Mercedes-Benz C36 AMG

The huge aftermarket in performance equipment shows just how restless many enthusiasts are about production cars. Most of us have made changes ranging from replacing engine and suspension parts to installing complete drivetrains. The results are usually a mixed bag but we never quit trying.

Major manufacturers do little better, usually stuffing in a big engine and adding trick wheels to make a crude “go fast but don’t try to steer or stop” mutation.

The C36, a joint effort of Mercedes and master modifiers AMG, is the ultimate example of what serious players can do. The end product is good enough to make the rest of us throw away the engine hoist and give our tools to the kids next door.

Mercedes makes a number of changes to a basic C280 sedan on the Bremen assembly line, then ships the car to AMG near Stuttgart for the full treatment. The body shell is about all that stays the same.

The engine is bored and stroked from 2.8 to 3.6 liters and further modified to boost the horsepower from 195 at 5,500 rpm to 268 at 5,750 rpm. Torque jumps from 199 lb ft. at 3,750 to 280 at 4,000 rpm. Drive train and brakes come from larger cars and suspension, wheels and tires are new.

Unlike most similar efforts, the ground effects package improves the car’s appearance, adding some interest to the basically boring 200 series shape. The interior is conservatively attractive in keeping with the car’s purpose. Interior space is average for a 177 inch long RWD car; enough for four adults with little to spare. Cabin storage space is minimal.

Primary driving controls are where they should be; except for the symbolic seat positioners, accessory switches are the German norm – challenging but not insurmountable.

The result of all this effort is a very civilized sedan that hits 60 mph in an impressive six seconds and then really begins to haul, undoubtedly all the way to the 150 mph plus top speed, leaving most of its potential beyond our cherished 65 mph speed limit.

But unlike many Autobahn burners there are plenty of reasons to own a C36 in the land of the free. A fine engine-transmission balance and precise point and shoot handling make the car great in traffic and on crowded freeways, as well as a real winner on tight fast two lane roads. Order yours for European delivery and have it both ways.

The Mercedes “feel,” much firmed up, is still there. The low profile 40 rear/45 front series tires felt harsh only on occasional cross strips, a good trade-off for the superb handling.

Although the car shares some conceptual similarities with the BMW M3, they differ in character. The M3 is best as a stick shift sports coupe, the C36 as an automatic sports sedan. One of each would be nice.

To get all of the power to the ground, our car was equipped with the optional traction control (ASR) that brakes a spinning driving wheel and cuts the power; a not very tidy partial solution now that laying a strip of rubber as you leave the drive-in is no longer fashionable and one that is shared in various forms with most builder of high-performance two-wheel-drive machines.

Only the Audi S6, a larger, slightly less sporting, but almost equally fast car in the same $50,000 price range, uses the obvious solution of fulltime four-wheel drive.

Summing up, the C36 is as good as four-door sports sedans get. It appears completely developed, giving no clue to its mixed parentage. It is the consummate driver’s car, but still comfortable enough for anyone outside the Lexus 400 fold.

Be advised – only 400 will be imported [in 1996].

Glenn Herz is a 50 year member of SAE and an engineering manager, whose stable of daily drivers includes an MB 450SL, a 78 Porsche 3.0 911SC, a Lancia Flavia Pininfarina Coupe, a ’61 Ford Econoline pickup, an ’87 Audi 5000 Turbo and a ’94 Ford Taurus SHO.