Mercedes offers cutting-edge tech in its new S63 AMG, and a dash of emotional appeal, says Jeb Stuart.
Mercedes-Benz’s S63 AMG is cruising into the future
It’s a widely held maxim in the motoring world that if you want a glimpse of the features that all cars will boast 10 years from now, take a look at the current Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Stuttgart’s flagship luxury saloon has long been the proving ground for new vehicular technology, the showcase for the best gadgetry that the modern automotive industry can muster.
The most recent (11th generation) S-Class does nothing to interrupt that tradition. The “standard” S – it seems churlish to apply such a word to such a machine – has once again set new levels of cleverness, with sensors, radar, cameras and LEDs sprouting from every orifice. It’s a technological behemoth, but it’s a car to be admired, to be impressed by. It’s not really a car to be loved, or by which your emotions are likely to be roused.
Which is where the S63 AMG comes in. This is the result of the S-Class being handed over to Mercedes’ own tuning arm, AMG, a division that specialises in turning ordinary Mercs into extraordinary road weapons. The boys and girls at AMG, based in Affalterbach, Germany, have given the S63 a thorough going over with the performance stick. Into the engine bay has been squeezed the tried-and-tested 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8, tuned to produce 577hp. That’s a lot of grunt for a limo.
Traditionally, S-Classes have been rear-wheel drive, but for the latest generation, Merc has opted for all-wheel drive as well, and it’s this arrangement that will be sold in the Middle East. This will make it easier to get all that power down on the road in a vaguely civilised manner, which is just as well for this test.
I’m in Salzburg, Austria, and it’s properly wet. Ahead of me lie slippery Tyrolean roads winding their way though epic but soggy scenery, and the prospect of hustling all that power, crammed into a car the size of a narrow boat, through these somewhat treacherous conditions doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.
Before the test begins, though, there’s a chance to look over the car. In keeping with the theme of a luxury limousine, the S63 AMG isn’t a huge visual step on from the standard S-Class. But there are some hints to its extra potential. Witness the AMG badge on the boot lid, the revised, more aggressive look to the front grille and the enlarged air intakes on the front bumper. Side skirts adorn the sills and chromed twin tailpipes sit pretty at the rear. It’s a tightening of the look, but not as dramatic as the snarling front end on the recently announced V12-powered S65 AMG.
The interior, for those not yet familiar with any variant of the latest S-Class, verges on the concept car. This is a step on in terms of driver environment from anything that the competition has launched into the market. The most striking feature on entry into the soft leather driver’s seat is on the dashboard, which is dominated by two massive 12.3-inch screens that serve as the instrument panel and infotainment system. They sit proud of the surrounding binnacle and are surrounded by a halo of light from recessed LEDs, the colour of which can be changed by the driver to almost any from the rainbow. It makes for an impressive display, especially at night.
The light show is just one highlight of the S63’s cockpit, which is largely unchanged from the standard S-Class. That’s a good thing – it’s one of the best driver and passenger compartments available today, on par with the similarly excellent Audi A8. But Mercedes is winning the gadget war, allowing both driver and passenger to enjoy heating or cooling through their posteriors, full massage settings and enough safety systems to fill the rest of this page if I listed them all.
For the driver, the captain’s chair is ridiculously comfortable, with large side bolsters to keep the body in check. It also adjusts to a nice low level.
A twist of the key fires up the V8 with a growl that almost immediately fades to near silence. Those expecting some sort of race car retort should remember that even though the S63 has an AMG badge, it’s still a limousine. The balance struck between performance intent and luxury removal from noise is pretty much bang on.
Getting out onto the road from the Salzburg main dealership requires some tight negotiation of a narrow car park, and immediately Mercedes’ tech makes itself known. Cameras around the car combine to show not only rear and forward trajectories on the big screen, complete with markings that adjust depending on the steering input, but also give an overhead bird’s eye view, much like a top-down view on a driving video game. It initially takes a bit of getting used to, but once the mind adjusts it’s very difficult to accidentally hit things.
There’s more futuristic gadgetry on the move. The traffic out into the Austrian countryside is moving slowly, but a pull of a stalk next to the indicator activates the Intelligent Drive system. This uses adaptive cruise control and a radar unit at the front of the car to identify the speed of cars ahead and maintain a set distance, up to a set speed. But it also utilises a camera to spot the road lane markings and physically steer the car between them without the driver’s input. Up to around 30kph you can literally take your hands off the wheel and the car will drive itself. Mercedes says this could work at higher speeds too, and has demonstrated the capability with the S500 Intelligent Drive car shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show. The company says it is capable of building a fully self-driving car, but current legal restrictions around the world prevent cars from fully taking over responsibility from the driver.
Out of the city traffic, the test route takes me on a fast motorway thrash towards the beautiful mountains surrounding Salzburg. Cruise control is set to 130kph, the sound system blasts my favourite tunes wirelessly via Bluetooth from my phone to the superb sound system, and it’s a thoroughly relaxing experience. Wind and road noise are virtually nil, and the air suspension system, fitted with adaptive dampers, is set to Comfort mode, which dismisses any ripples in the road. This is continent-crossing stuff, in a top-class, well-appointed luxury limo.
But the standard S-Class can do this kind of thing just as well, so what extra do you get for your AMG money? Where’s the excitement that those three letters promise? To find out, I head south towards Kitzbühel, away from the motorway and onto two-way roads that change from fast, open stretches sweeping through long bends into tight hairpins that rise and fall with the landscape.
Before that though, let’s set up the S63 for optimum performance. A couple of presses of buttons on the transmission tunnel changes the suspension to the stiffer Sport setting, and the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission to S. Time to see what the S63 AMG can do.
Putting the right foot down dismisses the near-silence in which I’ve so far travelled, but it’s not the explosion of noise that you’d get from an AMG sports car. There’s the familiar AMG hard-edged timbre to the sound, but it’s relatively reserved, as befits the surroundings.
The pace is anything but reserved, however. There’s 577hp heading from that V8 to all four wheels, and the velocity change is instantaneous. It won’t snap the head back or crush the internal organs, though; the delivery is more a firm application of speed that builds and builds. The S63 takes just four seconds to accelerate from zero to 100kph, and that means I need to have my wits about me as corners approach with zeal. Braking hard from three-figure speeds scrubs off pace beautifully, courtesy of the optional carbon ceramic brakes, and it’s all handled with no trace of wiggle from the back end, despite the car’s size and bulk.
Through the bends, the steering feels heavier now that all the performance settings have been switched on, and the suspension stiffens to keep the car flat into corners. Cushions in the side of the driver and passenger seats inflate simultaneously to keep the occupants in place. There’s no sports car level of feel through the steering and chassis but, for a limo, it’s plentiful.
The introduction of all-wheel drive brings fears of understeer towards the limit, but those concerns prove unfounded. There’s a hint of it in this dreary weather, but the nose is responsive, which means I can get the power down early coming out of the bends. A total of 900Nm of torque comes from the engine, and 67 per cent of that comes from the rear wheels, so there’s less worry of the fronts scrabbling the car towards the edge of the road when applying the power. Obviously it’s not a powersliding monster – even if it was, the ESP settings can’t be fully disengaged – but if you want to rouse the rear-seat passenger from his or her slumber, you can wiggle the tail with a bit of provocation.
After the drive, a chat with a man from AMG product management confirms that hitting the compromise between limousine comfort and AMG insanity is a tricky one, and it could have been much more lairy if customers had asked for it.
In the end, Mercedes’ tuning arm has injected enough performance to give the S63 the extra emotional appeal that the standard S-Class lacks. It’s capable of ludicrous pace in a straight line and, considering its size, performs well through the bends. Pay attention Audi, BMW and the like – the S63 AMG is the new benchmark for the modern high performance limousine.
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