IT WAS IN 2002 that everything changed. AMG whacked an IHI supercharger on Mercís 5.4-litre M113 V8 and blew the German power war wide open. Outputs soared to 350kW/700Nm, the new W211 E55 AMG producing 90kW/170Nm more than its W210 predecessor.
All of a sudden Audi was a lot less cocky about its 331kW/580Nm RS6 and BMWís 294kW/500Nm E39 M5 looked almost malnourished.
At a stroke, Mercís super sedan went from a quick cruiser to a tyreshredding maniac. Itís only become even more unhinged in the years since, culminating in todayís mad 450kW/850Nm E63 S four-door supercar. But what about that original E55 buyer? The man or woman who thinks drifting is something to do on the yacht of a weekend and doesnít want to be terrified every time they accelerate out of a side road?
For these milder-mannered folk, AMG has created the E53. It replaces the E43 and is available in coupe, cabriolet or sedan forms, the latter being tested here. The E43 was nice enough, but it was arguable whether it had the pace and handling nous to really qualify as a Ďtrueí AMG. There are no such qualms about the E53, which argues a much more convincing performance car case, largely thanks to the new engine.
There is still a 3.0-litre turbocharged six-cylinder under the bonnet, but the E43ís V6 has been turfed for an all-new generation of straight six. Once upon a time, Mercedes was famous for its straight sixes and it has returned to its roots in fine style. This new engine is high-tech, supplementing the regular turbocharger with an e-compressor, which allows for instant boost and plugs the gap until the regular exhaustdriven turbo takes over.
It works brilliantly. With 320kW, 520Nm and a claimed 0-100km/h time of 4.5sec the E53 is clearly quick, but itís the quality of the experience that sets this engine apart. Thereís terrific throttle response with the broad spread of power typical of modern turbo engines, but whereas most fade at higher rpm the E53 delivers a noticeable kick at 6000rpm, a satisfying reward for chasing the redline. In Sport Plus mode it sounds artificial, but pleasingly so, like a video game thatís nailed the audio capture.
Perhaps surprisingly, the E53 continues to impress in the corners. The brakes resist fade well thanks to 370mm discs and four-piston calipers up front, supported by 360mm discs and single-piston calipers at the rear. The steering doesnít offer the last word in communication but allows you to place this relatively large car accurately and outright grip from the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres (245/40 front; 275/35 rear) is very strong.
What sets the E53 apart, though, is its fully variable 4MATIC+ all-wheel drive system. Initial expectations of a grippy but ultimately prescriptive premium four-door are confounded when a quarter turn of opposite lock is needed exiting a tight, second-gear corner. Itís not always consistent and itís tricky to work out its triggers - sometimes there is total traction, at others itís happier to play - but it transforms this otherwise sensible sedan into a car that encourages and rewards the enthusiastic driver.
You can feel the 1870kg with swift changes of direction but itís remarkable how quickly you can cover a stretch of road thanks to its punchy engine, all-wheel drive purchase and compliant chassis. The latter is potentially the E53ís trump card in making it the fast E-Class of choice for daily use. For all its berserk performance, the E63ís ride and refinement leave a bit to be desired, especially in S guise, and you could argue that its pace advantage over its little brother is inaccessible on the public road.
That said, there isnít really any need to choose. For those who need the ultimate punch thereís the V8 E63, but itís easy to see AMG buyers of yesteryear, someone who enjoyed an early E55 or later C55, being captivated by the E53ís less focused character. It combines a great engine, enjoyable handling, subtle looks and a top-class interior with the latest technology for around $170K. Thatís a lot of money, but the E53 is a lot of car.