Merc's AMG returns to its V8 roots after barely a three-year flirtation with supercharged V6 power

Is it a not-so-subtle reminder, or just plain embarrassment? We suspect a little of both. How many other cars define the engine’s configuration on the rev counter? The new C55 does, via a small V8 label.

The C55 signifies a return to AMG’s V8 roots, after barely a three-year flirtation with a supercharged V6. AMG found 8100 homes for the C32, but the AMG engineers seem much happier now that there’s a serious, big-capacity, naturally aspirated 5.4-litre V8 powering the meatiest C-Class. And the badge is there to, well, to ensure the owners don’t forget.

As if they could. It’s not the performance – AMG claims 5.2sec to 62mph for both C55 and C32 – or even the transformation to a deep, wonderfully muscular exhaust note, but the makeover in the dynamics that stands their new sports saloon apart. The C55 marks a small, but perceptible, shift towards a sharper, more sporting focus, that sets it closer to the M3 than any previous AMG hotrod C-Class.

The C55 looks beyond the long-established AMG rules that defined its antecedents, by adding a degree of handling finesse that will surprise enthusiasts who see any AMG 55 model (and there are plenty) as mere exercises in point-and-squirt driving.

In swapping 349bhp V6 for 362bhp V8 (from the CLK 55 AMG) to coincide with the C-Class’s mid-life facelift, the AMG engineers saw an opportunity to maximise the benefits of the chassis modifications planned for the regular C. Most obviously, the steering is seven per cent quicker. Doesn’t sound much, but with just 2.7 turns it’s more accurate and precise, especially around the on-centre position, as well as requiring noticeably smaller wheel movements. Very un-Mercedes- Benz.

The impression of greater agility begins here and is well supported by a 14mm-wider front track, 20 per cent firmer springs and dampers, and subtle revisions to the suspension’s kinematics.

AMG has also rethought it’s philosophy on how the (standard and still five-speed) automatic gearbox functions. A new manual mode – in addition to sport and comfort modes – means just that. No kickdown and, more important, no changing up at the engine cut-out. What a difference this makes to the driver’s feeling of being coupled with the car and being ready for action when the right road opens up to issue the challenge.

As a result, the C55 feels much better sorted than the C32, and the driver more connected. It’s an altogether more satisfying and natural performance car, the handling always flaunts its greater fluency and near neutrality, so the C32’s understeer is a thing of the past.

Exceptional body control helps, as does knowing that the gearbox isn’t about to jump up a ratio just when the car’s leaning hard on the outside rubber through a favourite apex. I’m not saying the C55 is going to knock the M3 from its perch as the performance benchmark – even if you could forget the Beemer’s near eight-grand price advantage – but it’s much closer, and far more rewarding than Audi’s (also V8) S4.

Yes, the ride is firmer, softer suspension bushes not quite compensating for the tauter chassis tuning, but it’s only really sharp ridges that catch out the stiff sidewalls of the new 18in rubber. Predictably, the brakes are massively strong, but the pedal’s too high above the accelerator.

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AMG’s subtle-muscle approach to the styling remains as strong as ever. Good. Only those who know about these things will notice the understated C55, despite four oval exhaust pipes and an extended (by 80mm) nose, flatter grille and clear-lens headlights, the bonnet (plus raised three-pointed star) which comes from the CLK and the delicate extensions to the front wheelarches.

Could be an important breakthrough this, for it’s the first time AMG has altered the sheet metal for one of its models. Buyers get the no-cost choice between the old C32-style double-spoke alloys or the exquisite new five-spoke silver rims of the test car.

Under the bonnet (that now lifts without taking the grille with it) is AMG’s crushing, if ubiquitous, 5.4-litre V8. The sohc, three-valves-per-cylinder V8 is red-lined to 6800rpm, pumps out 295lb ft of torque at just 2000rpm, with a peak 376lb ft at 4000rpm, to bestow the C55 with the effortless energy, almost regardless of speed, that represents everything AMG stands for. It’s near-silent at idle, but the engine’s hard-edged intensity, when worked, is just right for this car.

It also works brilliantly with the adaptive automatic transmission that offers the choice of manual shifting between buttons behind the wheel spokes, or the now-traditional Mercedes console selector, whose action is all the better for being noticeably more heavily spring-loaded.

Inside, the biggest change is a welcome return to proper circular instruments, with white letters on a black background, on all C-Class models. Apparently, customers just didn’t like the old half-moon speedo and tiny rev counter; not sporty enough.

Anyone who knows the new E-Class will recognise many of the new controls and switches. There’s also been a major, but only partially successful, attempt to improve the quality and fit and finish of the interior.

The first of the facelifted C-Class models – Sports-Coupé and estate – arrive in UK showrooms in May. The saloons (including the C55), won’t turn up until July. No conspiracy in the delay. South Africa is the source of all right-hand-drive C-Class saloons and it follows a couple of months after Mercs’ Bremen plant.

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No price details yet for the UK, but based upon the increase in Europe, you can expect the C55 to sell for a hefty £48k, an increase of over three grand. If that’s the price of moving from V6 C32 to V8 C55, you won’t find any arguments here.

Peter Robinson

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