Symphony for the devil

The worldís most extreme mid-size SUV meets some of Tasmaniaís most demanding driverís roads. Bromance or smackdown?

WORDS RYAN LEWIS

REMEMBER when the term performance SUV was still an oxymoron? Rewind 20 years or so, when there was no Porsche Cayenne, no BMW X5, certainly no Jeep Trackhawk, and, outside of the Dakar Rally, no other jacked-up wagons worth looking at for driving fulfilment, regardless of their straight-line performance.

MercedesAMG GLC63 S

Lumbering SUVs with bulk power used to be a quick way to end up shiny-side down in a marshy ditch, but decades of progress fuelled by the demands of consumers have yielded a compelling smorgasbord of high-performance high-riding choices. The motoring world has well and truly embraced the performance SUV, even if the mindset of the performance purist has not.

Tassie is the sort of driving mecca an enthusiast would once dare not tread with a 1935kg SUV

Yes, there will be enthusiasts among you already looking down your noses at the page, indifferent to this muscular monochrome mid-sizer thatís hot off the Affalterbach presses. The Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S is a family SUV with faintly ludicrous outputs of 375kW and 700Nm from a gun-slinging 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8. This engine is shared with the C63 sedan, coupe and wagon, the latter to which the GLC must provide a compelling counterpoint.

And blimey does the newcomer have presence. Its distinctively huge Panamericana grille juts out of the bluff front-end like a rapperís teeth. Low, wide aprons on the heavyset bone structure give this GLC the broad and surefooted stance of a boxer. Itís an honours graduate from the Sly Stallone School of Vehicle Design.

Mercedes-Benz actually claims to be the originator of the high-performance SUV. Back in 1999 its ML55 AMG came in swinging with a 255kW 5.4-litre V8 wedged between its forequarters. The concept has gathered momentum since, yet despite the GLC63ís raft of contemporaries including the BMW X3 M40i, Audi SQ5 and the Porsche Macan Turbo, it doesnít have what you would call a direct rival.

Until the F-Pace SVR arrives, the AMG GLC63 S is the only V8-powered mid-size SUV on the market, and none of its similarly sized alternatives come within remote striking distance of its ballistic 3.8sec 0-100km/h claim, the Jaguar included.

If thereís ever been an SUV with the potential to change minds about what this breed of car can do, itís this one. Never has the compromise between utility and ability seemed so marginal. Could the GLC63 S really hold sway with modern sports sedans and wagons? Can it really deliver the same level of driving reward?

Weíve brought it to Tasmania to find out. This island is the sort of driving mecca a keen enthusiast would once dare not tread with a 1935kg SUV It is Targa country, characterised by fast and unforgiving terrain that becomes the annual hunting ground of Porsches and Lamborghinis competing in the legendary stage race. Itís a pressure test for this $164,900 bulldog. Our clockwise loop of Tasmaniaís north-eastern corner traces six competition stages over one leg of the event, starting and finishing at Launceston.

Tassie is a staggeringly beautiful place to drive at any pace. Landing before dawn, we make a beeline into the sunrise towards our opening segment of gnarled road called The Sideling. Itís the kind of stage where a Lancer Evolution would be a faster choice than a 911 GT3. Damp tree litter compromises grip, covering the choppy bitumen surface in slippery dark patches often unsighted until youíre upon them.

ENTHUSIASTS WILL FIND THE GLC63 S UPROARIOUS FUN. PARTNERS, CHILDREN AND DOGS MAY HAVE AN ALTERNATIVE REACTION

The GLC needs quite a bit of throttle and steering management at the limits of adhesion. The road itself is rough and narrow with blind corners that tighten around sharp slate rock faces ready to shear the quarter panels from the flanks of a wayward SUV. Itís ruthless out here, but the GLC is surprisingly at home.

Tasmanians seem open-minded when it comes to fast cars with ground clearance

Throw it at corners like a hot-hatch and the all-wheeldrive apparatus finds a way to stick. The traction and body control at eight-tenths are outstanding. You soon learn to trust the logic of the fully variable 4matic+ systemís brain as it imperceptibly feeds power between the front axle and the limited-slip differential at the back for maximum purchase.

A dual-cab ute coming from Scottsdale flashes past in a white blur. Even mundane metal is driven with enthusiasm in Tasmania, and the appeal of a hi-po SUV isnít lost on the natives who seem to all drive 4WDs of some sort. Tasmanians could be the most open-minded Aussies when it comes to fast cars with ground clearance.

POSITIVE GEARING

Unique equipment fitted as standard to the GLC63 S includes its Panamericana grille, carbonfibre boot spoiler, rear diffuser, head-up display, heated seats in Nappa upholstery, illuminated door sills, digital TV tuner and AMGís Track Pace software. For the first year of production buyers can order an Edition 1 version at a $10,900 premium, which features matte grey paint with yellow detailing on the wheels, doors and mirror caps, plus an aero package, ceramic brakes, diamondstitched seats and other cosmetic goodies.

A petrol station attendant in town has fallen in love with the GLC by the time I walk inside to pay. ďThatís a bloody nice car,Ē he says. ďI love a V8. And does that say Turbo on the side? I bet that goes like the clappers.Ē

Heís not wrong. The monstrously potent 4.0-litre from AMG is the unmistakable centrepiece here. It voices its wicked intentions from a crackly start-up bark to the penetrating racket of its 7000rpm redline. The sheer volume of the bi-modal performance exhaust in the upper registers is anything but subtle. Yet get beyond its uncouth first impression and AMGís work is more sophisticated than it may immediately seem. Thatís evident in the way the car tackles these frequently challenging surfaces.

Up front, AMG-specific steering knuckles and control arms improve handling over the regular GLC.

The steering is weighty and conveys sensations of the mechanical heftiness forward of the dash. At first, it seems difficult to work this car into a flow as the wheel bucks and writhes in your hands, but the key to getting the best from the GLC is to just go faster.

Once up on its toes, itís relatively easy to place the Merc at an apex. Youíll need to work the weight transfers sympathetically to camouflage its bulk and itís very much a vehicle you need to keep on top of, manhandling the wheel and getting quite physical with it Ė gripping it by the collar and showing it to a corner. Thereís a macho, chest-beating character to it.

The road snakes away toward the aquamarine coast through Moorina, Weldborough Pass and Pyengana. Around 90-degree bends and hairpins the GLC resists pitch and roll astonishingly well. The adaptive air suspension has been worked over by AMG, meaning even the most pliant of its three modes isnít what you would describe as soft. On these roads mid-corner poise and braking composure are easier to find with the tyres presented to the blacktop in Comfort mode, leaving throttle mapping set to maximum angry. There is no adjustment for steering weighting.

By the halfway point Iím developing an appreciation for this intriguing machine. Its huge composite braking package shows no sign of deterioration, with strong pedal feel from the top of its arc. We push toward Elephant Pass. Into a longer sweeper, balanced on the throttle, I sight the exit point and pin it. The back end squirms and slips toward the centre line, and the body squats onto the outside rear wheel as it launches forward. Itís easy to keep this lively creature neat, but there are times when you just have to indulge in the pure exuberance it offers.

Model Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S 4matic+

Engine 3982cc V8 (90į), dohc, 32v, twin-turbo

Max power 375kW @ 5500-6250rpm

Max torque 700Nm @ 1750-4500rpm

Transmission 9-speed automatic L/W/H 4682/1931/1625mm

Wheelbase 2873mm

Weight 1935kg

0-100km/h 3.8 sec (claimed)

Test fuel average 18.5L/100km

Price $164,900

On sale Now

With the ESC in Sport, you can stab the throttle through a 90-degree corner and grab half a turn of corrective lock while a huge grin involuntarily spreads across your mug. Are there any other SUVs you can drive like that? Itís not the last word in precision, but thereís an endearing extroversion to this GLCís dynamics.

IN THE BEGINNING

Mercedes-AMG claims to have invented the performance SUV with the ML55 of 1999, but others could challenge for that crown. In 1991 GMC launched the Typhoon, a 209kW/488Nm SUV that would do 0-100km/h in the mid-5s powered by a turbocharged 4.3-litre V6. Then in 1997 the formidable Pajero Evolution arrived. It was a beefed-up homologation special built for Mitsubishiís Dakar Rally campaign, running a 206kW/348Nm 3.5-litre V6.

Letís not forget this mid-size SUV with space for five people and their luggage also happens to have a launch control program. Triggering Race Start is as simple as selecting the right mode, standing on the brake pedal and flattening the throttle. An rpm indicator flashes on screen while an aggro, two-step assault ricochets from the tailpipes. Release the stoppers and thereís almost no scrabble from the Pilot Sport rubber, the nine-speed auto hammering home upshifts with brutal efficiency. The GLC63 S feels every bit as quick as it says on the tin. Itís genuinely one of the most entertaining SUVs available.

Interior upgrades are relatively mild; AMG sports seats, a carbonfibre console finish, AMG gauge cluster and Performance steering wheel trimmed in microfiber. But even the standard back seat is more inviting than that of a C63. Thereís more room around shoulders and heads, not to mention a bigger boot. Itís not an exaggeration to call it practical. Even the firm ride is marginally more liveable than the Comfort setting of its sedan and coupe counterparts.

Negative attributes are few. Tasmaniaís coarse chip highways brought out a booming tyre roar from the 21-inch rubber thatís so loud it made phone conversations via Bluetooth near impossible. Then thereís the fuel consumption, which averaged 18.5L/100km over the course of this test.

The price will also be a sticking point for some. At $30,000 more than a Macan Turbo but with arguably less badge cachet, it initially seems a big ask. Then again itís only five grand or so more than the C63 Estate, a car the GLC comfortably outsprints thanks to its all-wheel-drive traction advantage. And the C63 itself doesnít appear overpriced because it has contemporaries such as the Audi RS4 that offer some measure of fiscal perspective. A Macan may feel more fluid, but the GLC63 S is an altogether more expressive form of amusement.

The world has embraced the performance SUV, even if the mindset of purists hasnít

Thereís really nothing quite like this AMG, and ultimately the market will be the judge of its value. As reductive as it may sound, there will be buyers who want a fast SUV with the most road presence, the most impressive numbers and the most menacing exhaust note, and this is that car. Nothing else comes close.

It would be wrong to say the GLC63 S is as competent in the details of go, stop and steer as a C63, but then the C63 isnít as versatile or as quick in a straight line. What the GLC63 S can deliver is an unhinged, engaging and grin-inducing driving experience, yet with enough civility to ferry the family around in the morning. Itís something special, and the harshest purists among you should be able to admit thereís a place for cars like that Ė even an SUV.