Mercs with perks
Do you find you need four seats in your Countach? Portman, the company which imports Lamborghinis to the UK, believes that while there may not actually be a demand for a four-seater version, there is a need for a comfortable, fast and interesting stablemate for Lambo owners to use during the week.
Its answer is not a standard production car, but a modified version of what many claim to the best car in the world — Mercedes-Benz (and at last it is correct to use that title, for Daimler-Benz AG has recently formed another company officially called Mercedes-Benz, resigning itself to public opinion which erroneously combined Mercedes and Benz in the first place).
Brabus Autosport has been sportifying the cars in Germany for 12 years, but despite a fine reputation in Europe only a handful have been seen here. From May, a new Portman offshoot called Portman Brabus plans to offer a range of Brabus cars to British buyers who want the performance of the German saloon sharpened up. Portman MD David Joliffe sees the cars very much as a complement to another less practical fun car, but they may also be expected to attract the wealthy sporting driver who is looking for understated individuality. He expects to sell 25-30 cars this year.
The complete range is extensive, comprising a choice of modifications for every Mercedes model, even the big commercial van. What we will see in Britain, though, is edited highlights; Joliffe is realistic enough to agree that it will be a stiff enough task to put across an unfamiliar name without cluttering the field with multiple choices for customers.
Our selection therefore will be simple: seven complete packages will be offered to start with, all designated with simple Q-prefixes which echo Alpina badges and make a mild joke on the Q-car idea. Q6 will be the big S-class saloon, Q3 is the mid-sized W124 or 300 range, while a Q2 is a 190. Variations comprise a Q2S, an even quicker 190, and you can have the job done on a T-wagen 300 estate (Q3T), or either of the coupes to produce a Q3C or Q6C.
All models comprise modifications to the same four aspects (chassis, engine, aerodynamics and interior) but instead of the generous catalogue through which German customers leaf to pick out their preferred options, the cars will be ready-prepared to standard specifications and available more-or-less off the shelf. Since the bulk of customers specify similar items for their cars in Germany, this arrangement should be no real disadvantage to British clients. As the importation gathers way, individual choices will be more easily incorporated.
The first cars have yet to reach this country, so we went instead to visit the Brabus Autosport facility in Bottrop, near Dusseldorf, where the first RHD cars were being prepared. Brabus founder Bodo Buschmann, who started the company in 1977 when taking over his father’s Mercedes-Benz dealership, has built up a close relationship between his organisation and the factory. He likens it to Alpina with BMW, and indeed that comparison is valid even though the two concerns are potential rivals when it comes to new clients. However, there is an exceedingly strong marque loyalty amongst Mercedes buyers, and Buschmann claims many customers who are now buying their fourth, fifth or sixth Brabus conversion.
The Brabus premises are not as extensive in scale as those at Alpina, but are extremely tidy and well-presented. A smart and capacious showroom, complete with cafe/ bar area, fronts a main assembly hall and subsidiary bays for engine bench testing, rolling-road testing, machining, upholstery, and a fibreglass workshop where the prototype panels are made. Actual glassfibre production is sub-contracted to a separate company also owned by Buschmann. Though these body mods are not blatant, they have to be aerodynamically proved by the German TUV, and Buschmann is overtly proud of the record figure set by a 300 with Brabus panels. This Cd value of 0.2621 is the lowest recorded for a production car with its standard equipment fitted.
Given the small number of staff visible, efficiency must be very high for the claimed output of 25-30 cars per week. A new factory is now being built alongside to cater for the projected expansion of which the new UK market is a part.
Buschmann’s express aim is to tune his engines for torque rather than peak horsepower, and the figures look very impressive: virtually all the conversions boast more torque at 1000 rpm than the peak value for the standard engine.
The only minor exception to this is the Q2, the six-cylinder 2.6-litre 190. A big-valve head and special camshaft are fitted to the standard block, and the torque is marginally less below 1500 rpm, but stronger above this. Power rises from 166 to 190 bhp, but though there is no increase in displacement, the little car displays no temperament with its extra get-up-and-go, while the competent 190 is made crisper by lowering the suspension. Throttle response is slowish, but top-gear pull is particularly good.
This is the mildest conversion. Much more dramatic changes are made to the 3-litre six in the medium saloon to produce the Q3. Forged pistons and a long-stroke crank machined from solid take it out to 3.6 litres, out of which a new cam and improved breathing extract 245 bhp and 257 lb ft of torque. This can push the plush five-seater to around 156 mph with wonderful flexibility; there is barely any need to drop out of top on the autobahn no matter how conditions change. Smooth acceleration oozes from under the bonnet, while even easing through town traffic the Q3 needs no special care. It only shows itself nonstandard by a mild throb when it gets into its stride and by a slightly uneven tick-over after a top-speed run on an empty autobahn.
Surprisingly, no mods are made to gearbox or clutch. Brabus has tested the standard items using an experimental 400 bhp twin-turbo conversion and maintains that they are up to the job. Perhaps Mercedes’ ratios are not ideal for the sporting nature of the conversion, but the extra capacity helps to smooth this out.
Best of all is the feel of the chassis: the nose-heavy attitude is gone, replaced by an eagerness to respond which stops short of nervousness. Understeer is controlled to a level which promises no surprises from the car even when provoked in a corner, and the cornering limits are very high, despite the Brabus philosophy which keeps the cars on tyres of a sensible width — 205 or 225, though on wide rims of 7 or 8in to help brace the sidewall. This is part of the restrained image of the cars: no bulging arches or high tail spoilers here. Buyers (who include some major German business figures) seem to want anonymous performance; almost all of the 30 or so cars at the Brabus HQ were in black or dark colours, with blacked-out chrome.
This echoes David Joliffe’s view of his potential clients being people who have a fast high-profile car in the garage, but want a quiet everyday alternative which does not sacrifice too much performance.
Interior changes are also tasteful, restricted in the main to replacing the standard Mercedes leather with finer hides in a choice of colour and binning the unpleasant orange wood trim the factory uses in favour of nicely-crafted panels of walnut or other fancy veneers. Recaro seats are popular, but the British-market cars will also have the cheaper option of factory seats retrimmed with extra side support, which proved quite adequate on our test and look more appropriate in this class of car.
An extra 30 bhp is offered in S-spec, and the big 3.6-litre block can be levered into a 190 shell to make a true road-burner. The test-car we tried made the most of this by throwing away much extraneous weight and having a race-car feel to the chassis. In fact the Q2S will have all the normal comforts, but this lightweight special served as a pure fun test-bed. Its stiffer ride and near-oversteer tied in well with the peakier character of the engine, but even this retained most of the unfussiness of its more rounded brother.
For the man who needs yet more space or power, Brabus will equally happily dismantle an S-class and give it the works: the 5.6-litre V8 is bored-out to 6.0, inlet and exhaust tracts are altered, and two new cams are fitted. The result is 345 bhp coupled with a neck-breaking 321 lb ft of torque in a long-wheelbase shell which logic denies should ever handle sharply, but which seems to do just that. Despite its extra weight, the Q6 beats the Q3 in the 0-62 trophies — a lightning 6.0 sec, inching ahead of the 6.6 sec of the 3.6-litre car.
Physical laws ought to insist that, if you don’t get owt for nowt, these cars should be inferior to the factory models in some department. If they are quicker, more flexible, handle better without ride discomfort and, according to Brabus’ TUV tests, are more economical, why doesn’t Daimler-Benz incorporate the same modifications? It is a question of tolerances, says Buschmann. Hand-built engines can be built to far stricter limits than even the best-engineered production units. These conversions demand time and effort which could never be acceptable in a factory. Nevertheless, just as Mercedes engineers feed advance model information to Brabus, they also weigh up the products of this small operation, and soon the basic 3-litre six will be raised to 3.2 for better torque.
Already Brabus engine development chief Herr Gauffres is working on SL-24, the four-valve variable-timing unit due to appear in the 300SL. Just whether there is any room for improvement in the chassis of the new SL sportscar is hard to imagine, but if there is, Brabus is not going to miss the chance to exploit it. GC