2015 Mercedes-AMG GT S review: Edition 1 track test

Rating: 9.0
$295,000 $314,900 Mrlp
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Can the new Mercedes-AMG GT S topple the Porsche 911 as the king of the go-to sportscars?
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The July release of the Mercedes-AMG GT range is still three months away and with demand said to strip foreseeable supply by a factor of two to one, the wait on new orders is tipped to be a measure of years.

That’s quite a kick-start for a new nameplate aimed at supplanting the Porsche 911 as the figurative king of super sports cars. Especially given the two-variant range of GT S – starting at $295,000 and climbing to $314,900 for the limited-run GT S Edition 1 – is priced demonstrably higher than early $225K-250K predictions. Those predictions, of course, were largely based on the assumption that the entry-level GT version offered in overseas markets would be available here. But as yet, no base GT model is due for local release. Officially. Yet.

Timing looks to have been crucial for Affalterbach’s fledgling halo car – the 911 Carrera’s widely touted move to forced induction for its late-2015 facelift remains unconfirmed speculation. But no 340kW/600Nm GT means no logical Carrera S rival – the local range wants for hardcore GT3 and full-fat GTS money. Tick the $17,500 ceramic brake cost option on the Mercedes-AMG GT S Edition 1 and you’re on High Street shopping in the 911 Turbo’s neighbourhood.

In short, the GT S would want to be good. Indeed, it lobs locally with glorious numbers: 375kW, 650Nm, 0-100km/h in 3.8 seconds and 310km/h top speed. But heroic numbers alone won’t shake the 911 – its bulletproof heritage currently anchored by some 21 model variants at last count – from its high horse.

While eight laps of the southeast Queensland’s compact and lumpy Norwell driver training circuit is hardly comprehensive or conclusive, initial impressions are that the GT S Edition 1 – the very first right-hook, Australian-spec example available to sample in Oz, fitted with the ceramic brake package – is utterly brilliant.

From its striking exterior design, that successfully straddles muscular brawn with classically sensual beauty, to the impressively slick interior treatment that drips quality and richness, the Mercedes-AMG GT S exudes x-factor, fanfare and gravitas. It’s certainly no 911 clone.

Broach key rivals with AMG CEO Tobias Moers – present for the Australian media’s first drive of the GT S – and he name-checks Jaguar’s fiery, mojo-infused F-Type Coupe R first and foremost. The insight suggests that feel-good factor and drama – key modern AMG hallmarks – are as crucial to the make-up of the GT S as the high-brow driver interaction a certain sports car from Stuttgart is revered for.

Climbing into or out of the cabin is no elegant feat and it’s certainly cosy accommodation – it’s easier to access some centre console controls from the driver’s seat by reaching across with your right hand. But the low-slung seating offers superb driver-focused ergonomics and the view out across the long, curvaceous bonnet is worth a fair chuck of the admission price alone.

Clearly tapping the hot rod charisma of its SLS AMG lineage, it’s a more natural cabin space that’s less a victim of form over function. Nor does it possess that spooky sensation of the SLS that you’re sat atop the rear axle.

While a couple of low-speed tours of the bumpy and twisty Norwell circuit – drive mode governed systems all set to ‘Comfort’ – merely hint at the GT S’s true urban manners, things are already positive.

The hand-built 4.0-litre bi-turbo engine is flexible and virtually lag-free, even under very light throttle application, and it’s effortlessly tractable without unwarranted peakiness or urgency. Whether the Euro 6-compliant engine can achieve its best consumption claim of 9.4 litres per 100km, though, is a test for another day.

The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission shifts as seamlessly and intuitively as either AMG’s finest conventional automatics or Porsche’s superb PDK breed. Its transaxle design aids the favourable 47:53 front-to-rear distribution of the GT S’s reasonably light 1540-kilogram kerb weight.

With modest mass up front, the speed-sensitive variable-ratio steering remains crisp and communicative at a cruise and the whole car feels quite light on its rubber feet.

Both ‘S’ variants get spring and damper settings (over the regular GT) that imbue a firm ride but the standard-fit adaptive dampers, in their soft setting, impart reasonable ride compliance – at least on a less-than-perfectly manicured track. Whether it strikes the real-world ride-handling balance of a 911 Carrera is inconclusive to say the least…

While Moers’ assessment that “nobody will miss the (outgoing) 6.2-litre V8” may appal AMG traditionalists, this new-age bi-turbo eight-cylinder is a compelling unit, if a little lacking in sheer sonic ostentation compared with the now-defunct naturally aspirated engine’s sonorous soundtrack. Thanks to the fully variable, driver-adjustable exhaust flaps, though, the breadth of sonic glories the GT S is capable of – from Comfort’s deep, dull roar through to full-house Race mode’s bellowing bark – is remarkable.

But well before the red mist descends and you wring its 6000rpm redline, the GT S feels the proper, thoroughbred sports car.

Progressing through the middling Sport and Sport+ drive modes, the GT S’s responses and dynamic reflexes are quite noticeably sharpened from one setting to the next.

No matter which mode you choose, the strongest suits remain: tremendous grip, superb balance and clear communication between driver and road surface. And they conspire to a user-friendliness that’s a faithful ally for moderately skilled drivers.

Nor does the GT S demand white-knuckled manhandling. It can be driven by the fingertips and rewards measured inputs with explosive point-to-point pace.

Race mode – part of the standard fit Dynamic Plus package in ‘S’ variants – unlocks proper supercar levels of performance too lofty for the majority of tight confines of the Norwell track, but those attributes come to the surface on the straights and longer corners.

Like all great sports cars, the harder you push the more rewarding the GT S is for driving purity. Though with 650Nm available from just 1750rpm, torque will overcome traction with little right foot provocation. It puts its power down predictably and controllably, but opt for ‘ESP Off’, rather than ‘ESP Sport Handling’, and fully plumbing the depth of this AMG’s abilities is, very much by design, best reserved for expert drivers.

More ‘hot rod’ than a Porsche Carrera S, more purist driving machine than the SLS, the Mercedes-AMG GT S brings a fresh blend of multiple talents to the super sports car segment.

Whether it can supplant the mighty 911 as the gold standard bearer for all-round goodness, however, remains to be proved.