The W206 AMG C43 | Net: neutral.

July 4th, 2023

My friend Andrew and I like to talk about and debate cars. And until now, I have yet to learn about or drive something he has purchased that I yearned to drive again. That changed today, when he showed up with his W206 C43 with 1800 miles on it.

I approached the car with skepticism. Perhaps an unhealthy dose of the stuff. I’d avoided reading reviews, as I generally do. Or looking too closely at the specs. As I’ve written before, as much as I adore 6 cylinder cars in general and 8 cylinder AMG cars in concept, I liked the idea of a new generation of Mercedes Benzes that were light nosed rather than nose led.

But when Andrew pulled up, I was reminded that he is far more concerned with how a car looks than I am. He walked me through every last detail of the W206, the changes made for C43, and each option he had chosen. While I find the W206 an attractive thing on the road, and it’s snatched my eye each time one passes on the road, I appreciated the understated approach they’ve taken with the C43, and Andrew did with his choices. It has just enough presence to look serious, but not so much that it draws the wrong kind of attention or sends the wrong type of message. From it’s evocative grille to its buzzing tailpipes it’s brimming with promise, and energy.

Yes, I said buzzing. There’s a base but unmistakably 4 cylinder tone from out back. But it manages to sound unlike the run of the mill mills you see milling about. It sounds different and somehow special. So I contained my excitement to get to the driving and we popped the hood to trace the exhaust back up to the source.

Doing so you’re greeted by the most serious heat shielding I’ve ever seen applied to a production car. It’s applied one tot he passenger side of the hood, and directly below I you see why: the turbo and cat sit snugged up to the head as intimately as your dentist during a checkup. Not since I popped the hood on a McLaren F1 had I had the sense of some seriously motorsport level thinking. Andrew confirmed that I was looking at something closely related to Mercedes AMG’s F1 efforts, and it certainly looks it.

Thankfully, Andrew was ready to drive. I immediately noticed his driving style had changed since seeing him a few months ago. He’s always been what I consider a cautious driver, only comfortable with applying throttle in a straight line, but he wore the car like an exoskeleton, driving at a pace and consistency that impressed me. I could tell the car boosted his confidence as much as the turbo boosted the motor.

From the passenger seat my first impression was that there was a lot of grip, balance, and agility on offer. The car is eager to bend into a corner, cling tightly to any line you choose, sticks and moves like a younger prize fighter. The seats embrace you closely, the body moves like a bigger car. This disconnect between the ride motions and the cornering agility was the biggest takeaway from the passenger seat. That and the immediacy of response from the motor, regardless of how many revs were on the clock.

As a passenger, I was able to admire the materials, the visibility, and the general layout of the controls. It’s the kind of car that applies all the latest tech, yet feels like a descendant of the W124s I grew up on. As someone who hates screens in modern cars, I have to say MB does it better than most anyone else.

Before I knew it we’d torn up the stretch of road Andrew was usually cautious to squeamish on. He pulled over to admire the exterior once more, and offered me the driver’s seat, graciously but not ceremoniously. This is our pattern. Our tradition. This is what we do when we meet.

Pulling away, I immediately felt out of sorts with the car as a whole, Comfort mode had steering that was overly light for the rack’s and contact patch’s nonlinear response, and the throttle was strangely jerky jerky. I immediately went for individual mode, to dial the car in to the way I wanted it to feel. Backing the Powertrain down to “Reduced” dialed back the twitchy throttle and gave the transmission less to be shocked about. Setting the dampers to sport quashed the unsettled and asynchronously syncopated bobbing from the front and rear axle, and moving the Dynamics setting from Basic to Intermediate or Pro gave the steering and whatever else it was controlling a more organic and integrated feel. I wonder how many more of these things they’d sell. if they started up in Sport mode. Speaking of starting up, pulling back on the upshift paddle while doing so engages what MB calls Emotion Start, if that’s what you’re into.

The exhaust to my ears sounded more refined with the baffles closed. With them open it’s like attaching a sub to your sound bar. But no matter what the mode the engine revs smoothly and keenly, going from torque rich grunter to spin class instructor in a blink, but never breaking a sweat. The man who bolted Andrew’s together did a magnificent job. And I say this as someone who tends to loathe 4 cylinder turbos.

The biggest surprise: the brakes. Firm and tireless underfoot, which is a good thing in a car with 400 horsepower and no bridle on them when you lift your foot. Engine braking is largely absent, so it’s good the brakes are there with near Porsche consistency and solidity, if a bit less in the way of feel. A far cry from the springy pedals in many Benzes of yore.

The steering is not as fulsome and linear as something Porsche might do, but with the dampers cranked up the car moves as a Porsche might and a Taycan cannot. I drove Andrew’s previous car, a Taycan, through the exact same stretch of road and it left me unmoved, detached, and frustrated by comparison.

For decades, enthusiasts turned to spec sheets and their personal frames of preference and reference to decide if a car was going to be good or bad, worthy of existence or purchase. This car is proof of why that’s never a good idea, but is especially foolish as cars become less analog and less analogous to what’s come before. This thing covers ground quickly, comfortably, competently, and enjoyably. It’s not the soulless and synthetic car I was expecting, but rather one tuned very carefully, to turn very eagerly, and flatter and entertain endlessly. It’s a mature man’s car, and a visionary look forward. If you’re entrenched in tradition and tropes, it’s not your car. If you’re confident enough to give one a try though, it may surprise you.

Andrew had sagely pointed out that the badge on the fender flanks say TURBO ELECTRIFIED. While this is likely to play up the mild hybrid system, or the electrically assisted turbocharger, or just make it look more like an EV than it really is, he’s right. It sums up the car, and the experience, aptly. It’s turbocharged, which means there’s far more power than you’d expect from a 2.0L, but also that electrification gives some off idle torque that feels like an EV, while additional electrification gets the turbo blowing hard and big lunged with immediacy but without the binary response of a light pressure setup. Luckily there’s also electrification of the cooling system after shutdown to keep that big F1 derived turbo from evaporating the heat shield, the hood, and any nearby trees. And that electrified rear axle is a constant companion shrinking or lengthening the wheelbase just so. The car feels like a poster child for what 48V electrification will offer the automobile in the coming decades. and is a brilliant example of how much life is left in internal combustion, even if emissions regulations are going to make higher cylinder counts hard to come by.

As my time with it wound down, may mind wound back its clock to the C36, the W204 C63, and the W205 C63. It feels like a car that is a follow up to those, rather than the rather awful badge job that was the last C43, which was really a C400 with a spring and damper change and some badging. That I was reminded of those pukka AMGs says a lot about the car. That I’d have one of these over all of those but possibly the W204 C63 says a lot too. It made me want to try the new C63 to determine if it too is better driven than debated based on numbers. Andrew asked aloud if the C43 is a C63 sans the needless weight and complexity, and I can’t wait to find out for myself.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to head to a configurator to see how I’d option one myself.

Right sized with build quality and materials a class above the competition.
Intoxicating and addictive response on corner entry that never feels nervous or on edge thanks to the rear wheel steering.
Confidence inspiring grip and neutrality make this a textbook car to carve up a unfamiliar road with.
MBUX shows how digital and physical interfaces can be executed comprehensively and intuitively.
Smooth, punchy responses from the combination of internal combustion, turbocharging, and response boosting electric assists.

The transmission occasionally flubs downshifts on the overrun, or bobbles as the car is approaching a stop. The automatic programming isn’t best in class, and the transmission isn’t one you enjoy paddle shifting manually.
On the optional 20” wheels, the ride is fidgety in sport to the point I didn’t once reach for sport +. Bu tin comfort the front and rear axles fight for composure after bumps, especially
Steering weight and response is a step behind the pace of the rest of the chassis.

Mercedes leads the way again, making BMW, Audi and the rest look short sighted and a generation or two behind. (Its so nice to see AMG embarrassing BMW on effort and execution, from cabin to chassis.) Don’t sleep on this sleeper.

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