Back in 1972, when a small group of rebel engineers in Porsche made the pre-production Carrera RS 2.7, a skeptical marketing department despaired over the prospect of selling the 500 road cars to satisfy motorsport homologation requirements.
But when this highly focused lightweight 911 hit showrooms, Porsche couldn't make enough cars to satisfy demand. The growing RS legend, and the resale values that followed, merely served to underline just how much enthusiasts are prepared to pay for the right car.
You'd think the suits in the marketing departments of premium marques would have learned something in the ensuing 35 years, but the run-up to the launch of AMG's C63 in late 2007 showed otherwise. Despite the economic downturn, its debut was followed by demand that far outstripped the sales projections.
As with the 1970s oil crisis, some customers decamp from overt displays of wealth to more discrete transport. Someone with money to spend on a larger car like an S-Class may instead buy a car like the C63 and then spend the difference on aftermarket tuning.
On the other hand, there are customers out there for whom cars like this are tailor-made, who do not need or want a larger car and appreciate the big-engine-in-a-compact-saloon formula for their perfect daily driver. The proliferation of such customers is the reason I have come to Kicherer headquarters, located near the picturesque Lake Constance on the German-Swiss border.
Where a stock C63 looks largely like a plain vanilla C-Class with big wheels to non-enthusiasts, Kicherer's interpretation is anything but. Sitting on 20-inch alloys, it is dropped 35mm and 30mm lower than stock front and rear, which gives it a great stance with the big wheels filling the arches to the brim. The rear arches are wider than stock, as is the rear track. We'll return to how this is achieved later.
The lower and wider aspect is enhanced by the Kicherer front spoiler with deep carbon flipper extensions, side skirts with tubular carbon intakes, carbon-fiber rear underbody diffuser, and the factory rear boot lid spoiler. The final touches are carbon inlays for the door mirrors and carbon treatment for the front grille. LED driving lights are an option, while inside, the changes are restricted to a carbon-trimmed steering wheel and floormats.
One of the keys to the factory C63's good turn-in, grip, and handling is its widened front track. This and the fact that the wider, larger diameter wheels and tires are covered by bespoke front wings with more prominent front wheel arch flares. While this is great for the frontal aspect of the car and its autobahn overtaking presence, it also leaves the rear half of the car looking a little under-developed by comparison.
"Many of our customers asked us if we could do something to widen the rear track and make the car look as purposeful from the rear as it does from the front," explains Florian Herre, co-owner of Kicherer.
Doing so is not a big task if you use the right wheel offsets and possibly small spacers. But you then need to flare the rear arches to make sure everything clears, especially for the snow chains required under German regulations for severe winter conditions.
The body and mechanical alterations needed for AMG cars are factored into development costs on any new Mercedes model. But while the tooling costs of wider bolt-on front fenders and a beefier-looking bonnet with power bulges was factored in, altering the rear wheel arches of the basic C-Class bodyshell for a low-volume model would have taken the spend into orbit.
On a case-by-case basis for an aftermarket tuner like Kicherer, a client willing to pay the labor and material costs to do this work is a good customer. In this case, the client let Herre's team use his car for prototyping work and a suitable discount was negotiated.
It is always more difficult to alter the rear arches of a four-door sedan than a two-door coupe, as any work on doors can be a nightmare. Luckily, the basic C-Class shell starts off with fairly prominent rear arches that only require modifications to their edges to accommodate the wider rear track.
The largest wheels you can normally fit under the stock arches are 8.5 and 9.5x19-inch. Kicherer's in-house body specialist worked on the rebate of the rear wheel arches, reforming the metal to provide an additional 20mm of clearance. This allows enough clearance for Kicherer to use 25mm spacers with lightweight 10.0x20-inch forged alloys, wrapped in 275/25 Dunlop SportMaxx GT rubber at the rear; up front, 8.5x20-inch wheels are paired with 245/30 tires.
Thanks to bespoke ECU mapping as well as different intake and exhaust configurations in each AMG model, the 6.2-liter V8 leaves the engine plant in Affalterbach with differing outputs according to the car in which it's installed. These run from 475 hp in the C63 all the way up to 525 hp in the S, CL, and SL63 AMG models.
Regardless of output though, this in-house developed and built all-alloy motor delivers the same ear candy with its bombastic NASCAR-grade soundtrack. This is a soundtrack you want to hear over and over again, and if there's a tunnel on your daily commute, you simply never tire of rolling down a window, dropping a couple of ratios with the left paddle shifter, and nailing the loud pedal. Kicherer managed to find a few more horses with a modified airbox and free-flow filters, but bigger gains were found at the other end of the motor.
In the old days, you could always find a few extra horses by swapping out a restrictive factory exhaust. This is true to a lesser extent these days, and less so with AMG and Porsche cars, as their engineers do a very good job on the stock systems.
Kicherer goes to the expense of using bespoke tubular headers with slightly larger-than-stock pipes to extract the spent gases faster toward the 200 cell free-flow metal cats. As well as reducing backpressure, these headers, metal cats, and their stainless steel rear silencers also boost the soundtrack in richness and volume.
To maximize the effect of all this new hardware, the ECU is remapped accordingly. Since AMG uses the mapping of fuel, ignition, and variable cam phasing to throttle the output of the big V8 in its smallest car, a straightforward remap will bring peak power back up to 525 hp. From there, the gains made by the intake and exhaust mods make up the additional 40 hp claimed for the Kicherer Supersport. The final tally is 565 hp at 6800 rpm and 487 lb-ft of torque at 5200.
With the help of the limited-slip differential, zero to 62 mph is now in the four-second bracket, and with the factory electronic top speed limiter removed, you can get within striking distance of 195 mph.
The 24 percent boost in horsepower and 10 percent boost in torque are far, far more than you would normally get from a modern engine, and shows how much the factory turned down the wick on the C63 AMG. It also shows the inherent potential of the basic motor, and why the SLS AMG version is able to make 571 hp with room to spare.
Compact it may be, but the C63 AMG is no flyweight street racer. It tips the scales at 3,800 pounds, heavier than the SLS. With the extra power on tap, the stock brakes were at the limit, so Kicherer fitted their Brembo-sourced big brake kit with steel braided hoses.
The factory suspension comes in two flavors-standard with 18-inch alloys, or Performance Package with uprated springs and dampers, 19-inch wheels, and a Drexler limited-slip differential. Many owners justifiably prefer the looks of the larger wheels, but find the already-firm ride quality of the base version is tipped over the edge by the stiffer suspension. Even on supposedly smoother German roads, this is a restless combination I could not live with on a daily basis.
Kicherer addresses this with a fully adjustable coilover suspension system, made to Kircherer specifications by KW. This uses progressive-rate springs in front, while the dampers allow you to tailor bounce and rebound control as well as ride height.
Even with the big 20-inch wheels fitted, the secondary ride is now noticeably more compliant than the factory Performance Package. In fact, it felt no more edgy than the stock suspension with 18s.
While the progressive front springs help take the sting out of short, sharp bumps, the relatively low unsprung weight of the forged wheels also helps. With unsprung weight about the same as a good cast 18-incher, the dampers don't have to work hard to recover after each bump.
This extra initial compliance of this suspension and the Dunlop tires makes a huge difference in the way the car moves down the road. No longer do you instinctively tighten your muscles in anticipation of big bumps on a familiar road, as the C63 just flows down the road that much better.
That said, while the AMG Performance Package pummels you with its stiff ride, it does not actually have any real grip or traction issues. On the original press launch, my test car impressed with its quick but never nervous turn-in, its superb poise, and strong mechanical grip through even bumpy bends.
In fact, I was very surprised that the car was able to key its front and rear rubber into bumpy surfaces; overly stiff cars usually get unsettled big time by this. It was just the rock-hard ride that stopped me bonding with this otherwise fantastic machine.
The Kicherer setup rounds out the suspension's performance envelope, which now delivers the handling pluses of the Performance Package, while taking the sting out of its ride. If you are that vital bit more relaxed at the end of a journey, then this is money well spent.
With the suspension sorted, you feel more comfortable using the extra straight-line grunt on less than billiard-table-smooth surfaces. Apart from just being more powerful, the big V8 also feels like it has bigger lungs.
The more aggressive ignition timing and free-flowing intake and exhaust help it rev better too, so the character of delivery benefits as well.
Any tuned car is only as good as the sum of its parts, but sometimes the engineers manage to turn the finished car into something greater than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, it is a question of balance, and Kicherer walks the line between engine power and chassis ability finely enough to turn a good car into a great one.
Who is kicherer?
I know an enthusiast when I meet one, and Florian Herre and his partner, Siegbert Janz, are most definitely enthusiasts. Not only do they love fast cars and tuning, they're just as enthusiastic about providing the best possible service to their clients.
"We are a very small company," Herre explains. "That gives us the chance to work closely with our clients every step of the way. It also means that individual wishes can be catered to in a way that a big company with much greater overhead would find difficult to do for reasonable money."
Herre and Janz, who looks after the publicity and marketing side of the business, may have only been running Kicherer for two years, but they have a wealth of collective experience in the car business.
Two brothers, Dieter and Uwe Kicherer, formed the company in 1976. They started off as Alpina agents, but in 1999, after a lot of pressure from customers, started selling AMG products too. Soon after that, they terminated their Alpina contract.
When AMG became part of Mercedes-Benz, Kicherer became an AMG reseller, but without being able to use AMG in the corporate name. Soon afterward, they took on a Brabus dealership and rapidly built themselves into the most successful Brabus outlet in Southern Germany.
Janz used to work for the motorsport division at Abt, the factory-approved Audi-VW tuner and DTM Audi team, while Herre worked for a local Mercedes-Benz dealer, Bulle Automobile. When the Kicherer brothers decided to retire in 2003, Bulle Automobile bought them out.
Bulle transferred the young and enthusiastic Herre there, and his interest in tuning and good customer skills helped take the company's reputation to the next level. However, after a few months the management decided that aftermarket tuning was too far removed from their core business as a Mercedes dealer and made the decision to sell it on again.
Herre called up his friend Janz, and they both agreed this was a perfect opportunity. They came to an arrangement whereby they bought 74 percent of the company, leaving Bulle with the remaining 26 percent. "This partnership works perfectly for everyone," Herre says. "Bulle has a share of another profitable business that they don't have to divert resources to, while we have full access to their workshop and connections to the factory."
As in the days when the Kicherer brothers were running the show, discussions with clients are more positive as people know they are talking to the boss rather than a salesman who might not be there the next time.
"Our clients are very forthcoming with their opinions and ideas," Herre says. "The SL is one of the most popular cars among our clients, and many have already told us that they don't like the nose of the facelifted car. Two or three have even asked us to investigate the possibility of retrofitting the old style nose."
Such special wishes are a Kicherer specialty. Recently a client asked to have a rear seat installed in his CLK63 Black Series; the fulfillment machine went into overdrive. The solution is a beautifully produced carbon rear seat molding covered in black leather with silver stitching to match the new front seats, lightweight carbon-fiber front seats that tilt to allow access to the new rear seat.
"All these parts were produced by the same company that makes our aerodynamics," Herre says. "They are fast workers and deliver fabulous quality-an unusual combination for a subcontractor these days."-IK
6.2-liter V8, dohc, 32-valve. Kicherer airbox, tubular headers, 200-cell metal catalysts, sport exhaust, ecu remap
Brembo GT assemblies
Wheels and Tires
Kicherer alloys, 8.5x20 (f), 10x20 (r) Dunop Sport Maxx, 245/30 (f), 275/25 (r)
Kicherer front spoiler, side skirts, carbon-fiber rear underbody diffuser, LED driving lights
Carbon-rimmed steering wheel, Kicherer floormats
Peak Power: 565 hp @ 6800 rpm
Peak Torque: 487 lb-ft @ 5200 rpm
0-60 mph: 4.0 sec.
Top Speed: 195 mph