German Performance Preview: Porsche 718, Mercedes-AMG GT4, and More

Plus the Porsche 992 and the Mercedes-Benz SL- and SLC-Classes.

Tom SaltillustratorRadovan VaricakillustratorAutobild/LarsonillustratorAutomobile StaffwriterCarPixillustrator

What We Know

A mid-engine setup remains on the menu for Porsche's next-gen Boxster and Cayman, which the company might rename 718 in roadster and coupe form. (Insiders tell us that the original idea for the 718 name—an entry-level model slotted below the Boxster—is once again dead, at least for now.) But for those keeping score, hell is about to freeze over: Turbocharged flat-four engines will be in play. Sources suggest we'll see a base 2.0-liter engine making 285 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, as well as a 2.5-liter making 360 hp and 345 lb-ft. It's worth noting those numbers exceed the output of today's Boxster/Boxster S and Cayman/Cayman S. That's not to say the flat-six is necessarily gone, especially for future high-performance variants such as a GTS or GT4. Trans­mission choices on the 718 will include a six-speed manual and a seven-speed dual-clutch auto-matic, driving power to the rear wheels. Don't expect the present models' recipe for sharp, electrically assisted power steering, strong brakes, and crisp handling to dis-appear. Upgrades also headed for the refreshed Boxster/Cayman include full-LED headlights, a new steering wheel with a 918-style rotary selector, driver-assistance updates, head-­up display, updated enter­tainment, communication and navigation systems.

Why It Matters

Boxster, Cayman, 718, whatever: Is forced induction the beginning of a nose dive? Naturally aspirated engines held out for quite a while in the Boxster and Cayman, but even Stuttgart had to eventually bend in the name of efficiency. Certain contingents inside Porsche fought hard to keep turbocharging out of mid-engine sports cars but eventually lost the battle. Switching to turbocharged four-cylinder power for these higher volume models will help keep Porsche within the bounds of looming fuel-economy restrictions, but it's sour grapes for hardcore enthusiasts who can't bear the loss of natural-breathing flat-sixes. It's the way the industry is moving, though, so get used
to it.

Potential Pitfalls

We don't expect turbo engines to ruin the beloved Boxster/Cayman formula for simple, pure, and perfectly balanced driving satisfaction, but if they do, Porsche's loyal fan base could be put off by the move and revolt.

When to Expect It

Look for Porsche to reveal the cars in 2017.

Whether Porsche dubs it 991.2, 992, or even 991.5, one of the world's greatest sports cars once again gets even better—assuming the turbo engines don't rob it of the responsiveness and aural pleasure we love in today's 911. Shrinking the car's base engine below 3.0 liters is key for selling the 911 in markets including all-important China, where the government imposes a higher tax on engines exceeding that displacement. The update will be relatively minor, but it's necessary to keep the 911 fresh now that 22 variants of the car are on sale.

Potential Pitfalls

Turbocharging could muffle the glorious noise that helps make the 911 special, and manual transmissions could become even rarer in the future in a bid to improve both lap times and fuel efficiency. Few cars are as scrutinized as the 911, and missteps could prove costly.

When to Expect It

Porsche tends to update its 911 about every four years, so the new car will probably appear at the Frankfurt Auto Show this September, with first deliveries in spring 2016.

Mercedes-Benz SL-/SLC-Class

What We Know

Saving money by sharing components is one of the best ways to keep low-volume sports cars profitable, so the next-generation SL- and SLC-Class (formerly known as the SLK) will share a chassis, though cut to different sizes. By using lots of aluminum and magnesium, the new SL will drop some 330 pounds. The cheaper SLC will be mostly high-strength steel but could still shed 220 pounds. The biggest change of all: The SL will switch to a fabric roof, though the SLC will keep its power-folding hardtop. That's in part because Mercedes thought the two cars lacked enough distinction. Engine choices for both models could include a turbo inline-four and Mercedes' new twin-turbo, 3.0-liter inline-six.

Why It Matters

The Mercedes convertibles have never been as sporty as their competitors from Porsche, the Boxster and the 911 Cabriolet. That could change with these new models.

Potential Pitfalls

Sales of drop-top sports cars have declined as customers continue to shift toward crossovers. Although Mercedes is unlikely to kill off its pair of roadsters, it's clear the SL and SLC won't return the sales or profit margins of a sporty SUV.

When to Expect It

The all-new models should debut in 2018 and 2019. Refreshed versions of the current SL and SLC should come at this year's Los Angeles Auto Show.

Despite its name, the GT4 will not be a stretched, four-door, four-passenger version of the Mercedes-AMG GT. Instead, this all-new vehicle will fuse the dynamics of the GT coupe with the architecture of the next-generation CLS-Class sedan.

The coupe-style GT4 will resemble the GT with its imposing wide-track stance, aggressive front end, and low, compact greenhouse. But despite similarly swoopy styling, the GT and GT4 will share little. The CLS-based GT4 will measure a foot longer overall, have a longer wheelbase, and will be some 4 inches taller. Its rear end will also be longer, taller, and wider than the GT's Porsche 911-like rear.

We expect the GT4 to be powered by a twin-turbo, 4.0-liter V-8, with engine output ranging from 500 to 600 hp. We also expect the car to feature dynamic engine mounts, an electronically controlled differential, adaptive air suspension, and carbon-ceramic brakes.

The GT4's exterior will have a single character line that runs the length of the car, and its lavish interior will be laid out from scratch, striking a balance between sportiness and luxury. The car should cost between $130,000 and $160,000.

Why It Matters

Few AMG-badged cars have left us unimpressed, and the GT is an extraordinary first showing for the recently recalibrated performance arm of Mercedes-Benz. Building the GT4 is the sensible second step for Mercedes-AMG to take, as it will enter an all-new, fast-growing facet of the market. And it will almost certainly be able to cut it up with the Aston Martin Rapide S, Audi RS 7, BMW M6 Gran Coupe, and Porsche Panamera.

Potential Pitfalls

As the GT4 will crib bits and pieces from other future Benzes, any delay in one of those projects could cause problems for the AMG four-door coupe. And, more important, Mercedes-Benz could realize that the GT4 might cannibalize sales of the CLS-Class. Mercedes will need to take great care separating the two, positioning the CLS-Class as a highbrow luxury sedan and the GT4 as a high-performance luxury sedan.

When to Expect It

The four-door supercoupe should arrive in 2019.

Mini wants to streamline its model lineup by eliminating overlap between its core models and the many style-oriented variants that have popped up over the years, such as the two-seat coupe and roadster. But this doesn't mean Mini is abandoning its quirky character. Instead, a few standouts like the Superleggera could push the brand forward into new territory. Plans for the car call for a plug-in hybrid EV that will have a two-cylinder BMW motorcycle engine to power the rear wheels and an 80-hp electric motor to feed the front wheels. The concept's sharp styling has been a hit on the show circuit, so expect a similar look for the production model.

Why It Matters

The Superleggera could bring some excitement back to Mini. Though BMW's strategy for platform sharing has led Mini away from its roots, the Project i division's impressive approach to EV capability could bring the English brand back to life. A high-tech, high-style, fun-to-drive sporting car with EV capability is exactly the kind of vehicle to give the company renewed momentum.

Potential Pitfalls

The complex hybrid powertrain might not make it past BMW's accountants, especially under the new corporate regime. If so, the Superleggera could become just another iteration of the discontinued Mini roadster, which never sold well or offered enough differentiation compared with the standard Mini convertible.

When to Expect It

Mini's first plug-in hybrid is set to arrive in 2017.

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