Mercedes-Benz S-Class VS KTM X-Bow
- Fantastic V8 engine
- Brilliant interior
- Jekyll/Hyde chassis
- Very heavy
- Service costs
- Fast and utterly furious
- Unique in Australia
- A track-attack special you can drive to the track
- Even a light sprinkling of rain will leave you in despair
- Safety kit non-existent
- An expensive toy
Ever since the middle of the 1990s, I've been captivated by the Mercedes-Benz S Class. It used to be known as Sonderklasse - special class - and teenage me certainly thought it was. The one that caught my attention was the W140. A huge, two-tonne beast when that sort of mass was rare, it was loaded with amazingness and owned the road.
Part of its unique appeal was that that it was properly ugly. When it hove into view it was like a battleship entering Sydney Harbour. And it used almost as much fuel, with the V12 on board.
Over the years, genuine style has invaded the S-Class and today I found myself, for the first time, in an unusually pretty pair of S Classes - the S560 and S63 Coupes. And, astonishingly, it's the first time I've ever driven an S-Class. So with all that baggage I've built up over the years, they had a lot to live up to.
|Engine Type||4.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
I know what you're thinking: "How is this thing legal?" And to be honest, somewhere between a rock flung from the tyre of a passing car colliding with my forehead like it had been fired from a pistol, and the pouring rain lashing my exposed face like a damp cat-o'-nine-tails, I'd begun wondering the same thing.
The answer is barely. The product of a years-long fight to overcome our import rules, this madhouse KTM X-Bow R is now finally free to roam Australian roads and racetracks - though, with sales capped at 25 per year to comply with the Specialist Enthusiast Vehicle Scheme.
The price? A slightly eye-watering $169,990. That's quite a lot, and places the X-Bow R miles above its closest lightweight, carbon fibre-tubbed competitor, the Alfa Romeo 4C ($89,000).
But then, the KTM X-Bow R is unlike anything else on the road today. Part super bike, part open-wheeler and all mobile madness, the 'Crossbow' is fast, furious and completely insane.
Expect no doors, no windscreen, no roof. On-board entertainment is limited to the turbo whistling behind your head, the car's standard safety list is as barren as the interior and the climate control is dependent on the temperature of the wind that's smashing into your exposed face.
And we couldn't wait to take it for a spin.
Both of these vast vehicles are phenomenally comfortable - this is the kind of car that Mercedes does so well, and has done for decades. The S Class is rarely a disappointment but it's difficult to believe that such a big, heavy GT car can also dance the way the S63 does.
The S560 is far more weighted to being a GT - supremely comfortable with that active suspension, a growly, refined V8 and a cabin full of gadgets and comfort. The S63 is altogether more aggressive, to look at and to drive. Lopping the roof off both of them adds weight but, like any cruiser, also puts you out in the sun, the breeze and into your surroundings. Plus, in the case of the S63, you get more exhaust noise.
They're two very different cars and not just because of the engine. After all these years admiring it from afar, the S63 has delivered on my teenage expectations - fast, smooth and utterly mad.
Is the S Class still the car that springs to mind when you think ultimate luxury? Or has another brand taken its place? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
Okay, so rain is not your friend. Neither is brutal sunshine, strong winds or any speed bump anywhere. There are probably a handful of times you'll want to drive it, and when you do you will definitely get hit in the face with rocks and bugs, and spend most of your time wondering just how the hell this thing is legal.
And yet, we are hopelessly, head-over-heels in love with it. It's an absolute weapon on a track, a joy on anything even resembling a twisting road and it is one of the few genuinely unique cars on the road today. And the fact it exists at all is a cause for absolute celebration.
Does the KTM X-Bow R's purity of purpose appeal to you, or is its performance focus just too narrow? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
The S Class Coupe is obviously related to the sedan but manages a svelte appearance. Slimmer hipped and with a more Coke-bottle shape, the Coupe - if you squint a bit - has a bit of the classic old pagoda about it. Obviously you can't do pillars that slim anymore, but the glass roof takes away some of the visual weight inside and out.
The cabriolet's roof is nicely integrated and looks good when it's up, which isn't always the case.
They all look long, though. It's obvious to see why the cars all run on 20-inch wheels - anything smaller would look hilarious.
The cabin is a fairly sensible re-imagining of the E-Class. The big twin-screen layout of the dash and multimedia system seems a bit more at home here. The chintzy Burmester speakers in the doors let down an otherwise classy cabin, which steers clear of otiose vulgarity in looks and materials.
The X-Bow R is built for purpose in the most wonderful of ways. From the visible suspension components to the rocket-style exhausts, to the stripped-bare interior, it's fairly obvious that form came a distant second to function in the X-Bow's design process.
And, for us at least, that's a tremendous thing. It looks raw and visceral, and a bit like Harvey Dent post-fire - you can see all the normally hidden components doing their thing. It's mesmerising.
Well look, if you end up in the back of the S Coupe, it's not a riot of space. Obviously it has back seats (the SL doesn't even squeeze a jump seat into its considerable length) but they're for occasional, if luxurious, use.
The boot is a reasonably decent 400 litres, obviously the cabriolet loses a few litres with the roof folded. Front and rear passengers will both enjoy a pair of cupholders and the whopping long doors will each hold a bottle.
Short answer? It's not. People are unlikely to test drive an X-Bow R and start looking for cupholders and storage space, but if they did, it wouldn't take long.
Aside from the twin seats, a four-point racing harness, a high-mounted gearshift, a pull-lever handbrake, and detachable steering wheel, the cabin is as bare as Old Mother Hubbard's cupboard.
Luggage space is limited to what you can carry in your pockets (though wearing cargo pants will help) and even getting in and out of the thing takes some fleet-footed antics. With no doors you need to literally jump in. And the side sills are only rated to 120kg, so heavier types will need to avoid stepping on them at all, and instead attempt a kind of running leap into the cockpit.
Price and features
One thing hasn't changed in nearly 20 years - the S isn't cheap. Available in coupe and cabriolet, the S560 starts at $314,900 for the former and $336,900 for the latter. Step up to the S63 pair and you'll pay from $370,500 for the coupe and $399,900 for the cab. If you're super keen for something spectacular, the twin-turbo V12-powered S65 is available for between $508,900 and $520,500, and features Swarovski crystals in the headlights, for some reason.
As you can imagine, there's quite a bit to cover, so for both cars I'll stick to the edited highlights. The S560s roll on 20-inch alloys, has a 590-watt 13 speaker sound system, digital TV, auto parking, active cruise control, panoramic glass roof, Nappa leather, active seats and power-closing doors.
It also comes standard with a heating pack that not only heats the seats but the steering wheel and centre console. In the cabriolet you also get the 'Airscarf' neck heater.
Both cars also feature's Mercedes' Magic Body Control with curve function. More of that wacky feature later.
The S63 AMG is a step up in power, price and spec. One notable change from the S560 is the loss of 'Magic Body Control', which is replaced with mere air suspension. The 20-inch alloys are 10-spoke forged units, the brakes higher performance composites with red calipers, while an AMG sports exhaust brings the noise.
Naturally, both are swathed in high-quality leather and feature dual-zone climate control, heated and cooled electric seats that adjust in every direction, deep carpets, keyless entry and start, fully digital dashboards and just about every gadget to which you can point your imagination.
Entertainment and sat nav are via Mercedes' 'Comand' system, which is displayed on a massive 12.3-inch slab of glass at the top of the dashboard. The 13-speaker Burmester-branded system is predictably impressive and with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, you only have to use the basic software for the radio or various car controls.
Keen readers of this site will recognise this as the area where we outline the many and varied features that come along with a normal new car purchase, but that's just not going to work this time. In fact, it'll be considerably easier to talk about what's missing, so let's start with the obvious: doors, windows, roof, windscreen. All conspicuously absent from this weird and utterly wonderful X-Bow.
Inside, you'll find two thinly (and we mean thin - we've seen thicker contact lenses) padded seats fixed into the tub. You'll also find push-button start, a digital screen reminiscent of those found on motorbikes (KTM is an Austrian-based motorcycle company, after all) and a pedal box that slides backward and forwards to offset the height of the pilot. Oh, and that steering wheel can pop off to make getting in and out easier.
Climate control? Nope. Stereo? Nope. Proximity unlocking? Well, kind of. With no doors, you'll always find it unlocked when you enter its proximity. Does that count?
But what it does have is a turbocharged two-litre engine. And in a car that weighs a sprightly 790kg, that means it's quick, pulling like a rabid sled dog in every gear, rear tyres chirping with every change.
Engine & trans
All four coupes and cabriolets ship with Daimler's formidable 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8. The S560 scores 345kW/700Nm to drive the rear wheels through Benz's own nine-speed automatic. With all of that available, the S560 will crack the ton in 4.6 seconds and make a wonderful racket on the way.
Moving on to the S63, the same engine delivers a massive 450kW/900Nm. The run from 0-100km/h is dispatched in just 3.5 seconds and if I thought the S560 made a good noise, the S63 with its standard sports exhaust makes a better one. Again, Mercedes' nine-speeder is along for the ride.
The X-Bow R's power comes from an Audi-sourced, turbocharged 2.0-litre engine, paired with a VW Group six-speed manual transmission (and one of the stubbiest gearsticks in existence). That mid-mounted marvel produces 220kW at 6300rpm and 400Nm at 3300rpm, and ships it off to the rear tyres with the assistance of a Drexler mechanical limited-slip differential.
Thanks to its lithe and lightweight body, that's enough to propel the X-Bow R from 0-100km/h in a blistering 3.9 seconds, and on to a top speed of 230km/h.
The lower-powered 560 drinks 98RON at the rate of 8.5L/100km for the coupe and 9.9L/100km for the heavier cabriolet.
The S63 ups the ante with 9.9L/100km for the coupe and an identical 9.9L/100km for the cab.
Our launch program contained some...er...spirited driving, which would explain the mid to high-teens fuel figures.
KTM lists the X-Bow R's claimed/combined fuel figure at 8.3 litres per hundred kilometres (though we were managing mid-12s after an, ahem, very spirited test), with emissions pegged at 189 grams per kilometre.
The X-Bow R is also fitted with a 40-litre fuel tank, accessed via a side-mounted inlet. Instead of a fuel gauge, expect a digital reading showing how many litres you have left.
Let's start with the S560. That smooth V8 rumble is all you'll ever hear if you just slot into drive and go for a leisurely spin. The nine-speed automatic continues to be a revelation to me - in the GLC63 it's good and here, once again, it's excellent, finding the right gear for the occasion and riding the fat torque curve. Other nine-speed autos are not very good at all.
The test route for the S560 played to the strengths of the car. It had some lovely winding roads, which brought the trick suspension into focus - the Magic Body Control with curve function is hilarious. While the active suspension works hard at all times to ensure the ride is smooth and drama free, the Curve mode (no, really) actually leans the car into corners.
Those of you who remember the video game Wipeout 2097 will be big fans of Curve mode. As you approach a corner, you turn the wheel and then the car leans into the bend. This isn't active damping reading the road, it's the outside suspension lifting the car and the inside lowering it, so the car feels like it's gliding, like a hovercar. It's wild but oddly calming. Mercedes reckons it's great for those who get car sick. As I didn't have my wife on hand to test this theory - she chucks at the first sign of a corner - I couldn't verify this claim. That will have to wait.
The S63 AMG is a completely different proposition. The air suspension is more than up to the job of helping smother the effects of the car's considerable weight, meaning that no matter what you're up to, the car feels reasonably light on its feet. It never feels small, though, commanding the respect of the driver and plenty of space from other road users.
And boy, do you need some space if you kick the S63 into Sport mode. In true AMG style, the electronic reins relax and the big luxury coupe cheerfully kicks off. The tail will wriggle under an unsympathetic right foot, that signature V8 roar, crackle and hiss filling your ears. The S63 is always the harder-feeling car, but it delivers with a more sporting drive than the S560.
Being the generous soul I am, I volunteered to return the S63 to its home for the evening rather than consign it to the back of a truck. On the back roads I took to reach the highway, it was rock solid - fast, predictable and a lot of fun. Once I found the boring straight bits, it turned into a supremely comfortable cruiser, ticking along in ninth at the legal limit (and being Melbourne, it was very much the legal limit), dispatching overtaking with barely a flex of a toe.
The active cruise took the stress of keeping away from the State Revenue Office's clutches while being quiet and utterly pleasant.
It couldn't be more Fast and Furious if it had Vin Diesel growling under its (non-existent) bonnet. We have technically driven faster cars, but we have never driven anything that feels quite so fast as this utterly insane X-Bow R.
Climb in, strap into the four-point harness and select first via the surprisingly easy-to-manage gearbox and clutch set up, and, at slow speeds, wrestle with the dead weight of the completely unassisted steering, and it's immediately clear that this is a driving experience like nothing else currently road-legal in Australia. Even at walking pace, the X-Bow R feels poised for an assault on the future, and it attracts attention on the road like nothing else we've ever driven.
Its road-scraping ride height and diminutive dimensions make tackling traffic an intimidating prospect, with regular hatchbacks suddenly taking on truck-like proportions and actual trucks now looking like passing planets. There's a constant concern that you're sitting well below the traditional blind spot, and that you could be crushed at any moment.
Combine all that with the bad weather that cursed our final day of testing, and the X-Bow R is all sorts of watery hell. It is truly homicidal in the wet, too, with the back end breaking grip at the slightest provocation. And the turbocharged 2.0-litre offers plenty of that.
But on a sunny day, and on the right road, it's pure driving bliss. The acceleration is brutal, the grip endless and the Audi sourced gearbox an absolute treat. And it pulls in every gear, tackling 35km/h corners in third and absolutely blasting out the other side.
Cornering is scalpel sharp, and the steering - so heavy at slow speeds - is light and efficient at pace, requiring only the most minuscule of movements to bite into a bend.
It is anything but perfect in the city, and even a light sprinkling of rain will have you seeking shelter (and a refund), but on the right road, on the right day, there are few if any cars that offer the kind of razor-sharp thrills and intoxicating excitement of KTM's monstrous X-Bow R.
The S-Class coupe comes loaded with eight airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls, forward and reverse AEB with pedestrian detection, reversing camera, crosswind assist (I know, right?), traffic-sign recognition and reverse cross traffic alert.
The S-Class Coupe does not have an ANCAP or EuroNCAP rating.
Next to none. There is no ABS, traction or stability control. No airbags, powered steering or ISOFIX attachment points, either. If you break traction (which, in the wet, is more than a little bit likely) it'll be up to you to ensure you straighten up again. Helpfully, there's a ton of grip from the Michelin Super Sport tyres.
As part of the compliance program, Simply Sports Cars (the company responsible for introducing the X-Bow R) actually crash tested two cars in Europe, and raised the ride height by 10 millimetres. Oh, and there's now a seatbelt warning sign, too.
Mercedes offers a three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty with roadside assist for the duration.
The company also offers both service plans (where you pay up-front as part of the vehicle purchase) and capped-price servicing on the coupes. Servicing over three years is in the order $2500.