2017 Mercedes-AMG C43 Coupe first drive

The Mercedes C-Class gets a high performance middle child

Glancing down at the route book, I broke into a wide grin. While my stint in the 2017 Mercedes-AMG C43 would begin atop a parking garage at LAX, the eastward path would eventually guide me out onto Angeles Crest Highway. It’s a road I know quite well — it’s just a few miles from where I live — and among the best stretches of tarmac in Southern California. Mulholland and Decker Canyon certainly have their virtues and are rightfully esteemed, but if wringing out a test car is your goal, Angeles Crest is the place to do it in these parts.

But there was a problem, and it wasn’t in the high-performance custom tuned vehicle. Due to recent heavy rain, a turnoff that leads onto Big Tujunga — another epic stretch of mountain road situated further into Angeles National Forest — has been closed, and there’d be someone waiting at the turnoff to redirect us back to our final destination through a more conventional path.

2017 Mercedes-AMG C43 Coupe
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends

So as I approached the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, I fired up Sport+ mode from the AMG’s Dynamic Select toggle switch on the center console and got ready to get down to business, as I expected to get just a few precious miles of twisting, fast-paced corner carving before being sent back onto the LA freeways to slog it out through commuter traffic.

Arriving at the designated turnoff, my contact approached the car then paused a moment. “Someone’s been having fun!” he exclaimed with a sniff for effect, a knowing wink to how well the car performed through the mountain switchbacks. He could smell the distinct aroma of warmed up brake pads emanating from the car, the telling sign of a car used to its sporty potential.

The C43 invites the driver to give it a spirited thrashing now and then.

He had good news, too: Despite the fact that I was staring at two large road closure signs in the middle of the street, we were allowed to continue on through. The road had been closed previously due to prior rain, which knocks boulders and rocks onto the road pretty regularly on Angeles Crest. They had just cleared it out when we got there, but hadn’t removed the “road closed” signs yet – we had Big Tujunga to ourselves.

Gleefully I set off and it suddenly dawned on me – we had just honed in on exactly what one should expect from the C43 Coupe. With substantially more capable than a garden-variety C300, the C43 invites the driver to give it a spirited thrashing now and then. But when you do, you may also discover some of its limitations.

High-performance middle child

Don’t get me wrong – the C43 has plenty of go-fast hardware to crow about. Motivation comes from a 3.0-liter, twin-turbocharged V6 that churns out 362 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque. Power is routed to all four wheels through an AMG-tuned 4matic all-wheel drive system with a 31/69 rear-biased distribution of torque via a nine-speed automatic gearbox. That transmission has AMG’s fingerprints on it as well, as the tuning arm of Mercedes Benz has enhanced it with smoother downshifts and more immediate shift response in Sport+ driving mode.

While a toggle switch on the center console allows the driver to transition quickly between driving modes, altering shift schedules, suspension stiffness, and other performance attributes, dedicated hard buttons adjacent to the AMG Dynamic Select switch provide the ability to make feature-specific tweaks to the dampers and traction control, and lock or unlock the transmission from its paddle-shifted manual mode without changing the other features’ behaviors, if so desired.

Visually the C43 doesn’t stray far from the C300’s aesthetic, with a C63-like subtle rear deck spoiler, a few trim accents, and the requisite badging serving as the most obvious external differentiators from a non-AMG coupe. It’s a similar story inside as well – red stitching, an AMG badge on the wheel, and the presence of the aforementioned performance-related hard buttons on the center console are the immediate identifiers that elevate the C43 beyond the standard C-Class.

Splitting the difference

While the C43 might be down over 140 horsepower from the top-spec, V8-powered C63 S, it’s worth noting that its V6 mill is up more than 120 hp over the four-pot motor in the C300, and you’d better believe it’s noticeable.

The C43 feels sure-footed enough that I pushed the car hard through the bends.

Power comes on early with hardly a hint of turbo lag, and with all four wheels working together to propel the car forward while the nine-speed gearbox fires off shifts in quick succession. The C43 Coupe feels noticeably quicker than Mercedes-AMG’s quoted zero-to-60 time of 4.6 seconds.

The six-cylinder’s song can’t compete with the lusty bark of the C63’s 4.0-liter motor, but the C43’s active exhaust system does win it some points with off-throttle pops and cackles in the sportier drive mode settings. An optional performance exhaust takes things a step further, adding a true dual pipe system to the mix with an extra set of internal valves that allow it to take the aural drama a step further.

2017 Mercedes-AMG C43 Coupe
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends

The braking system is beefed up versus the standard C-Class as well, sporting ventilated and cross-drilled 14.2-inch discs up front and 12.6-inch units out back. Coupled with high performance summer tires as a no-charge option, the C43 feels sure-footed enough that I pushed the car hard through the bends with consistent brake pedal feel. But as mentioned earlier, the brakes will start to show the limits of abuse they’re willing to tolerate if given enough pavement to do so – road course or otherwise.

Settling into the handsome cabin, the sport seats provide solid grand touring comfort coupled with fairly aggressive side bolstering, which serves to keep the occupants in place during aggressive maneuvering without becoming an annoyance over long distance drives.

The C43 offers a big step up from the demure driving experience of the standard C-Class.

Mercedes’ Command infotainment system interface might look a bit convoluted at first glance, as it incorporates a pressable touchpad, hard buttons and a rotary dial, but thanks to responsive hardware and a reasonably intuitive menu system, newcomers to the system shouldn’t have too much trouble getting acclimated to the system.

The display – at least in terms of aesthetic execution – seems like a design afterthought though, which is a shame considering how lovely the interior is otherwise. The fact that this navigation system isn’t standard on the C43 doesn’t do it any favors either, and makes its dated visuals less excusable.

Choice is a good thing

Starting at $55,500 before destination and delivery, the C43 splits the difference in cost between the C300’s $43,575 base price and the 469 hp C63, which starts at $67,000, nearly as evenly as it does the performance differential.

While it doesn’t provide the same visceral experience that the full-blooded AMG coupe does, the C43 offers a big step up from the demure driving experience of the standard C-Class.

Not everyone needs a track-ready monster to tackle the daily commute, but plenty of motorists wouldn’t mind having the kind of extra zeal on tap that might convince them to take the long way home every now and then. In that regard, the C43 delivers the sort of performance that encourages would-be pilots to celebrate the driving experience without needing to opt for a model that’s overkill for the job. For what I suspect are many would-be coupe customers, the C43 will prove to be the sweet spot in the C-Class lineup.

Highs

  • Gutsy twin-turbocharged V6
  • Responsive nine-speed gearbox
  • Taut, three-way adjustable suspension

Lows

  • Lacks the charisma of the C63
  • Infotainment display looks like an afterthought
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