8:23 a.m.
The last AMG car in our test fleet of six arrives in the office parking lot. It's a black G55 with purty chrome wheels and the outward demeanor of a WWII-era Tiger Panzer. "This vehicle is very special to Mercedes PR," the driver says as he hands me the key. "So don't friggen break it. And remember-no burnouts!"

No other factory-backed tuner has the clout of AMG, so frankly it's amazing a little magazine like ours could swing a feat as incredible as getting six AMG cars at one time to test. All told, there's more than a half-million dollars worth of hardware here. There's a catch, though: We only get them for 24 hours. And if any are returned in less than desirable condition, someone's cojones will end up floating

in a jar of formaldehyde on some Mercedes exec's desk in
Stuttgart. Probably mine, since I'm the idiot who signed for them all.

If that's the case, I figure I better make it all worthwhile. I shuffle through the keys, looking for the fob tagged SL65, but it's nowhere in the pile. At that precise moment I hear devilish snickering in the hallway outside my cubicle. Apparently, using his mystical "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Engineer" skills, Jay snaked the key while I wasn't looking.

9:04 a.m.
The crew assembles in front of ec's offices with the six shiny cars. Drivers include editor Bidrawn, photo ace Rob Hallstrom, art director Markas Platt, associate editor Melissa Rausch (you can call her Missy), engineering editor Jay Chen, and myself. I start handing out the remaining keys, and realize there's an E55 in the fleet.

"I'm driving the E55," Rob says, snatching the key from my nerveless fingers. I'm left with the fob for the bright red SLK55. Oh yeah, stick me with the girl's car. Thanks guys. This is just great.

9:12 a.m.
Despite my best efforts to sulk at the rear of the pack, somehow I end up leading everyone out of the driveway.

9:13 a.m.
I ease the SLK out of the drive, straighten her out and stomp on the gas. The engine explodes into sound; I'm a bit disoriented as ESP claws momentarily for traction. Then 376 lb-ft of torque boots me squarely in the ass. All thoughts, good or bad, are instantly wiped from my mind, replaced by utter amazement, then a second later, by sheer terror. I back off, way off. Hallstrom rockets past me in the supercharged E, but I hardly notice. Despite my best efforts to squelch it, a big, stupid grin splits my face. This might shape up to be a pretty good day after all.

9:37 a.m.
We merge off the northbound 57 freeway and onto the eastbound 60, headed for Interstate 15 to Las Vegas-though, fortunately or no, we won't be going quite as far as Vegas.

10:21 a.m.
We begin our approach of Cajon Pass on the way out of the greater metropolitan area of Southern California. The way leading up the pass is basically a big hill that winds on and on for 10 or 15 miles at a 30% grade, relegating lesser cars and big trucks (of which there are many) to 55 mph or less. The SLK is unfazed. It wants me to get arrested. I look down at the fuel dial and realize through my speed-induced detachment that my overzealous right foot has burned about a quarter tank in less than 50 miles.

10:53 a.m.
About 15 miles north of Cajon Summit I exit the freeway. I thought everyone had passed me, but to my amazement I catch up with Markas, who's driving the C55. The two of us commence looking for the agreed-upon meeting point, a Shell station a few miles off the Interstate. We find it and wait... and wait, and wait. Then we wait some more. Eventually Markas gets on the phone and calls Bidrawn. Turns out they're all meeting five miles back for lunch.

12:01 p.m.
After some pretty good onion rings and fairly terrible burgers (at least, they told us it was hamburger) the AMG convoy resumes. We try to look inconspicuous, but driving these cars through empty desert backwaters is like marching a group of naked porn stars through skid row. We're searching for Highway 138, a serpentine stretch of baked pavement that winds from Interstate 15, on the other side of the mountains to the south, to our present location 30 or 40 miles to the north. We've driven the route before on other road tests and photo shoots, but always south to north. This time we're backtracking, and it shows. We can't find Highway 138. It's true several of us can't occasionally find our asses with both hands, so we pull over and individually consult our snarky AMG nav systems. Unfortunately, no one brought a map.

12:17 p.m.
Still lost, but getting closer. We hope.

12:32 p.m.
Still lost. Like so many others before it, the fifth road we're certain will cut through the boulder-strewn chaparral and deliver us unto Highway 138 ends up terminating in orange cones and broken asphalt-more flood damage from the wettest winter in SoCal history. At least this one's got a few twists and turns and elevation changes, so we take a break from our search to do a little spirited driving and grab a few pictures.

12:57 p.m.
Rob Hallstrom, now at the front in the SL65, leads us down yet another dusty desert boulevard. Instead of ending prematurely like the others, this one crests a big hill to reveal long expanses of empty pavement, some straight and fast, some tight and twisted. We'd found Highway 138, and more importantly, AMG's natural habitat.

1:16 p.m.
Back at the front of the pack, Bidrawn sees deep triple digits. Hallstrom is close behind. A few of us watch from high on the hill as the SL and SLK rip through the landscape with unreal velocity. Bidrawn pulls over several hundred yards into the twisty stuff. He looks white, even from two miles away. His voice hisses and crackles over the Wal-Mart-special radios: "Everyone will leave traction control in the ON position... got that? Leave ESP on or get fired." He sounds pissed.

1:23 p.m.
The rest of the group joins Bidrawn and Hallstrom and we realize why he said what he said. A thick layer of fine sand is strewn across many of the corners, most likely deposited from the previous rains. The stuff is like graphite; just walking across poses a challenge. Apparently, Bidrawn hit a patch and plowed through the first turn. There's plenty of room for runoff, but a few hundred yards ahead the shoulder is a little less forgiving (as in over the edge down a 300 foot embankment).

1:26 p.m.
We spend the next hour or so blasting up and down this stretch of road. The loop takes about 15 minutes to complete and here everyone cycles through the various cars. The SL and SLK stay very busy, rarely sitting still for more than a few minutes. A few years ago, the SLK would most likely have been ignored.

2:21 p.m.
Missy and Markas took off in the G55 30 minutes ago and have yet to return. Bidrawn's sure they've eloped to Vegas. Then we see them on top of a nearby mountain. We'd later find out they'd been screaming into the radios for 30 minutes. Didn't matter though, as Bidrawn has summarily executed three of the radios with his 454 Casull and is searching for a fourth.

2:43 p.m.
We watch as the G-Wagen crawls down the mountain, scaling 40-degree inclines and clawing through loose gravel. It's an impressive sight. On his return, art director Platt suggests we beat feet and get to the photo location.

3:13 p.m.
We all arrive at the main photo location unscathed, but the sun is already well into its downward slant. Jay and Markas put on their driving caps while Hallstrom sets up his photo rig at the apex of a particularly sweet corner. Bidrawn and I take off in the G55, headed for a nearby dry lake bed to grab some off-road action shots.

3:31 p.m.
Bidrawn instructs me to drive the G-Wagen off a three-foot berm at speed. I figure he just wants some shots of the suspension articulating, so I oblige him.

"Faster!" he screams. "I want to see some daylight underneath that tank."

Oh, he wants me to jump it. I increase my speed to around 20 mph, hit the berm, go momentarily weightless, then crash to the earth wearing 5,590 pounds of steel, aluminum, leather and chrome.

"Faster! Come on, you puss!"

I take the next pass at 25 mph, the one after that at 30. My neck snaps forward on each violent landing; the teeth rattle in my skull. Each time I expect the G-Wagen to auger nose-first into the ground like a plummeting cinder block, but its monstrous suspension soaks up the shock of each earth-shattering collision with remarkable aplomb.

3:49 p.m.
Back behind the wheel of the SL65, engineer Chen reaches out and touches the face of God as full boost hits at the photo corner's entry. The tail steps out momentarily, tires burning, then snaps back in line as Chen miraculously pivots the ber-roadster around the apex in a fit of brilliant driving.

"Now that's a great shot!" Hallstrom gushes, grinning broadly and clapping our engineer on the back as Jay exits the car and promptly loses his lunch next to one of the 18-inch AMG alloys. It was no big loss; those burgers were pretty nasty anyway.

3:52 p.m.
"OK, I got it," Bidrawn yells as the G55 barrels past him for the tenth or eleventh time, dragging me haplessly along with it. I coast to a stop and the driver's door is thrown open. "Move over, monkey boy," Bidrawn growls. "You did a pretty good job. At least, you didn't screw it up too bad. Let's go find some mud."

4:18 p.m.
Hallstrom finishes up his pan blurs with Missy sitting pretty in the CLK cabrio. A fistfight breaks out between Platt and Chen as the SL's key becomes a point of contention for the eighteenth time that day.

4:31 p.m.
We were here just a couple weeks before, after the freakish winter rains, and there were puddles and mud everywhere. Now the only water we can find is a small, brush-choked pool a stone's throw off the main dirt road bisecting the dried mud flats.

"Let's try over there," Bidrawn says, pointing to the mucky, swampy area. The G-Wagen charges forward for all of five or six yards and bogs. "It's OK; we're OK," he assures me, locking the front diff, throwing the tranny into four low and putting the shifter in reverse. The G55 slides backward, sinks another six inches, and bogs again. I can hear mud sucking at the wheels and undercarriage. I think we might have problems.

"It's OK. We're OK," Bidrawn insists.

4:47 p.m.
Hallstrom is just finishing up his detail shots as Platt and Chen eye each other warily, brushing themselves off and nursing their wounds. Missy sips water and demurely admires the SL65 key fob she found lying at the pavement's edge.

"Where the hell are those guys?" Hallstrom wonders aloud. "The sun's going to be down in half an hour."

5:01 p.m.
The G-Wagen is still stuck. "It's OK, we're OK," Bidrawn growls as he throws the tranny back into drive and guns the accelerator. The G55 has ceased to move either forward or backward, but now pirouettes counter-clockwise in agonized mute slowness. There's mud all over it, fist-sized wads of the stuff plastered to the roof as though they fell from the sky. And at this point I think we're pretty much screwed.

"Nah, we're OK," Bidrawn insists.

5:13 p.m.
One half mile away we can see Hallstrom and the rest of the crew arranging cars in the waning sunlight. It looks beautiful, even from our vantage point, the immediate surroundings of which look more and more like the swamps of Tolkien's Mordor. I have to pee. We throw the mats on the ground as a makeshift walkway across the muck. Bidrawn loses his boot on the first step, curses, and starts digging for it. I contribute a few inches to the water level and feel much better.

5:42 p.m.
Hallstrom is nearly finished shooting by the time get there. It feels like we've been walking for days and Bidrawn is especially cranky because he never found his boot. He sits down, picking bits of broken glass out of his foot with a Leatherman tool, and sets about fashioning a shoe out of an old milk carton.

7:58 p.m.
We finally get the G-Wagen winched to dry land. We ended up less than two yards from solid ground, but the tow guy insists it's going to be tricky. In six minutes the G55 is back on hardpack and the driver wants $280 cash. Bidrawn waddles over, hands him a fistful of money and disappears into the night. We can hear screaming in the distance. It's either him or a Chupacabra. We'd probably be safer with the latter.

My Take
SL65 AMGThere's only one reaction when you feel the thrust of the SL65 for the first time: confusion. It's the same confusion you felt when you first learned to balance on a bike, or when your desperate struggle to stay afloat turned into swimming. You'll either stick with it and continue the rush, or back off and not push your luck. It's an entirely new sensation your inner ear and body never felt before, a frightened invigoration the logical part of the brain is slow to sort out as good or bad. This triggers your cerebral cortex to take over and kick into fight or flight mode; on one hand, you have the nirvana of speed, and on the other, imminent death. Lean into the throttle more or yield to your blurring vision and lift? These sensations are few and far between in life, but always remembered.

Driving the big dog of Mercedes' AMG line is more about a state of mind rather than just raw speed though, which is what sets it apart from similarly priced sports cars or sedans. There are faster and more extravagant cars out there, but none that come in a holistically comparable package. The SL may not satisfy your needs for extreme canyon carving or chauffeured luxury, but it will do everything in between with the utmost competence, which is why this is the choice if you can only afford one supercar.

When you finally come to terms with your senses and the velocity-induced delirium subsides, the finer details of the SL surface. No other convertible feels as solid and robust in build and handling. In any situation, the silky smooth ride and feel will remind you it's a Mercedes-Benz. Driving becomes an exercise in self restraint, trying to stay off the gas long enough to appreciate everything else that your $180,000 bought. You want to share it with the world and retract the top at a stoplight. You'll turn heads, guaranteed. When you finally do get tired of all the toys, step on the gas a little harder, feel the tunnel vision close in, and let the cycle start all over. The SL65 is truly a chariot for the gods: practical, graceful, beautiful and when called upon by an insistent right foot, full of fury to smite the unworthy.

Lie and cheat your way into a test drive at your local dealer if you must, but don't go another day without the satisfaction of having 600 bhp at your disposal. And when you are really ready to bite the bullet, turn off ESP and see what kingdom comes.-Jay Chen

G55 AMG
In an era when sultry, sleek aerodynamics conspire to make cars look sexy and punch little bitty holes in the air, the G-Wagen stands alone. Actually, it goes the opposite way, sporting a profile built with all the grace of mutant Lego blocks. Stuffed with more engine than a Mac truck, the G-Wagen straddles an odd gap-is it a serious off-road vehicle or is it a sports car? Or is it something else altogether? We can't really decide; half the staff loved its unique personality while the other half treated it with all the contempt of a mosh-pitting rocker at the Queen Mother's coronation.

Despite being over-engined and under-suspended, driving the G55 is a unique experience. With a commanding view of the road, I likened the sensation to piloting an industrial earthmover, only much faster. The G55 rockets off the line with cartoon-like intensity, leaving the driver holding a steering wheel while the car itself flies down the road. It's powered by the same supercharged V8 found within the E55, capable of motivating the 5,600-pound beast to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. It's about as insane as naked beer-bong bungee jumping.

First unveiled 25 years ago, the Gelaendewagen was originally intended for military use and is currently in active duty the world over. Unlike many other SUVs featuring an auxiliary front axle drive, the G-Wagen was born to be a 4x4-its drivetrain is as strong in front as it is at the rear axle. In other words, it was intended to be a serious workhorse with dark overtones. Its colleagues include the first-generation Hummer, Unimog and Pinzgauer. Underneath yards of Napa leather, polished aluminum and advanced electronics sits a vehicle with good if not excellent capabilities. Compared to the new Hummer H2, the G55 is a superior car, both in build quality and utility... especially utility. The rear hatch is accessed by a sizable, swinging door and big enough to fit weeks worth of groceries. The generous rear seating area ensures comfortable passengers, or the seats can be folded down for even more space. The supercharged V8 engine brews up 476 hp of power and puts maximum torque of 516 lb-ft on tap at 2650 rpm. The G55 AMG thus outstrips the output of its naturally aspirated predecessor by more than 30%. If you need a tow vehicle, this is it.

Ultimately, there's something freakish about the G55. It is so hideously powerful you can find yourself exceeding the governing laws of physics very quickly. And with a car sporting the G55's dimensions, those laws are significantly different than a smaller, lower vehicle. The G55 tries to hide its inherent utilitarian nature with a candy coating (and gigantic set of huevos). I think this vehicle would be happier in the African Savannah, sporting one of Mercedes brilliant turbodiesel engines. As it was, its city-slicker suit landed us in deep shit, literally. I figured some pics of the G55 charging through the mud would be great and really illustrate what the car was all about. On its first pass, the G55 dug into the soft earth until it was resting on its belly. Placing the transmission into low, we tried to rock the car out; the big tires conspired against us until they stopped moving altogether. As the sun sank, we waited for a rescue team that never came, probably because we never called. We had contemplated using the On-Star emergency device, but it was not an emergency. "We've fallen in the mud with our $100,000 G-Wagen and can't get out." I could hear the dispatcher laughing already. Using the mats as a walkway, we trudged a few feet to dry land and waited for the meat wagon. An inglorious end to a gloriously baroque car.

The G55 is the epitome of conspicuous consumption, a vehicle we hate ourselves for liking. -Les Bidrawn

CLK55 AMG Cabriolet
In my yuppie South Orange County, Calif., suburb, luxury cars are the norm, not the exception. Then again, Mercedes' ultrabeefy, super-tuned CLK55 isn't the norm, either. The CLK's slick physique graced my driveway the Tuesday before Valentine's Day. My husband and I both agreed it would be our gift to one another, even if it was just on loan. In typical SoCal fashion, we dropped the top-regardless of the brisk February air-and rolled to the corner Starbucks. With vanilla lattes carefully stowed and the heated leather seats turned on, we opened her up.

On wide boulevards the car is blazingly fast, as any car that can boast five-second zero-to-60 times should be. We quickly rocketed into the triple digits, without intending to. You can only tell you're going that fast by looking at passing objects, which look like they came out of a Monet landscape, as you zoom past in a blur. Inside, my hair danced but the car stayed silent and solid.

Given the CLK's outwardly graceful appearance and reputation as the hairdresser's car, I didn't expect it do be so powerful. Only the dual twin exhaust pipes, subtle AMG badging and aerodynamic bodywork hint at what lies under the hood. Although one male staffer scoffed at the power, calling it "sissy," this was the only car in the fleet I felt totally comfortable with. This "sissy" car provides ample power (362 bhp and 376 lb-ft of torque to be exact) without going overboard or giving me that I-could-wrap-this-around-a-tree feeling.

The next day was our photo shoot, which was really nothing more than an excuse to take the AMG fleet on the freeway and through desert back roads. At highway speeds, the car never ran out of go. I found I could pass cars in mere seconds and close gaps whenever I was afforded such luxury. On the back roads the car nimbly navigated turns, potholes and areas where the road had been completely washed out from the recent storms. And while I'd like to brush this under the rug, the brakes also work flawlessly, with the AMG composite six-piston calipers chomping down on 13.4-inch perforated and internally ventilated front discs. Once, on a long, straight section of desolate road, a dog suddenly appeared in my path. Thanks to AMG's massive stoppers I was able to avoid it and stay not only on the road but also in M-B's good graces. This incident further illustrated M-B's precision craftsmanship and tuning prowess.

While I took my rounds in each of the six offerings, I found myself always come back to this one. Maybe it was because the guys said the car fit me, or maybe it was because it felt so natural to have the top back and the sunshine on my face (wearing a wool coat with the heater on full blast). One thing is certain: Sometimes it feels damn good to be the exception. -Melissa Rausch

SLK55 AMG
When it was first introduced, the SLK was sporty in a sorta-kinda way, but by most accounts it wasn't a sports car in the truest sense. It gained a little ground when the engineers finally dropped a V6 into the SLK350. With 3.5 liters and six cylinders it became really fast, and despite the persistent stigma of being regarded as a trophy wife's car it was a lot of fun to drive in the visceral sense. Having considered this, the SLK55 AMG doesn't push the performance envelope. Rather, it snatches the envelope up, runs it through the shredder, lights the scraps on fire and gloatingly takes a leak on the smoldering remains.

Through the years I've been lucky enough to sneak behind the wheel of a handful of truly fast cars, but none with an appearance and power delivery so strikingly incongruous as that of the SLK55. I constantly found myself trying not to do a burnout instead of the other way around. Dip into the gas at freeway speeds and the little roadster will walk on surrounding traffic as though everyone else suddenly stopped moving. It just doesn't seem right. Along with dizzying surges of adrenaline, I found uncontrollable, maniacal laughter to be a completely natural side effect of the driving experience.

My favorite detail was the engine's intimidating wail from half throttle all the way up. The sounds that come out of the engine bay and exhaust pipes are simply ungodly; no car as cutesy as this should make noises like that. And despite the urgency of acceleration, it doesn't feel as horrifically scarifying as, say, the twin-turbo SL65 or the brutish, supercharged E55. The naturally aspirated powerplant feels firmly rooted in reality with a powerband that's strong, linear and predictable.

The interior is as good as you'd expect a top-tier Mercedes-Benz to have: comfortable, solid and elegant. Despite the SLK's diminutive size, even individuals taller than six feet will slip right in. Wind noise becomes a small factor at high speeds, but by then you'll be seriously breaking the law and should have other things to worry about-self preservation chief among them. Picky types might wish for a manual transmission, but with this much power on tap the automatic could save more clueless people from destroying their forward gears or other expensive drivetrain bits.

This car is so much fun it's inconceivable most will end up cruising metropolitan boulevards and freeways at rush-hour speeds, driven by latte-sipping, cell-phone-yacking socialites more obsessed with the AMG badging than the machinery beneath or its capabilities. While it's not quite as disgusting as either the AMG E or SL platforms, the SLK55 has got at least one of its oversized 18-inch wheels firmly planted in the supercar realm. -Karl Funke

C55 AMG
"Markas, you grab the C and meet us up top." Those were my orders when we started our AMG experience, and I am grateful. While most in the group were scrambling for the keys to the bigger bling, I was more than happy to get in the "starter car." If I had been hooked up with the SL there's a good chance you would have seen me on the evening news leading a 15-car, three helicopter chase across state lines that would have surely seen me incarcerated or worse.

No, this suited me just fine, and it turns out gave me all I could handle for the warm-up drive out to the high desert. As we jumped on the freeway and trained up in NASCAR-style fashion, I figured I'd have to get pretty deep into the throttle to keep up with some of the other players. But as my foot explored the depths of the pedal I was greeted with a stat message from the engine room: "Plenty of power here, sir, and plenty more where that came from." Thank you Scotty, proceed at Warp 2. This is not your father's C Class, and that's where the AMG separates itself from the rest.

My job requires me to notice detail and pay attention to the little things that make up our magazine. I always notice the AMG badge on a car. It doesn't matter if I'm stopped at a light or skimming across a desert highway (well within the speed limit of course), I notice. The C55 isn't the ass-hanging-out kind of attention-getter like a tricked out Honda with a ridiculous body kit and $6000 rims. It's understated, smooth, classy. In a world of overachievers, the C55 falls into the class of cars I personally love: The M3s, S4s and S60s of the world. The working class heroes. It's the kind of car that is exceptional right out of the box, made that much more fantastic with AMG treatments. The C55 blends power and performance in a practical package that can serve double duty as everyday transporter and thrillride.

Even though I would have loved to take this one out with a stick, I still had a blast slithering around corners and careening down long straightaways. Like the rest of the crew I waded through all the fine cars we had for the day, and to be honest I felt like a kid who has just experienced Six Flags for the very first time. Every time I got out of one I was immediately ushered into another and much of the experience blended together. The C55 will be remembered as a solid platform with much more to offer than initially meets the eye. Now, if I could just get a bit more seat time... -Markas Platt

E55 AMG
When speaking of unbridled performance, exotic luxury and super sexy styling, a four-door sedan isn't what typically comes to mind. Yet the E55 has all this and more. Powered by a supercharged V8, the sedan runs from zero to 60 mph in only 4.5 seconds. In contrast, the twin-turbocharged SL65 with 604 bhp is only a fraction of a second faster. Selling for less than half the SL65's asking price, the E55 is a genuine value.

Try as you might, it's difficult to find fault with this car. It's visually pleasing: AMG body treatments include a wider front airdam and unique rear apron, as well as a set of 18-inch twin-spoke wheels shod with 245/40-18 and 265/35-18 performance rubber. The spacious cabin is impressive throughout. In addition to all the luxury refinement and creature comforts Mercedes is known for, the E55 is accented with special trim unique to AMG. Aside from sculpted 10-way adjustable sport buckets, the AMG sport steering wheel and myriad sophisticated electronics, subtle details such as the Black Birdseye maple trim are a welcome touch. About the only consistent interior complaint was with regard to the cruise control arm, which is easily mistaken for the turn signal due to their close proximity.

While styling and luxury refinement is all part of the Mercedes-Benz package, AMG has always been more about performance. With 469 bhp under the hood (nearly 170 over the E500) and locomotive torque (516 lb-ft at 4500 rpm), the E55 accelerates with piledriver force. Much of this power must be attributed to the intercooled supercharger, which provides instant boost that pulls throughout the rpm range for deceptively smooth acceleration. Top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph, which is a bummer, but getting there in a matter of seconds isn't. The exhaust note is pure V8, but surprisingly quiet.

LIke the others, the E55 is equipped with AMG's Speedshift five-speed automatic transmission, which is as smooth as the engine's power delivery. The system offers seamless gear selection at optimized shift points. It also allows manual shifting via the shifter or steering wheel controls. The fully adjustable AMG-optimized air suspension is equally impressive, continuously tuning the suspension settings to enhance road holding and ride characteristics. Additionally, the ESP traction control has been recalibrated to allow more lateral slip.

Overall, the E55 is many inspiring things all wrapped into a single cohesive package. It provides the perfect balance between class-leading luxury and state-of-the-art hot rod performance.-Robert Hallstrom

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