Viewing the 2016 Mercedes-AMG GT S for the first time, and all subsequent times, I was bowled over by its smooth, almost retro-50's GT styling. Whenever I hit the ignition, I got a warm fuzzy feeling as the engine roared to life with a sound that would make the king of the jungle hide behind his lionesses. And driving it, the Mercedes-AMG GT S proved one of the stiffest cars I've ever piloted.
If you're thinking I misspelled this car's name, you would be wrong, as in recent years Mercedes-Benz seems to have gotten bored with its existing model nomenclature. Instead of Mercedes-Benz's performance division adding its three-letter acronym to existing model names, such as the Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG, the division gets its own distinct sub-brand, as in Mercedes-AMG. No Karl Benz to be found.
The GT S also takes up where the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG left off, coming out as a powerful track-ready two-seater and a halo performance car. However, where the SLS AMG's base price came to $200k, the 2016 Mercedes-AMG GT S goes for a base price of $130,825 in the US, while the Mercedes-AMG GT runs £97,200 in the UK and AU$314,136 in Australia. The model I drove came with a few performance and driver assistance options, bumping the total to $139,880, which strangely seems like a bargain compared to the SLS.
To achieve its performance goals, Mercedes-AMG designed a new engine for the GT S, a 4-liter V-8 with two compact turbochargers mounted between the banks of cylinders compressing air to 17.4 psi. At 503 horsepower and 479 pound-feet of torque, the output is balanced and gets this 3,695 pound car to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds.
For balance, the GT S gets a seven-speed dual clutch transaxle, that's mounted at the rear axle, rather than a traditional front-mount transmission. The driver selector sits way back on the console, not a good ergonomic position, but you only use it when selecting drive, reverse or neutral. You can let it shift by itself, which it handles very well, or use paddle shifters to enact your own lightning-fast gear changes.
In either Sport or Sport Plus modes, selected with a dial on the console, this car showed little in the way of limits on twisty mountain roads. Again and again, its powerful engine and responsive throttle tempted me to push it hard in the turns. And each time, that stiff body combined with an adaptive suspension and 20-inch wheels at the rear (19s in front), held the road perfectly, exhibiting no sway. With reckless effort I achieved a little controlled rear-end slide, but on public roads I wouldn't advise it.
Controlling my speed was a delight, either stepping into the throttle and blasting the car forward with neck-snapping acceleration or getting on the brakes, which afforded excellent modulation, letting me shave off however much speed I desired. In the two sport modes, the engine speed held around 4,000 rpm, making for immediate and delicate response on the throttle.
One oddity was in the steering feel. Instead of a similar hard response from wheel to steering rack, the GT S existed a slightly soft edge, just a tiny bit of unexpected lag. It seemed like the steering was tuned for a weekend in the country while everything else was set for the track.
And speaking of the track, CNET editor Jon Wong drove the GT S at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Here's what he had to say: "In sport-plus mode, the automatic shift programming is really good for a lap, but manually choosing gears with the paddles delivers instant response to shift commands. All the horsepower from the twin-turbocharged V-8 is comfortably manageable, pushing the GT S quickly out of corners and rapidly down straights with no turbo lag and strangely no whirls or whooshes from the turbos.
"Through turns, the staggered Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires and adaptive suspension keep the GT S planted with high grip levels letting you place the car where you want. Steering feel is hefty and communicative letting you know when the front tires are approaching their limits. For those who want an even more interesting track experience, select the car's race mode to loosen up the stability program unlocking more slip angle in corners, but also still leaving a safety net in case you really get in over your head."
Setting the drive mode to Comfort doesn't exactly mitigate the GT S' stiffness. As I drove city streets I could feel every nuance of the pavement, including the rougher bits, and concluded I wouldn't want to drive this car to work every day. However, the engine and transmission combination remains manageable even at low speeds. Taking off from stops in 25 mph zones, I had no fears that I would suddenly find myself hitting 70 mph without realizing it.
Despite the stiff ride, Mercedes-AMG tries to make the GT S more palatable for daily driving. Helping the fuel economy, rated at 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway, the car incorporates an idle-stop feature, shutting down the engine at stop signs and lights. Idle-stop brought the engine back to life rapidly enough to not interfere with my desire to go, but the loud V-8 makes it very noticeable, especially if when edging forward car-by-car in slow city traffic.
During highway driving, letting off the throttle engaged what the Europeans call "sailing", where the car completely disengaged wheels from engine. Sailing allows for longer coasting, meaning I didn't have to regain speed I had lost by hitting the gas as much. On a downhill, I had merely to tap the brake to re-engage the engine, letting its friction control my speed. Those two features helped my overall fuel economy come in at 18.3 mpg, just a little higher than the EPA average.
Baroque electronics interface
As a high-end Mercedes-AMG model, the GT S comes standard with the same COMAND interface and navigation system found in Mercedes-Benz cars. A jog-dial on the console let me choose music, enter destinations, call contacts and make use of a set of connected features, all portrayed on a dashboard-mounted LCD.
The onscreen interface relies on a menu bar along the top, letting you choose navigation, media, phone and data-driven apps, with a another menu bar along the bottom showing specific menus for each system function. Mercedes-Benz has been using this system for years, and recently began to add on to it, when really what it needs is a more thorough overhaul. Rotary menus replace drop-downs, while retaining the drop-down indicator on the menu bar. It's a confusing mess that Mercedes-Benz needs to fix.
Beyond that, the navigation system shows graphically impressive maps and responds quickly to inputs. Live traffic information appears on the maps, and the system uses it to dynamically re-route around traffic jams. Complementing the GT S onboard points-of-interest database, Google search let me look up local businesses by keyword. Or it would have, if the car's dedicated data connection was actually usable.
Trying to access the promise of Mercedes-Benz Apps from the COMAND interface, I waited and waited, but the car just wouldn't connect. I've encountered this problem in all recent Mercedes-Benz models, where the built-in onboard data modem takes far too long to access the Internet. It is surprising that Mercedes-Benz would fall behind here, when arch-rivals Audi and BMW each have always-on data in their cars.
Mercedes-Benz Apps includes audio sources, but good luck accessing them. Instead, the GT S offers the usual assortment of Bluetooth, USB port, HD radio, satellite radio and even an onboard hard drive where you can store music. The interface for these sources suffers from the same drop-down versus rotary confusion, but music library access is otherwise easy. Among music search options, the car includes a quick keyword search that results in a list of albums, artists and songs, and the ability to scroll through albums by cover.
An audiophile-grade Burmester audio system comes standard in the GT S, boasting 10 speakers and 640 watts. The definition of that system is amazing, letting me hear distinct instruments and tones in tracks that get buried in lesser systems. With this Burmester system, it becomes a challenge to decide whether you want to hear the thunderous note of the engine or the elegant reproduction of your favorite songs. And impressively, you can option up to an even more robust Burmester system, with 11 upgraded speakers and 1,000 watts of amplification.
To S or not to S
The 2016 Mercedes-AMG GT S works as a brilliant launch for the Mercedes-AMG brand. It's a halo sports car with extremely desirable looks. Other than the steering feel, it leans heavily towards track-ready tuning, which makes it a little rough for the kind of weekend getaways for which these grand tourers were really intended. If you seek more comfort, wait for the non-S GT version to come out later.
If this model is any indication, that GT should make for a powerful car with excellent handling suitable as much for the daily drive as the weekend jaunt. It's fuel economy features are a surprising added bonus for a car of this class. The cabin electronics offer many useful features, but I wish Mercedes-Benz would sort out its data connection.
This GT S model gives extraordinarily rewarding performance for the type of driver who will take it to the occasional track day, and engage the Race drive mode. The stiffness, wheels, balance and suspension all make for quick and engaged handling.
|Model||2016 Mercedes-AMG GT S|
|Powertrain||Turbocharged direct injection 4-liter V-8 engine, seven-speed dual clutch transaxle|
|EPA fuel economy||16 mpg city/22 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||18.3 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet streaming, Bluetooth streaming, onboard hard drive, iOS integration, USB drive, HD radio, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Burmester 640-watt 10-speaker system|
|Driver assistance||Blind-spot monitoring, collision warning and braking, lane-departure prevention, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$139,880|