Johannesburg - As prelude to the 50th anniversary celebrations of Daimler’s performance specialist arm AMG this year, the Mercedes-AMG C43 4-Matic - the latest coupé offering in Affalterbach’s mighty ensemble of precision road-instruments - has now been made available locally.
While not as powerful as the headliner 63 series models, the recently launched six-cylinder derivatives have already proven themselves; fully meeting the AMG brand claim of “Driving Performance”.
It’s against this background that a meeting was arranged between the rebellious middle child of the extended AMG family and the newest red-hot coupé from another highly regarded German factory tuner…
The M2, released in 2016, is the latest coupé (discounting the homologation special M4 GTS) in the hallowed 45-year history of BMW M GmbH. And besides this it also pays tribute to the iconic 02-series, in particular the 2002 Turbo, revealed just over half a century ago.
Our two anniversary coupés also share some other similarities:
They’re both driven by highly-strung six-cylinder petrol mills with very similar performance figures, they utilise advanced auto ’boxes to shift power to the wheels, both have different size tyres front and rear, and their retail prices are comparable.
There are some differences too. Sharing its underpinnings with the Merc C-Class means the C43 is slightly larger and heavier, and utilises a bespoke four-wheel drive system to transfer power to road.
In contrast, Munich’s smallest M-sibling, arguably the best M-car now available for not so silly money and in our view the model currently closest in execution to the original E30 M3… is endowed with a more traditional rear-wheel drive system, albeit with a trick diff to assist traction.
But, I hear you ask, why not compare the smaller Beemer to the similar sized Mercedes-AMG A45?
Well, simply because we are of the view that the latest AMG Coupe is closer to the M2 in what they both represent than to the four-door A45 hatch, even with its powerful, but soulless turbocharged two-litre four-cylinder mill.
In terms of size, should the Merc not actually be judged against the 4-Series Coupe? You’re quite correct. It should.
However, BMW does not (yet) have a direct competitor to the bi-turbo C43 (which incidentally is the rebadged C450 AMG) in this range.
And it won’t have one until the rumoured mid-range M340i and M440i models, mooted for when the upcoming G20 generation 3-Series (and subsequent 4-Series) make their appearance.
The Audi S5 Coupé is also conceptually compatible, but while endowed with a seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox and quattro four-wheel drive, Ingolstadt’s contender is less powerful than our duelling duo - its 3.0-litre V6 TFSI unit “only” rated for 245kW (on par with the output claimed for BMW’s 440i).
Based on Stuttgart’s C-Class platform, the junior AMG is slightly bigger than its Bavarian counterpart with a length of 4686mm versus the M2’s 4468mm and a 147mm longer wheelbase. However, in terms of width and height the differences are negligible.
Even though the Swabian bristles with Affalterbach aesthetics and dynamic body trimming, including aggressive frontal treatment with huge air inlets next to the diamond grille, extra outlets and diffuser at the rear, it still appears subdued next to the Bavarian barnstormer.
In Long Beach Blue metallic the smallest M-car with its bulging wheel arches, gaping air intakes and oversized gun-metal wheels looks focused and purposeful - further strengthened by the way its chunky form hunkers down on the tarmac.
In comparison, the customary coupé lines of the AMG seems slender and elegant, with just a hint to the explosive power lurking underneath its metal jacket.
Both are abundantly adorned with their respective speed merchant trademarks - the M and AMG nomenclature proudly displayed front and rear, outside and inside.
Also, internally the M2 appears more performance focused, its dash and instrument panel wrapping around the driver, cossetting the occupants, while the Merc interior feels spacious and airy - more elegant; less sporty.
Both are kitted to the hilt, with everything from multi-function sport steering wheels to multi-info displays, but a head-up display, lane departure and blind spot warning are options, while navigation is standard in the BMW, but optional on the Merc.
Fit and finish in both contenders are exemplary, and materials used of the highest standard, but head space and legroom in the rear of the M2 is limited compared to its slightly larger challenger.
For the latest C-Class Mercedes-AMG, the Affalterbach-based development teams took the red-top 3.0-litre V6 twin-turbo engine and shoehorned it into a two-door derivative.
The silky Vee churns out 270kW and an impressive 520Nm of peak torque, comparing favourably to the 280kW and 475Nm from the blown 2.0-litre in the smaller A45.
It’s also as close to the M2’s figures as a pig's squeal is to his snout - 272kW and 465Nm of torque (500Nm with overboost) delivered by probably the smoothest, most refined straight-six power plant available.
This means our Teutonic twins - in terms of power output - are very closely matched. But a weight difference of 140kg, due to the extra mass of the C43’s four-wheel drive system and size, swings the performance pendulum in favour of the M2.
With the M2’s M-DCT In Sport Plus mode and launch control selected, the Beemer scoots from 0-100km/h in a sizzling 4.3 seconds, compared to a claimed 4.7 seconds for the medium-hot AMG with all sport systems active, while both are limited to a top speed of 250km/h.
In keeping with its extrovert design features the M2’s engine note exudes confidence, quietly at first, but with growing bravado throughout the rev range, culminating in a glorious crescendo close to the red line.
The melodious sound of the Merc six-cylinder is too muted for a serious performance unit, and even with the sound button on the centre console activated it still is too hushed and subtle - more so compared to the racket of its bigger AMG cousins.
On the road…
Big noise or not, the ’43 really comes to life in the twisties, its unique newly developed front axle and rear axle with optimised elastokinematics, combined with the stiff C-Class platform, contributing to its handling prowess.
In Sport Plus mode fast-shifting 9G-Tronic transmission extracts the best out of the torquey V6 and just to listen to it double-declutching when entering a corner adds to the exhilaration. The 4Matic all-wheel drive system is sufficiently rear-biased (31 to 69%) to have some fun, yet it’s quite difficult to provoke the ’Benz, even with all the traction systems “off”.
The Ride Control suspension is quite hard in Sport Plus, but much more complaint than the A45’s harsh ride in normal mode. Further adding to its allure was its good stopping power and accurate speed-sensitive sports steering, which gave better feedback in normal mode, not in sport.
The new ’43 Coupé sets a benchmark for Mercedes-AMG’s mid-range performance products, as it feels so much crisper, better balanced and yes, even more eager, than its A45 counterpart. Driven in isolation it feels really special, but when measured against the magnificent M2 one soon realises its dynamic shortcomings, the most prominent being its added weight and softer suspension.
The praises of Munich’s manic M have been sung excessively, so there’s no real point in elaborating. Suffice to say it’s the most balanced, most competent and undeniably the most proficient rear-wheel drive junior performance car out there.
There are some drawbacks, though. Its suspension is quite hard, not jarringly so, but firmer than most, and because of this its ride quality suffers over undulations. It’s also not particularly fond of interspersed ruts, and one also at needs to be conscious of its low ride height at all times. Oh, and don’t ding those unique 19" wheels, they don’t come cheap.
The many virtues of BMW Motorsport’s smallest sibling are really emphasised on track. Being a real driver’s car this is where it comes into its own.
It truly came alive on the flat tarmac and tight corners of Zwartkops race track, while the heavier, slightly softer sprung Merc (with standard 18" tyres) was less comfortable in the harsh high-performance environment.
The M2’s turn-in is sharp, yet controlled, and the harder you push it, the more it asks from you. The E-diff helps to turn its head, and with the nanny systems switched off it exhibits oversteer, but so controlled you want to tease it even more…
The ’43 bravely attacks the corners, and relies on its good brakes and 4Matic system to hustle through speedily, but if you push more, the only reward is understeer - killing all the speed you carried in.
However, given its weight disadvantage and auto ’box not suited to track use, it fared quite well, with a fastest time of 1 min 15.3 recorded, against the Beemer jägerbomb’s really quick 1:13.8.
By comparison, the A45 hatchback manages a 1:14.6 around Zwartkops (as recorded by the instructors of the AMG Driving Academy) - slightly faster than its heavier stablemate, but still about a second off the time of the super quick M2.
While very similar in terms of power and torque delivery, as well as styling and design, our two German Anniversary Coupés are anything but identical.
Still, the AMG C43 4Matic is currently probably Stuttgart’s closest contender to the M2. It may not be as fast, or as focused, but it can hold its own in the power stakes, at the same time being the more relaxed, elegant cruiser.
Therefore both will appeal to specific target markets, with the BMW aimed squarely at the enthusiast, the driver who wants to make even the most mundane trip an adventure, while the Merc will undoubtedly find wider favour.