A spiritual successor to the SLS, minus gullwing doors | by Andrew Frankel
How high up in the pantheon of legendary corners would the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca come? In the top 10 for sure, which would be fine were it not a rubbish corner. Like the equally famous and only slightly less pointless Karussell at the Nürburgring, it’s worse than useless, serving only to spoil the wonderful rhythm of the corners that come immediately before and after.
By contrast, in a fast car with no downforce the catchily entitled Turn One is hair-raising for all the right reasons. You approach at whatever speed your car can muster then arc left over a blind brow and downhill to an entirely invisible apex clipped just as you need to be on the other side of the track and braking hard for the inconveniently tight Turn Two. And it was here that the all-new Mercedes-AMG GT S proved itself to be what few had dared to hope: a rival to the best road cars Porsche can produce.
For the engineers at AMG’s Affalterbach base, the GT was always going to be the equivalent of that tricky second album. Its first whole car project had been the SLS, launched in 2009 and destined to live only five years.
It attracted broadly positive press reviews and spawned a massively successful FIA GT3 race car, but was never quite able to avoid the suggestion that it had not sold in quite the numbers anticipated. This may be untrue, but ask how many it made and you will be told Mercedes does not divulge such figures.
But that is the context into which the GT was born. Its design was heavily influenced by that of its forebear, but it is a different car for a different customer, aimed at the much more crowded market around the £100,000 mark where the opposition includes everything from the Aston Martin V8 Vantage S and Jaguar F-type R coupé to the Audi R8 and BMW i8. What it shares with the SLS is the concept of an almost entirely (93 per cent) aluminium spaceframe clad in aluminium panels with a front-mid mounted engine driving the rear wheels alone through a carbon-fibre propshaft and a seven-speed Getrag double-clutch gearbox. There are double wishbones at each corner, but only the fronts are in any way related to those of the SLS.
But the big news is its new 4-litre twin turbo V8. Oddly enough it’s this motor that does have a close relative in the AMG line-up, in the form of the 2-litre four found in the A, CLA and GLA. It’s not quite true to describe the V8 as two of these motors sharing a common crank, but that’s its design basis. It comes in two power outputs, the standard GT with 456bhp (£97,195) and 503bhp for the £110,495 GT S. The ‘S’ is first to go on sale, with deliveries beginning in spring.
Where’d the doors go? You’d think if there were one element of the SLS that Mercedes would be keen to preserve it would be those extraordinary gullwing doors. But for some reason the GT opens conventionally. I suspect that cost got in the way.
The cabin is remarkably cosy and, if you are a large middle-aged man, not as roomy as you’d have hoped. Ideally I’d drive it in my socks, just to liberate a little additional legroom. The instruments are unexpectedly ugly, too, but there’s reasonable stowage space.
Happily, with the first turn of the crankshaft your mind is diverted to an altogether more pressing issue. That small turbocharged engine you could almost call a twin four fires up as if it were a race-built small block Chevy V8. Mercedes is decidedly pleased with the sound it has achieved and rightly so: the thunder at idle transforms with every additional rev into a classic quad-cam howl as 7000rpm approaches.
But the engine’s still greater achievement is not only to sound but also behave like a normally aspirated unit, especially if you select ‘race’ from the choice of five different driving modes. Only when the car is right on the limit and you’re trying to lasso its rear end with throttle modulation alone are you aware that its response lacks the last fraction of the immediacy of a good normally aspirated engine.
It makes up for it in other ways. Whereas the 6.2-litre turbo-free V8 in the SLS was actually quite a peaky motor that required careful management to keep it percolating, this little turbo motor needs no such excuses, running hard with as few as 2000rpm on the clock. And the car is ferociously fast too, fast enough I expect to keep pace with the lighter but less powerful Porsche 911 GT3.
But back to Turn One. I’m not sure how rapidly we’re travelling as we approach as I’m far too busy to look at the dial, but it will be registering some distance into three figures. The GT I’m following has four-time DTM champion Bernd Schneider at the wheel and if he doesn’t lift for it, neither will I. He doesn’t, and as the car flies over the brow it feels momentarily like you’re driving off the edge of the planet. But the hard work remains ahead, namely nailing the apex and then losing the best part of 100mph before Turn Two. And the GT hits its marks to perfection.
It’s probably as big a test of chassis composure as you could reasonably throw at an effectively wingless road car on road tyres, and it coped admirably.
Around the rest of the lap it was scintillatingly quick but no pushover. Anyone fooled by its name into thinking this is some soft and accommodating Grand Tourer will be in for a shock: the car has an aversion to understeer and wishes to exist instead in a state of neutrality or, ideally, as much oversteer as you feel you can handle. It is, in other words, a proper sports car that can bite.
Not that you’d know it away from the track. On the road the GT is taut, precise, firm-riding but sufficiently deftly damped to just about stand up the claim that it provides viable daily transport. I wasn’t happy with the standard sports seat, however.
Overall AMG has done a fine job and it is to be remembered that this is where the GT range begins. In a couple of years will come its real answer to the 911 GT3, which will be both lighter and more powerful and no doubt work wonders in Turn One.
In the meantime I will be intrigued to drive the standard GT. It’s not just the extra power you’re paying for when you buy an S, but a whole suite of meaningful equipment including an electronically controlled limited slip differential. I expect Mercedes created the base-model GT to appeal to those who want a car with that look and image, but don’t need to spend another £13,000 buying a level of dynamism they’re not going to use.
As an only car, I’d rate the newly introduced Porsche 911 GTS as a better bet on a daily basis. It has rear seats and a more spacious cabin. It’s also easier to drive right on the limit and, at just over £90,000, dramatically cheaper, too.
But the AMG is simply more special. It looks more striking, makes a better noise and, when you drive it as it was designed to be driven, it’s more exciting that the 911. Forced to choose, if I could only have one it would be the Porsche, but if it were part of even a two-car stable, I’d choose the Mercedes. That says a lot about the qualities of the three-year-old 991 generation of 911, and even more about how Mercedes rose to the challenge. AMG’s second album is not just cheaper than the first, but doors aside, far better too.
Engine: 4.0 litres, 8 cylinders, twin turbochargers
Power: [email protected] rpm
Torque: 479lb [email protected] rpm
Transmission: seven-speed double-clutch automatic
Top speed: 193mph