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Automatic for the people?

THE best high-performance cars come with a manual gearbox, right? Well, not according to Mercedes-Benz. On the evidence of this car, their stance appears to be that machines can change gear more efficiently than humans. But where&rsquo;s the fun in that? Having driven this car in automatic form, I was yearning to feel how it behaved in DIY mode. If you enjoy driving, changing gear manually is a vital part of the process and fulfilment.<br /><br />First, some background. Of the C 63&rsquo;s direct competitors, the most obvious is BMW&rsquo;s M3. When I drove that car a considerable distance across Europe and on a racetrack I found that it was just too hardcore, being engineered for technical excellence but without soul. It&rsquo;s a hugely competent car, no argument. But is it exciting? Not enough for me.<br /><br />And while BMW has its M performance division, Mercedes-Benz has AMG, (Aufrecht Melcher Grossaspach), but is this going to crack the whip on the M3?<br /><br />Well, the Merc is slightly lighter than the M3, and where the Beemer offers a 4.0 litre V8 with 420 bhp, Merc pulls rank with its 6.3 V8 with 457bhp. And there are three others to consider in this bracket &ndash; Audi&rsquo;s RS4, the Lexus IS-F and Jaguar&rsquo;s XFR. Audi has yet to announce launch dates for its uber-performer but it&rsquo;s safe to say 2010 is looking likely.<br /><br />There are some committed noises from the exhaust as you fire the C 63 up and a bit of movement as the car lurches briefly. Changing up through the seven gears in automatic mode is uninterruptedly smooth using what is effectively a double-clutch gearbox. The way this works is by going through the old-school motion of selecting a gear, changing to neutral, blipping the throttle and then selecting another gear, all of this being done at lightening electronic speed, instead of manually. The result is that gear-changes are cleaner and it saves wear and tear on the gearbox in the long-term.<br /><br />With this motor, Merc has spent more time improving the dynamics of the car so that it isn&rsquo;t all about power over agility.<br /><br /><strong>DRAWING BOARD</strong><br />But with so many other things to consider now, such as carbon emissions and renewed safety legislations, the designers of this class of car have almost to go back to the drawing board. That&rsquo;s the name of the game these days &ndash; rumour has it that even Ferrari is looking at producing a hybrid performance car in the near future.<br /><br />For all the improvements, though, the C 63 isn&rsquo;t exactly the most recession-friendly car. When you&rsquo;re able to open it up for a good leg-stretch you do, but the result is that afterwards you feel that the fuel nozzle has been burning a hole in your pocket.<br /><br />AMG have done themselves proud, though. The steering is sharper on this car, as are the brakes. The suspension and electronic stability have also been comprehensively redesigned for the better. The set up is stiff, but that is alterable and I&rsquo;ve been switching between comfort, sport and normal since I got in it a few days ago. <br /><br /><strong>SORRY STATE</strong><br />Much of this depends on the road surface and style of driving you choose. I bang on about the sorry state of our roads here in Blighty but having been in New York over the last fortnight, their roads are in a pitiful state, worse than ever. It&rsquo;s no surprise that my brother (who lives there) has his car in the garage being put right so often.<br /><br />So would you have this over an M3? As a long distance cruiser, it&rsquo;s very comfortable and offers four doors and a decent amount of boot space, as does the Beemer. Similarly, build quality and interior finish are of a high-level but I would argue that the Merc offers a more compelling nature. But the RS4 will be a cracker too.<br /><br /><strong>THE FACTS:</strong><br />MERCEDES-BENZ C 63 AMG SALOON<br /><strong>PRICE:</strong> &pound;59,150<br /><strong>0-62MPH:</strong>&nbsp; 4.5secs<br /><strong>TOP SPEED:</strong> 155mph (limited)<br /><strong>CO2 G/KM:</strong> 319g/km<br /><strong>MPG Combined:</strong> 21.1<br />