It never rains in Southern California, goes the 1970s hit song. Well, it isn’t quite true. At least not during the two days I was there to drive the Mercedes-AMG GT S, the first iteration of a lineup that will see AMG take a lead role in making tristar sports cars.
Technically, San Francisco is not in Southern California. But the test drive route takes us south, across the Santa Cruz range, to the Laguna Seca Raceway, and ending up in Carmel Valley in San Diego, which is in Southern California.
It rains in Frisco as I take the long-nosed, front-engined, rear-driven beauty past the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge. It rains as its 4-litre bi-turbo V8 puts 650Nm of torque to twisty tarmac. It rains as I hit the hairy “Corkscrew” at Laguna Seca. And it rains when I pull into the resort town of Carmel Valley.
It rains so much that it’s impossible to know how the 510bhp rival to cars like the Porsche 911 and Jaguar F-Type behaves in the dry.
The AMG GT S is a two-seat coupe created from the ground up by AMG – like the SLS (which we also drove only in the wet years go). It uses a modified SLS platform, but beyond that, it is a different animal. Its wheelbase is substantially shorter, along with its overall length, while it’s as wide as the SLS. Overall, the GT S is also lighter.
These characteristics have made the AMG GT S noticeably more driveable than its more exotic gullwing sibling. The new car is eminently more nimble, more controllable, and more relevant to roads that are not straight for kilometres on end.
Comparing this car to the SLS coupe is similar to comparing the Lamborghini Huracan to the hyper-ventilating Aventador. In both cases, the more accessible model is more enjoyable. After the initial surprise of how wide the GT S is, I settle into it quite easily.
Its all-round visibility is better than most cars of its genre, its cockpit is far less intimidating than expected, and its controls are set up for effortlessness and ease of use. The thick-rimmed steering wheel, covered with a suede-like material, ensures my hands always have a good grip of the helm.
The steering is nicely weighted, without the artificial heft built into all-out sports cars. It makes turning the 19-inch front wheels shod with 265/35 tyres effortless, but not ambiguous. It maintains its feel even at close to 200km/h.
Despite its width and immense power, the AMG GT S is not a handful at the helm. At least, not when I temper the enthusiasm of my right foot.
Powering through the spaghetti roads laid across the Santa Cruz range, the two-door feels agile and surefooted. The wet tarmac upsets the behaviour only at the most knotty bits, but only momentarily. Ease off the throttle and the 911 rival gets back in line. When it doesn’t, the car’s electronic stability programme kicks in. Each time, it is able to put the car back to the straight and narrow. There would be plenty of instances at Laguna Seca where the stability aid is activated, but more of that later.
In the real world, the AMG GT S comes across as being more pampering than the Porsche 911, with a suspension that manages the vagaries of road surfaces and driving situations well in Comfort mode. The best part is that the car still manages to feel confident in this mode, with minimal body movements that often accompany more pliant damping.
But over more challenging stretches, dialling up the setup is recommended. Sport+ is my preferred choice. Unlike the minute difference you often get in other sports cars, the AMG racer’s chassis stiffens up significantly when you select said mode. Gearchanges are delayed, and the exhaust note becomes louder and deeper, reminding me a wee bit of the unabashedly vocal Jaguar F-Type.
It is not all sound without fury, though. The Merc-AMG shows its mettle in a way a car endowed with more than 300 horses per tonne of body weight can. If not for the narrowness of the roads, the traffic and the speed cameras along the test route, I might have given its electronic nannies more cause for concern.
Granted, the grand tourer is blessed with balanced proportions, but there is only so much horsepower I can send to the fat rear tyres before hell breaks loose.
The GT S weighs 1570kg “dry” – 30kg heavier than the slightly less powerful (462bhp and 600Nm) GT. The extra weight comes in the form of larger wheels, larger front brakes, an e-differential, and dynamic engine and transmission mounts (optional). Working on the same principle as Audi’s electro-magnetic dampers, the mounts adjust their rigidity according to how enthusiastically the car is driven.
Frankly, it is impossible to know if they work, but on the other hand, there is no reason to think that they don’t. Likewise, the car’s front:rear weight distribution of 47:53 and drag-coefficient value of 0.35 are meaningless on the road. Unlike elements such as centre of gravity and the width of a car in relation to its length, these numbers are not quantifiable by the seat of my pants.
At the end of the 250km drive down south though, it becomes clear that while the Mercedes-AMG bears the styling cues and performance parameters of the Porsche 911, the way it delivers the performance is closer to the F-Type.
On a racing circuit, the GT S proves to be a handful in the wet. Because the usual caution one applies to street driving is disregarded (due to the expansive tarmac and absence of oncoming vehicles), one’s right foot becomes possessed. As such, there is usually a bit more speed, and a bit less traction.
That Laguna Seca has more than its share of challenging bits does not help. The “Corkscrew” at Turn 8 (a blind left-right combo with a sheer drop) never fails to bring on the ESP. There are a number of other turns where the stability programme kicks in. In fact, even hard acceleration when the front wheels are straight can also bring it on. Sometimes, hard braking unsettles the rear, too, again triggering the ESP.
I take comfort that this is a racing circuit that has unseated lots of cars, including those that are perceptibly more illustrious than the AMG. Hence, I’m thankful that the electronic nannies are alert, and that I’ve been advised not to switch to Race mode, which turns off ESP.
Those who see themselves as driving aces should find the GT S entertaining. If nothing else, it is a machine with limits that are not easily defined, which means you will not become bored with it easily. It also has all the glittery race credentials to go with it. Like double-wishbone suspension front and back, turbochargers that are mounted within the engine’s cylinder banks (for compactness and optimum response), and dry-sump lubrication.
Engineers will marvel at its mostly aluminium spaceframe, magnesium front deck, and featherweight carbon fibre driveshaft that is joined at both ends solely with adhesive (no nuts, bolts or threads). The SLS has the same shaft, but it is not as light.
In this area, the only “concession” to modern-day comfort is a smooth wet-clutch 7-speed dual-clutch autobox. Of course, this new Merc-AMG has everything else the luxury car buyer expects of a high-end product: a posh interior that is immaculately finished, plus conveniences such as brake hold function, blind spot alert, collision warning, cruise control, keyless access/ignition and even parking assistance. The GT S also has a 350-litre boot, which is sufficient for two golf bags.
Those who only want the style of the new Mercedes sportster could opt for the “softer” AMG GT (not as quick, but also not as costly), while those who want the “hardest” variant should go for the AMG GT S Edition 1 (with racing kit, including a sizeable rear spoiler fixed in place).
In Germany, the GT, GT S and Edition 1 cost 115,430 euros, 134,351 euros and 148,512 euros respectively. That may translate to prices of between S$650,000 and S$800,000 in Singapore, making the Merc-AMG GT as costly as the more exotic SLS. Then again, the SLS was sold during a time before tiered-ARF (additional registration fee).
Nevertheless, the new German coupe will almost certainly garner healthy sales (the way hot new sports cars tend to). Generous first owners in Singapore should give me a call, because I would love to know how the car behaves on dry roads.
TYPE V8, 32-valves, turbocharged
BORE X STROKE 83mm x 92mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 10.5:1
MAX POWER 510bhp at 6250rpm
MAX TORQUE 650Nm at 1750-4750rpm
POWER TO WEIGHT 324.8bhp per tonne
GEARBOX 7-speed dual-clutch with manual select
DRIVEN WHEELS Rear
0-100KM/H 3.8 seconds
TOP SPEED 310km/h (governed)
CONSUMPTION 10.6km/L (combined)
CO2 EMISSION 219g/km
FRONT Double wishbones, coil springs, electronically controlled dampers, anti-roll bar
REAR Double wishbones, coil springs, electronically controlled dampers, anti-roll bar
FRONT / REAR Ventilated discs
TYPE Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2
SIZE 265/35 R19 (front), 295/30 R20 (rear)
TRACTION AIDS ABS with ESP
KERB WEIGHT 1570kg
TURNING CIRCLE 11.5m
PRICE INCL. COE To be announced
WARRANTY 3 years/100,000km
+ Stunning styling outside and inside, lots of grunt, comfort and driveability
– Wild when wet, wide turning circle, no all-wheel-drive option