Mercedes-Benz have added something AMG-badged, and subsequently altogether manic, to the local C-Class range. Slow? Not quite.
Celebrating 40 years of AMG and 18 years of in-house tuning cooperation with Mercedes-Benz, it was quite apt to launch the latest 6.3-litre, V8 powered, AMG derivative at the Phakisa Raceway outside Welkom.
Interestingly, in developing the current mainstay AMG powerplant (it displaces only 6 208 cm3 coincidently)Phakisa was one of the test venues for high-speed endurance runs.
Key market, cult cars
Despite soaring interest rates and strong Rand depreciation against the Euro, South Africa remains the fourth largest market for AMG-badged Mercedes-Benz products globally.
They sold 4 169 AMG cars here between 2001 and 2007. Not surprising to see AMG heavyweight executives on the trackside then.
They even flew in Formula One safety car driver, Bernd Mayländer, who scared us stupid around the track in his lightweight C63 display car - featuring no less than four, full-bucket race seats with four-point harnesses...
The C63 AMG is not a tastelessly ostentatious aftermarket styling or engineering exercise.
Exterior changes are utilitarian in nature, the deep cut front spoiler and flared front wings are a function of aerodynamic stability while quad tailpipes keep the big-bore V8 breathing cleanly.
You'll notice a new rear apron too, with an integrated black diffuser, handy for taming tail-happy oversteer moments.
In essence, the attractive, flowing styling and strong front end treatment of the standard C-Class, especially the oversized grille complemented by a power dome adorned bonnet in AMG trim, really come into their own fleshed out as the AMG package.
Don't expect anything aesthetically distinctive inside though. It's very much standard C-Class fare, with a flat-bottomed AMG sports steering wheel, some brushed aluminium trim and obligatory AMG logos the only distinguishing elements.
The flat-slabbed centre-console with its average plastic finish and undersized buttons is carried over from the C-Class range, too.
The underwhelming C63 AMG interior's saving grace is the awesome one-piece, electrically adjustable, front sport seats with integrated head restraints. Figure hugging, yet supportive, (usually these are two mutually-exclusive performance seat concepts) the two front seats are simply the business.
ESP on? ESP off?
Dynamically a key aspect of the C63 has been its increased track - 35mm up front and 12mm on the rear axle - reducing dynamic wheel loads when cornering.
Suspension up front features a larger torsion bar stabiliser, new head bearings and dampers with rebound buffer springs to enhance stability, while a thorough suspension redesign has firmed up both the three-link front and multilink rear set ups by 100% over the standard C-Class.
Riding on 40mm profile 18-inch performance Continental or Pirelli rubber, the ride quality is hardly vintage limousine yet on good surfaces it's acceptable.
A huge issue with performance AMGs has always been the insular nature of their dynamic stability systems. You could switch the ESP off, but it would hide in some nether region of the car's electronics, just waiting to come back and reign you in. And this greatly frustrated performance-orientated drivers, who constitute the AMG customer profile.
Now AMG says it has cured all this electronic nannying. You can have ESP on. You can switch it to a benevolent ESP sports mode - fun - or ESP off. And this time it disengages for real (allegedly) until you overcook it at pace and touch the brakes mid-corner which reactivates it. Indeed, the ESP operation equates to Orwellian engineering double-speak of the highest degree.
The reason for ESP is justified by the 6.3-litre V8 nestled under the bonnet. The least potent version of the engine currently in production, it produces 336 kW at 6 800 r/min and 600 Nm of torque at 5 000 r/min. Not quite the 386 kW force of nature you'd find in the S- and CL63s. With a C63 weighing only 1730 kg, 336kW is plenty - and then some.
Obviously BMW and Audi acolytes are quick to point out how their sophisticated V8 M3s and RS4s valiantly need far less capacity to produce 309kW around a much higher 8 000r/min power peak. Cute enough, but Merc manages to price their lump of a V8 in range of comparable screaming German performance V8s.
The result is simple market segment competition, and the AMG is by far the most powerful engine. No contest. And running in a lower rev range for comparable performance, it should prove more durable too in the long run too.
Blip me up, or down?
The bane of AMG performance cars have always been their salient characteristic of utilising automatic transmissions - a dastardly concept in any performance enthusiast's frame of reference.
Automatic gearboxes have reached a startling level of sophistication though. And considering the immense torque characteristics of the AMG V8 engines, a clutch operation would either be very brittle or impossibly heavy to actuate in traffic.
Enter the 7G-Tronic speed-shift transmission, which amounts to seven swiftly activated ratios that are keenly responsive in automatic mode. When stirred along in "Manual" mode with the steering-mounted paddles, it even blips the throttle on downshifts, rendering an automatic heel-and-toe impersonation of the highest calibre.
On the way to Phakisa, the Free State roads were in an appalling state, yet the C63 rode out the bumps, tracking true and with a remarkable sense of refinement at high speed.
Around Phakisa it was a revelation. The bulbous feel and inert steering of previous C-Class AMGs has been banished. It feels awesomely planted, although even with the rear diffuser care needs to be taken when braking hard. C63 likes to be settled down and stable on turn in.
Neat, straight-line braking is rewarded with plenty of chassis-loaded steering feel and deft cornering responses. Poise and traction are epic, and it's attained without the aid of a rear limited-slip differential, which is part of the optional R52 000 performance package, including trim upgrades, composite brakes and rear-passenger side airbags.
The front suspension changes have endowed C63 with surfeit grip, yet communicative steering responses remain. Power is simply ubiquitous in presence and titanic in response.
From 2 500 r/min, in any gear, you are involuntarily catapulted forward with a resonating exhaust note so rich in tone it could only emanate from a large-capacity V8. Going from 0-100km/h in 4.5 seconds has never sounded this dramatic.
You'll love the auto 'box too. The throttle blipping function is superlative, ensuring you are always in control when downshifting before turning in and the throttle response is optimum when aiming for the apex.
It might be maddeningly fast, with comically epic overtaking urge, yet the nearly unflappable nature of the chassis set-up - I got it sideways only once, childishly braking mid-corner - leaves you in no doubt: this is the finest four-door car currently sporting an AMG bootlid badge.
Less C-Class, more AMG
The C63 engages like no Merc before. Newfangled steering precision encourages you to turn in with alacrity. The stupendous automatic gearbox makes you wonder why anybody would want a manual, and the V8 proves devastatingly driveable, in traffic or chasing the tachometer needle into the red.
So the average interior and oddly-angled footrest - thank the huge V8's firewall and typical left-to-right-hand drive conversion for local homologation - irritate.
Big deal, beyond these inconsequential issues, C63 is probably the pick of Germany's small executive super saloons currently.
R699 000 (R52 000 optional performance pack)