From the legendary “silver arrows” that dominated the Grand Prix in the 1930s to the speedsters that nudged out their rivals at the most recent Formula 1 World Championship, Mercedes-Benz has proven time and again that it knows how to build performance vehicles. The brand boasts the same outstanding track record for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Mille Miglia and the Carrera Panamericana. And then of course, there’s their 300 SL with its iconic gullwing doors.
When the brand released the SLS in 2010, they wanted to draw on the 300 SL’s magic. The move followed the end of a partnership that had resulted in the birth of the powerful and expensive McLaren SLR seven years earlier. Also featuring gullwings, this new sports car was the first Mercedes-Benz production model to be made entirely of aluminium. It was also the first to be fully designed by AMG, their performance division. Having proven what they had to prove, it was time to move on to more serious matters.
New targets and new prices
AMG was tasked with creating a sports car that performed as well as the SLS, but was more agile and less expensive. This vehicle would take direct aim at the Porsche 911, while also rivalling the Aston Martin V8 Vantage, Audi R8 and Jaguar F-Type Coupe. I would add some Corvette models to the list, but the Stuttgart-based automaker doesn’t consider them serious competition. They’re so wrong about that!
One thing is for sure, with a starting price of $149,900 for the baseline S trim, the new Mercedes-AMG GT is way less expensive than the SLS AMG (recently selling for $248,000). But we still haven’t seen the price of the “regular” GT expected in fall 2016 as a 2017 model.
Sylvain Raymond already wrote about his test drive of the Mercedes-AMG GT when it was officially unveiled at the Laguna Seca circuit in California a few months ago. Now, we’re getting the chance to drive the GT on Canadian soil.
Both classic and modern
I got my hands on the GT S at Ontario’s Mosport Circuit, now officially called the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. The new name is worth mentioning if only because the new owners, who include driver Ron Fellows, have made some very impressive improvements to the facilities. The circuit itself is the same, except for the addition of wide asphalt strips for most corners and a paved run-off area for tricky Corner 2.
In the pit lane, the four first GT S units to venture to Canada stood quietly in line. No matter what angle you look at it from, the GT looks more like the 300 SL than the SLS, and yet it doesn’t have a retro look to it. Viewing it from the side, you’ll notice its rounded edges, arched roofline, almond-shaped side windows and shorter overhangs.
If the GT looks smaller than the SLS, it’s because it is. It’s 9.2 cm shorter and 13.6 cm narrower, and it rests on a wheelbase that’s seen 5 cm shaved off.
Its tubular trellis frame and body are 97% aluminium. The outside shell weighs 231 kilograms, which is 10 less than the SLS’s body. Overall, the GT weighs 125 kilograms less. The lithium-ion battery alone accounts for a surprising gain of 10 kilograms.
The roofline was raised 2.6 cm, making it easier for drivers to slide into the vehicle. Even so, the GT’s centre of gravity is 5.5 cm lower. This improves the vehicle’s agility in leaps and bounds, especially since the engine is mounted lower than before. The new 4.0L twin-turbo V8 succeeds the fantastic 6.2L naturally aspirated V8 that powered the SLS. It’s similar to the mill found in the new C 63 S sedan , except that it’s lubricated by a dry sump, as in race cars. This explains why it’s positioned lower in the GT’s chassis.
Even with 503 horses—80 less than the SLS—the AMG GT can sprint from 0-100 km/h in almost the same time: 3.8 seconds (that’s according to AMG). It can pull this off because it’s lighter and its twin-turbo V8 generates 479 lb.-ft. of torque, which is exactly the same as its predecessor. But now the torque is available in full at 1,750 rpm, compared to 4,750 rpm in the SLS.
That torque is transmitted by a seven-speed dual-clutch automated gearbox that’s integrated into the rear axle to allow a 53%-47% weight split between front and rear. Just like on the SLS. The vehicle’s movement is controlled by an electro-hydraulic limited-slip differential and an anti-skid system whose responsiveness is regulated by the selected driving mode: C (Comfort), S (Sport), S+ (Sport Plus), Race (only available on the S trim) and I* (Individual), which allows you to customize the settings. These modes affect the suspension, gearbox, steering and accelerator settings.
All four corners of the vehicle feature a double A-arm suspension, with almost all components made of forged aluminium to reduce unsprung weight. There’s always the option of adding more fade-resistant carbon-ceramic disc brakes, but this will set you back $13,750. The factory-standard metal brakes, squeezed by six-piston calipers in front and four-piston calipers in back, are plenty good—unless you plan on spending all day every day at the track.
Step into a first-class cabin
This is exactly what we went to Mosport to do. As soon as we got the green light, I darted into a black GT S. The interior was spectacular, combining red, black and silver. From the leather with red stitching, the oversize dials, the sublime leather-swathed steering wheel and the judicious use of carbon fibre, it was a true AMG work of art. You won’t find anything better on the market today.
Some people didn’t like the big console, but I did. I had all the space I needed and I quickly found a comfortable driving position. A flat footrest is included, obviously. One thing I found tricky was recording my preferred seat settings using the buttons on the side of the seat. Their position makes them impossible to see. The only other annoyance was the gear selector, which is set too far back on the console. It should have been positioned ahead of the touchpad and clunky control knob.
During our first lap, the track was very cold, as the outside temperature was just 5 degrees. But at least the asphalt was dry. Danny Kok (pronounced “Coke”), the head instructor of the advanced driving program at AMG Academy, led the pack in an SL 63 AMG with 577 horsepower.
After a quick spin to heat the tires, Danny picked up the pace!
Variable skies over an outstanding track
My colleague Simon Dion-Viens, who happens to be an experienced runner, stayed right on Danny’s heels. After braking hard on the Moss double-corner, the red lights flashed and an alarm sounded—and my seatbelt yanked me back and crushed me into my seat. The emergency brake assist system (BAS) proved very effective, but not terribly comfortable. Not really designed for the tight confines of a track, it can be deactivated in Race mode, but I never got the chance to try it personally. It might be a good idea.
We switched from Sport mode to Sport Plus, and I noticed that shifting at higher revs made the GT S more responsive on corners. I set it back to Sport mode, as the V8 offers lots of torque at all speeds. In both modes, the sport exhaust flaps are open.
The vehicle released a fantastic rumble as we accelerated down the track, which is neither straight, nor flat, nor smooth. But I found its sound less captivating than the sweet purr emitted by the C 63 sedan on the Portimão circuit. I never expected this, since it’s the same engine.
When it was my turn to follow the SL, I pushed the vehicle past 240 km/h and then braked hard for the seemingly endless Corner 8. I managed to keep just far enough from Danny’s bumper to avoid activating the brake system, lest my chest get compressed again. That’s a lesson I learned quickly!
The GT S is precise, balanced and stable in the corners. It’s also more agile than the SLS. Half-way between a 911 and an F-Type coupe, you might say. It even remained predictable when the track was flooded with rain and peppered with hail (this happened twice!). The rear end sometimes gets away from you and the variable-assist power is light and sometimes stingy on feedback when taking corners.
A short stint on the access road allowed us to confirm that Comfort mode offers a very good ride. One thing is for sure, the GT lives up to its initials and can hold its head high among the best of the best. We’ll be keeping an eye on it for sure!