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Mercedes gets in your face

BMW has M. Cadillac now has V. Several companies (Honda, Volvo) have R. But the best known of the alphabet soup designations for the high performance divisions of car companies is surely AMG.

GRANADA, Spain— BMW has M. Cadillac now has V. Several companies (Honda, Volvo) have R.

But the best known of the alphabet soup designations for the high performance divisions of car companies is surely AMG.

Standing for (Hans Werner) Aufrecht and (Erhard) Melcher, the company’s founders, plus Grossaspach (Aufrecht’s birthplace), AMG began as a three-man outfit racing mostly

Mercedes products in 1967 in various German and international events.

A class win (second overall) in the 24hour race at Spa in Belgium in 1971 by a 300 SEL 6.8 AMG vaulted the little tuning company into the spotlight.

Increasingly close contact with the parent company led to the eventual acquisition of AMG by Daimler-Chrysler in 1999.

The subsequent integration has not dulled AMG’s senses; rather, it seems to have energized them. AMG models are now developed simultaneously with the bread and butter Benzes, not dipped in gold after the fact. They’ll have seven debuts this model year.

AMG now builds about 20,000 cars a year, making it a substantial brand in its own right. They cost at least $20,000 more than the non AMG versions.

Mario Spitzner, AMG’s director of sales and marketing, seemed almost surprised when he learned recently that AMG is now the Number 1 seller of $100,000 plus automobiles in the U.S. (and probably in Canada, too, although he didn’t have those exact data).

I usually avoid cliches like the plague, but even I can’t avoid “iron fist in a velvet glove” to describe AMG products. High performance, yes, but not at a sacrifice in comfort or luxury.

As an example, there is not, and, according to Spitzner, never will be, an AMG product with a manual transmission.

The latest milestone in AMG’s evolution is a new V8 engine, initially fitted to the AMG versions of the new ML Class SUV, and the CLK coupe and convertible now, the R Class in another month or two, and destined for other AMGs over the next year or so.

The particular significance of this engine is that it is the first one developed completely in house by AMG, as opposed to being a massaged version of a Mercedes engine.

“Not many parts of a Mercedes engine remain unmodified by us anyway,” said Spitzner, “so a totally new engine isn’t really that much of a stretch technically.”

Symbolically, though, it means a lot to the boffins at AMG.

The engine displaces 6208 cc. Mercedes has a longstanding nomenclature tradition that the displacement makes up part of the cars’ names.

However, the rule is often violated; in this case, harking back to another famous engine in Mercedes’s history the 6.3 litre V8 they have chosen ML 63 AMG and CLK 63 AMG

respectively.

Prices have not been announced, but it’s safe to say there will be six figure tags attached.

The all-aluminum four-valve variable cam timing naturally aspirated V8 is designed to provide both the low-end torque of a big bore engine with the high-speed sensitivity of a smaller one.

Among the torque curve flattening technologies is a pair of flaps in the intake manifold that open and close to ensure optimum cylinder filling across a wide r.p.m. band.

While the torque peak of 465 lb.-ft. occurs at a high 5000 r.p.m., at least 367 lb.-ft. are on tap from 2000 r.p.m. on up.

Peak power is 481 horsepower at 6800 r.p.m. in the CLK, 510 in the ML, the latter presumably because the bigger engine room allows less restrictive exhaust routing.

I’m sure AMG would have loved the higher power figure in the CLK, if for no other reason than to surpass BMW’s M6.

Competitive? These guys?

As with all AMG engines, each unit is hand assembled by a single technician. Spitzner says it’s not uncommon for AMG customers to visit the small factory in Affalterbach near

Stuttgart and ask to have a photo taken with their engine builder.

Consistent with AMG’s auto-only philosophy, the new engine is mated to AMG’s variant of the parent company’s seven-speed automatic.

The console-mounted switch allows selection of three modes: Comfort, Sport (with 30 per cent faster shifts) and Manual (50 per cent faster).

Shifts in the CLK can be made manually in any mode either by tapping the shift lever as in all Mercedes (right for upshifting, left for down), or by aluminum steering wheel paddles (again, right for up, left for down).

On the ML, the main shift control is a lever on the right side of the steering column. Once in Drive, manual shifting is enabled by rockers on the back side of the steering wheel spokes, once more, right for up, left for down.

The pure Manual mode is mostly just that, no throttle-induced downshifts; no upshift at the red line, just the rev limiter. It will, however, drop a gear or more as needed as revs approach idle.

The AMG treatment is applied to both exterior and interior.

Again in keeping with at least recent AMG tradition, the aero body kit, unique wheels and bigger tires aren’t overtly flashy.

They just give the vehicles a more purposeful stance, a more serious if not quite menacing look on the road.

The new instrument cluster and exclusive to AMG napa leather upholstery are the main interior changes.

Both cars also include Race timer, which allows you to record and store lap times should you take the vehicle to a private race track. (The CLK maybe, but a race track in an SUV?)

The suspension is beefed up to handle the extra power and the sportier handling an AMG customer would expect. The CLK also benefits from composite front brakes, although you’d think the heavier ML would need them even more.

The ML 63’s Airmatic suspension offers the driver three choices of firmness, and automatically lowers the car at higher speeds for better aerodynamic stability.

I think it’s fair to say that AMG performs a larger transformation on their subjects than M does at BMW.

An M car is a more finely honed derivative of a consistent BMW philosophy; an AMG alters the essential safe, secure serene atmosphere of a Mercedes and turns it, well, if not into a Mr. Hyde, certainly into a much purer driving machine.

Which means the ML 63 presents a bit of a problem: would anyone who needs something like an ML Class ever drive as hard as this vehicle allows you to drive?

Do you really want to tow your boat at 250 km/h?

It is fast and handles remarkably well for something so big and heavy. But it gives an impression akin to the justification for mountain climbing; you do it because you can, not because you really need to, or because anybody asked.

The CLK 63 AMG is more like it. Here, a sweet driving boulevardier is turned into a four-seat sports car with serious performance: 0to100 km/h will trip that Race timer at around 4.6 seconds for the coupe, a 10th slower for the heavier convertible, more than a half-second quicker than the CLK 55 AMGs they replace.

While there are engineering reasons behind turbo or supercharging, and AMG uses both in various cars, nothing can beat the immediacy and throttle response of a naturally aspirated engine.

As promised, this engine can be revved to a fare thee well, or you can lug it around at lower revs and use the torque to blow off your competition.

It also sounds fantastic. Nothing beats the bellow of a V8.

The transmission usually shifts very smoothly, but once in a while, and unrepeatably, at least during the relatively short time we had, there is an unseemly clunk, or a slow, drawn out shift.

Handling and braking are more than consistent with the forward urge.

The interiors on both cars seemed well-crafted, and the more supportive seats were well appreciated on the beautifully paved yet sinuous mountain roads surrounding Granada, the locus of Arabian influence during the Moorish period of Spanish history from the eighth to the 15th centuries.

Two serious issues that affect all Mercedes are repeated in the AMG cars.

First, the instrument panel display, which provides trip computer and various customization features and which uses two steering wheel mounted buttons to page through the various menus then select whichever readout you want, requires a Ph.D. in

engineering to decipher.

I only have a bachelor’s, and despite reading the owner’s manual several times for a wide variety of Mercedes I’ve driven with this system, I have never been able to figure it out.

Want to know your trip distance? Keep punching these two buttons randomly and if you’re lucky, it will show up.

Also, since we all drive with our headlights on all the time (we do, don’t we?) the readouts, apparently dimmed on the false assumption that’s nighttime, are very hard to read in bright sunlight.

The second concern is the positioning of the cruise control stalk. I seldom use snooze and cruise, but the operating lever, fractionally above the low-mounted turn signal lever on the left of the steering column, meant I ended up using it every time I signalled a turn.

It really should be positioned farther up the arc of the column, and require a much more deliberate motion to activate.

This Granada AMG adventure also provided us the opportunity to sample a couple other Swabian hot rods.

The SL 65 AMG retractable roof roadster and the S65 AMG that’d be the new last fall S Class luxury sedan, both feature the 6.0 litre twin turbo V12, generating 612 horsepower

at 4800 r.p.m. and an electronically limited 737 lb.-ft. of torque between 2000 and 4000 r.p.m.

Incidentally this makes the S 65 AMG the most powerful series produced sedan in the world.

Both are limited to using Mercedes’s five-speed automatic they aren’t quite confident yet of the torque capacity of the newer seven-speed. But with this much urge, who needs gears?

The SL 65 AMG is mildly face-lifted from last year’s $259,950 version, and gains composite brake discs front and rear, genuine carbon fibre interior trim bits, and the Race timer.

The S 65 AMG replaces the previous similarly designated model, which cost $227,900.

Both of these cars are, predictably, absolutely insane to drive.

“Catapult” is the only word.

This was my first drive in the new S Class, and I must add my comments to the chorus that is saying how BMW’s Chris Bangle, much maligned for the bustle back look of the trunk lid on the BMW 7 Series, must smile when he sees the south end of the new S Class heading north.

Or the new Lexus LS 430, for that matter.

The aerodynamics guys and the packaging guys all want a high rear deck; the car can only be so long; you have to fill in the sheet metal gaps somehow, and the bustle seems to be the best way to do that.

Not to mention the distinctly iDrive-like central controller for various entertainment, HVAC, navigational and system-customizing features.

It works no better here than it does in a Bimmer, incidentally.

It took me 20 minutes to figure out how to stop the seat from massaging me.

The S 65 AMG needs a better nickname. Road Track coined “Hammer” for one AMG product some years back; I wonder what the German phrase is for “in your face”?

This car is nearly indescribable, but I’ll try.

Acceleration is rocket launcher (0 to 100 km/h in 4.2 seconds for the SL, 4.4 for the S). Braking is wall of mattresses.

Cornering is turn table flat. The exhaust note is symphonic (Wagner, of course).

Collectively, the AMG line represents the broadest range of specially developed high performance vehicles in the industry.

The cars are all beautifully engineered, with a consistency of purpose that truly establishes a brand character.

Anyone interested in an AMG is obviously well prepared to pay a substantial premium for a car that has a measurable but not dramatic improvement in performance, handling, braking, appearance and, perhaps most important, exclusivity.

If you want one and can afford one, you’re gonna love it.

Jim Kenzie, a freelance writer (jim@jimkenzie.com), prepared this report based on travel provided by the auto maker.

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