Reviews

The Nobleman (S63 AMG)

There are luxury cars, then there are German luxury cars, then there is the Mercedes Benz S-Class. It is a monolithic brick of teutonic engineering. The S-Class is a car designed to place your comfort above all else. These days it seems that everyone’s interpretation of a luxury car is to try and beat the BMW M5 at its own game. An admirable goal as the M5 is a staggering feat of engineering, but the answer to every question does not have to be rock hard suspension and Nurburgring lap records. The S63 is luxury in the classic definition. Soft leather, wood inlays, and an effortless drive.

Cars these days are heavier than they’ve ever been. It is not unheard of for a sedan to weigh over two tons. A decade or two ago, that was the weight of a Suburban, but now an Audi S8 weighs nearly the same. Most manufacturers use heavily assisted electronic steering racks to mask this bulk. You can lightly spin the wheel with one finger, completely forgetting the thousands of pounds of steel wrapped around you. That is not the case in the S63. It is heavy. Unabashedly, unashamedly so. Within the first dozen feet you are very aware of the mass at your control. But mass does not mean unwieldy. It feels solid. Stable. Monolithic.

What happens, then, when you give this paragon of old-world luxury over to the frothing lunatics at AMG? It would be easy for them to ruin the formula, but they actually keep it reined in. Well, reined in for AMG. The ride is still compliant, and the stereotypical raucous exhaust has been dialed down. Until you really put your foot in it, the performance capabilities are fairly innocuous.

Oh, sure, you can dial the Active Body Control over to Sport, and shift using the paddles behind the wheel, but that just misses the point. Manual shifting takes an eon to relay your request, and the big girl never feels light on her feet. This is not some lithe and agile track weapon, it is a bruiser of a grand tourer. The sole purpose of all that power to allow you to leave the peasants behind, choking on your aristocratic dust. For remember, you are better than them, because you have an S63 and they don’t.

The S63 was well over $100,000 when new. It may not be the most expensive car I’ve ever driven, but it certainly feels like it. But, more importantly, it looks like it. People have a primeval response to a blacked out S-Class rolling up on the curb. You instantaneously become a person of distinction. Not necessarily one of class, but one of note. Being human, occasionally you have to play up the role.

While the S63 does not encourage quite the flagrant disregard of all restrictions in the manner of a sportbike, there is the subtle suggestion that certain things are beneath you. Not because the rules are flawed, it’s just that you are important, and everyone should cater to your whims.

Surely that speed limit doesn’t apply to you.

You own an S63.

Of course you can park there.

You own an S63.

The front passenger should move out of your way when you’re in the back.

Because fuck them, you own an S63.

That’s right, the rear passenger can move the front passenger’s seat. Because the person being driven is the one with the power. With one little button press, you commandeer their seat controls. If they could have legally allowed the rear passenger to control the driver seat as well, I’m sure they would have. From the luxurious back, you also can control the shade on the rear sunroof (because of course it has two) as well as the shades on both rear side windows and rear windshield.

With some cars, it is difficult to tell where all the money has gone. Within the first hundred yards in this, it is blatantly obvious what you are paying for. The S63 just feels expensive, in the most glorious way. There is something to be said for a car that is worth more than your house, that can easily cruise at double or triple any speed limit in the nation. Whether in the front seat or the back, you feel just that little bit more important than the other plebeians on the road. Because you are. After all, they’re not in an S-Class.


The Heavyweight (Audi S6)

               In my line of work, it's easy to become jaded. The mind will eventually get used to anything, given enough exposure. This applies to everything from noise, to speed, to narcotics. Even the irreverent Dr. Hunter S Thompson got used to his own warped reality, in which the violence and substance abuse eventually became uneventful. I always enjoy my work, but at some point, the novelty wears off, and a job is a job is a job. "Oh, another 500 horsepower sedan? I suppose that will do."

               But every once in a while, something cuts through the fog, and leaves you staggered. A wild haymaker of a punch that swings past your defenses, and sends you reeling. The last car that did this was the Porsche Cayenne, which I've written about in a few different places. Recently, I encountered another one: a 2014 Audi S6. Whereas the Cayenne surprised me by being better than I expected for an SUV, the S6 surprised me by just being an astounding car in general.

               It's not the most visceral car I've ever driven. Or the most powerful. Or the fastest. Or even the most expensive. In almost every quantifiable metric, it is not the best. Certainly a podium finisher, but never taking the gold. But every time I pulled back in from doing a lap of our urban test circuit, I wanted to go out for another run. That in and of itself speaks volumes. There are certain cars where everything just seems right. The S6 is one of these.

               Of course, the one I was in was fully loaded with the Prestige package, and all the bells and whistles. I tend to not spend much time fiddling with all the gadgets and gizmos. How is the seat heater? It heats your seat. How are the massaging seats? Massagey. While these things are fantastic to have, no sane human being is going to have an opinion on one heated seat versus another. But if you do, then you're a robot, and you make me uncomfortable.

               Going off of the cars I tend to enjoy, I really shouldn't enjoy the S6 this much. I like my cars small, nimble, and nervous. The Audi is large, heavy, and reserved. It weighs over two tons, and doesn't have a manual transmission. These two facts alone should steer me away. But the car belies its size. In motion it feels much more poised than it should. Unless you look behind you, you could easily forget how large the car is. The steering is nice and direct, but not twitchy or darty. Compared to the CLS 63 AMG I drove after, the Audi felt much more direct. On center, the steering is a bit soft, but it turns in with confidence. The wheels feel actually connected to the steering wheel, as opposed to the vagueness of the CLS.

               Once you are in motion, the S6 feels much smaller than it is. It's a heavyweight boxer. A mass of muscle and force, but light on its feet. Everything feels solid, and well connected, even in comfort mode. There is no learning curve, or adjustment period with this car. It is gentle, and easy going, with no intimidation at all. You could easily forget about the 4.0 liter twin turbocharged V8 up front. It is effortless to just putter around town in.

               Left in comfort mode, it is the retirement years of that boxer. Still large, still frighteningly powerful, but a bit slow to react, and a bit squishy in the middle. The aggression is still there, but tempered by time and bulk. Stomp the gas pedal to the floor, and the S6 takes a deep breath, squats back on its haunches, and then lets that uppercut fly.

               Once the S6 gets its dander up, it keeps at it without a break. The big beast keeps pulling, and pulling. You sail forwards on a buttery smooth wave of torque. Mmm…torque butter. The V8 up front never seems strained, or stressed. There is just a seamless surge of power. In most cars, there is a point at which you start to lose momentum, as the force of the air pushes you back. This never happens in the Audi heavyweights. As long as you are at quasi-legal speeds, you will never run out of power. There is an utter lack of drama as well. No screaming exhaust or shrieking tires. The Quattro system ensures that the S6 just grips and goes.

               There is a downside to the immense capabilities of this car. Because the S6 performs such feats without distress, it is easy to forget that you are pushing the limits of the laws of nature. There is in fact a limit to how fast a two ton brick can negotiate a bend, and woe be to you when you find what that limit is. This isn't to say that the Audi is dangerous. Far from it, in fact. Just keep in mind that the car weighs more than you think it does, and that you are going much faster than you realize.

               So, is the S6 perfect? Well, not quite. It is difficult to discuss what I dislike, as some of it is just inherent to the purpose of the vehicle. Sure, I generally prefer a bit more induction/exhaust noise, and a manual transmission would be great, but neither of those fit with the design of the car. It’s not designed to be a nimble, visceral sports car. It is built to be a subtle, comfortable touring car. It is designed to cover vast swaths of highway at exceptional speeds, while still remaining comfortable and discreet.

               My one serious complaint is the transmission. Not the lack of a manual, I can live with that for what the car is. Not even the speed of it, as the shifts seem to be much quicker than some of the AMG transmissions I've used. That's the difference between a true dual clutch, and a more traditional automatic. My issue is that even in manual mode, the Audi will shift at redline. I know this is a safety feature, to prevent damage. I know that, and I accept it, but it still frustrates me. If the computers can decide when I shift, it almost makes the whole manual selection pointless. Silly quibble, but there it is.

               My only other critique is the selection knob for the Audi MMI system. The control knob seems to always go the reverse of the direction I feel it should. You scroll the knob counter-clockwise, which feels unnatural every time. I’m sure this is just a quirk that you get used to quickly, just like how everyone hated the BMW i-Drive, but now it is just accepted. Again if these are the complaints I have, I’m certainly scraping the bottom of the barrel for issues to find. “Oh, sure, it will do 0-60 in under four seconds, but I just really don’t like the infotainment selector knob.” How pedantic is that?

               These quibbles are meaningless. For what it is, the S6 is astonishing. It is a car that urges you to carry positively obscene speeds at all times, all the while staying under the literal and figurative radar. If the U.S. Express or Cannonball were to ever rise up again in some fashion, I think the big Audi might be a perfect candidate for high speed trans-continental racing. Monstrous power, discreet styling, immense comfort, and plenty of room for electronic countermeasures.

Save me a spot at the Portafino Inn, wir kommen.

The Brute (Subaru WRX)

Some cars are precision instruments, and require a delicate touch to elicit every iota of performance. The Subaru WRX is not one of these. In a world of scalpels, it is a hatchet. Some cars have you pick a laser precise racing line, delicately feathering the throttle as you tweak your steering angle. Not the WRX. Turn the traction control all the way off, drop a gear, stomp the pedal to the floor, and point it in generally the right direction you'd like to go. Less a sniper rifle, more of a shotgun. It will bounce, and crash, and slide, and hop, but it will never stop. Keep your foot in it, keep your nerves up, and trust the machine.

The sheer unflappability of it causes a distinct change in your driving patterns. You become much less concerned with things like potholes, or snow, or pavement, or traffic laws. "It will be fine," becomes your mantra. You're on an unpaved construction road tight enough that the only thing louder the gravel rattling off the undercarriage is the weeds slapping against your side-view mirrors? Just let the car settle a bit after any major hit, and keep a light touch on the wheel. It's going to squirm on you. Driving a WRX fast in the wild is surprisingly similar to driving a snowmobile: it's never going entirely in a straight line.

Along that line, you will develop a unhealthy appreciation for poor driving conditions. A WRX gets better and better the worse everything else gets. You will pray for everything sports cars hate. You'll crave rain, and snow, and mud, and gravel. When the rest of the city is asleep during a blizzard, you'll be out in a parking lot, practicing your Scandinavian Flick. When everyone is creeping along in the sleet, you're the asshole trying to see if you can keep the car sideways all the way through the intersection. You'll drive down beaten paths in construction yards, just to see where they go.

The trade-off to this is that in perfect driving conditions, you can start to notice some of the shortcomings of the car. Think of it as an AK-47. Its success is directly tied to the sheer abuse it is willing to absorb. The side effect of that is a certain ham-fistedness. The steering is a bit vague on-center, the clutch is a bit heavy, the shifter is a bit rough, and the car bounces a bit. While in a second gear slide through a foot of snow, as you steer by looking out the side windows, none of that matters, and in all reality, is probably helping. But when you're commuting to work, that slop raises its head.

But at the end of the day, none of that matters.  To put it in real world terms, I drove OVER a dead deer at 70 miles per hour, and all that happened was a crack in the front lip of the bumper. Zero mechanical issues. Zero damage to the skid plate. It felt like a hit a small speedbump. It did that, drove across the city in a foot of standing snow, slaloming stranded cars on the interstate, carried a shocking level of speed down unpaved country roads, and much more. All with never missing a beat, while still being able to run with a 5.0 liter Mustang, or haul hundreds of pounds of equipment from the hardware store. You want delicacy? Go buy a Miata. You want speed, utility, durability, and a Nirvana level of "not caring"? Buy the WRX.