AMG Mercedes-Benz 500SEC
One might be forgiven for thinking that the process of refinement which gave rise to the splendid Mercedes-Benz 500SEC could not be honed to a finer edge, but there will always be those who seek to "gild a lily" no matter how excellent the basic package may be. The German firm of AMG has, over the past few years, built up an extensive range of performance accessories tailor-made for products of the Daimler Benz AG and they have recently appointed Strattons of Wilmslow official distributors for their equipment in the United Kingdom. Consequently, when Strattons' Director Mike Hinde recently offered us a 500SEC which had been subjected to the "full" AMG treatment, we were happy to accept and spend a few days with the car. Less than a year has passed since Motor Sport tested the unmodified 500SEC, so memories of the big German coupe were still well to the forefront of our rnind.
Just to set the scene, it's worth recapping for a moment on the original 500SEC. Sharing many technical features with the 500SEL saloon which preceded it onto the British market by almost a year, this stylish two-door coupe reflects the enormous amount of energy spent by Mercedes-Benz engineers in the field of weight-saving materials and aerodynamic efficiency. At the time many people thought that the SEC range, available with both 3.8 and 5-litre V8 "energy concept" engines, were intended to supersede the more angular SLCs, but this has proved not to be the case. Nonetheless, one can't help noticing just how dated the SLCs appear alongside the striking new pillarless coupe which not only cruises effortlessly in excess of 130 m.p.h., but also returns fuel consumption figures which would have seemed unbelievable for a car of this nature two or three years ago. Its beautifully balanced chassis matches its splendid exterior lines to perfection, with four wheel disc brakes in conjunction with the ABS system, the four-speed automatic transmission which engages the next higher gear as early as possible under part throttle in the interests of economy and light, but not over-sensitive, power steering. So what, one is bound to ask, does AMG think it can offer to enhance this high level of performance and road behaviour?
The answer to that question is, I have to report, "a surprising amount". Even though some enthusiasts may baulk at the prospect of loading the 500SEC's £28,700 price tag with another £9,000 worth of equipment, there is no doubt that the AMG version of the car feels appreciably different in several respects. Visually, therein the addition of a full spoiler kit in matching paint, comprising a deep front spoiler, side skirts, rear apron and boot spoiler; all the Mercedes-Benz plastic panels are finished in matching paint and all bright work is finished in black. The result may sound a little more extrovert than some of the company's more conservative cusomers will approve of, but most people feel that an already distinctive profile has been made even more striking as a result. The fact of the matter seems to be that Strattons are finding that a large number of customers like the touch of individuality imparted by the addition of thr AMG options and there's no doubt that passing interest in the car when out amongst the traffic, ran at a level matched only by Ferrari's fuel-injected 512BB in our experience!
However, the AMG modifications embrace alterations under the skin which removed the minor reservations I had with the standard 500SEC's handling. On the AMG car the suspension is lowered about an inch and a half by means of fitting shortened re-stressed coil springs, and uprated Bilstein shock-absorbers. As a result of these suspension modifications and steering geometry is slightly readjusted and the regular 205 / 70 VR14 tyres give may to low profile 225 / 50 VR15 Pirelli P7s on light alloy AMG 8" x 16' wheel rims. Topping off the whole package are different camshafts and valves, altered combustion chambers and polished ports, the result of which is to send the power output up by 55 b.h.p.
As far as the interior is concerned, the most immediate change noticed when you slip through the wide-opening doors is the provision of a thick-rimmed AMG steering wheel which is. happily, slightly smaller than the example fitted to the standard coupe. Although the power steering is finger-light, I felt that the suspension and geometry changes had imparted slightly more feel to the whole system and this, allied to the significantly firmer ride, made the car feel more taut and agile than its unmodified stablemate. In the June, 1982 issue of Motor Sport I wrote of the 500SEC "Under hard cornering there is a perceptible degree of roll which discourages one from 'playing Bears' — remember, this is a sporting limousine, not an out-and-out sports car," Well, with the AMG 500SEC these words are not really appropriate. Even on slightly damp surfaces the car was sure-footed and reassuring and the roll-free ride enabled fast corners to be taken with considerably more confidence. There was admittedly some thumping from the P7s, but I wasn't conscious of it being more obtrusive than on the standard car, and although they tended to "skate" slightly over standing water, they displayed gentle and undramatic breakaway characteristics which responded immediately to a flick of opposite lock. I should mention that the 500SEC's overall length necessarily makes the business of getting it out of line a trifle worrisome, but it's disarmingly easy to cope with the resultant loss of adhesion. It goes almost without saying that the ABS braking system confers powers of retardation that are almost superfluous to requirements in the dry, but sincerely appreciated in wet and slippery conditions.
The engine alterations are betrayed only by a slightly lumpy tickover, but the usual smooth surge of power is uninterrupted by any fits of temperament when the 500SEC is on the move. We have eulogised about the impressive torque characteristics of this German V8 in the past and marvelled in the way that this Mercedes-Benz covers the ground between standstill and speeds of around 110 m.p.h.: well, in the case of the AMG car this impressive surge of power simply runs on and on to over 130 mph, without any apparent diminution of performance. Also, if you stamp the throttle at around 80 m.p.h., the 500SEC simply hurls itself forward like a rocket, surging away to its maximum speed with a lusty roar: it was in this area that I was particularly impressed with the car's capability. Nobody could even begin to call the standard 500SEC a slouch, but the AMG version certainly has more punch in the medium speed range in addition to a slightly higher top speed.
The reduced ground clearance calls for sensible judgement on bumpy minor roads, but the car didn't bottom once during the course of our test, even on a notorious local lane which caught out Toleman's high performance 1.8 Golf GTi earlier in the year. There was one occasion near Witham when the 500SEC was plunging down a long "switchback" section of secondary road that I heard a slight thump from the front end and feared that perhaps the spoiler might have touched the tarmac. But an inch-by-inch examination indicated that hadn't been the case, so I put it down to the Pirellis briefly scuffing the inside of the wheel arches. Aside from this single incident there was nothing to suggest that the AMG modifications modified the standard 500SEC's performance in any adverse fashion.
Once or twice the fascia mounted twist-grip handbrake control proved a little reluctant to release at the first attempt, but otherwise the convenience of control layout in this German coupe continues to please. As we've said before, the informative simplicity of the instrument, the comprehensively efficient nature of the heating and air conditioning systems and the smoothly positive feel of the automatic transmission selector all combine to provide an aura of technical completeness which is a hallmark of Mercedes-Benz quality. For those who wish to take advantage of the built-in seat belts (and so comply with the recently introduced law on that much-discussed subject), the 500SEC "offers" them to the front seat occupants, an arm discreetly sliding out at shoulder level to remind you that this facility is available. Once you either accept the end of the belt and click it into its fastening or indicated your rejection by ignoring it for half a minute, the arm then slides silently back into its home in the rear bodywork. One is tempted to speculate whether Mercedes-Benz will be obliged to revise this system slightly for markets in which the wearing of seat belts is becoming compulsory: in such cases one can see the arm emerging and never retracting until the belt is actually buckled up! A difficult problem for the marketing people, no doubt, but, irrespective of legislation, it's nice to know that Mercedes-Benz is still building cars to a standard which should enable the experienced driver to avoid accidents of his own making rather than simply producing second rate machines which seek only to protect their occupants from the consequences of accidents.
With the AMG engine alterations conferring a boost for thc 500SEC's power output, we were naturally particularly interested learn what price was paid in terms of fuel consumption. When the coupe was released onto the British market its manufacturers made much of the fact that at a steady 56 m.p.h. this "energy concept" V8 returns 31.0 m.p.g. as opposed to the 24.4 m.p.g. of the superseded 6.9-litre V8 in addition to being quicker from standstill to 60 m.p.h. Well, on a gentle cruise down the M1 in pouring rain, well within the 500SEC's capabilities, the AMG modified car returned an average of 23.2 m.p.g. without the use of the infernal but nonetheless present, cruise control which I personally rank in the same bracket as onboard computers as a mandate for careless and sloppy driving. Even on secondary, although largely traffic-free, country roads involving much more use of the throttle, but less in the way of revs, the coupe returned inst over 19 m.p.g. That, in my view, speaks volumes for the design's inherent efficiency.
Equipped as tested, the AMG Mercedes-Benz. 500SEC is an undeniably expensive indulgence, boosting the basic product's price tag by twenty five per cent. But the customer receives such a distinctively modified machine for that outlay that it's no surprise just how much AMG-orientated business is finding its way through Stratton's workshops. Remember, this is no simple cosmetic conversion: it's a carefully programmed performance package which enhances the basic high quality of the car. Visually, it may come as an eye-opener to some conservative minded followers of the marque. But foreverybody who found it a little "Ritzy" for their taste, an emlal number of enthusiasts seemed to regard she AMG 500SEC's profile as superbly impressive. Either way, on the road it represents a measurable improvement over ,the standard car — if the word "improvement" can be honestly considered the right word when referring to products of the Three Pointed Star! — A.H.