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Sea to sky un­der hy­brid turbo-six steam of newly svelte E-class coupe

"BE­CAUSE IT’S THERE,” was all the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion Ge­orge Mal­lory ever needed to climb Ever­est. Our as­pi­ra­tions are a good deal more mod­est than old Ge­orge’s – and we’re bank­ing on a more grat­i­fy­ing out­come – but the ra­tio­nale is much the same. Why would you drive from sea level to Aus­tralia’s high­est coach road? We’d pre­fer to ask why wouldn’t you, es­pe­cially when that road, from Lakes En­trance on Vic­to­ria’s Gipp­s­land Coast to the alpine re­sort of Mount Hotham, is quiet, test­ing, beau­ti­ful and ir­refutably there.

For most of us, the route to Hotham in­volves a schlep down the Hume be­fore draw­ing a bead on Bright and then tack­ling count­less switch­backs up to the snow. The road less trav­elled from the south is a very dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion, a lit­tle more cryp­tic in its re­lief, teas­ing in and out of deep for­est and high al­ti­tude plateaus, and the car we’ve cho­sen for the drive is also a ve­hi­cle that takes a lit­tle time to key into.

It’s been over two decades since Mercedes-benz last sold a car with a straight-six en­gine. The C36 AMG was the first co-de­vel­oped model between Mercedes and its re­cently ac­quired go-faster arm from Af­fal­ter­bach, and it spawned a lit­tle-known E36 sib­ling be­fore be­ing re­placed by V8-en­gined 43 mod­els within 24 months. Since then, straight-six su­pe­ri­or­ity has been un­de­ni­ably claimed by the mob down the road in Mu­nich. The lat­est E53 AMG Coupe not only marks the re­turn of the straight-six, but also in­cludes mild hy­brid tech, all-wheel drive, an elec­tric com­pres­sor and a nine-speed trans­mis­sion. New game, new rules.

OIL AND gas rigs dot the hori­zon, shim­mer­ing through the haze like a raid­ing party of Well­sian Mar­tians. Lakes En­trance is dressed to im­press, all crisp spring sun, pert Nor­folk Is­land pines and daz­zling cabin cruis­ers on round trips to nowhere in par­tic­u­lar, pi­loted by satchel-skinned sixty-some­things. The E53 Coupe blends in well here. There’s some­thing about it that smacks of re­ward; an un­de­mand­ing and el­e­gant piece of self-con­grat­u­la­tion. It’s in­of­fen­sively man­nered, mys­ti­fy­ingly mute and al­most en­tirely lack­ing the spiky char­ac­ter and dy­namic hon­ing we’ve come to ex­pect of the lat­est gen­er­a­tion of AMG coupes. You could wad­dle from your forty-foot Sun­seeker Portofino, jump into the Merc and hardly reg­is­ter the tran­si­tion.

That said, we’ve driven here in Com­fort mode, the end­lessly te­dious A1 made bear­able by the E53’s mo­lasses ride qual­ity, in­door-out­door airi­ness of that pil­lar­less body and the un­remit­ting con­sid­er­a­tion of the cabin, with its sump­tu­ous touch points, end­lessly con­fig­urable screens and tele­pathic sen­sor ar­ray. The ini­tial run up to Bruthen of­fers a gen­tle warm up, climb­ing up the in­land scarp slope from Lakes En­trance and mak­ing first ac­quain­tance with the Tambo River, a wa­ter­course we’ll get to know very well over the next hun­dred kilo­me­tres, the stream tem­po­rar­ily arc­ing off to the east.

The E53’s softer set­tings ease it into an ef­fort­less flow on these aus­tral stretches of the Great Alpine Road, a lan­guid throt­tle map and con­ser­va­tive trans­mis­sion cal­i­bra­tion see­ing it in­do­lently slur into higher gears early. The en­gine, with its slightly un­couth cold idle, warms to the task, the elec­tric mo­tor nestling between en­gine and gear­box de­liv­er­ing a seam­lessly


smooth swell of torque to 2500rpm, with the elec­tric com­pres­sor spool­ing to max in 0.3s to fill any resid­ual lag for an­other 500rpm. The 48V elec­tri­cal sys­tem and in­te­grated starter-al­ter­na­tor give the E53 the soft­est idle-stop sys­tem I’ve ever en­coun­tered. Start­ing the car re­quires a but­ton press and the en­gine is in­stantly at idle, with no cough of starter mo­tor what­so­ever. The Yoko­hama Ad­van Sport tyres are ac­tu­ally qui­eter on coarser sur­faces, smooth bi­tu­men caus­ing their sipes to sing a lit­tle, up a semi­tone of harmonic fre­quency on the crown of the road, down one when cam­ber­ing to­wards the gut­ter.

We pick up the queues of poplars mark­ing the wa­ter­course just south of Tambo Cross­ing. A horse­shoe of red rock rises to our left as the road drops into a nat­u­ral am­phithe­atre. This seems as good a time as any to snick the mode se­lec­tor into Sport+ and give this boule­vardier a prod. The re­sult is in­stantly trans­for­ma­tive. The air sus­pen­sion firms up, the ex­haust re­ports for duty, sta­bil­ity con­trol eases back a notch, the throt­tle be­comes no­tice­ably more in­ci­sive and, best of all, the trans­mis­sion no longer lazily up­shifts. Above 4500rpm, the en­gine note hard­ens and by 5000rpm it’s haul­ing hard, build­ing an ad­dic­tive pu­rity of tim­bre. Peak power ar­rives at 6100rpm, all 320kw of it, af­ter which the long-stroke 6500rpm red­line places a cur­few on the fun. Switch into man­ual and the tightly spaced gears al­low you to stay in this zone, where the E53 in­sou­ciantly shrugs off its 1925kg bulk through sweep­ers.

Cor­ner ra­diuses tighten in­ex­orably as the road climbs, and we jink off the Great Alpine Road for a tougher as­sign­ment, through the sas­safras-choked snake that is the Cas­silis road, all hasty patch­ing, root bumps and coarse chip. Here you need to man­age the AMG’S weight a lit­tle more ju­di­ciously, care­fully synch­ing your steer­ing in­puts against the hys­tere­sis of its pitch and roll axes. Big throt­tle open­ings al­low you to hear the elec­tric mo­tor at work; a faint whine ac­com­pa­nied by in­stant 100 per­cent fills on the boost gauges. That triad of mo­tor, com­pres­sor and all-wheel drive pro­pels the E53 out of tighter cor­ners with real verve but lit­tle drama. If you’re look­ing to smear inky traces of car­bon black up the road, bal­anc­ing throt­tle against steer­ing, sign up for a C63 in­stead.

The road bursts out of the trees on the high pas­tures just beyond the ghost town of Cas­silis, with its de­pleted gold reefs and scorched rem­nants of the 1939 fire that drove away the re­main­ing in­hab­i­tants try­ing to scratch a liv­ing from the ex­hausted ter­roir. Point­ing ar­row straight at hills so green they look draped with snooker ta­ble baize, the road roller­coast­ers through cat­tle pad­docks punc­tu­ated by stark gums and cen­turies-old game trails bur­nished into tan half­pipes con­tour­ing to the near hori­zon. You’ll catch a glimpse of wed­getails through the glass roof – barn doors with beaks lazily


cir­cling on in­vis­i­ble ther­mals – be­fore you re­join the B500 just out­side Omeo.

From here the road climbs, in great un­du­lat­ing steps, each downs­lope a few me­tres shorter than the climbs, so al­ti­tude ar­rives slyly. Tak­ing stock of the dy­nam­ics of this car isn’t easy, chiefly be­cause its band­width is so great. Its short­com­ings ar­rive at the ex­tremes of its en­ve­lope, which isn’t so sur­pris­ing. In Sport+, the 2.6-turn lock-to-lock steer­ing could use more heft and so im­mer­sive is the sound­track that you yearn for a few more revs at the top end. When cruis­ing, the ride im­presses on these op­tional 20-inch wheels, but I can’t help won­der­ing how much bet­ter it’d be with the stan­dard 19s with their more be­nign side­walls. Set­ting the sus­pen­sion to its softer tune and di­alling every­thing else up to max­i­mum at­ti­tude in the car’s In­di­vid­ual mode seems to hit the sweet spot.

I’m still no fan of the clumsy wand gearshifter, but ac­cept that cen­tre-con­sole real es­tate is, these days, of­ten pri­ori­tised for in­fo­tain­ment con­trols. Speak­ing of which, it’s sur­pris­ing this car doesn’t come with MBUX, the bril­liant op­er­at­ing sys­tem seen in the A-class. In­stead we get a late ver­sion of the COMAND ar­chi­tec­ture with­out touch­screen func­tion­al­ity. It works well though, and it’s hard to fault ma­te­ri­als qual­ity, with neat stitch­ing, a high-car­peted trans­mis­sion tun­nel and an ex­trav­a­gantly de­li­cious leather and Al­can­taratrimmed sports steer­ing wheel.

Snow gums be­gin to dom­i­nate the road­side with dusty glimpses of spring snow patches still cling­ing gamely to the south-fac­ing slopes. The strag­gling car­bun­cle that is Mount Hotham Alpine Re­sort hoves into view, de­serted but for a gang of cur­ra­wongs sys­tem­at­i­cally re­dis­tribut­ing the con­tents of a dump­ster. We keep go­ing, past what has to be the most scenic view of any po­lice sta­tion in Aus­tralia, cheek­ily punt the red­line through the cor­ru­gated iron-lined tun­nel and round a fi­nal few cor­ners un­til we’re at 1845 me­tres above sea level on the high­est coach road in the coun­try. Marked by a sur­veyor’s cross, it’s the fin­ish line of this par­tic­u­lar road trip, and we’re here just as the sun dips down be­neath the deep blues of the rolling foothills, a se­ries of pas­tel slides grow­ing darker to the western hin­ter­lands. The snow­fields of Mount Feather­top and the Ra­zor­back glow rosily lu­mi­nes­cent as pho­tog­ra­pher Ja­cobs gears up, the E53 tick­ing and ping­ing cool in what feels like the last breath of win­ter.

There’s a lot to this car, cer­tainly more than I ini­tially gave it credit for. The pow­er­train is a de­light, al­most a vic­tim of its own bril­liance in that it leaves you want­ing even more. It’ll cer­tainly re­quire a huge tech­ni­cal leap for Mu­nich to match it in BMW’S forth­com­ing 8 Se­ries. The Bavar­i­ans will also be hard-pushed to equal the con­sid­ered and mea­sured love­li­ness of the Mercedes-amg E53 Coupe, with its com­plex char­ac­ter that re­wards time and dis­tance. The eye-widen­ing adrenalin spike of the E63 sedan might well be an eas­ier sell to power-junkie Aus­tralians, but as an ev­ery­day propo­si­tion, I’d choose the left-field E53 Coupe with­out hes­i­ta­tion. The road less trav­elled might be a be­guil­ing propo­si­tion – and more of­ten than not there’s a solid rea­son why the traf­fic goes else­where – but ev­ery once in a while it turns up a gem you’d rather keep to your­self.


Model Mercedes-amg E53 Coupe 4Matic+ En­gine 2999cc 6cyl, dohc, 24v, mild hy­brid, turbo, elec­tric s/c Max power 320kw @ 6100rpm Max torque 520Nm @ 1800-4800rpm (770Nm @ 1800-2500rpm w/e-mo­tor) Trans­mis­sion 9-speed au­to­matic L/W/H/WB 4853/1860/1430/2873mm Weight 1925kg 0-100km/h 4.3sec (claimed) Econ­omy 8.7L/100km Price $172,790

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