C-Class gymnast ready for competition
The halfway AMG C-Class at last finds its own poise and authority
I never quite connected with the original Mercedes-AMG C43. It wasn’t a bad car — the opposite, in fact — but neither was it an AMG.
The most obvious jagging piece of un-AMG-ness was the engine, not each built by hand by an artisan in Affalterbach, but by worker bees on a standard Daimler production line.
There was an understandable backlash among those in the know. Among buyers who wanted in to the whole AMG thing but didn’t need-couldn’t afford a raucous, lecherous biturbo V8, it quickly found a bulging world of its own.
Now the C43 AMG is even better than it was. It’s still not quite as ultimately engaging as the best sports sedans in the segment, but it’s now a credible step up between the mainstream Benz-badged stuff and that belting bellower of a C63.
And because the rest of the C-Class range is getting a facelift, so is the C43 — in sedan, coupe and cabriolet forms. It’s highly unusual for AMG to punch them all out at the same time. Its upgrade means more power, a few fiddles to the styling and more digital fruit in the cabin.
While the standard 4.0l V8 mounts its two turbochargers inside the hot vee, the 3.0l C43 V6 retains the old school idea of bolting them on the outside. They score higher boost pressures (now a maximum of 1.1 bar) and a freer spin, though none of that adds to the outgoing model’s 520Nm of torque. That torque arrives 500 revs further up the rev range, too, at 2,500r/min, before the added 17kW of power kicks in at 6,100.
It whips to 100km/h in 4.7 seconds in sedan and coupe form, or 4.8 seconds in the heavier cabriolet, and all versions are limited to 250km/h. It sounds impressive until you remember the V8-powered C63 has been chilling out for 0.8 seconds, waiting for its little brother to hit 100km/h.
It all feeds through an AMG-fiddled nine-speed automatic transmission and then punches through an all-wheel drive system that nominally favours the rear end to the tune of 69%, but is variable depending on the grip demands.
That’s not a big story, in part because the sales suggested nothing much needed a huge change, though AMG insists about 6,500 pieces are new.
The engine is not exactly a firecracker, like it’s big brother. Instead, it’s more like gymnast muscle rather than body-builder muscle.
The initial start-up sound isn’t as wickedly nasty, but it doesn’t lack for its own depth of purpose. It’s smooth and calm most of the time, then adds a layer of slightly tinny aggression when it’s put under the hardest pressure.
Its throttle response is brisk enough, too, and there’s just enough menace in the exhaust note to differentiate it from the C-Classes.
Neither is there anything to suggest it isn’t a 4.7-second car and far from a 250km/h top speed, we had no trouble bursting it out to 270km/h on the autobahns in Germany.
Where it begins to fall away is in its handling package. There are four links in the front end; five in the back, adaptive damping all round and 360mm front and 340mm rear discs stopping it all.
It still rides on 19 or 20 inch wheels (now with an aero-crafted alloy available to lower air resistance) and the steering knuckles come straight from the C63. The entire thing is geared up to improve on the old car’s high-speed stability, which has worked admirably.
But, without a limited-slip differential at the rear, it struggles to move beyond feeling strongly grippy and competent into the more rarified air of giggle-inducing driving entertainment. It feels too much like a grown up and never enough like a teenager having fun just for the sake of it.
It has enough chassis balance (with 55% of the weight over the front end) and more than enough forgiveness of anything the road or the driver wants to throw at it. What it won’t do, seemingly ever, is slide or deliver proper steering feedback from its active, variable electromechanical steering system. It turns the driver into more of a spectator.
Of course, neither Benz nor AMG is at its first disco here, and if that’s how the C43’s chassis is set up it’s because that’s how the first generation C43 buyers wanted it to be. It’s a great grand tourer, with a sublime ability to eat miles at a brisk, unflustered clip and it can even be balanced on either the front or rear end, depending on the driving style.
Collecting nine forward gear cogs in a tiny metal casing is quite the achievement, but a greater achievement still would have been making the thing’s inner workings undetectable to the driver. They’re not.
It caught itself bunny hopping in first gear in Sport mode three times, it paused notably upshifting near the redline in both Sport+ and manual modes even though the entire instrument cluster turns into a flashing red strobe 800r/min from the rev limiter in the hope that you’ll snap at the right paddle before the discomfort begins.
Inside, it’s more of the same, but a bit better, especially in the instrument cluster. About 80% of the electronic architecture has been updated, allowing it to adopt the fully digital instrument cluster ideas of the E and S classes.
But the 12.3-inch display is worth a fiddle on the new steering wheel controls, and it has shied away from touchscreen technology for the infotainment unit, preferring to stick with the scroller or voice control.
The C43 hit on a sweet spot for AMG, in a way that the S did for Audi and the clumsily named BMW M Performance Automobiles never quite did for BMW.
The thing is, though, if it’s pure handling joy you’re after, the C43 isn’t the most stellar performer in its class as even Audi’s S5 has it covered dynamically, much less the BMW 440i or the smaller M2.