First Drive: 2012 Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG

The engine downsizing game seems trite these days. We've been hearing about the inevitable replacement of large-displacement engines with more efficient, forced-induction powerplants for years. To meet the increasing demands for cleaner cars, even performance cars must follow this path, which brings us to the 2012 Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG.

AMG's big changes for the 2012 E63 are a 5.5-liter twin-turbo V-8 and a seven-speed automatic transmission that ditches the traditional torque converter for a wet clutch. Though the outgoing engine displaced 6.2-liters (the 63 badges didn't match the actual displacement then either), it made do with normal aspiration and port injection. With its new engine, AMG is replacing displacement with technology and every 5.5-liter V-8 is leaving Affalterbach with twin turbochargers and direct injection. Though there's no horsepower increase with the smaller engine, peak power remains 518 hp and maximum torque climbs to 516 lb-ft, up 51 lb-ft from 465 lb-ft in the 6.2-liter cars.

An optional (though highly recommended) AMG Performance Package boosts the output to 550 hp and 590 lb-ft as well as increasing top speed from155 mph to 186 mph. To extract the additional grunt, AMG simply increases the turbochargers' maximum boost to 18.8 psi, up from 14.5 psi in the standard E63. Visual changes to performance-pack cars are limited to red brake calipers, a nifty carbon-fiber engine cover, a carbon-fiber spoiler on the trunk, an AMG steering wheel, and the AMG sport suspension. Even with the performance package, the E63 AMG is capable of flying under the radar until you put your foot in it and the V-8 starts to scream.

The new engine deserves a better transmission, so AMG ditched the torque converter in favor of a wet clutch. The C, S, S+, M, and RS transmission modes are familiar to AMG customers, but "C" mode now features stop/start programming and starts in second gear. Fear not, start/stop isn't active in sport, sport+, or manual modes and can always be deactivated manually when the transmission is set to comfort. Customers looking to validate Mercedes' claimed 4.2-second 0-60 sprint (4.1 with performance pack) will want to dial in RS to utilize launch control. Sport, sport+, and manual modes include rev-matched downshifts and the matching exhaust burble.

With the increased performance and emphasis on speed, it would be easy to forget AMG's goal of reducing fuel consumption 30 percent by 2015. That promise was made at the Geneva motor show in 2008 and the 2012 E63 boasts a 22 percent improvement in fuel economy over the 6.2-liter engine while increasing performance. Better yet, the performance pack is expected to net the same 15/22-mpg rating (wagon fans should expect 14/21 mpg) as the standard sedan and neither E63 AMG will be saddled with a gas-guzzler tax.

Mercedes has done a great job tuning the stability control's sport mode. Our lapping at Circuit Paul Ricard in Le Castellet, France, was done with the sport setting activated and the system never intervened obtrusively or cut power too aggressively. You can hang the tail out a bit and have fun without fully defeating stability control, which means there's no reason to turn it off during spirited driving on public roads.

Our test drive was far too brief, consisting of only six hot laps on the track and perhaps 30 kilometers on the curvy roads outside Paul Ricard, but we were impressed with the feel of AMG's speed-sensitive electrohydraulic steering. There's a bit of a dead zone just off center, but a sedan this heavy doesn't need to deliver the same steering as a sports car. Ride quality was quite good over the near-perfect roads in France, so we'll need to sample the E63 AMG in the real world before making a final judgment.

The options package offerings include the typical Premium 1 and 2 packages, a variety of driver-aid packages, and the AMG Performance Package that we consider mandatory if you have the $7300. Stand-alone options consist of a limited-slip differential ($2030 well spent), a sunroof, night vision, a rear-seat entertainment system, parking distance sensors, rear side air bags, walnut or ash wood trim, carbon-fiber trim, and 19-inch AMG twin five-spoke forged alloy wheels. AMG also offers a few special order options with the most significant being carbon-ceramic brakes in place of the 14.2-inch monsters on the base car. We appreciated the carbon ceramic brakes on the track, but the $12,625 asking price is tough to justify. Customers can also special order a smaller 18-inch set of AMG 10-spoke alloy wheels if they wish to buck the current trend toward massive wheels.

AMG gave the E63 an impressive upgrade under the hood, but the overall experience feels about the same as it did in a 2011 model. If you need a big, fast sedan or wagon, the E63 AMG fits the bill perfectly and should be arriving at dealerships by the end of September. With an all-new BMW M5 right around the corner we wonder how the two cars will fare in the inevitable comparison test. Rest assured, we'll bring you that test as soon as it's possible.

2012 Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG

Base Price: $88,000 (estimated)

Powertrain
Engine: 5.5-liter DOHC 32-valve V-8
Horsepower: 518 hp @ 5250-5750 rpm
Torque: 516 lb-ft @ 1700-5000 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Drive: Rear-wheel

Measurements
L x W x H: 192.4 x 75.9 x 56.8 in
Legroom F/R: 41.3/35.8 in
Headroom F/R: 37.9/38.2 in
Cargo capacity (seats up/down): 29.0/57.4 cu ft
Curb Weight: 4048 lb
EPA Rating (city/highway): 15/22 mpg

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