Overall rating: 5/5
The gull-winged SLS AMG is no more; however, the cheaper and more nimble, but still massively quick Mercedes-AMG GT S replaces it very convincingly indeed. While shaking up the established hierarchy in the hotly contested sports car class at the same time.
In the Metal:
Replacing the SLS, the Mercedes-AMG GT is smaller and loses the SLS's signature gullwing doors, but costs a useful third less than the previous AMG sports car flagship. Proportionally it's classic stuff thanks to a long bonnet with a teardrop cabin, its front-mid engine layout pushing that passenger area far back. It loses nothing for the removal of those trick doors; indeed it's to the significant benefit of headroom. Bold front lights, slim rear ones and an assertive front grille - optionally offered with the sparkly pinhead finish that debuted on the A-Class concept - the GT is a spectacular looking car, and it's even more desirable in the metal than is conveyed in pictures.
The interior is similarly dramatic. That front-mid engine layout means there's a large transmission tunnel, and Mercedes-AMG uses it to house the many driving functions, accessed by eight buttons formed in a V - in homage to the V8 engine that powers it. Fit and finish is impeccable and the instruments are clear, while Mercedes' usual Comand infotainment system is as easy to use as ever and the driving position is excellent. Only the too far back automatic transmission selector is awkward: the space where it perhaps should be is used for a couple of sizeable cup holders. Blame the Americans.
Underneath, and as far back as possible, resides an all-new engine from Mercedes-AMG. The naturally aspirated 6.2-litre V8 is gone, it replaced by a 4.0-litre bi-turbo unit. Those turbos nestle in what AMG describes as the 'hot V'. It's hot alright: in GT S guise it delivers 520hp at 6,250rpm, peak torque of 650Nm arriving at 1,750rpm and staying until 4,750rpm. When AMG's boss Tobias Moers admits that they had to reduce the torque output at low revs to aid driveability then you know it's going to be good, and it proves so.
What's deeply impressive on wet, leafy autumnal country roads in California is just how much traction there is. Such conditions and 650Nm of torque could be catastrophic, but the GT S's rear is resolute in its line unless you choose to provoke it. The front is similarly faithful, the steering not exactly loaded with feel, but there's enough to know that the GT's line is being held, while the speed and accuracy on offer are rather surprising. Add in a serious overhaul of the SLS's seven-speed paddle-shifted dual clutch transmission - that doesn't try to second-guess or over-rule the drive as it did in the SLS - and the GT has the makings of a deeply impressive sports car.
Only on track will you get to and breach the high limits of traction and grip, the GT S demonstrating ably that it's got everything in its armoury to take on and beat its Porsche 911 rival around a circuit. Mercedes-AMG laid on Laguna Seca, California, to prove that, and the GT S dismissed the famously challenging track with impunity. There its inherent balance (47/53 front/rear weight ratio), that incisive, accurate steering, lightning-quick and faithful transmission and the immediacy of response from the engine work cohesively to create shocking performance and agility. Even approaching and breaching its limits it's hugely controllable, the GT S flattering, but still involving at its very extremes of dynamic and physical performance. Select Race mode, and ESP in Sport and there's a huge amount of slip allowed before it intervenes. The GT S is in its absolute element in this guise. There's an authenticity to the AMG; while it's a GT in every sense of the word, it plays the part of sensational sports car when you dig a bit deeper. In character it's very similar to its key Porsche 911 rival. No surprises there, then.
AMG's boss, Moers, says that they deliberately didn't put the optional Cup tyres on the GT S for our track test, as they wouldn't really be representative of what customers will experience. Brave, but impressively the standard road tyres aren't over-worked on the circuit: grip and traction remaining high, approachable and predictable even after sustained high-speed lapping.
The brakes, optional carbon ceramic items, too, are unfailing in their ability to haul the GT S down from the huge speeds it so easily generates, and carries through bends. And the engine note is spectacular, AMG's people admitting that its sound was crucial, spending countless hours honing it to create the right noise and not buckling, as rivals have, to augmenting its timbre by piping frequencies through the car's speakers. Turn the sports exhaust on and the V8 is amusingly vocal rather than obnoxiously so, while off the V8's accompaniment is muted to a pleasing background rumble.
What you get for your Money:
The GT S model is the current range-topper, until the inevitable, rawer Black Series makes an appearance. S specification adds some choice revisions to the standard GT specification, not least 58hp more from the 4.0-litre bi-turbo V8. There's also an electronically controlled differential rather than the GT's standard mechanical one, larger brake discs, different (wider) front and rear wheels and AMG Ride Control electronically-adaptive three-stage damping. Worth the premium over the standard GT? Certainly.
The AMG GT is likely to become a range much like its 911 rival - though perhaps without quite the same huge number of permeations. There'll be a roadster in time, as well as that Black Series, while Moers confirmed that AMG has already readied a GT3 race car, too. The GT is a two-seater only though, leaving the Porsche 911 its trump card as a more useable daily driving proposition with its occasional rear seats.
AMG promised a lot in the build up to the introduction of the GT, and it has delivered. Very convincingly indeed. With this, a new Audi R8 coming soon and the expectation of a significantly revised turbocharged 911 range in the next 12-18 months the sports car marketplace just got a lot more interesting.