STAGE 3: Adults have all the fun.
More power, more speed, and more fun in the most unassuming packages.
Jim Zamberlan: A fan of German metal, manual transmissions, and the occasional track day.
BMW M3: A veritable legend that has long stood atop the automotive pantheon for its effortless speed and rewarding feedback.
Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG: It makes more horsepower and torque than the M3, but the C63 is unquestionably the underdog here.
With the BMW M3 and the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, perfectly adult wrappers mask the penchant for juvenile mischief, making these sport sedans ripe for the professional who's also a speed freak. Four doors and their familiar body shapes proclaim "practical!" "upscale!" "stable!" when parked in the corporate corral. Yet the subtle styling cues are enough that anybody who knows a clutch pedal from a brake recognizes that they're looking at two credible track cars.
We're verifying that credibility at GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Michigan, where we've laid down a mere $60 for a couple hours of open track during a Tuesday night test-and-tune session. Our driver is a serious German car fan, forty-six-year-old Jim Zamberlan. After his high-school graduation gift -- a Triumph Spitfire -- was totaled in a parking lot, Zamberlan picked up his first Teutonic machine, an '86 Volkswagen GTI. He currently owns a 2010 Audi A4 Avant and a 2004 Volkswagen R32 that he takes to the track a few times per year.
After Zamberlan runs his initial laps in the C63, we're relegated to the parking lot while a Formula Continental driver shakes down his open-wheel car for the coming weekend's race. "I've always been a manual guy," Zamberlan pronounces. "Certainly, I can see the appeal of a good automatic transmission, because you immediately feel like Michael Schumacher with the rev matching. But at the end of the day, I'd probably buy a three-pedal car." Only one car here -- the M3 -- is available with a manual transmission, and both cars we've brought to the track use automatics with seven forward gears and paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
Zamberlan takes off for another twenty-minute session, this time in the Melbourne red M3, and returns knowing he's just driven the better track car. "It's clear to me that, in the right hands, this is ultimately the more capable car," he says, acknowledging that the C63 understeers more readily than the BMW. In addition to a more nimble chassis, the BMW offers greater range in character with electronically adjustable dampers, the ability to alter shift speeds in the dual-clutch gearbox, and the convenient "M" button on the steering wheel to activate your preferred settings. The Mercedes relies on passive dampers that are tuned for a livable ride that's still confident on the track.