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First Drive: 2018 Mercedes-AMG GT R

A beast knighted in Green Hell

Georg Kacherwriter The Manufacturerphotographer

PORTIMAO, Portugal — There's nothing quite as aggressive and menacing as the face of a street-legal race car filling up your rear-view mirror, in this case one rapidly approaching from between Portimao's Torre and Alonso corners. It looks positively sinister, with a Jaws-esque grille inspired by the legendary 300 SL Panamericana road racer, accented by piercing LED eyebrows. Evil on wheels, thy name is the 2018 Mercedes-AMG GT R.

Back in the pits, the fear factor doubled the moment I opened the door, reached waaaaaay down into the dark footwell for the manual seat adjustment, and pushed the carbon-fiber bucket all the way back to the rear firewall. Cabin space is tight, and the tightest part grabs your bum, shrinking the waist size a couple of inches. Don't even think about asking for alleviation like shoulder pads, extra lumbar support or even a profane height alignment. What you see is what you feel, so grit your teeth, pull out that fly yellow safety belt and buckle up.

I'm nervous because I'm sandwiched between two pros. Driving the lead car is the former DTM champ Bernd Schneider, while at the wheel of the car behind sits the new Ringmeister (AMG's own nameless, faceless version of The Stig). Great, just what I need. Bernd's brief instructions sound to me like the Last Rites: "Put the drive mode selector in Race. Now switch off ESP altogether. That's it. See the control display between the speedo and rev counter? It depicts the traction-control setting. There are nine segments, three yellow and six red. Yellow is for sissies. To begin with, you go two clicks into the red. Any questions?" No, except that this is not an airfield autocross with two dozen cones and 1,200 yards of runoff area. Instead, Portimao is a certified F1 circuit. And it is fast. Very fast. On day two, heart in hand, I saw for the blink of an eye an indicated 160 mph at the end of the downhill start-finish straight. But right now the lights go green, the flagman does his routine, and in one-two-three formation, we're hollering down the pit lane at 60 clicks sharp.

Aptly sprayed in matte Nordschleife green and fresh off its Nürburgring lap record of 7 minutes, 10.9 seconds (the fastest ever for a rear-drive production car), at 3,428 pounds the new 577-hp GT R weighs about as much as an Audi R8 V10 and it's just 130 pounds or so heavier than Porsche 911 GT3 RS thanks to a generous use of aluminum and carbon fiber. It also scores brownie points for its nicely balanced weight distribution (roughly 47/53 front/rear), an advantage owed primarily to its transaxle layout.

While the dry-sump lubrication system helps lower the AMG GT R's center of gravity, the rear wing and active underbody aerodynamics in the shape of an automatically descending carbon fiber lozenge boost high-speed downforce by a significant 342 pounds. Like the Mercedes-AMG GT C roadster, the GT R is fitted with rear-wheel steering as standard equipment. Ensuring optimum grip and traction are soft-compound Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, sized 275/30 R19 up front and 325/30 R20 in the rear.

Sporting a challenging mix of slow and fast corners as well as a potpourri of climbs and descents, Portimao makes for a memorable driving experience. Weather can be an issue, though. In the wake of heavy overnight rain, the grip level typically drops a notch or two, and strong wind will create lift where you least need it, namely on the approach to the fastest downhill corner.

As long as you don't overdrive them, the Pilot Sports are capable of amazing roadholding talents, inspiring confidence even through the track's breathtaking 110 mph-plus kink. Carbon-ceramic brakes cost extra, but with Schneider leading our group, we're happy to have them to call upon. Even though the massive compound rotors are not totally immune to fading, the initial bite and the staying power make a difference on the circuit. As a result, overshooting the mental brake marker by a car length or two doesn't automatically alert the gravel trap tow team. The subsequent fishtailing, triggered by an off-guard moment inside the electronically controlled diff lock, is merely a friendly gesture to the grandstands.

The nine-setting traction control must be set via a small bright yellow turning knob positioned below the center eyeball vent. On cold tires, switching TC off is a bad idea, but it doesn't take long for the fat, rear-mounted Michelins to grab the tarmac with vigor, so be prepared to work them hard or the front tires will overheat early and you'll be starring in an episode of "The Fun is Over."

With its iconic 6.2-liter V-8 resting in peace, Mercedes-AMG has been concentrating its engine engineering efforts on its twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8. The mill fuses the aforementioned 577 hp, which peaks at 6,250 rpm with a 7,000 rpm redline, and 516 lb-ft of low-end torque available from 1,900 to 5,500 rpm.

Bolted onto the engine is AMG's Speedshift seven-speed transmission, which features a longer first gear and slightly shorter ratios in sixth and seventh for even more mid-range punch. Acceleration from 0 to 60 mph is claimed to be a swift 3.5 seconds onto a top speed of 198 mph should you ever find the time and space to get there. The 200 mph-plus trophy is presumably tucked away in a cupboard for next year's Black Series edition.

The AMG GT R's variable-rate steering systems (plural) deserve a separate chapter. Depending on speed, mode, and lateral acceleration, driver input has complex consequences. At the inception of a slide, for instance, steering effort is reduced so that correction maneuvers require only minor adjustments, adhering to the line is playfully easy, and lock can be unwound pleasingly early.

Above 62 mph, the system switches from countersteer to synchronicity. Similar to the setups in the 911 Turbo and Lamborghini Centenario, this transition is executed progressively and smoothly. In Race mode, direction changes occur with physical immediacy; in Comfort, however, the wheels turn with pursed sidewalls. Further enhancing this by-wire muscle-tensing exercise for the hind legs are over a dozen uniball joints in lieu of the commonly used rubber mounts. But despite the second rack's myriad advantages, it hasn't exactly helped the turning circle, which measures a grand 37.7 feet.

Take it from us, you wouldn't want to try the Track calibration — springs in the stiffest setting, dampers in sport plus, rear wing fixed in max downforce position, reduced tire pressures — on Portuguese country roads. But even with all systems at their cushiest, compliance is not exactly one of the GT R's strengths. This was particularly obvious on a deserted stretch of autovia from Portimao down the coast to Lagos, where it took a trial run, total concentration, and a conscious effort to push the car to a speed it would otherwise reach only towards the end of the Nürburgring's flat-out Döttinger Höhe section. On said eight-mile motorway run, its meaty and stiff steering kept swapping between fighting the surface to holding direction. While the green devil deserves nine out of ten points for aerodynamic stability, the wide tires and taut suspension are their own enemies when it comes to sealing the bond between the car and the chosen line on the open road.

In the hinterlands around Portimao, sprouting enthusiasm is also dashed somewhat by the GT R's marginal ground clearance, vulnerable wheels, and extra 2.2 inches of width that are part of the package. With 52.7-percent of the weight resting on the rear transaxle, traction and grip are, on the other hand, rarely an issue. Unless of course there happens to be sand and gravel on the road, or a patch of sealed surface missing in the middle of a blind bend.

With engine and transmission set in Sport, the urge to reach for the shift paddles is almost irresistible. But like on the track with the DNA selector in the Race position, the electronic brain is on the road, too, better qualified than this driver to time up- and downshifts to perfection. The sequence and the chosen ratio are also spot-on. It's almost as if the GT R had eyes to look ahead and then act accordingly. Give it stick on an exhausting stretch of blacktop, and the so-called airpanel in the nose cone will open its vanes to cool down the brakes and, if need be, the engine.

Especially in its brutal green livery, the AMG GT R is an extroverted sports coupe for extroverted people — loud, brash, and about as subtle as a train crash. But much like the offerings from Ferrari, Lamborghini, and McLaren, there is no denying that this very special Mercedes works equally well for poseurs and pros alike.

While the "Fastest Rear-Drive Production Car on the Nordschleife" certificate positions the winged warrior for the time being firmly on top of the ability tree, the GT R's eye-catching presence, raw soundtrack, and the awesome perceived performance have a profound ego-stroking effect. In a segment dominated by mid- and rear-engine legends, the front-engine 2018 Mercedes-AMG GT R is much more desirable than the outgoing Vantage V8, the overweight M6 and MB's own SL63 AMG. But if I was in the market for an SLS replacement, I'd either save money by buying a GT C next spring or wait a little longer for the GT R Black Series.

2018 Mercedes-AMG GT R Specifications

On Sale: Summer 2017
Price: $157,995
Engine: 4.0L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/577 hp @ 6,250 rpm, 516 lb-ft @ 1,900 - 5,500 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed twin clutch automatic
Layout: 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe
EPA Mileage: N/A
L x W x H: 181.0 x 78.5 x 50.7 in (est)
Wheelbase: 103.5 in
Weight: 3,428 lb (est)
0-60 MPH: 3.5 sec
Top Speed: 198 mph