Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2019 Mercedes-AMG E53 Coupe and Cabriolet

The sign says, in three-foot-high letters, “The Attorney That Rocks”. Keep Austin weird indeed. In case any of you need a lawyer who looks like Magus Walker had a baby with Sammy Hagar, I wrote down the number, but it’s more the spirit of this roadside advertisement I’d like to explore: what might an attorney who rocks like to drive? Something spicier than your average Mercedes, but not so spicy as to annoy the jury. If your honour has no objections, I’d like to enter this E53 Coupe as Exhibit A, which is currently playing I Can’t Drive 55 on its stereo.

Like an executive office just lit off a pair of afterburners.

[Judge: “I’ll allow it.”]

It’s tempting to think that the inline-six engine is primarily a BMW characteristic. Certainly the Bavarians have had a lock on the straight-six as a defining characteristic for years, but Mercedes-Benz has been making six-cylinder engines with an inline layout since the earliest part of the 20th century.

The company stopped in the mid-1990s, bringing in V6s instead. The move back to inline-sixes comes for multiple reasons: inline engines have fewer components than those with a V-layout (a single manifold, for instance), packaging allows for catalytic converters to be more closely coupled, and the naturally balance of an I6 is smoother than either a V6 or a V8. There’s a reason why most really high-end manufacturers use a V12, as they’re perfectly smooth; an inline-six is much the same, as it’s simply half a bank from a V12.

The Mercedes-AMG E53 coupe and cabriolet replace the E43 in the Canadian market, although you’ll still see the 43 designation on the C-Class and so forth. There likely won’t be an E63 coupe anytime soon, so the E53 coupe and cabriolet will be the quickest of their kind for the foreseeable future.

Both are sharp-looking machines. Being AMG variants, both coupe and cabriolet are a little more aggressive than the E400 models, but still manage to retain some elegance. There’s a bit of additional carbon-fibre exterior trim, if you must, but things are otherwise dialled back. The AMG E53 has extra badging, unique side-skirts, quad exhaust tips and a diffuser-look treatment out back, the same grille as the E63, and, of course, AMG-styled wheels, here in a 20-inch sizing (19-inch is standard).

There are those (me) who will point out that repositioning AMG as a Mercedes sub-brand has eroded the meaning of the three-letter badge somewhat. Sure, there were always “AMG-flavoured” vehicles throughout Mercedes history, but the E53 coupe and cabriolet are brought under the full AMG banner, despite not having the hand-built engines that are the hallmark of the breed.

Having said that, the E53 is a pretty compelling package if you’re not looking for the full Sturm und Drang effect. 4Matic all-wheel drive is standard for all-weather practicality, and because a milder suite of aerodynamic enhancements has been applied, the car remains quite pretty.

This is particularly true inside our E53 coupe tester, which was fitted with dark, open-pore wood, rather than glossy carbon fibre. The latter can be a bit Fast and Furious for a vehicle carrying a three-pointed star on the hood, while the wood trim lets you know this is a Mercedes product first, just one with a little extra oomph underhood.

The rest of the cabin features everything that’s admirable about the E-Class, which builds itself around twin 12.3-inch LCD displays under a single long piece of glass. The effect is fresh and modern-looking. It’s remarkably hard to take a reflection-free photograph of the dash display, but in practical use it’s never less than clear. And, while gripes about the COMAND system’s ease of use as compared to a less-finicky touchpad persist, the E53’s controls were soon easily mastered. Mercedes’ voice-command system worked perfectly as well, and I’d expect owners to rely on it most frequently.

This is a luxury coupe first and foremost. Yes, there’s red stitching and a flat-bottomed steering wheel, but the overall ambience is more luxury-themed than sport. Build quality is irreproachable, the leatherwork is finely crafted, and the graceful curve of the dash covers soft interior lighting that can be adjusted to suit your mood. The stereo is incredibly powerful, especially the optional Burmester system fitted to the vehicle we tested.

After a long day spent rockin’/lawyerin’, it’s just the kind of place to encourage relaxation. Perhaps not in the rear seats though, which are functional, but not long on legroom. But that’s why there’s a four-door E-Class too, should your needs require.

The drive, too, is primarily relaxing. Over some slightly rugged urban pavement in Austin, the E53 wafted with most of the same poise as a standard E400 on smaller-diameter alloy wheels. Road and wind noise was well controlled on the interstates, and the car effortlessly chewed up the miles.

Mercedes’ lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control systems are available on the E53, and they function quite well. What’s missing is an easier-to-understand interface of what the system is doing. Really, there should be a clearer warning in the heads-up display if the cameras lose sight of lane markings, as the only other way you’re going to find out is as the car drifts out of its lane.

Otherwise, the E53 is – much like its less powerful cousin – a stylish, very well-appointed, comfortable car. The pillarless profile, or retractable roof of the cabriolet, just adds to the appeal, and the 425 L trunk was more than capable enough for a couple of suitcases.

But didn’t we start off talking about a little rock-and-roll action? Here’s where the E53 earns its AMG badge.

No, the 3.0L inline-six under the hood isn’t a hand-built masterpiece. Instead of a proudly signed plaque, you instead get a red line on the plastic engine cover. Not quite the same thing.

However, as a machine-assembled heart, the ’six is ferociously clever thing. With an electric supercharger for low-end power and a turbocharger for higher-rpm loads, it pumps out a peak of 429 hp at 6,100rpm, and also loves to rev in a distinctly un-Mercedes-like fashion. The inline-six just sounds more special than a V6 would, and seems to have a little top-end kick as a bonus.

But that’s not the clever part. Instead, the jewel of the E53 is the small, 22 hp motor placed between engine and transmission. Mercedes refers to this as a starter-alternator, and it’s a bit like the electric bits of a mild hybrid. The extra horsepower provides some non-needed shove to the straight-six; it’s the added 184 lb-ft of instant electric torque that gives the E53 neck-snapping off-the-line performance.

Stomp the throttle from a dead stop at idle, and the E53 leaps forward with surprising alacrity. Given the luxurious surroundings, it’s like an executive office just lit off a pair of afterburners. Thanks to forced induction from both the electric supercharger and a turbocharger that comes on-stream later, the straight-six is making full power by 1,800 rpm. The E53 then continues to ride that wave of power all the way up to highway speeds: 0–100km/h comes in a claimed 4.4 seconds.

The nine-speed doesn’t feel like too many gears here, a testament to software programming as much as anything. The paddle-shifters provide quick gear changes, though it’s unlikely most owners will use them much. Left to its own devices, the transmission either smoothly upshifts early in Comfort and Eco modes, or pops satisfyingly through the gears in one of the Sport modes.

The handling is crisp too, a far cry from the luxury-first E-Classes of the past. Responsiveness will of course depend on drive mode selection, which affects everything from assistance levels for the variable-ratio power steering to damping from the air suspension. The E53 gets the upgraded version of Mercedes’ all-wheel drive system, which apportions power well, and is capable of putting up with punishing real-world applications like going full throttle early when making a ninety-degree turn into fast-moving traffic.

At 1,895 kg for the coupe and 1,905 kg for the cabriolet, the E53 is not a light car. Even so, it’s not much less nimble feeling than the smaller C-Class. Credit the electric motor assist for more responsiveness out of corners, and well-controlled body motion with plenty of grip.

I’m not entirely sure an E63 Coupe would do anything better, other than provide a slightly more AMG-appropriate soundtrack. No more real-world pace is needed, and the E53’s effortless dispatch of interstate and urban driving is entirely soothing.

The pairing of controlled power and luxury-oriented appointments isn’t nearly as oddball as a rock ’n’ roll attorney. However, successfully pulling off the arrangement is quite difficult. There’s often a little too much squishiness from a performance aspect, or excessive harshness spoils the ride.

With the E53, Mercedes-AMG seems to have managed the feat. There are those that rock harder. There are more serious machines that don’t let their hair down. Here though, my client would like to enter a plea of “Not Guilty By Reason of Wicked Air Guitar Solo”: Squeedly-weedly wangha wangha wangha woowwwww!

[Judge: “I find for the plaintiff. Court adjourned for rocking and/or rolling.”]