First Fang

04 . 2018 NEW. FAST. FIRST

B Y • MATT PRIOR

06 PERFORMANCE REVIEWS

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FAST BLASTS

3 QUICK SPINS

01 MERC-AMG CLS53

Sleek ‘coupe’ gains a new high-tech heart

B Y • MATT PRIOR

FIFTY-THREE, THEN. Not 63, not 43 and, heaven forbid, not 65. The new Mercedes-Benz CLS – the sleek four-door coupe now into its third generation – is here, and the rapid AMG variant, the 53, is almost as significant as the fact that the car itself is new. Let’s deal with the CLS bit first.

It’s a new CLS, which means it sits on Benz’s large-car platform with frameless windows and seating for five. It’s also promising to do the same ‘sleeker E-Class thing’ it has done for the past 15 years. To that end, it’s E-Class sized, 4.98m long, with a range of turbocharged and electrically enhanced diesel and petrol engines.

So with ‘53’ a new AMG naming strategy has emerged, as it has for the regular models, where an increasing number indicates merely an increasing power output, not the engine capacity.

On some models, a 3.0-litre straight six-cylinder engine becomes the AMG 43, while there’s also the 4.0-litre twinturbocharged V8 we all now know as the 63. Between these, AMG reckons there’s enough room to slot a 53 derivative. Whether a particular car will get 43, 53 or 63 options will, ultimately, be at AMG’s whim.

The 53 powerplant is a 3.0-litre of extraordinary complexity. Deep breath. It’s an inline six-cylinder petrol, mounted longitudinally, all of whose exhaust outlets pass through a single, large, twin-scroll turbocharger mounted high and next to the exhaust ports. However, to cover the inevitable turbo lag from this there is also an electrically powered compressor, located on the other side of the block, just before an intercooler right next to the inlet ports. This then helps suck air through the induction tract before the big turbocharger is boosting properly. Following? Good.

The inlet for that compressor comes after the big turbo, where a variable stopper in the main inlet tract, which runs around behind the engine, can divert a little, all, or any combination of air through a smaller tube to the electric compressor, after which, suitably pressurised, it flows back to the main inlet tract just before a throttle butterfly. Still following? Anyway, it makes 320kW and 520Nm, which is quite a lot in itself.

But in addition to both of these forced inductors, mounted between the engine and the nine-speed automatic gearbox sits an integrated starter/generator (ISG), an alternator/starter motor and flywheel combo, which can contribute 16kW and no less than 250Nm to the engine’s already imposing output. But rather than it just spinning up to reduce turbo lag, which doesn’t necessarily help increase pressure into the intake system, it’s apparently just as useful for it to drag slightly at low revs, developing electricity as it does, which it passes onto the electric compressor. And it’s that which spools the inlet pressure by dragging air through the turbo, helping that to spin up as it goes, too, thus reducing overall lag instead. Right?

Look, I don’t know, my head hurts with all the trickery. I suppose the short of it is that getting air through the engine is key, so inlet pressure rather than engine speed itself is king.

Ultimately, though, all of this power goes to the CLS’s rear wheels most of the time, with a standard all-wheel drive system on all models diverting it to all four when the rears threaten to slip. Unlike, say, the E63 S AMG, you can’t lock the 53 into rear-drive mode for adolescent slides.

Which is perhaps just as well. Our international drive takes place in Spain during the first time for about a decade that it has experienced snowfall. So our CLS53 is wearing winter rubber, which, AMG engineers tell me, will soften the way it grips and steers.

One of the challenges of the 53 was, by all accounts, to make it feel sufficiently different from a regular CLS to satisfy AMG boss Tobias Moers, who’s quite particular. Full-fat AMGs do have quite a distinct character: they’re loud, brash and way more capable these days than the hot rods they were a decade or so ago but still dominated by their V8 engines.

That’s a harder character to inject with a straight six, obviously, especially one whose exhaust is so muted by the turbo and which, by definition, is a bit semi-skimmed next to a 63. But the engine is sparky. It’s by no means loud, but throttle response and linearity really are exceptional, with a rev limit at nearly 7000rpm and a character and note that has shades of BMW M car. It’s a belting engine, in fact. I wonder if Aston Martin, part owned by Daimler as it is, has thought about one day dropping one into a Vantage...

And if regular wheels and tyres – 20-inch and 21-inch will be most buyers’ norms, we suspect – sharpen the steering over these winters, it’ll be intensely responsive for a big sedan. Okay, okay, big coupe. Because accuracy and steering response are already great. It’s probably more responsive in regard to steering, I’d say, than a BMW M5, while the standard air springs bring a level of both control and compliance where coil springs tend to force a compromise to one or the other; only this comes without the echoey ‘sproing’ that affects some bagged suspension.

IT STRIKES ME THAT THERE’S NOT A LOT WRONG WITH THE NEW AMG CLS53 THE WAY IT IS

Air springs, although optional rather than standard as they are on the AMG, were also fitted to the two other CLSs I’ve tried – one being the wickedly fast 400d, with a 3.0 straight-six diesel, 250kW and the new EQ Boost system.

Whatever engine your CLS comes fitted with, though, it makes no difference to the way it feels inside, which is little short of excellent. In overall cabin layout and ergonomic decency, things mirror the E-Class here: the driving position is spot on and dead straight, with a hugely adjustable wheel and clear, digital instrument panel, plus central monitor and one of motoring’s better infotainment systems.

Headroom in the rear is, obviously, a bit tighter than in a conventional saloon, for the passengers you probably won’t have anyway, and the boot’s of a similar ‘yeah, fine, whatever’ capacity. If it’s not big enough, there’s always the E-Class, which is handy.

Overall, whether equipped with a lesser engine or with the new AMG 53 unit, the impression you get from the CLS is one of slickness. Even the 53 is never in-yer-face, never urging you to go harder or, in Aussie parlance, ‘begging to be fanged’.

Eventually, it turns out Moers was satisfied that the 53 was AMG-ish enough to pass muster, but it took a lot of iterations and a lot of tweaks to get there. Perhaps in grippier conditions, and on normal rubber, the 53 would feel more like a true AMG than it does to me here, but then I don’t mind if it doesn’t. Perhaps I’m less picky than Moers, because it strikes me there’s not a lot wrong with it the way it is.

02 ASTON MARTIN DB11

Beautifully resolved grand tourer leaves the soul stirred, not shaken

THE CLOSENESS of the relationship between Aston Martin and James Bond is evident from the tyres adorning the DB11: Bridgestone Potenza S007. Coincidence? I think not. Despite dalliances with Lotus and BMW, Aston has been inextricably linked with everyone’s favourite spy. The connection has done wonders for the British brand’s image, but hasn’t actually helped it make any money.

The DB11 has. On the back of strong initial sales, Aston is now sustainably profitable for the first time in its century-long existence and is charging ahead with the new Vantage and bold projects like the Valkyrie hypercar. We’ve finally managed to get our hands on the first fruits of Aston’s Second Century Plan on local roads to ascertain whether the DB11 is more Goldfinger or A View To A Kill.

Initial reservations regarding the styling disappear in the metal, though it’s possibly a colour sensitive design. It’s well-proportioned with some lovely details, an impression that carries over inside. The interior contains enough leather to make a dairy farm nervous and while the electronic architecture is now sourced from Mercedes, evidence of the partnership is limited to the infotainment system controller and indicator/wiper stalk.

Aston has some novel approaches to interior fittings, but they’re quite clever; the dash is actually a very clever place for the transmission selection buttons and while the semi-quartic steering wheel looks a bit odd, it fits very nicely in your hands. Located just near your thumbs on that steering wheel are two buttons which alter the attitude of the DB11; the left one controls damper stiffness while the right one adjusts the powertrain, both with three modes to choose from.

Unlike most performance cars, which attempt to run the full gamut from everyday cruiser to hardcore track warrior – with varying degrees of success – Aston offers only different levels of comfort. As you’d hope for a GT car the ride is excellent and fails to deteriorate markedly even with the dampers set to Sport Plus.

In fact, given the softness of the base setup, Sport Plus could offer more body control as the tyres regularly kiss the guard liners through mid-corner compressions even with the dampers set to their stiffest. It never loses its composure, but the body does get a bit floaty when driven hard and the big Aston (1770kg) feels happiest up to around eight-and-a-half tenths.

The upside to this compliance is plenty of feedback from the chassis, though with 295mm rear rubber the transition to oversteer can be quite sudden – thankfully it’s easily held with the ESP’s Track mode flattering any mistakes. The steering is very nicely judged and the brakes are a little soft, but offer good feel and progression once past the initial deadzone.

However, open that dramatic clamshell bonnet and you’ll find the true highlight of the DB11. Unlike its AMG-sourced V8s, the DB11’s 5.2-litre twin-turbo V12 is all Aston and it’s fabulous. The linearity of its power delivery means it doesn’t necessarily feel as potent as its 447kW/700Nm and 3.9sec 0-100km/h numbers suggest, but acceleration is ample and the noise wonderful.

There’s none of the high-rev histrionics of an Italian V12 – power begins to taper off towards the 7000rpm redline – but the delicious exhaust note is most redolent of a carb-fed straight-six like you’d find under the bonnet of a Jaguar E-Type or Aston DB5 – surely no accident. This beautiful engine is attached to a ZF eight-speed transaxle automatic which is the perfect partner; it may not have the slick shifts of a dual-clutch but its smoothness in all circumstances is ample compensation. The only chink in the powertrain is a strange mechanical wheeze on deceleration.

If you’re after a hairy-chested, ballsout sports car, the DB11 is not for you. There’s every chance it would feel all at sea on a track, however, it happens to be one of the finest road cars I’ve ever driven. Powerful, comfortable, evocative, if I had to choose something to drive to Sydney the long way in tomorrow, this Aston would be very high on the list.

POWERFUL, COMFORTABLE, EVOCATIVE – THE DB11 IS ONE OF THE FINEST ROAD CARS I’VE EVER DRIVEN

03 AUDI RS3 SPORTBACK

New engine makes RS3 one seriously lust-worthy hatch

WHEN YOU DRIVE a new performance car and think to yourself, ‘what an engine’, you cherish the thought – especially a hot hatch. The scintillating chassis combined with a forgettable, aurally-overdone turbocharged engine has become somewhat of a modern stereotype with this class of car. But it’s a trend the updated Audi RS3 is bucking with its new 2.5-litre inline-five – a seriously awesome engine.

The turbocharged powerplant, shared with TT RS, is the big news for Audi’s hottest-ever hatch. Up 24kW/15Nm on the outgoing five-potter, its 294kW means the RS3 retakes the ‘most powerful hot hatch around’ mantle from the A45 – and maximum respect must go to Audi for sticking with the legendary five-cylinder layout when the temptation must surely have been to ditch a cylinder for cost, packaging and economy reasons. But stuck with it they have, even making it 26kg lighter, thanks in part to a new alloy crankcase, important as recent five-pot Audis have been a little front-heavy.

By continuing to fit 255/30 fronts and 235/35 rear tyres, there’s the hint that Audi hasn’t sorted all the RS3’s front-heavy woes. And this is still a very front-axle focused car by way of power distribution. Twinsterstyle power oversteer? Nope, the RS3 prefers traction – and handling stability.

But that does suit the slightly austere personality of this car. With its understated styling – compared to a bewinged A45 – it’s no surprise to find a very comfortable, sensible-driving car in Comfort mode, with a nice urban ride as well (Magnetic Ride is optional).

Engage Dynamic mode (or Individual with Comfort dampers and Dynamic powertrain) and all hell breaks loose. The hissing, torquey five-cylinder warbles like an R8 under acceleration and cracks out the exhaust with every twin-clutch upchange. Holy moly, this is a potent little car – and the noise, it’s just rude. With a bit more poke, this engine could go in an R8. No joke.

And when did Audi’s S-tronic twin-clutch ’box get this good? It’s bordering on – dare we say – Porsche PDK quick. We’ve not felt this kind of twin-clutch responsiveness in any hot hatch before.

This car is now so fast, with such epic brakes as well (and our test car was on the steel items, not the optional carbons), that it’s almost crying out for stickier tyres. But that’s another story.

The RS3 is more fun for its potency and noise than its handling. And even though, at $81K without options, it’s the most expensive new hot hatch you can get, you’ll have a strange urge to look under the bonnet – it’s the best engine in any hot hatch on sale today.