Mercedes-AMG have gone and done it; they’ve brought a sledgehammer to a knife fight. Against the scalpel that is the Porsche 911, the white coats from Affalterbach have flown into the fray with all the grace of Thor wielding his mighty hammer – Mjolnir – with all the thunder and lightning that entails. And, oh, thunder there is!
In Sport+ and Race modes, with the active exhaust in the louder of its two modes, the V8 has a guttural depth to its rumble. Where a V10 makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, the AMG GT S stirs the heart openly, its bassline piercing the symphony of noise with a tingle you feel in your chest on an emotional level. Thunderous up-shifts from the transaxle 7-speed dual-clutch yield barks and bangs that, inside the cabin, are dirty and raucous, bordering on sexual in nature. But outside of the cabin they place you in the midst of battle, bombarded by cannon blasts and gunfire. It’s enough to wake a sleeping infant on start-up alone, and the dead at full tilt.
The noises it makes belies the two turbochargers housed ‘hot in the vee’ of the M178 engine; as does its power delivery. Turbochargers are oft seen as the antidote to throttle response, but in the AMG GT S there’s not even a whiff of lag to be found anywhere – and if there is, it’s far too subtle and imperceptible to be of any real concern. Mercedes-AMG has nailed the art of turbocharging here like no other manufacturer is yet to do, pairing the deafening noise and instantaneous response of natural aspiration with the slug of torque associated with boost.
650Nm of the stuff sucks you into the bucket seats from just 1750 rpm, with 375kW delivered all the way at 6250 rpm to ensure you never run out of steam. In Race mode, with the correct series of pulls on the column-mounted shift paddles, Race Start will propel you from 0-100km/h in a claimed 3.8 seconds (we achieved 4.23 seconds on an unprepared surface), while the ¼ mile is devoured in 12.74 seconds.
It’s an unbelievable feeling that seems to stand at odds with the numbers. Lift your left foot from the brake pedal with your right pinned on the throttle and the world goes from static to blurry as your eyeballs fight the urge to flirt with the back of your skull. Most cars of this calibre accelerate, but the AMG GT S teleports; engaging a land-based version of intergalactic hyperdrive previously relegated to the pages of science fiction novels.
As it surges forward, the numbers climb higher, snatching at 20 and 30km/h increments on the speedometer, each hard upshift rung in by a salvo of gunfire. It’s unrelenting – with few roads on African soil likely to give you the space, let alone the legality, to reach the 310km/h maximum speed.
That’s no great loss. It is, after all, through the twists and turns where any great sports car must prove their mettle; and when the Porsche 911 is your chosen target, the bar is set immensely high on all fronts.
Right off the bat, the Mercedes-AMG GT S fails to hold a candle to the ride comfort of the 911 – any 911 of the current generation. Even with the dampers slackened off to their softest setting (only the most porcelain smooth track-grade tarmac is befitting of the firmest of the three settings) there’s a hard edge to the AMG GT S that promises this is no 911 imitation. It doesn’t so much breathe with the road surface, ebbing and flowing over the creases and crevices, as it does bludgeon it into submission, tramlining severely along the traditional patchwork of South African byways, the AMG steering wheel writhing in your hands as it does so.
Is there anyone that makes a better steering wheel to clasp than Mercedes-AMG at the moment? I’m sceptical there is – the Alcantara clad direction-finder is sculpted to accommodate thumbs in the perfect quarter-to-three position with a subtle hint of submission as your fingers curl around and hang on for dear life. I digress, though. The Mercedes-AMG GT S does that to you – its little idiosyncrasies bringing out an attention deficit and a childish giggle of glee at every opportunity.
The steering provides a good chunk of solid feedback, not just through its writhing but through its weighting and the rapidness with which it changes direction – though the feeling is strange due to the rearward position of the greenhouse.
Sat low in the AMG sports seat, the bonnet starts a mere arm’s length in front of you and stretches forward three decades from now. Somewhere out yonder there’s a front axle, but the M178 engine keeps you close company. The dry-sump version of AMG’s 4.0-litre bi-turbo brute is housed so far behind the front axle that it just about rides shotgun – invading the cabin and squeezing the legs of the occupants outwards. Though the broad centre console’s design is said to emulate 8 cylinders in a vee, it’s difficult not to picture each button or dial being positioned directly above the respective cylinder.
It’s because the engine sits so far back that the gearbox sits behind the driver; the dual clutch transaxle finding asylum beneath the practicality-robbing hump at your back. Quarters are cramped in the aid of handling though, bringing the majority of the mechanical weight between the two axles to give the AMG GT S an unnerving amount of balance under duress.
Cornering is more of a test of nerve than the GT S’s outright capabilities – the mechanical grip is astounding – and the electronic locking diff does a precise job of managing torque distribution to each of the rear wheels. Even under high throttle loads the limits of adhesion are high, with the AMG GT S refuting attempts to set the rear tyres ablaze in a manner most unlike the Mercedes-AMG we know. After all, the Mercedes-AMG C63 with the wet-sump version of this same engine and lower outputs was constantly trying to unstick the rear end.
However, despite its tenacity, there’s always an underlying hint of aggression. Whether cornering with precise restraint or casually cruising along a straight, there’s always the impression that the AMG GT S is pulling hard at the leash, waiting for a moment of weakness or loss of concentration to break free from restraint and tear away towards the horizon.
There’s a good deal of equipment going into making sure the shackles don’t come loose though – including a stability control system that operates with great subtleness. Aside from the flicker of a light on the dash, the intervention is almost imperceptible; even less so when Sport+ handling mode is enabled that allows a modicum of slip before reigning things back into place with ego-inflating subtlety.
Stopping power is immense too. Despite standard steel rotors on the AMG GT S, the brakes are resistant to fade and provide serious anchorage when dropped – without unsettling the balance of the GT S either. They’re aided by the active rear spoiler though – which usually deploys at speeds above 120km/h, but at speeds below will pop up to aid stability and increase drag under heavy braking.
Though some traits may not be strictly aligned with the Mercedes-AMG we know, the fundamental nature of the AMG GT S is still one that is undeniably AMG. Whereas the 911 relies on finesse and precision, the AMG GT S brings a little more violent ambition to the table – still precise to a degree, but with a more aggressive demeanour and one that plays heavily to the emotions.
The noise and the levels of involvement unlock a willingness to forego a modicum of precision for the sake of theatrical enjoyment at six tenths, but with more than enough depth to stand toe to toe with the best at 110%.
Though it may rival the 911, it does so in a unique way; but in doing so it also fails to match the Porsche for day to day usability and indeed practicality. It’s not just the cramped nature of the cabin due to the large centre stack, or the transaxle gearbox impeding boot space (one full sized photographer can still fit at a squeeze).
The GT S rides on a revised and shortened version of what is essentially still the same platform that underpinned the SLS AMG. Though the aesthetics may be worse off for the loss of the gullwing doors, many of the SLS’s flaws prove present here. The long engine bay and cab-back design, for example make navigating parking spaces a tricky affair – one that relies heavily on park distance sensors over traditional spatial awareness. The GT is broad too; no doubt to accommodate the engine midship; but it makes it difficult to place on narrow roads, and average sized parking bays suddenly feel shrunken when trying to climb in or out. Visibility is compromised by the large blind spots created by the C-pillar.
But the noise, good God, the noise it produces makes you forget about every single one of those faux pas. Be it the hail of gunfire on upshifts, the artillery barrage of backfires on off-throttle downshifts, or merely the ungodly snarl it makes when driven flat out, it brings out the juvenile hooligan in even the most seasoned sports car campaigner.
There’s something to be said for a car that makes you feel that way. Nowadays there are few that do, not in the way the AMG GT S does.
Photography by Roarke Bouffe and Vaughn Humphrey