No, AMG Isn't Dead, But It Is at a Crossroads

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Shots fired from Autoblog to Affalterbach

2017 Mercedes-AMG E43 4MATIC
2017 Mercedes-AMG E43 4MATIC.

Autoblog recently published an article provocatively entitled "Is AMG Dead?" Of course Autoblog isn't tacky, so there was an immediate acknowledgement of the title being blatant exaggeration and click-bait, so at least author Willy Lamb's tongue is pushed firmly in it's respective cheek. 

That said, he does posit a good question (even if it isn't the one in the title): do the new 43 models damage the AMG brand? The knowledge that what is now called a Mercedes-AMG C43 didn't used to be considered an AMG at all is the heart of the argument here. Two years ago, there was a more powerful C-Class called the C400, which nobody bought. Mercedes management took a step back, added few improvements, and called it the C450 AMG Sport; two people bought that.

Those same managers took a look at the car and said "this is a great car. Do you think it's a lack of sex-appeal that causes people to ignore it?" The answer must have been a resounding "yes," because the various models that bore the "450 AMG Sport" moniker are now being marketed as proper AMG cars, just with a smaller number. It seems like it's both heresy and a very smart move from a sales perspective, but the real question here is the long-term health of AMG.

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The obvious case against.

2016 Mercedes-AMG C43 Cabriolet
2016 Mercedes-AMG C43 Cabriolet.

 Lamb's arguments are exclusively against the nomenclatural change, even if they are tempered by statements understanding the business rationale behind them like "...these marketing folks had gotten their first sweet taste of titillating buyers with AMG scribbled on the back of (and about 20 other places on) regular old Benzes..."

His case is strong too. He doesn't like the the engine here is just the old mid-range engine with a slight power tune. He doesn't like that it's a V6, calling it "plain-Jane," "reasonably-displaced," "designed for ease-of-packaging," "awkward sounding," and, worst of all, "minivan-being-in." A V6 is the go to engine for companies that want a better experience than an I4 but are still largely concerned with fuel economy and packaging. He's concerned that AMG is known for making crazy cars, and this one is merely quick. I'd like to add that it's telling that the transmission is the cheaper, more efficiency-minded one found in the C300, rather than the race-bred AMG unit.

Most distressingly, however, is the fact that branding this engine as a full-blooded AMG means that AMG's defining tradition of "one man one engine," in which every AMG engine bears the name of the lone technician who built it. This has been an integral part of the AMG ethos for as long as the group has been turning otherwise reasonable Mercedes cars into something unnecessary and wonderful. No, the existence of the C43 doesn't in any way diminish the amazing C63, but it does diminish the AMG name. It's not a real AMG.

However, I think that it could be.

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Some really simple economics that paint an interesting picture

2016 Mercedes-AMG SLC43
2016 Mercedes-AMG SLC43.

Let's call this first round of 43s an experiment. It's a low-investment way to see if a less expensive, less powerful, but still capable car will sell in high enough numbers to warrant its existence. If it works, AMG has an awesome opportunity.

Back in 1997, when AMG really started to become a more serious player with the original Mercedes-Benz C43 AMG, base price was $54,651, according to a Car & Driver comparison test of similar vintage. That magazine's tester had some option boxes ticked, and would have cost $56,458. At first glance, that doesn't seem to far off from today's $65,250 base price.

The problem is that the base price isn't half as all inclusive as it once was, and finding a stripped out model is near impossible. The cheapest C63 I can find new in my state is a whopping $85,005. Given that the average income in 1997 was $43,648, and the average income today is $51,759 (an 18% increase), and that the real world prices of the AMG C-Class have jumped 51%, there's definitely space for a lower-priced AMG, and it's space that AMG used to occupy. The C450 AMG Sport rings in at just over 50 grand, and that's much closer to the land of the C43, especially given that they usually have $10,000 tacked on in options on dealer lots.

The C43 should sell, and I'd even say that it's a price point and relative performance level that fits right in as something AMG would have done just 20 years ago.

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How to make it right, or kill a legacy.

2016 Mercedes-AMG C43 Coupe
2016 Mercedes-AMG C43 Coupe.

 Let's look a bit into the future and assume that this experiment will be a success, but that Mr. Tobias Moers—chairman of AMG, petrol-in-the-blood car guy, and generally passionate man—can't stand having an AMG badge on a car without a hand-built engine anymore, but he recognizes the need for a $50,000 (plus $10,000 in packages), AMG C-Class.

I like Lamb's suggestion back on Autoblog that AMG slaps a fun, raspy I6 in there. Road & Track suggests that the straight six, especially with 0.5L cylinders, is going to be a big thing in coming years. Given that AMG will surely make a C43, an E43, a GLC43, GLE43, and an SLC43, plus all the many bodystyles thereof, it seems like it would be possible to make a business case for a new twin-turbo 3.0L AMG I6 making around 400 horses. I wouldn't even be surprised to see that engine end up in a base model 2021 Aston Martin Vantage at around $99,500. 

Combine it with a standard AMG transmission, or at least a heavily tuned Mercedes unit, and some good suspension and we'll have a car that's not heresy to the AMG faithful, is a hot seller to those who don't have S-Class money to drop on a C-Class, and just sounds bloody awesome... 

or AMG can keep slapping its name on a mid-range Benz, raking in some extra cash, and making us all sad. You know what to do, Mr. Moers.