JUST A FEW YEARS AGO, the consensus among makers of plush, high-performance estates and saloons was that 500bhp represented a natural high water mark for the genre.
It was the amount of power that would deliver all the visceral rush required for an adrenalin-soaked life. Progress henceforth would come in pared kilos and subtler forms of technology.
Of course, they always say that, but you just have to look closely at their eyes for the inward smile. There is no category called ‘mutual restraint’ in a pack of Top Trumps and, for the time being at least, the manufacturer that holds the whip hand is Mercedes.
I say for the time being because Audi, an enthusiastic player of the game, isn’t denying rumours that it’s preparing a ‘Plus’ version of its RS6 Avant with around 600bhp. That earns it the glory of trumping and thumping its power-crazed rivals, including the estate version of the E63 S 4matic saloon featured here.
This is all particularly ironic, as it was an engineer from Audi that first alerted me to the ‘500’s enough’ thinking gripping the industry. Trends change, basic instincts don’t.
In any event, there was never much prospect of Mercedes’ AMG division keeping a lid on it. I can only assume that the famous ‘Hammer’ name – a pet sobriquet for AMG’s first steel-balled E-class from nearly 30 years ago – is being held in reserve for some future E-class in case it one day has to smite an Audi or BMW that has lost all sense of perspective.
But for now, Mercedes’ new 577bhp E63 S is the baddest predator in town, holding a breezy horsepower advantage over the BMW M5, Porsche Panamera Turbo S and Jaguar XFR-S, as well as the regular E63 (which, at 549bhp, is now as powerful as the previous-generation car with the now discontinued Power Pack option). That’s backed up with a far from ticklish 590lb ft of torque; to put that into perspective, the M5 and XFR-S can muster only 501lb ft apiece. It means 0-62mph in 3.6sec if you go for this four-wheel-drive 4matic version of the S (not imported to the UK in right-hand drive because of packaging issues, but available as a left-hooker if you ask nicely). Yes, that’s 0.1sec quicker than a Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4.
In the inexplicable absence of a rear-drive E63 S for us UK types to try at the refreshed E-class launch in Spain, the choice was between a regular rear-drive E63 or the S 4matic, so we drove both. The E63 felt heroically rapid, more than reasonably comfortable and remarkably composed under the duress imposed by wanting to wring the last ounce of violence from AMG’s mighty twin-turbo 5.5-litre V8. The shock was how much less impressive it seemed after driving the E63 S 4matic.
Naturally, transferring 531lb ft of torque to the road via the rear wheels has its challenges – never more obvious than on the faster, bumpier sections of the test route where big throttle inputs were treated to constant, power-quelling interventions from the stability and traction electronics unless they were disabled. Unshackled, of course, the E63’s rear rubber is yours to burn at will, and it boggles the mind to imagine the size of the smoke stacks the rear-drive S could generate with 590lb ft. But applying all that torque to the same roads in the 4matic S simply resulted in a hugely rewarding sense of hard-wired connection between the angle of the throttle and the degree of force burying your spine in the backrest. Switching off the electronics had minimal effect: the conversion of power to pace just seemed less lossy in the all-wheel-drive car.
For both E63 models, Merc’s 4matic system gives you a fixed and heavily rear-biased 33/67 torque split, with the addition of a locking rear diff for the S to really nail that extraordinary 0-62mph stat. It’s a figure that goes some way to mitigating the comparative tardiness, by today’s standards, of Merc’s Speedshift MCT seven-speed paddle-shift auto. The chassis uses steel coils at the front and self-leveling air struts at the rear and there are three settings for the electronic damping: Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus. And the ESP electronics have been given some torque vectoring duties to enhance agility and reduce understeer.
It works on a racing circuit (the S 4matic is quicker than the rear-driver by almost 1sec around Hockenheim) and it works on the road, too. Despite its 70kg weight penalty, the S 4matic gives the impression of being lighter and lither than the regular E63. It turns in more keenly and with less initial understeer, its responses feel cleaner and more alert, and the electro-mechanical steering, while just as short of genuine feel, is pleasingly a little crisper. It all helps make 577bhp – delivered with a true, unmolested V8 war cry that simply drowns out the acoustically enhanced efforts of some rivals – a genuine thrill to exploit.
In common with the rest of the E-class range, the AMGs now get softer-edged but more aggressive styling, extra kit, lower consumption and emissions, enhanced lighting and more driver-aid tech. The standard steel brakes are great but the optional carbon-ceramics feel just as good underfoot. Mercedes UK has moved quickly to evaluate the viability of bringing the LHD E63 S 4matic to the UK and, happily, will make the necessary provisions through the dealer network if you’d like to buy one. Even at around GBP 80,000, it looks like a bargain to me.
In a market influenced by the persistence of Audi’s ‘quattro’ philosophy, even BMW is being forced to sell four-wheel drive as a performance additive rather than an all-season safety net. But with the E63 AMG S 4matic, Mercedes has stolen the initiative. This side of a supercar, it’s the most potent four-wheel-drive fix of all. By David Vivian