If Mercedes-AMG’s new E53 is anything to go by, Stuttgart wants to loosen BMW’s hold on the high-performance straight six.
It’s unsheathed an all-new 3.0-litre straight six engine that will power a good chunk of AMG 43 and 53 models going forward. We drove a detuned version recently, albeit in the CLS450, and were impressed.
Yet it didn’t howl as we had hoped. Admittedly, it didn’t need to, as the CLS didn’t have an AMG badge. But this new E53 does. It's the hottest coupe in the updated E-Class range, while in sedan form it replaces the E43 as a stepping stone to the full-blown E63.
It is AMG’s first inline six since the C36 ceased and took on a V arrangement in 1999. It also comes with a hybrid system, another new frontier for AMG's late product. Yep, you read right, a 48-volt electric motor sits around this engine's output shaft in the bell housing. AMG calls it EQ Boost.
While BMW loves straight sixes for their turbine-like thrust, the M256 engine at the core of the E53’s powertrain was developed for efficiency. It lacks any belt driven ancillaries. It has less top-end components to crank over than a V6 and it even has a particulate filter, like diesel engines.
The AMG version of the engine has a higher redline and scores an electric supercharger. It makes 320kW/520Nm, but its outright figures depend on where you are in the rev range.
The electric motor can contribute 16kW/250Nm and bulks outright torque to 770Nm from 1800rpm. But because its assistance ends at 2500rpm, the extra 16kW doesn't contribute to peak power, which is delivered at 6100rpm.
The supercharger fattens low-end urge in a different way. It sucks charged air from the turbo then blows it into the inlet tract to aid spool. Its assist lasts only 500rpm longer than the EQ boost, to 3000rpm, but it's effective. Acceleration is strong, almost Tesla-like, and tests the limits of the car’s rear-wheel grip when you stomp the throttle from standstill.
Soon enough, though, power is redistributed to the front tyres via all-wheel drive. The E 53 hooks up, charging forward with urgency all the way to its 6500rpm redline. That might seem low for the short-stroke engine, but there’s a nice gravelly howl, even if some of the noise comes from the speakers, punctuated by deep burps on upshifts (or explosive pops on overrun) that characterise each climb to its summit.
Its nine-speed automatic shifts it along with crisp and quick gear changes. Mercedes-Benz claims 0-100km/h falls in 4.4 seconds, though that may be generous as the hybrid system adds mass – the E53 coupe tips the scales at 1895kg. The equivalent sedan is 80kg heavier than before.
At cruising speeds the automatic hunts for higher gears to curb thirst, even in Sport mode, and use the generous torque on offer. But what most cements its GT credentials is the beautiful ride. The AMG tuned air suspension keeps the E53’s mass in check and absorbs impacts with finesse so its 20-inch wheels rarely crash, even when it ramps up the spring rate in its Sports and Sports Plus.
The E53 isn't the watered down E63 you might have hoped for on a winding road, though. Its brakes bite softly and the front-end is fairly mute. Mid-corner speed is lower than you'd expect from 245mm/275mm rubber and when you try to drive out under power its stability system shuts things down earlier than expected.
If you’re looking for a well-optioned E-Class coupe with a bit of poke, then the AMG 53 makes a good case for itself within the range. It’s expectedly sumptuous, spacious (up front), and well appointed inside. A gorgeous S-Class inspired steering wheel arrives is new, while the huge digital screen behind it is undeniably effective in displaying information. The pillar-less glasshouses also add an extra sense of occasion.
At $172K, it easily justifies the $23,500 extra over an E450 coupe almost on equipment alone. BMW, too, will be challenged to produce an 8-Series that can hit 100km/h from rest in under 4.4 seconds for that money. Audi have the RS5, but that’s comparing apples to oranges.
The biggest challenge the E53 faces is an expectation of what an AMG product should deliver. It’s not the missing link between the regular range and the crazy E63 we love as it’s too inert on winding roads.
But if the aim is to inject some aggro into the E-Class without spoiling its GT qualities then the E53 Coupe does well. We love its 'shrunken S-class' looks at the rear end and the cosseting ride. Its hybrid operation, too, is unnoticeable, which is sorta the point. To lose these qualities to solve its other flaws would be a heavy trade.
More importantly, it’s proven AMG makes a great-sounding six with its cylinders in a row. Your move, BMW.
Tested and rated on MOTOR review
2019 MERCEDES-AMG E53 4MATIC+ SPECS
Engine: 2999cc inline-6, DOHC, 24v, turbo, s/c, e-motor
Power: 320kW @ 6100rpm
Torque: 520Nm @ 1800-4800rpm (770Nm 1800-2500rpm with electric motor)
0-100km/h: 4.4sec (claimed)