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What’s more fun – a fast 4WD or a fast car?

I don’t know how many car magazines there are in the world, but it’s a lot.  Nor do I know how many car clubs there but, but “a lot” certainly would be an understatement.   This is proof cars and driving are fun, but certain types of cars are perhaps more fun than others.   For example, it’s hard to think of a Camry as fun car, unless the fun involves dynamite or a large cliff.  It is, at first glance, also hard to think of a 4WD as a fun car on a fast handling track.  After all, 4WDs are designed for offroading, and what you need for an offroader is diametrically opposed to what you need for a sportscar.  The 4WD must ride high for ground clearance, have high-profile, heavy tyres, long-travel suspension and torquey engines rather than motors focusing on top-end power. 

But that’s a focus on going fast, which is not, absolutely not, the same as having fun.  I used to own a Land Rover  Defender and that was as close to fast as an MX-5 is to a towcar, but there’s no question the Defender required a goodly amount of skill to hustle through bends – you’d really learn weight transfer and conservation of precious, precious momentum.

So it was with this context that I arrived at Mercedes-Benz World in Brooklands, and had the opportunity to drive two of their finest around their handling track, a C63 AMG and an ML350.

Now it is de-rigeur for the motoring press to breathlessly focus on pure numbers.  Power, torque and the like.  I have explained this pointlessness in another post.  Nevertheless, the comparison between the two vehicles is interesting.

The C63 AMG is based on a standard Mercedes C-class roadcar, but has been (insert motoring writer’s cliché of choice – breathed on | fettled | worked over ) by AMG, which is a division of Mercedes devoted to making their cars faster, and sportier – which are not necessarily the same thing. Anyway, the C63 boasts a rorty V8 petrol engine that delivers 336kW of power and 600Nm of torque through a 7-speed gearbox.  It weighs 1730kg, and does the 0-100km/h sprint in 4.5 seconds with s top speed of 250km/h, electronically limited.   The AMG also has different suspension, tyres and various other parts to reflect its greater power and sharper handling.

Now we cross to the the ML350 Bluetec.  This is a standard Mercedes 4WD, and while there are variants which have been (insert cliche) by AMG, the example I drove was standard. The ML has a V6 turbodiesel that offers 190kW, 620Nm and it also has a 7-speed gearbox.  It weighs 2175kg, gets from 0-100 in 7.4 seconds and tops out at 223km/h.  Can’t accuse it of being slow in a straight line, and it’s also no softroader as I can vouch for the fact it has real offroad capability, including low range.  That’s not true of many of its competitor cars.

It’s a bit unfair to expect the C63 to handle the 4WD track, and to be honest that would have been stretching the friendship with Mercedes, so the comparison was carried out on the handling track.  This is so named because it’s tight, short and narrow, unlike a racetrack which is much wider, longer and higher speed.  The handling track is good because it’s much more like driving on public roads than a racetrack, so a reasonable comparison to daily enjoyment

The C63 was up first.  Your impression of any given car is inevitably coloured by what you’re used to, or just been driving and in my case I’d come out of a Lotus Exige which I’d taken around the Spa racetrack for ninety odd laps.  The C63 was always going to feel like a rudderless boat in comparison to less than a tonne of semi-racecar, but in reality the C is, for its size, nimble. The non-driving experience added up; the lovely V8 sound, the feel of a cockpit not a car interior.  Nor did I find the driving experience leave me wanting – the immediacy of the throttle, the directness of the steering and with the stability control set to sports mode it was possible to play with throttle steering just a little, but otherwise neutral to understeer was the order of the day.  But the AMG felt constrained by the track, like a large dog in a small garden, only being able to get up into third gear with a sniff of fourth, and the tight infield was all second gear, patient, patient waiting for the nose to come around before you could accelerate oh so briefly. 

To truly appreciate the C63 you’d need the e-nannies turned off so more use could be made of weight shift and throttle, which would make the slow-speed corners much more fun, but Merc aren’t keen on that idea, quite understandably.  But this is actually a problem these days on test drives of sportscars.  You can’t appreciate the full character of most cars unless you drive them au-naturel, with the electronics not reacting to your every move, or these days, pre-empting it.  Part of the joy of driving sportscars is finding that delicate limit of traction yourself, and the e-nannies are like a real nanny that never lets the kid swing too high, run too fast or bounce too high on the trampoline.  But then you need to look at it from the perspective of the track owner, car manufacturer or whoever else stands to lose from a crash – simple fact is the electronics reduce the chances of an accident, so it makes a lot of sense to keep them on.  Problem is that sensible rarely equals fun.

But anyway.  Over to the ML and immediately you’re sitting not only higher up, but more on top of rather than in the car.  The ML is not a sportscar, so there’s no exhaust note to tingle the hairs and no reclined racecar feel, all more practical and spacious.  After the C63 the acceleration feels less immediate, but it’s still very much a push in the back if not a thump.  Onto the handling and the car tracks beautifully, remarkably free of body roll.  After a while, the instructor tells me the traction control light has been on almost permanently.   The traction control itself isn’t activating, as in controlling wheelspin or limiting throttle, but the electronics are certainly working hard, subtly, constantly correcting the car into line, helping it follow my direction with the steering wheel.   I’m being as smooth as I can, and indeed the instructor compliments me on that point.  If the AMG in –e-mode has limited scope for directional control with using throttle and brake, then the ML is very much of the opinion there’s just one way to drive it.  But the biggest problem in the ML?  Lack of grip…of the seat to my backside.  I left foot brake autos, and in the C63 that wasn’t any problem as the supportive seat held me firm.  In the ML, it was slide time and I don’t mean drifting. 

Timewise I’d run the C63 around the track at under 50 seconds, and the ML of course slower by around 4 seconds (around 9%).  You’d expect the gap to open up on faster tracks.  Still, even in the ML we still caught others driving AMGs. 

But times are irrelevant, what counts is fun and practicality.  First off, point-to-point in real world, public-road conditions the ML isn’t going to be far behind the AMG unless the latter drives dangerously.  In fact, the ML had the huge advantage of better visibility, and all-wheel-drive grip in slower and slipperier conditions.  I know from testing a Lotus Elise against a Range Rover Sport that all the speed in the world doesn’t count for anything on public roads unless you have the visibility to bring it to bear and the traction to deal with the power.

Then there’s the driving fun.  Here the AMG wins, and you may think “of course”, but let’s look at why.  Firstly, there’s the whole feeling of the car.  There’s no question the interior, the sound, the presence of the AMG feels more special, more exciting than the ML.  Then there’s the speed.  While sheer outright speed doesn’t always mean more fun, the AMG’s extra thrust – I was about to write “brutality” but that’d be too strong a verb – contributes to the fun factor.  But the biggest reason the AMG wins is the fun factor of driving.  As a driver, you can do more with the car with wheel, throttle and brake, so there’s more scope to play with the car while at the same time being in an environment that feels special.  With the ML even if you could drive as quickly there’s not the same degree of freedom.  You brake, turn and accelerate all rather blandly, according to patterns constrained and ordained by the electronics, and while that’s a challenge in itself the nexus between different controls and limits is far more artificial and less fun.  Ideally, you’d want an unrestricted AMG which really would be what a driver wants.   But at least the AMG can be entirely let loose, whereas the ML’s electronics can never be entirely disabled.

So there you are, 1500 words to get to a conclusion that you already knew – but now you know why you knew it.

On the skidpan

Mercedes have a giant playpen – sorry, skidpan, composed of three large concentric circles of varying traction.  The middle circle is wetted and designed to simulate an icy surface.   These surfaces are always excellent for demonstrating stability control, the electronic systems that keep a car pointing where you want it.

First up was the C63 AMG and with the stability control on it’s impossible to spin, but the electronics work hard to rein in rear wheel drive and all that power.  With them off  it’s funtime!  Easy to initiate a second-gear drift all the way to full lock and maintain it with throttle, in fact so easy it became a little boring and I wished for some quicker runs or a try on higher-traction surfaces.

Then into the ML with stability control on and immediately the extra grip of the all wheel drive system is apparent.  There’s more control, the electronics aren’t as busy and the car feels much more controlled.   Then it’s off with ESC, which is only a partial disabling.  Try as I might the ML will not swap ends or drift.  Braking, opposite flick then power, opposite turn, brake then jab of throttle…the best I can do is a rather undignified four-wheel slide at full lock.  So, top marks to Mercedes for an excellent all wheel drive system, although I’d like to be able to turn off the electronics entirely for fun and also because sometimes it’s handy to be able to fully control the car.  But for your average driver in averagely slippery conditions the ML is just right.

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