First Drive
There's blood in the water
Historically, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class was an automotive afterthought; as one ec contributor wrote, it was the Benz you drove only until you could graduate to that larger, more prestigious model. The 2008 C-Class is a different sort of animal, purpose-built to attract not just potential entry-level Mercedes-Benz customers, but also woo devotees of other premium compact sedans, specifically the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4.

The new strategy has never been so evident than in the high-performance iteration, the C63 AMG. Its mission is clear: annihilate the BMW M3, wipe it from the face of the Earth. Not a simple task, perhaps, but the latest offering from Sindelfingen and Affalterbach must have certain bodies in Munich breaking into cold night-sweats.

For the first time in the company's 40-year history, the C63 will feature an engine built entirely in-house by AMG. This 6206cc V8 develops a maximum of 451 hp at 6100 rpm, and peak torque of 443 lb-ft at 5000 rpm. More significantly, 80 percent of that torque is available from 2000 rpm to the car's 6250-rpm redline. There's virtually no situation where you'll be at a loss for acceleration. Each AMG engine is based on the 'one man, one engine' principle, wherein a single technician hand-builds a complete V8 engine from start to finish, and each completed engine receives its builder's signature on a plaque, mounted front and center on the powder-coated intake runners. The procedure says a lot about AMG's attention to detail for each specific car it turns out.

The car still relies on a true automatic to mediate its seven forward gears, but it's more responsive than you'd ever dream-smarter and more skilled than most of its drivers will ever be, I have no doubt. In sport auto mode, its propensity for up- and downshifting, according to driver aggression and throttle angle, seems truly clairvoyant. There is the option of driving in 'comfort' auto mode or full manual, wherein gears are selected using wheel-mounted aluminum paddles. Actual gearchange speeds become 30 percent quicker in Sport (compared to Comfort), and a full 50 percent quicker in Manual. There's even a throttle blip on each downshift for clean rev matching and jolt-free gear changes (it also sounds great).

Response in Manual is surprisingly quick, while normal automatic operation is smooth and seamless, offering what does, in fact, appear to be the best of both worlds. I mainly left it in sport auto, which is suitable for 90 percent of the spirited driving I'd ever want to do on public roads.

The C63's suspension features wider front and rear track widths, along with a larger torsion bar stabilizer and dampers fitted with rebound buffer springs in front, and reinforced drive joints and shafts in the rear. The ride is comfortable-taut but never jolting. The steering also features 'modified characteristics' courtesy of AMG; it feels about as meaty and precise off-center as anything I've driven recently, either at low or high speeds.

The C63 is the first AMG model to feature three-stage ESP: On, Sport, and Off. Sport allows more leeway for ham-fisted maneuvers, intervening with individual wheel braking and accompanying reduction in engine torque at higher dynamic thresholds. For the truly brave, ESP Off offers no intervention in the car's handling dynamics and no reduction in engine torque. In each mode, ESP's normal functions can be restored by pressing the brake pedal. Predictably, the big-bore V8's huge potential can easily unsettle the rear end, though with ESP engaged, the drama is generally not threatening.

Build quality seems typically solid. The cabin is well appointed and smartly laid out. The front seats are particularly nice, with adjustable lateral bolsters and two types of lumbar adjustment. Ergonomics are really good and the interior is sporty, engaging and much more intimate in a way the larger Mercedes platforms are not.

On top of the standard car, which is spectacular, the AMG performance package option adds a locking rear differential, stiffer spring rates, composite brake rotors and an Alcantara-appointed sport steering wheel.

M3 killer? We'll see. One thing's for sure: though an official MSRP hasn't been announced, I can't imagine this car will be anywhere close to cheap. At any rate, Mercedes claims it will be positioned well against its competition-and that includes pricing. We'll find out for sure early next spring.

2008 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG

Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive
6.2-liter V8, dohc, 32-valve
Seven-speed automatic
Three-link with anti-dive and stabilizer (f)/multi-link with anti-squat, anti-lift and stabilizer (r)
Four-wheel perforated discs, ABS, Brake Assist, three-stage ESP
L/H/W (in.): 186.1/70.7/56.7
Wheelbase: 108.9 in.
Curb Weight: 3814 lb
Peak Power: 451 hp @ 6100 rpm
Peak Torque: 443 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
0-60 mph: 4.4 sec. (est.)
Top Speed: 155 mph (limited)
What we like:
Unrivaled power in its class, superb automatic gearbox
What we don't:
Seems unlikely its base price will undercut the new M3
The Price Tag:

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