First Drive: 2018 Mercedes-AMG E 63 S 4MATIC+

Faro, Portugal – The decree of “4MATIC for all” for the Mercedes-AMG lineup of luxury performance machines a few years back was not met with universal enthusiast cheers, even though Mercedes-Benz’s long-time all-wheel-drive system was a very popular option across Canada in pretty much every market and vehicle line. The fact that Mercedes-AMG has since introduced its GT two-seater sports car and stunning C 63 S in rear-drive-only models suggests that there’s been a rear-drive renaissance for Mercedes-Benz’s go-fast sub-brand.

That new plus sign ironically denotes that one can take away power from the front wheels entirely. This funnels all 603 rampaging horses through its back two tires – grippy until suddenly, masterfully overwhelmed.

Or a re-realization by the company that performance enthusiasts who like to go fast in a straight line also like to occasionally go fast sideways. Whether at a dry track in a screeching haze of expensive rubber, on a wiggly wet skidpad nearby, or in a temptingly deserted and snowy parking lot, there’s a raw Neanderthal appeal to swinging the car’s back end out with too much power, then counter-steering your way back rally-style, playing deftly on the limit of car control and spinning out in a game of tail-out oversteer.

No matter how rare this opportunity arises for most drivers of six-figure executive mid-size sport sedans, it’s part of the emotional, adrenaline-infused appeal of responsive performance machines. And it’s also largely impossible with most all-wheel-drive systems.

But not for the 2018 Mercedes-AMG E 63 S 4MATIC+, slated to arrive in spring 2017. The upcoming super-sporting four-door comes standard with the brand’s updated 4MATIC+ all-wheel-drive system; but that new plus sign ironically denotes that one can take away power from the front wheels entirely. This funnels all 603 rampaging horses through its back two tires – grippy until suddenly, masterfully overwhelmed.

Now this is some serious addition by subtraction.

Drift Mode brings selectable rear-wheel drive to all-wheel-drive sport sedan

Mercedes calls this Drift Mode. Neighbours who suddenly start seeing black circular stripes on their upscale cul-de-sacs may call it tire-shredding hooliganism, before calling the authorities. Owners that wisely keep such capabilities off public roads will want to book track or skidpad time with their dealer or local car club – or perhaps your friendly tire dealer, who could likely drum up some potential business here.

The E 63 S 4MATIC+ may be a mouthful to pronounce, but it’s also the most powerful E-Class ever. It outmuscles its main nemesis, the 560 hp, rear-wheel-drive BMW M5, even in Alpina B6 guise. Plus it handily outpowers rival performance sedans like the Audi S6, Lexus GS F, and the V6-only Maserati Ghibli S Q4, though not the brashly powerful 640 hp Cadillac CTS-V, with its Corvette-derived 6.2L V8.

Interestingly, Mercedes-Benz executives don’t see the former corporate cousin Tesla Model S in any of its powerful iterations as competition for this Mercedes-AMG, as the all-electric Tesla is considered part of a totally different segment. This despite the Tesla being the quickest-accelerating four-door on the planet, with a 0–100 km/h time in the mid-to-high two-second range, though the E 63’s 3.4 second sprint time is certainly right up there at the front of the gas-powered pack – and ahead of the burly CTS-V by 0.3 seconds.

Power boosted from familiar Mercedes-AMG twin-turbo V8

All that power comes courtesy of a deep-breathing 4.0L twin-turbo V8, an engine largely known for powering the Mercedes-AMG GT sports car and C 63 S sedan and coupe, with output here increased to 627 lb-ft of torque available from as low as 2,500 rpm, to go with its 603 high-revving ponies. All this power is transferred to the wheels via a nine-speed dual-clutch transmission that’s been tweaked to provide quicker response off the line.

From a dead stop, the E 63’s hefty 1,950 kg curb weight and turbo engine does mean that there’s a beat of delay when one stomps on the accelerator from rest, as we did multiple times on empty stretches in and around Faro in the south of Portugal, before taking it to the technically challenging and super-fast race track in nearby Portimão.

For immediate eye-crushing acceleration from a stop, you need to work with this car’s advanced mechanicals and software. Mercedes-AMG engineers made it easier to access the RaceStart launch control function, which now can be activated in Sport, Sport+ or track-only Race modes. Simply pin the brake pedal hard with your left, and then floor the throttle, allowing the car to choose the default and presumably transmission-saving launch point, which landed at roughly 3,500 rpm and stayed there for our various attempts.

Once you let go of that brake, the explosion of forward thrust will throw your head back into your head restraint hard enough to impress your Italian-exotic-driving neighbour. With the RaceStart, there’s no trace of that software-, turbo- and/or weight-induced hesitation from a dead stop.

Hot laps behind former F1 driver showcased amazing grip and speed

Helping to put all that power to the ground is the newly designated AMG Performance 4MATIC+ all-wheel-drive system that’s now infinitely variable, meaning there’s no “regular” front to rear torque split, though there is always some power flowing to the rear wheels. Torque can not only be shifted between back and front, but side to side as well, letting the E 63 S shift power to the outside wheels when cornering.

Of course, if you don’t want any electronic interference between that monster engine and those two back tires, there’s always Drift Mode. It’s purposely a little more complicated to engage than the launch control system, as it should be, since it’s potentially more dangerous – with this much power, it was likely tougher for Daimler’s lawyers to sign off on this system than the engineers.

Still, it’s a worthy sequence to know: first put it into Race mode, turn off the stability control entirely by holding down its button, then pull both paddles back towards you. Voila, your all-wheel-drive luxury sport sedan becomes a no-mercy, no-electronic-guardian-angels-whatsoever fire-breathing drift machine.

Unfortunately, or perhaps purposefully, AMG folks only told us that secret code after our fast laps behind Bernd Schneider, five-time DTM champion and former F1 driver. And as we only discovered later, Drift Mode was especially disabled during the street portion of our media intro drives. So this is something we’ll have to look forward to trying when it arrives on Canadian shores in the spring.

But even playing high-speed follow-the-racer, while toggling between Race and Sport+ modes, the driver can feel the back end on the limit of adhesion, its all-wheel drive system adjusting power continually. A few times the tail of the E 63 S started to drift out wide before you felt power shift frontwards, and it would straighten out its line confidently, with only a smidge more safety-oriented understeer (front-end plowing) in Sport+ mode.

Top track speed is electronically limited to 300 km/h, well above that of the Tesla, but below the 322 km/h V-max of the CTS-V. And though we didn’t quite make it up to that top speed on this track, I saw a brief 260 km/h flash on the optional head-up display at the end of the Portimão track’s long straight before stomping hard on its (also optional) carbon ceramic brakes.

Full-on braking from those speeds produced a bit of hairy rear-end dancing around on the lightly loaded rear tires, though it always turned in responsively with smooth inputs. Most curious was the stability control light momentarily flickering when powering down that high-speed straight, as even a car this powerful shouldn’t have wheelspin at 200-plus km/h.

Either way, we can verify that the E 63 S has dispensed with the usual ECU-limited 250 km/h “agreed” top speed amongst German luxury automakers, though it is still electronically limited to 300 km/h.

Extensive performance capabilities balanced by on-road refinement

Back on the street, the E 63’s serious performance potential is balanced by a comfort awareness, but not priority. This is evident as soon as you slide into the highly bolstered seat, which may be snug for some, but does offer some limited bolster adjustments. Multi-contour seats that actively “hug” driver and passenger torsos in corners will also be available, which also feature a “hot stone massage” setting.

The usual Mercedes-Benz Comfort, Sport and Sport+ modes are available from the Dynamic Select program that adjusts the steering feel (barely), exhaust note (more noticeably), suspension (also yes), stability (yes) and transmission (good god, yes) settings. These settings can all be individualized using Mercedes-Benz’s useful push-and-twist controller-based COMAND system, if you’re partial to either of these or a particular stability control setting.

Comfort mode clearly relaxes all responses and road inputs, making highway cruising a refined affair, even at 150 km/h, though most of the highways we encountered showed no evidence of exposure to a truly harsh winter. There was some thumping over a few bumps in all modes from the super-low-profile Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires (265/35ZR20s front, 295/30ZR20s rear), but a real daily ride conclusion will have to wait until it arrives on these shores for sampling.

Speaking of real-world impressions, though Mercedes-Benz quotes an overall fuel economy average of 9.1 L/100km on the super-optimistic European (NEDC) scale, the actual readouts from our aggressive drive read a much more sobering average of 19.5 L/100km, and 18.9 L/100km since its last fill-up. Yes, the nine-speed automatic and refined cylinder deactivation system help, which bypasses half the cylinders under low load. No specific Canadian fuel consumptions numbers are available yet, but single digit fuel efficiency averages will likely be optimistic here, no matter how gently one drives.

Other refinements of the mainstream E-Class also impress here, including the touch-sensitive nodes on the steering wheel that help replace more tactile but occasionally issue-prone buttons, and a semi-autonomous Drive Pilot function that allows the car to accelerate, follow the car in front – even around curvy roads – then come to a full stop on its own.

Lovely accent lighting can also be adjusted to the driver’s preference, while rear seat warming and temperature functions can blast enough heat to feel from the front, as we discovered when a shifting backpack warmed up the rear seat area to furnace-imitating levels.

Conclusion

Canadian prices have not yet been set, but considering the 2016 E 63 landed at roughly $110,000, seems likely that Mercedes-AMG’s mid-size missile will once more land at the high end of its segment’s price range, matching its high levels of performance and innovation.

By the time it arrives in the second quarter of 2017, there may be a wagon version of the E 63 S as well, continuing another fine Mercedes-AMG tradition, as power wagons have become very rare beasts in North America in the past few years.

Either one will offer a refined and practical luxury, with a beast-like heart that’s always ready for a bit of hooliganism when the time is right.

Fire-breathing 2018 Mercedes-AMG E 63 S dishes refined performance with side of hooliganism 12/7/2016 7:00:00 AM