Not many journalists know how to properly drive on a racetrack. But Fraser Martin does, so we sent him to Yas Marina to test the latest range from AMG, but his favourite drive was something of a surprise.
AMG’s high-performance Mercedes-Benz tour de force comes to Abu Dhabi
Something old, something new seemed to be the underlying story of the 2013 AMG Performance Tour, held recently at Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. While there were quite a few borrowed cars, judging by the diversity of registration plates, I saw only one blue car among the fleet of mainly white, silver and red top-end Mercedes Benz offerings, corralled by their lead cars on the pit lane of the Yas Marina North Circuit in the early evening.
AMG, just in case you are a petrolhead from another planet, is the high-performance arm of Mercedes-Benz. Started as a tuning and race-preparation firm in 1967, AMG became a subsidiary in 1990 and was absorbed completely by the Three-Pointed Star in 2005. Mercedes-Benz models badged AMG are now designed and developed in parallel with the cars on which they are based, so technically AMG models are cousins to mainline offerings, rather than tweaked siblings. Historically, the AMG Performance Tour travels round the world every year, presenting the latest models to well-heeled clients and worn-heeled journalists alike, in safe surroundings. That the tour is also an opportunity for much silliness is but one of the attractions of an invitation to attend.
This event was, by all accounts, much the same as those of previous years. Though this was my first Performance Tour, the pattern of the event was pretty similar to those hosted by other brands: refreshments, corporate statement, presentation, safety briefing, practice exercises, more refreshments and – the best part – hooning. What made the AMG Tour different this time around was the cars themselves – something old in the outgoing gull-wing SLS; something new in the corking A45; several well-tried hacks from distributors all over the GCC, and as I said, a blue one of some sort. I chose to concentrate on three of the five ranges available, with each car representing what is, in essence for me, a spike on the Three-Pointed Star.
It is easy to dismiss the gull-wing SLS as a bit of an anachronism. The car has daunting proportions, despite its relative lightness: at almost two metres wide and over four-and-a-half long, it’s a fair old chunk to be throwing around a racetrack, though with an outright win in the recent Gulf 12-Hour race to its credit, albeit in stripped-out race tune, the “Sport Light Super” is not to be sniffed at. Where it disappoints is that it seems too much car for not quite enough ability.
Sure, the figures stack up. I could bore you with three pages of them from the press blurb. But though the bottom line shows that there’s still a limited 315kph top speed and an acceleration time of 3.6 seconds to the magic 100kph (surely enough for anyone), they don’t quite translate to the face-numbing, buttock-clenching, raw fear that you should be expecting, given the car’s aggressive and shark-like appearance.
The SLS, in GT or Black Series renderings, is not the easiest thing to get in and out of, either – the gull-wing doors are, as already hinted at, a bit too anachronistic for me – but once you scramble over the sills and get yourself settled, it’s a very special place to be.
Everything is driver-focused and it’s very much the business centre rather than the club atmosphere that pervades. Where the big car scores highly in my book was in the response to steering input: despite the engine being set so far back in the frame that it could almost be described as mid-mounted, the controls are nonetheless positive yet fingertip light. Strangely, although you know the front wheels are at least a metre away from your toes, they feel as if they’re under your seat. The SLS is still a very special machine.
There are about 350 of these cars still in the pipeline and then that’s it. The 6.2-litre, naturally aspirated V8 needs to retire in the interests of weight saving and economy, so bag one now, stick it in a garage, lock it up and wait until your money has doubled. Shouldn’t take more than 10 years, I would have thought.
New to the AMG line-up is the A45. This pocket-rocket is the result of AMG being let loose on a compact for the first time in almost 50 years and it’s as mad as a box of frogs. Some 360hp from a 2.0-litre turbo engine is completely bonkers and it thereby enters the hot-hatch fray with the most powerful series production four-cylinder engine in the world. Mated to the Mercedes-Benz patented 4-matic all-wheel drive system (it needs to be) and a new dual-clutch transmission, the AMG A45 is indecently quick and makes some of the most delicious rasping noises that you will ever hear from a motor car. Like a Spitfire fighter plane, hearing this engine pull will lift the hairs on the back of your neck.
This is, without question, the new face of AMG and where the performance arm will be making its greatest strides over the next five years or so. Wringing this much horsepower from a four-cylinder engine and being able to deliver it is only a little short of sorcery. But what you need to know is that this car goes like stink, sticks to the road like chewing gum on your shoe and can be very, very scary if you do not treat it with a good helping of respect.
Again, the important numbers are there – 250kph limited top speed and the 100kph mark flashing past in only 4.6 seconds – but combine all this with really impressive economy figures (6.9L / 100km), very low emissions and the torque of two Corollas, and the sheer cleverness of this AMG model becomes increasingly evident.
Driving – if you can call caning the car around a circuit anything so mundane – is what you would expect, but quicker. As with all cars nowadays, terminal understeer will be the safe result of pushing too early coming out of a corner and the front tyres will squeal like a banshee if you leave the braking too late before turning in. A three-stage stability-control system optimises grip, however, so there’s no need to worry too much on the open track. Engage the launch control when stopped, though, and the ESP and traction control systems will work very hard indeed and the A45 will charge off the line like the Light Brigade. You’ll be doing rather well to hold on. It’s so good that, without even trying, it has probably become the benchmark car in this class.
If the SLS and A45 can rightfully take places on two of the Mercedes star’s three points, then third place must go to the outrageous AMG CLS63 Shooting Brake. A massive car both inside and out, it has a tiny following here in the Middle East, where it’s easier to buy an SUV or full-time four-wheel drive for load-lugging duty. Rumour has it that there are only eight of these cars in the region, and we were very fortunate to have stolen the opportunity to try the one at Yas. Despite there being variations on the S-class and E-class cars on offer, I homed in on the CLS63: of the Middle East region’s 18-car AMG line up, this is the one that will be the rarest, the least sought-after and the most subtle.
Shooting Brake is an old coachbuilding term that came to mean a high-capacity estate car that was specifically reserved for transporting people and weapons on to a moorside for sport. The bodywork on shooting brakes was usually of wood – at least from the driving compartment back – and required a lot of maintenance. Dial the clock forward 60-or-so years and we have dispensed with the wood, streamlined the carrying capacity and held on to only the principle of some sporting pretensions. Nowadays, instead of guns, dogs and dead things, the sport leans more towards skis, snowboards and very lively parties. It kind of explains why this great car is so rare a sight in the region.
But what an extraordinary thing it is. A Q-car, if ever there was one; a wildcat thinly disguised as a cuddly toy, it’s possibly the most astounding car in the AMG range – not because it is faster, quicker or more brutal than anything else, but simply because it really should not be capable of doing what it does. This “van” holds on to corners with almost the same tenacity as the SLS, it outsprints E-class saloons on the drag strip, it’s just as fast on the straights and it does all of that without a hint of protest. It could have had an antique sideboard strapped into the back and I doubt we would have noticed any change in response, handling or power delivery.
The AMG CLS63 earns its place in my list of favourites not because of its Herculean 800Nm of torque, its 3.7 second sprint time, its rear-biased 4-Matic gearbox or the 5.5L, bi-turbo V8, but because it’s just about the most ridiculous combination of power and ostentation that I can imagine. I absolutely loved it and, for me, it was the car of the day.
As the evening drew to a close, I found that although I had not driven everything on offer, I had done more than enough to get a true impression of what AMG represents. The boys from Affalterbach, where every AMG car is engineered, are clearly enthusiasts first and car builders second: each car signed off, each engine personally bolted together and every consideration that goes towards making an AMG car that little bit special seems to be based on a “What would I do if it were mine?” attitude. It explains the daft stripes on the A45, the insistence on quirky gull-wing doors on the SLS and the sheer genius of producing a racing delivery vehicle in the CLS63. They are doing it because they can.
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