If you’re a Mercedes customer or would-be one, be sure to take advantage of a track day drive session if the offer ever comes your way. There’s simply no finer means of deciding whether you want to go sedan or SUV, Mercedes or AMG. Or EV even. That’s essentially the experience we had recently at Hampton Downs, the invitation to sample the updated AMG A45 S and the new AMG SL 65 as part of a ‘drive the range’ experience.
Upon arrival it was clear that Mercedes NZ had done their darndest to have an example of almost everything there, from A-Class to Maybach. No really, there was a $350k GLS 600 present. Okay, so we didn’t get to drive that but we did climb in the back to check out the best seats in the house, complete with wine cooler, champagne flutes, TV screens, lazy boy-style recliners and a tablet to control seat functions, ambient lighting, sounds and images etc.
But that was just a tasty intro. We were there for wheel work. And we happened to luck into one of three groups that did it all in the correct order, kicking off with the regular Mercedes product on track, followed by AMG examples and then the EVs. The final exercise of the day was so fun, some circlework on the skidpan with the facelifted AMG A 45 S. And finally, a quick spin in the new AMG SL 65, a return of the firm’s much loved convertible, this time with AMG GT bones.
Prior to all that, a quick update on the future of Mercedes motoring. Full electrification is on track for 2030, and net zero emissions from the firm by 2040. Mercedes is already a long way down the road to electrification, kicking off with EQC and quickly followed by EQA and EQS, then EQE and EQB. And there are myriad mild and plug-in hybrids across the regular range.
On a cool sky blue day our first session involved back to back drives of the C 350e, the GLC 300 Coupe, the E 200 and the GLE 400d. While the high-riding models are impressive on road, especially the GLC 300, it’s naturally the sedans that have the upper hand on track, none more than the C 350e, though we liked the E 200 as well. But the extra urge of the PHEV (230kW/550Nm vs 145kW/320Nm) and its ability to run for 100km on e-power alone thanks to its 25.4kWh battery pack make a convincing argument, especially as the two cost roughly the same, give or take.
On track the C 350e felt a bit quicker and we found the same on road (in previous testing). They’re much more fun through the track corners than the SUVs we also sampled. The GLE 400d in particular felt a bit front heavy but then it does have a sizeable diesel under the hood. The GLC 300 Coupe we therefore preferred, more balanced in the corners if not quite as nimble as the sedans. Naturally, the upside is the extra space and practicality of the higher riding vehicles. But if dynamics are important to you, the sedans are better, and use less fuel too, especially the PHEV.
The next drive session involved AMG variants and whaddya know? The best amongst them was an SUV! In the AMG performance corner were the C 43, the GLA 35 and 45 S and the GLC 63 S. The latter was comfortably the loudest and rortiest and the quickest by a smidge in a straight line but around the track the GLA 45 S was more biddable and an outrageous hoot. So it may not be quite as stonking as the GLC 63 but few make four-pots sound better than AMG’s 2.0L turbo mill. And in the corners where you have to set the speed just so for the GLC 63, the GLA 45 runs rampant. You can charge in hard under trail braking to the apex and then get on the gas early while unwinding the lock and it simply laps it up. The GLA 35 is more of the same, only it’s less out there, not that 225kW and 400Nm isn’t sufficient but the 45 is just beautifully excessive for such a compact beastie, its 310kW and 500Nm enough to slingshot it to 100 in 4.3sec.
The sleeper of the group was the C 43, with a similar 2L turbo engine to that of the GLA 45 but with 48V hybrid assistance, giving it 300kW and 500Nm. Aiding in the corners is rear-wheel steering. Not quite as out-there ornery as the GLA 45 but those wanting something quick, stealthy and nimble might fall for the C 43’s quieter virtues.
Following the on-track antics, we were then onto our final rotation which kicked off with a spot of drifting on the skidpan. There’s such an art to this and our expert went to great pains to teach us how to hold it crossed up around a circle of cones in the middle of the complex. Which we managed to do for a single loop, and we didn’t overrotate it once. But that was about as good as it got. Unloading the rear is the easy part – though it does take a fair amount of throttle held for a second or two just to break the rears free – but backing off to 60 per cent throttle while continuing to turn in is a bit counterintuitive when the natural thing to do is unwind lock to oppose the spin. Fun but, in the extreme.
We also got a crack in a trio of EVs. It was fun to revisit the EQA, Mercedes’ smallest and best selling EV. With 140kW and 385Nm this is no slouch on track. It’s dead quiet on the go, and throughout the afternoon had only used 30 per cent of its range despite being pushed hard by all and sundry. That was followed by a quick spin in the EQE 53 4matic, the initial wham-bam lap with a Mercedes driving instructor at the helm. He stopped it up for a race start after exiting pit lane which smacked my head back into the goosedown headrest. Ha ha. Crikey it jets off the mark, like the similar EQS 55 but then with almost 1000Nm available from standstill and 460kW on hand that’s no great surprise. And with weight nice and low and being well balanced end to end it can corner like a champ as well.
Which would be a contrast to the newly arrived eVito front-wheel drive electric van we finished the day driving on track! Not that cornering dynamics for a tall vehicle like this are the primary concern of course. With 85kW and 360Nm of torque on tap its straight line performance is more than acceptable, not always true of electric vans, and a 66kWh battery pack offers a claimed range of around 260km (WLTP). Cargo volume is six cubic metres while its maximum payload is 882kg. Pricing kicks off from $101,487.
And the SL 63? It’s all new, co-developed with the second-gen AMG GT, and features AWD and all-wheel steer. Just a quick acquaintance with this really as it was after 5pm, so out of the race track complex towards Meremere. A quick on-ramp squirt and it was at 120km/h well before joining the expressway. The familiar V8 twin turbo sounds amazing in this and while the new platform is much stiffer than before, the ride quality still seemed pretty acceptable, even in Sports mode after heading off in Comfort. It looks up to speed too, as you’ll no doubt have noticed. Literally too, with a 0-100km/h claim of 3.5sec and top speed of 315km/h. Hopefully, we’ll get some more seat time with this sometime soon.