The Atlantic-facing country of Portugal dances to its own beat. Even the language is decidedly different phonetically to the rapid-fire Hispanic chatter you'd encounter across its only border, with Spain.
Although currently not in the greatest of economic health, this is no reflection of the past, as the Portuguese Empire was the most enduring of the modern European colonial empires, spanning almost 600 years and spread across a vast number of territories that are now part of 53 different sovereign states.
Remember that chap Vasco da Gama? He paved the way for the Portuguese colonial empire in Asia. The cultural and architectural influence Portugal has left around the globe is profound, and there are more than 250 million Portuguese speakers today, making it the sixth most spoken first language in the world.
Why am I banging on about Portugal? Because I’ve just set my travel-weary body down in the TAP (Portugal’s national airline) lounge at Lisbon Airport. The lounge is perhaps the dingiest I’ve seen at any airport, but I’ve got three hours to kill here before my next flight to Faro, the capital of the Algarve region at the southern tip of Portugal.
The reason for the excursion to Faro is to sample the all-new Mercedes-AMG C63 S – a compact-sized, four-door bruiser with a twin-turbo V8 engine that’s fit to give many a supercar a black eye. Also on the agenda is my maiden drive of the Mercedes C450 AMG 4MATIC, a less potent but still eye-wateringly rapid saloon. A fitting analogy would be to think of this pair as Batman and Robin – one has the clout to nullify the nastiest of baddies, while the other can still comfortably take care of run-of-the-mill thugs.
The drive programme at the media launch comprises a mix of road and track work – the idea being to showcase the C63 S’s everyday usability, as well as the full scope of its dynamic repertoire. Coincidentally – or maybe not – it’s more or less the same itinerary, and the same venue, that BMW used nine months ago for the launch of its all-new M3 saloon, the Merc’s primary rival.
The opening road loop starts at the sprawling Conrad Algarve hotel and concludes at the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, a challenging, undulating racetrack located near the town of Portimão, which was historically a fishing and shipbuilding hub. The 110-kilometre drive leg starts off with some relatively dull freeway cruising, but a couple of spurts on the gas provide a taste of the C63’s massive grunt, with the speedometer needle flashing right with ridiculous ease.
A navigational error on my part sees me detouring via Estádio Algarve – a football stadium that can seat 30,000 raucous fans – but I eventually get back on track, with the route veering off onto some winding country lanes snaking through the Portuguese countryside. It’s here that the C63 S makes its first real imprint on my psyche, dancing and darting from one corner to the next with alarming rapidity.
The new C63 S and slightly lesser C63 are all-new cars based on the latest-gen W205 C-Class that we recently reviewed in The National. They feature the same high-tech, part-aluminium architecture. However, the AMG models up the ante substantially via bespoke front suspension and steering, a locking rear differential, uprated brakes, a dual-clutch sequential gearbox and much more.
These upgrades serve to distance the latest AMG offerings from their ancestors of a decade ago, which were terrifically quick in a straight line, but not the most dexterous when it came to corners. The C63 S is far removed from these, and hence Merc’s tagline: “The car for the professional driver”. Be assured, it’s not just marketing hyperbole.
The C63 and C63 S launch in our market in April, priced from Dh321,746 and Dh350,211 respectively, which puts them pretty much in the same ballpark as the new BMW M3. Like their German compatriot, both AMG models are rear-wheel drive and come standard with a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission.
But where the M3 makes do with a twin-turbo, 3.0L, six-cylinder engine, the Merc C63 and C63 S are propelled by a 4.0L, twin-turbo V8, which supplants the old model’s much-loved but now ageing naturally aspirated, 6.2L power plant. The old big-block engine was potent and charismatic but, rest assured, the new V8 that replaces it is a far superior unit. In the base-model C63, it kicks out 469bhp and 650Nm; in the range-topping C63 S, it unleashes 503bhp and a beefy 700Nm from just 1,750rpm.
The twin-turbo V8 also sounds sublime, especially if you specify the optional Performance Exhaust, which has three flaps that open up in Sport+ and Race modes to give the engine full voice. In these modes, the exhaust note is a snarling, thundering melody, enriched by a rich array of pops and crackles on the overrun, and a lovely “braaap” on upshifts.
The AMG saloons aren’t excessively heavy (the C63 weighs 1,640kg; the C63 S tips the scales at 1,655kg), and this is reflected in their agility and ultra-flat cornering capabilities. It’s mighty quick in a straight line, too, with the C63 sprinting to 100kph in 4.1 seconds and the C63 S achieving it in 4 seconds flat. Both cars are speed limited to 250kph, but ticking the box for the optional AMG Driver’s Package will see this climb to a Lamborghini-baiting 290kph.
You might think any car with circa-500bhp would be a complete enviro-vandal, but the C63’s quoted consumption figure of 8.2L per 100km isn’t excessive by any means. Be aware, though, that you’ll easily chug through double this figure if you drive the car in a “spirited” fashion.
The drive route to the circuit is filled with Sunday drivers, blind corners and an assortment of road-surface imperfections – some of the well-camouflaged ones just about get the car airborne – but it’s still dealt with in short order by the muscle-bound C63 S. What’s particularly impressive, apart from the engine’s grunt, is how effectively that mammoth torque is deployed without ever imparting the feeling that you’re about to spear off into the woodwork.
A vital ingredient here is the locking differential (mechanical in the C63; electronically controlled in the C63 S), which dispenses the torque to each of the rear wheels in optimum doses to ensure you slingshot out of corners with minimum electronic-stability-control intervention.
The AMG Ride Control suspension with three-stage, electronically controlled adaptive dampers also does a great job of keeping the car flat through corners, and this doesn’t come at the cost of bone-jarring ride quality. Yes, the C63 S isn’t as cosseting as a Bentley, but one shouldn’t expect that in any case in something this performance-orientated.
The less hardcore C63 rides marginally better than the C63 S, as it comes equipped with 18-inch rims, as opposed to the latter’s 19-inchers, which are wrapped in liquorice-strip rubber. The C63 S also scores dynamic engine mounts that vary in stiffness, depending on how you’re driving. When you’re simply trundling around, they soften up to isolate the cabin from engine vibrations, but harden up when you’re in Lewis Hamilton mode to optimise the car’s tautness and dynamism.
Once I reach the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, the next item on the agenda is a series of hot laps at the circuit, which is a 4.7km roller coaster, replete with blind crests and off-camber corners. It’s undoubtedly the most daunting track I’ve ever driven. Just to make it even more interesting, I’ll be trying to hang on to the tail of Bernd Schneider – the multiple-champion driver in DTM (Germany’s premier touring-car racing category) – as he’ll be pedalling the pace car.
Schneider doesn’t disappoint. Despite his promise of two warm-up laps, he puts the hammer down almost right from the outset, and I find myself working furiously to prevent him from bolting off into the distance. The DTM ace is clearly working his C63 S hard, because it wriggles around under brakes at the end of the main straight, and the tail squirms around noticeably through each of the track’s gnarly corners.
After five tyre-torturing laps, I come away with an even deeper respect for the latest AMG weapon, which devours the track with every bit as much appetite as the brutal Jaguar XKR-S coupé I piloted on my previous visit to the circuit four years ago.
Having experienced the full fury of the steroidal C63 S, I expect to be underwhelmed by the appreciably less bonkers C450 AMG 4MATIC, which I’m now about to drive across a 45km road loop through the Portimão countryside. The C450 is powered by a twin-turbo, 3.0L V6 in lieu of its big brother’s V8, but it’s still no shrinking violet, with 362bhp and 520Nm on tap. It sprints from standstill to 100kph in just 4.9 seconds and tops out at an electronically governed 250kph.
It only takes a few kilometres to glean the C450 is almost as entertaining as its more potent stablemate, putting on a surprising turn of speed, and arguably even greater agility, although it weighs only slightly less at 1,615kg. The exhaust note is pleasingly raspy and crackly, too, despite lacking the deep baritone sonic signature of the C63 S.
Refinement levels are pretty good, although there’s more wind noise from around the A-pillar than one might have expected at speeds of 140kph and above. Cabin comfort is beyond reproach, with well-sculpted sports seats and a well-thought-out melange of leather, Alcantara, aluminium and carbon-fibre surfaces. The dash layout is also first-class, presenting you with all the info you need in an easy-to-digest format.
At day’s end, it’s clear AMG has done its homework with all three new offerings – C450 AMG 4MATIC, C63 and C63 S. Each is devastatingly rapid, aesthetically pleasing and eminently usable on a day-to-day basis.
Life is about to get very difficult for BMW’s M3 saloon.
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