As genres, niches and even entire manufacturers seek to reinvent themselves for the 2020s, there's something reassuringly familiar about comparing two great super saloons. There's been an M3 for 35 years and a moody AMG E-Class of some description for just as long; the E63 badge has itself seen 15 years of service now, never with less than 500hp. If so much of the automotive world currently feels like the proverbial box of chocolates, then you can rest assured that an M3 and E63 are going to be brilliant four-door powerhouses.
Both G80 BMW and the ever-so-slightly-softer W213 facelift Mercedes have proven that in isolation - the next logical step is to pitch them against each other. No, seriously. While AMG and M have consistently churned out fabulous saloons, the goalposts inevitably move with time; E-Class against 3 Series wouldn't normally make sense, but the performance variants distort the accepted demarcation somewhat. With a healthy options spend - the M Pro Pack and the Ultimate Pack - plus a higher RRP, this Aventurine Red M3 is £95,370. And there are examples of the updated E63 (which is the one you want, really) around for less than £100k, making the temptation to test them together irresistible. The better car is surely the greatest super saloon around; the M3 is a more rounded package than the lighter Giulia Quadrifoglio, the E63 a more charismatic 'bahnstormer than the M5. This writer called the Mercedes "pretty much peak super saloon" in May. So, without further ado...
Given how much time has been dedicated to the BMW of late, the Mercedes seems a sensible place to start. Those fans of the more traditional ubersaloon aesthetic will no doubt prefer the E63; white may not be the best colour for it, but the hints at its potential are more subtle than the divisive BMW, limited to those blistered front arches, the badges and the exhausts. Unassuming to most but potent enough for those looking, the E63 is trademark AMG. And looks really good for it.
The interior is perhaps less convincing now, especially against this M3. The sheer speed of Mercedes updates means elements of the original E-Class cabin now jar slightly with the newer tech, like the unsympathetic restoration of an old house. Experience shows the interior does become more familiar, too, but it isn't immediately intuitive. Quality seems no better than the BMW, either.
Still, those concerns are far less prominent on the road, and there are no prizes for guessing why. The 4.0-litre, twin-turbo, 612hp AMG V8 is gratifying and enthralling from the get-go in a way the smaller 3.0-litre straight-six never is. The E63 is also more agreeable company at low speed; the newly mellowed ride and V8 rumble make trundling around much more pleasant than in the stern BMW and its nondescript chunter.
Plus, of course, the E63 is ferociously fast. Perhaps there's a suspicion of lag, only for the V8 to thunder around to 7,000rpm as soon as you've thought it. Once beyond 1,800rpm or so there's no let up and no hesitation, no sense really that it wouldn't just keep chomping gears and accruing outrageous speed forever and ever - it really is a formidable engine. Perhaps the V8 war cry is a little synthesised and maybe the nine-speed auto isn't as wildly impressive as the engine, but what a USP. You will never suffer a dull journey.
Plus, of course, the triumph of this E63 era has been in harnessing and exploiting that rampant performance with a truly capable chassis. Greasy, chilly, pockmarked roads play to its strengths. Of course there's abundant traction and grip, but is made to seem three-dimensional with handling nuance as well. Notably the steering never changes regardless of mode, delivering the same measured weight and feel throughout. The significant negative camber at the front means the E63 can even follow the odd groove in the road - the driver is certainly part of the process here. The brake pedal feel is reassuring, the mass obviously well managed and very soon you're romping along rather faster than you probably should be going in a big Mercedes saloon. The combination of old school V8 swagger and modern AMG nous was compelling in 2016; it only takes a few minutes five years later to recall just how good the car really is.
But it is not perfect. Those moments where the M3 has proven itself truly exceptional are where the Mercedes can't quite keep up. Though the two stiffer Sport and Sport+ damper modes never tarnish the E63's ride, nor do they quite deliver the unflinching control the BMW can over challenging roads. It feels less stable under braking, too, and on occasion - especially when driven back-to-back with the M3 - 627lb ft can feel like a bit much for the E-Class to handle. Naturally that overengined, muscle-car feel is part of the racuous appeal, but its smaller rival has a habit of highlighting flaws that were not previously evident in the mighty Mercedes.
Because the M3 monsters road that ever so slightly flummoxed the E63. Even left in its standard suspension setting there's a degree of control and composure that eludes the Mercedes, its lower weight (only by 100kg or so, don't forget) kept in closer check. Which obviously uprates driver confidence - but it is the extent to which you feel more immersed in the experience which stands the BMW apart.
You sit lower in much more supportive (optional) seats, for starters, while the steering, though lighter, arguably gives a better idea of what's going on with the front Michelins than in the big Benz. Which is to say simply incredible turn in response and corner grip, the enormous 275-section Pilot Sport 4S even wider than those on the E63. But as has been discussed with these new xDrive cars, it's not simply a case of outright purchase at the expense of entertainment. With total faith in the front in all conditions, the driver can better exploit a four-wheel drive system that feels more authentically rear biased. In the Mercedes there always seems to be a fractional moment of delay, and never quite the same sense of connection with what each end is doing. Meanwhile the BMW simply drives like a rear-drive M3 with spooky amounts of grip - which is to say brilliantly.
Granted, though - the doubts which have lingered regarding the powertrain are certainly confirmed here. While the BMW's exemplary chassis means it's never realistically any slower than the Mercedes (and some of the straight-six sounds are nice enough), the M3's engine and gearbox never dazzle like the V8. The eight-speed auto shifts a little more decisively than the Merc's nine-speeder, if not as well as might be hoped given how much newer the transmission is. The S58 motor needs a thousand more revs to really get going, too, and, while hugely fast, never quite delivers that intoxicating wallop you get in the E63. Which it might only be reasonable to expect given the difference in output - but when this M3 is in excess of £90k, you might be inclined to feel short-changed by what's under the bonnet. And that's never an accusation anyone would level at the AMG.
In isolation, both cars are excellent. You know it's a good day of automotive twin testing when the temperature is barely above freezing and home is hours away, but no one expresses any desire to leave whatsoever. Without doubt, both M3 and E63 deliver the kind of all-weather, all-rounder aptitude which grades them as a class apart from the chasing pack. In an ideal world we'd have shared the company of both for days and days - not necessarily because the result would've been any different, but because any extra time, in virtually any location, would have been an absolute pleasure behind the button-festooned wheel of either car.
Even in half a day, it's clear that anyone nursing a continuing devotion to the siren song of a V8 petrol motor, and in need of the negligible bit of extra space it affords, will be well served by the E63. Yes, it delivers everything we've come to expect of a contemporary AMG - it is never less than indecently fast, always absorbing to drive and capable of things a two-tonne Mercedes really ought not to be - but it is also the model best equipped to pay tribute to the more traditional AMG, too. In other words, it is a little bit bonkers. And there's definitely not enough of that around at the moment.
Nevetheless, the G80 M3 is a greater achievement. Where the E63 drives brilliantly for a car so heavy, the BMW truly feels like one hundreds of kilos lighter. Yet the more engaging, more exciting driving experience isn't at the expense of what these cars must also be required to do; if the BMW doesn't match Benz for outright luxury and refinement, then it comes tremendously close. Far from being shown up by an AMG of ostensibly greater stature, the comparison has merely confirmed just how good this G80 Competition is as an all-wheel-drive M car. Which, hand on heart, is not the conclusion this writer expected. The E63 is comfortably the best AMG saloon you can buy, but the M3, by combining the best bits of smaller, nimbler M cars and larger, plusher ones, is the best four-door, four-wheel-drive car, period. Forget your preconceptions or misgivings; don't buy any fast saloon, V8 AMG or otherwise, without trying it out first.
SPECIFICATION | BMW M3 COMPETITION XDRIVE (G80)
Engine: 2,993cc, twin-turbo straight-six
Transmission: 8-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 510@6,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 479@2,750-5,500rpm
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,775kg DIN, 1,850kg EU
Price: £76,950 (price as standard; price as tested £95,370, comprised of Aventurine Red III metallic for £1,100, M Pro Pack (M Carbon Ceramic brakes and M Driver's Pack) for £7,995) and Ultimate Pack (Heated steering wheel, electric bootlid, Comfort Access, M carbon bucket seats, Driving Assistant Professional, Laserlights, Parking Assistant Plus, Driver Recorder and M Carbon Exterior Styling) for, um, £11,250.)
SPECIFICATION | MERCEDES-AMG E63 S 4MATIC+
Engine: 3,982cc, twin-turbo V8
Transmission: 9-speed automatic AMG Speedshift MCT, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 612@5,750-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 627@2,500-4,500rpm
Top speed: 186mph
MPG: 23.2 (WLTP)
Price: £99,565 (price as standard)
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