Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whateverThe Autance writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2019 Mercedes-AMG E53 Coupe.
The 2019 Mercedes-AMG E53 Coupe, By the Numbers:
- Base Price (Price as Tested): $73,700 ($92,560)
- Powertrain: 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six with electric torque fill, 429 horsepower, 384 pound-feet of torque (gas engine), 21 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque (electric motor); nine-speed automatic; all-wheel-drive
- 0-60 MPH: 4.1 seconds (Car and Driver testing)
- EPA Fuel Economy: 21 city, 29 highway
- Quick Take: Quick and comfortable, the E53 isn't the sort of AMG most of us have become used to—but once you come to grips with that, there's plenty to like here.
Once upon a time—and not all that long ago, to be honest—the letters "AMG" represented pretty much the same thing, no matter what Mercedes-Benz they were slapped on: hand-built engines, brassy exhaust notes, and performance that could stun many sports cars costing as much or more. A few years back, though, Mercedes started rolling out what your humble author once described as the "half-caf" variants. Perhaps it was because the full-blown AMG models—by that point, almost all operating under the -63 suffix, regardless of actual engine size—had become so capable, there was easily room for less-extreme models below them; perhaps it was simply that Daimler saw the opportunity to squeeze more cash from the now-famous three-letter nameplate. More likely, it was a little of both.
Until last year, those peppy, less-premium AMGs almost exclusively wore the -43 badge, signifying, in Mercedes's no-longer-logical nomenclature system, the presence of a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 making just shy of 400 horsepower. But Mercedes is slowly but surely cycling its V6s out of commission, in favor of a new inline-six that hearkens back to engines of yore—but outfitted with the latest and greatest engine technology Germany has to offer, including a conventional turbocharger, an electric auxiliary compressor, and a starter/alternator electric motor that, in conjunction with the new 48-volt electrical system, delivers mild hybrid capabilities, helping to fill in and smooth out the boosted engine's torque curve while also offering seamless start-stop and engine-off coasting capability.
While this AMG-tweaked powertrain seems sure to eventually make its way into everything between the A-Class and the S-Class, its inaugural presentation, for the United States, comes in the form of the new CLS-Class and the AMG E53. The latter example in the Mercedes-Benz USA media fleet, it turned out, happened to be outfitted with snow tires first—so it was the first of the new AMG Lites to land in our garage earlier this winter.
AMG's E53 Coupe Brings the Swoop
The E53 coupe looks elegant, clean, and stylish, as you'd expect from a two-door hardtop Benz. But it's not quite as aggressive as you’d expect an AMG to be. The usual design traits are there, but they're rather subtle—the bulges on the hood, the wheel flares are less obvious than on an E63. Combined with the coupe’s inherent sleekness and vaguely feminine proportions—it’s soft, not sharp, as though it hasn’t burned off all its baby fat—it looks way less aggro than anything wearing that three-letter badge on its ass.
Likewise, the occasional detail of the design...well, disappoints is perhaps too strong a word, but you can't help that the designers might have been scratching their heads trying to walk a careful line between AMG ferocity and Benz simplicity. The headlights can seem a little small from some angles, especially compared to the mighty black air intakes (real and fake) that dominate the grille. But compared to the tiny-eyed look of, say, Aston Martin's new mid-engined supercars, it's a minor issue.
Still, the overall proportions are great, especially in the silver-with-black-accents setup on my test car. (The latter is thanks in part to the AMG Night Package, well worth the $650 for the black chrome tailpipes alone.) Unlike some Mercedes products past and present, it looks every bit like the sort of car you'd expect to see that famous logo on the nose of. That long, flowing roofline looks like a throwback to the age of Art Deco streamliner trains—sleek, timeless bullets that looked like they were pushing the sound barrier even when standing still. And the B-pillar-free look is delightful; it's easy to confuse it with the S-Class coupe at a glance, a fact that's sure to please everyone who opted for the E and irritate anyone who spent $50,000-$140,000 more for the two-door hardtop S.
Of course, if you want an E-Class coupe with an AMG powerplant, the E53 is the only choice. Unlike the S-Class and C-Class (and the GLE-Class, and the GLC-Class), Mercedes doesn't make an E-Class coupe with the 4.0-liter twin-turbo AMG engine that's the biggest part of making an E a 63. (Here's hoping that changes once BMW finally drops the new M8 and gives a hypothetical E63 Coupe a direct competitor.)
It's a Mercedes—Of Course the Interior Is Nice
Whatever the numbers after the letter "E" may be, you can assume that the interior of an E-Class is going to be both gorgeous and comfortable. My test car came outfitted with Oreo cookie-color-combo upholstery, accents of creamy white Nappa leather sandwiched between dark-chocolate-black cowskin everywhere else; unlike the dull black-on-black that seems all too common in German luxury cars or the E53's optional "Designo Macchiato Beige/Titian Red Nappa leather" interior that comes straight from the Midlife Crisis Trying Too Hard Collection, it strikes a nice balance, adding some much-appreciated pizzaz without being gauche.
Go crazy with the options list, as whomever configured my tester dud, and the interior winds up rivaling an S-Class that costs 50 percent more. We're talking features like rapid-heating seats and trim panels (in the spots where your arms would rest, duh), ventilation, voice-activated massage, color-shifting LED mood lighting, a 23-speaker Burmester stereo, and of course, giant, mode-shifting 12.3-inch screens for the dashboard gauges and infotainment system. (It's also part of the reason why my E53 had an out-the-door price roughly $20,000 higher than the base MSRP.)
The biggest difference between this or an S-Class (or an E-Class sedan, for that matter) lies to the rear of your back, where the rear seats lie. They're big enough for accidental adult use at best, especially if one or both of the thrones up front happen to be hosting anyone over six feet tall. And the two-door layout means you won’t be wanting to use those aft chairs often, even if there’s room back there for honest-to-God humans.
But the front seats do shift forward with ease to throw or grab bags and other incidentals from the back, and those seats look great. This four-seat coupe is really a two-seater with a little extra room for whatever life throws at you. And considering the E-Class Coupe only has 10 cubic feet of cargo space in the trunk—less than a Corvette—you'll probably wind up making use of those plush parcel shelves more than you might think.
As for those big, crystal-clear screens spread across the driver's field of view, they do an excellent job displaying all sorts of information—often times, in varying fashion, including multiple gauge cluster designs that each in turn offer reprogrammable secondary elements outside the speedometer and tach. Acting upon said info, however, can be a mite tricky; the system has a plethora of options to play with, some of which work better than others. The handwriting tool—accesiible by dragging a fingertip across the black projection above the Comand system's click wheel—works acceptably well, but odds are good that you'll never use it anyway; it's there to input addresses and such into the navigation system, whose user interface is a drag to deal with. (Most people, presumably, will just use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto for their nav duties and ignore that chunk of Comand altogether.
Likewise, with so many menus and functions to fiddle with and so few hard buttons to do so, some basic tasks wind up being harder to execute than they ought to be. Finding, setting, and flipping between the radio presets, a task that ought to be among the simplest in a car, takes an irritating amount of fumbling through menus with either the control knob or the steering wheel's combination of hard switches and touch-sensitive nips mounted at 9 and 3. Still, you'll likely come to grips with the eccentricities well before you ever grow sick of the elegant interior, so it's hard not to call it a win in the end.
Mercedes-AMG E53 Feels Half Benz, Half AMG On the Road
If you’re expecting the hooligan AMGs of past and present, the E53 will be a letdown. The inline-six is potent, sure; launch control it down a quiet straightaway, and it feels like a high four-second 0-60 car, which is plenty quick for a coupe of this size and mission. But that new motor lacks the explosive nature of the company’s one-man-one-engine V8s. Smoothness is the watchword here, a relentless pull of power that calls to mind the company’s 12-cylinder motors, albeit without their monumental thrust. As on the CLS450, the combo of the well-tuned twin-turbo inline-six and the torque-filling 48-volt hybrid system produces power delivery like a great unstressed V8, the sort of thumping powerplant found beneath Cadillacs and Lincolns back when presidents and ad executive still drove around in them.
But the mild hybrid system that helps produce that classic flow of power also provides noticeable fuel economy benefits, especially if you make the most of the different drive modes. Slide the car to Eco, and it’ll slur from gear to gear as early as possible, making the most of the electric motor and turbo torque; it also urges the engine to “sail” when you lift your foot off the throttle, killing the engine as the car coasts and prompting a sailboat icon to appear in place of the gear on the IP, as well as prompting Christopher Cross to play in your brain. Honestly, the four drive modes are almost two too many; Sport and Comfort modes could be axed and most people woudn’t even notice. The transmission and throttle mapping are smart enough to know not to hold gears too high in S+, but the car doesn’t place oh-shit-go-go-gooooooo acceleration too far from your foot in Eco. I saw nearly 23 miles per gallon over a couple hundred miles of mixed driving that included plenty of hard-charging backroad driving and stop-and-go city commuting. On the highway, I wouldn’t be shocked to see it turn in 30 mpg.
When you're not loafing down the road, though, it's worth throwing the quick-shifting nine-speed automatic into manual mode at least once, to see how quickly it can fire off gearchanges when desired. And you'll be doing plenty of that: The tightly-spaced cogs mean you can bop between third and sixth at will in a range where most cars would just have you bop between third and fourth. Even enthusiasts will likely shuffle it back to auto-shifting mode before long, letting it make up its own mind and letting the driver focus on the rest of the drive.
The suspension and steering, while tuned by the company's performance division for your pleasure, still feel more like a regular Benz than a true AMG. The electromechanical rack does a fine job, even offering a luttle feedback, but the three-mode dampers always seem more compliant than that of a -63. That said, it does make for the sort of pleasant drive most people would expect from a Merc, something that can be lacking in the sharper AMG models. (The ride is so smooth, I actually checked to see if the winter tires on my test car were generously-sidewalled 18-inchers. They were actually 19s.)
AMG seems to have expected people to make that complaint, however, so it offers a cheat that tries its best to spice things up. Dial the drive mode switch up to Sport Plus and tap the slidey-car switch once to knock the stability and traction control to ESP Sport, and the E53 does its damndest to go buck-wild. The inline-six swings towards its indicated 6,100-rpm horsepower peak more frequently. The shifts become artificially harsh; it feels like they added extra “whoa!” into each change in order to make it feel sportier, like the way Lamborghini's 'box does. The sport-tuned 4Matic+ all-wheel-drive starts pushing noticeably more power to the back end, and the safety systems relax, giving the car a tail-happy feel reminiscent of a muscle car. The suspension remains too soft to allow the coupe to do an impression of a real sports car, even at its firmest—there’s always noticeable body roll—but the heart of a hoon is there, that desire to slide around and rip up the road. It may not be a world-class athlete, but damn it, like Rudy, it’s got the heart to play.
Rather than as a disappointing AMG, perhaps the best way to think of the E53 is as an excellent jack of all trades. It may not be the master of any one task, but with one foot in the performance-car world and the other in the conventional luxury-car realm, it strikes a balance that serves up both an entertaining drive in real-world conditions and all the comfort you'd expect from a Mercedes-Benz. It may not be the car you salivate over when you flip through Instagram or a car magazine, perhaps—but spend a little time with it, and you just might find it's the better fit for your life.