The first part of the test drive involves getting out of Salzburg through slow-moving traffic and out onto the motorway. Once again, tech to the rescue. Mercedes’ Intelligent Drive system uses Distronic adaptable cruise control and self-steering to maintain a gap behind the car in front and eerily keep the S63 between the lane markers. I could – and did, for a short time – quite happily sit there not doing anything while the car pootles along by itself, the steering wheel gently turning left and right as it follows the car ahead. On this basis, and judging by the recent S500 Intelligent Car displayed at the Frankfurt Motor Show, Mercedes is well on the way to creating a fully self-driving car.
Once we’re moving, the drive takes us on a fast autobahn hack towards the Tyrolean mountains. With cruise control set at 130kph and the in-seat massage system activated, the S63 is serene, almost silent save for the excellent sound system that happily blasts out my phone’s music through Bluetooth. While rear-wheel drive S63s boast Magic Body Control suspension, which scans the road ahead for bumps and actively counteracts them, the 4Matic cars are fitted with the slightly less-tech (but still impressive) AMG air suspension with adaptive damping, switchable between Comfort and Sport. In the former mode any imperfections are brushed away with just a hint of a ripple through the sound insulation. I struggle to find any criticisms on this leg of the journey – if I was being picky, I’d say that the changes from the seven-speed transmission aren’t quite as seamless as I’d hoped, but that’s about it.
That answers most of my questions about whether the S63 would compromise its general S-Class-ness. It’s still every inch a top-class limousine with a fantastic interior and plenty of space in the back, more than capable of whisking the well-to-do along in insulated luxury.
What remains then is to find out whether AMG has managed to inject some excitement and drama into the car. I peel off the autobahn and begin to head south towards Kitzbühel, on roads that weave in and out of mountain peaks and valleys. They’re two-way routes that change from fast, open sweeping stretches to tight hairpins, rising and falling.
But first, some set up changes. A couple of button stabs turn the suspension to Sport, and the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission to S. Then I open up the throttle. The silence is punctured, but not with a bang, more with the strident arrival of sound from the biturbo V8. That familiar, evocative AMG timbre is there, but this is an S-Class, so it’s relatively reserved. The pace, however, is not. 577bhp heads to the road and the effect is instantaneous. There’s no dramatic squat or neck-snapping, there’s just pace, applied very firmly and continuing unabated. 100kph from standstill appears in just four seconds, and almost before I realise it, a corner is fast approaching. Braking hard from well into three-figure speeds provokes serious stopping power from the (optional) carbon ceramics, but there’s not a trace of instability from the back end. The steering feels heavier with all the performance options ramped up, and the suspensions stiffens as the S63 pitches into the corner. At the same time, inflatable cushions in the seat’s side bolsters inflate to keep me and the front seat passenger firmly in place. There’s not the feel that sports car fans would be used to, but this isn’t a sports car, it’s a limousine. With that in mind, feel is relatively plentiful.
Balance wise, the S63 isn’t as understeery as I’d feared. There’s a trace of it – it’s soaking wet, remember – but the nose turns in well and I can squeeze on the power early. Some 67 percent of the total 664lb ft of torque heads to the rear wheels, so I don’t feel like I have to be touchy feely with all that grunt for fear of the fronts scrabbling towards the verge. Don’t go expecting powerslides from this thing – it is, as we’ve established, a limo, and even when the ESP is turned off it’s not fully off – but if you really want to wake up the VIP in the back, you’ll be able to wag the AMG’s tail. All in relative quiet and comfort.
A conversation with AMG’s product management man later confirms that the balance between limo-style comfort and AMG-style lunacy is a fine one, and the final product has been reached only after plenty of focus groups where existing customers were presented with a variety of different set ups. It’s reassuring to know that the S63 could be much more lairy if AMG wanted it to be, but that would take away the S-Classivity that Mercedes has worked so hard to achieve.
So for those expecting a big step up towards insanity from the standard S-Class, the S63 may disappoint. But for those living in the real world, it’s deeply, deeply impressive. Affalterbach has injected just enough performance to give it enough emotional appeal – just enough, no more – and place it at the top of the S-Class pile. While I’m sure some would want a bit more roar from it, there’s no question of subjective opinion when it comes to the pace it can accumulate and the ease with which it can destroy vast distances while maintaining a level of comfort that only the super-luxury brands can approach. For me, AMG has judged things to perfection. Once again, the S63 AMG sets the benchmark for performance limousines, and it’ll take some beating.
|Engine:||V8, 5461cc, biturbo|
|Power:||577bhp @ 5500rpm|
|Torque:||664lb ft @ 2250-3700rpm|
|Transmission:||Seven-speed MCT, rear-wheel drive|
|Front suspension:||Four-link, air suspension with electronically controlled damping, stabiliser|
|Rear suspension:||Multilink, air suspension with electronically controlled damping, stabiliser|
|Brakes:||Composite vented and drilled discs front and rear|
|Wheels:||19-inch, front and rear|
|Tyres:||255/45 ZR19 front, 285/40 ZR19 rear|