Three 400-plus-hp coupes jostle to occupy the same space and win the same buyers. They exist in an automotive sweet spot, delivering luxury, performance, style, and excitement at an attainable price. Spend more money, and you'll face diminishing returns. Spend less, and you'll have less of a car.
Although the similarities are unmistakable, each is concocted from a unique formula with its own set of attributes. The Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG taps into man's innate lust for the thrust and roar of a big-displacement V-8. New to the States for 2013, the Audi RS5 elevates expectations of sophistication and speed. And the legendary, long-standing king, the BMW M3, has established itself as a rarefied driver's car.
To this mix of thoroughbred coupes, we also added a ringer, the Porsche Boxster S. With a folding roof, a mid-mounted engine, and space for just two people, the Boxster is nothing like the other cars, yet it lands in the same space when it comes to price and performance.
Just what do you get for your money? These cars all manage 60 mph in the mid-four-second range and blistering track times for an average base price of $64,719. So Porsche, BMW, Audi, or Mercedes-Benz? That's the $64,000 question.
Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG
There's a reason AMG's two most important ambassadors cling to this 6.2-liter V-8. Whereas every other eight-cylinder AMG Benz adopts a twin-turbo 5.5-liter, the SLS AMG and the C63 AMG exist in a niche where character means more than numbers. The C63 isn't simply 451 hp of car. It's manic.
This Mercedes can be tame, even benign, if you're asleep at the wheel, but feed in enough right pedal and you might imagine a nitromethane tap opening somewhere under the hood. At full throttle, the thick rim in your hands becomes less like a steering wheel and more like an Alcantara grab handle. And that turn ahead? This car has a knack for sideways drifts.
Yes, the C63 can be hazardous to your health. Not only does it pressure you into gross acts of power-on oversteer, it leads to addiction. To the thunderous exhaust note. To 443 lb-ft of torque. To matting the gas pedal, over and over and over again.
You (and we) want the good stuff, so order the $6050 development package that swaps in lighter, stronger engine internals; adds 30 hp; and juices the top speed to 174 mph. Launch control (apply brakes, set stability control to sport, dial transmission to RS, pull right paddle, stomp gas, release brake, go fast) will propel this hulk to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, but get the sequence wrong and you'll be treated to a 4500-rpm clutch dump that immolates the rear rubber in a smoky scene that would make Michael Bay envious.
Hell of an engine, dog of a transmission. The C63 uses the same seven-speed automatic found in every other Mercedes with fewer than twelve cylinders, except that AMG unbolts the torque converter -- that's the source of the "slush" in slushbox -- and installs a direct-acting clutch pack in its place. Trading fluid for friction leads to crisper, quicker launches and more precise downshifts. Still, the Mercedes' gearchanges feel a skosh slower than those of the dual-clutch automatic gearboxes used by every other competitor here. We wish that was our biggest complaint.
Instead, we're dealing with straight-up insubordination. Even with the transmission controller twisted to manual, the paddle shifters retain the authority to overrule -- or at least ignore -- the driver's commands. Far more egregious on a not-especially-hot August morning at Michigan's Grattan Raceway, we couldn't log more than three laps at a time before the C63 called it quits. The computers booted us out of manual mode and into a limp mode that yielded barely enough power to accelerate the 3804-pound Mercedes. After less than five minutes of flat-out driving, the $83,845, 481-hp AMG had the motive energy of a Honda Fit towing a school bus.
That's too bad, because the C63 didn't need to come in last in this test. In those first couple of laps, with full power, we were able to record a time just 0.01 second behind the BMW. There's no hiding the weight of that big engine over the front wheels and a tendency to push in corners, yet there's a lot to like about the AMG on the racetrack. There's a natural heft and precision to the steering, utter control in the suspension, and gobs of torque no matter where the tach needle is pointing.
The C63 is even more fun on the road, where the roguish exhaust, on-demand thrust, and capable chassis make it an attraction whether it's sitting at a stoplight, painting black stripes in a straight line, or tearing through a corner. There's no shortage of street cred here. Once-stuffy Mercedes looks more like an attention-seeking adolescent with this particular C63, accessorized with a vivid red interior and an exposed carbon-fiber lip spoiler. Those details strike us as a bit tawdry and at odds with the C-class's otherwise conservative styling, but what do we know? Of the three coupes, the Mercedes drew the most looks and comments wherever we went.
It's easy to get caught up in what AMG has done with this car, but we also love that it is still very much a Mercedes. The C63 AMG is civil enough for the workaday world of urban and suburban commuting but can transform itself instantly when an open stretch of road presents itself. Just don't expect too much if that road leads to a track.
Talk about confidence. The RS5 is the new guy here, and yet Audi has the moxie to strut in with the highest base price by a $4860 margin. We're sold, though, because the RS5 justifies the premium before you even start the engine. The cabin strikes the best balance of upscale, stylish, and tasteful. The optional Google Maps navigation is now joined by Google Street View, which shows a ground-level image of your destination. The underhood presentation is immaculate, with red valve covers, a small composite manifold cover, and handsome badging. Both the seats and the steering wheel are perfectly shaped and placed. And you can't put a price on beauty. The broad shoulders, meaty wheels, and fierce headlights look aggressive without being tacky. We just wish the snub-nosed, slack-jawed face were more elegant.
The RS5 also earns accolades for its 4.2-liter V-8. Arguably the best powerplant in this test, it straddles the line between the burly Merc engine and the peaky BMW mill. The 450-hp unit builds fury all the way to the 8500-rpm fuel cutoff, yet the long 3.7-inch stroke gives it a 22 lb-ft of torque advantage over the M3. The best of both worlds, the RS5 combines instantaneous responsiveness with high-end drama. Ask it to perform, and the RS5 delivers with silky power and an equally honeyed exhaust note.
Yet, other than when you rev the engine to the top of the tach, drama is hard to come by. The all-wheel-drive system, unique in this group of rear-drivers, takes some of the edge and excitement out of accelerating and cornering. The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is so proficient that it neither detracts from nor defines the driving experience. Rather, it moves between gears so smoothly, so quickly, and so reliably that its actions often go unnoticed. Our test car's standard steering setup was far more natural than the optional variable-ratio steering we've previously driven, but it still pales in comparison to the directness of the Porsche, BMW, and Mercedes systems. There's a wide range of effort between Drive Select's comfort, auto, and dynamic modes, yet none feels quite right.
The sport rear differential, on the other hand, can do no wrong. By sending more torque to the outer rear wheel in a turn, it keeps the car from plowing to the outside of corners. More precisely, it allows the driver to point the car into a corner at a sane speed, get on the gas early, and exit at a velocity approaching reckless driving. The car rotates so precisely under throttle that there's a whiff of the same calculating, computerized machinations that are the essence of a Nissan GT-R. The differential is not quite as effective on the track, however, where the RS5's nose-heavy weight distribution is too much for the trick diff to overcome and understeer becomes apparent.
Contributor Marc Noordeloos called the RS5 "the least impressive car on the track," aggravated by the distant steering, the inherent understeer, and the overwhelmed brakes. Yet the numbers say something very different. The RS5 walked away with the quickest lap time by more than 0.6 second, putting more than 1.5 seconds on both the Mercedes and the BMW. The Audi is unbelievably quick -- literally. "There is no way the RS5 was that fast," Noordeloos gaped. But the numbers don't lie. Every single lap we recorded in the RS5 was quicker than anything the other cars could muster.
This leaves us with a moral dilemma of recognizing achievement or rewarding personality. The Audi and the BMW could have easily swapped places in the final standings. Yet we can't in good conscience put the RS5 ahead of a car that we find more desirable. Before we had a clear picture of the lap-time pecking order, it was the M3 that we were fawning over in the pits. Attractive, comfortable, and wickedly fast, the RS5 is lovable for everything it does on the road, but we don't lust after it because of what it does on the track.