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Autoweek America Adventure Part 2: The Car

Alex Kierstein
Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Let me start with the punch line: No car this stiff, low, or loud has any right to be a comfortable tourer. Yet day in and day out throughout our trip, we never hesitated for a moment to slip behind the squared-off wheel for another all-day drive over frost-heaved, snow-covered, or actually-not-paved roads.

As I mentioned in the first wrap-up of the Autoweek America Adventure, Team Bullet Train to Vegas was hurtling through the high country of Colorado in a souped-up Benz. The 2012 Mercedes-Benz AMG C63 Black Series coupe is a car whose rarity, performance credentials, and sheer menacing presence are known in digital form to anyone who’s played Forza Motorsport 4 or Forza Horizon. Was it a wildly inappropriate choice? I think not, and here’s why.

But back to the “stiff, low, and loud” part: the AMG demands we examine each of these individually. When I say that the suspension is “stiff,” I mean that every bump or pebble in the road was transmitted directly to your spinal cord. If that sounds uncomfortable, you’d be wrong – the sensation comes through as information and not as discomfort – without shaking out any fillings.

“Loud” is my favorite of the three. Tap the “start” button and the AMG pauses for a second, as if to make sure you’re truly ready, and then the V8 spins to life with a baritone exhaust bark. It also never got old. I’d often go “warm the car up” even if I wasn’t driving, just to hear the beast wake up. Get your foot into the go pedal, and things only get better from an auditory standpoint – each throttle position seems to have been individually tuned by an audio tech to provide the most neck-hair-raising sounds possible. Opening the car up in a tunnel is otherworldly.

My favorite part of the trip, actually, was one of the slowest. My last time driving the car was from our hotel in Las Vegas to dinner, across town in another resort. What to do? Flip the rotary dial past Sport+ to manual mode, select first gear, and leave it there. Forced to stay in first gear, the AMG burbled, spat, and generally made a wonderful racket the whole way across town, sounding like a muscle car with a hot cam unhappily crawling through traffic.

Notice I haven’t described “fast” yet. Partly, that’s because it’s obvious. On paper, the AMG can hit sixty in 4.2 seconds. This is an SLS AMG engine that is claimed to be detuned so as not to upset the Mercedes model hierarchy, but in no way does it feel like it’s holding anything back. The 7-speed automatic (no dual-clutch nonsense here) was never for a nanosecond confused by our throttle inputs. A downshift was a nudge of the pedal away. In fact, it was so good in Sport+ that Manual mode seemed superfluous, except for that particular twisty section or a little fun in town. Thrust was instant, and copious – if you laid into it. Drive it like a normal family sedan, and it was perfectly docile. It just sounded a heck of a lot better than your average sedan. I like to think of it as a pony car, wearing a matte silver suit and with a German accent.

Now, about the ride height – there isn’t much. Among the towering speed bumps of Telluride – which rival some of the surrounding mountains for sheer verticality – shallow approach angles took on a new sense of importance. Neither of us wanted to be the one responsible for scraping the chin off this rare and expensive beast. Massive brakes helped us haul up short before crashing into any speed-mountains.

Would you off-road a car this low? Sometimes, you don’t have a choice. The in-dash COMMAND navigation system is only as good as its operators, and on the way to Chaco Canyon things went awry. Since it had never led us astray, we neglected to double-check the route we’d entered. With the radio blaring and the coffee dwindling, we simply followed where it led. Unfortunately, where it led us was not where we wanted to be.

The normal access road to Chaco Canyon is a somewhat primitive gravel road that accesses the park from the northeast. We found ourselves on the exact opposite end of the park, roughly twenty miles from our destination on the optimistically named Highway 57. Twenty miles – on an entirely unpaved road. Easing out onto the hard-packed dirt covered with small gravel, we gingerly crept along at about 15 mph. To the sides, it was sage and sand as far as we could see. Unwelcoming, empty homesteads were discouragingly far apart. As we went further, the roadbed degraded, with ruts emerging from the dust and the rocks seeming to grow before our eyes. Welcoming New Mexico turned into a hostile landscape, trying its best to discourage us from continuing.

In the distance, a truck approached. It was one of our competitors, in a large late-model Dodge Ram 4x4. He flagged us down. “It’s bad up there. This part here is like a 100 mph road compared to what’s up there.” Urging us to turn around, he said goodbye and drove off in a cloud of dust.

Right behind him was another competitor in a rented Dodge Challenger. Covered with dust, the Challenger looked nearly as shaken as its driver. “It’s really, really bad. I can’t tell you any more, I gotta follow that truck. He’s our lifeline.” And he took off as fast as he could, tailing the Ram as if his life depended on it. I looked at Davey. Davey looked at me. We kept rolling. And the road got steadily worse. Ruts deepened. Jagged grapefruit-sized rocks played chicken with us. Our progress slowed to a crawl as we tried to get over small rises and banks. We began thinking of our route forward like a chess game, bouncing ideas off each other. It didn’t take long before we ran out of ideas, set our jaws, and started rolling over distressingly large rocks because there was no way to avoid them. And then I asked the fateful question.

“Do we have a spare?” Davey furrowed his brow and frowned deeply. He sighed.

“I was hoping you weren’t going to ask. Now you’ve jinxed it. All this thing has is a can of fix-a-flat.”

Davey put the car in park. We had no cell reception. We were still at least 18 miles away from the canyon, and at least that far from any other living soul. Our friends in much more rugged cars were spooked. The guy in the Challenger looked like he’d seen a ghost. A can of fix-a-flat wasn’t going to magically save one of the skinny slivers of rubber wrapping our huge alloy wheels when an arrowpoint of a rock decided to lance it at any moment. The only cars we’d seen in hours were the two competitors hightailing it into the sunset behind us. I gave us a couple hours of daylight left. The only thing missing were circling vultures and a clichéd cow skull by the side of the road.

A sketchy three-point turn pointed us back towards civilization, what little there was in this part of the state. While we were skipping the challenge, and the points it would have given us, neither of us were too upset. The thought of a blown tire – or worse – in this desolate landscape with night coming on … well, let’s just say that was a situation we didn’t want to consider. We ended up warm, safe, and secure in our hotel room that night, rather than cramped in a dead Mercedes in the sticks. And the AMG lived to roar another day.

Image courtesy Davey G. Johnson and Autoweek

Highway 57 might have defeated the AMG. But even slinking back to the pavement, Davey and I felt proud that we’d tried where full-size 4x4 trucks had only dared. The Black Series is comfortable, fast, sounds incredible, and looks like a DTM car. It doesn’t need to be trail-rated, too. Even so, we took a second to get out of the car and take a picture of the dust-covered car rolling down the “better” part of Highway 57. It’s my favorite picture from the trip.

If you’d like to comment on this post or ask me a question, visit the Forum thread here.