2018 Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S Coupe Review: AMG’s First High-Performance SUV Worth a Damn
Mercedes’s humpbacked SUV looks like an angry, two-ton armadillo—but drives like a sport sedan.
Finally. Mercedes has built itself a bona-fide high-performance SUV, not just a family hauler with a hot-rod engine below the hood. The GLC63 S Coupe is a loudmouthed brute with a Napoleon complex, the SUV most likely to get slapped with a harassment suit. Yet for Mercedes, it also represents an athletic advance after nearly 20 years of muscle-bound SUV oafs like the various M-Class, G-Class, and GLE-Class AMGs—a line of disappointments stretching back to the ML55 of 1999, the first of many AMG SUVs that were straight-line explosive, but didn’t handle worth a damn. This new GLC is also further evidence of the boundaries blurring between SUVs and sport sedans, until you can barely discern the difference—and when it comes to certain performance numbers, there's no difference at all.
Once, Mercedes might have shoehorned its AMG-built biturbo V8 into the slanty-roofed GLC Coupe, called it a day, and left owners to wrestle with the result. After all, this 4.0-liter is one of the world’s greatest V8s, as demonstrated by its seismic sound and output in models like the AMG GT sports car. (The GLC63 even adopts the GT’s bodacious Panamericana grille—the name as big a mouthful as the toothy grille itself.) Instead, this GLC mooches tons of other mechanical treats from the 603-hp E63 S sport sedan, including its bravura Speedshift MCT nine-speed automatic transmission (with a wet start-up clutch instead of a torque convertor), the AMG-tuned 4Matic+ AWD system, programmable adaptive damping, and multi-chamber air springs. Add in larger AMG brakes and extra oil/transmission coolers, revise the steering knuckles and other suspension hardware, and et voila: The Mercedes is ready to tussle with any wackadoodle SUV around, from the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio and upcoming Jaguar F-Pace SVR to the Porsche Macan Turbo, Audi SQ5, and BMW X6 M. I should note that the Mercedes is faster than most of them, and has as much sheer grip as any of them.
The Mercedes underlined that malevolent intent every time I pressed its start button, heard its enticing V8 growl, and turned surrounding traffic into dust specks in my mirrors. If this Mercedes still isn’t born for the world’s tightest hairpins (it weighs some 4,500 pounds, after all) it made for a time-warping vacation car in New York’s Hudson Valley and Catskills, with more space for luggage, coolers, wine and groceries than a comparable sedan.
Hand-assembled by a single AMG technician, the V8 and its “hot inner-V” turbos dish up 503 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque. (You can also choose a non-“S” GLC63 Coupe with 469 horsepower and 479 pound-feet. Or, a standard GLC63 with its traditional, square SUV roof—but only in 469-hp guise, with no “S” version available.) Mercedes coyly suggests a 3.7-second 0-60 mph run for the GLC63 S Coupe (and 3.8 seconds for the 469-hp versions), but testers are squeezing as little as 3.3 seconds from this beastie. That’s faster than any Porsche, BMW, Audi, or Jaguar SUV. It matches the best time recorded for the 505-hp Stelvio, and challenges even the 650-hp, $200,000 Lamborghini Urus.
That run is best accomplished by dialing up the Race mode and switching off stability control for an automated launch. With the 4WD system quelling any wheelspin, it’s the least dramatic, 3.3-second sprint you’ll ever experience. But it’s still cool. Stand on the gas at any moment, and the V8 hurtles to nearly its 7,000-rpm redline before shifting, with no hint of laggardly turbochargers. With its double-declutching function, the nine-speed transmission serves up rev-matched downshifts in either full automatic mode or when using the burnished, aileron-shaped metal paddles that flank the thick, flat-bottom AMG steering wheel.
About those looks: After a few years of acclimation, these funky SUV “coupes” are starting to look less oddball. I took to calling the Mercedes “The Armadillo,” for its squat, armor-plated appearance. That nickname wasn’t entirely fond. Still, I’d say it’s definitely better looking than Mercedes’s one-size-larger GLE Coupe and on rough par with a BMW X4, but nowhere near as appealing as the BMW X6, still the leader in styling and screw-you attitude in this class.
The AMG treatment certainly boosts stylistic impressions. That included optional, 21-inch matte black wheels (at $2,750), so burly they might have been forged by Burt Reynold’s blacksmith on Gunsmoke. (Google it, young ’uns). Those wheels featured staggered tire sizes—265/40 in front, 295/35 in back—with staggeringly grippy Michelin Pilot Sport 4S summer tires. A $1,750 carbon fiber package gussied up the rear spoiler lip and mirror caps.
Drawing heavily from the C-Class, the interior vies strongly for best-in-class honors, from its AMG sport seats (two-tone, black-and-white in my tester)to oodles of Nappa leather, carbon fiber, silvery metal, and perforated Burmester speaker grilles. The back seat feels roughly Honda Civic-sized, but with a tad less headroom, a nod (literally?) to the sloping roof that impinges on space. As a six-footer, I fit fine, but lanky types are likely to complain.
Benz’s Comand infotainment system keeps getting prettier in graphical terms, yet it remains ugly to operate in many ways. Comand's biggest ergonomic goof is how it runs a stripe of function icons above and below the main screen, and makes it a chronic chore to move smoothly between them. One example: Unless you’ve got the steady hand of a surgeon, twiddling the knurled-metal knob to dial through radio stations often makes the cursor jump to the rows of function icons, forcing you to start over and toggle back into the middle.
Ah, but is this GLC fun to drive? If your definition of “fun” is to blast craters in the pavement and blow away unsuspecting citizens, it’s a definite “yes.” As with every AMG equipped with this engine, the sound is deliciously deep and nasty, especially when the two-stage, driver-adjustable exhaust unleashes the V8 thunder. As for pure handling, I’d describe certain competitors as relative Popeyes, skinnier and more nimble. Yet this Bluto may still put a foot up their ass before they can grab the spinach. Still, that sense of lumpen size and mass is the GLC’s biggest demerit, the area where Benz still has work to do. And it all starts with the needlessly high-effort steering, which, along with the boa-thick steering wheel, only exacerbates the sensation of heaviness. The Mercedes only weighs about 250 more pounds than the Porsche or Alfa—the latter the class benchmark when it comes to sprightly steering and agility—but it feels more like twice that. Unfortunately, where you can individualize dynamic settings for the powertrain, suspension and exhaust, there’s not a separate control to lighten the steering; drive the Benz in its more-athletic Sport, Sport Plus, or Race settings, and you’re stuck with the weight as-is.
On the upside, that steering is quick, and generates surprisingly useful feedback as tire limits approach. Keep pushing, and understeer finally rears its cautious head. Yet that takes a lot of pushing: Some car mags show the Mercedes generating an eye-opening 0.94 g of lateral stick. The adaptive damping’s rebound and compression adjust independently, and body roll is smartly minimized. The Mercedes mostly betrays its mass and tall stance when you’re whipping it through quick transitions, or standing on the brakes from heroic speeds. On the autobahn, say—or on New York wilderness roads that shall remain nameless—the Benz could attack curves all day at 100 mph or higher. Sure, ride quality is decidedly firm (but never stony) in its elevated performance modes. But what did you expect?
Like many macho types, the GLC does love to guzzle. The EPA’s respective city/highway estimate of 16/22 mpg is good for a laugh. I saw 16 mpg over a week of driving, no better than 19 mpg on the highway (even during a mellow cruise), and just 11 or 12 mpg when I drove it as the men and women of Affalterbach intended. Over a three-day weekend in the Catskills, I had to replenish the Mercedes’s tank three times.
My biggest beef with all this beef? It’s priced at AMG’s usual well-marbled levels, with the GLC63 S starting at $81,745 and rising to $97,330 for my deluxe specimen. With a few more options—or even just one, in the form of $5,450 carbon-ceramic brakes—this GLC would top the six-figure mark. Who knew that, someday, a Honda CR-V-sized SUV could cost $100,000?
For my money, I’m taking the non-coupe GLC63, for its expanded passenger and cargo space...and also because it requires less of said money. Again, that GLC63 “makes do” with 469 horsepower versus the S Coupe’s 503, but it’s more practical and costs $10,850 less, starting from $70,895. Still, for those who don’t mind breaking SUV price barriers, this GLC asks and answers a question: What’s it worth to outrun a Corvette Grand Sport in a Mercedes SUV?
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence@thedrive.com.