I guess you could say that right off the bat, I like the idea of the Mercedes E43 sedan; a mid-size car with a highly tuned, but downsized engine compared to others in the line-up. It reminds me of great Benz classics like the 190E, whose ultra-high-strung four-cylinder put many other cars with much bigger engines to shame on the race track and elsewhere. Even though Mercedes-AMG had access to plenty of other hardware, they went with the smaller motor. That, of course, had a lot to do with what the regs the various touring car circuits across Europe allowed, but nevertheless, it led to a spectacular car that proved you don’t need eight or six cylinders to have a whip-crack good time. The same could be said of the great C32 and C36 models of the early ’00s which, like the E43 seen here, opted for smaller engines with forced induction, when others in the line-up (such as the SLK 55 or CLK 55) stuck with V8 power.
This isn’t your Granddaddy’s E-Class.
Now, while the current-generation C-Class is somewhat closer to that 190E in size than is the current E-Class, I had it in my mind as I first started out in the 2017 Mercedes-AMG E43 that maybe, just maybe, I’d be able to actually experience that fizz I get when I read about these great ol’ AMG racers, when I study my die-cast collection or see them at the many museums and shows I’ve attended over the years. Sure, the big-V8-powered “63” models are wonderful, but there’s just something about shrinking down to a lighter engine that puts more focus on the performance aspects of a car as opposed to its grand touring aspects, and that’s a win for this particular car enthusiast.
The 3.0L bi-turbo V6 makes almost 400 hp and equal amounts of torque (396 and 384, to be precise), figures that are down on what’s made by the slightly more expensive BMW M550i. They easily eclipse the figures made by that car’s 540i little brother, as well as the Jaguar XF S and 2017 Lexus GS 350. Pricing-wise, however, the E43 kind of occupies a zone of its own, somewhere between the 540i at the lower end, and the M550i at the higher end. The E43’s on a bit of an island in this company.
Which speaks, to a degree, of the E43’s modus operandi in general: while it does get an “AMG” designation, may would say it’s not a “true AMG” in that it doesn’t stick by the “one man, one engine” formula (whereby a single “master engine builder” assembles the engine) espoused by the likes of the C63 or E63. Instead, it gets a standard Mercedes motor with a sprinkling of AMG bits and tuning, including larger turbochargers, re-mapped engine software, standard AMG air suspension and standard AMG Performance 4Matic AWD. It represents a less-expensive way to get some AMG love for your mid-size luxury sedan, with the end-game of attracting more buyers to the Mercedes/AMG brand.
Other aspects of the AMG conversion are easy to spot: new front and rear bumpers, different wheels, subtle body-coloured bootlid spoiler and quad-flow dual chrome-tipped tailpipes. Add the 3D-effect grille, and the E43 manages to get the rather subdued E-Class to let its hair down a bit in the styling department. Inside, suede seat inserts, red stitching, red seat belts (very cool and unexpected, that) and – optional on my car – Nappa leather-wrapped flat-bottomed steering wheel complete the transition to AMG spec.
On top of that, of course, you get Mercedes’ new infotainment system that provides a super-crisp 12.3-inch display screen. You can surf through the various menus via either a scroll wheel or mouse-like controller; after spending a week with the car, however, I actually found myself preferring the scroll wheel as its notched action makes it a little easier to control things on the fly. I’m sure I’d eventually develop a deft enough touch to get the mouse working, but at the outset it was the more traditional scroll wheel for me.
Either way, the display is a fantastic one with uber-clear graphics, smooth animations and just the right amount of buttons without being too cluttered. The screen quality also does wonders for the back-up cam, making it look like you’re looking at a 4K TV whenever you select reverse.
The display screen is accompanied by a digital gauge cluster as standard that offers three gauge alignments, with drivers able to customize each individual alignment if they wish. I preferred the “Sport” setting, which provides an analogue speedo and tach, the latter finished in a yellow-gold colourway; “Progressive” and “Classic” are fine, too, if you want a more futuristic look. It so happens that changing the instrument cluster also changes the infotainment display, providing continuity to the interior.
It’s a slick interface for sure – once you learn how to control it, that is.
You see, because touch surfaces are all the rage these days, the gauge cluster is modified by steering wheel-mounted controls, but they’re not of the traditional button variety. Instead, you have to “swipe” your thumbs on a tiny little touchpad on each spoke to do your tweaks. Of course, my love of the wheel controller for the main unit as opposed to the mouse controller suggested I’d never get the hang of the wheel controls but somehow, I did and actually rather enjoyed it once I got the hang of it. They also make for a less-cluttered steering wheel.
Tech content considered, I took the time to experience the rest of the cabin before setting off, starting with the great seats; deeply bolstered but – at rest, anyway – not so tight to try and jellify your organs, they’re a perfect fit for a performance sedan like this. They can be made to feel even more “perfect” thanks to optional adaptive side bolsters that respond to your steering inputs and how much roll the car encounters. They’re nice to have for spirited drives, but a little clumsy around town to the point I not only reduced their intensity, but shut them off completely. The back seats, of course, don’t feature the active bolsters. They’re nice and roomy, however, making for a comfortable ride and granting you the ability to fold the seatbacks flat without removing the headrests, rendering the already ample (371 L) trunk even more so.
Luckily for me, though, I was not a passenger here; I was the driver, and the driver is well cared for.
Especially when you press the new, much lower-profile starter button mounted to the left of the steering wheel. Doing so leads to a bit of a bark from the tailpipes and while engine turnover isn’t quite as much of a production here as it is in, say, a C63, bystanders will likely get the picture: this isn’t your Granddaddy’s E-Class.
Not. One. Bit.
First of all, the inclusion of AWD and short-ratio nine-speed automatic transmission means that unless you were stepping directly out of an E63 after a spot of manic, I doubt you’ll be left wanting when it comes to the E43’s acceleration.
This is a car the springs forth off the liner with gusto in pretty much all of the five drive modes save for “ECO”. Yes, “Sport” and “Sport +” do feature different engine/transmission mapping than “Comfort”, but regardless, you’ll be holding on to your chunky Nappa-leathered wheel pretty tightly once you mash that go pedal. It’s perfect for any everyday situation where you need brisk acceleration, whether joining a freeway or passing on a two-lane blacktop. The numerous ratios mean that there’s almost always acceleration on-tap once you need it, and in surprisingly linear fashion without an overly anxious hit of power once the turbos come on full boil. It’s all accompanied by such a great growl, too, with a smattering of proper touring-car-like pops and bangs as you let off the throttle.
That happens between gearshifts, too, a nice punctuation to a properly visceral process that begins with a race-car-like shift indicator on the HUD. Big fan of that, as it does a nice job of making you forget you’re driving an executive saloon.
Manufacturers always like to point to the fact that smaller engines are not only more efficient but offer weight savings that should improve handling, especially on turn-in as you get the nose to swivel ’round. Whether or not that’s an actual selling point for the E43, I’m not sure, but it remains a very able handler that makes quick work of even the bendiest roads.
In fact, I would say that it does such a good job here that the chassis feels like it could handle even more power; with adjustable dampers set to Sport +, the AWD system and optional sticky Pirelli PZERO tires make it very hard to get the rear end unsettled on dry pavement. In fact, Sport + is actually a little too focused, even as the road get twistier; I found suspension in “Sport” and powertrain in “Sport +” to be the best of both worlds, leaving “Sport +” dampers for track use.
Even with the slightly more relaxed settings, the E43 jumps from apex to apex with gumption, providing a pleasing amount of turn-in as soon as you twist the wheel, especially when in “Sport” steering (there is no “Sport +” here). In truth, the E43 feels a much smaller car than it is as you really start to push it, and that’s a very good thing. I realized as I was hustling along one of my favourite driving roads that my original thoughts were slowly being confirmed; this is a small engine with a big heart, and a chassis to match. The fizz was real.
Back to those dampers: the “Sport +” issue, unfortunately, is a bit of a microcosm in that it kind of applies to the rest of the E43 experience. In the city, and even with the dampers set to “Comfort”, well, let’s just say the E43 has a little bit of trouble disguising the fact that it’s a performance variant of a luxury car. It remains firm in these situations, even catching me by surprise when bumps around my building I’ve passed over a million times in a million different cars caused the E43 to become unsettled.
Learn to live with that, however, and you’ll be left with a bit of a gem in the performance car landscape. Yes, the “proper” AMG models are popular and likely always will be, but they’re big, they’re loud, they’re brash, and they can be thirsty – all issues that are addressed, to different degrees, by the E43. It’s an enticing mixture of what makes modern AMG models great – power, technology, looks – as well as that small-engine, big performance vibe we talked about before.
|Peak Horsepower||396 hp|
|Peak Torque||384 lb-ft|
|Fuel Economy||13.1/9.3/11.4 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||371 L|
|Model Tested||2017 Mercedes-AMG E43|
|Price as Tested||$92,895|
$10,400 – AMG Driver’s Package (20" wheels, AMG Performance steering wheel, performance tires) $1,600; Premium Package (heated front armrests, rear window sunshade, power closing trunk, keyless entry, Drive-Dynamic front seats, heated rear seats, rear side window sunblinds, Climate Comfort front seats, Burmester audio, sun protection package, enhanced heated front seats) $6,200; Technology Package (adaptive high-beam assist, head-up display, LED lights, 360 degree camera) $2,600