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On the Road in the 2015 Mercedes-AMG GT-S

Papenburg, Germany -- Porsche 911 GT3 and 911 Turbo. Jaguar F-Type Coupe R. Aston Martin V8 Vantage S. Perhaps even the upcoming Maserati Alfieri or McLaren P13. Dare we say Chevrolet Corvette Z06? What these upmarket sports cars have in common is they're soon to be rivals of the new 2015 Mercedes-AMG GT. The fixed-roof two-seater follows in the wide tire tracks of the discontinued SLS AMG without the fancy gullwing doors but with enhanced traction, balance, precision, and cornering speed. There will be two versions out of the gate: a 462-hp entry-level model and the notably sharper S version rated at 510 hp, and both will be priced to be competitive in the segment. Fancy coming along for a ride?

NOT an SLS, but related
It is important to note that the 2015 Mercedes-AMG GT is not a direct replacement for the SLS. Instead, it is a much more affordable sports car with a minimum life cycle of six years and more ambitious sales targets. With the exception of the center tub, its aluminum spaceframe body has been redesigned from scratch by Mercedes head of design Gorden Wagener and his team. The passenger cell, which spreads out between the front and rear firewalls, is essentially a carryover element from the SLS, as are the floorpan, the sills, the A-pillars, and certain secondary chassis elements. Width, track, and tire size remain essentially unchanged from the SLS, but the wheelbase was shortened by 2 inches for enhanced agility and overhangs further reduced to keep the critical mass as close as possible to the center of the vehicle. Newly developed items include the engine, suspension, steering, brakes, and electronics as well as the exterior and interior. Steel is the material of choice for the tailgate, but there are two aluminum cross braces under the hood and behind the seats. The complex front-end structure is made of cast magnesium.

Although the 2015 Mercedes-AMG GT-S mule we recently spent some quality time with still wore the full shrink-wrap camouflage livery (black graphics on attention-grabbing psychedelic green), the clearly visible contours reveal a butch, cab-backward silhouette with SLS and 911 overtones. Still partly concealed are the fully adaptive triple-chamber high-intensity LED headlamps, the trademark rhomboid, SL-style lateral air extrusion vents, and the exact shape of the aggressive, bigmouth grille. The doors are now of the conventional front-hinged variety, the side windows are frameless, and the seats are adjustable via small touchy-feely controls buried close to the floorpan. This particular pre-production Kermit is fitted with the Dynamic Plus pack, which includes body-hugging multi-adjustable buckets, firmer springs and tauter dampers, electronically controlled hydro-mounts for engine and transaxle transmission, lightweight multi-spoke wheels, and amber-rimmed instrument faces. The extensive list of extras is almost as thick as the Stuttgart Yellow Pages and includes an even wider choice of chairs and wheels, a variety of trim packs, myriad leathers, carbon-fiber bling inside and out, matte paint, and roof panels made of tinted glass or lacquered carbon weave.

Passenger Seat Adventure Time
Allow me to introduce today´s driver: Tobias Moers. The short, broad-shouldered Swabian ran the R&D department before being promoted to Mr. AMG in 2013. A Mercedes lifer, the new boss loses no time in punching in his preferred vehicle settings: ESP off, engine and DCT in Race, transmission in manual, dampers in Sport, exhaust note in Sport plus. Your favorite dynamic blend can be stored in the AMG Drive Unit, which will memorize it for four hours after shutting off the engine. Alternatively, you can dial in selected orders via direct-access push buttons grouped around Benz's now familiar joystick gear selector. Herr Moers lowers both windows before starting the engine: "Just so you know why AMG is an eight-cylinder brand -- and always will be." On cue, the 2015 Mercedes-AMG GT's 4.0-liter jumps to life with a thundering growl, which precedes the thudding and muttering idle-speed jam session only a V-8 can intone. With the car still in the prototype garage, it made for an excellent sound chamber and the goose pimples inside my eardrums took days to recede. The no-holds-barred ride that followed will forever rank high on my list of Great Passenger Seat Adventures.

The first part of this exclusive sign-off drive took us through the anonymous green flats of Emsland, which is covered with a grid of casually maintained B- and C-roads made up primarily of long straights sprinkled with intervening 90-degree corners. Wherever these byways intersect, a village is likely to sprout and a stop sign will slow you down. While aiming for every cattle grid, pothole, and drainage gutter he can find, Tobias Moers rattles down the bare essentials of the 2015 Mercedes-AMG GT-S: "Displacement 3982 cc, maximum power output 510 horsepower at 6250 rpm, maximum torque 650 newton meters [480 lb-ft] between 1750 and 4750 rpm, redline at 7200 rpm, maximum boost pressure 1.2 bar, top speed 194 mph, average consumption 9.3 liters per 100 kilometers. Anything else?" Acceleration time. "Take a guess," he says. Around 3.9 seconds from 0-62 mph? "Good, but perhaps not quite good enough," he says with a sly, I-know-more-but-aren't-going-to-tell-you grin. All the while, the 2015 Mercedes-AMG GT is laying down its characteristic soundtrack dominated by the blat-blatting exhaust, the intermittent liftoff wastegate hiss, the smacking of the tires on moist asphalt, and the a capella intake roar. "Any comments?" Well, the low-speed ride is not exactly brilliant, there is too much wind noise coming from the door mirrors, and… "I know," Moers says with an air of finality in his voice. "The fine-tuning is far from complete." He's stopped grinning by now.

Unlike the 911 Turbo, the Audi R8, or the Nissan GT-R, the AMG GT does without all-wheel drive. Instead, it boasts a transaxle transmission, which rests firmly on the driven wheels and has a welcome balancing effect on the dynamic weight distribution. Full-throttle takeoff is not entirely smoke-free, but wheelspin can be easily controlled, and the almost immediate first upshift consolidates the coupe's composure, so by the time you're in third, traction is -- at least in the dry -- no longer an issue. While the base model features a conventional limited-slip differential and a set of 19-inch tires (255/35 and 295/30), the S version relies on wider footwear (265/35 R19 and 295/30 R20) and a faster-acting E-diff. In both cases, Michelin Pilot Super Sports are standard. Shaved, softer-compound cup tires are optional. Unlike the SLS, which is notorious for its loose rear end that keeps squirming for grip and stability under pressure, the 2015 Mercedes-AMG GT feels much more positively planted. Instead of letting go early and with grand gestures, Affalterbach´s latest effort simply keeps on pushing and charging. It may score fewer grandstand points, but it is without a doubt the faster car, and it also appears better balanced as well as more confidence-inspiring by a wide margin.

Shocking developments
All 2015 Mercedes-AMG GTs are equipped with innovative shock absorbers developed by the UK-based F1 supplier Multimatic. "These dampers are a good example for the know-how transfer from F1 to road cars," states the chief engineer Jochen Hermann. "We could have used any existing shock absorber systems, but we chose Multimatic because of their faster response, more precise action, and lower tolerance of three vs. 10 to 15 percent." If this project had been started on a clean sheet of paper, R&D would have opted for an electrically assisted power-steering setup. Why? Because it offers a much wider scope of fine-tuning, and because, like radar sensors and stereo cameras, it is one of those fashionable assistance systems marketing teams love to give silly names to and sell (Magic Ride Control, anyone?). Instead, AMG made a virtue out of necessity by fitting a variable-rate hydraulic rack, which is claimed to be calibrated for maximum accuracy and feedback. Other important improvements over the SLS are said to include more progressive and compliant suspension tuning, significantly reduced body roll, and four active drivetrain mounts designed to prevent the torque tube and the seven-speed transaxle transmission from flexing under heavy load.

After lunch, we switched to the handling route, which is composed of old sections of the Hockenheim circuit. It´s not an overly challenging layout, but the grip level on the weathered, glassy surface varies dramatically from one section to the next, there are zero curbs padding the racing line, and instead of proper run-off areas we find both sides of the track filled ankle-deep with gravel. "Maximum comfort paired with maximum attack!" Moers roars before silently slipping into PlayStation mode. After a couple of laps, I am beginning to recognize this great little playground, which was long ago replaced by a comparatively boring high-speed loop. Although the SLS had also been developed on the Nordschleife and on the Hockenheimring, AMG failed to teach it the same astute road manners that make the GT stand out. The gullwing coupe was not necessarily all over the place all the time, but its restless character did enjoy fighting the road, the driver, and its own little inadequacies -- most of which manifested themselves aft of the cabin.

Getting more comfortable
The AMG GT is a different animal altogether. Master Moers, who is apparently equally capable of pushing cars to the limit and reading minds, looks over to the right, grinning once again. "Yes, there has been a mindset change at AMG. We have always known how to handle performance and sportiness. But it took us a bit longer to learn the importance of comfort. You know, comfort is not only related to springs, dampers, and tire sizes. It also has a lot to do with qualities like balance, precision, and confidence." The man's latest creation is quick to prove his point. It turns in eagerly, and the front wheels bite in a manner that is reassuring but can be overridden any time by a firmer stab at the throttle. Although nose and tail constantly communicate with each other with steering and accelerator acting as subtle mediators, the GT is less interested in putting on a show than the SLS. It simply wants to perform, carry as much momentum through corners as physically possible, and be truly modular and transparent in terms of input and response. The main dynamic fortes of the new car are enhanced traction, more punch and shove, and a loftier limit. Yes, the tail will eventually step out. Although this happens later in the game, catching it requires a lower skill level. The green growler carves through the esses with playful elegance, moderately sideways at 80 mph in third gear, kissing the left apex, kissing the right apex, over and out -- bravo!

Is there even more to come? There certainly is. "Never mind the tires," quips le chauffeur. "Now we really go for it." On this one lap, Moers brakes half a car length past the cones, throws the thing into corners with a protesting yell from the inner rear Michelin, guns it over the edges until the chippings pepper the wheel arch in protest. No, we´re probably not that much faster in 11/10th mode, but the AMG GT still retains its composure even through that screech-owl fourth-gear sweeper, hammering home the message loud and clear. Next, the man who fathered this beast backs off and flips the transmission in auto. We're still in Race though, so the black box knows exactly when to hang on to a gear, when to shift down, and when to free the next couple of thousand revs. Repeatedly rolling out the rpm envelope until the twin-turbo V-8 hits the limiter, the chips very nearly match the manually operated shift paddles for perfect timing and correct gear-changing sequence. Still there in full force are the upshift whips and the electronically induced downshift bark of the free-flow exhaust. Too much drama? Then select Comfort, and the big, bad Benz will duly don its sheep's clothing. Casually swinging round bends, the muscle car suddenly becomes a waltz master, very cool and totally relaxed.

Dial 911
Diverse, unique, and impressively talented, the Porsche 911 is clearly the car the AMG GT must compete with first and foremost. And after our day with Moers, it appears as though it has a chance to do it. The new AMG starship splits the difference between the hardcore 911 GT3 and the stratospherically priced and performing 911 Turbo. It is competent and compelling enough to establish its own middle ground, promises to be just as fast and balanced, and if this first ride is anything to go by, virtually vice-less. True, the 911 still offers more body styles, engine variations, and equipment levels. But the AMG GT also has evolution potential. Think Black Series flagship, softtop roadster, lightweight street racer, or planet-saving plug-in hybrid. The S version in particular holds plenty of promise. It goes like stink, is comparatively affordable, and leaves loud exclamation marks on the road and track. The long-nose crowd-pleaser appears to support, assure, and occasionally even elevate the driver with every move it makes. I cannot think of many other sports cars where such high praise applies.