German super-wagons. Possibly the greatest triumph of human engineering over the laws of physics. The Audi RS6 Avant and Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG S 4 Matic, heirs to the unforgettable RS2 Porsche Avant and AMG Hammer, were created to make mincemeat of long highway miles and humiliate showy exotics at traffic light contests. But surely no one buys them to shave tenths of a second from a lap time.
The Nürburgring Nordschleife is no ordinary track day playground. From Ruf's '80s promotional Faszination movie clip (where test driver Stefan Roser, in casual street clothes, blasts through each corner in the frantic Yellowbird) to Gran Turismo 4 fame, this one-of-a-kind stretch of road hidden in the woods of the Eifel Mountains is not only a slice of motoring culture but part-creator of it.
It's a cliche, but this is still the place for the definitive test of man and machine. The Nordschleife is a track like no other, simultaneously beautiful and lethal. Going on for 13 miles, it's unusually long for a track. But the most striking thing once you're here is the difference in altitudes. Each straight ends with a sharp uphill run. There's 985 feet of difference between the highest and the lowest part of this never-ending roller coaster.
Add a relatively narrow track width of 30 feet, Armco barriers about 5 feet from the racing line (in most places) with scarcely any run-off areas, trees making every corner blind, and ever-changing weather conditions (thank the clouds trapped in the valley where the track is located) and the result is the best driving experience for mere mortals and the best proving ground for the car industry. Every pound, every detail of performance is felt dramatically and each mistake punished severely.
Leaving the paddock, a Nordschleife conqueror is treated with a harsh compression at Tiergarten and a difficult braking area to the Hohenrain chicane that opens a technical section ending at Flugplatz, its name taken from a nasty tendency to send cars airborne (an airfield also used to be nearby). A couple of sweeping corners and from the surprising narrow left starts the Adenauer Forst. Some nerve-racking moments later, the brave driver sees the Karussell, that iconic banked 270-degree left-hander Juan Manuel Fangio tackled by aiming at the highest tree at the entrance (let's hope it's still the same one after 60 years). Then the most exciting part comes with drops and blind corners pushing stomach up to throat with even greater force. Out on the Brünnchen (the most-photographed section) and through Schwalbenschwanz to Small Karussell, which throws the car back onto the main straight, where a car can at last use its power to achieve scary speeds. OK, that's one lap done.
Back in the 1920s, when the Nürburgring was built, it wasn't that different from other tracks of that era, like Reims in France or Spa-Francorchamps, just over the Belgian border. But while other circuits became shorter, more civilized, or closed altogether, the northern loop of the Nürburgring (hence its name: Nordschleife) has survived to present times without any major changes. One lap is four times the length of the Circuit of the Americas, it contains three cities in its inner borders, and it's a public road. Yes, anyone with a driving license can enter it during the "tourist rides" that take place most days of the week for the best part of the year. Of course, it's quite special for a public road. To start with, there's a toll. Quite a lot: One lap costs 27 euros ($34). To make things more bearable, a nine-lap pass is 209 euros ($260), which is really enough for a whole day. Or sell everything, move to the area, buy an annual pass, and use it every day.
It's a tempting idea for many. The distinct atmosphere makes this place a car enthusiast's Mecca. In the surrounding towns, gas stations, and hotels, there are many souvenirs of the great drivers and past races ranging from autographs to gear to parts of the actual cars. Random supercars with registration plates from all over the world buzz along the local roads along with masked test mules of the cars we'll hear about in two years trying to be inconspicuous. Meanwhile, a group of Japanese engineers in the nearby Rasthaus take a break from working on their new JDM special.
During public rides, helmets are advised but not really popular among drivers. Still, all cars have to wear registration plates and they can overtake only from the left side. Track etiquette obliges slower drivers to make room for faster ones (even if you're in a Gallardo and there's a Renault Megane sitting on your tail) and use indicators. Hide your pride and don't time yourself. No one is really here to compete with others, more like struggling to get through. Going ten-tenths is reserved for the Nordschleife gods. Especially since your insurer will only pay for losses on the other side of the fence. Here they don't care if you blow your life savings on repairing your car and cleaning up the mess it has made. Rebuilding the barriers can add up to several thousand dollars.
A good place, then, to learn the limits of those two $100,000 efforts from AMG and Quattro. They seem nearly identical: close performance numbers thanks to twin-turbo V-8s, similar cargo capacities, and both have roof rails. The biggest difference is that the RS6 Avant is not coming to the United States, while the E63 AMG S 4Matic is the only Pond-crossing version from the four-wagon E63 European lineup: the S and non-S (the first with a gloss black front apron, slightly bigger wheels, and a tad more powerful engine-just enough to outdo the Audi), and all-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive. Audi USA prefers to sell the four-door equivalent of the Avant, the RS7 Quattro, which costs around $3,000 dollars more than the Benz. But at this level, that's about the price of one mat.
There's little subtlety or romance to be found in these two. With their extra-large wagon bodies, they are fantastically over-spec'd, high-caliber weapons. Audi's 4.0L V-8 (shared with the Bentley Continental GT) generates a healthy 560 hp and 516 lb-ft, but Mercedes tops that with 577 hp and 590 lb-ft.
The E63 S is the bad guy here. AMG has sneaked a new, smaller engine under the hood, but with 5.5 liters of capacity, it's still pretty big and retains its muscle-car drama. As every proper AMG should, its V-8 rumble is one of the biggest treats of the whole show.
Inside the RS6, it's not that noisier than any other Audi wagon. And while the previous version had a big V-10, this one has eight, or sometimes even four cylinders. The Nordschleife is no place to utilize cylinder-on-demand technology, but on our long way to the track, the car could average 24 mpg. The Audi seems to be more civilized and a little more precise. Maybe it's because of the smaller engine that sounds faint in comparison to the AMG's gargantuan mill, but also doesn't weigh on the front axle so much (downsizing can be good for Greenpeace and Nürburgring performance).
The Audi also feels the more agile of the two, even if it employs air suspension. Its Sport Suspension Plus option can bring the steel springs back, but there's really no need in Dynamic mode. Then the RS6 is so stiff that the driver can lose his teeth on the Karussell's concrete slabs. The AMG has its own buttons to regulate gearbox, suspension, and traction control, which upgrade it from menacingly quick to downright crazy.
At the parking lot next to the starting line-the place of the last deep breath before the moment of truth-it's the Audi that collects more looks. Despite losing its characteristic wide fenders sculpted as a tribute to the first Quattro, but with amusingly unstealthy stealth matte paint and the "I eat BMWs for breakfast" front, it instantly earns visual credit. Along with the big air intakes comes a grille with tuner-like "quattro" lettering smeared at its base, because a small logo won't do. The rear is now dominated by a diffuser that complements the wagon body surprisingly well, accompanied by two bazookas Audi calls exhaust tips.
The E63 S seems to be the ultimate Q-car in comparison. Nothing suggests its acceleration time, which puts it on par with the Lamborghini Murcielago and Pagani Zonda F. Onlookers might even mistake it for an ordinary E-class, but for the fact that there are no normal cars in the Nordschleife's parking lot.
Among the rollcages and seat harnesses fitted to the bare metal of everything else from early Golfs to the latest Porsches, the peerless interiors of these two are worlds apart. I almost feel guilty entering the track with honeycomb-quilted Nappa leather seats, the latest multimedia interfaces with big screens, and top names on the hi-fi systems. The only enhancement to their comfy cabins is some minor carbon-fiber detailing-no BMW M5-colored rev counter or Jaguar XFR-S blue stitching theatrics.
Every driver feels great respect for this ribbon of asphalt, including the famous Jackie Stewart, who coined the often-used nickname "Green Hell." We came here to have fun, but it's more like a struggle for survival on the front line of battle. You see cars crashed in spots where everything was fine just a lap ago. During a busy day, sirens closing the circuit can be heard nearly every hour so that everyone waiting to get on the track can see how a tow truck returns with a wrecked Vette and its miserable driver.
That's why I enlisted the help of Carlo Fine to evaluate the cars' true performance in this hostile environment. He's a police driving instructor who teaches other policemen how to drive fast, using the Nordschleife as their classroom (yes, they really do that in Germany). He is not as well known as Sabine Schmitz, but with more than 1,000 Nürburgring laps covered on duty and another 1,000 in his free time, he's no newbie. Even he never mashes the throttle of either car for more than mere seconds, despite both overweight autobahn-blasters still generating impressive levels of grip in the corners, with only the slightest of body rolls and traces of understeer. Happy tail slides are not on either car's menu, though. In the E63 S, it's curtailed by the 4Matic system. In the RS6, it's nowhere to be found.
Adding all-wheel drive to the E63 S helps put all its power on the tarmac more effectively. The Mercedes is slightly faster in a straight line, thanks to the slight 4.5 percent power advantage. It has better steering, too, and is surprisingly well weighted and communicative. The RS6's driving experience is blunt and slightly isolated, like all big, fast Audis. Even in Dynamic mode, there's still that artificial feeling. But maybe that's how Joe Public can drive with his wife and kids and a week's worth of groceries in a car faster than a Ferrari F430. Even in these conditions, both the RS6 and E63 S are exceptionally stable, thanks to the heavyweight stance, big distance between all the four wheels, and power steering systems calibrated to mitigate a driver's nervousness.
Knowing I have stopping power on my side (if the Audi's 16.5-inch carbon ceramics discs can't save me, what will?), I pluck up the courage to make good use of that massive power. Incredibly, I feel I'm in the right place sitting in either E63 S or RS6 to tackle this circuit. What's even more surprising, both cars feel they're in the right place as well. They're built so well they can probably outlive your grandkids, but what counts even more is that they can survive a whole series of brake-biting, rubber-burning, exhaust-glowing laps, which is rare among stock machines.
Before long, I have too much fun, achieving speeds far greater than I should and generally ignoring everything I have written about safety measures so far. There is something so magically wrong about the Nordschleife that makes people keep coming back. Humans are weird, but who built these two wagons in the first place?