If this adventure is a daring daylight probe into the upper reaches of a driver's pulse rate, which it is, then it sets up the expectation that the most civilized entry will finish last. It did.
For the purest adrenaline jolt, you need a manual gearbox. The C32 AMG comes in five-speed auto only. Not a good start.
Still, not every enthusiast wants his juices stimulated to a full-bore gush all the time. This Benz has an appealing way of butting out of the conversation at just the right times. Planning an interstate jaunt? The C32 is easily the smoothest and quietest of the group when you need a transit capsule, with the least abusive ride. Straight-ahead stability is excellent. You can click off miles by the hundreds without pain.
And don't forget those times when it's your turn to drive the foursome off to dinner. Back-seaters never share the adrenaline, only the abuse. This Benz tops the others for space and comfort, and it won't beat up on your friends (if the roads are decent).
Moreover, it's really quite endearing in the way it goes about your daily rounds. The steering is quick and sharp, and the suspension, which resists cornering roll as if it had taken a solemn vow, resists brake dive, too. The seat is shaped exactly right to hold you in place. You find yourself grinning as you carve your path. Want to nail that Starbucks cup as it rolls toward the ditch? No problem. With the front tire or the rear? You really feel a gymnast's confidence about maneuverability.
Just one little problem—this is a gathering of extremist cars. It's about pushing limits, and doing so with cool aplomb. What'll she do? And the civilized little C32 loses its poise under pressure.
Tire grip, as measured on the skidpad, is less than the others, 0.81 g versus the Audi's 0.85 and the BMW's 0.87. But that's a minor concern compared with the way the Benz feels when pushed. First, the computer stability control won't let you anywhere close to the edge. It kills the power in a big way when lateral g ramps up beyond "brisk." Push the ESP button to cancel, and the previously polite C32 goes incommunicado. The brakes bring on huge understeer as you go deep into turns. And the fast-ratio steering gives very little sense of slip in the front tires. This is a car in which you cautiously edge up and up toward the limit and hope you never quite get there.
Maintaining control during our lane-change test was iffy, too, with many screaming-tire skids off the course. This car hates our test procedure, which requires ESP off. With ESP on, it's stable and slow. With ESP off, the C32 was quicker than the Audi on a lucky run. But most runs were cone whackers. For road emergencies, we'd leave the ESP on.
When the path is straight, however, the C32 really lays its ears back. The engine is an AMG adaptation of M-B's 3.2-liter V-6, supercharged to 349 horsepower. The crank-driven blower is a Lysholm-type using meshed screws to give positive displacement. In other words, big torque at low revs. Thrust tracks your right foot exactly.
Acceleration is as thrilling as it is easy to produce. The Benz was a fraction behind the others to 60 mph, fastest at the end of the quarter-mile, and tied with the others for time to that distance, clocking 106 mph through the eyes. You won't confuse the C32 with a civilized car when the hammer is down. It screams a hard yowl toward the 6200-rpm indicated redline. Idle is remarkably clattery, too.
The automatic clicks off snappy shifts. It learns quickly of your moods (the computer is smart when it wants to be) and does well at anticipating when to change gears when you're hustling. We very much like the manumatic shifter. Nudge the lever left for down, right for up, or hold right for a prompt default to D when you're done playing.