Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG

Extravagance isn’t something normally associated with Mercedes-Benz. However, the smooth, luxurious, pillarless two-door S-class coupe remains one of Stuttgart’s great indulgences, especially when AMG works its magic.

The seventh AMG model to receive the new high-revving, normally-aspirated V8 engine, the CL63 should be a compelling machine, but ’63 Fatigue’ means it’s hard not to approach the range-topping CL with a certain reticence.

Can you really be blasé about a full four-seat coupe boasting 525bhp and 465lb ft of torque? You can, but not for long. Think about it. This is the most powerful version of AMG’s in-house designed, hand-built V8 yet seen, thanks to management system tweaks and the power-boosting benefits of a longer exhaust system, which enables the V8 to breathe more effectively. A few years ago this would have put the CL deep into supercar territory.

The result of AMG’s work is a two-ton-plus luxury coupe that can hit 62mph in a fraction over 4.5sec and run into its 155mph electronic speed limiter with absurd ease. It’s a vocal engine, and one that needs revs to deliver its best. Customers accustomed to the gruntfest that was the old supercharged 5.5-litre V8 may find the new engine lacks its instant, thumping torque, but it remains an absurdly potent device. Mercedes doesn’t quote an unrestricted top speed, but there’s little doubt it would touch 200mph.

The CL’s styling makes as big a statement as its performance, with an aggressive, leering face dominated by the frowning headlights and toothy grille. With a clean, arcing roofline, accentuated by a confident swage-line sculpted into the curvy flanks, the CL disguises its saloon origins, and therefore its bulk, well. That is until you see the CL amongst normal traffic, at which point its epic scale becomes gloriously apparent.

Beneath the sharply executed skin lies the now- familiar high-tech combination of AMG’s Speedshift 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission, switchable ABC sports suspension and vast 390mm front brakes, clamped by AMG’s clever, twin sliding calliper set-up, which gives greater pad area with better management of heat.

In keeping with the CL’s unlikely role of hushed cruiser and bruising high-performance coupe, you can switch from ‘Comfort’ to ‘Sport’ and ‘Manual’ modes, which reduce the shift speed by 30 per cent and 50 per cent respectively, not to mention progressively tensing the CL’s suspension.

Like the S-class, the CL is far more entertaining than you’d ever imagine. There’s no denying it’s a huge car, but quick, direct steering and good visibility make it easy to place, while minimal body- roll and generous grip levels enable you to pile into corners with real commitment. Fast curves are its real forté, with confidence-inspiring turn-in and a rock-steady stance. Of course, with state-of-the-art stability and traction control systems, you’ve always got a reassuring and highly effective safety net, but unless you really decide to take a liberty, you rarely sense the electronics intervening.

Tighter corners are a tougher test, and although you can send the CL into the early stages of lurchy understeer or smoky oversteer with an excess of enthusiasm, drive the CL with smoothness and sympathy and it remains surprisingly tidy and impressively agile. You can’t fully disengage the stability system, but pressing the switch does peel away a few layers of intervention. Frustratingly, while it reveals enough of the CL’s ability to know it would be hilariously throttle-steerable, electronics gather things up before the fun can really begin.

Should you want one? Well, as a big, imposing, statement coupe the CL63 has few peers. It would surely make a mighty long-distance partner, and its comprehensive levels of equipment and supreme comfort would take the sting out of the cruellest city commute. With four decent seats, there’s space to carry family or friends (although not perhaps as much rear legroom as you’d expect), while AMG’s influence on the dynamics makes it an entertaining steer when you’re driving solo. If that ticks your boxes, the CL63 is a compelling proposition.

Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG

Coming after the intergalactic, biturbo V12-engined S65 AMG that blew us away last month, you could be forgiven for thinking that the S63 AMG is going to be, well, a bit gutless.

With not so much as a turbo or supercharger in sight, this monster Merc relies on AMG’s recently introduced normally aspirated 6.2-litre V8 for motivation. With 518bhp and 465lb ft of torque it’s hardly lacking by normal standards, but AMG doesn’t work to normal standards…

Put your foot down in the V12-engined flagship and it feels like you’ve unleashed some kind of small thermonuclear bomb. That’s what 737lb ft of torque – electronically limited, of course – does for you. Do the same in the S63 and there are still immense reserves of power to draw from, but the V8 has to work at it. It sounds great – all snarly and potent – but it has to rev harder and kickdown further into the seven-speed auto’s ratios to deliver the best of its formidable performance. It’s nothing a brace of turbos wouldn’t sort, so doubtless the megalomaniacs at AMG are working on it right now.

AMG confesses that some of its customers miss the grunt of the old supercharged ‘55’ engine – which delivered 51lb ft more torque at half the
revs – but counter by saying that, with time, most come to appreciate the 63’s sharper response and more overtly sporting delivery. While this may be true of E, ML and CLS 63 owners, we believe the rev-hungry V8 feels least suited to the S-class supersaloon.

As ever, the S-class chassis is a miracle of mass reduction. You simply don’t feel like you’re in two- tons-plus of raging super-luxury saloon, even on winding sections of road. The steering is pointy and direct, the damping calm and controlled. Hell, it shouldn’t be fun to punt this thing around, but once you’ve dialled yourself in to the S63’s preferred style, it genuinely is. The paddle-shift auto works well, with incisive up- and downshifts; the brakes offer smooth, linear, eyebrow-loosening power, and despite having to absorb the huge forces that result from the pace at which this S gains speed between corners, they remain resolutely effective.

The S63 is slightly flawed, then, but still a great car. And with a basic price expected to not exceed five figures, it’s cheaper than the stratospherically priced S65, but not that much cheaper to your average gazillionaire. And in the crazy world that these cars inhabit, it’s hard to imagine wanting to be in the slower, cylindrically-challenged relation of AMG’s S-class patriarch.

Mercedes-Benz SLR 722

It was a personal best. A nice round 200kph over the speed limit. Dead straight, perfectly surfaced, deserted dual carriageway, not a soul in sight. The limit was 80kph, set that low because of danger from stray camels. But there were no camels within the featureless vista scanned by our hyperactive eyes, so no danger.

OK, I wasn’t driving at the time. But that doesn’t much lessen the illicit thrill of almost 175mph on a public road that isn’t a German autobahn, especially given the continuing savagery of the acceleration right up to the point of backing off. The Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren may not be the apogee of the supercar art that its price suggests it should be (how can it be when a Ferrari 599 is better in nearly every way and costs around half as much?), but there are some things it does with panache.

Besides, the SLR we’re driving is the car that could salvage the model’s reputation. Called (deep breath) the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren 722 Edition, it has been built in response to some existing SLR owners’ desires for ‘more sportiness’. As if 208mph and a 3.8sec 0-62 time weren’t sporty enough already…

There will be just 150 722s, and instead of costing the usual £317,610 it will relieve you of £334,300. You may already know what the 722 bit means. Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson won the 1955 Mille Miglia road race in an SLR racer bearing the number 722, which denoted the car’s 7.22am start time. Moss drove the whole way himself at an average speed which was never beaten. Today’s SLR has no competition history of its own, but it basks in massive reflected glory.

The extra £17K that makes the 722 difference doesn’t seem, objectively, to buy you much. Most important to the way the 722 drives are the new front splitter, suspension lowered by 10mm and new Koni dampers set 15 per cent stiffer in bump.

The splitter increases front downforce by 128 per cent, and the flip-up rear wing (deployed at very high speed or under firm braking) rises up a further five degrees to help balance the new forces. The dampers have aluminium casings, which are lighter than the steel shells of the previous Bilsteins, and the new wheels are also lighter to the further benefit of unsprung weight. The brake discs are still carbon-ceramic but the front ones are now bigger.

There’s also red detailing for the engine intake tract, brake callipers, upholstery and dials, plus three ‘722’ badges (two on the front wings, one by the gear selector) and – vitally – a modified engine-management map. This raises the supercharged, 5.5-litre AMG V8’s power from 617 to 641bhp and its torque from 575 to 605lb ft. And that puts 1mph on the top speed, making 209mph, and shaves 0.2sec from the 0-62mph time, now down to 3.6sec.

There’s a sense of menace about an SLR when you press the starter button concealed under the gear selector’s flip-up lid. Those four side-exit exhausts harrumph and splutter, their aural explosiveness the greater for their proximity to your ears. The extra power and the 722’s 44kg weight loss help create an even bigger explosion on that first exploratory prod of the accelerator pedal, too, helped by a torque converter in the five-speed auto ’box that’s keen to lock up as quickly as it can.

Unlike most other Mercedes-Benzes, the SLR has a proper manual mode for its transmission, which neither downshifts on throttle-flooring nor upshifts at the rev limit. You can select three different shift speeds for the sequential paddle-shifters, the fastest of which does a passable imitation of a Ferrari F1-shift, even if it isn’t quite as quick.

It’s not great at synchronising engine speed with road speed on a downshift, but unlike most autos it lets you apply your own meaningful throttle-blip to keep things smooth. There’s a lovely burst of supercharger whine as you do this. And, unlike a Ferrari-type robotised manual, the transmission is guaranteed to be smooth in automatic mode, even in the quicker-shifting sport setting. This is a good transmission, well matched to the engine’s bombastic torque.

So far, so pretty damn fine. But, Houston, the rocketship has a problem. I’m driving on what looks like a smooth, flat section of Dubai desert road, where what few bends there are can be happily taken at two or three times the posted advisory limits, but the 722 seems to be inventing bumps of its own. There’s a constant vertical choppiness at the back, as if springs and dampers are badly mismatched (the springs themselves are standard and merely sit on lower platforms).

And now, at last, a sinuous mountain road. Healthy speed, not excessive, turn-in and – good grief! I have never known a road-going car with a fiercer turn-in than this one. Up to now I’ve felt the steering to be quick and very positive, with more weight and feedback than the standard SLR, but suddenly there’s a whole new dimension to its character.

The turn-in loads up the outside rear wheel quite violently, which tightens the line as if leaning on a big spring. So I pay off a little lock, the loading goes, and now the SLR isn’t turning tightly enough. So I steer a little more again, and the process is repeated. There’s a huge amount of grip, albeit moveable grip, but the 722 is very hard to place accurately. Corners are taken in a series of bites.

Why does it do this? A 599 turns and stays stuck to its line, subtly adjustable as needed. A 722 feels hyperactive; not nervous, exactly, because it is essentially benign despite initial threats of huge oversteer, but very physical as you battle away with endless steering corrections. Is it the damper settings? Are they too stiff? The engineers don’t think so. For them, the 722 is just ‘a bit more sporty’, as intended.

This is a curious car. The brakes still have a long, springy travel, although they are easier to modulate than they were. The silver-painted plastic vents and details in the cabin are outrageous in a car of this cost; why aren’t they made from machined aluminium? And the seats give you a numb bum, despite the car’s GT credentials.

It’s blazingly rapid and it can be a lot of fun, but the 722 makes no sense in a world that contains the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano. Not that this will matter to the 150 722 buyers. Anyway, there’s an SLR roadster on the way, so let’s hope the Big Mac finally gets it together then.

Mercedes-Benz C350

Sharper chassis brings increased driver appeal to the new Mercedes-Benz C-Class

There was plenty of talk about ‘virtual cars’ at the launch of Mercedes’ bigger, chunkier new C-class in Spain, though some disagreement about which direction the discussion should take.

From Mercedes’ perspective, it was all about the world’s first digital prototype. Before the conventional prototypes were built – and for the record there were 280 that covered a mind-boggling 140 million test miles, a record even for Mercedes – the engineers already had a near-perfect idea of how they would feel to drive, thanks to the ‘virtual prototype’. And no, they didn’t knock up a program with Gran Turismo’s Kazunori Yamauchi to run on a PS3. Nor did anyone dare to be so glib at the press briefing, tempting as it was. The digital mock-up, all 2130 gigabytes of it, was used for 5500 crash test simulations, intensive ride and handling analysis, NVH tuning, aerodynamic development and climate control tests. Undoubtedly a worthy use of silicon and electricity.

All well and good, but the angle I had in mind for the discussions was a little closer to the Jamiroquai track ‘Virtual Insanity’. In other words, when would we see the AMG version, where would it check in on the ‘bad craziness’ scale, and just how many shades of ordure was it likely to beat out of BMW’s imminent V8-engined M3? Naturally, our hosts were a little guarded on the subject, though they did reveal this: it will have the 6.2-litre naturally aspirated V8 currently in the CLK (circa 475bhp), it will be launched in the first half of 2008 and, unlike AMGs of present and past, its pricing and spec will place it closer to the orbit of the mainstream models, thereby giving the range a more integrated feel.

But an M3 mauler? For the time being we’ll have to glean what we can from the sportiest version of the new C-class, the 268bhp, seven-speed auto C350 Avantgarde. Its UK-specific equivalent, the C350 Sport, goes on sale a couple of months after the roll-out of the initial model line-up launch in July. The Sport, like the Avantgarde, is instantly distinguished by its bold, simple nose treatment, with a big three-pointed star dominating the grille in a manner similar to the new CL coupe’s. The comfort-orientated SE and Elegance models get more chrome trim and finely meshed grilles with a conventional three-pointed star standing proud of the bonnet.

The contrasting treatments make the cars look startlingly different head on, though arguably the starker simplicity of the Sport sits more comfortably with the masculine, almost butch architecture of the new car, which clearly speaks the same dialect of design language as the S-class. Intriguingly, the sturdy new shape doesn’t photograph nearly as well as it looks in the metal but, when you first see it, it’s striking how successfully it re-establishes the sense of strength, solidity and durability long held as Mercedes core values.

Although based on the old C-class platform, the new car is 55mm longer and 42mm wider, so it’s more spacious inside and has a larger boot. The wheelbase is 45mm longer and the track is 44mm wider at the front, 76mm at the rear. Combined, these changes give a slightly more rearward bias to the weight distribution, with the aim of making the handling more neutral.

The rack-and-pinion steering has been sharpened up, with a six per cent more direct ratio, and while the suspension retains the same three-link MacPherson strut (front) and five-link (rear) designs, it has been completely overhauled with new lightweight components, altered geometry and new amplitude-sensitive dampers that are more compliant over small bumps to maximise comfort, but which stiffen up with bigger wheel movements and/or steering inputs. This basic ‘Agility Control’ system is entirely hydraulic, but our C350 has the optional ‘Advanced Agility’ package, which has infinitely variable electronic control for each damper and is linked to two gearshift programmes, Sport and Comfort, which also alter the throttle and transmission maps.

What’s immediately apparent is that the new C feels lighter, tauter and innately more poised than its predecessor. The 3.5-litre V6 spins sweetly and relentlessly, and is clearly strong enough to put the chassis under pressure. It doesn’t buckle; in fact, it seems to love it. Feel is superb, grip prodigious and, no matter how hard you push, the C350 refuses to come a cropper. Truth is, it enjoys being taken by the scruff of the neck and hammered. The basic tenacity and faithfulness of the chassis, massaged and focused by the electro-hydraulic damping regimes, can simply murder a twisty road. And the steering isn’t just beautifully weighted but dripping with feel. Cornering balance is just about spot on, too.

Even with the traction control left on (being a non-AMG it never fully switches off), slide the auto down a cog or two and it’s possible to enter a bend on a trailing throttle with a mild state of oversteer. Stab-correct stuff; your granny could do it. There’s definitely a feeling that the car is maybe more than an equal partner – flattering to the point you begin to doubt your own contribution. But also encouraging. With 475bhp to play with, a helping hand might not be such a bad

Mercedes CL65 AMG

Mercedes CL65 AMG

AMG’s new £150K, 603bhp, biturbo V12 flagship forged from the already mighty Mercedes CL65

The Mercedes-Benz CL500 costs £79,652. It has 383bhp and does 0-62mph in 5.5sec. It’s no sports car, but it is refined, composed, fast and cosseting. If you want an imposing, majestic coupe then the CL500 is all the car you could ever need. I like it. This, however, is the CL65 AMG. It costs £149,565 and has 603bhp. It weighs over two tons and yet can warp to 62mph from rest in 4.4sec. And then it really starts to move. Nought to 124mph takes 13.3sec, which is bang-on 911 Turbo pace. I know I shouldn’t, but I love this car.

AMG has launched so many 500 or 600bhp cars in the past few years that it’s easy to get blasé about those numbers. I’ve been guilty of it myself; even as I jumped into the CL I felt rather disinterested, almost bored before I’d experienced it. Wafting through an American cityscape, isolated and in the kind of insipid luxury that is unique to big German cars, I hardly cared if I drove it another yard.

And then I opened the 6-litre twin-turbo V12’s taps and the CL65 slapped me around the face with a shocking reminder of what 603bhp and 737lb ft actually means. It means that two tons becomes irrelevant, it means that time and space are elastic concepts rather than hard and fast rules, it means that for once you thank the gods of ESP for keeping you on the road. It means you’re going to have a good time.

Ludicrous is perhaps the best way to describe the CL65’s performance. Ludicrous and wonderful. And when you’ve thrown off your prejudices about the huge coupe, you begin to realise that the lunatic engine, although the main event, is far from the only attraction. The steering is light and lacks real textural feedback, but the front wheels respond to your demands with a nice linearity and the CL really bites into corners.

Select the ‘Sport’ mode for the Active Body Control suspension (simultaneously cutting the gearshift speed by 30 per cent) and the CL’s body control is surreal. There’s minuscule roll, no dive under braking and even the huge torque of the engine fails to upset the coupe’s equilibrium. The ride is excellent, too.

The CL makes do with just five ratios for its automatic gearbox (the CL63 AMG has seven), but the shift is wonderfully smooth in both auto or when manually operated via the steering-wheel mounted shifters, and there’s so much power that there’s never any question of a hole in the delivery. In fact the power is immense, the rear tyres often at a loss as to what to do with all the torque, yellow ESP triangle flashing on the dash, the sound of fleeting stabs of wheelspin fizzing through to the leather-lined interior.

It would be easy to make a damning indictment of the CL65 AMG. It’s too fast for the road (unless you happen to have miles of derestricted autobahn on your doorstep), too heavy and luxurious for the track, and at £149,565 it is hugely expensive. The CL500 is much easier to justify. Even the 518bhp CL63 AMG – a snip at £103,552 – makes more sense. But if a Bentley Conti GT is too common for you, a puffed-up SUV too offensive and a supercar just too much hassle, then the bombastic, serene CL65 AMG might just tick all the boxes.

Mercedes CLK63

AMG aims for increased driver appeal, with the 500bhp CLK63 Black Series

AMG. What images do those three simple letters conjure up for you? Let me take a guess… A sober saloon bonfiring its rear tyres? An S-class sitting serenely at its 155mph limiter, only electronics preventing it from rushing headlong towards the double-ton? A huge V8 squeezed tightly into the engine bay of a C-class? In other words, an image of unlikely and monumental power. In fact, if you didn’t know any better you could almost surmise that AMG was German for BHP.

Now, I’ll admit I’m a bit of a horsepower junkie; I love the way it wraps you up and takes you into the distance in giant strides. It’s intoxicating, empowering, exciting, but obviously it’s not enough on its own to make a truly great drivers’ car. And too often it has been the centre of the AMG experience at the expense of agility, balance and response, not to mention such wishy-washy notions as passion and character. Traditionally AMG is a company that demands respect, but somehow its over-endowed range has never quite captured the imagination like the products of BMW’s M Division.

With this in mind, you might expect a car specifically produced to coincide with AMG’s 40th anniversary to be a limited-edition 700bhp S-class, or an E-class estate capable of 200mph. Awesome, awe-inspiring even, but slightly irrelevant. A monumentally fast car, but one designed for people who will only tap into its potential when the road ahead is very long and arrow-straight. Well, think again. This, the CLK63 AMG Black Series, is part of a new breed of AMG…

We’ve already tried the SLK55 AMG Black Series (evo 095), and that encounter was enough to convince us that the Black Series cars are designed for people like you and me. AMG takes a ‘standard’ car, strips weight out where possible, adds a few horses, strengthens the chassis, redesigns the suspension, steering components and even bodywork, and slavishly laps the Nürburgring until the car is honed into a very serious track tool and a refreshingly uncompromised road-racer. When I ask AMG’s head of development, Tobias Moers, what car the CLK Black is pitched at, his answer is music to my ears: ‘GT3,’ he utters with a shrug.

Maybe that should be GT3 RS. The CLK63 AMG Black will cost around £100,000 when it goes on sale in June. Again, the engineers are deadpan when the price is revealed, but when you see everything that goes into making the Black, you can start to understand why it’s such an expensive tool.

Let’s start with the basics. The 6.2-litre V8 (still fed through Mercedes’ seven-speed auto gearbox) benefits from a more generous intake system allied to a less restrictive (and louder) exhaust system. With the ECU suitably tweaked to take advantage of these modifications, power takes a jump to 500bhp – 26bhp up on the normal CLK63 AMG. This helps to lower the 0-62mph time to 4.3sec (a drop of 0.3sec), and the Black will keep on charging to 186mph (300kph) before its more lenient limiter stops play.

Cooling has been improved with larger air-intakes in the restyled front bumper feeding a bigger radiator. AMG has also fitted an additional transmission oil cooler and an engine oil cooler (one in each of the front wheelarches), plus a more efficient power-steering cooler. Move further back and you’ll find a multi-plate limited-slip diff (30 per cent locking under acceleration, 10 per cent on the overrun), again with its own oil cooler.

All of this hardware is shrouded in bespoke bodywork, with minute attention to aerodynamic detail. Check out the rear diffuser (carbonfibre, naturally) sprouting from the bulging rear apron. And the carbon boot spoiler and neat air outlets in the swollen plastic front wings. It’s a feast of detailing, with every vent, slash and splitter wonderfully fit for purpose.

Open the bonnet and you’ll see a big strut-brace linking the suspension turrets, and there’s another one in the boot, too. You can’t see the extra triangulation in the chassis, but it’s there.

It’s clear from the reinforced structure and the additional cooling that AMG expects the Black to be used extensively on track. And to make sure it performs as spectacularly as its new, more muscular physique suggests, the suspension too is almost entirely new. Both front and rear axles gain bespoke spring links, wheel carriers and thrust-, camber- and torque-arms; the track is increased by 75mm at the front and 66mm at the rear, and ride height and compression and rebound damping are fully adjustable. Just like on a GT3. And as a final touch, AMG rips out the rear seats. You get the impression that, if the engineers could have their way, they’d remove the front passenger seat, too. This is one very serious car.

Excited yet? I am. Despite a fug of jetlag muddying my senses and the stifling heat of the Californian sun, there’s a swarm of butterflies filling my stomach. And when our bright red Black rolls into view I’m rendered momentarily speechless. It looks incredible: pumped-up and pared-down all at the same time. It’s a big, imposing car, but you sense there’s not a micron of fat left on its bones. The noise, too, is remarkable; it has that big, enveloping V8 rumble you’d expect of its 6208cc displacement, but even at idle there’s a lean, athletic edge.

It takes a while, but at last I can speak again, although all I can summon is a considered ‘Phwoarrr…’ Photographer Andy Morgan nods in agreement. Then we jump in and head out into the LA traffic. Now, this isn’t my idea of fun, but it does give us plenty of time to appreciate the sculpted, supportive seats (fixed-back buckets are also available if you want the full-on racer experience), the carbon/Alcantara touches that sweep around the cabin, and the delicious, elliptical steering wheel. It’s also a great way for AMG to illustrate the advantages of that 7G-Tronic automatic gearshift (there are paddles, of course, which lock out any electronic intervention if you select ‘M’, for manual, down by the stubby gearlever) and the big V8’s wonderful tractability.

To be honest, I’d rather have taken this as read (the Black is the seventh model to feature this drivetrain), but if LA’s clogged road network reveals little, it’s amazing what it can’t hide. The Black feels taut, hard even; the steering is heavy and quick. There’s an immediacy and intensity that I hadn’t expected. Even at walking pace it exudes real aggression and, more importantly, it engages you. The spec sheet suggested as much, but it still seems strange to be in a Mercedes that feels so hyper-alert.

Fortunately, unlike much of the US, there are plenty of challenging roads within close proximity of LA, and AMG has thoughtfully laid-on a racetrack, too. The latter, Willow Springs, is a bit of a dust bowl, but it has miles of twists and loops that can be attacked in various formats, and it should at least begin to reveal whether AMG’s claims that the Black is a truly hardcore drivers’ car are accurate. However, it’s on the tortuous, climbing and spectacular road route that we find most of the answers we’re looking for…

The road-book reads ‘Turn left onto Spunky Canyon Road’. An unfortunate name, but it is a very exciting ribbon of smooth asphalt, and if you happened to live in a country damned with the grid system and suddenly found yourself on this route, I can see why you might get a little carried away.

Anyway, Spunky Canyon Road is quite narrow (about the width of your average British B-road), and climbs rapidly, via tight hairpins and blind, oddly cambered third-gear corners before falling back down into the valley with an incredible array of endless tightening-radii corners and sharp drop-offs that an American would compare to the corkscrew at Laguna Seca. We’re on the fringes of the desert now, and the surface is dusted with loose sand. It’s quite a test.

The 6.2-litre V8 makes light work of the heat and the gradient, launching the Black at the canyon with a relentlessness that only AMG products seem to summon. The soundtrack is tight, hard, highly tuned V8. Gearshifts snap through with a noticeable thunk in ‘M’, but the lag in torque to the rear wheels is minimal. They cope admirably, thanks in part, no doubt, to the huge 285/30 R19 Pirelli P Zero Corsas (yes, the same as you’ll find on a Ferrari 360CS or the previous-generation GT3 RS). They’re soft and sticky even in cool conditions, though with the temperature climbing to 95 degrees they’re Blu-Takking the Black to the surface.

But it’s not the grip or the grunt that sets the Black apart from its stablemates. No, it’s the speed with which the front tyres respond to your inputs, and the way the chassis seems to be hardwired-in to your right foot. There’s little body-roll despite a hefty 1760kg kerbweight, and the front end is so well tied-down and so alert that you rarely even think about understeer. It’s quite remarkable considering there’s a huge V8 up front.

Instead you sense it’s the rear of the car that you need to manage. You turn in, hard, and the rear gently but immediately takes on a few degrees of slide. Stay on a constant throttle and the attitude fixes, the car just on the verge of oversteer but requiring no correction at all. As the corner opens out and you gradually open the throttle the car stays hooked-up, but still it’s teetering – beautifully balanced and working all of its tyres equally. There are tiny shifts in grip and load going on underneath you, and because you’re located so well in the seat you can react instinctively to correct them before they become troublesome. And this is with ESP engaged.

Still, it’s a good job that the CLK’s chassis relates information so readily to your backside, because the steering is severely lacking in this respect. It’s quick and meaty, but there’s an odd viscosity to the assistance that takes some getting used to. And even when fully loaded up, front tyres on the cusp of losing grip, there’s little to signal that you’re running out of grip.

It’s a severe gripe in a car that targets the GT3, a car blessed with incredibly detailed steering feel. But, thankfully, such is the CLK’s balance that you can drive through this slightly unnerving characteristic, and turning off the ESP (‘off’ now finally means just that in AMG products) feels like the natural thing to do rather than a leap into the unknown.

It’s worth the risk. That mild oversteer stance is just so easy to induce, and now you have the option to add some angle should you desire thanks to the accurate throttle and deep well of torque. In fact, for a 500bhp, £100,000 car with huge, soft-compound rubber and stiff, track-optimised suspension, the Black is surprisingly forgiving and playful to slide. And with 7000rpm to utilise, you never seem to run out of options.

So the chassis feels wonderfully balanced (although it remains to be seen if it copes with really lumpy tarmac – the odd sharp ridge we did find seemed to knock the Black off line), but the steering isn’t nearly as tactile as it should be.

The brakes? Well, they’re huge 360mm items at the front, 330mm at the rear, so it’s no surprise that they feel very strong, easily resisting fade even on the downhill sections. But, again, it’s in the details that the CLK slightly disappoints. The pedal feels imprecise and mushy, and this is exacerbated by the ‘Speedshift’ gearbox, which always seems to lag a few milliseconds behind your gearshift inputs. It undermines the integrity of the rest of the package, and where you should be absorbed and working in unison with the car, it sometimes feels like you’re having to pull it along behind you. It’s a shame, a frustrating filter between you and the obviously gifted chassis.

The same criticisms remain true on the track. You brake deep into a corner and go for a downshift and it arrives just a fraction too late, causing you to run wide. You want to short-shift out of a corner to avoid wheelspin and there’s a moment of fluffiness where the gearbox is wrongfooted – suddenly all that torque counts for nothing. And despite all the rubber at each corner, the weight of the CLK eventually tells; it simply doesn’t generate the grip of something like a Porsche GT3 or Lamborghini Gallardo.

That sounds very damning, but I don’t mean it to be. The CLK63 AMG Black Series is a wonderful car, and I’m delighted that AMG is beginning to cater for real enthusiasts. I’m delighted, too, that it has created a car with such fine balance, such impressive quality and such incredible attention to detail. But it has obviously been working to a budget, one that didn’t allow it to reprogram the gearshift or work on brake feel – the little things that could really elevate this car to GT3-rivalling status. The 63 Black is a tantalising taste of the depth of talent and enthusiasm at AMG. If only it were able to employ them to the full.

Mercedes SLR Roadster

Same rigid chassis, same awesome V8 – the only thing that’s gone soft on the latest Mercedes SLR is its roof

It’s always been easier to poke fun at the Mercedes SLR McLaren than it has been to take it seriously. Somehow, the implications that Paris Hilton owned one briefly (before handing it back, no doubt complaining it was too hard to modulate the throttle during full-on 600-horsepower drifts wearing five-inch stilettos) stick more tenaciously to the SLR’s reputation as the David Hasselhoff of supercars than whatever credibility may have been generated by F1 champ Fernando Alonso’s rather longer tenure.
In the crudest sense, the SLR Roadster is a phenomenally rapid piece of kit

How it ended up as an object of mild ridicule associated with desperate, attention-seeking celebrities rather than a serious sequel to the phenomenal McLaren F1 is a long and painful story Gordon Murray – captain and opening bat for McLaren at the beginning of the project – would probably rather forget. Suffice to say, it wasn’t the car he envisaged. Well, it ended up weighing 1618kg, after all…

Around 1000 people didn’t agree with Murray, though, and handed over the requisite £300,000 in return for the most priapically proportioned vehicle in history, a car with a bonnet so long in relation to its overall length some wondered if it would be able to pull out of T-junctions without someone standing in the road to guide it. They became part of what Mercedes calls the SLR Club. And it seems that some members who’ve placed their orders for this, the Roadster, have a serious, some might say unfathomable, collecting habit, as they already own a coupe and a 722.

The reason for the long bonnet wasn’t that it had a preposterously long engine – Murray’s dream of a V12 was canned early on in favour of a supercharged 5.5-litre V8 mated to a five-speed auto – but a preposterously powerful one (617bhp, 575lb ft of torque), sitting way back in the chassis, comfortably behind the axle line. And, of course, the production car remained slavishly true to the extraordinarily dramatic Vision SLR concept of 1999, lousy aerodynamics included. As the SLR’s mighty motor was quite capable of pushing it through the air at over 200mph, this necessitated quite a bit of ‘correction’, some of it out of view (the flat underbody) and some of it not (the rear diffuser and ‘air brake’-style active rear wing).

It all added to the impression of F1-derived engineering for the road and, to be fair, McLaren’s contribution was a defining one, the hugely rigid carbon tub being perhaps the most significant of the technologies adapted from its F1 expertise and, indeed, the F1 road car.

Modified for the soft top, the exceptional core rigidity it offers is claimed to be unchanged from the coupe’s. It makes the SLR Roadster, unveiled at Geneva in March and now in production at an eye-watering £350,000, a more enticing prospect than its coupe cousin, promising to kill stone dead even the subtle scuttle wobbles that afflict the mainstream Merc SL65 and in so doing putting some clear blue water between itself and a car that, on paper, all but matches its straight line pace for less than half the price.

The SLR Roadster also effectively ends the career of the coupe, not least, Mercedes says, because the two models can’t be manufactured at the same time. To our eyes, the roadster version of the Vision concept always looked the more appealing, it was only ever a question of when it would be made. Mercedes says it went with coupe first, in 2003, to strengthen the association with GT race cars.

But, from a visual standpoint at least, it’s hard to imagine that those who’ve held off for the roadster will be disappointed. With the powered fabric hood stowed neatly in the space behind the seats, it’s a fabulous looking thing, far less cartoonish than the coupe but still a fireball of presence with its dragster overtones and stubby, side-firing exhausts snorting shockwaves of infrabass venom. Pure theatre. It looks a damn sight better than the coupe with the hood in place, too, though the fact that it has to be manually latched and locked with a high-torque twist of the wrist – a paltry saving of 6kg over an auto-latching mechanism, apparently – is a shocker. Don’t expect Paris Hilton back any time soon, Mercedes.

The SLR’s signature scissor doors that swing out and up on massive hydraulic struts – a kick every time – give easy access to a cabin space that checks in somewhere between cosy and cramped and buts right up against the rear wheelarches. The carbon bucket seats’ backrests are fixed, so you tend to sit a little more upright and closer to the wheel than you would in, say, an SL, though it’s actually very comfortable and not at all at odds with a car that, deliberately or not, is shot through with the charisma of an old school American hot rod.

Once behind the wheel, the wows and woes come in about equal measure. Best bits are the instruments, the seats, the sparing use of carbon trim and the look and feel of leather that has clearly come from cows hooked on anti-ageing products. Rather less inspiring is the amount of cheap-looking plastic and the embarrassingly large and shiny SLR badge on the flap that hides the stereo.

Then again, everything considered, this probably isn’t a car for shrinking violets or people of a sensitive (or, indeed, cynical) disposition. Snigger, if you want, at the starting protocol that involves flicking open a slatted cover on top of the shift lever and prodding the start button – circled with red alert lighting – beneath. But what happens next isn’t funny. You’ve just ignited arguably the baddest-sounding production engine on the planet. OK, peak power is 383bhp shy of a Veyron’s 1000, but the SLR sounds as if it’s got 2000.

It isn’t a pretty sound - not much sense of pitch, little in the way of harmonics. Just industrially generated thunder overlaid with the most monumental supercharger whine, the sort of disturbing multi-track soundtrack noise director David Lynch might concoct to induce a mild state of panic in a cinema audience.

And the menace carried in the sonic message is entirely justified on the road. The SLR Roadster weighs just 57kg more than the coupe, so its performance is almost identically mental. 0-62mph in 3.8sec, 0-124mph in 10.9sec, 207mph flat out (with the roof up). And, just like the SLR coupe, this is what the Roadster is best at: covering the distance between one corner and the next like a striking cobra covers the distance between itself and lunch. In the crudest sense, it is a phenomenally rapid piece of kit. The fact that its auto ’box, which it shares with the Maybach, has just five widely spaced ratios seems almost an irrelevance. You never have to wonder what gear might be best for the next overtake – any gear will do. Kickdown, quickened in Sport mode, adds a little more aural Armageddon and a surfeit of shove to the mix, and paddle-shifting allows you to chop up the noise and accelerative forces to taste, rather like Lynch at a mixing desk. That said, this is probably the greatest turn-on, strap-up, smile-to-admirers, squeeze ‘n’ go car on sale.

And despite the seemingly ingrained SLR problems – awful brake feel, dead-yet-darty steering and spine-drilling ride (on our car’s optional 19in rims at any rate) – it’s a much more likable steer than the coupe. The rigidity of the bodyshell isn’t just palpably better that the SL’s, it’s hard to think of another chop-top that even comes close. And the management of wind in the cabin at speed is excellent. For all its foibles, driving the car is an event that lingers in your emotions hours after you’ve switched off. After all, Hasselhoff isn’t such a bad role model. The only real difference is he’s an American who’s big in Germany. With the McMerc, it’s the other way round.

Mercedes CLS 350

Right then. The mystery of our Merc’s perfectly round-looking wheels that turned out to be, well, bent. There seems to be three possibilities, Watson, none of them elementary.

One, I’ve smacked a few kerbs and haven’t noticed. I’ve smacked a number of things over the years – a TVR Tuscan into a dry stone wall being perhaps the most memorable – but the 350’s 19in AMG alloys aren’t four of them. Light scuffs for slightly-too-snug parking is about as violent as it gets.

Two, during its recent stay at Evo Towers, the boys thought it might be fun to use the CLS for a spot of ram raiding. They swear to me that this isn’t the case. And you know what? I believe them.

And three, the Merc has had a run-in with a few vicious potholes. I can recall three occasions, I think Harry had at least one and… well, potholes are no respecters of fancy wheels. This is my favourite theory.

After much head-scratching and road testing, my local Merc dealer in Canterbury concluded that not one or two but all of the wheels were bent. Now it has four gleaming new ones so we can see if anything similar happens again.

Mercedes certainly seems confident that buckling AMG alloys aren’t the norm. A technical spokesperson said: ‘It just doesn’t happen. There are no endemic porosity/buckling problems.’ Pretty clear-cut, then. Smooth sailing from here on.

Mercedes C63 AMG

The new Mercedes C-class estate has a lot to recommend it. The maximum load capacity is a class-leading 1500 litres. The 3.5-litre V6 is an impressively smooth engine. The handling is engaging. There are even coat-hooks on the tailgate. It is a fine car. It’s also an intensely frustrating one if you have to drive it around for an entire afternoon knowing Mercedes is playing ‘hide the C63 AMG’ somewhere nearby until 8am the following morning…

It’s worth the wait, though. After a restless night, it’s hard to tell which brings my early morning bleariness into sharper focus, the pipe-cleaner of cold mountain air entering the nostrils or the sight of a greyscale line of white, silver, grey and black C63s silently waiting. No pictures can do the sheer aggressiveness of the C63 justice. The shoulderless M3 would wilt in its shadow and even the squat RS4 would appear slightly soft-edged parked alongside.

The front, which hides two new oil-coolers for engine and transmission, is deep, slightly pointed and chunky. The two ‘Power Domes’ on the bonnet are more ‘Power Ridges’ but they have a much greater visual impact than you’d credit. The 6.3 badging as you walk around the side is nice. You can have 19in wheels but the standard 18s with their deep runnel in each of the five spokes are some of the best I’ve seen in ages. A diffuser (which they admit is just a must-have visual accessory) splits the quad tail-pipes at the rear, while a BMW-esque lip on top of the boot serves as a rear wing. The rear bumper also appears to jut slightly, adding to a certain DTM atmosphere.

There’s a Touring Car hint inside too, with a really rather fantastic steering wheel. It’s flat-bottomed, appears marginally horizontally stretched and is just slightly smaller than your average. Two silver paddles are attached to the back of it, marked ‘down’ (left) and ‘up’ (right). As in the RS4, the sports seats have single-piece backs and bolsters that inflate round the sides of your ribcage, but these are slightly plusher than the Audi’s. The rest of the interior is pleasantly unremarkable C-class fare, reminding you that for all its DTMness this is still a saloon that has to be as functional as a daily commute.

It would be a daily commute that would start with a small explosion every morning, however. Turn the key and the cold V8 comes to life with an unexpectedly loud report before settling to a deep, familiarly steady burble. Having used our time in the load-lugger yesterday to recce a few roads, we know where we’re heading and ease out through the sleepy German village. The steering feels promisingly devoid of the low-speed lightness that afflicts other variable racks, although the car as a whole feels quite large manoeuvring through the streets past parked cars. The ride is firm but fantastically tightly controlled.

We’re aiming for fast, smooth roads to start with – the perfect environment to discover what the headline figures mean in reality. In case you need reminding, the numbers are 449bhp at 6800rpm and 442lb ft of torque at 5000rpm (with at least 83 per cent of maximum torque, or 369lb ft, available from 2000 to 6250rpm).

It’s soon clear that, in a smallish four-door saloon, that sort of energy feels monstrous. The 6.3 litres wake up at 2000rpm and then deliver their performance in a rapid, unstressed, utterly linear manner all the way to the 7200rpm limiter, as 120mph appears from nowhere. It’s like a heavyweight boxer casually knocking out a lesser mortal. Overtakes snap your head back and corners arrive so rapidly that fast sweepers can begin to look a bit tight. It is a seriously, seriously quick car. There are no traction issues either, the C63 deploying every last scrap, the yellow ESP triangle staying resolutely unlit unless you start clomping the throttle provocatively.

Gearshifts are dealt with in one of three modes. ‘Comfort’ is for others. ‘Sport’ reduces shift times by 30 per cent, holds onto each of the seven gears longer and downchanges earlier. Shifts in ‘Manual’ take half the time of those in comfort and the ’box won’t change up unless you tell it to.

It’s worth driving in Sport to start with, as it helps you to readjust to the reach of the engine. At 3500rpm the V8 sounds like it’s spinning at about 6000rpm, so if you’re in manual mode the initial temptation is to change up too early, particularly as the rev-counter is tucked over to the right slightly out of sight. When you do start using the paddles – which feel like slightly soft switches – the key is to wait until your peripheral vision spots the speedo turn red before pulling back with your right index finger.

The 7G-Tronic still isn’t the snappiest shifter but this is the first time it has had blips on the downchanges, and it’s a big improvement. There was still the occasional unanswered call, and there’s a strange slurring if you’re not going quickly when you change down, but brake late and change aggressively and you’ll be accompanied by more, very satisfying, small explosions from the exhaust pipes.

The ESP now has three very well-judged stages too – ‘On’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Off’. And ‘Off’ really does mean off, so you can indulge yourself and do big skids. If you want to showboat, however, it’s worth noting that until the sport pack arrives, electronics are cleverly doing the work of a limited slip diff, and there are some curiosities to the way it slides. At first it can feel like an inside wheel is spinning up, as if there’s no diff (which there isn’t), and then once you’ve broken traction in both tyres it can be a little tricky to modulate the slip with the throttle.

Mostly the C63 is not a hooligan, however. It just demolishes a road. The front track has been increased by 35mm and the rear 12mm over the standard C-class, and the front suspension is a completely new three-link design. Combined with a larger anti-roll bar, this has made the front end 100 per cent stiffer. Throw the car at a sequence of corners and it moves as one through them, front and rear ends in unison. Grip is huge and the C63 sits very four-square on the road. Its ground-covering ability is so devastating that it’s up there with Subarishis. The natural balance means that the front will push fractionally wide first and it would be nice to have a little more feel through the steering when it happens, but it’s progressive and easily adjusted. Such is the speed and ability of the car that the huge six-piston callipers clamping the 360mm discs only just seem adequate. I would have liked a bit more confidence and information from the middle pedal when slowing all 1730kg into a corner, too.

By the time we arrive at AMG’s headquarters, the C63 has undoubtedly sealed its place alongside the M3 and RS4. No longer is it the obvious bronze medal of the trio. But has it beaten them? Would I take a three-pointed star over a blue-and-white roundel or four rings? In terms of looks, yes. If I wanted to get from A to B as quickly as possible, yes. If I wanted the most enjoyable car… no, not quite. The paddle-shift still isn’t quite beyond reproach, particularly sitting next to the Bimmer’s fantastically slick manual. And brilliant and impressive though the C63’s chassis is, the malleability of the BMW still shines through and gets the nod.

Oh, and if I wanted to transport 1500 litres of stuff and have coat-hooks on the tailgate? Then yes, I’d have a C63 AMG, because the estate should reach us at the same time as the saloon next summer.

Mercedes-Benz A210 Evolution

Merc dusts off the illustrious 'E' word and sticks it to the fastest A-class

Evocative name, Evolution. Mitsubishi, BMW, Lancia and Mercedes themselves have all used it to denote more focussed performance models. The last time Merc used the Evolution suffix it was on a spicier development of the excellent 190E 2.5-16. So its appearance on the new range-topping A-class raises expectations.

Visually, the A210 Evolution doesn't disappoint. With its AMG bodykit, twin oval tailpipes and 17-inch wheels, it looks sharp, and under its dramatically raked nose is the most powerful engine yet fitted to a production A-class. That said, 140bhp isn't really going to worry many modern hot hatches.

It's not exceptional for a mini-MPV either, now that Vauxhall has launched the 187bhp Zafira GSi. The regular A210 Evo is close on price at ΂£18,990 while this long-wheelbase version, costing ΂£900 more, comes within a couple of hundred quid. It's not the uneven contest it would appear to be, though, because at 1195kg, the Merc is a massive 350 kilos lighter than the Zafira, which lifts its power-to-weight ratio close to the gutsy Vauxhall's. The A210's 2084cc re-work of the A190 engine also produces a healthy 151lb ft of torque, giving it a superior torque-to-weight ratio.

Inside, the standard Evo's seats are trimmed in dark grey leather and Alcantara but our test car had the 'designo' option pack. For ΂£890 you can choose a different colour for the seats (in this case a slightly tarty imperial red), with matching leather covering the instrument shroud, gearlever and wheel rim and edging the 'designo' logo'd floormats. Instruments are white-faced with red needles, and fillets of charcoal-coloured wood veneer adorn the door casings and centre console.

First time you prod the throttle the A210 feels encouragingly lively. The engine revs freely with a typical four-pot growl, though the car we tried also had a distant whine reminiscent of a light- pressure turbo. Peak power arrives at 5500rpm, peak torque at 4000rpm, and the unit does its best work in the mid part of its rev range. Mercedes claims zero to 62mph in just over eight seconds, and it does feel quite sprightly, though not nearly as punchy as the Zafira all-out (Vauxhall claims 7.6sec for the
0-60 sprint).

Sadly, there's not much else to enjoy about the fastest A-class. The stubby gearlever moves with a light but loose action and the clutch feels rubbery, but the real crime is the steering which doesn't seem very responsive right from the moment you first turn the wheel. Even manoeuvring you need to do more arm twirling than expected because it's so low geared, requiring over three and a half turns between lock-stops. The upshot is that on a decent road the A210 always feels slow-witted and rather reluctant to turn. You've got to grab a big handful of lock for even modest corners and although there's a fair amount of grip from those rubber-band tyres (skinny sidewalled 205/40 ZR17 Dunlops) not a lot of feedback gets through to the lightly weighted rim.

Surprisingly, the ride is genuinely supple around town and on A-roads and remains composed until you hit really testing sections of B-road. Here the tallness of the leaning A-class becomes an issue. Over choppy sections there's a mild pogo-ing response, kickback through the wheel rim and, worse, if the front wheels are loaded with power, the steering wheel writhes with torque steer before the ASR traction control gets a chance to intervene.

Mostly, though, it's the slow, light steering of the A210 Evolution that disappoints. Perhaps it's a legacy of the calamitous Elk Test and has been specified to soften even the sharpest input. Whatever, it robs the A210 of the crispness you expect and contributes to a driving experience that, even in MPV terms, lacks any spark of appeal. Evolution is generally taken to describe advancement but it also throws up a few dead ends. The A210 is one of them.

To Beijing, by Bluetec Mercedes (PART 1)

I'm smack dab in the middle of the People's Republic of China. Our adventure starts tomorrow morning, when we'll begin a 370-mile drive from Lanzhou to Wuhai.
I'm smack dab in the middle of the People's Republic of China, in Lanzhou, a city of 3 million people on the banks of the Yellow River in Gansu Province. I arrived here yesterday as a guest of Mercedes-Benz USA to join the fifth and final leg of the E-class Experience, a 25-day, 8500-mile drive in a fleet of diesel-powered E-class sedans from Paris to Beijing. This is both a commemoration of a drive that took place 99 years ago from Beijing to Paris (only three vehicles finished, a minor miracle at that time) and also obviously a promotion exercise for the fuel economy, drivability, and durability of Mercedes-Benz diesel vehicles.

The caravan of 36 Mercedes-Benz E-classes (plus dozens more support vehicles) drove into Lanzhou on schedule yesterday evening, and tonight, the drivers from the fourth leg, who started in Almaty, Kazakhstan, will turn over the keys to the 80 drivers from 21 countries that will see this event through to its finish in Beijing this Friday. The E-class Experience group is made up of not only journalists and Mercedes-Benz personnel but also customers and enthusiasts. I just came from a drivers briefing meeting, where I met an English guy named James who is a Mercedes owner and who was chosen from a pool of some 50,000 customers who applied for a chance to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Our adventure starts tomorrow morning, when we'll begin a 370-mile drive from Lanzhou to Wuhai. But today, we had an opportunity to do some sightseeing in Lanzhou, including climbing the hundreds of steps in White Pagoda Park that wend their way up a hillside overlooking the Yellow River and the city skyline, a dramatic sight that would be even more so if one could actually see anything through the haze of pollution that hangs over this city, trapped by mountain ranges on both sides. One of the American journalists who just finished the fourth leg says that on their entire drive across China, from west to east, was under a big cloud of air pollution, even though most of the territory they drove through was sparsely populated.

Today was also an opportunity to reflect on the massive logistical and financial undertaking that this 2006 Paris-Beijing drive represents. This event was two years in the planning and involved the efforts of well over a hundred full-time employees. The entire route has been pre-run four times by Mercedes personnel, and although the bulk of it lies across the vast countries of Russia, Kazakhstan, and China, arrangements had to be made for the caravan to make eight border crossings through nine countries, all across Europe and Asia. Imagine the diplomacy and the greasing of palms that must have taken! We have our own Aral diesel fuel tanker truck, a medical team, and a helicopter for aerial photography and film footage (and to whisk anyone who's injured to a hospital, but let's hope that service is not needed).

We'll be following extremely detailed route books, but the departing drivers have already told us that the Garmin GPS systems installed in the cars will be our most useful guides. "It's impossible to get lost," we've been assured. We'll see if that's true starting tomorrow on the drive to Wuhai.

To Beijing, by Bluetec Mercedes (PART 2)

Oxygen mask, anyone?

We left Lanzhou, China, this morning and drove 375 miles to Wuhai. We being me, photographer Alex P, and my co-driver, the grande dame of automotive journalism, Denise McCluggage. The road out of Lanzhou is a brand-new freeway that cuts through miles and miles of desolate but beautiful barren hills of loess, the sandy yellow earth that gives the Yellow River its name. Terraces have been painstakingly carved onto many of the hillsides, and most of the hills that were sliced into for the freeway have been buttressed by huge stone retaining walls. Not poured concrete, but intricately detailed stonework. That's what lots of cheap labor can do for a country. Large numbers of Chinese are also kept busy sweeping the freeway shoulders. I kid you not: about every kilometer or so, we'd find an orange-jacketed person at the side of the freeway, idly moving a big straw broom back and forth, barely glancing up as a trio of brightly decaled Mercedes-Benz sedans whooshed by.

All of the freeways we were on today were toll roads, every bit as modern as anything you'd find in America or Europe and with almost all signage in both Chinese characters and English. Oasis stops are just now being finished, and they're both huge and frequent, with clean restrooms and lots of gas pumps under big China Petro canopies. They were all deserted, but one can imagine that in a few years the rising Chinese middle class will fill every oasis with cars. For now, we had vast sections of wide-open, glassy smooth concrete virtually to ourselves, so we hustled along at between 80 and 100 mph much of the time.

Bluetec China

I mentioned Lanzhou's pollution in yesterday's blog. That city's air seemed as fresh and healthful as an oxygen caf?'s compared with Baiyin, an industrial city that produces copper, aluminum, zinc, and lead. We drove by Baiyin on the freeway, but we couldn't really see much of it, so thick was the layer of sulfurous haze that blanketed it. For a couple of miles, we could barely see in front of us on the freeway, and some cars had their hazard lights on. It was like driving through fog. We made the mistake of opening the window and could barely breathe. How people can live there is a sad mystery.

Venture off the toll roads, and things really get interesting. Our flotilla of Mercedes E-classes, not surprisingly, was the center of attention everywhere we went. When you're driving in the Chinese countryside, you're vying with bicyclists, overloaded trucks and wagons, other cars (VWs, Hyundais, Kias, and the occasional Buick), tricycles, three-wheel transport trucks, and pedestrians for road space. The E320 Bluetec's prodigious storehouse of torque made passing easy, but you really have to watch out for oncoming traffic, which is likely to come barreling toward you in your own lane.

Overloaded Truck

As we headed toward the city of Yinchuan in Inner Mongolia, the two-lane roads rose out of irrigated fields lined with tall, willowy trees, making for very pretty scenery that at times reminded us of northern Italy. But as we got closer to Wuhai, our stopover point for this evening, farmland gave way to huge industrial tracts of sooty factories, nuclear plants, and coal mines. Mistakenly relying on our printed guidebook rather than the trusty Garmin GPS unit installed in our test vehicle, we got lost in a Communist-style factory zone with long, straight, broad streets. It seemed depressing at first, but then we found ourselves in the midst of a coal mining village that made the factories look like Disneyland. Everything in this Dickensian village was coated with coal soot, and virtually nothing was growing in the lifeless black earth that lined the roadside.

So, we're in Wuhai for the night, a town that was founded only 30 years ago and whose sole purpose appears to be to extract the riches of coal and minerals that lie beneath the ground here. Tomorrow, we'll see more of this as we head to Hohhot along what our guidebook calls the "coal highway." Oxygen mask, anyone?

Mercedes E320 Bluetec. The cure for the Hybrid Hype.

I'm convinced that if you put ten people behind the wheel of an E320 Bluetec, nine of them won't even notice that they're driving a diesel. It's that smooth and quiet. Oh, and fast.

I'm personally a big fan of diesel-engined passenger cars. As a market, we seem not to care, but modern diesel engines are perfect for American driving practices. They have loads of low-end torque and get great mileage on the open road even with heavy loads.

We've been excited to drive the new Mercedes diesels, because they combine legendary Mercedes refinement with fantastic economy and serious thrust. I'm convinced that if you put ten people behind the wheel of an E320 Bluetec, nine of them won't even notice that they're driving a diesel. It's that smooth and quiet.

Oh, and it's fast. Seriously fast. Full throttle in 2nd gear keeps the traction control working. Standing-start burnouts are as easy as holding the brake with your left foot and dialing in half throttle with your right. Diesel burnouts? YEAH!

Let go of the brake pedal, and the E320 Bluetec's 3.0-liter diesel will catapult it to sixty in 6.6 seconds. That means it'll blow the doors off of last year's E320 with the gas engine!

This year's gas-engined six-cylinder E-Class, the E350, gets to sixty in about the same amount of time, even though its engine is a half liter larger. The big difference is in fuel consumption. Instead of gliding down the highway eating up a gallon of gasoline every 26 miles, the E320 Bluetec sips a gallon of diesel every 37 miles. And unlike hybrids, which do much better on EPA tests than they do in the real world, you can really expect to see that kind of fuel economy on the highway.

So the diesel is just as fast as the gas car, even with a half a liter less displacement, and it gets significantly better fuel economy. Is there a downside? Yes, but fortunately it's small.

Our E320 Bluetec is really slow off the line. From idle to about 2000 rpm, there is practically no throttle response. Strangely, the ML320 CDI that we have in the office now, too, ses a similar engine and doesn't suffer from this problem... it rockets off the line with sports-car alacrity.

We've contacted Mercedes, and they confirmed that there are some subtle differences between the two engines. The ML's diesel is rated with slightly more power and torque (215 hp and 398 lb-ft, respectively, compared with 208 and 388), and doesn't meet the same emissions standards. They weren't, however, able to explain the sluggish throttle response.

We're hoping that it's something affecting only our particular car, because it's literally the only negative in a win-win equation from Mercedes.

To Beijing, by Bluetec Mercedes (PART 3)

When you're driving a brand-new, state-of-the-art Mercedes diesel, everyone is going slower than you.

China is a great place to drive fast, we're discovering. After we left Wuhai this morning, we had about 200 miles of flat, undulating two-lane through sandy scrubland in the foothills of the Gobi Desert. Much of it looks not unlike parts of the American Southwest. Great weather, in the 40s, sunny and dry. We barreled through there just as fast as we could, braking hard for overloaded trucks that are moving so slowly they seem to be standing still, and keeping a sharp eye out for long-horned sheep on the roadsides. Most of the pavement is in pretty decent shape on these two-lanes, although there were some rough patches, and a couple of times, the road abruptly ended, and we had to negotiate a sandy, rocky, rutted path for about half a mile until the pavement started up again.

Coal Hauler

Denise McCluggage, my codriver, is turning 80 in January but is quite literally one of the fastest and most competent drivers in our entire caravan. I am a bit of a speed demon, but I always fear that I'm perhaps going a little too slowly for her tastes. When she's riding shotgun, she'll call out "You can take him" if she sees a passing opportunity that I haven't yet perceived. I think we're pretty good partners, actually. We've both been taking full advantage of the Mercedes E320 Bluetec's performance, accelerating hard, braking hard, and tapping away at the seven-speed automatic's shift lever to get down to fourth or fifth for yet another passing maneuver. And you do pass a lot in China, because no matter what you're driving, there's somebody else in the road who's going a lot slower. And when you're driving a brand-new, state-of-the-art Mercedes diesel, EVERYONE is going slower than you. Or, at least, everyone seems to be going slower than Denise and me, including most of the other members of the Mercedes caravan.

Saw our first mule-drawn carts today. Hey, it beats a pedal cart, and we've seen plenty of those, and they're just as overloaded with scrap cardboard as the mule carts weighed down with huge cabbages and melons. There is an endless array of motor-propelled vehicles on the road, including motorbikes with cargo boxes precariously attached to the rear and all manner of three-wheeled vehicles, with a rigid rear axle and one wobbly tire leading the way in front. Saw lots of people on motorcycles today, who seemed especially appreciative of the Mercedes sedans.

We drove through a number of villages today, and after a while they all blend together. The streets generally are lined by dusty sidewalks lined with single-story, flat-roofed buildings with white tile facades, and these serve as both business and homes. One presumes they were built during the Mao regime. We saw a goat being butchered on a table on a sidewalk in front of one.

Most of today's driving was in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China that is sitting on a wealth of natural resources like iron ore and coal. So, lots more pollution, lots of factories, but lots of signs of progress, too, like brand-new freeways, gas stations everywhere (one with signage saying "Positive Big Petroleum"), and high-tension wires crisscrossing the landscape. Many nuclear silos, too. Yet the socioeconomic contrasts remain stark: as we drove out of Wuhai, the coal capital of Inner Mongolia, we saw a guy on the side of the road picking up the little pieces of coal that had fallen off of the ubiquitous coal transport trucks, stashing them in a plastic bag. Now, that's poverty.

Hohot Hotel

But we've not encountered the remotest indication of resentment toward our privileged status as Westerners zooming through Inner Mongolia in a fleet of Mercedes-Benzes, just curiosity, surprise, grins, thumbs up, and friendly waves. When we drove through one tollbooth, three attendants came to the window, all raising their cell phone cameras to take pictures of our car. Denise brought a stash of Route 66 T-shirts that she has been handing out to tollbooth attendants and tossing up to guys riding in the back of trucks.

Today's drive ended in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, where we were greeted by a traditional troupe of Mongolia dancers at a hot pot restaurant. This bustling city, like all we've seen, labors under a big cloud of pollution, but there's a palpable sense of progress in the fetid air. At dinner, we were toasted by a representative of the Inner Mongolian government, who invited DaimlerChrysler to build more auto plants here (they currently make large industrial trucks here). Our hotel, the Inner Mongolia Hotel, is modern and well-appointed. But the two gas masks next to the minibar are a none-too-subtle reminder that the price China is paying for its industrial progress is in the air.

Tomorrow, it's on to Badaling and the Great Wall of China, before our triumphant drive into Beijing on Friday.

The bestest cop car ever

Ohgodohgodohgod. We haven't wanted to protect and serve this badly since we first saw Police Academy way back in 1984. (Sgt. Debbie Callahan, anyone?)

We love the Mercedes-Benz CLS-class so much it borders on obsession. The cause of our infatuation isn't so much the car's mechanicals--great as they are--but the sexy, sexy, oh-so-damn sexy sheetmetal. (We did name it one of the six most beautiful cars available today in our September 2006 issue, after all.) Drop a hot motor in the thing, though, and forget about it. We're Pep? Le Pew floating around in midair. We're Eric Clapton writing "Layla." We're Kathy Bates in Misery. Obsession.

You can only imagine, then, how berserk we went when we found out this past summer that Brabus, the big-stick Benz tuner from Deutschland, crammed a twin-turbo V-12 between the CLS's front fenders, creating a 730-hp monster that will hit 225 mph. Two hundred. And twenty-five. Miles. Per. Hour.

They called it the Brabus Rocket.

And now it fights for good.

Yes, now its a cop car, created to promote the Tune It Safe! program in Germany. Tune It Safe! was itself created to encourage German tuning enthusiasts to do so responsibly and legally. It's the second such police car built--last year's was a Porsche 911 Carrera S done up by TechArt. Like the Brabus Rocket, the CLS cop car is stopped by 14.8-inch ventilated ceramic discs with twelve piston (!) calipers up front and 14.0-inch ventilated steel discs with six-piston calipers in the rear. The rear-wheel-drive perp wagon will hit 62 mph from a stop in 4.0 seconds, and its ridiculous top speed makes it the world's fastest police car.

It looks like our plan to rob a bank with a Corvette Z06 won't work out after all.

Mercedes CLS Brabus Police Car
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To Beijing, by Bluetec Mercedes (PART 4)

Today was supposed to be a relatively quick drive, but we got stuck in the mother of all traffic jams.
Bluetec Traffic 1

Today was supposed to be a relatively quick drive of about 275 miles from Hohhot up to Badaling and the Great Wall of China, but we got stuck in the mother of all traffic jams. The first 200 miles were all on new tollways, where we made great time. The topography was hilly and mountainous and brown, and the freeway slicing through it all was just as well-maintained and well-groomed as the others we've driven, with lots of new trees planted at the roadsides and in the medians, handsome stone retaining walls, and smooth pavement.

Typical Overloaded Truck

We slalomed between the big, slow-moving coal haulers, which were barely moving on the hills, with 100-mph ease, and if two trucks were side-by-side in the two available lanes, we'd just use the right shoulder: it's perfectly acceptable here! We soon learned that, at the tollbooths, it's also acceptable and expected for passenger cars to zoom to the head of the line and nose in front of the line of coal trucks. Basically, if you have a fast car on these Chinese freeways, you own the road, and nobody raises an eyebrow.

China's Finest

There was a fair police presence, but we quickly realized that the men in blue were mostly concerned with enforcing weight and load limits for trucks, a legitimate issue since overloading of transport vehicles is the absolute norm here. We saw lots of big trucks with goods piled so high, they would never make it under the typical U.S. freeway overpass, and it was a wonder they didn't tip over. And sometimes they do: we saw a huge coal hauler tipped on its side lying sideways across the freeway, with all traffic diverted to the shoulder.

Apple Cart China

At about 1 p.m., we had exited the tollway and were threading our way through a series of towns and villages on a two-lane road, following a local guy in a Nissan Fuga, which is the equivalent of an Infiniti M35. He was making good time dodging around the coal trucks, the three-wheel, single-cylinder utility vehicles, and the bicycles, using every part of the road: our lane, the oncoming lane, the left shoulder, the right shoulder: It's every man for himself out here. But the fun was suddenly cut short when we pulled in behind a line of motionless coal haulers. We were text-messaged and radioed by the Mercedes event organizers that the truck traffic jam went on for miles, and they were working with the local police to get an escort.

Bluetec Traffic 3

So there we were, penned in among sooty, chuffing, chugging, diesel coal trucks, ratty old tractors pulling trailers full of bricks, vendors pushing wheelbarrow apple carts, and in the midst of it all, a line of Mercedes-Benz E-class sedans and G-wagen support vehicles. As you can imagine, it made quite a sight for the locals, who crowded around the Benzes, peering into the cabins and grinning at us hapless Westerners.

Bluetec Traffic 2

After a couple of hours of sitting, moving a few yards, and sitting some more, we were instructed by Mercedes-Benz's local guides to backtrack to a fuel station a couple of kilometers away, where the police eventually arrived and escorted us over a dusty two-track next to a corn field for several kilometers, linking up to a paved road that ran along the base of a mountain and got us back to a scheduled waypoint of the route.

We arrived at the Commune by the Great Wall at about 4:30, a bit too late to get a tour of the wall itself. But this complex of contemporary villas, all designed by noted architects, spreads across a series of hillsides with views of the Great Wall (See Dinner tonight was hosted by Dr. Z himself, DaimlerChrysler head honcho Dieter Zetsche, who was very grateful that our huge caravan of Mercedes-Benz vehicles had made it all the way from Paris to the outskirts of Beijing with nary an accident, just a few clipped-off side mirrors, some flat tires, and a few broken windshields.

Tomorrow morning, our entire fleet of 36 E-classes, including the three American-spec Bluetec sedans, will fall into formation and drive triumphantly by police escort through the city of Beijing, past Tiananmen Square and the walls of the Forbidden City, to Yongding Gate, the final destination of the E-Class Experience Paris-Beijing 2006.

To Beijing, by Bluetec Mercedes (PART 5)

This was a little bit of a movie star moment for us, with dozens of cameras flashing and DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche announcing our car number and our names

We left Badaling and the Great Wall this morning, with all 36 diesel E-class sedans falling into formation behind several Chinese police cars, lights flashing and sirens whooping, for the 50-mile drive into Beijing and the finale of the nine-country, 8500-mile, 25-day E-class Experience Paris-Beijing 2006. The convoy wended along a road at the base of the hills that are crowned by the Great Wall here, but overcast, polluted skies made it difficult to see much of China's most famous attraction. The mood in our car among me, Denise McCluggage, and photographer Alex P was subdued: after driving for 4 days all the way from the city of Lanzhou in central China, we were all a bit tired and just wanted to get to Beijing without incident. I suspect most of the other drivers felt the same way. And I know the Mercedes-Benz organizers who had seen this event from initial concept two years ago to this point had their fingers tightly crossed that nothing untoward would happen in this, the final fifty-mile stretch.

Pictures of the E320 Diesels

The Badaling Expressway was lined with apartment towers as it led us into the capital city, where Chinese citizens weren't exactly crowding the roadsides waving palm branches but definitely took notice of the procession of decorated Mercedes sedans, waving and smiling. The police held back traffic in a few places on the expressway, and in a Volkswagen parked at the side of the road, a woman raised her young son's hand to wave at us as her husband grinned excitedly. Traffic grew heavier as we reached the city center and skirted Tiananmen Square on our way to Yongding Gate, which stands at the southern edge of Beijing. Both Chinese and foreign tourists at Tiananmen and Yongding pointed their cameras at our fleet, as the Mercedes G-wagen video truck wove in and out of traffic to get a better vantage point for shooting. Beijing lacks Shanghai's stunning skyline, but the areas near and around Tiananmen and other squares have the scale and elegance of Washington, D.C.

Great Wall E-Class Style

All of the E-classes were directed into the center of the park adjoining the Yongding Gate, pointing toward a huge white tent that Mercedes had set up for a press conference. And there we cooled our heels for about two hours, taking pictures, milling about the parked cars, and, for the Mercedes organizers, breathing a big sigh of relief that this most ambitious of media events had come off with nary a hitch. Several European and Asian journalists approached Denise for photos and autographs: She received almost as much attention as the statuesque blond German woman who was driving one of the civilian (versus journalist) cars, sponsored by eBay.

eBay Tean won fuel economy prize

The sliding doors at the end of the tent finally opened, the DaimlerChrysler press conference began, and then, one-by-one, each team drove its E-class into the tent and up a ramp. This was a little bit of a movie star moment for us, with dozens of cameras flashing and DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche announcing our car number and our names. I got the sense that it was a fairly big event for the local Beijing media. Then Denise drove our car, #11, the last few hundred yards to the base of Yongding Gate, we assembled for a group photo, and that was it: We had to surrender our keys and walk to a bus that would take us to the Grand Hyatt.

Arriving At Yongding Gate

We'd grown fond of our Bluetec Mercedes E320, which had been about as comfortable, safe, fast, and responsive as anyone could have asked. Of the three Mercedes-Benz USA Bluetec cars, one is being sold to a private collector in Southern California, one is going to the Mercedes-Benz Classic Collection in Irvine, California, and the third will end up with the people at Mercedes-Benz AG in Stuttgart. But first, our very car, #11, is now on its way to Los Angeles, where it will be on display at the L.A. Auto Show in early December. It should still have all the grime and coal dust that Denise and I collected on the road from Lanzhou to Beijing.

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