From the moment it started beating the field by half a minute in the early days of the V6 turbo hybrid era, Mercedes has been dead keen to show that the tech it develops for Formula 1 has a direct impact on its road cars. This desire is ultimately best demonstrated by the AMG One, a 1,000hp hypercar powered by the same engine found in a 2015-spec F1 car. It’s not been an easy ride, that's for sure, but the technical nous required to mount one of these highly complicated power units in the middle of a road car - and then have it function reliably - is nothing short of incredible.
And doubly crazy, when you think about it, because everyone hated the V6 turbo hybrid cars when they debuted in 2014. Quiet, heavy and so lacking in aural drama that F1 fans threatened to switch off unless the old V8s were reinstated. Of course, by highlighting the absence of ear-splitting noise, the great unwashed were doing a massive disservice to what is otherwise a truly remarkable and highly efficient bit of engineering. So when it made its way into a road car, it deservedly made headlines – even if it does sound a bit rubbish.
You probably know where I’m going with this. For the new C63 S E Performance, Mercedes-AMG decided, against the better judgement of some, to get along with half the established cylinder count, and replace the missing pistons with a battery and electric motor. A vastly different car from its V8-touting predecessor has inevitably emerged, but it's one the company reckons is well-suited at a new audience - i.e. the rich millennials that will make up the next generation of AMG buyer. An inconvenient truth for its established customers, perhaps - but fitting for this tech-crazed millennial, lined up for his first taste of Affalterbach’s handiwork and unencumbered by firsthand experience of the dearly departed 4.0-litre engine.
This brings us to the first elephant in the room. No, not the weight. Not yet, anyway. I mean what exactly does this new C63 sound like? You needn't have driven the old car to know that AMG did an incredible job making the twin-turbo V8 sound almost as monstrous as its naturally aspirated predecessor, but, as you might expect, no amount of exhaust trickery can make up for the comparative lack of cylinders in the E Performance. Granted, there’s a deep hum on tick over and naturally there’s the obligatory sound symposer pumping an artificial note into the cabin (though it sounds far better when it’s switched off). But it just can’t replicate the melodrama. Foreseeable, perhaps - there are only so many miracles that can be worked when dealing with an absence - but a crying shame, too, especially when you factor in AMG's long, illustrious history as an engine builder. Much like its other four-cylinder applications, some of the old mystique has inevitably been diluted.
In other areas, of course, there have been irrefutable gains. The on-paper stats are staggering. The C63 is powered by a longitudinally mounted 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine (codenamed M139L) that’s paired with a rear-mounted electric motor and battery. Combined they produce 680hp and 752lb ft of torque, a gigantic improvement over the old car, with a claimed 3.4 second 0-62mph time for both saloon and estate. Even here there is a caveat, however. Full power is only unlocked (provided you have enough charge) when you hit the kickdown switch at the base of the accelerator. AMG won’t put a number on power when you’re not in the electrically assisted boost mode, as the electric output depends on the position of the accelerator. But we understand it's somewhere in the region of 550hp to 600hp in the sportier modes.
Another bewildering number is claimed by the second elephant. The C63 weighs 2,111kg in saloon format, and 2,145kg for the estate. So while the power-to-weight figure comes in at a respectable 322hp per tonne for the saloon when in boost mode, it’ll likely slip below the 291hp per tonne of the old spec C63 S in other circumstances. And it’s noticeable when you pin the accelerator. The new C63 is very brisk, of course, but it doesn’t deliver the relentless acceleration that you initially expect from a car knocking on supercar levels of performance. It’s quick off the line, in part thanks to the electric boost from the back of the car, with AMG engineers hinting that a 0-62mph time of three seconds flat could be possible with perfect conditions. Once you’re up and running, though, there’s little drama – and therefore precious little temptation to hit the kickdown switch when pulling onto a straight.
You’ll also notice that, with the driver mode clicked over to Race, there’s a distinct thump from the rear when the second ratio for the electric motor is activated. While I’m assured zero momentum is lost in the process, it does catch you off guard when the car changes gear even though you haven’t pulled on one of the paddles - almost as if you’ve hit the rev limiter. It’s followed by an extra shove of electric power, and thankfully you can dial down the jolt from the back end in the settings.
So if all that weight stops the C63 from feeling breathtakingly fast in a straight line, how does it manage a set of bends? Impressively, it must be said. On the highly technical layout of Ascari, the C63 feels about as close to home as you could reasonably expect. There’s real urgency on turn-in, thanks in part to the rear-axle steering that makes the C63 feel as though it wraps itself around an apex, rather than simply clipping it. In Race mode, and with the ESP in its least intrusive setting, it’s possible to get the rear wheels to break traction for what feels like the perfect amount of rotation mid-corner. Not enough to scrub off speed, but it’s moments like this where the C63 seems a bit more organic, rather than a predetermined experience mapped out by the computer. You won’t feel all at sea when the rear end eventually lets go, either, with the AMG Dynamics working overtime to manage the eLSD and ESP to keep you out of the wall. The steering is nicely weighted, too, and your inputs translate into a credible response from the front axle.
The suspension is no less impressive. Developed from the AMG GT3 racer and GT Black Series, each damper includes two hydraulically activated valves that can be rapidly opened or closed. When open, oil fills two additional champers, though these can be individually closed off to stiffen up the response. It’s this system that prevents the C63 from succumbing to the downside of all that mass, and it works superbly in practice, with the super saloon remaining level no matter how hard you chuck it in. And with so many systems in play, it’s remarkable how they whir away in the background without ever threatening to overwhelm the driving experience. On track, the focus is squarely on lowering your lap times.
That’s not to say the cockpit isn’t a busy affair. With the Track Pace mode enabled, the virtual cockpit lights up with all sorts of alerts to make you feel like Lewis Hamilton/George Russell (delete as appropriate). With the Ascari circuit programmed in, the car provides a real-time readout of your lap time delta, goading you to get on the power a little earlier to see the timer switch from red to green. Track Pace also uses a trick algorithm to predict the best places around your chosen circuit to deploy boost mode. Activate the electrical boost all the time, say AMG, and you’re more likely to run out of puff at the end of the lap, leaving you with no battery power for your next run. Hitting the kickdown switch when the system prompts will give the battery opportunities to charge up during the lap, resulting in a more consistent lap time. You can, however, go all out in ‘Hot Lap’ mode, which gives you maximum power the moment you hit the accelerator – but you’ll drain the battery in a handful of laps. Just like you would in an F1 qualifying session.
If that all sounds a little less than playful, then good - because the C63 is not that. All the hybrid trickery hasn’t put paid to AMG’s dedicated drift mode (perish the thought), but there’s nothing remotely lairy about it under normal conditions. Get ham-fisted with the throttle and the front end simply washes out under duress. Sure, it’s incredibly precise on a hot lap and is unlikely to give you any nasty surprises on a cold, drizzly December morning - but it would probably be easier to overlook the absence of a big, grumbly V8 if the C63 at least felt as wild to drive as its 680hp headline figure suggests. Yet it does not.
And while it lets you play out your F1 driver fantasy very effectively, most C63s are unlikely to ever meet the angry side of a race circuit. Out on public roads, the story plays out in similar fashion. For hunkering down and covering miles at enormous pace, the C63 is magnificent. Firm, yet never back-breaking in Sport and Sport+, it becomes genuinely smooth and serine in Comfort - an ability its predecessor was not necessarily famous for. So much so that it's genuinely pleasant to switch over to electric mode from time to time, even if the C63’s 6.1kWh battery is only good for up to 8 miles on electric power alone. ‘Battery Hold’ allows you to keep some energy in reserve if you need some EV power later in your journey - but that's mostly about holding onto its full whack while you wait for a squiggly bit of tarmac.
There's every chance that sort of button-pushing tomfoolery won't appeal to owners of the previous C63 (and its relative merits were greeted with ashen-faced looks among my colleagues) but there's a sobering argument which says it isn't aimed at them. Mercedes-AMG insists that it now sees itself as a tech company, which means that it wants to be at the forefront of what’s possible where combustion meets electric power. And with one of the company’s enthusiastic engineers walking you through the fascinating - yet utterly baffling - hybrid system, it does all start to make sense. But the problem is less to do with the firm's capacity for innovation than it is with production car execution. The technology is so advanced that it’s almost intangible, beavering away in the background so you’re left to focus on the driving - yet too distant and unfathomable to be appreciated on a gut level. And with no engineer bursting at the seams to explain the car’s many intricacies, it’ll be all down to a brief test drive for any new buyer to experience it - an area where any V8 worth its salt only needs a few moments to shine.
The C63 has exchanged some of that old-world charisma for computational cleverness. To be fair to it, the new model also suffers for being the first through this particular wall: the same sacrifice will likely come to all its rivals in time, but for now it seems like a tough sell when its arch-rival, the BMW M3, is not only a deeply engaging road car, but also comes with a large and rapacious petrol engine to boot. Not to mention the long-awaited Touring format that will see it compete head-on with the latest C63 estate.
Moreover, while we await confirmation of final prices, all that F1-inspired hybrid technology is unlikely to come cheap. That isn't necessarily an impediment to its success, but the relative importance of a punchy exhaust note and lively rear end to the 'next generation' of AMG buyer absolutely could be. Earlier, I mentioned that F1 fans would walk away from the sport because the engines were so dull. They didn’t, because noise just isn’t a priority for newer F1 fans. Mercedes-AMG has wagered that, in time, it will prove the same for a quieter, more thoughtful sort of C63. But for this millennial, now finally in possession of a popped Affalterbach cherry, it left me feeling a little colder than its maker probably would've hoped.
SPECIFICATION | MERCEDES-AMG C63 S E PERFORMANCE
Engine: 1,991cc four cylinder, turbocharged plug-in hybrid
Transmission: 9-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 680@6,750rpm (combined)
Torque (lb ft): 752@5,250rpm (combined)
0-62mph: 3.4 seconds
Top speed: 174mph (limited)
Weight: 2,111kg (saloon), 2,145kg (estate)
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