Currently reading: Mercedes-AMG C63 versus BMW M3 and Vauxhall VXR8 GTS
Even with 503bhp, the new Mercedes-AMG C63 S isn’t the most powerful super-saloon you can buy for £60k. Is it the best, though?

The term ‘performance car’ should be banned from all good car websites. It is loathsome, ambiguous tosh whose biggest offence is to lead us to deny the richness and variety that exists in a widening market for driver’s cars.

By lumping together everything designed and engineered to go fast, the term encourages the people who make, judge and own these cars to think in common terms about models as different as 600bhp grand tourers, 200bhp hot hatchbacks, four-wheel-drive sledgehammer estates and £200,000 super-sports cars. And it does so when the key to making those cars great actually lies in understanding those differences.

Let’s take the super-saloon as an example, given that we’re about to devote our attention to three prime examples of the breed. With super-saloons, power and pace are important. Not all-important, granted, but they matter. A lot.

In sports cars, as with hot hatches, fast coupés and elsewhere, seldom will the fastest and most powerful car in the competitor set also be our class champion. With super-saloons, however, there’s a decent chance that it will.

The legendary fast four-doors you’d put in an all-time top five spring to mind in no small part because of their engines: E60 BMW M5, Lotus Carlton and Mercedes-Benz 300E AMG ‘Hammer’.

All were crushingly effective motorway cars. And needless to say, if you’re buying a super-saloon now, you’ll probably want it with enough grunt to seize total command of the fast lane.

Mercedes-AMG has always understood that, and by bringing its new C63 S saloon to the market with no less than 503bhp, it has provided a fine head start for the car. But the new AMG C-Class won’t enjoy the numerical top-dog status its maker believes it deserves, due to competition from an exotic Antipodean thunder-domer imported to our shores via the decidedly unexotic location of Luton.

So as well as measuring up against the 425bhp BMW M3 – the cheek-by-jowl rival without which it would be impossible to conduct this test – the C63 S will also have to out-drag the 577bhp Vauxhall VXR8 GTS, a car that appears to offer 15% more grunt than the AMG for 20% less outlay.

The VXR8’s disadvantage is the most surprising thing. It’s half a second off the pace by 60mph, a second behind by 100mph and more than twice as far adrift by 150mph. Traction-related launch problems you could forgive, but the Vauxhall never seems to make its power tell, even at higher speeds. The conclusion is that, perhaps only in our test car’s case, the 6.2-litre V8 isn’t making the power it’s supposed to – although we’d have needed a dyno test to prove it.

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So the C63 S asserts itself – on the dragstrip, in the outside lane, wherever you happen to stretch its legs. And besides having an advantage over its rivals in objective terms, its engine also levels up with the VXR8’s inimitable Chevy V8 on the intangibles of theatricality and soul. It just won’t be upstaged. It answers the BMW’s range and response with not just greater perceptible propulsive force but also a more authentic charisma whose soundtrack needs no digital augmentation through the stereo.

And what of the rest of this contest? Super-saloons are a great deal more than just engines on wheels, and the C63 doesn’t boss this comparison in every department. But it does more than enough where it really counts to lead us towards a conclusion as inexorable as its dominance on the dragstrip.

The beauty of a saloon is its usability, and the most practical car here is, no surprise, the biggest. The VXR8 has back seats big enough for even the likes of me, while I’m ever so slightly restricted in the back of the other two. But the VXR8 doesn’t offer the same advantage on boot space; both the M3 and the C63 are close enough to it to make the Aussie’s victory in this area a negligible one.

It’s certainly negligible enough that, given the superiority of the German saloons’ driving environments on material quality, you’d struggle to justify the Antipodean in hard-headed terms. The VXR8’s interior is like a discount-store tracksuit and trainers compared with the BMW’s smart, restrained premium-brand fittings and the AMG’s more lavish designer label luxury. The C63’s is the cabin of choice by a distance. Add to that its sizeable lead over the Vauxhall on desirability and a modest one over the BMW on the same front and you have to conclude that the C63 is the car with which you’d want to live.

On ride and handling, the BMW comes into its own. You’d expect it to, but perhaps not quite to define its accomplishment exactly as it does. The M3 has a dynamic repertoire of astonishing breadth. It rides gently in Comfort mode, only to transform into the grippiest and most direct car here when you delve deep into its handling abilities. It’s a natural athlete that conducts itself every bit as keenly as its flared arches and huge, dished alloys hint that it will.

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But what it forgets, somewhere along the way, is to flatter and engage you, or to make everyday, normal-speed motoring as flavoursome and exciting as the C63 does. Where the M3’s steering wheel is weighty but muted, the C63’s is tactile and encouraging. The AMG will respond with a languid shake of its hips, a flare of revs, a flurry of wheelspin and benign, playful, low-speed slide when the moment presents, while the BMW is more straight-laced.

The M3 knows how to lay down rubber – but mostly at high speeds and bigger angles and commitment levels than many would be willing to risk. And when the M3 does go sideways, it’s a bit like someone has replaced those 275-section rear tyres with spacesavers and then covered the car’s steering rack in bubblegum. You need to be very quick on the steering to keep the car exactly where you want it and then be lucky in order to keep the car stable as it straightens up. The steering certainly isn’t positive or feelsome enough to tell you when its front wheels are running true again.

The verdict

In the final reckoning, it’s the VXR8 that props up the order. It has to, given its spectacular underachievement against the clock. But it’s a shortcoming you may care little about – and I’d wager you’ll care even less after a drive in the car, which reveals itself in pretty short order to be a wonderful seven-and-a-half-tenths cruiser.

You mete out the GTS’s speed in glorious fractions of an inch on its long-travel accelerator pedal, listening intently to the way that behemoth V8 is expressing itself, marvelling that a 500bhp saloon can still feel so honest and armchair-like, even in 2015. Drive it too hard and you’ll be disappointed by several things: its lack of first-order pace, the lightness of its steering under load, the softness of its directional responses and the way in which harsher surfaces trouble the structural integrity of its body and cabin. So you ease off to a speed at which you can savour that throwback muscle-car character. “Balls out,” as our cork-hatted cousins would declare, “you’ll have a ripper, mate.”

But you won’t be impressed nearly as much as by the M3, nor as excited as by the C63 S. Both are excellent driver’s cars – and it’s a struggle to recommend one above the other. The BMW undoubtedly handles more keenly, rides more sweetly and makes better use of the combustive firepower at its disposal.But the C63 is more spectacularly endowed, has much greater charm and richness, greater communicative facets and better high-speed stability. And it makes every mile more memorable than in the BMW.

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That’s what most of us want from a super-saloon, I reckon.

Read Autocar's previous comparison - Honda Civic Type R versus Renault Megane RS 275 Trophy and VW Golf R

Mercedes-AMG C63 S

Price £66,550; 0-62mph 4.0sec; Top speed 155mph (limited); Economy 34.5mpg; CO2 192g/km; Kerb weight 1730kg; Engine V8, 3982cc, twin-turbo, petrol; Power 503bhp at 5500-6250rpm; Torque 516b ft at 1750-4500rpm; Gearbox 7-speed automatic

BMW M3 M DCT

Price £59,090; 0-62mph 4.1sec; Top speed 155mph (limited); Economy 34.0mpg; CO2 194g/km; Kerb weight 1635kg; Engine 6 cyls in line, 2979cc, twin-turbo, petrol; Power 425bhp at 5500-7300rpm; Torque 406b ft at 1850-5500rpm; Gearbox 7-speed dual-clutch automatic

Vauxhall VXR8 GTS

Price £54,509; 0-62mph 4.2sec; Top speed 155mph (limited); Economy 18.5mpg; CO2 363g/km; Kerb weight 1834kg; Engine V8, 6162cc, supercharged, petrol; Power 577bhp at 6150rpm; Torque 546b ft at 3850rpm; Gearbox 6-speed manual

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gigglebug 14 July 2015

J13Dog

"Drivers car" is a label for anything offering higher than normal levels of driver involvement be it through the sensation of feedback, noise, road holding etc and it always has been. These aren't traits that are exclusive to track use and some cars do it better than others including a few BMW's. Only a pedantic prick or a bit of an idiot would pull up the statement pointing out that all cars are driven so therefore all must be "drivers cars" I'm not sure what the point is your trying to make or why your even bothering to make it but your failing miserably so it would probably be best if you just gave up don't you think? Or is not thinking the problem in the first place??
J13Dog 12 July 2015

Correct Verdict

The term ‘driver’s car’ should be banned from all good car websites. It is loathsome, ambiguous tosh whose biggest offence is to lead us to deny the richness and variety that exists in a widening market for cars.
All cars are made to be driven. Stop trying to be so clever.
The Mercedes wins it's better at all things all of the time.
Peter Cavellini 13 July 2015

Contradiction...?!

J13Dog wrote:

The term ‘driver’s car’ should be banned from all good car websites. It is loathsome, ambiguous tosh whose biggest offence is to lead us to deny the richness and variety that exists in a widening market for cars.
All cars are made to be driven. Stop trying to be so clever.
The Mercedes wins it's better at all things all of the time.

So., by that statement all other cars are rubbish then?,not exactly what you said in the first place.

J13Dog 13 July 2015

Again Peter

You miss the point...ALL cars are made to be driven. Car journos use the term drivers car to describe a car that they enjoy driving a certain way, usually on a track, I copied and pasted the comment from the piece replacing the word performance to illustrate how easy it was to make the same point. Any way to say a BMW makes a better drivers car than any other car is just rubbish but it has been written so many times. Thanx for your support tho.
Beastie_Boy 12 July 2015

Cayman for me please...

And a snotty old berlingo for family duties...