We drove the Mercedes-AMG E53 wagon a while back, but it's hoved into view again thanks to an update. This has changed little on the mechanical side and, instead, focuses mainly on the styling and interior. For example, it now brings the E-Class's infotainment in line with the more modern Mercedes products, such as the A-Class, with a touchpad controller for the infotainment system, instead of the previous iDrive-style wheel. That still puts it a generation behind the most recent touchscreen-only system in the new C- and S-Class, mind, and thank the good Lord for that - those are way too distracting. The infotainment updates work well, then, and so do the styling tweaks. They are a little-blink-and-you'll-miss-them but that's fine. The E-Class estate was, and still is, a handsome beast, and when you do notice the changes, they've merely cleaned things up. So that's a thumbs up, too.
To keep this positive frame of mind going, you'll not read me prattling on about "oh, this is an AMG lite" and "why wouldn't you just buy the V8" either. I love the current bi-turbo AMG V8 - rather a lot, actually. If one engine on sale today encapsulates and celebrates the joy of internal combustion, prior to the petrol flames being snuffed out for good, it's that unit. You can argue the toss over better protagonists, sure, but there's no doubt that AMG's V8 is there or there abouts: brutish, bold and baleful sounding.
Do I feel cheated by two less cylinders? Not in the slightest. If I had to pick my favourite number and arrangement of pots, six stacked in a row (for the record, V6s are no match in my book) it would be. That's down to the inline-six's inherent balance, which any engineer will tell you is as good as it gets. And they make a lovely noise, as a rule, with anything from an XK to an S54, especially with a breathe-easy exhaust, sounding enchanting to my ears.
I was a little disappointed with this one, though. Plant the throttle expecting some mood music, and what comes out is more the symphony of a software engineer than a mechanical engineer one. Now, I don't get this. I've driven the previous S-Class with this M256 engine, and it sounded wonderful: rich and melodic. The only adaption it needed for something sportier was a bit more parp - achieved naturally. The E53 doesn't sound terrible; it just doesn't sound quite right.
There is a bit of straight six in there, somewhere, but you have to listen carefully to discern it from of the pervasive, digitised enhancement drowning it out. What sort of noise is that? Well, something along the lines of a Supra from Grand Turismo crossed with a Triumph triple. And a boom - the sort you get when you unplug speakers from a live amp - with every gear change. Because the sports exhaust just cranks up the volume, it wasn't switched on for long.
Get over that mild aural disappointment, though, and what an engine this M256 is: 3.0 litres, swelled by twin-scroll turbocharging but, unlike many of that ilk, it feels quite naturally aspirated. As you may already know, that's down to the EQ 48-volt element. For starters, this adds a small 0.9kWh lithium-ion battery hooked up to a starter-generator ring sitting inside the bell housing - an engineering solution that I really like. This adds 22hp and 184lb ft of torque fill, which is augmented further by an electric compressor.
So, if you just tap the accelerator the response is near-instant. The engine picks up crisply and without any surging; quite honestly, the power delivery is hard to fault. Nor is its ultimate performance, which is gutsy by default and builds steadily to 5,000rpm, by which point it's fully lit with 2,500rpm to go. This doesn't feel like a 'second-class AMG' in terms of straight line, that's for sure.
The engine's enthusiasm carries you like a tailwind towards the limiter, but here's the issue. There aren't any change-up lights, and even if you just brush the limiter, rather than full-on headbutt it, you find yourself in a kind of automotive purgatory. It's exasperating. You cannot change up, despite pulling the correct paddle, because the gearbox just freezes momentarily until the software decides you're allowed down from the naughty step. Naturally, you can avoid this with the default auto mode, but the 9G automatic can still be a little aggressive with its changes on occasion.
The E53 is very tractable, though. It never feels manic, like the E63, which can get quite oversteery even without disconnecting its front axle. Perhaps this is the biggest change between the two, which never feels lairy. And if you're buying one as an every-day hack, which, being a wagon is quite probable, that's probably a plus, not a minus. It won't bite you on a cold winter's night, that's for sure. You can prod and poke it as much as you like around any corner, at any reasonable speed, and all four tyres simply dig in and fire you out with no theatrics.
Moreover it steers ably for a big car, so is surprisingly easy to place on most roads. There isn't much in the way of feel - it's a bit numb in that department - and also the brake pedal is missing much in the way of sensation. Plus, it has a few too many mills of travel before anything happens, although, once it does, the retardation is unquestionably strong.
The ride sits with the E53's liveable credentials. To my mind, AMGs are often better-riding Mercedes' than regular Mercedes' and, by and large, that's the case here. It's tauter than the standard E-Class, sure, but by just the right degree. It's a little more abrupt around the roughest parts of town but not enough to feel like it's berating you for your decision to upgrade. And in return for that, you get much better wheel control over ruts and ridges than the standard car and the body control over gentler imperfections is way better, too. It's far more settled and that's before you've begun ramping up suspension modes, which improves things further without things becoming rock solid.
So don't think of the E53 as an AMG-lite. It's too good for that. Whereas the E63 can still be a bit deranged, like a devil sitting on your shoulder, the E53 is a guardian angel with a devilish streak. It still allows you plenty of fun without spoiling any of the E-Class's natural plus points; in most respects, it actually enhances them. It's an alternative AMG, if you like and, of course, a much cheaper one starting at over £30,000 less. Celebrate choice, which invariably is a good thing.
SPECIFICATION | MERCEDES-AMG E53 ESTATE
Engine: 2999cc, turbocharged, inline six
Transmission: 9-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 435 @ 5,500-6,100rpm
Torque (lb ft): 384 @ 1,800-5,800rpm
0-62mph: 4.5 secs
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Weight: 2,025kg (running order)
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