Mercedes-AMG’s brutally fast GT R impressed us on the smooth roads and track at its launch in Portugal earlier in the year, but can those skills translate to tougher tarmac? Time to find out
It looks as if it eats small animals when it’s not tearing chunks of distance out of the road ahead
THE A4059, SOUTH WALES. THE BEST bit between the A470 and A465. What a road. Unfortunately, it’s just over 400km from my home in Whitstable, Kent, so by the time I get there – specifically to the broad lay-by where there’s a van selling coffee and Welsh cakes – Dean Smith and Anthony Ingram have already completed most of the photography. I say ‘unfortunately’, what I mean is ‘great’. Dean lobs me the key to the GT R with an expression I’ve come to read as ‘fill your boots’. At least, I think that’s what it says.
Before that – although to be clear here, I can’t wait to fill my boots – a few facts and stats. A seriously tweaked and honed version of Mercedes’ son-of-SLS supercoupe, the GT R is currently hardcore central for AMG. With a starting price of $349,000, it has to square up to a host of hard nuts and high-tech overachievers, not least the latest Porsche 911 GT3 (see page 74), which seems intent on establishing itself as a new high watermark in the drivers’ car arena. Handily, the GT R is arguably the perfectly calibrated counterpoint to the Porsche.
It’s low, wide, artfully swollen, artfully retro (obvious nod to the 300 SL racer that won the Panamericana road race in Mexico in 1952 at the front) and looks as if it eats small animals when it’s not tearing chunks of distance out of the road ahead. Its signature Green Hell paint presumably alludes to the fact that it has lapped the Nürburgring in 7min 10sec, which, if not quite in Porsche 918 Spyder sub-7 territory, bests those other Dwayne Johnson-grade front-engined, rear-drive muscle cars, the Viper ACR and Corvette ZR1.
Such a feat is not achieved through muscle alone, although the GT R has plenty. There’s an additional 55kW for the hand-built 4.0-litre V8 over the version in the not-exactly-underendowed GT S, bringing the total to 430kW. The detailed engine work, including revised turbos, reworked exhaust ports and a lighter flywheel, also promises an improved throttle response. In addition, the GT R is 15kg lighter than the GT S, giving a very respectable 277kW per tonne power-to-weight ratio. Porsche’s latest 911 GT3 manages 257kW per tonne. Mercedes claims 0-100km/h in 3.6sec, which is swift rather than shattering but… a note from the valleys, here: don’t get too hung up on that, this thing’s mind-warpingly rapid.
All that power gets plenty of backup. Most interesting is four-wheel steering, which can alter the rear toe angle by 1.5 degrees. Then there’s the active aero panel beneath the engine that automatically lowers 40mm at 120km/h (80km/h in Race mode), reducing front-axle lift. The redesigned suspension comes with wider tracks (by 46mm front, 57mm rear), and there’s a nine-stage traction control that should appeal to skidding novices and connoisseurs alike who want to fully exploit the dynamics of the adjustable coilover spring/damper units and standard Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres of immodest width.
Back on the A4059, the way the GT R delivers slaps of gravity and destroys distance is wrecking normal frames of reference to a soundtrack of concussive savagery. I’m straining to remember why I never really liked the SLS. Maybe it was those heavy gullwing doors, a sense of mass and bulk that never quite dispersed. This is very different: just massively, insanely addictive. For anyone expecting a tech-dense Teutonic twist on the good-old-fashioned front-engined, rear-drive muscle-car formula, the execution seems to have invoked some kind of fast-track fantasy that takes you immediately to a point just past your wildest dreams. I’ve honestly never driven a car that engaged so many senses all at once, nor one that took the notion of instant gratification quite so literally.Not only does the GT R seem to get faster the faster it goes, its acceleration becomes more resolute, aurally arresting and iron-fisted. Roll-on pace is faintly absurd, overtaking over almost before it’s begun. There’s no stretchiness in the GT R’s power delivery – no lag, no surge or winding up towards an obvious peak. The engine and gearbox seem almost precognitively reactive, as if there’s a predictive algorithm sensor taking a feed from the merest hint of movement from your right foot. The upshot isn’t just sensational throttle response but precisely scaled acceleration, a force that moves in perfect unison with the arc of the pedal and the hairs on the back of your neck.
The driving position in the cabin is low, the seat reassuringly snug, the steering wheel good to grasp. After a pause to let some sheep cross the road, I settle back in behind the wheel and feel thankful for the clear space ahead. Once again, the car connects and locks with the surety of meshing gears and sustains the hardcore intensity all the way to heavy-limbed adrenalin soak.
Gasp and gulp-inducing as the GT R’s performance is, its chassis is a modest work of genius. There are some fast bends on the A4059 and some of the tight ‘n’ technical variety, too. Body roll is almost non-existent, the exceptionally quick helm’s natural sense of flow and precision a swift confidence-builder. The complex topography of tarmac isn’t – big relief – a barrier to entry, either. The GT R’s firm springs and expansive rubber don’t even seem to exact any kind of penalty on ride comfort – at least not in the light of the truly stupendous grip, traction and stability on offer.
There’s none of the GT S’s worrisome edginess. Kill the power mid bend and the tail stays nailed to the tarmac. The meanest Merc feels as if it can pull well over 1G in longer turns, and teasing up the torque in the sharper ones it’s easy enough to fuse formidable traction with a degree of tail-out attitude, depending on how much ‘slack’ you’ve dialled into the nine-stage traction electronics. Midway feels about right. The power and resistance to fade of the optional carbon-ceramic brakes are just as impressive.
Just like the humblest AMG, the A45, there are four powertrain-chassis modes: Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and Race. With the A45, the incremental jumps point towards an entertainingly manic conclusion; with the GT R things just feel progressively more epic. I love this layer-cake approach, especially the way the exhaust theatrics on the overrun have distinct sonic characters, ranging from discreetly muted pops in normal, to distended detonations you can almost feel travelling down the exhaust pipes in Race, the mode that also adds an air-renting pistol-shot to full-throttle upshifts. Naughty but not as eventually annoying as the cackling spits and bangs you get with a Jaguar F-type SVR.
As the day winds on and more of the Brecon Beacons gets to hear that bone-drilling howl, I’m more sure than ever the GT R is a car I can instinctively trust. It makes fast easy, stripping away the cause and effect concerns that would haunt the nine-tenths pilot of a Ferrari F12tdf. It’s gun-it-and-go raised to a supernatural level. Momentum and mass seem perfectly synchronised, the car’s potential feels uncannily accessible; there’s a tremendous sense of precision and immediacy in everything it does and a wonderful, exploitable balance. Boots well and truly filled