The world's sickly economy not withstanding, selling luxury vehicles is easy. From the suppleness of a swatch of leather to the exquisite graining on a piece of rare wood veneer to having every electronic gewgaw available at one's fingertips, what defines a luxury car is essentially self-evident. To a substantial degree, everyone knows quality and true luxury when they see and feel it. The same cannot be so easily said when it comes to matters of high performance.
As one of the globe's premiere aspirational brands, Mercedes-Benz would appear to have the luxury selling routine knocked. But the company's AMG performance division has become an increasingly prominent part of its portfolio and bottom line, and these vehicles attract a different sort of customer and require a different marketing approach. Thankfully, as AMG has become increasingly important to Mercedes, its product line has risen in quality and dynamic performance. But while luxury and quality are easily conveyed, how do you sell four-wheeled thrills?
The thing is, as an automotive marketer, you can preach how great your sports car is until you're blue in the face, but until you're able to really show people how superior your vehicle is, you're never going to win them all over. And if you're like AMG, your offerings have become way too fast and capable to be safely exploited on public roads. So what's Mercedes to do? Why, give current and potential owners the chance to explore the dynamic limits of both their automobiles and themselves in a fun, legal, educational, and most importantly, safe environment. Enter the AMG Driving Academy.
Mercedes has offered its AMG driving program overseas for some time now, but this year is the first time they've brought the experience to the States. With events at Connecticut's storied Lime Rock Park, Florida's Palm Beach International Raceway, and California's legendary Laguna Seca, the venues Mercedes has chosen are certainly top-notch. But what about the experience? We had to find out for ourselves.
Thankfully, Mercedes was kind enough to invite us out for its Stage 1 Program at Lime Rock, a $1,895 single-day program that presents participants with both a constellation of AMG cars and a range of skill-building exercises in which to sample them. All-in, we were able to get wheel time in everything from the company's roadsters (sized SLK55 through SL63) to its sedans, including the C63 and the still wet-behind-the-ears E63.
We spent the day building up to progressively hotter-and-hotter lead-and-follow laps on Lime Rock's 1.53-mile track, a striking forested road course that's a NASCAR fan's undoing (it's all right turns save one), but it was actually the other skills-based exercises that proved most instructive.
Before pulling on our B&Bs (balaclavas and Bells), we met AMG's team of instructors – nearly all seasoned racers – with our head coach being none other than Tommy Kendall, the multi-time Trans-Am and IMSA Camel GT series champ – one of America's most dominant closed-wheel racers.
The first order of the day was a chalk talk that was perhaps a bit basic for trackday veterans: slow in/fast out, look where you want to go, to appear slow behind the wheel is to be fast – but considering likely Stage 1 attendees, it's exactly what the doctor ordered – to say nothing of the lawyers and stock brokers. Furthermore, despite being a veteran of a number of these sorts of events, we're smart enough to know we've still got plenty to learn, and Kendall and Co. were more than happy to answer our questions and give us advice on how to improve our weaknesses.
We started off by practicing with the E63 on the undulating autocross course, a role to which the car is frankly not as well-suited as some of its smaller, lighter stablemates. In the end, however, our results were limited more by our learning curves (getting familiar with both the course and the vehicle) than they were by Mercedes' new luxo-bruiser. We were able to build familiarization and a greater degree of fluidity as we got in a few runs, but clearly we were leaving something on the table.
One Wet Technological Showcase
It's important that in addition to molding better drivers, a primary goal of the Driving Academy is to serve as a showcase, not just for the AMG models themselves, but also particular systems – things like M-B's advanced stability control programs.
To that end, our next task was to engage in oversteer/understeer exercises on a standing water corner both with and without e-nannies, and it was humbling stuff. With the electronics active, the circuitry wouldn't allow us to get our tails too far out of whack before dialing back the engine revs and calling upon individual brakes to bring the vehicle along its desired course. With the program deactivated, we were told to enter the corner slowly and goose the throttle hard upon turn in, kicking out the tail and then trying to catch the resultant slide. Whether in the SL63 or the C63, it didn't matter – it was spin city for just about everyone on their first sortie.
We've managed this sort of thing in other cars before, but that didn't stop many of us from actually spinning more than once. Again, increased familiarization with the cars we rotated through would've been beneficial. While we greatly improved our control, we could have happily taken another dozen or so passes learning to consistently react with quick steering inputs as we worked on channeling our inner-Pastranas. However, there were other exercises to move on to, so we didn't get the chance – we know what we need to work on next time.
An Unexpected Competency
We would move on through emergency lane change and slalom exercises and a drag-racing event. During the latter, we lined up against our fellow journalists in E63s on a makeshift pit-lane dragstrip. The idea was to go rocketing off down the track at the drop of Tommy Kendall's arms, summoning all 518 horsepower until running out of road, at which point you stomped hard on the brakes in an effort to be the first to come to a halt within a marked-off area. Strangely, it was here that we found our true métier – lining up at least a dozen times, we only lost once, and even that was a race where we beat ourselves.
Kendall had cautioned us that the Merc's electronics wouldn't abide much brake-torquing. That said, we found that if we didn't totally carpet the brake pedal, we were still able to build a few thousand revs against the torque converter without any circuit-tripping boggery on launch. Beyond that, it was all down to reaction time and judging when to slam on the brakes. Despite the fact that your author would rather be more proficient at road course skills, it was comforting to find an area in which competency was readily found. Oh, that didn't stop the inevitable fiddling with inputs and working to lower reaction times – a decision that led to us eventually pre-loading the brakes too much, setting off the nannies upon launch (we were told to leave them on) and keeping us from going undefeated.
The Main Event
The highlight of our day was definitely the solid block of time we scored on Lime Rock circuit itself, feeling the Gs load and unload on each of the course's seven turns. Given how short the track is, you might expect it to be tight and technical, but in reality, it's a fast course that's marked out by two big elevation changes.
This was our first time setting foot on its hallowed grounds, and the surroundings are desperately beautiful, too, with lush stands of Berkshire Mountain forests encircling the track, the views unencumbered by grandstands. But you'd better leave the sightseeing until you're on the other side of pit wall, as while it's easy to go around, it's tough to be quick and there are tricky sections to get right – particularly cresting the Uphill, where you go from being pressed hard into your seat squab as the suspension loads up in one instant to being damn near airborne the next. Lime Rock demands your complete attention and respect.
Wisely, during our progressively faster lead-and-follows with an instructor-driven CLK63 AMG Black Series, we were asked to keep the stability control systems switched on – albeit toggled to relaxed intervention. In truth, if you drive smoothly and smartly on this course in this mode, you'll rarely trigger the self-preservation electronics because you'll be driving within the limits of the vehicle. We only noticed the telltale dash light flickering when we completely unloaded the suspension at the top of Uphill.
A Surprising Favorite?
We drove AMG versions of the C, the E, the SLK and SL, and while you might expect the shorter and more powerful SL63 to be our chariot of choice, our favorite was easily the C63. At 451 horsepower, it gives up some chutzpah to the SL's 518 ponies, but despite being a larger four-door, it also weighs a lot less. At 3,814 pounds, it's a startling 460 pounds lighter than the porker SL (which checks in at 4,274 pounds). Basically, with the biggest straight being just under a half-mile long, you never miss the SL's added power and you're better off carrying more speed through the turns. We were smitten before with the C63's German muscle car blend of power and noise, but as we learned, it is also far more balanced and versatile on track than most people give it credit for. It's one hell of a machine.
You'll notice that to this point, we haven't talked about shifting technique. Because all AMG cars currently on sale in America come paired with two-pedal setups, there was no opportunity to work on our heel-toe skills. In a way this was freeing, as we could instead focus more on learning the track, pushing deeper into the braking zones, and smoothing out our inputs. Given that most participants in the AMG Driving Academy aren't likely to have much professional driving instruction going-in, we can see a self-shifting setup being a real advantage. Besides, each AMG we sampled offered fast-acting paddle-shifting to satisfy our urge for manual control, and the shifting logic on display by the seven-speed units was all but unimpeachable.
We finished our day by taking another stab at the autocross course in an SLK63, this time doing a timed run against other journalists and... Tommy Kendall. Guess who won? Hint: His trophy case is more impressive than ours (okay, we don't even have a trophy case). Kendall bested the top performer of our modest group by over two seconds without even trying.
Come in for the Real Thing
Itching to get behind the wheel for yourself? The inaugural U.S. season of the AMG Driving Academy is drawing to a close, but if you're lucky, you can still grab a seat at one of their Laguna Seca sessions that are coming up November 7-8 and 17-20.
If you're an advanced driver and have completed Stage I (or an equivalent course), you can sign on for Stage II, which not only provides more on-track time, it makes use of in-car camera rigs and onboard diagnostic equipment to tell help you learn where you can shave time. The two-day course runs $3,495.
Finally, in celebration of the launch of its new gullwing supercar, the Driving Academy is holding a Stage 1 SLS event, a $2,295 program includes time in the 2011 SLS AMG and a night's stay at Monterey's InterContinental Hotel.
So... is the AMG Driving Academy worth the ducats? You betcha. Aside from being a great way to gain entry to some of our nation's finest racetracks and score top-flight instruction, it also gives prospective buyers (and the merely curious) the chance to sample a number of different AMG products in a far more thorough and enjoyable manner than what you could ever hope to accomplish on the street. If you can't find your way to Monterey for this month's activities, you'll have to sit tight for next year's schedule.
Selling luxury may be easy, but as AMG has figured out, selling high-performance is a heck of a lot more fun.