Extra

Can the Mercedes-AMG GT Conquer the Mighty Porsche 911?

Stuttgart—Our introduction to the 2016 Mercedes-AMG GT started out across town at the Porsche Museum. This may seem like a strange excursion, and rest assured it wasn’t on the official itinerary. Mercedes would rather have us focus on its own past—we’d spent the day before touring the “holy halls” of the company’s classic center. But whereas Mercedes’ history impresses for its amazing breadth—everything from the Patent Motor Car to the 540K StreamlinerPorsche has obsessively focused on one car, the 911. Walking the winding halls of the Porsche Museum, one gets a visceral sense of how the automaker has tirelessly improved its rear-engine sports car to the point that, fifty years later, it’s nearing perfection.

The 911 is the car that the Mercedes-AMG GT intends to beat. Mercedes has not yet released official pricing, but we expect it to slot somewhere between the Carrera S, which starts just under $100,000, and the $152,095 Turbo. Other rivals have come and gone, but Porsche has long ruled this part of the sports car market and profits heavily from it.

“The 911 is quite a good car,” concedes AMG chief Tobias Moers. His manager of driving dynamics, Markus Hofbauer, is less circumspect. “The 911 Turbo is the benchmark. It’s a perfect car.”

How do you beat the perfect car? Well, for starters, you recruit Markus Hofbauer, the guy who led development of the 911 Turbo’s chassis. “Now I’m here fighting against what I did at [Porsche].”

AMG essentially started with the chassis of the SLS AMG (almost no parts actually carry over), but the GT sits nearly an inch lower and has a wheelbase that’s about 2-inches shorter. Hofbauer’s team also revised the rear suspension geometry. The goal was agile cornering as opposed to the hairy tail-out handling attitude of the SLS. Like the SLS and the 911, the GT carries most of its weight—53 percent—on the rear wheels.

The higher-spec GT S employs some of the tricks we’ve come to associate with the 911, including active dampers and optional active engine mounts, which stiffen or soften depending on driving conditions. The GT S also employs an electronically controlled limited-slip rear differential similar to what’s offered on the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray and the Jaguar F-Type.

Still, Hofbauer wanted to avoid relying heavily on technology, pointedly noting, “If you have faults with the mechanical basis, you cannot fix it with electronics.”

One clear mechanical disadvantage the GT has is weight. It’s roughly 175 pounds lighter than an SLS, but at close to 3400 pounds, still carries some 200 pounds more than a Carrera S with a dual-clutch automatic. The Mercedes is actually closer in weight to the Turbo, which has more power and all-wheel drive.

Moers says this is extra weight is inherent to a front-engine, V-8 sports car, and the company isn’t about to give up this layout. Mercedes exterior designer Robert Lesnik refers to his car’s “Silver Arrow proportions,” which he thinks contrast favorably with the 911’s “cab forward” shape.

The AMG GT actually has more than a passing resemblance to the latest 911, particularly when observed from the rear three-quarter angle, but Lesnik says the cars have different shapes resulting from different histories.

“They are certainly competitors in terms of price. In terms of proportions, no way,” he says, adding, “The 911 is an icon. But this company has some design icons…we don’t need to copy anyone.”

We’re inclined to agree with him. It’s easy to fixate on similarities between the cars in photos, but in person, the GT looks like a completely different animal. Studying its voluptuous curves and speedboat profile, we’re more inclined to compare it to a vintage Italian sports car than to a Porsche.

Although AMG has not yet announced detailed performance numbers for the GT beyond 0-to-60 mph acceleration and top speed, Hofbauer concedes they won’t quite match the 911 Turbo. “No, you don’t beat a 911 Turbo in terms of performance,” he says. But the Mercedes, he argues, is a purer, more involving car than the Turbo, which he says is “too clean.” “Where’s the emotion?”

We’ll have to wait until we can get the two cars together for ourselves to pass judgment. For now, Hofbauer is satisfied that the GT, only the second complete car AMG has built, is on Porsche’s radar.

“I know they know we are here now.”