Wales. Obviously. When you’ve two days with a car and you want to get the best out of it, you want as many great roads and, ideally, a race circuit or test track in as compact an area as possible. And because roads take precedence over circuits with road cars, even fast ones like these, Wales it is.
Fast ones. Yes. Here’s the Mercedes-AMG GT sports car, the replacement, of a fashion, for the SLS supercar. The GT uses a similar aluminium platform to that of the SLS, AMG’s first truly home-grown sports car, but it is cheaper, smaller and less powerful than the SLS.
It’s still plenty powerful enough, mind. In the S specification that is the first of two flavours to arrive, its new 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine has 503bhp, which is sufficient for any road in motordom. In the Edition 1 form you see here, it costs £122,750, but it’s only aerodynamic addenda, different seats and some colour details away from the £110,495 regular S, which, for all mechanical purposes, you may assume this to be.
We’ve already tried it on its tod, abroad. Today, we’ll put it against some rivals, and what they are and where they sit shows you just how carefully pitched the GT is in S form, where it sits delicately above most Porsche 911s and carefully below Aston Martins.
The GT isn’t a GT3-alike, so we can discount that and instead look to the pinnacle of the regular 911 line-up in the shape of the 911 GTS, a £91,098 development of the 3.8-litre Carrera S coupé. It develops ‘only’ 424bhp so, in truth, would be a better fit against the regular 456bhp GT but they don’t arrive for months and a lack of power has never held a 911 back before.
Aston Martin couldn’t rustle us up a Vantage at short notice so instead we opted for what is, traditionally, the cheaper alternative from down the road. I suspect that’s just fine: Jaguar’s F-Type in R form is mechanically a terrific match for the GT. With 542bhp, it has the equal and more of the AMG, which it puts to the rear wheels via an eight-speed conventional automatic gearbox.
In our experience – and because this Jaguar is our long-term test car, we have lots of experience in it – it’s a front-engine, rear-drive coupé hot rod that’s slightly from the old school. The 911, as you’ll know, isn’t a hot rod at all. The Mercedes, drives overseas have suggested, is somewhere between the two. Which, I think, sets things up rather nicely.
On first acquaintance, though, there is – to anyone who knows an SLS well – a certain familiarity to the GT. Oh, its doors open normally enough and it’s more compact than the SLS, but as you slot yourself into its beautifully finished interior, there are reminders of the kind of car this is. The central tunnel is vast – because the sills are narrow enough to make ingress and egress simple and the tunnel’s girth adds valuable rigidity to the chassis.
So two people are seated far apart, making the GT feel every millimetre of its 1939mm width – almost 100mm more than a 911. You’re seated in front of its compact hatch’s relatively accommodating boot, with the impression that the 20in wheels (the standard car has 19s all round; the S gets upsized rears only) are only a few inches behind you.
That dry-sumped 4.0-litre V8, whose turbos nestle between the two banks of cylinders, drives the rear wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transaxle gearbox that gives the AMG a slight rearward weight bias – only 48% front, 52% rear, but that will be worth remembering when it later comes to considering its handling balance.
First, though, a road drive. And the engine. Gosh, the Mercedes-AMG GT has an engine. Adopting turbochargers has apparently done nothing to mute the sound of the GT’s V8, which erupts with the kind of yelp that wouldn’t disappoint if the engine were twice the capacity.
Suitably enriched by it, you toddle off. Immediately the GT feels wide, and immediately its steering feels light. Too light? Perhaps. It’s quick to change direction although it stops just short of the nervousness that afflicted the SLS’s rim.
Its weight is also unadjustable, which makes it a rarity when you peruse the buttons on the transmission tunnel – or scroll through the drive modes on the rotary controller – which put the suspension, engine response, stability control and gearshift through various stages of angry.
Best to go with ‘slightly miffed’ for all of them on a decent back road, where the ride is controlled, the body movements held in fine check and the controls responsive. The fun, though, even at upper-middling speeds, comes from the noise, the visuals and the event, rather than any visceral engineering feedback. A Toyota GT86 would be more engaging and give more back through its steering here, but AMG’s take on a front-engined, rear-drive coupé is out to impress in other ways.
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Jaguar’s F-Type R Coupé comes from the same school, and we like that very much. It, too, erupts with a strong bark on start-up – a sharper, edgier one. But what it can’t match is the interior feel and finish of the Mercedes. It’s designed neatly enough, but the AMG is a class apart again. Given the Jaguar’s £85,010 price, and the range’s starting point tens of thousands of pounds below that, you can excuse it.
What you don’t have to make excuses for is the way it goes down the road. With a supercharger rather than turbos on its 5.0-litre rather than 4.0-litre V8, the F-Type is urgent at any speed. It’s ridiculously rapid and snapping in response to the slightest prod of the right pedal.
Yes, the AMG makes 479lb ft from 1750rpm and the Jaguar’s 502lb ft doesn’t make a full appearance until 3500rpm, but such is the whip-crack response of the Jaguar V8 that it feels more alive. It’s also unhampered by having a conventional automatic gearbox, because the eight-speed ZF unit locks so quickly once under way and from that point onwards it’s as impressive as almost any transmission you care to mention.
The Jaguar also feels lively, though. It steers with more weight and no less precision than the GT, although it feels a heavier car overall. The official stats say there is 5kg in it, at 1645kg for the GT and 1650kg for the F-Type, but the difference feels more marked. Perhaps it’s just the steering weight.
Certainly, the Jaguar feels hardly any less keen to change direction, either on turn-in or, most notably still, on corner exit, where its rear tyres are keen to pitch in at any given opportunity.
Traction is not an F-Type strong point. Hilarious? Yes. Full of finesse? No. But that’s no great problem on the road, because body movements are limited, the steering gives back what you need and, like the GT, there is crackle and theatre to absorb and engage you. Less so than in the GT, but ultimately it’s just as adept. Both of their tailors, though, use similar cloth.
Which brings us to the 911 GTS, whose outfitter has been using a unique cut since 1963, to some effect. That’s why it has the smallest engine, with the least power, and is the narrowest and the lightest car here, yet it is the only one that offers +2 rear seats and will surprise nobody should it walk away with the gong at the end of this comparison test. Porsche 911s have been doing thus since time immemorial.
Film premier show and glitz, though, are not high on its list. The interior feels premium rather than luxurious and is finished functionally, not flamboyantly. That’s okay: the infotainment system has the measure of the Jaguar’s, if not the Mercedes-AMG’s, and there is little to fault ergonomically. Just don’t expect drama. At least, not without working for it.
The flat six is smooth and the only engine here that does without forced aspiration. If you want your 424bhp, you’ll have to reach to 7500rpm. Even obtaining the mere (by these standards) 325lb ft you’ll have to take the engine to 5750rpm.
And you know what? Neither is the remotest hardship. From the moment the 911 turns a wheel, you are reminded of what a fabulously tuned, honed, at once familiar and yet still enthralling ‘hello, old friend’ experience this 911 is. Its lightly loaded front end allows the steering’s assistance to be knocked right back, so it has confident weight, excellent road feel and all the precision you could ask for.
The seven-speed PDK dual-clutch automatic transmission of our GTS test car is the equal of the Mercedes’ unit, and sharper, if less smooth, than the Jaguar’s. And the engine, for all its modesty at low revs, is the only one here whose response is always, at all revs, perfectly linear and perfectly predictable. And if you think it’s not quite boisterous enough, just wait until you give it its all.
That’s also something – because of the relative lack of power, I suppose – you can do more of, more often, in the Porsche. In the two front-engined coupés, you can surf their torque to make good road progress. The 911 is happier in the mid-range: 3500rpm in fourth gear gives you 65mph and excellent response, and from where a downshift or two under braking gives you the perfect revs for the job.
That the 911 has a mechanical limited-slip differential (the other pair’s are electronically controlled, for more refinement) and a 42/58 front-to-rear weight bias mean that it feels like its nose will push on slightly, but it’s just a 911 characteristic, as is the exemplary body tightness, deft ride and a feeling that Porsche is happy to present you with the engineering in all its rawness – no frills, no glitter – and say: “Go on, have a feel of that”.
On a circuit, it’s an impression that is only reinforced. The F-Type does what we know the F-Type does: smoke its tyres for England, entertain and impress, with no great composure while it’s doing it. That’s hilarious and, given the unlikelihood of seeing an F-Type on a track day,no great pity.
The GT, though, I had hoped for a little more from. But that’s not something you would feel if you just had a GT on circuit. The problem is the competition.
With the GT’s dampers in their tightest mode, ultimately its body control lacks that last degree of composure, compared with you-know-what. It’s fine on its own, as is the general handling balance; mostly neutral but with oversteer on tap. Although power is provided by an engine whose turbo lag is miminal, and although the steering feels fairly natural if you drive the GT in isolation, that was not a luxury we afforded the Mercedes-AMG.
No. We pitched it against the best of the conventional, non-GT Porsche range, and the 911 is sensational. Its steering is divine for an electric set-up, its handling balance strong; frequently rear biased in high-speed corners, but so easily controlled when it breaks traction and begins sliding that you wonder why everyone doesn’t put an engine back there. And although it gives away the last bit of straight-line speed to the Mercedes-AMG, you and I know that, to the likes of us, that doesn’t matter a bit. The Porsche is unbeatable.
Not that this means you shouldn’t buy a Mercedes-AMG GT. There are good reasons to want one, which is why it has an 18-month waiting list that I don’t see becoming smaller any time soon. It makes a noise to die for, it impresses in many ways that it ought to and, if you were buying a car of this type to use daily, sensibly and to be seen in, its rewards and attractions are immediate and obvious.
To that extent, it out-F-Types the F-Type. All of our testers liked this car a great deal. But if you like your sports car to be a sports car, there remains only one choice.
Porsche 911 GTS
Price £91,098; 0-62mph 4.4 seconds; Top speed 190mph; Economy 37.7mpg; CO2 / tax band 223g/km / 35%; Kerb weight 1490kg; Engine 6 cyls horizontally opposed, 3800cc, petrol; Power 424bhp at 7500rpm; Torque 325lb ft at 5750rpm; Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch auto
Mercedes-AMG GT S Edition 1
Price £122,750; 0-62mph 3.8 seconds; Top speed 193mph; Economy 30.1mpg; CO2 / tax band 219g/km / 35%; Kerb weight 1645kg; Engine V8, 3982cc, twin-turbo, petrol; Power 503bhp at 6250rpm; Torque 479lb ft at 1750-4750rpm; Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch auto
Jaguar F-type R Coupé
Price £85,010; 0-62mph 4.2 seconds; Top speed 186mph; Economy 25.4mpg; CO2 / tax band 259g/km / 35%; Kerb weight 1650kg; Engine V8, 5000cc, supercharged, petrol; Power 542bhp at 6500rpm; Torque 502lb ft at 3500rpm; Gearbox 8-spd auto
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