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New hot Mercedes-AMG E-Class does the better part of what a fast saloon ought to crushingly well, but also leaves unexpected room for improvement

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The Mercedes-AMG E 63 S 4Matic+ isn't quite the first production super-saloon to venture into six-hundred-and-something horsepower territory – that accolade went, Cadillac a couple of years ago, to the Cadillac CTS-V – but it's one whose arrival on UK roads still feels like a watershed moment, both for its maker and for its performance breed.

With this car, one of Europe’s most celebrated purveyors of the evergreen performance executive saloon is breaking with tradition in order to carry on going above and beyond our expectations.

Typically luxurious and well-equipped, the Mercedes-AMG E 63 is about eight-tenths of a quite brilliant performance saloon

Just like the fast saloons that AMG has been making so well for decades, the new E 63 has a forced-induction V8 engine powerful enough to be worthy of a contemporary supercar. But unlike those forbears, it switches from one driven axle to two, and from coil springs to adaptive air suspension.

Mercedes-AMG tweaks make E63 a real powerhouse

The drivetrain alteration will allow AMG much greater penetration in what must be its biggest single market, the USA, where four-wheel drive remains the key to selling premium-branded cars both on the eastern seaboard and elsewhere.

The suspension change, meanwhile, should allow AMG to create a broader base of flexibility for the E 63’s ride and handling, letting it remain poised and under control even when driven at the limit of that 604bhp, all-corner powertrain, but also to be more comfortable than any E 63 thus far. This will be our first extended test of the car anywhere on the road, and our first real chance to investigate the latter part of that potential.

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Mercedes-AMG will offer the E 63 in both regular form (563bhp) and as this more powerful S model, and with a choice of four-door saloon or five-door estate bodystyles. The AMG E-Class range is propped up a 3.0-litre V6 E43 model which is good for 395bhp, while we expect all three engines to appear in the E-Class Coupé and Cabriolet in due course.

All models have a clutch-based four-wheel-drive system that can send up to 100 percent of engine torque to either axle, and that works downstream of a nine-speed automatic gearbox. 

Opt for the E 63 S and you get access to a Drift mode, through which you can effectively disengage the car’s front driveshafts and return to AMG’s traditional rear-wheel-drive mechanical specification. However, as we’ll get on to explaining, this mode is only accessible after much button-pressing, and in quite particular circumstances.

Unleashing the blown AMG V8 motor

As quick as the majority of super sports cars in a straight line; and quicker, surely, than anyone would even consider driving it with any of its passenger seats occupied. The E63 S’ engine is breathtaking: wonderfully noisy, violent and more authentic-sounding than so many modern ‘piped-in’ V8s. Using twin-scroll turbochargers to produce its 604bhp, it runs in an even more fierce specification here than in  Mercedes-AMG’s range-topping GT R two-seater sports car. And it’s that torque peak of 627lb ft, together with the unburstable traction provided by the car’s drivetrain, that makes the E 63 so rapid.

Launch the car using the Race Start function and the driveline seems to hesitate for the briefest of instants as you lift your left foot off the brake pedal – as if deciding afresh every time exactly how many engine revs to use; how much torque to allow into the driveline in the opening split-seconds of your run; how much to send to each axle; and finally, how to split what’s under the loaded rear axle between the individual rear tyres. Seems fair enough; there are a few sums to do there, after all.

But the pause is almost imperceptible. Before first gear is done and dusted, the car feels as it is running at a palm-moistening full chat. The delivery isn’t as seamless as in some turbocharged V8s; it surges a little as the turbos recover from every post-shift interruption in throttle, rushing towards the redline with gathering force, too. This is, of course, the sort of performance whose wildest extent you can only enjoy for an instant on the road, and even then only if you’re brave enough. But it’s intoxicating, and it keeps Mercedes-AMG on the cutting edge of the super-saloon class as far as acceleration is concerned, which is plainly where it wants to be.

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Mercedes-AMG E-Class is a docile creature at heart

In day-to-day driving, the E 63 S’s engine behaves itself well, responding crisply and demanding very few compromises. It doesn’t seem to rely on revs to be ready with its urge, there’s very little lag to contend with and it’s managed skillfully by the nine-speed automatic transmission.

As ever with these thunder-saloons, the real pleasure is to be taken in selecting manual mode and drinking in long, woofling bursts of speed in higher intermediate gears and from fairly low revs. The difference here is that, with so much torque on tap, you can be going very quickly in almost no time once you sink the accelerator – even if you don’t bother with a downshift at all.

The E63’s new powertrain is clearly one that can be enjoyed at almost any pace, in almost any place, and in any mode you fancy, though. But can the same be said of its chassis? I’m not so sure. While the car has abundant grip and stability, and quite startlingly flat and agile handling, it’s plainly not as tactile, not as balanced or absorbing and not as supple-riding on the road as the E 63 used to be.

AMG’s new three-chamber air suspension system ought to have put more notional distance between the car’s Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and Race driving programs. Even in Comfort, the E 63 S is very firm-riding - both in town and on an averagely uneven backroad. At motorway speeds and on smoother surfaces it feels more settled and calm – which will be good news to prospective owners planning to use the E63 as big, powerful saloons are most commonly used: to cover big distances.

But such is the suspension’s inability to isolate you from even the smallest ridge or lump in the road (a common thread of modern Mercedes-AMG saloons, to be fair, and not normally a bothersome one) and its restlessness over bigger bumps that you seldom have the patience to tolerate a firmer setting than is absolutely necessary for more than a mile or two.

But tolerate you must if you want to find out how much handling amusement the E 63 S can ultimately give you, because only with extra-firm Race mode engaged, the car’s ESP disengaged and its manual transmission mode selected, can you activate the car’s Drift mode – and to finally discover what 627lb ft driving through the rear wheels actually feels like.

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On a decent and dry surface, like a modern racing circuit, where you know there’s nothing coming the other way, Drift mode is every bit as much fun as you’d hope. The E 63’s sharpened handling agility makes for less initial understeer on the limit and, in spite of the directness of the car’s steering, its cornering attitude very quickly becomes as benignly adjustable as ever a powerful rear-wheel-drive saloon’s was.

But that’s not good enough. The truth is, because Drift mode is such a faff to engage and operates in such particular circumstances, you’re hardly ever likely to use it on the road. More importantly, when it’s not engaged, the E 63’s handling is considerably less playful and absorbing than you’d like it to be.

The four-wheel-drive system lays on progressively less and less stability bias as you dial up through the drive modes, but it never puts the car into the setting you really want it in: the one that’ll brighten up any routine trip with a vivid dose of chassis communication and the odd lively wiggle of throttle-steer. You just want 604bhp to give you a car that’s more fun to drive every day as well as that much faster across the ground than the average four-door - but the E 63 only gives you qualified satisfaction.

As for standard equipment found on the Mercedes-AMG E-Class range, the entry-level E 43 gets 19in alloys, a diamond grille, red seat belts, Nappa leather upholstery, and numerous AMG tweaked parts, including the air suspension, bodykit, brake callipers and exhaust system.

Upgrade to the E 63, and you’ll find a mechanical rear axle limited slip differential, a race-tuned nine-speed automatic gearbox, a quad exhaust system, a cylinder deactivation system (which switches off four cylinders in the pursuit of fuel efficiency), AMG sports seats, electrically adjustable front seats and steering wheel, and Mercedes’ Comand infotainment system complete with a 12.3in display and 12.3in digital instrument cluster.

Going whole hog and getting the full fat E 63 S includes 20in alloy wheels, dynamic engine mounts, an electronic rear axle limited slip differential and AMG bucket seats.

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Typically luxurious and well-equipped, the Mercedes-AMG E 63 S 4Matic+ is about eight-tenths of a quite brilliant performance saloon. It’s faster than we might have imagined a luxury four-door would ever be ten years ago, and it can be magnificently exciting. And, slightly hollow and restless ride aside, it’s also hugely secure and adhesive on the road and a whole heap of fun on the track.

But, at the risk of making what may at first seem like a ridiculous statement about a 600-horsepower AMG saloon, it’s the opposition of those two driving styles, and the yawning gap between them, that might leave you just a little bit cold after a while.

Somehow, having to choose between a Drift mode that’s not accessible or usable enough, and other driving modes that simply aren’t absorbing enough, makes the E 63 almost as likely to frustrate you as it is to blow your mind.

By AMG’s standards, this is a car that seems unexpectedly prosaic, when a better execution of the technology within it might have made it feel supremely sophisticated. But then, where fast saloons are concerned, AMG own standards are high. And in other ways, you sense that it’ll take other car makers a long time to follow where this car is leading.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Mercedes-AMG E 63 First drives