High-performance cars are meant to be fun, but brake calipers colored like Skittles and giant spoilers are a little overt for many drivers who don’t want their car to scream speed. For Mercedes-AMG—the performance arm of the Stuttgart-based brand—all that performance is available in more subtle designs. While not exactly impervious to the call of a fixed rear wing (the GT R coupe comes to mind), the carmaker offers a sophisticated take on performance vehicles. Those cars are the new AMG 53 models.
The AMG 53 badge denotes a vehicle with a smaller, more efficient inline-six engine, rather than the V-8-powered 63 models. There’s still plenty of power, but the designs skew toward the real world rather than the racetrack.
We spent two happy days in Napa, California, driving through backroads in thee different AMG 53 models: the E-Class sedan, coupe and CLS four-door—which has a swooping roofline. Power is rated at 429 horsepower, a hearty uptick from the standard 362 horses in the V-6-powered 450 models.
The AMG E 53 sedan is perhaps the most conservative of the group, with four doors and a traditional roofline. But there are discrete hints like the so-called “power-dome” bulges on the hood. The 53s feature 20-inch wheels (for increased aerodynamics) and the rear deck has an integrated spoiler that is painted the same color as the body—less gaudy, and still does the job, of course.
These cars are easy to manipulate and quite comfortable—just right for everyday city drives. Outfitted with the safety technology for which Mercedes is now known, each boasts a steering system that actively intercedes to help drivers move around an obstacle, as well as automatic braking for when the car senses an impending collision. The sedan (starting at $73,000) gets a combined fuel economy of 24 miles per gallon.
After driving through the somnolent villages around Napa (where speeds are low and pedestrians frequent), we continued out of town, up the ridge of a mountain and through backcountry lanes we’d never driven before. This is the “other” California, where livestock outnumbers people. It’s here, after selecting sport mode and loosening the reigns of traction control, that the E 53 undergoes a distinct change of character. The note from the engine is raunchier. The all-wheel-drive system keeps the car tamped down securely, but the ride is now much more animated. And, when you want a sudden burst of speed, the layer of reserve rips away.
The secret here is the engine itself, a trick piece of technology. The 3.0-liter inline-six has a tiny lithium-ion battery inside the assembly, which starts the car and can also give it an extra boost of power. This electric-assist feature acts as a mini-supercharger which functions in tandem with an exhaust-drive turbocharger, allowing for a consistent surge of power from low rpms.
From there, it’s really a matter of aesthetics and space—perhaps the E 53 four-door suits your lifestyle, or a subtle flex with the coupe seems fun. If you’re lucky enough to live in sunny climes, there’s even a convertible version—the E 53 Cabriolet. And, if you want a different form altogether, there’s the AMG CLS 53. It, too, is a four-door, but with the sloping roofline and a funkified rear end.
Whichever model of 53 appeals, each offers the ability to pass other cars in elevated style, while indulging your speed-loving, inner-child at the same time.