When Mercedes-Benz invites you out to Sepang International Circuit, there’s usually something interesting to see. On the menu for the day were two specific cars, and they couldn’t be further apart in terms of purpose. The first was the Mercedes-AMG C63S Coupe, which was being officially launched on the day as well, while the second was the Mercedes-Benz C350e hybrid that was launched a few weeks back. Due to time restrictions the circuit was divided in half and groups of drivers would cycle between the two cars on either side of the circuit.
The first car for our group was the C63S Coupe; with only one car available it meant that we would have a single half-track lap out before rotating to the next driver in the queue. That’s hardly enough time to get used to the car (as you very well should do before you start driving flat out on the track), but it’s a lot better than not driving it at all.
Anticipation has a habit to set you up…
While sitting in the pits and waiting for our turn, we were treated to a cacophony of V8 noise as the car rumbled in and out of the pit, joined by an AMG GT and a C63S sedan that were providing taxi rides. It was a welcome reminder that few engines can match a well built, large capacity V8 in terms of sheer excitement. Inline-6 engines may be smoother, but the V8 has an unmistakable, undeniable presence (even with a pair of turbochargers bolted on).
When it finally came to our turn, the level of anticipation was at an all-time high. Riding shotgun was Peter Hackett, a seasoned racecar driver and Mercedes-Benz driving instructor who has handled their driving events in ASEAN for the better part of a decade. A quick seat adjustment and we were off, trying to roll out of the pits in a sensible manner. With 510 PS and 700 Nm of torque on tap, this was no easy feat; most of the other participants were flooring it out of the pits, traction control system working overtime to keep the car from lighting up the rear tyres.
Mercedes is fairly adamant about keeping all the electronic aids on, and this makes a huge amount of sense when dealing with a car like the C63S Coupe. The torque delivery is brutal, as it is from any turbocharged high performance car in the last half decade. A number of drivers felt that there was a bit of ‘turbo lag’, when it reality it was the stability system intervening and briefly cutting power to prevent the car from spinning out. Many advanced driving instructors will give you the same advice when you’re behind the wheel of a car with this much torque: use the stability control warning light as a guide. If your driving is triggering it, it means that your inputs are still too rough; modern performance car stability control systems usually let you get very close to the limit without intervening.
Go Go Gadget
Driving the car up to the limit means being as precise and smooth as possible with steering and throttle inputs. Turns 1 and 2 require constant throttle and patience, regardless of what kind of car you’re driving. It is turn 3 where the powertrain begins to show just how hard it can bite: rolling on the throttle towards corner exit, I’m treated to a flashing stability light and an almost imperceptible delay in power delivery. “You still have too much steering lock on,” Hackett tells me as I push through it- a reminder that I need to straighten the wheel more quickly while I squeeze the throttle.
Braking points for this session are a little early, no doubt to preserve the brakes. With hardly any rest time between drives, the brakes were considerably less sharp than we’ve come to expect from an AMG model. Climbing up through turn 4 and dropping over the crest into turn 5 and 6, my session was already at an end. I didn’t learn as much about the car as I hoped to, but I did have a newfound appreciation for a line of cars that I had only regarded with passing interest before. While these new turbo 4.0-litre V8s may not be as raw or outright mental as the old 6.2-litre naturally-aspirated V8s, they are incredibly fun to drive.
Waiting for the rest of the group to finish their turns, I took some time to peer around the interior of a C63S Coupe that was sitting on display. While it wasn’t apparent to me while I was on track, there is very little lost between this range-topping model and the regular C-Class or the C-Class Coupe. That’s not to say that the C63S Coupe has a poorly equipped interior, but rather that we’ve taken for granted how highly specified Mercedes-Benz products are, even at the lower end of the range. The units on test and display were Edition One models, meaning they came with a pair of nicer bucket seats and some other aesthetic differences.
After lunch, a few of us were lucky enough to squeeze in a pair of extra laps with the C63S Coupe- this time on the full track. It was unexpected, but completely welcome. Hackett was riding shotgun once again, giving us braking and acceleration cues to help us get the most out of the car. This time out I had a little more confidence to push the car and enter with a little more speed, but perhaps this is where the C63S Coupe begins to show its flaws.
There comes a point where ‘having fun’ and ‘going fast’ become mutually exclusive concepts. You can’t hide the 1800 kilogram kerb weight of the C63S Coupe no matter how hard you try, and matters aren’t helped by the Continental rubbers; with this much power and weight you need something a lot stickier to make the car more driveable and the powertrain more usable. The chassis does the best job it can at managing weight transitions in high speed corners like 5 and 6 or 12 and 13, but there’s always the nagging feeling that the car will start to push wide on a whim.
The problem with a powertrain with so much torque is that you need to be very patient with the throttle. You cannot make up for low entry speeds by accelerating harder in the corner, because you’ll probably end up spinning the car (if not for the electronic intervention). The C63S Coupe forces you to get your braking points, entry speeds, and turn-in points right, and then it needs you to maintain that speed all the way through to corner exit.
To show just how difficult the car can become without electronic aids, Hackett decided to fiddle with the stability control settings in a couple of the lower speed corners. As far as I can tell this isn’t a conventional practice, but I was glad that he felt we were at least competent enough to experience the car as it would be, without subtle safety nets. Coming out of turn 9, I was once again a little too eager with the throttle and the tail stepped out for a brief moment. It wasn’t a huge misstep on my part, perhaps a few percent more throttle, but it was enough to unbalance the car. I could only wonder what would happen had I mashed the throttle indiscriminately.
When I came back into the pits, I felt a tad bit worse than I had when I set out. A large part of me enjoyed driving the car, but it also showed me that I still have a lot to learn when it comes to car control. The way that Mercedes-AMG tuned the stability systems has resulted in a car that’s seemingly easy to drive quickly, but the truth is that it would be practically undriveable to most without the suite of electronics keeping the car in check.
The Body (Partially) Electric
Over on the other half of the circuit, we were tasked with driving the C350e to experience its various features and strong points. It’s difficult to believe that the C350e could possibly be interesting after giving the C63S Coupe a quick run around the South Track, but bear with us for a bit. As we mentioned in our launch article, the C350e is a plug-in hybrid that is capable of a good many things that we didn’t think possible for a hybrid vehicle (much like the BMW 330e).
Taking the cars out onto the track, we were first given the opportunity to experience the haptic feedback system for the throttle pedal when in all-electric mode. This is one of my personal favourite features of hybrid vehicles: taking off silently and effortlessly without the use of an engine. The electric motor alone is capable of accelerating the car up to 130 km/h, or for 31 kilometres (but not both simultaneously).
The haptic feedback system creates resistance in the accelerator pedal to indicate the point beyond which the engine will fire up. It’s done so that if a driver really needs full power to overtake someone quickly, he or she can simply put the pedal to the metal and the system will fire up the engine for the full 600 Nm of torque- but if they merely want to accelerate briskly on electricity alone they have a well-defined limit to how far they can push the pedal.
We were also made to try out a hard launch, and this is where the C350e is really surprising. It’s a poorly kept secret that hybrid cars (the Toyota Prius included, as utilitarian as it is) are capable of taking off extremely quickly courtesy of their electric motors. With full torque from 0 rpm and electronic control over slip, hard launches can be executed with surprising speed and can easily catch more powerful cars off guard. With the C350e, there are 600 Nm available as a combined output- and the turbo 2.0-litre engine makes that peak torque figure from just off idle. This means that you have 340 Nm from the electric motor shoving you from a dead stop, before it builds to the full 600 Nm the moment it’s off idle- and that’s only 100 Nm less than the C63S Coupe. Granted it won’t pull to higher speeds like the C63S Coupe will, but it certainly puts on a good show if you ever find yourself at a traffic light.
If there is but one gripe we have with the C350e, it would be in the execution of the different transmission modes and the switching between them. In addition to the normal ‘Sport’ and ‘Comfort’ modes, there are also 4 different transmission settings. ‘Hybrid’ is as you would expect, having both engine and motor working in tandem. ‘E-mode’ is an all-electric mode that forces the car to rely solely on electric power so long as it has charge. The tricky and somewhat superfluous modes are ‘E-save’ and ‘Charge’- the former aims to maintain the battery level by minimising power draw, while the latter cuts draw from the battery completely and propels the car on engine alone in order to charge the battery. With so many settings to choose from on the fly it can be a little difficult and distracting to use.
But on the whole, the C350e is a very impressive product. Plug-in hybrid vehicles, or even luxury hybrids sans plug-in, have managed to create a niche in themselves and inadvertently established themselves as top-of-the-range (at least in our market). Couple that with the fact that they are priced even more attractively than their pure-petrol powered brethren and it is an extremely difficult proposition to ignore. They are efficient without noticeable compromise in dynamics or performance; that in itself is the strongest justification for purchasing one.
Work and Play
Our day out at Sepang gave us a fairly varied range of experiences, and one can’t help but appreciate the juxtaposition between the C63S Coupe and the C350e. These are two cars that come with top-of-the-line technology in their respective areas of development, and would also make for an entertaining 2-car-garage. The C350e is the perfect car for your day-to-day commute, allowing you to clear your carbon conscience while still providing solid performance for the days when you’re in a hurry.
For the weekends, you would have the C63S Coupe- a car that feels great when driven moderately quickly (though not so much at the very limit). But in a car like the C63S, you’re not in any particular hurry either: the V8 provides you with the perfect background music for when you roll up to your favourite brunch spot, and the wide torque band means you can leave it in a high gear and just ride the boost out to higher cruising speeds. It’s performance of a lazy nature, rather than the high-strung, aggressively tuned sports cars we’ve become accustomed to- and that’s the kind of performance that anyone can use and appreciate.