Long Term Test Drive: Mercedes AMG E63 Wagon
Long Term Test Drive: Mercedes AMG E63 Wagon
Chronicling a year with the most bad-ass station wagon this side of the pond
In the Fall of 2013, we spent a day driving the fastest station wagon on American soil and were thoroughly impressed. Both at the Willow Springs race track and on the surrounding streets, the freshly redesigned Mercedes AMG E63 S 4MATIC Wagon delivered unrelenting power and precise control while hauling around a bodacious backside. For some reason most Americans don't like wagons, especially fast ones, so we've been spending all of 2015 with this 577hp performer to share the virtues of a fast wagon and impressions of this model in particular.
30 Years of the AMG Wagon
While the first AMG-tuned Mercedes-Benz station wagons came to life in the late 1970s, we didn’t begin to see them on US soil until a few years later. They’ve remained unicorns ever since with never more than 100 being delivered in a single year and in the beginning far, far fewer. We culled the MB Classics archive and combed the online forums to find our favorite three from the past 30+ years.
1983 Mercedes-Benz AMG 280TE
In 1978, AMG—then an out-of-house Mercedes tuner—found enough customers who wanted their E-Class 280 TE’s to have a 5.0-liter V-8 stuffed into the previously roomy confines under the hood (designed for the stock in-line six). The length of the S-Class-sourced V-8 wasn’t the issue; the width, however, was more of a challenge.
To make it shoehorn, engineers had to alter the position of the steering rack and the brake master cylinder—but that idea was brilliant because it allowed the bulk of the engine’s weight to be set deeper against the firewall. And because AMG engineers also took steps to significantly lighten the V-8 with extensive use of aluminum in place of cast iron, they were increasing horsepower and shedding weight simultaneously. And because this conversion was happening with a wagon (sedans, of course, were more common), the weight distribution was closer to 50:50, resulting in superb, neutral handling (the cars tipped the curb at around 3,600 pounds, which is lighter than a stock V-6 E-Wagon today). And with 408 ft. lbs. of torque, the AMG 280 TE 5.0 delivered exceptional passing propulsion, all the way up to its 146mph top speed. The one restriction on these ultrastealth, ultrafast wagons? AMG charged 65,570 Marks, or $27,000.
1986 Mercedes-Benz AMG 300TE
The oil shocks of the late 1970s and early 1980s, not to mention a serious worldwide recession, made it tough to make much hay in the “super wagon” segment. By the mid-1980s AMG did manage to make a lot of output from the 3.2-liter in-line six in the AMG 300 TE (up to 245hp from 220hp in stock form). And you could get it with a five-speed manual.
But the TE you wanted came in 1986 and after. The W124 started with a stock five-liter V-8 which eventually earned the nickname “The Hammer” in the U.S., while far less flamboyant Merc engineers just called it the M 117. What gave this engine so much muscle (340hp) was the top-end design (four valves per cylinder) and extensive breathing. AMG naturally increased displacement to six-liters and it would eventually yield 385hp. That allowed the wagon to hop to 62mph in just 5.6 seconds, a positively unheard-of sprint for a mere “grocery getter,” and while the TE wagon was electronically limited to a 155mph top speed, the sedan version could stretch that to 188mph.
AMG lowered the car, and gave it stiffer springs and gas shocks, and massive (for the era) 17-inch wheels with 235/45 VR 17-inch front rubber and 265/40 VR 17 rears. Add in flared fenders, side skirts, extra body cladding and ground effects and Miami Vice was fully in the house. Of course the cars cost a princely sum from AMG; 335,000 Marks, or $136,000.
1999 Mercedes-Benz AMG E55
While AMG’s next wagon act after the W124 came between 1992-95, with a 3.6-liter, in-line six (displacement increased from the stock 3.2-liter) good for 265hp, that 320 TE 3.6 would pale in comparison to what would come next. In 1999 the AMG E-wagon would arrive a little early for the next century. The E55 AMG 4MATIC would indeed feature all-wheel drive, but more importantly, both the sedan and wagon editions got Mercedes’ latest V-8 instead of the in-line six of the prior TE. AMG engineers went to work on the 5.0-liter, increasing displacement to 5.5-liters, redesigning the crank, re-crafting the pistons out of die-cast aluminum, creating individually forged cams and customizing a variable intake manifold. The cars got an entirely new exhaust as well. All of these alterations resulted in a massive horsepower gain, from 279hp to 354hp, and torque jumped from an astonishing 295 ft. lbs. to 390 ft. lbs.
The stock suspension was good, but not good enough for a car this fast. So AMG swapped springs, shocks, and lowered the car. It also got 235/40 ZR rubber at the front/ 265/35 ZR 18s at the rear, mounted on lightweight alloy rims. The stock rear brakes were judged too meek for application on the E55, so AMG chose instead the rotors from the SL 600. The cars were nearly $90,000 when new. If you can find one for sale, expect to pay nearer to $20,000 for a good used one.
280TE image courtesy of Ben Rees, 300TE image courtesy of JP Hodgman, E55 image courtesy of Stein2
Additional words by Michael Frank
Summer of Love—10 Virtues of a Fast Wagon
During the summer we spend many weekends visiting family in Southern Vermont at a very special place that’s come to be known as the Love Farm. An appropriate musing on the attractions of a fast wagon, we’ve compiled a list of its virtues—both in general and specific to the E63.
Reasons to love a fast wagon 1. With a lower center of gravity, wagons drive like cars—especially when it comes to cornering. Yes, there’s a bit more weight in the rear, but it’s a negligible difference compared to the turning experience of an SUV. 2. That lower stance also means getting in and out of the vehicle is more fluid—no climbing needed. 3. It’s still a grocery-getter. Having plenty of space in the boot means that from running errands to taking road trips hoarders are welcome. 4. Given that most people (in the US, at least) don’t think twice about a wagon, a fast wagon can operate under the radar. 5. Parking in NYC garages can be a bit unnerving, but most garage attendants we’ve met totally get the fast wagon and take good care of it because they want to not because it’s fancy or expensive.
Reasons to love the E63 Fast Wagon 1. It’s not just a fast wagon, it’s a really fast wagon. Friends in Germany have shared stories of overtaking supercars on the Autobahn, baffling their drivers. 2. When stuck in traffic, the combination of Distronic Plus adaptive cruise-control and Active Lane Keeping Assist pretty much leave you in the driver’s seat of an autonomous vehicle. 3. Of all the navigation systems we’ve experienced COMAND does the best job of dynamically re-routing based on upcoming road conditions to ensure the fastest journey possible. 4. As tested this winter, it’s not just a supercar dressed as a carpool-mobile, 4MATIC all-wheel drive ensures the best possible road-hold. 5. People on the road who recognize the E63 Wagon for what it is go out of their way to share their love, usually with a thumbs-up and grinning nod.
Images by Josh Rubin
Winter Autocross at Lime Rock Park
Winter driving can be both thrilling and terrifying. When we heard about the Winter Autocross at Connecticut's Lime Rock Park we knew this was a chance to put the 4MATIC all-wheel-drive to the test. Starting our laps with full traction control enabled, we cruised around the track at a reasonable clip. The fun began when we reduced the control level to Sport mode, allowing a bit more slipping and drifting. Completely disabling traction control was the most fun and educational, as we had to really feel out the weight distribution using steering, brakes and power to get sideways without hip-checking a snow bank.
We took a break from the track in the afternoon to interview Skip Barber, famed racer and owner of the eponymous driving schools. Skip shared his thoughts on winter driving and station wagons.
Images by Josh Rubin
We test cars all the time and the resulting stories are based off of first impressions. Long-term test drives give us a chance to really get to know a vehicle and share periodic updates.