Automobile manufacturers like to show off their latest creations in settings that will provide a memorable backdrop. The more exotic the offering, the more exotic the locale. For example, as I write this, Herr Brown is in South Africa to drive the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. What that usually means, for those journalists who have made the journey to experience the car rather than the heures d'ouvre menu, is frustration. One is often jet-lagged from a ten-hour flight. Navigation by itself can be a challenge. Road signs are in a foreign language, the pavement unfamiliar. Evaluating a car with the same criteria one would use back home is impossible. The roads are constructed differently, their surfaces and character different. One doesn't know what's around the next corner of this never-before-seen road, but it's safe to guess the asphalt will be narrow and the runoff will be a rock wall. Conservatism is the key to remaining employed, healthy and even alive.
Mercedes recently provided an altogether different experience, allowing journalists to drive AMG models in a safe setting and learn more about the cars than we ever could on public roads. A few days after watching a DTM race at Hockenheim, we returned to the track for a little driving of our own.
The Hockenheimring itself is a superb facility, worthy of its history. It runs clockwise, with the start on the front straight, longest on the course. The North curve, a fast, roughly 80-degree right, leads to another straight, which ends with a sharp right into a wider left, followed by the Parabolica curve, a long, left-hand sweeper that first tightens, then opens back out to almost straight. Almost any car can take Parabolica flat out, achieving quite high speed before virtually coming to a stop and making a U-turn at "Spitzkehre," the hairpin where many passes are made. Then it is a long drag race, unless following the DTM layout in which a loop is taken onto the infield, with a short chute leading to a 90-degree left in front of the huge Mercedes grandstand, and another sharp right back onto the straight. The grandstand section begins with the 90-degree, right-hand Agip curve, then a short straight and the 180-degree Sachs curve left, followed by a kink and the South curve, another 180-degree reversal interrupted by the briefest of straights. South curve exits onto the front straight. It hardly needs to be said the track is a world-class layout. It is safe, with good runoff everywhere it is needed. It has secrets to be unlocked, but rewards those who learn them with a satisfying rhythm, especially through the grandstand area. There is just enough rolling undulation built into the flat surrounding terrain to make that section as fun as it is challenging. Top DTM cars lap in the 1:35 range. The AMG street cars took longer.
We were led by factory drivers in a bi-motor A Class, which was built by AMG engineers. One drove, while another watched the leading street car. They started conservatively, because we were just learning the track. As the sessions went on, if the first production car's driver was keeping up without drama, the rabbit ran a little faster. If the shining star shrank, the rabbit slowed down. It was a chance to feel the cars out and approach their limits repeatedly, knowing what the next turn held.
Powered by AMG's improved, Garrett-turbocharged, 3.0L version of Mercedes' 2.7L, five-cylinder diesel, the C30 CDI is not available in the U.S. I drove it first, because I was curious and the chances of driving it again were small. Also, I like smaller, lighter cars, and figured a C Class just might be more fun on track than the larger options. I was right; the C30 was surprisingly well-balanced, in spite of the weight of the iron-block diesel. It was willing to turn in and didn't saturate to severe understeer at the limit.
The oil-burning powerplant was surprisingly punchy. Power peaks with a modest (for this crowd) 231 hp at 3800 rpm, but torque is an outstanding 373 lb-ft from 2000-2500 rpm. Needless to say, it pulled through and out of turns well, and I had no problem at all keeping up. It was the first time I'd driven a diesel in high-performance mode, and I was impressed. If I had to pay high European fuel prices, but wanted AMG performance and chassis tuning, I might well find myself among the 40 percent of European drivers who choose to tolerate a slightly noisier idle.
I knew going in that the E55 is the fastest street car Mercedes has ever built, at least until the SLR reaches customers' sweating palms. Even though the requirements of exhaust packaging choke it to 24 hp less than the S55 and CL55, the E55 weighs "only" 3990 lb, instead of 4300 for the S and 4255 for the CL. The advantage in acceleration can be felt, as can the greater sophistication and responsiveness of the newer chassis. On this day, and back home on real roads, the brand-new E has a feeling of mechanical wonderfulness that is diminished, if only slightly, in the older S platform.
My previous experience with the E55 was on a rainy October day for its launch. Wet, narrow, winding German roads I'd never seen before meant power oversteer was induced just a little too easily. At Hockenheim, grip was plentiful and conditions superb. The balance was not dissimilar to an E46 M3, with enough understeer to keep an enthusiastic, likely also younger and newer, AMG customer safe. The nose-out stance could be countered with a heavy right foot, but doing so takes considerable skill and confidence, especially at the high speeds of Hockenheim.
S55 and CL55
In real life, an S55 with traction control disabled is the ultimate iron fist in a velvet glove, the 493-hp lap of luxury doing burnouts at will around town. Brake torquing is for wusses. I have trouble driving the S55 on the street without acting like a spoiled sixteen-year-old who borrowed dad's car for the night, the kind of jerk I hated in high school, who had no idea how privileged he really was, but was going to bag a cheerleader if he didn't crash or get arrested.
At Hockenheim, it was another game. The S and CL are basically the same, except that the CL is more private and the S provides the choice of practical family transportation or being chauffeured. As outstanding as they are on the Autobahn and off the line, these were simply never meant to be sports cars. They understeer excessively, and their bigness is never more apparent than when threading a needle. The brakes, as large as they are, got closer to serious fade on the heavyweight S and CL than on the rest.
The CLK55 and G55 are the only AMG products to still have naturally-aspirated V8s. In the case of the CLK, it is because the low hoodline of the smaller car won't clear the Lysholm compressor. It boasts a mere 362 hp and 376 lb-ft of torque, but compensates by being the lightest V8-powered AMG on offer, at 3635 lb. I drove the CLK55 earlier in the day on a slalom course set up with cones. It handled that exercise in patience with dignity and aplomb, and had sufficient sauce to pirouette at the turn-around cone. One could do far worse in choosing a personal luxury car or, apparently, the roof panel for a DTM car.
Before joining Mercedes for this AMG event, I had just rented an SLK200 for four days to visit tuners, cruising at 180kph on the autobahn, and having what fun I could on the hilly farm roads of the north. The SLK had been a good car, seven circles higher than the GM products I usually end up in when renting in the U.S. Though more than satisfactory transportation, it lacked performance, and not just under the hood. All-season tires and basic suspension combined with convertible chassis rigidity to make its joy that of driving a German roadster through evergreen forests and grassy hilltops on an idyllic German spring evening.
I had hoped the SLK32, with its 349 hp supercharged V6, would redeem the chassis, and it did. There are few itches that more grip, bigger brakes, and a more powerful engine will not scratch. Plenty fast, and with acceptable balance, the SLK nevertheless admitted to its age in the subtlest of ways. Built on the platform of the previous, long-gone C Class sedan, the SLK is the oldest Mercedes passenger car in production. Chassis flex is less apparent on a smooth race track than on meandering country lanes, but the SLK32 has benefited only a little from the progress Mercedes has made in steering feel and overall refinement over the last decade. It feel as if it shared only a little of its DNA with the other cars here.
Driving the SL was a revelation, certain evidence that someone, somewhere at Mercedes-Benz, Gets It. Every AMG model is a superb automobile, but some are better than others. Each is constrained by the necessity of being built on the skeleton of a production automobile, and even Mercedes must compete on price at most levels. But because the SL embodies more than a century of excellence, cutting corners is itself an unacceptable price. The SL stands head and shoulders above the rest of Mercedes' line, and the SL55 is likewise the best of AMG.
Though I didn't save the best for last on the track, I had a solid feel for Hockenheim's line when my turn came in the ultimate convertible. Its tires are the largest, and its suspension the most sophisticated, using the rubber most effectively. Thus, the SL's limits are higher than those of the other cars.
The SL55 did everything right. As with any good car, I was able to back off the slightest bit, and the SL tracked perfectly, almost finding the smoothest line by itself. Making it go where it should presented no challenge; it simply went there, the result of fundamentally good steering feel and correct chassis balance. At the pace we set, with no accumulated altitude to unload through the brakes and straights between each corner, the electronic braking system and its 14.2-in. rotors were able to keep up with the SL's 4235 lb.
Driving the SL55 at speed proved that, in spite of any recent complaints, the three-pointed star has not tarnished. The challenge facing Mercedes is to infuse each new platform it designs with the same goodness. Apart from the thrust and joyful sound of a large displacement, high performance engine, which AMG does better than any American manufacturer, Mercedes understands how to make a chassis good. It knows steering feel, it knows balance and it knows everything that supporters of other marques prefer in their chosen vehicles. I'm watching to see these qualities become available throughout the line. The huge advancement the current E Class achieved over its predecessor is most encouraging.
Complete specifications of all AMG and other Mercedes-Benz models can be found at www.mbusa.com.
· For several members of our group, partaking of AMG's hospitality in this case had an almost spiritual component. Hockenheim is, like any significant race track, hallowed ground. The greatness of men and their deeds performed on it echoes through the silence of the weeks after the race, even across years and decades. It was at Hockenheim that Jim Clark drove his last race. The small memorial where his road reached its end in the two-layered forest was removed to make way for track improvements and extensions over the last year. Those younger ones of us who were there for the first time were unable to complete that particular pilgrimage. The sadness of disappointment was itself a reminder that time is all we really have, and it waits for no one.
· AMG invited several of its best American customers to join the journalists. This was as important for my understanding of the AMG brand as any technical communication. Whereas many automobile enthusiasts see their obsession as a framework for their lives, and organize themselves around the objects of their passion, AMG customers tend to see these cars as a highly pleasurable element of an otherwise full and rich life, making it fuller and richer. They deliver themselves to their daily destinations with speed, style, comfort and just a little bit of sparkle, but they wouldn't want to miss sleep, work or social opportunities preparing their AMG car for a track day. If track days have a corner in an AMG owner's bag, they generally happen with a different car.