective. Mercedes-Benz sells seven different variants of S-Class. First launched in 1973, the current version (internally called the W221 platform) was introduced in 2006. The automaker's 2012 S-Class lineup starts with the diesel-powered six-cylinder S350 BlueTEC (base price $93,425) and tops out with the extremely rare, twin-turbocharged twelve-cylinder S65 AMG (base price $211,775). The S63 AMG is the most powerful eight-cylinder model in the range, impeccably tuned for a discerning performance-oriented enthusiast customer by its AMG division.
The base price of a 2012 Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG is $140,175. Yet consider that a starting point, as our test vehicle was loaded with nearly $30,000 worth of options. These included the aforementioned matte finish Magno Platinum paint ($3,950), 20-inch forged AMG wheels ($1,700), Splitview display ($710), Driver Assist Package with Distronic Plus cruise control ($2,950) and the Designo Auburn Edition Interior with a slew of creature comforts ($11,900). Lastly, and most importantly, it was fitted with the AMG Performance Package delivering a power increase and a raised top speed ($7,300). The bottom line on our big Benz was $169,560 – premium pricing delivers premium machinery.
Mercedes-Benz has fitted this luxury ship with one of the most powerful engines that you will ever find under the hood of a five-place sedan. Despite the misleading "63" nomenclature on the rear decklid (hinting at the beloved but nearly extinct 6.2-liter AMG V8), the automaker has dropped its newer and more fuel efficient 5.5-liter twin-turbocharged M157 into the engine bay. In standard trim, the direct-injected eight-cylinder is rated at 536 horsepower (at 5,250 rpm) and 590 pound-feet of torque (at 2,000 rpm). But our test car was fitted with the optional AMG Performance Package – in lieu of solid rocket boosters. Thanks to several tweaks, the engine is rated at an eye-opening 563 horsepower and a drivetrain-wrenching 664 pound-feet of torque. Mated to a high performance AMG Speedshift MCT seven-speed automatic transmission (with a wet start-up clutch), the S63 AMG with Performance Package will blast to 60 miles per hour in a conservative 4.3 seconds. Hold down the aluminum throttle pedal and it won't slow until it hits an electronically limited 186 mph.
The suspension is independent at all four corners. Up front is a four-link design, while the rear is fitted with a multilink setup. The automaker's Active Body Control (ABC) is also standard on the S63 AMG. In a nutshell, the system utilizes more than a dozen sensors to monitor vehicle chassis movement every ten milliseconds. Hydraulic servos mounted besides each wheel control active damping, level control and ride height. The steering is speed-sensitive, with hydraulic power assist.
Despite a curb weight of 4,916 pounds, stopping isn't an issue thanks to massive 15.4-inch ventilated and cross-drilled front rotors, assisted by 14.4-inch ventilated and cross-drilled rear rotors. The front calipers are of a dual-piston floating design, while the rear uses a single floating piston. Standard wheels are 20-inch cast aluminum alloy, wrapped in staggered Continental rubber (255/35ZR20 up front and 275/35ZR20 in the rear).
Like a spacecraft, the S63 AMG is not simply defined by its physical structures. Its steel unibody, aluminum hood and composite trunk hide an encyclopedic suite of electronic subsystems all designed to keep the vehicle on the road and the passengers safe and comfortable during a long journey.
Vehicle electronics on our test car included Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control (with a radar dish cleverly replacing the three-pointed star in the front grille), Active Blind Spot Assist, Active Lane Keep Assist, Keyless Go ignition, active engine start/stop, automatic trunk opening and closing and Parktronic sensors to keep all of the bumpers scuff free.
Some of the countless premium safety electronics included Attention Assist, AMG-tuned stability control, Pre-safe predictive protection system, torque vectoring brakes (to reduce understeer), active body control with crosswind compensation and adaptive xenon high beams.
The passenger cabin is very tastefully appointed, with nearly every square inch of exposed surface covered in premium leather (perforated on the seats), glossy hand-finished wood or soft Alcantara fabric. We'd argue that it isn't as warm or intimate as some of the others in this segment – the console doesn't wrap around and embrace front seat passengers – but it is unquestionably classy and very upscale. And, considering the sheer number of amenities and features, it isn't cluttered with distracting buttons or switchgear.
Primary instrumentation is a mixture of digital and analog displays, viewed directly through the four-spoke polished wood and leather steering wheel. While the analog water temperature, fuel level and tachometer are permanent physical fixtures, the analog speedometer is actually a digital graphic – much of its color screen may be swapped at the touch of a button to display other digital information. Of course, there is another eight-inch multifunction display at the top of the center cluster.
The driver's seat is the most commanding, but the pilot is not the only one pampered. All four outboard passengers have their own climate control zone, and relax with power-operated adjustable thrones that includes heating and cooling functions – there isn't a bad seat in the house. There are volumes of legroom, headroom is generous and illuminated vanity mirrors are supplied to all. If the sun (or paparazzi) becomes an annoyance, rear passengers may deploy power-operated window shades at the touch of a button.
With all of this talk about opulence, luxury and sheer mass, one would think the S63 AMG drives like a yacht, but it's just the opposite.
We pressed the substantial engine start/stop button to the right of the steering wheel and the engine kicked over with a throaty snarl. The transmission is controlled via a too-dainty stalk off the steering column (P-R-N-D), and a simple flick of the lever dropped the sedan into Drive. Around town, throttle response was quick and the big Mercedes moved without reservation. Although the S-Class is more than a foot longer than the E-Class, it never felt it. The AMG-tuned suspension nearly eliminated the wallowing and body roll more commonly associated with a full-size vehicle. There is unquestionably more substance being moved down the road, but it never felt ponderous or ungainly. Rather, it was surprisingly easy to maneuver.
We didn't cross the solar system in the S63, but we did load the family and take it on a long weekend trip to Palm Springs. As expected, the massive trunk swallowed our luggage like a black hole and the kids found that they were unable to even reach the seatbacks in front of them without unfastening their belts. Room to spare is an understatement.
On the open highway, the Mercedes devoured miles of pavement effortlessly. At 70 mph, the engine barely raised its pulse while effective noise insulation and thick laminated glass kept the outside world hushed. The Distronic cruise control was amazingly effective – it automatically monitors the other vehicle in the lane and controls throttle and brakes (both acceleration and deceleration) in heavy traffic without driver input. While steering is still required, Distronic makes it possible to cross the entire Los Angeles basin mid-day without ever lifting both feet flat off the plush carpet. This is the future.
To give the S63 AMG a bit of a challenge, we decided to climb from the Palm Springs desert basin at sea level up California State Route 74 (part of the Pines to Palms Scenic Byway) to Idyllwild. The route is tough, as it gains more than 5,000 feet of elevation passing through the San Jacinto Mountains. The scenery is breathtaking, and the first section has a nice selection of sweeping corners.
Once again, the big sedan brushed it off without breaking a sweat. The hand-built twin-turbocharged V8 threw gobs of torque down on the pavement without noticing the elevation gain, the exhaust growled and the tires held firm. With ABC in Sport mode, the S63 followed an aggressively driven jet black BMW 335i coupe (E92) up the curves as if it were a cat chasing a mouse – however, this rodent pulled over and let us pass after several miles of pursuit. Dare we say this big AMG sedan is actually fun to toss around a mountain?
During our week with the big Benz, we really appreciated its unflappable powertrain. Though it was a bit thirsty around town (EPA 15 mpg city / 22 mpg highway), its power-to-weight ratio made us completely forget that the vehicle weighs two-and-a-half tons. The suspension was magnificent, and the interior room welcomed. The Splitview DVD screen is a must-have option (watch our ShortCut video for a demonstration), and the temperature-controlled massaging seats were wondrous.
So what didn't we like about the $169,000 sedan? Nitpicking here, but we weren't really fond of the wood steering wheel. It gets very hot in the sun and slippery if you are the type that gets sweaty hands while driving. The paddle shifters are also a bit goofy on a vehicle of this size, even if it does wear AMG badging. Our GPS-equipped radar detector was frustrated attempting to capture a signal through the metallic laminate Mercedes uses to defrost the front glass and the aging COMAND infotainment/navigation joystick interface is still a bit cumbersome, despite a week's worth of familiarization.
The S63 AMG isn't atmospherically pressurized, but it does circle the globe in a very unique orbit – almost untouched by its competition. The Porsche Panamera Turbo S is quicker and more agile, but its four-place cabin is much smaller and focused on a different mission. The BMW Alpina B7 is performance-tuned but short on amenities, while the Jaguar XJ Supersport is big on luxury, but still short on power. The Bentley Continental Flying Spur is a worthy foil, but it's more expensive even before piling on the options. The competition should be pleased to know that Mercedes-Benz doesn't sell very many of these capable sedans. While the S550 is the volume model, the S63 AMG accounts for just over five percent of S-Class sales – it is every bit as rare as it is rapid.
Comparing the sporty Benz to a future spacecraft isn't as much of a stretch as you may think. The engineering team in Stuttgart developed the W221 platform to comfortably exceed human requirements for long-distance travel and AMG tuned it to get the job done with blazing speed. While the 2012 Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG may not be properly configured for interplanetary transport, we can think of few vehicles that are as swift and luxurious for voyaging across the surface of our planet.