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…but not quite. For all its sporting pedigree, Mark Hughes emerges a tad disappointed from AMG’s interpretation of the E-Class

Everyone knows that you cannot buy a more solid, long-lasting car than a Mercedes. The bloke in the street knows, German cab drivers know, second-hand car traders certainly know. But excitement, that’s a different thing. No, there’s no excitement in noting that after 20 years every switch and control feels rocksolid, little quickening of the pulse when you’re reminded that the seat runners operate with well-oiled precision and tailor for perhaps the widest range of drivers shapes and sizes of any car. You appreciate a Mercedes over a long period of ownership; for its convenience, its reliability, its financial sense and its strong upper-crust image. But there’s little or no instant attraction, no lust. They did once make a car like that just take one look at a 300SL Gullwing and if you’ve any car soul at all, you’ll begin salivating, but that’s from the days of black-and-white, far too long-ago to add any sparkle to that three-pronged star today.

That car, like other even earlier exciting Mercs, drew heavily on the company’s motorsport background. It’s a lesson that’s been remembered now that the company has realised its image needs a polish once again. AMG Mercedes models like the new E36 featured here are now part of the official Mercedes line-up. AMG is a race and tuning company inextricably linked to Mercedes products. The quality of its work is such that long ago Mercedes gave its conversions a sort of under-the-counter blessing, and of course it has long been the competition arm of Mercedes-Benz in touring, car racing. But as for the road-going AMG models; well, they’ve always been officially non-official.

Until now. As the sporting variants within the mainstream line-up, AMG Mercs now carry the sort of company sporting branding of BMW’s M-series. Pukka models, but something a little bit special. You can begin to appreciate just how special when considering how the E36 for now one of just two AMG models in the Mercedes UK line-up, alongside the SL60 AMG comes into being.

It begins life on the Mercedes production line as a conventional E-class (the mid-size model introduced last year, notable for its odd-looking high-density headlights and for finally ditching the company’s traditional recirculating ball steering in favour of rack and pinion). Plucked from the line as an E320 Avantgarde denoting that it has the sportiest of the three standard trim levels it’s then transported to the AMG factory. Here, it has its 3.2-litre straight six replaced by a 3.5-litre version with 272 rather than 220bhp, complemented by lowered and stiffened settings on a front wishbone/rear multi-link suspension which ought to lend itself well to such sporting treatment.

Bigger brakes, lower profile tyres (235/40 18s), a set of beautiful alloy wheels and a restrained body kit complete the car’s rebirth as an E36 AMG. Back then to the Mercedes factory, where it undergoes the same intensely rigorous final quality inspection as any other Merc.

If that sounds like an expensive operation, then you won’t be too surprised to learn that Mercedes UK asks £53,500 for the final product. That’s around £10,000 more than BMW asks for its similarly priced and powered 540i, which is almost certainly why the E36 flows into the UK at the rate of just 10 per month.

Those 10 customers though will get a car with all the traditional Mercedes quality values, plus a look of brawn not normally associated with the marque. Looking deeply menacing, especially when finished in a dark colour, it sits low on those wide wheels and tyres. Combined with high-tech external details like the single wiper arm with its trick articulation, those headlights and their power jets which slide proud of the body to do their stuff before slotting back in, it gives the E36 a futuristic, post-apocalypse Robocop look. There’s no Jaguar-like flowing grace about it, but rather a powerful aggression.

Paintwork is deeply luscious, panel gaps are uniformly minute. The door handles have a feel which couldn’t be anything other than Mercedes, stiff and solid with a two-part action, not swish, soft and smooth like BMW or Lexus. Pull on them, having activated the infra-red locking, open the heavy door and you’ll be confronted by an interior which has less in the way of performance cues than the exterior. It’s pretty much standard E-class Avantgarde inside. Which means a big, unsporting steering wheel inside which is a fullsize airbag. There’s another bag in front of the passenger but this one will only trigger on impact if the seat sensor tells it that someone is sitting there, thus saving the unnecessary cost of replacement in the event of a driver-only accident. There are yet more airbags in the side of each front door, doors trimmed in leather and highly polished dark wood which also appears in the centre console.

The seats are wide but have lots of bolstering in both the squabs and the back and are electrically adjustable from three buttons placed conveniently at the top of the doors. Surprisingly, leather is an option at £1900. You will not be wanting for leg or headroom in either front or rear, and the cabin is traditional Mercedes in how upright and commandingly it places you. Ergonomically, it’s impeccable with big, clear controls and instruments, logical and easy and with little touches like the self-dimming rear-view mirror. A typical Mercedes detail is the big, solid stalk controlling the wiper and flash functions which feels at least three times as strong as that on any comparable car. You just know its action will still feel exactly the same when the car finally goes to the crusher many decades from now. But it also means that its operation is not for delicate fingers, requiring as it does a very firm hand.

Ventilation is brilliant, with myriad vents in all the right places and a big, wide band of direction while the auto climate control can get you from greenhouse to fridge and back again in a remarkably short time. Like most things about the car, it always feels as though there’s capacity in reserve.

Such a feeling is reinforced on the move when even the standard-fit four-speed automatic transmission cannot disguise the constant, ready surge of power. It’s not pin-you-in-your-seat quick (If you want that in an E-class package, you’ll need the five-litre V8 E50 AMG as a private import, left-hand-drive only and the thick end of £70,000), but it’s eager and responsive. The twin-cam, 24 valve six plays a raspy tune with its special AMG exhaust and has grunt enough to push what is a fairly heavy car (1640 kg) to 60mph in well under 7s. Although it doesn’t have quite the low-down, gut-wrenching torque its mean looks promise (its 284Ib peak is developed at a highish 4250rpm), it goes a good way to making up for this by how readily it revs, and if you’d never experienced the uncanny high rev smoothness of the latest BMW sixes, you’d be pretty impressed by how unflustered the Merc engine is at its red line. Against its Bavarian rival powerplants though, it’s a little frayed round the edges. Furthermore, the cheapest, V8-powered BMW 540i actually has more muscle.

Although the quality of the engine note is sporting, the volume is well subdued from inside, definitely more Mercedes than performance car. Similarly, its relative frugality is at odds with a big, fast car. Even during our heavy-footed testing period it achieved an easy 24 mpg which combined with its generous 17.6-gallon tank gives it the sort of long range desirable for a high speed cruiser.

It has the sort of braking performance borne from the demands of flat-out autobahn users too, capable of shedding speed extremely quickly without the slightest hint of drama.

The automatic’s ratios are ideally chosen to get the best from the engine, but in such a performance-orientated machine the lack of some sort of semi-auto facility (like BMW’s Steptronic) seems a glaring omission. Electronically-controlled shifts give it impeccable smoothness going up through the ‘box on either part or full throttle and you can barely feel the downshifts. But neither its Economy nor Sport mode is ideally suited to general use. In the former it feels somewhat unresponsive, too reluctant to change down at anything other than big throttle movements. But switch to Sport and it becomes rather too snatchy. Combine this characteristic with a strongly wound-up torque converter and a throttle pedal which is soft in its initial movement but firm and solid thereafter, and in town traffic you tend to progress in a series of aggressive squirts.

A state-of-the-art traction control (ASP in Mercedes-speak) working on brakes and engine is a standard part of the powertrain but, unlike less sporting Mercs, it can be switched off at the press of a button. In the dry the system has very little work to do; those wide tyres, efficient suspension geometry and the lack of real low-end grunt combine to ensure that traction is rarely broken anyway.

If that doesn’t sound like the sort of speed machine suggested by its looks and labelling, the firmness of its suspension should reassure you. It isn’t harsh it never crashes over bumps but it’s decidedly stiff. Forget limo-like low speed smothering of bumps, it ain’t going to happen. Something like a Mondeo will give’a more cosseting ride to passengers than this, and on the sort of coarsely-surfaced motorways that are very common in the UK there is simply too much road noise for a car of this class. That’s a penalty of those big tyres, sure, but others have shown it’s not an insurmountable one. On the upside, its body control over varying road contours at high speeds is excellent.

All of this translates to the handling front too. For a big car it stays impressively flat during cornering, helped in this by that wishbone front suspension. Combine the suspension spec with the big tyres and wide track and it’s no surprise that the E36 is very well endowed with sheer grip, particularly through fast sweepers where it feels wonderfully secure. The limit is signalled by the onset of steadily increasing understeer, something which a lift of the throttle corrects without drama, though it really is a characteristic that will go largely undiscovered, such is the grip.

The Servotronic steering is decently direct around the straight-ahead position, without that characteristic vagueness of even very recent Mercs, and gives the drivers a fair idea of what the front tyres are up to, though ultimately it’s probably a tad too tight at speed for a sporting car.

Which is a recurring niggle with the E36. It’s not quite as sporting, not quite as fast, not quite as awesome as you’re expecting. Yes, it helps give the Mercedes image a bit of an aggressive cutting edge whilst still maintaining all the traditionally Mercedes values. But the car itself, considering its looks, its billing and above all, its price, is ever so slightly underwhelming. In this light, 10 cars per month is perhaps understandable.

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