Whether you’re five or 50, everybody loves a good birthday. It’s a time to rejoice and indulge in song and sponge cake in the company of friends and family. To coincide with the 40th birthday of their tuning arm, AMG, Mercedes-Benz has launched its highly anticipated C63 AMG onto the local market.
We couldn’t help gate-crashing the new super C’s introductory party and brought along the four-door M3 and the battle hardened RS4 for company. While the four-door M3 is new to the neighbourhood, Audi has sadly stopped global production of the RS4 in favour of the forthcoming RS6. Despite this, we felt we just couldn’t leave its frisky personality off the guest list as it gave the M3 coupe such a good run for its money in our last shootout (topCar October 2007) and there are still likely to be a few available at dealers around the country.
In order to hold a good thrash, you need to go the extra mile and a simple road test or few laps around a race track simply wouldn’t do. For us, going the extra mile meant driving the trio in every environment imaginable from the crowded and congested streets of Johannesburg through the long, open potholed stretches of the Karoo to the winding bends, curves and mountainous passes of the Eastern and Western Cape.
We mapped out a more ‘scenic route’ off the truck-laden N1 highway that would bypass much of the traffic, speed cops and dull character of the national highway.
Expectations were understandably high because when you are paying R800 000 for a four-door performance saloon, you expect far more than just a hard-edged track tool.
It’s a given that each new model improves on its predecessor. But what you also want to know is how comfortable it is on the open road, how arduous it is to drive every day and how it’s fuel consumption is likely to affect your pocket. These real world issues issues often become just as important as outright performance and dynamic ability.
We figured our scenic route would highlight different aspects of each car’s character at various altitudes on differing road conditions. Once in Cape Town, the usual performance testing and lap times would add a definitive conclusion to the two-day party and provide some traction to our lengthy debates on which is ultimately the best performance saloon in this segment. Editor Pierre Steyn, the master of brutally early starts, took on the first stretch.
Johannesburg to Graaff-Reinet via the eastern Free State
‘Leaving Jozi’ doesn’t exactly have the same catchy ring to it as ‘Leaving Las Vegas’, but there’s no better time to leave the crowded streets of the City of Gold than at 3am in the morning.
There’s a chilly bite in the air and a lot of excitement as we gather around the RS4, M3 and C63 at a petrol station on the N3 just south of Johannesburg. We top up the tanks, check tyre pressures and then hit the road our first mission to reach the Golden Gate National Park before sunrise so Marc can catch the early light for photography.
I hop into one of my favourite cars of all time, the sublime but now slightly dated Audi RS4. As I settle into the lightweight sports seats, the subtly dimpled golf ball gearshift falls comfortably to hand. The flat bottomed steering wheel feels just right, the spacing between clutch, brake and accelerator pedal is perfect. I hit the start button and the V8 gurgles into life. A grin spreads from ear to ear. Three awesome cars, two days, one very long stretch of tar. ‘This is going to be good,’ I say to myself as we roar into the the early morning darkness.
At Villiers we head right towards the eastern Free State, dodging the potholes and the kamikaze rabbits, dassies and foxes that will plague our trip throughout this province.
Now that we’ve driven the new A4 and A5, the RS4’s interior suddenly feels old. But it still doesn’t have to hang its head in this company.
Some of the, uhm, larger members of our team (I know it’s all solid muscle, Angus) complained about the comfort of the seats after a few hours behind the wheel, but no-one complained about the ride quality itself.
The Audi offered the easiest, most civilised drive of the trio: one that delivers the exhilaration of a performance sedan with the added bonus of all-wheel drive, exceptional grip and stability to save you from your overenthusiastic self.
While you really have to be on top of your game when you drive the M3 and particularly the C63 on the limit, the RS4 is a car that strokes your ego, convincing you that you’re a better driver than you really are.
At the Gariep dam on a long, flat stretch of road the C63 shows its muscle as it powers past me in second gear, even though I’ve got my right foot planted on the floor.
It’s clear the balance of power has shifted. A few hours later though, on the beautiful Lootsberg Pass between Middelburg and Graaff-Reinet on the N9, as the RS4 dispatches the one sweep after the other with supreme balance and composure, it reminds me of why I fell in love with it in the first place.
We swap cars again just before the final leg into Graaff-Reinet as I trade the RS4 for the M3. I take the lead into the Naudesberg Pass, with Angus breathing all over me in the C63. As the aggressive C63 fills up my rear-view mirror, I feel a live connection with the BMW, a feeling I hadnât realised I’d been missing in the RS4
The M3 is a scalpel that you have to field with precise steering inputs, gearchanges and throttle control. At the other side of the pass I wave Angus past, my palms sweating and my heart hammering. What a car! What a trio of cars!
We burble into Graaff-Reinet after sunset, cars and drivers deserving a good night’s rest. Wayne was next up in the writer’s seat, so I could dream about taming the birthday beast.
Graaff-Reinet to Barrydale
We spend the night at a spooky old guest cottage in this historic Karoo town. A plaque at the door ominously tells of an Irishman who died in the house. Naturally, the evening’s conversation revolves around the disputed existence of ghosts. Somehow we all sleep well.
Having revelled in both the Merc and the Audi the day before, I was keen on some serious time in the M-zone. However the Beemer was still firmly wedged in a makeshift garage, erected around the dimensions of a Model T Ford. Fortunately, Pierre the contortionist is not built as solidly as Angus, or as portly as myself, or we’d still be in Graaff-Reinet on an emergency hunger strike. He puts on an enviable display of physical agility to free my steed and we’re off in circles, as the otherwise brilliant satnav in his Merc suffers a lapse of Germanity.
First up is a photo session in the Valley of Desolation and a chance to enjoy the fabulous sunrise. Even with vistas this good, I resist the urge to whip out my digimatic, just in case Marc thinks I’m taking back-up shots. In the early light, our three chariots represent a good mix of styling approaches. The RS4 is all about the symmetry of its stance, tall anthracite wheels and blistered arches, emphasising its four-paw grip. Most aggressive is the C63 which is about as subtle as a butcher’s cleaver. Then there’s the understated M3, which if not for the angry boil on the bonnet and arch-filling rims would be totally invisible. Basically, the Merc’s ready for the track, the Audi for a rally stage and the Beemer for the school run.
We make the slow descent from the lookout point and then head along the N9 to Willowmore a road straight enough to make a convert of Elton John.
Mind you, I wouldn’t mind picking up a bit of Reginald Dwight right now as the only available radio station is broadcasting a live ostrich auction. It’s around 9.30am, and I haven’t seen a corner in 25 minutes. We’re averaging 140km/h and I’m marvelling at the ride of this M3. That it’s the most comfortable BMW this side of an X5 is remarkable, but that it’s hands down the most supple in a group that includes a Mercedes is just mind-blowing. I take the opportunity to ‘i-Drive’ my way through the (R55 000) optional ‘M Drive‘ settings, shifting the Electronic Damper Control and Servotronic steering assistance to firmest Sport modes, Power to Sport Plus and DSC to M Dynamic mode. From the first full bore prod of the accelerator, I’ve already learned that the M3 is hellbent on going sideways, which is FUN, but not the ideal way to keep up with Angus in a 6.3 litre DTM car.
Pressing the magic ‘M’ button on the steering boss has a tangible effect. The steering wheel tightens in your hands, the dampers clench up and the throttle gets all surgical. In fact the M3 turns out to be the most adjustable car by a wide margin. It just hunkers down and lurches forward like a transformer preparing for battle. We’re flying formation into the first real corner of the morning at a speed that would leave ordinary cars as permanent additions to the scenery. Instead there’s no drama, just thrill. By the flicking DSC light, I know the traction control is working, but barely feel its intervention. What I am aware of is the steering. It’s meaty for sure and mostly precise, save for the gammy spot around the centre. The main disappointment is that it’s strangely muted, in sharp contrast to the unexpectedly talkative AMG. I also wish it was more special inside.
A quick change to third for the next, tighter corner, the revs surge and it’s here where you feel M-Division’s soul. The throttle response above seven thousand is insanely crisp and utterly addictive. If you can force yourself to go there often enough, you’ll buy this car for its soundtrack alone.
The remainder of the morning’s journey is a mixture of long straights and stunning mountain passes where rapid progress is constantly frustrated by trucks and roadworks. At other times we blast past grannies in their Corollas with PlayStation ease, burying throttles with all the disdain of right royal tossers.
It’s clear the V8s in the Merc and the Audi are very good. The Audi is all powerful efficiency (far and away the trip’s economy champion), while the manically ballistic AMG blats like a musket when hustled. But overall its one-dimensional baritone burble doesn’t excite like the M3. Simply put, the Munich marvel is the best engine here.
I had begun my M3 experience expecting a bone-jarring ride, expecting to have to manhandle the gearbox and to be sweatily spent after a fast blast on the open road. Yet as we stopped for lunch at Ronnies Sex Shop outside Basrrydale (a bit of a misnomer as the only activity vaguely related to sex occurs between Ronnie’s dog and the unwary legs of his clientele), I realised this was a car I could easily fall in love with. Its talent pool is prodigious and delving deeply into it brings great reward. Yes, it’s a precision tool that demands precision to drive well, but the M3 badge on the sedan’s ugly rump doesn’t mean what it used to. It has lost a handful of edge for a shedload more ability. I want one. It was time for Angus Thompson to take up the story.
Barrydale to Cape Town
There aren’t too many driving roads in South Africa that can compare to the R62, otherwise known as Route 62. It’s a meandering timewarp through wine growing valleys and an ideal proving ground to stretch the dynamic abilities of each sedan.
In the past, a trip of this magnitude, in cars of this nature, would see most drivers scurrying for kidney belts to ward off the effects of a track inspired suspension and choppy ride.
Thus far, the M3’s ride quality had stood out, its adjustable EDC dampers offering the most comfort and compliance over the sharp undulations and potholes of the eastern Free State and the Karoo. A BMW that’s more comfortable than a Mercedes-Benz? How can that be?
Traditionally the C32 and C55 AMG have felt the most disconnected in relation to their rivals, offering massive straight-line urge, muted steering feedback and a lifeless, flabby suspension. However, the C63 is not like any other C-Class AMG I’ve driven: not in the blunt, hammer-like sense anyway. This is a Benz with balance, feel, involvement and a slightly agitated ride quality that is countered by the comfort of its multi-contour seats.
With the long, potholed straights behind us, my focus (and rear end) had turned from cruise to bruise (thanks to the stiff seats of the Audi). Now every new horizon presented an array of manicured high-speed corners that seemed to flow gracefully into each other.
So far every jump I had made from the RS4 to the M3 made the Beemer feel more colourful, more charismatic, more familiar. By contrast, every time I slid behind the wheel of the C63, I felt like I was only tip toeing closer to its full dynamic potential. The 336kW and monstrous torque of the 6.3 litre V8 dares you to push it harder and faster into every turn, saying, ‘I can take this corner faster, but can you?’
In the end you are totally immersed in taming its intimidating character, with its big, blatting V8 widening your eyes and raising your heartbeat as it carves past all in its path.
By now the towns of Montagu, Ashton and Robertson were behind us and the Tradouws, Kogmanskloof and Montagu passes all seemed a distant blur.
With every charging kilometre you begin to trust the C63 more, believing that this Merc can actually hold its line and handle. Its not only the feel of the C63âs comfortable seats nor the all-new feedback being transmitted through the flat bottomed steering wheel that surprises, but its mid-corner balance that astounds.
Mercedes-Benz claim near 50/50 weight distribution a traditional selling point for BMW and it’s evident they’ve achieved it.
It was only when we arrived at Killarney late in the day that the gap between the RS4 and the other two started to widen. A downside to the RS4’s quattro system is that it is packaged ahead of the front axle, resulting in a front-heavy 60/40 weight distribution
This has been addressed in the new A4 and A5, but in this company is the cause of the RS4’s inherent understeer on entry and exit, compromising its speed down Killarney’s long straights.
On track, the two rear-drivers feel far more alive (particularly with their traction control systems switched off) and rewarding to drive. You’re constantly balancing throttle and steering inputs to quell any under- or oversteer that could diminish urge out of each turn.
There are small, yet noticeable differences between the two on track. The steering of the BMW is well weighted, but feels slightly disconnected from its front wheels. The C63 offers better feel and feedback, but lacks the BMW’s initial bite, especially on turn-in.
The AMG’s new seven-speed automatic transmission is far more sophisticated and responsive than the C55 of old and proved to be somewhat of a surprise around Killarney. Dubbed Speedshift Plus, it allows you to hold certain ratios through corners in its Manual mode (M) as you paddle your way from one ratio to another. Its Sport mode cuts shift times by 30 percent and triggers downshifts on the approach to corners even blipping the throttle for you to iron out the downchange dip in the torque curve that can unsettle your rear tyres.
While the M3‘s rather coarse six-speed manual adds an element of control and dynamism on track, it is hard work on the everyday commute in traffic. The C63‘s new slushmatic is far easier to live with every day, yet doesn’t make the dynamic compromises of its forbearers.
Although the C63‘s weight distribution and chassis are now far closer to the M3 around the track, the Bavarian holds a slight edge in agility due in part to the C63’s 50kg weight penalty
The AMG can now stay close to the BMW in turns, but its 50 percent torque advantage slingshots it faster out of turns and enables higher speeds down Killarney’s two main straights. It spin off the line, but our quarter mile test times give the C63 a 0.5sec advantage over the M3.
Chosing a definitive winner from this trio is like debating which supermodel you find more attractive. Each has a unique character and unique strengths. But almost a week after reaching Cape Town and just hours before the deadline, the debate still raged and we couldn’t come to any consensus on a clear winner.
While we love the RS4, its nose-heavy chassis is a generation old and was exposed not only by its rivals but by the new generation S5. In this company, it was the most economical but also the least invigorating and intimidating to drive. It flatters, but is not going to make you sweat.
In a choice between the M3 and C63, we offer our opinions:
Although the purity of the M3‘s chassis and engine will endear itself to most enthusiasts, its six-speed is tiresome on the daily commute (the forthcoming twin clutch version should rectify this). For now the Mercedes is the most well rounded in various driving environments, with the greatest breadth of talents on track, on the highway, or in traffic. It is the best BMW Mercedes has ever built.
It’s the M3 for me, at least until the new RS4 pops its head above the trenches in a year or two. I know the C63 AMG takes it on paper, but it’s a bit of a beast that makes me nervous. The M3 is the more involving, enjoyable drive. It’s the car I could live with.
As much as I love the M3 (no car in the group thrills more), I would still buy the C63. In reality my motoring life is not lived in the upper echelons of the M3’s dynamic superiority. Where the M3’s prodigious abilities are heavily diluted in town-bound traffic, the Merc’s high IQ automatic is the clincher. Besides it’s no blunt tool either.