From the July 1998 issue of Car and Driver.
For Mercedes-Benz’s C43 AMG intro, downpours in Phoenix and snows up in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest slicken the roads as if on Satan’s command. No luck, Lucifer—the C43 is slicker than you are. This tidy V-8-powered, AMG-altered four-door is Mercedes’s smallest sedan, but it’s second only to the S600 in quickness.
AMG is the preeminent modifier of Mercedes-Benzes. Remember the AMG Hammer tested in our December 1986 issue? The Hammer was the world’s greatest sports sedan—a Mercedes E-class bod stoked by a 5.5-liter V-8 wearing AMG twin-cam 32-valve heads. It put out 355 horsepower, did the zero-to-60 rush in 5.0 seconds, and ran 178 mph flat out. Of course, it cost—Hammers sold for as much as $160,000 in the United States, while stock Mercedes 300Es went for around $40,000.
More-recent AMG projects have been less wild, more affordable, and available for sale at Mercedes-Benz dealerships with the blessing of a full factory warranty. The Mercedes-Benz C36 got the ball rolling in 1995. This fat-tired and bespoilered C-class mini-hammer had a heavily breathed-on straight-six that made 268 horsepower—74 more than in a stock C280. In 1997, the price paid for that performance premium was $17,847 ($53,842 total).
This year AMG has pounded the C-class engine room full of V-8 vroom. The “donor” engine in this case is Benz’s newly introduced SOHC 24-valve 4.3-liter twin-spark V-8, a modular cousin of the 2.8-liter V-6 that now powers the stock C280. Some specifics: pressure-cast aluminum block; aluminum oil pan and pistons; hollow forged-steel rods; and dual-resonance, power-broadening intake runners. As fitted to the stock E430, this engine makes 275 horsepower at 5750 rpm, and 295 pound-feet from 3000 to 4000 rpm. (The 4.3 will also appear in an ML430 sport-ute and a CLK430 supercoupe.)
AMG slapped on a higher pressure oil pump and oil jets to cool the bottoms of the pistons, a new twin-tube air-cleaner assembly to reduce restriction, and a modified magnesium intake manifold that is ported to improve airflow. Stiffer valve springs have been fitted, and the cast camshafts are replaced with modular ones that provide a bit more overlap. These modest tweaks improve high-rpm output, raising the peak numbers to 302 horsepower at 5850 rpm and 302 pound-feet from 3250 to 5000 revs. The V-8 even boasts squeaky-clean exhaust emissions. To wit: M-B claims the engine performs at Ultra Low Emission Vehicle levels. The price premium is $18,564 more than a standard C280, or $54,559.
As with the C36 and every vehicle Mercedes sells in the U.S., a five-speed automatic is the only transmission. This unit, borrowed from the SL500, “learns” a driver’s style and adapts the C43’s shift characteristics.
Our style consisted primarily of sledging this hammer around, foot to floorboard. The C43 AMG rewards this type of behavior with a mellifluous yet malevolent V-8 burble and right-respectable accelerative g-force. Our instruments measured 6.1 seconds to 60 mph and 14.7 seconds through the quarter-mile at 98 mph. Terminal velocity: 151 mph, drag limited. The C36, which had a poorer power-to-weight ratio and taller gearing, managed to hit 60 mph in 6.0 seconds, and ran the quarter in 14.6 at 97 mph. It also hit its governor at 152 mph. Our test car fell shy of Mercedes’ own (typically conservative) 5.9-second zero-to-60 time and 155-mph governed top speed, which suggests that our mini-hammer might not have been wielding its full wallop. Even making full power, the C43 will lose drag races to its Bavarian rivals because they come armed with manual gearboxes. They’re the similarly sized but $14,000-cheaper BMW M3, or the larger but similarly priced 540i (either of which can rip to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds and blast through the quarter in 14.0 and 14.1 seconds, respectively).
Still, some say there’s more to life than drag-stripping. For the C43, Mercedes modifies the C280 Sport suspension by adding higher-rate springs front and rear, and stiffer Bilstein gas-pressure “degressive-action” shocks (stiffest at first, then softer) with two-part piston and integral tension springs. Mercedes says they control body motions better than ordinary progressive-action (ever-increasing stiffness) layouts. Indeed, the C43 delivers precise ride control and handling without kidney-crushing harshness. The aluminum V-8 is more compact and 44 pounds lighter than the C36’s iron-block inline six and those attributes improve handling.
The C43’s wheels are 17-inchers, 7.5 inches wide in front, 8.5 wide in back, mounted with Michelin Pilot SX tires, 225/45ZR-17s and 245/40ZR-17s—all stuffed inside subtly widened fenders. Huge internally ventilated, four-wheel disc brakes—13.1-inch fronts, 11.8-inch rear, all with floating discs and two-piston floating calipers for cooling—come from an AMG racing setup. They deliver such stopping power and fade resistance that all-out braking levitates you forward against the shoulder harness.
Subtly trimmed with modest spoilers and side skirts, the C43 performance flagship is a hot shot. It boasts an artful chassis—fine steering up front, plentiful power exiting at the rear for sporting balance. A pip to drive, it levers the power against the tail’s stability—give some, take some. Moisture on the macadam let you feel “automatic slip regulation” at work. ASR serves as traction control and as an electronic limited-slip differential. An “electronic stability program” works to sustain directional poise by selectively braking one wheel if your path wavers. Prefer less techno interference? Just cancel it by poking two dash buttons.
Right away we feel enough “techspertise” in C43s to go scything along a writhing, weather-lashed Arizona byway so slithery it oughta squirt us off like watermelon seeds. The C43’s front buckets feature pneumatically adjustable lumbar and thigh supports, plus torso-bolstering “wings” to hold both the driver and passenger in place during force-seven floggings. Wondrously adjustable works of art, they’re as supportive as you’ll find.
The C43 doesn’t seem to have any direct rivals. Over at BMW, $56,512 buys the phenomenal 540i six-speed, the closest thing in the U.S. to an M5. (The real M5 is about to go on sale in Europe and will cost more, competing directly with the forthcoming Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG.) An M3 provides closer competition in terms of size, but costs $14,000 less and proves equally involving to drive.
Given a $56,000 wad of cash to blow on an exclusive sports sedan, our logical, rational side would probably steer us into the BMW store for that 540i. It’s faster, roomier, and handles about as well as the C43. But our illogical, romantic inner child might pester us into snatching up one of the 1500 C43 AMGs Mercedes plans to import during the next three years, just to listen to its urgent wail, to revel in its quick reflexes, and to play in those multi-adjustable seats. This one is for fun.
If Mercedes is trying to one-up the performance boys at BMW, it had better head to the parts bin for a manual gearbox. In zero to 60, zero to 100, and the quarter-mile, this C43 outruns the BMW M3 automatic, but gets creamed by the M3 manual. For $54,559, you should get perfection—and it would be perfect with a stick. This is one time that it’s not hyperbole to say that in hard acceleration you can actually feel your back being pressed into the seat. The engine’s sound is simply thrilling. Despite this arsenal of V-8 firepower, the car sticks hard and handles like a dream. The only worry an owner will ever have is the prospect of a passenger’s staining the gray upholstery. —Steve Spence
In November 1994, the C/D editorial staff drew up an automotive wish list. Any car, any price, drive it daily for five years. My choice: the Mercedes 500E, a stealthy, stoic sedan with supercar grunt. This C43 AMG might be my pick today, although I’d hope for a livelier example than our test car. With five gear ratios instead of four, and a better power-to-weight ratio than the lusty 500E has, the C43 should have been quicker and faster. Nevertheless, its wild-‘n’-woolly exhaust note, quick reflexes, and tight grip on the road push all the same buttons that the 500E did. Of course, if I wait another year, I could have the E55 AMG—the true 500E successor. —Frank Markus
A limited-production hot rod like this one should be right up my gasoline alley, but I’m having trouble getting fired up about the C43. Issuing it with an automatic gearbox only is hard enough to swallow. Its slamming gearshifts and spasmodic throttle response, though, make smooth, spirited driving virtually hopeless. Sure, the C43’s a lightning bolt in a straight line, but I can’t imagine that stoplight drags were this car’s intended mission. I don’t want to discourage carmakers from climbing out on a limb to satisfy enthusiasts, but at this price, Mercedes should have done much better. —Don Schroeder
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