Mercedes-AMG GT S SF 1

Within the space of two months, sports car buyers – or more aptly, higher-end sports car buyers – have seen two new faces added on for consideration. Both are from marques more commonly associated with grandeur at their very top end of the scale, so they are very much halo offerings making statement of intents, but in very different directions.

The first is the BMW i8, which arrived in April, and the second is the Mercedes-AMG GT, which made its official debut in Sepang on June 24 in its initial GT S form. The former is revolution, a marvel of a technical showcase and suitably dressed to dazzle. The latter is evolution, offering a different allure, one presented in a more traditional – but not conservative – package.

It’s inevitable that comparisons will be drawn and arguments for each mooted, but they really are different beasts, even if they do share the same segmentation space by virtue of type and price.

For one, the GT S isn’t really aiming at the i8 per se – its sights are more level-planed and focused on the likes of the Porsche 911. The question is, how does the Merc shape up in the face of such sterling competition?

Mercedes-AMG GT S SF 38

Before we get to that, let’s first examine the new C190 in isolation. For starters, the second vehicle to be completely designed and built in-house by AMG isn’t exactly a replacement for the first, the SLS AMG.

The gull-winged C197 was all bells and whistles in a different vein, a statement supercar with a hefty RM2 million price tag. The GT adopts a more conventional sports car route, and its advent brings with it better accessibility. It sounds hilarious that a RM1,150,000 (for the GT S, and RM1,200,000 for the Edition 1 variant) sports car can be termed accessible, but there’s no denying that its price will open more doors for it than it did for the SLS.

Like with the SLS, more variants of the AMG GT will come about – aside from the GT S, regular baseline GT (which hasn’t quite arrived into the market yet, but will very shortly) and GT3 announced earlier in the year, a Black Series and a convertible are also in the pipeline. The spawning won’t end there, and will even take a different tack – rumours of a four-door Panamera competitor have been going around for a while now.

Significantly cheaper doesn’t mean lesser. The general proportions of the SLS have been retained, even if the rear now presents the car as more of a fastback than a coupe, and there are carry-overs from the former (floorpan, front suspension) to provide continuity, though those fabulous show-stoppers masquerading as doors are gone and that monstrous-sounding 6.2 litre V8 M159 mill has sailed into the history books.

The GT – which measures in at 4,546 mm long, 1,939 mm wide and 1,288 mm tall, making it shorter and taller than the SLS – has its own appeal, and to this writer’s eyes is a far sharper-looking cut. There’s good fluidity to the lines, and it falls easy on the eye in the metal, even that rear and its contentious shape. Opinion on that tail has been divided here at this publication – Danny can’t stand it, while I think it’s fetching, and it doesn’t even need the pop-up rear aerofoil to pretty it up. To each their own, of course.

At the international media drive of the GT S, the mules wore the available selection of AMG wheels for the model, in this case three. The stock wheel is the 10-spoke design as seen on the Malaysian launch car, silver as standard but black with a high-sheen outline finish on the Edition 1 version. The 19-inch front, 20-inch rear alloys are shod with 265/35 R19 and 295/30 R20 rubbers, on our test mule Michelin Pilot Super Sport units.

In San Francisco, a high number of cars feature the optional forged-alloy multi-spokes (18, if you’re counting), which are available in silver and black. The baseline GT will feature four wheel designs, all different from those for the GT S.

As for the interior, the cabin is as winsome as photos of it suggest – some cues are familiar, like the circular air-conditioning vents, but that tall centre console, which arches downward, is simply captivating. Presentation-wise, it’s a winner, even when framed in silver chrome (my nod goes to the gloss black panelling).

The entire grid houses the climate controls, cupholders, the COMAND infotainment system controller and the gear lever, which is perhaps set a little too far back from an ergonomics point of view. This and the free-standing 8.4-inch central display screen, which doesn’t quite gel in flow to the rest of the dashboard, are the only oddities to nitpick.

The console also houses the eight AMG Drive Unit control buttons, arranged in a V to mimic the powertrain’s cylinder layout. Among the selectors are those for the AMG Dynamic Select system, which offers three modes in the GT (Comfort, Sport, Sport+) and adds another (Race) in the GT S alongside an Individual customisable mode.

Other switches include that for a manual shift mode, AMG Ride Control variable damping with three operation modes (Comfort, Sport and Sport+), three-stage ESP programming (On, Sport Handling Mode and Off) and variable exhaust flap operation (as default, closed off in C and open on S+ driving modes).

Seating position, meanwhile, is snug, and while on the firm side the AMG sports seats don’t come across as uncomfortable over the 250 km-long road route and track time on Laguna Seca. In terms of overall amenity, however, it has to be said that the i8 seating feels the plusher of the two (though not in terms of ride comfort, which is another thing altogether).

Some quick notes about the powertrain/drivetrain and the available level of equipment for the car. Both GT and GT S versions are equipped with the M178 4.0 litre twin-turbo V8, which is downsized from the previous 5.5 litre unit used elsewhere in the AMG lineup, with differing states of output tune.

On the 1,540 kg GT, the mill – which features dry sump lubrication and has its two turbos mounted within the cylinder banks in a ‘hot inside V’ configuration – is good for 456 hp at 6,000 rpm and 600 Nm at 1,600 to 5,000 rpm. Performance numbers include a 4.0 second 0-100 km/h dash time and a 304 km/h electronically-limited top speed.

As for the GT S, output is bumped to 503 hp at 6,250 rpm and 650 Nm from 1,750-4,750 rpm, and the 0-100 km/h sprint is shaved slightly to 3.8 seconds, while top speed goes up to 310 km/h. The car is 30 kg heavier than the base GT. Both models feature an AMG Speedshift wet dual-clutch seven-speed sports transmission carried over from the SLS, but re-optimised to deliver improved efficiency, shift speed and precision.

Standard equipment for the AMG GT includes adaptive LED high performance headlamps, LED tail lamps, start/stop operation, Speedtronic variable speed cruise control and a switchable AMG Performance exhaust system with two chrome-plated tailpipe trim elements.

Differentiation in styling elements between the two variants, aside from the wheel designs that are unique to each, include silver brake calipers on the GT (red on the GT S) and larger 390 mm front disc brakes on the GT S (360 mm on the GT) while inside, the Nappa-clad steering wheel on the GT S gets its grip areas finished in Dinamica microfibre.

Apart from AMG Ride Control, the GT S also adds on an AMG electronic rear axle differential lock with variable locking, and the Malaysian-spec car comes with elements of the Premium package fitted as standard – this includes an 11-speaker Burmester surround system and a reverse camera, but the panoramic sunroof that otherwise comes with the pack has been omitted on the local car.

As for the Edition 1 model, that adds on a black aerodynamic package (larger front splitter, front wheel arch flics, black side sill trim and an enormous fixed rear wing), a carbon-fibre roof, an exterior Night package (high-gloss black diamond grille, wing mirrors, rear wing, tailpipes) and the aforementioned black/high-sheen finish wheels.

Going the particular route also throws in an AMG Dynamic Plus package, which incorporates dynamic engine and transmission mounts, a firmer and specifically-tuned suspension, specific engine application available in Race (or manual) mode and higher negative camber on the front wheels as well as sports speed-sensitive steering.

Elsewhere, there are no shortage of options to look at – locally, 10 exterior colours and a variety of interior finishes (MB-Tex Leather/Nappa to Nappa with Dinamica inserts) and trim selections make the GT S very customisable, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s all dress and no play, because this is an absolute wolf on wheels, and not just in a straight line.

There’s little to suggest it’s as wild as it is at first. At lowish-level, in-city speeds the car cleverly masks its thuggishness with aplomb – it’s very pliable and accommodating trundling along, and Comfort mode offers great civility and refinement in terms of ride and compliance.

In fact, aside from initial difficulties in judging perception due to the long nose and surprisingly intrusive A-pillars, there’s little fuss as we make our way out of downtown SF amidst heavy traffic. We end up being so relaxed about it that my co-driver, who is piloting the car on the first 105 km-long leg, misses the turn that shouldn’t take us on to the Golden Gate.

The unintended sojourn across the bridge is the first of many adventures along the way to Salinas. Things are not helped by the weather. Up to our arrival, there hadn’t been rain in the area for a while, but it begins to on the morning of the drive. The SF folk we talk to seem happy about this, us less so.

Mercedes-AMG GT S SF 4

The very first trial, an overtaking manoeuvre, proves to be hair-raisingly amusing, and not just because there is a nasty-looking drop on one side of the road. With pedal to the metal, the GT S responds in kind, happy to be unshackled. We bolt – or rather skitter and shimmy wildly – past the car, the rear wheels hopping along as the lack of bite from the wet tarmac makes itself evident.

Being judicious helps, but that engine is a baiter, inviting you to push it. Defining corner thresholds come next, and while the grip levels are very decent in the wet, there’s enough tetchiness in the tail if you muck about, which serves as a reminder that the line between here and there can unravel very quickly. You’ll need to be fully present and committed going at it hard. The car views half-heartedness poorly.

By the time I take over at the halfway point, I figure there are no surprises left, but the hydraulic steering throws one up for a bit. It’s light and arguably too languid in Comfort and Sport mode, but the level of assist trims off significantly in Sport+ – in the end, I leave it in this setting right through, because the presentation feels too artificially enhanced otherwise.

No such adjustments needed for the engine and appreciation of its keen, feral nature. Response is brilliant and it’s not that bad sounding at full pelt either. Granted, it’s nowhere near that of the M159’s aural pitch, but everyone will have to make do – the audible note of old is postscript, much like that being written elsewhere. The bark from the exhaust attempts to make up for the loss, and with the flaps open is deliciously raucous.

Mercedes-AMG GT S SF 41

A short stretch along the route that hasn’t been affected by rain offers the chance to find out what the car is like in the dry – traction levels are high, and the overall balance is taut. In the end, it’s only good for a glimpse, because the hope that the skies will clear dims. By the time we roll into Laguna Seca, it’s on the verge of pouring.

We head track-side to pen down our names on the drive roster, and find we’re in the first group. There are two lead-follow groups, and I end up in the second one led by Bernd Schneider. The rain is heaviest at the point we head out on to the Mazda Raceway, and rather cheekily the ex-DTM champ chirps over the walkie, “since it’s raining quite heavily, we’ll be running with ESC Sport on, but feel free if you’re brave enough and want to explore the car to switch it off.” I don’t think anyone does.

Visibility levels aren’t great, but the run across the course – although nowhere near as fast as in the dry – isn’t slow. As expected, each car makes the fastest progress around the new, unknown terrain when directly behind the lead. Having somewhat gotten the measure of the car by now, progress across the 11-turn, 3.6 km track behind Schneider is brisk. The GT S feels vivid and, most importantly, engaging. Not even a few twitchy moments and a very late brake-and-turn manoeuvre dampens the mood.

Mercedes-AMG GT S SF 44

The ‘Porsche 911 Turbo or this’ question isn’t something I can answer, truthfully, because I haven’t been behind the wheel of a 911 for a good while now.

What I can tell you about the GT S is this – there’s no shortage of verve and dramatic flair with this one, and it’ll never be deemed as dull. Danny thinks highly of the 911 Turbo (only available here in its S form); my guess would be that the GT S won’t be the faster car, but it might well be the more exciting one. For sure, a less costlier pick – the difference from the Porsche can bag you a S 400 Hybrid or a CLS 400.

As for the ‘BMW i8 or this’ conundrum, notwithstanding the disparity in annual road tax (1.5 vs 4.0 litre), each will appeal to a different sort of buyer. As with many previous Mercedes/BMW deliberations, the old aphorism of ‘one for the head, one for the heart’ continues to apply. Only this time, the reverse holds true and reflects the spirit of each offering quite perfectly.

For a closer look at the car’s local specifications in closer detail, refer to CarBase.my.