Hans-Werner Aufrecht wore a $2000 Hugo Boss suit and a bemused smile as we strolled down a sidewalk in Beverly Hills. It was 1989, and Aufrecht's AMG Hammer, a Mercedes-Benz E-class transformed into a 380-hp hot rod by his small German company, had become a sensation in America. The Hammer's new showroom in Beverly Hills was a long way from the old mill near Stuttgart where Aufrecht and his partner, Erhard Melcher, had started in 1967.
Seventeen years later, things have gotten even better for AMG. Mercedes-Benz acquired AMG as a wholly owned subsidiary in 1999, and production climbed from 500 cars a year to last year's total of 20,000 AMG vehicles (half of which were delivered to the United States). But although AMG is proud of its range of high-performance Mercedes-Benz models, it's been trying for some time to leave behind its image as a mere installer of hot-rod equipment.
A potent new 6.2-liter V-8 is AMG's renewed declaration of independence from the Mercedes-Benz mothership. AMG tells us its engineers have produced a DOHC 32-valve V-8 that is one of the most powerful and highest-revving large-displacement automotive engines in the world. It exceeds even the engineering standard set by the familiar 604-hp, 6.0-liter, twin-turbo Mercedes-Benz V-12 in the new AMG S-class. Among other features, the new, aluminum-block V-8 has a stout crankcase, a low-friction coating for the cylinder bores, variable cam timing, a bucket-style valvetrain compatible with an elevated 7200-rpm redline, and a cast-magnesium intake manifold that features variable-length intake tracks.
AMG is using this V-8 as the centerpiece of a new image-building campaign, and it has even constructed a replica of the AMG-built Mercedes-Benz 300SEL that recorded the company's first competition success in 1971. Yet the most significant aspect of today's AMG is its development department of 100 engineers. Mercedes-Benz now brings this department into its own development program as soon as a new vehicle is planned, and this head start has enabled AMG to roll out an entire range of vehicles instead of just a few select models.
Volker Mornhinweg, the chairman of Mercedes-AMG's management board, sees AMG as a technology company, not simply a performance tuner. "We are experts in our engine and suspension specialties, but we also do brakes, special electronics, aerodynamics, and interior design," he says. "We have a business plan, and we do our own sales and marketing. We are a car company, not a performance division."
There are consequences to such a broadly targeted approach, of course. Like Mercedes-Benz itself, AMG risks losing some exclusivity as it stretches its brand identity across so many models. Even now, the 503-hp AMG R-class makes us wonder just how fast you need to get the kids to soccer practice.
Wolf Zimmermann, a member of Mercedes-AMG's management board, is a tall, long-haired former engine designer who would rather still be drawing AMG racing engines, but he's quick to note that when it comes to passenger cars, AMG is not the kind of narrowly focused performance company that BMW's M division prefers to be. He says that the contrast between BMW's notoriously aggressive SMG paddle-shift transmission and AMG's new, refined Speedshift seven- speed transmission explains the difference.
"When I drive an AMG with the Speedshift seven-speed," he says, "it is in the Sport mode, so I drive with my left hand on the steering wheel and use the shift paddle to manually upshift at the redline. When the rpm drops below a certain point, the transmission downshifts for me. So my right hand is free for whatever-a cup of coffee, a mobile phone, the navigation system. You can drive fast this way, but it's also practical and comfortable. That is the kind of company we are."