Wheels: Teutonic Tuner Wars
Last August, while the builders of the Bentley Continental GT and Maybach 62 were extolling their 500 hp machines, AMG catapulted into another dimension. The über-performance specialists at Mercedes-Benz blitzed through the 600 hp barrier with a twin-turbo, 6.0-liter, 12-cylinder coupe: the 612 hp CL65.
The grins on AMG executives’ faces had barely begun to flash when Brabus, the world’s largest independent automobile tuner, responded with a shot across the bow.
AMG and Brabus present themselves as friendly rivals. After all, both firms’ sales ultimately produce profits for the same company in Stuttgart. AMG is owned by DaimlerChrysler, while Brabus has a partnership with Mercedes’ parent company to build top-of-the-line models of the Smart, the European compact machine. In reality, however, the two companies fiercely compete in a high-speed pursuit of bragging rights to the greatest horsepower possible—while throwing jabs at each other along the way. It is a quest that reflects the desires of their respective clients, whose thirst for bigger and more powerful engines shows no signs of being slaked. “Our customers will tell us when that happens,” says Domingo Piedade, AMG sales and marketing officer.
Power levels of the AMG and Brabus blocks are 50 percent higher than those motivating the Ferrari 360 Modena or Porsche 911 Turbo, two signature sports cars that can hardly be considered slouches. However, high-horsepower engines do not necessarily translate to faster cars. The 4,741-pound CL65 sprints from zero to 62 mph in 4.4 seconds, while the 3,388-pound, 415 hp 911 Turbo bests the Mercedes by two-tenths of a second. Also, current tire technology, which has failed to keep pace with engine improvements, caps top speeds for any car at slightly faster than 200 mph.
Nevertheless, sales of highly tuned cars continue to rise, especially in the United States. In 2002, 10,000 AMG vehicles, approximately half of the total worldwide production, were imported to U.S. shores. Rob Allan, AMG department manager, emphasizes that he does not sell his vehicles. Instead, they are purchased by clients so smitten that they send Allan e-mails, often with photos attached, in which they rave about the performance and reliability of their AMG machines. “AMG represents the best performance package available that combines the R-and-D expertise of the whole Mercedes-Benz group and still meets factory warranty requirements,” Allan says. “Many of our customers have had cars that they took to tuners and have had problems. They come back to AMG and call me to say how much they love our cars, because they can count on our reliability and a warranty good at any Mercedes-Benz dealer.”
AMG, which celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2002, started as a small shop catering to hard-core Mercedes enthusiasts seeking Porsche-like performance in a family sedan, and became a DaimlerChrysler subsidiary in 1999. It currently offers 17 high-performance models in Europe and 10 in the United States, including the limited edition CL65. The vehicles come with four-year, 50,000-mile warranties, similar to every stock Mercedes, and are available at all dealers. “We must operate with this straitjacket in that everything we do, including adding video screens, must pass the same crash tests and safety programs as any Mercedes product,” says Mario Spitzner, AMG marketing director. “This is a good thing because it also opens doors to advanced engineering information so we can be sure that all the complex electronic safety and driver’s aids work flawlessly with our modifications.”
Brabus has enjoyed similar success since 1999, when it assumed from AMG the title of largest independent tuner after the Affalterbach company was purchased by DaimlerChrysler. In 2002, Brabus delivered 7,500 cars, including 2,500 Smart vehicles. Customers can purchase cars directly from Brabus—the company sells cars through select Mercedes dealers nationwide—or bring their Mercedes to the company for whatever enhancements they desire. Adding new wheels is a one-day job, while an engine swap can take one month. Like AMG, Brabus offers a four-year, 50,000-mile warranty. But that is where the similarities end. “It’s a trim line package, albeit a very nice package, but you have to take it as it comes,” Brabus North America President Steven Beaty says of AMG machines. “Our customers can pick and choose every upgrade to suit their needs. And that’s especially important here [in Orange County], where there is an AMG vehicle around every corner. Many of our customers are AMG owners looking for more performance, better safety with larger brakes, higher levels of interior luxury, and unique but subtle exterior appearance. We offer an experience similar to building a custom home, where you can select upgrades that fit your individuality and lifestyle.”
It stands to reason that AMG owners would look to Brabus for more performance, because the order of vehicle launches typically goes from Mercedes to AMG to Brabus, with each machine upping the horsepower ante. Consider, for example, the SL. Two years ago, Mercedes released the stock 302 hp SL500. Several months later, AMG followed with the 493 hp SL55, a firmer, more powerful, and aggressively styled car with boisterous exhaust notes. Then Brabus, having purchased blocks from Mercedes, issued the 550 hp K8, which features the company’s signature extreme power, lavish interior, and cabin gadgetry. “We push each other,” says Beaty, who notes that Brabus customers often add enhancements to their vehicles in increments and are willing to pay for the privilege. The SV12 engine costs approximately $50,000, not including the cost of the CL, SL, or S-Class that will house the block. Then an owner must add new brakes, wheels, exhaust, and other components to contend with the additional power. As a result, says Beaty, a complete Brabus vehicle is priced in the top 10 percent of the market, while AMG products reside below that niche.
With tongue stuck firmly in cheek, AMG’s Allan compares Brabus’ approach to “selling street jewelry.” AMG executives applaud Brabus’ exclusive wheel designs and aerodynamic packages. They cannot dismiss Brabus’ leather shop, which includes a machine that can slice a hide as thin and smooth as gourmet prosciutto. However, they scratch their heads when viewing the independent firm’s higher horsepower and torque numbers, which have been confirmed by dyno-armed German and Italian motoring publications.
Among others, the credit for Brabus’ sky-high horsepower goes to Ulrich Gauffres, vice president of research and development. Before he joined Brabus 19 years ago, Gauffres designed prototype engines at Mercedes. Despite his professorial demeanor, Gauffres could be considered the instigator of this latest horsepower war. He is an admitted torque junkie who developed the 640 hp SV12 in response to complaints from customers who thought Brabus’ 550 hp K8 version of the SL55’s engine was too aggressive. By developing this more powerful but smoother-responding engine, Gauffres captured the spotlight of the German motoring press; he had eclipsed the mark of 1,000 newton meters of torque (738 ft lbs) before AMG could deliver a similar torque rating with its CL65. AMG is capable of building an even more powerful engine, but it has not been able to adapt its automatic transmission to handle the output. AMG claims its V-12 can actually produce 1,200 newton meters (885 ft lbs) of torque but has limited the CL65’s output to 1,000 newton meters, identical to Brabus’ number, for this reason.
The skeptics from AMG fail to see how Brabus could equip the stock Mercedes transmission to match the engine’s output. When asked to explain his innovation, Gauffres declines with a grin. “Some others would also like to know that very much,” he says.
Brabus and AMG may guard their respective secrets, but no mystery surrounds their future products: Like their ambitions and those of their customers, their engines and power ratings will continue to grow.
How does it feel to have more than 600 horses at your disposal? Not as intimidating as some might think, thanks to the electronic wizardry of traction control and vehicle stability systems. Drop the throttle of the AMG CL65 from a dead stop, and the car lunges forward powerfully but smoothly; the broad 19-inch rear tires squirm to recover from the onslaught of 738 ft lbs of torque that begins when the V-12 spins to 2,000 rpm. As the 4,741-pound coupe hits 62 mph in 4.4 seconds—making it the quickest car in the AMG lineup—the entire world suddenly becomes a passing zone. A mere 200 of the $170,000 coupes will be made available in the United States in 2004.
Brabus’ SV12-powered CL was not available for a test-drive, but I did sample an SL that sported the same 640 hp engine. The SL is approximately 250 pounds lighter than the CL, enabling it to reach 60 mph one-tenth of a second quicker from a full stop. The full torque of the Brabus block arrives at 1,750 rpm, earlier than AMG’s, which also aids acceleration. Ulrich Gauffres, Brabus’ vice president of research and development, made modifications to the Mercedes transmission that result in shifts that are smoother than in the AMG, which has a slight tendency to hunt for the proper gear.
Aside from its power surplus, the Brabus also features 12-piston front brakes, compared to the 8-piston units of the CL65. However, the Brabus is more expensive; the SV12-powered SL is the personal car of Brabus founder Bodo Buschmann, and would cost approximately $225,000.