Nudge the Dynamic Select controller into Race mode, toggle manual gears, turn stability control off, pull both paddles, confirm with the right. Congratulations, you have just discovered Drift mode and turned your 4WD Mercedes-Benz E63S into a rear-wheel-drive skid hero.
A proper rear-driver, not the artifice of the Ford Focus RS’s system feeding extra power to the back axle, but a car that’s now sending 604bhp and 626Ib ft of torque through the rear wheels alone. With no traction control.
It’s irrelevant, of course. Well, unless you’re trying to fill pages of a magazine with smokin’ pictures or trying to make yourself look like a drift hero. Otherwise the potential for abject embarrassment and a massive repair bill coming hot on the heels of a “Watch this…” as you approach a roundabout with three mates in the car is colossal. Keep it to bragging rights people.
It may be irrelevant, but it’s also important, which may sound illogical, but bear with me. As far as I can work out no one else has ever built a fully switchable 4WD to RWD road car, so that’s a first. It also gives the E63S the broadest plateau of ability, at once nullifying old criticisms about AMGs not being able to get their power down, while at the same time keeping enthusiasts’ hopes alive.
And think of the competition. This is a slap down to Audi’s RS6 and BMW’s M5, a statement car from Mercedes-Benz that’s stolen a lead not just on its domestic rivals, but everyone. Provided that the system is good, of course. We’ll come back to that. Tobias Moers, head of AMG, believes that the new E63 models “represent the biggest step forward we’ve ever taken ior fro e generation to the next”. Models, not model. There are two: the E63 an an uprated E63S (the car I’m driving here) costing about £9k more. The extra buys you not just an additional 41bhp and 73Ib ft, but bigger brakes – 390mm front discs instead of 360mm (although both can be had with 402mm carbon-ceramics instead), a Track Pace app, dynamic engine mounts and an electronically controlled torque-vectoring rear diff instead of a mechanical locker. The S is also the only one with Drift mode. People might not use it, but I bet that’s a deal-clincher.
Axel Seilkopf, the head of engine development for the new E63, is showing me around the car, telling me what has been changed. There’s a lot, and much of it is down to the fact the product team demanded it should develop 850Nm (626lb ft). The nine-speed multi-clutch gearbox had never been called on to cope with more than 700Nm before, the centre differential, the pistons, turbos, brakes, all are new or uprated, and each time Axel points at something and says, “We had to change it because of 850Nm”.
So no, the 4.0-litre twin-turbo engine isn’t lifted straight from a lesser 63 and given a software tweak. Instead there are new lighter pistons, air intakes, a charge air cooling system, cylinder shut-off (between 1,000-3,250rpm in Comfort mode) and, most importantly, a pair of twin-scroll turbos. Twin-scroll means that instead of exhaust gases from all four cylinders on each bank being fed through one pipe into the turbo, they come in through two. This smooths out the air pulses and improves response and torque at low revs.
Power then arrives at the gearbox. It’s the first time AMG has used this transmission. The internals had to be heavily revised. New materials, and a wet clutch for first gear to enable repeated full-house launches without overheating – the oil keeping the temperatures down. This then feeds into the centre clutch pack. From here, driveshafts run forwards down the right flank of the engine and backwards to the rear differential. It’s a compact housing, yet it’s able to send all the torque – 626lb ft, don’t forget ¬to either axle.
So here I am, driving around Portimao racetrack, chasing racing legend Bernd Schneider, who’s piloting an AMG GT S. I can’t take as much speed into corners as he can. The E63 weighs 1,880kg, which is commendably only 35kg more than the outgoing rear-drive car, but it’s still a weight, and despite the front driveshaft running through the engine’s sump pan, the centre of gravity is higher.
The carbon ceramics aren’t fading, though – the 265/35 ZR20 front tyres (295/30 on the rear) are resisting understeer admirably, and the steering feels faithful. Not a great deal of feel, but the variable ratio set-up (which I normally hate) isn’t offending me. The front end is positive and direct enough that you always know where you are with the grip available.
But the good stuff happens after the apex. Because then you’re feeding torque out to all four wheels. And it feels magic. Partially this is down to the engine, which sounds majestic and delivers rampant thrust, but it’s what the chassis does with this power that’s key to this new E63. An Audi RS6 will push wide into messy understeer, but not the E63. Here it’s more rear-biased, so when you get back on the power (minimal turbo lag unless you’re below 3,000rpm), a pulse of torque seems to go to the back axle, tightening the trajectory and neutralising the car’s stance, then the power is fed forward, maintaining your chosen line, all four wheels working hard, pulling in the same direction.
Of course, this all happens in the blink of an eye and feels smooth and seamless and natural, but the more laps I did, the more impressed I was. It’s not only fast and effective, but really involving and entertaining.
Get on the power too hard, too early and you’ll probably exit with a theatrical flourish of opposite lock. Not much, but enough to feel lightly heroic. Even with the traction off, you’d be hard pushed to spin it. But not if you choose to disconnect the front driveshafts. “Because of 850Nm” now has an almost instantaneous effect. A good prod in a hairpin will snap the back end out of line and beyond the point of no return in an instant. But at higher speeds, it’s immensely controllable and a vast amount of fun. As long as you’re not picking up the tyre bills.
An E63 isn’t really a track car and proved it by not changing direction as well as the GT S, so dawn the next morning sees us over on the N2. It’s a fantastic road, endlessly twisting and turning, occasionally punctuated by short, squirty third- and fourth-gear straights. It’s more impressive here than it was on the track. I expected it to feel big and slightly wayward, but instead it’s surprisingly neat and very, very effective. Again, the 4WD system makes the whole car feel so natural in its movements, and so athletic. Body control is excellent and that engine…
I had my doubts about it because I wasn’t sure at what point the 4.0-litre unit, given more weight to shift, might start to feel out of its depth compared with the old 5.5-litre twin-turbo. I thought lag might be an issue, that low-down torque might suffer. Not a chance. This motor is core to Merc’s future – they’ve invested hugely in its ongoing development, and the result is a red-blooded belter of a V8. It’s absolutely rampant through the mid-range, cannons into the 7,000rpm limiter if you’re tardy with your paddle-pulling and makes noises that will delight your ears. Even by top-line super-saloon standards, this thing is truly, madly, deeply rapid.
Both steering and brakes lack real, actual feel, but the response you get to your inputs is always positive and reassuring, so you develop confidence that way. I was more impressed by the gearbox – I’ve never been a massive fan of Merc’s MCT transmission, but AMG has clearly given it a thorough overhaul. The shifts are crisp and immediate and carry enough sense of occasion as they punctuate each lunge of acceleration to make it feel interactive.
With the engine roaring, the chassis digging deep, the E63 is shot through with a sense of urgency and potency that’s very compelling. It’s a deeply exciting car to drive. Way more than an M5 or RS6. Reservations? I do wonder if you might find yourself hanging on to it a bit on a bucking B-road, and I am surprised by how aggressive it feels. Where the BMW M5 feels plush and comfortable and you sink into thick scats, the Mercedes is more at you’. The chairs are firm and relatively thinly padded. The ride is taut – there’s a fair bit of tyre roar. But a more padded seat is available and you could happily drive it on a daily commute – the powertrain is vice-free and you’d quickly get used to the road noise. And the cabin is beautiful.
The quality of the carbon work is exceptional, the driving position is ace and there’s more equipment than you’ll ever figure out how to use. It feels expensive. Still not sure about the twin-screen set-up and controlling it via thumb pads on the steering wheel – it’s a bit of a fall, and that’s not really what the E63 is about. And the Driver Assist systems? They feel utterly out of place here. A semi-autonomous E63? No thanks, I’m happier driving this one myself.
3982cc twin-turbo V8, 4WD, 604bhp, 626lb ft
31.7mpg, 207g/km CO2 (e)
0-62mph in 3.4secs, 155mph
Perhaps the most super super-saloon ever. New 4WD E63 is fast, clever and exciting. The class goalposts have shifted.