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Mercedes-Benz Is Keeping Some Fast Company

Trends * AMG unit takes on BMW's M-series with blindingly fast but understated high-performance cars.

April 11, 2001|TERRIL YUE JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chuck Wesley knows a thing or two about driving.

The 49-year-old purchasing director for a Van Nuys printing company says he's owned 50 or 60 cars over the years. He keeps two turbocharged 1987 Buick Grand National muscle cars in storage to give to his sons, now 6 and 10, as their first wheels.

So which of his nine current cars makes him grin the most when he's at the wheel? One of his two beefy Chevy Impala SS's? Or maybe his powered-up Ford Lightning pickup truck?

Nope. He zips to work up and down the San Diego Freeway--when it's not bumper-to-bumper--in his 2001 Mercedes-Benz CLK55 AMG.

Driving a Mercedes can be comfortable, but what cranks Wesley's starter is that the 342-horsepower CLK is the fastest Mercedes ever built for the public.

The AMG designation refers to Mercedes-Benz's little-known high-performance division.

To those in the know, it means horsepower, sculpted front and side skirts, more horsepower, and high-performance engines built entirely by a single technician. Did we mention horsepower?

While Mercedes-Benz has roared past Lincoln and Cadillac in the last two years to become the No. 2 luxury brand in the U.S., barely trailing Lexus, it has also quietly been building up its AMG division, with eight of its models featuring AMG versions for the U.S. market this year.

The M-Class AMG, also with 342 horsepower, is the world's fastest sport-utility vehicle.

Combining the tuning division's technical abilities with Mercedes' reputation for unparalleled craftsmanship and luxury, Mercedes AMGs put out 342 to 354 horsepower and would churn out mind-numbing speed except they are electronically capped at 155 miles per hour--part of a gentleman's agreement among German auto manufacturers, except for Porsche, to limit their luxury high-performance vehicles to that speed.

Speed aside, these finely tuned Mercedes models have only subtle appearance differences from the models on which they are based: sculpted front air dams and tire wells, chic wheels. They're not attention-grabbers that scream "Look at me!" And that's just the way buyers such as Wesley like it.

"I get what I want," Wesley says, the power of a two-seat race car but in a vehicle that is big enough so the family can ride along. He uses his four-seat AMG to commute to his office from his home in Culver City.

The stock Mercedes-Benz E430 model with its 4.3-liter, 275-horsepower V-8 "is just not the same. Between the suspension and the horsepower, this [AMG] car handles so much better," Wesley says.

There are competitors with more raw horsepower, BMW's M-series cars among them, but torque--the pulling power of the engine, is the name of the game, and AMG models have most street-legal cars beat in that department.

"Eighty percent of the torque is available at 1,800 rpm, right off of idle," says Rob Allen, AMG's product manager in the U.S. "That means power on demand at any speed; any time you tap the accelerator, you spurt ahead."

The cars sell because Mercedes, BMW and Audi, which produce performance-tuned versions of its cars called the S-series, have tapped into a growing pool of upscale drivers who are discovering the exhilaration of performance motoring.

Still, producing high-performance versions of their cars "is 99% bragging rights," says Jeff Schuster, director of North American forecasting for J.D. Power & Associates in Detroit.

"But it does bring some aura to the brand and has a little bit of a halo effect," he adds. "We're seeing them gaining popularity."

This year Mercedes is adding the six-cylinder C32 AMG and SLK32 AMG and the V-8 SLK55 AMG convertible to its U.S. lineup of performance-tuned models.

BMW has the M3, M5, M Coupe and M Roadster, and reportedly is developing an M-tuned version of its X5 SUV.

Audi's performance line--the S4 sedan and wagon and the top-of-the-line S8 sedan--all were introduced around the beginning of this year. An S6 will come on the market later this year, but only in a wagon version.

Allen says the AMG's division's cars appeal to drivers who want raw power in an understated package. "On a sunny day, you might pull out your exotic car, but on a rainy Monday, an AMG is the car you'll want to have because of the reliability and performance," he says.

Buyers also get exclusivity, highly prized by those who know the brand. Each AMG power plant is assembled by a single craftsman who turns out two or three engines a day. Only 12,000 AMG vehicles were built last year.

AMG was founded in 1967 by Hans-Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher--the A and M--in the German town of Grossachbach, the G.

AMG has long worked on passenger vehicles and for decades also has worked on powertrain, suspension and braking systems for race cars, and that racing technology has migrated over to its consumer side.

Stuttgart-based DaimlerChrysler bought control of AMG in 1999--but the division takes pride in its autonomy.

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