Mercedes-AMG GT R (2016) First Drive

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They call it the Monster from the Green Hell. They say it is essentially a road-going version of a Nurburgring 24-Hour Race-winning GT3 race car. It looks somewhat like the automotive equivalent of the Hulk, and sounds like a demon... a very furious demon. Has the new Mercedes-AMG GT R stretched the brand too far? Is it too uncompromising in its pursuit of race-honed dynamism and shattering performance? We travelled to the international launch in Portugal to find out.

QUICK FACTS

  • Engine: 4.0-litre V8 biturbo
  • Power: 430 kW/6 250 rpm
  • Torque: 700 Nm/1 900-5 500 rpm
  • Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch
  • 0-100 kph: 3.6 sec
  • Maximum speed: 318 kph
  • Availability in SA: Order books are open. First delivery around May next year
  • Price in SA: R2 689 900

PORTIMAO, PORTUGAL – As I arrive at the Conrad Algarve hotel, my stress levels have been dialed way up. You see, Mercedes-AMG has been building the legend of the GT R intensively in the past few months. Consequently, and even before anyone had driven it, the GT R already has something of a reputation as a handful. Not content with the no less than show-stopping looks of the GT and GT S models, the growl of their V8 engines, or the driving entertainment they offer, the Affalterbach-based brand has developed this: an essentially street-legal version of its winning GT3 racing car. By the look and sound of it, it is bound to be handful to drive. And the place where I am to pilot it is the Portimao circuit in Portugal – a place legendary for its blind corners and stomach-churning altitude changes. I've never been on it, which is... less than ideal.

The pursuit of optimal airflow


Panamericana grille is unique to this model, but most of the aero changes are hidden underneath the car.

I'm a big fan of the GT/GT S. The evocative short-tail, long-bonnet profile, gloriously rumbly 4.0-litre V8 engine and inviting interior more than compensate for the few areas where the dynamics could be somewhat sharper or more resolved. You'd think, therefore, that not much would be required from Mercedes-AMG to upgrade it into a GT R... but you'd be wrong. 

In the metal, the R looks markedly different to its GT/GT S siblings. The biggest change is at the front, where it sports the so-called Panamericana grille with 15 chrome slats. The bespoke nose is not purely for aesthetics, however... the large outer air intakes channel air to the radiators more effectively and the side gills reduce drag by creating "air curtains" around the front wheels. 


Massive rear wing and intricately designed rear diffuser are not there for the looks, but to improve airflow.

Having spent some time with the engineers responsible for developing the car, it quickly became clear that there was an almost obsessive desire to suppress lift on the GT R's front axle. Not only is the front splitter wider, there are active vertical louvres in the lower airdam that can be opened or shut automatically to better directly airflow. Plus, a carbon fibre underbody section automatically lowers by about 40 mm at 80 kph in Race mode (120 kph in the other driving programmes) to dramatically change airflow beneath the car, reducing lift on the front axle by as much as 40 kg at 250 kph.

At the rear, the most obvious visual changes are again there for aerodynamic purposes – the large wing increases negative lift force on the rear axle and can be manually adjusted (if needed), while the intricate double diffuser is integral to the underbody active aero package, so as to further improve driving stability and reduce temperatures in so-called hot spots.

Less weight = more speed


Bonnet and bootlid are made of magnesium, while the rest of the body and chassis are in a variety of aluminium alloys.

After optimised aerodynamics, the next big focus of this track juggernaut's development was weight reduction. This would not be easy for the engineers, as they were not allowed to simply strip out the cabin, as many other brands do with their most extreme "specials". No, the GT R had to retain all of the luxuries of its GT and GT S siblings.

So, a lot of fine detail work was done; the bonnet and bootlid are made of magnesium, for example, while the various chassis and bodywork parts are fashioned out of a number of different aluminium alloys. Underneath the car is a new single-piece carbon fibre brace that replaces a 3-piece, heavier design on the lesser models.

It's not only lighter, but also improves torsional rigidity by a not insignificant 7.5%. Then there is the so-called "torque tube", which connects the engine and transmission – it, too, is now made of carbon fibre and weighs just 13.9 kg, which is 40% lighter than the aluminium unit in the GT S. Crikey, they've even put in a lighter lithium-ion battery. 

Finally, the forged alloy wheels were designed specifically for the GT R and further reduce the car's unsprung mass.

So then... stiffer, lighter and aerodynamically clever. What about power?

Heart of the Beast


With 430 kW and 700 Nm of torque at its disposal, the AMG GT R blasts to 100 kph in 3.6 seconds.

Through a change to the turbochargers, mostly, and greater boost (1.35 bar compared with 1.2 in the GT), the AMG GT R packs a 55 kW bigger punch in the engine department (compared with the GT S). The charismatic 4.0-litre twinturbo V8 powerplant churns out 430 kW (at 6 250 rpm) and 700 Nm, the latter figure available from as low as 1 900 rpm and remaining entirely available all the way to 5 500 rpm. Read that sentence again and try to picture the torque curve and the impact that it has on the driving characteristics. Yup...this thing promises to pull like the proverbial steam train.

Mercedes-AMG has optimised the GT R's transmission too. The 1st gear is longer, so that it's not only a pull-away gear, while the 7th gear is shorter so that the sensation of acceleration remains heightened. The final drive ratio has been reduced too, and the transmission was beefed up to cope with the extra power and torque outputs.

The GT R still offers the Race Start mode, which allows you to achieve the claimed 0-100 kph time of 3.6 seconds! The maximum speed is a claimed 318 kph. 

Ready to Race


If you're a real driving expert, you can adjust the degree of slip at the rear axle using this facia-mounted button.

Ultimately, however, and as you will see during the driving report lower down, the biggest change in character, as well as the major point of improvement compared with the GT S, has come as a result of the changes to the suspension.

Because the GT R is significantly stiffer than the GT S, the AMG engineers have been allowed to soften the damping on the GT R. It also gets race-inspired coil-over suspension (specifically designed for this derivative), which is paired with AMG Ride Control – a continuously variable, adaptive damping system. This latter automatically adapts the damping on each individual wheel as required by the driving situation, speed and road conditions. It works brilliantly – but more on that later...

Precision is further improved by the fitment of uniball joint bearings on the lower wishbones at the rear axle (again, inspired by what is used in motorsport). They are said to have zero play, so the wheels' track and camber do not change, even when the GT R is being pushed extremely hard in the corners.


The GT R is no stripped-out racer. You still have all the mod-cons, and lots of buttons to play with when setting up the car to your specific needs.

Furthermore, the GT R is the first AMG model to feature active rear-wheel steer. At speeds of up to 100 kph the angle of the rear wheels is opposite to those in the front. This is said to improve agility and reduce steering effort. At speeds over 100 kph, however, they are angled parallel to the fronts, which has a positive impact on stability in high-speed corners. 

Finally, an addition that will please enthusiastic drivers: AMG Traction Control. Accessed through a racy-looking (and impossible to miss) yellow switch on the fascia, it allows skilled drivers to tune the amount of slip allowed at the rear axle. There are no fewer than 9 settings to choose from.

On the Road


In this instance, race-honed doesn't mean harsh and uncompromising on the road.

The roads around the Portimao racing circuit were the ideal place to test a vehicle such as the Mercedes-AMG GT R, because there was a variety of sections: tight corners, sweeping curves, straights to "open the taps", smooth asphalt and coarser, bumpier sections too. In all honesty, I did not expect the GT R to excel in such variable conditions, but it did...

Of course, I left the damping in Comfort mode, but quickly switched the engine to Race and the Exhaust to Sport+. By doing that you can experience all the sound and fury, as well as the responsiveness of a race car, on the road, but with a fair degree of ride comfort. Look... even in Comfort mode the GT R's ride is firm, but even on the worst sections of the road it never felt harsh or crashy. You can really feel that the damping has been improved, and yet there is precious little roll in the corners. I had a chat with multiple DTM champion Bernd Schneider later in the day and he echoed my sentiments – the GT R doesn't only handle and steer better than the GT S, but it rides better too. And that is quite an amazing achievement...

Besides the surprising ride comfort, there are other reasons why you could conceivably drive the GT R daily. Firstly, the cabin is every bit as luxuriously trimmed and equipped as that of the GT S, so there's no lack of features. It affords usable boot space, and although the seats look like they offer "aggressive" bolstering, they proved comfortable. Yes, select the more comfort-oriented transmission and engine settings, and the GT R will hide its race-car-for-the-road attributes well. 

Hitting the Track


Mercedes-AMG also offers a Track Pack, consisting of a rear roll cage and 4-point race harnesses.

If you've been following Jeremy Clarkson's new Grand Tour series, you would have seen Portimao in episode 1. It was the track Clarkson and Co used for the "Holy Trinity" sequence, featuring the LaFerrari, Porsche 918 and McLaren P1. The track is a bit like a rollercoaster and remarkably undulating in nature. There are a large number of blind corners and, to really turn up the pressure, we have to try and keep up with Bernd Schneider. Oh... and it's started to spit with rain.

Highly conscious of the surfeit power being directed to the rear wheels, I am quite tentative in the first few corners, but by the time we're halfway through the first lap.my confidence in the grip coefficients of the R's tyres is much stronger. As was the case on the twisty bit of road I encountered away from the track, the GT R impresses with the immediacy and accuracy of its steering responses. It feels incredibly agile in the slower corners – a tangible benefit of the rear-wheel steering. 

The gearbox, too, is magnificent. Following the advice of Herr Schneider I leave the GT R in automatic for the first few minutes, and the transmission shifted precisely as needed despite my initial ham-fisted driving and lack of track knowledge (which was not helped by all the blind corners and crests). Shifting manually, of course, proved to be even better and more entertaining, with explosive pops, from the exhaust when shifting down into corners, adding to the fun factor. 

And then, when we started picking up real speed, especially in the more sweeping corners, the stability of the car was highly apparent and proof that all the aero and suspension fettling paid off for Benz. For all its intimidating looks and furious sound, as well as a specification sheet littered with race-car terms, the AMG GT R is actually easy to drive fast... forgiving, even.

But don't think, not for so much as a moment, that the driving experience is so "friendly" that it lacks fizz. No chance of that. The acceleration is so ferocious/relentless that you don't really get the opportunity to breathe as you're squashed into the seat. And then, under braking, the optional carbon ceramics are so powerful and consistent that whatever air is left inside your lungs is squeezed out by the strain of the safety belt. Talk about a driving experience leaving you breathless!

Later in the day I hitched a ride with Herr Schneider to really see what the GT R can really do. It left me highly impressed, but with a severe case of motion sickness and a knee hurting from having to brace my body from being shaken about amid all that on-track action and fury. And it feels as if the GT R can do this... pounding a race track... all day long. 

Summary


Green Hell Magno paintwork make sure the AMG GT R is unmissable... as if there was ever any chance!

It seems unlikely that one would ever be able to call a car costing this much (approximately R2.7-million) a bargain, but I'm tempted to proclaim a Mercedes-AMG GT R "a smart buy". If you want your supercar to draw crowds with its jaw-dropping looks, then that's a box ticked... particularly in Green Hell Magno green. And what about an incredible soundtrack? Sizzling, usable performance? Comfort on the road? Engagement on the track? Tick... tick... tick... (big) tick!

So, to answer the question posed at the beginning... Has the AMG GT-R stretched the Mercedes brand too far? Nope... it has established a new benchmark for performance cars carrying the three-pointed star.

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