In some ways, this is a car sprung from that familiar, demonstrative AMG mould. In some ways, it seems to miss opportunities to take the gnarly, serrated edge off that well-known AMG driving experience – which does suggest Affalterbach was keen we didn’t think of the E 43 as a soft option. Sure, it's a bit odd to drive a hot E-Class that doesn’t rumble down a dual carriageway like an extra from Days of Thunder, but that doesn’t mean the E 43’s V6 isn’t suited to this application, or isn’t one of the more effusive and characterful motors of its kind.
Unlike in other halfway-house V6 German performance cars of late, the E 43’s engine is vocal at all times: idle, town speeds and on the run. It isn’t as mellifluous as a V8, but it’s sweet and characterful to listen to and speaks clearly of a distinguishing level of grunt ready to be pressed into service.
The E-Class has always made a fairly idiosyncratic basis for a hot saloon and still does. You sit up medium-high in the car for an executive saloon, and you’re surrounded by luxurious materials, expensive finishes and dazzling infotainment tech all dressed for a day at the circuit. It shouldn’t make for such a coherent cabin – and yet it so spectacularly does.
The car’s seats are good, though not quite as comfy as some we’ve found in AMG saloons through the years thanks to a slightly short, oddly-shaped squabs with contours that don't agree perfectly with this tester’s back. Otherwise, though, the E 43’s cabin is an exceptionally agreeable place in which to spend time – not to mention a predictably practical one if you opt for the estate, with its 1820-litre boot.
Surprise number one will come when you sample the car’s fairly coarse, rumbling ride. Surely AMG might have taken the opportunity to better isolate the cabin of one of its bigger saloons here, you’d think – to juggle comfort against control in a way that’s different from its ‘63’ models? Nope. Whether you’re an E 43 or E 63 buyer, you're expected to value the clear sense of connection with the road that an AMG provides. That also means the car thumps insistently over ridges and drain covers.
The E 43 is air-sprung, like its bigger V8 brother, and that fact undoubtedly contributes to the distant hollow roar of its ride. And yet the car’s body control is at once close and progressive, with none of the disconnected wafty feel that air spheres can sometimes produce. It’s flat and nicely hunkered down at all times, and grips hard enough to encourage an enthusiastic turn of speed, steering with nicely matched weight and directness, and showing good basic chassis balance as it corners.
The hooliganism oversteer of a rear-driven AMG isn’t possible – as little as that’s likely to matter to most owners. The car’s four-wheel drive system feels a bit dim and slow-witted if you barrel into a bend with the front axle loaded and then try to turn the car on the throttle. Grip levels aren’t so high here, not the front axle so wide or clever, that the E 43’s outside front tyre can necessarily be relied upon to stick when really subjected to duress. Meanwhile, when grip levels run out, the car’s four-wheel drive system seems to shunt torque around a bit crudely and in large, unhelpful, unpredictable lumps.
But let’s not pretend that shortcoming makes the E 43 any less appealing as a road car. Of bigger impact is the realization that 384lb ft of torque isn’t quite enough to make the E 43 feel effortlessly fast. You’ll need to use full power, and often have to wait until that nine-speed gearbox has kicked down two or even three ratios, to make the car accelerate with true urgency.
The V6 is at its best when zinging between 4000 and 6500rpm anyway, turbo or not, and feels more forceful on song than plenty of rival V6s we can think of. Still, you wouldn’t say this particular Mercedes feels over-engined or holds much power in reserve. Where AMGs are concerned, that takes some getting used to.