ACK when the motor car was new, telephones were few and carbon dioxide was still a colourless, non-toxic gas, families would often pile into their automobiles on a Sunday to visit friends or just drive about, aimlessly.
More enthusiastic motorists would awaken early and head out to exercise their tyres and tachos on a favourite set of twisties. Increasingly, the latter group have been forced to take it off the streets, getting their cornering-g jollies and car camaraderie at track days.
Meanwhile, the vast, miserable majority of “Sunday drivers” form endless queues of Camrys sniffing each others’ bums on their way to Bunnings. I’m in Sydney, but it’s almost certainly the same story where you are.
Over the past 15 or so years, exploding urbanisation means it takes longer just to reach the good driving roads radiating out of the city. Our cars, even the mundane ones, have got faster. The roads, often artificially, get slower. So serious Sunday drivers have to get sneakier.
A favourite of Sydneysiders, especially on two wheels, is the Old Pacific Highway. The interesting part begins almost an hour’s drive north of the city centre. Winding for some 33km through mostly national parkland, from the hamlet of Cowan, across the Hawkesbury and on to a featureless motorway crossing known as The Slab, in the 1980s-90s it was marked at 100km/h. Then, one day, it wasn’t. The southern section is now marked at 80. But the great majority of it, on the north side, was declared a Tourist Drive. It was dropped to 70, and then to 60.
As I wrote, angrily, to the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority at the time: “No evident geological upheaval or spontaneous conurbation occurred in the intervening week to indicate that this stretch of road was suddenly unsafe to travel at 100km/h…” Resolute motorcycle riders – many of them, admittedly, quite insane – still brave the endlessly trawling Highway Patrols to enjoy the sculpted roads and bushy scenery of the “Old Road”. And there’s still that bond, the striking of conversations when complete strangers pull in to the Pie in the Sky, or the legendary Road Warriors Cafe.
If you’re in a car and another driver stops to chat, chances are he’s wearing a blue uniform.
What a Sunday morning on the Old Road needs now is a car that can dispel the drudgery of the city commute, but is covertly quick and capable. One that can shorten straights. And make cambered corners out of flat ones.
That last qualification narrows it down to Mercedes-AMG’s latest flagship, the S63 AMG Coupe.
The needless name change heralds the replacement for the CL63, the car that introduced AMG’s 5.5-litre twin-turbocharged V8 and a catalogue of electronic driver aids that gave it almost supernatural powers.
The S63 Coupe ventures even farther into the realm of the metaphysical, while at the same time is about the same price (estimated $430,000), lighter, more powerful, more fuel efficient, kills germs that cause bad breath and so on.
The king-hit Coupe is still on the far side of five metres and two tonnes, but its 2070kg kerb represents a 65kg saving, mostly through increased use of aluminium in the body, along with a lithium-ion battery, forged alloy wheels and ceramic composite brakes.
The tweaked twin-turbo V8 has gained 30kW and 100Nm, to boast 430kW and 900Nm. That’s helped shave three-tenths off the 0-100km/h time, now at 4.2sec for the Oz-market version with rear-wheel drive.
An all-wheel-drive 4Matic version, bound for left-hook markets, trims that even further to 3.9sec. But you won’t hear me complaining, nor about the AMG’s self-shifting tranny having “only” seven speeds, where the base S500 Coupe gets nine.
Anyway, the 4Matic foisted on them furriners dips out on “curve tilting” – DIY-Daytona banking when the Coupe comes up to a corner. It’s the technological trump in a suite of self-steering, self-braking, road-interpreting and arse-protecting capabilities.
All of that makes this cigar-chomping, hardtop heavyweight pretty cool. And the near-virginal example at my disposal on the first Sunday in December was the only S63 AMG Coupe in the nation.
There’s a place now, in Sydney, for cool cars on a Sunday morning. Cavallino Ristorante is in Terrey Hills, just inland from Sydney’s northern beaches. Proprietor Lido Russo is one of a group of motor-head mates who, for eight or nine years, have been hanging out together with their cars.
Lido’s had Ferraris, though he currently owns a Fiat Dino Spyder and a genuine 600 Abarth. But his buddies might have Porsches or BMWs. Or, no less likely, splitwindow Kombis and Piaggio Apes.
They created the Sydney Automobile Club and, from January 2014, initiated Cars and Coffee in Cavallino’s car park on the first Sunday of each month. Anyone can register their interesting car online for the People’s Choice prize. This gives Lido and the lads a foretaste of what’s coming, and which cars they’ll direct to the hallowed spaces of the restaurant car park.
But if your Lightburn Zeta doesn’t get on the 30-car grid (actually, it would), there’s at least 10 times that number of old, new, ratty, expensive, unique and bizarre cars that just turn up and find their own spots in the streets and parking areas all around the block.
At 7:30am, the place was already packed. A call earlier in the week had got the Merc onto the restaurant’s forecourt, elbowed up to a Lamborghini Huracan, a Ferrari F12 and a Pagani Zonda Spyder.
The S63 Coupe wasn’t at all out of place in this company. The styling has lost most of the flab of its predecessor, and is toned with heavyweight aggression and pillarless cool. The rear light graphic recalls the SLS, while the general shape of the rear end is more Pininfarina than Sindelfingen. There were plenty of oohs, ahhs and ohmygods from the already huge crowd of mainly dads and goggle-eyed kids.
As the street outside continued to fill up and shape-shift, it became harder to know where to look.
A Lamborghini Aventador appeared. A BMW E92 M3 GTS, one of two in the country. A WO-era Bentley.
Whathef – a Group B Lancia 037. A mint ’67 VW.
It was car porn that made you question your orientation. Nearby was a Skyline KPGC10, a Mustang GT390 in Highland (McQueen) Green, a Lotus Elise with gullwing doors, a Renault Clio V6. A replica Ford GT40, its body in bare alloy. I was cooing at a wickedsexy, hot pink Plymouth ’Cuda E-body when a Trabant 601 drove by.
You could burn every Sunday for a year going to motor shows and car club concours and still not see a quarter as many cool cars, here pre-filtered for your perusal.
Lido himself can’t even say what makes a car cool.
“For people who love cars, they don’t care what they are,” he says. “You just appreciate the work that goes into preserving a Mini Cooper, or detailing your F12.
You get comfort from seeing there are people with the same disease as you.
“Actually, we don’t find the modern supercars overly interesting, but the kids love seeing them. A guy was telling us at the restaurant one night, ‘I’ve just bought a new McLaren!’ And one of the other members said, ‘That’s nice. We have about seven of those turn up every month...’”
By 10:30am, the Merc a mess of fingerprints, it was time for me to hit the road. The streets around the restaurant were clotted with new cars arriving, others leaving, everyone wandering and rubber-necking around this suddenly special slice of suburbia.
The S63’s heavily designed and lavishly trimmed cockpit made for a comfortable spot amid the hubbub, and soon enough on the highway. The dashboard, in two-tone with titanium-look accents, has an adventurous split-level design. Clever positioning of the passenger airbag frees space for the useful, but visually awkward, dual information screens.
I’d had the windows down all morning; going pillarless is a pretty rare treat. Hitting the freeway north, I slurped the windows up into their seals. The Coupe’s cabin was utterly quiet. Thanks to double-glazing, it’s claimed to have the least wind noise of any car, though the 20-inch Continentals still contribute a rumble.
With beautifully supportive seats that extend every which-way, and decent room in the rear, the S63 AMG is a car for gobbling continents. The myriad technologies that constantly govern ride quality, steering input, power delivery and chassis stability operate so invisibly and unobtrusively as to quickly become normal.
The steer assist has the effect of feeling a little sticky at the straight ahead, as the system makes its own constant, tiny adjustments. I switched it off at the start of the Old Pacific Highway, initially an 80km/h stretch of about 6km that weaves over and alongside the freeway and makes one yearn for the old 100km/h limit.
Passing Pie in the Sky, the haunt of grey-bearded Ulysses Club types, there begins a delicious 4km descent, dipping and swerving and dotted with a few tight and nicely cambered turns. It was obvious that the big Benz had something special up its sleeve, not least in the brutish note of the V8. It is massively and unapologetically powerful, its thrust delivered with just the right amount of theatre and involvement to belie all the German-ness that makes this coupe so capable.
I’ve always reckoned that the use of the phrase “corners like it’s on rails” is justification for bashing.
Last time I even thought it was when I first drove a four-wheel-steered car, so contained was the feel of its cornering (in the context of the late-1980s). But the sensation of the S63’s countering quite natural body roll is like... well, it’s like riding in a high-speed train, where the gentle banking helps direct cornering forces vertically through your body.
The Coupe’s curve-tilting system only inclines inwards to a maximum of 2.7deg from the horizontal. But when the car might normally be rolling outwards by 10 degrees, the sensation is quite noticeable. You know that feeling, in a beautifully cambered corner, of dropping the inside wheel into the dipper, the rear’s ready for all the gas you can give it, and the thing just feels like it’s hooked onto that corner like the tin hare at a greyhound track? The S63 makes a lot of corners feel like that.
On one of the better curves, taking my chances between Highway Patrols, I was surprised to spot a couple of photographers in the bushes beyond the exit.
It used to be common to see these entrepreneurial snappers set up on the old road, egging on motorcyclists to push hard and get the knee down, and order a print of themselves at the Road Warriors at lunchtime.
That brilliant 28km ribbon of road from the Brooklyn Bridge to The Slab is now nobbled by a 60km/h speed limit. But the Road Warriors Cafe at Mt White has not long ago made a strong comeback, and still serves blissful bacon and egg rolls in a beautiful setting backing onto bushland.
Over on the south side, dotted between the slowmoving Harleys, beardy BMW riders and shitbox family sedans and 4WDs towing boat trailers on cracked tyres running 12psi, I was encouraged to see some interesting cars being stropped up and down the hill.
A very tidy and cammy-sounding Datsun 260Z. A bright orange Caterham-type clubman. A Ferrari Mondial, having a bit of a go. A Lotus Exige.
The Sunday drive is out there; it’s just different now. The S63 AMG Coupe proves how far the car has evolved, how brilliant are the minds that design and engineer them. But the next breakthrough in the Sunday drive, already foretold by the Mercedes-Benz F105 concept, is that we’ll be able to read the paper over a coffee while we’re doing it.
MERCEDES’ curve tilting function is an automotive production first, though it’s conceptually similar to the system used in some high-speed trains – notably, the Fiat-built Pendolino that, by hydraulically tilting its carriages up to eight degrees, can corner on conventional tracks at speeds up to 35 percent faster.
Benz’s system works in conjunction with Active Body Control; plunger cylinders act on the bases of the steel springs incorporated in the ABC’s suspension struts. Each plunger need only move a small amount, as the outer side is raised and the inner side is lowered.
A forward-facing stereo camera reads the road up to 15m ahead. The camera and the ABC’s lateral acceleration sensor inform the system, which operates on the plungers continuously and within fractions of a second.
AS THE era of the autonomous car draws nearer, Mercedes says it’s all about keeping the driver comfortable, confident and alert. And stepping in if it’s about to go pear-shaped.
The S63 is a car that reads the lane markers to keep itself on the road, and (via Steer Assist) relieve the driver of those constant, small corrections to deal with camber changes and bumps. Should the car begin to wander off the road, it will jab its own brakes and apply steering correction.
Likewise, the Coupe monitors cars around it, braking itself to avoid rear-ending something in front, or locking its wheels and applying the Pre-Safe seatbelt tensioners if it detects it’s about to be the recipient of same.
Night-vision camera and image recognition help prevent you from hitting stuff in the dark.
Magic Body Control scans the road ahead, picking up surface undulations, then informing the hydraulic ABC suspension how best to counteract them.
Dang it, the suspension even counters crosswinds, changing wheel loads in milliseconds to introduce a smidge of yaw.