LISBON, Portugal — One solid burst in the Mercedes-Benz SLK32 AMG leads you to believe the initials for Mercedes' in-house tuner should be OMG — Oh My God! — rather than AMG (the initials of the company's founders).
“OMG!” is the oath you're bound to shout as you unleash 349 hp and 332 lb.-ft. (450 Nm) of torque in the 3,200-lb. (1,451-kg) bodyshell of the SLK32 AMG. After all, you have to bawl SOMETHING when you're cracking off a 5.2-second 0-to-62 mph (0-to-100 km/h) run, right?
With the addition of the SLK32 AMG and the C-Class based C32 AMG, there's now an AMG-modified Benz to fit every taste — if not every budget, considering both of these new AMG models are the cheapest and yet still will deplete the wallet to the tune of mid-$50,000 when they go on sale this summer. Along with the new C and SLK, there now are AMG variants of the S-Class, the CL and CLK coupes, the E-Class and the M-Class sport-ute. None of ’em cost less than the two newest, yet Mercedes just can't make enough AMG cars.
And you say the economy sucks?
The new AMG-modified SLK and C-Class depart from the typical AMG formula in one important aspect: rather than using larger-displacement modified production engines, it's supercharging in place of cubic inches. AMG's first foray in series-production supercharging results in a blown version of the well-known (we hesitate to use the term “yeoman”) 3.2L SOHC V-6 that's won one of our 10 Best Engines awards every year since its launch in ’98.
Japanese ’charger expert IHI supplies the neat helical-rotor supercharger; the unit is belt-driven and clutched via a magnetic actuation system so that it runs only when necessary. Mercedes engineers say the helical-rotor design increases available charge pressure by as much as 30% when compared to conventional Roots blowers. Supercharging emerged victorious over numerous other engine choices, however, because of the boisterous torque output, which permits V-8 style power with the superior weight distribution presented by the V-6.
The AMG philosophy doesn't allow for merely slapping on a supercharger. The 3.2L V-6's crank bearings are bulked up to handle that haymaker torque, as are the conrods and pistons. A new balance shaft is fitted, and higher-tension valve springs enable a redline increase from 6,000 rpm to the still-uninspired 6,220 rpm — uncomfortably close, really, to the 6,100-rpm power peak.
But the engine's disappointing lack of high-rpm range doesn't really matter, because there's a mule-kick of torque whenever you choose to depress that by-wire throttle. Acceleration in the first couple of the 5-speed automatic's gears (wait a second for that complaint) is downright violent, and turning off the traction/stability control is folly if you're not prepared for outlandish rear-end highjinks. And even with the electronic driving aids enabled to full-alert, brutal acceleration is available in just about any gear, at any speed.
The SLK32 AMG, in fact, has almost the same power-to-weight ratio as an automatic-transmissioned Corvette, so muscle-car-from-Germany is adequate description, with the 200-lb. (91-kg) heavier C32 AMG feeling only slighted blunted by the extra weight, although Mercedes quotes the same 5.2-second 0-to-62 figure for it and the SLK32 AMG.
Alas, those who feared it would be “automatic only” are correct. We think “Wussy owners with no intention of driving hard,” should be the official company line. The 5-speed autobox does have new slap-around-the-gears software (“AMG SpeedShift”) that provides noticeably improved response over Mercedes' conventional Touch Shift, but it's still nothing an honest driver would abide.
Both cars also enjoy the expected dose of up-rated chassis bits: larger-diameter anti-roll bars, stiffer shock/spring calibration and the Herculean brakes that U.S. and Japanese automakers don't even know exist.
As for appearance, we had an interesting repartee with Ulrich Bruhnke, the plain-speaking, newly installed managing director of Mercedes-AMG GmbH. After admitting he now owns the best job in the cosmos, he asks guardedly if we think the styling “enhancements” over the standard C-Class and SLK are “sufficient.”
When we answer in the affirmative and that we prefer AMG hold to its reputation for “sublime” restraint in bodywork, he evidences genuine relief. “We, too, think that it should be visible but unassuming,” he says, noting that although some customers pressure the company for more boisterous differentiation for AMG models, many in Germany still order even the AMG cars with the option that deletes all badging.
Mercedes won't be pinned down on exact pricing and gives only general volume expectations: 1,000 units annually for the C32 AMG and 850 units for the SLK32 AMG in the U.S. — although more SLK32 AMG models can be supplied “if needed.”
In truth, these are titanically performing cars that don't belong in the U.S. After an exhilarating six or seven minutes in the C32 AMG at a sustained 140 mph (225 km/h), we're sold that these cars deliver on their high-performance pedigree. And the 50-odd thousand seems almost a bargain.
But will our road-policy politicos ever allow you to conscientiously use this much gallop? Not in our lifetimes, bub.