By Mike Daly
Mercedes-Benz has always been proficient at rationalization. In car manufacture, that’s the academic term for the concept of operating a production floor at peak efficiency, with a minimum number of tools, dyes, presses and workers yielding a maximum number of models that can be sold profitably. Studies of rationalization gained currency during the sluggish economies of the Twenties and Thirties, when a majority of the world’s carmakers either went out of business or conglomerated with other struggling concerns. That precise quandary led to the 1926 merger of two of Germany’s pioneering automakers, Daimler Motors and Benz & Cie, and the resulting Daimler-Benz went on to master rationalization. After nearly being bombed into extinction during World War II, Daimler-Benz rebounded in the Fifties as if they experienced no lapse in production.
Given Daimler-Benz’s extreme success with decades of properly observed rationalization, there’s no small irony in the fact that the company now conspicuously makes so many different cars. Mercedes-Benz currently offers over 16 different model groups, most of which have numerous sub-variants. But to the careful observer, who might be tempted to wonder how this seeming defiance of rationalization hasn’t long since buried the world’s most prolific automaker, it’s evident that Mercedes carefully massages model placement and mandate to maximize its profit—rationalization at its finest.
The company’s current top-shelf sports car, the Mercedes-AMG GT, is a perfect example. In 2009 amid the retro-design craze, Daimler-Benz introduced the SLS AMG, a supercar that evoked the heritage of its highly successful and collectable 300 SL Gullwing of the Fifties. Well optioned at about a quarter million dollars, the front-engine grand tourer was a direct challenge to the day’s V-12 Ferraris and Aston Martins. It was the first model designed entirely by AMG (Mercedes’ premium in-house tuner), succeeding on the British-built SLR McLaren. While the SLS was hardly a failure by any stretch, the market niche obviously didn’t represent a large enough slice of pie for Daimler-Benz to bother with further.
So in early 2015 the SLS was replaced by the rather similar-looking AMG GT, now directly branded under the AMG logo. With standard rear-hinged doors instead of the expensive gull-wing contraptions and a new four-liter biturbo V-8 replacing the SLS’s 6.2-liter normally aspirated V-8, the AMG GT was offered at around $130,000, not so coincidentally right in the ballpark of a Porsche 911 Carrera. After a week of testing the road-range-leading GT S, I can personally confirm that the SLS replacement delivers an amazing bargain for its low six-figure price tag.
The AMG GT’s 3,982cc M178 engine was purpose-developed for the model, and its twin turbochargers are unusually stuffed between the cylinder banks in a unique switch of the intake and exhaust valves. Even in the most diminutive exhaust mode, the mid-size engine emits an infectiously deep rumble more characteristic of a five-liter V-10, lending the GT a Mack truck–like presence. Able to meet today’s concerns for fuel efficiency (averaging 18 mpg), the V-8 is also capable of frightening power, quickly dialing up 503 horsepower and 479 pound-feet of torque. That’s more than enough to launch the GT S from 0–60 mph in 3.7 seconds with an electronically limited top speed of 193 mph. The speedometer displays an ability to reach 220 mph, suggesting the platform’s true capabilities in racing guise (track-prepared GT R and GT3 variants were steady contenders in various sports car series this season).
Several elements of the GT’s mechanical architecture speak to Mercedes’ celebrated competition pedigree, including a dry-sump lubrication system that allows the engine to be mounted lower and further behind the front axle and a rear-mounted seven-speed dual-clutch transaxle that contributes to an ideal front-to-rear weight distribution of 47:53. AMG’s adaptive sports suspension omnisciently administers ride quality with myriad dampers that make the tightest turns feel inconsequential, seemingly defying the laws of physics. Mercedes may be a company best known for luxury, but the GT is a quick reminder that the manufacturer has dominated Formula 1 for the last three years.
The GT’s design is nearly as unassailable as its performance, with the Gullwing’s proven exterior form aging beautifully in a more curvaceous treatment than the SLS. The interior is admittedly more styled for form than function, with a majestically symmetrical layout of jewel-like buttons occasionally requiring an awkward reach across the center console. The Nappa leather-swathed sport steering wheel may not be the every-function-in-one wheel of today’s Italian exotics, but it’s certainly more elegant. A dynamic handling function varies steering assist, ranging from full power steering in comfort mode to a connectivity requiring greater input during sport driving.
The GT S provides five drive modes, including a Race mode that juices the engine and an Individual mode in which the driver can customize various attributes (traction control, shock stiffness, exhaust sound, manual shifting, etc.). Our test car was equipped with a bevy of performance extras that included $8,950 carbon ceramic brakes with huge 15.8-inch front rotors and 15.4-inch discs at the rear. An aerodynamic package featuring a front air splitter and rear wing, a Dynamic Plus package with dynamically active transaxle and motor mounts, and a carbon fiber support crossbar behind the seats contributed to nearly $40,000 worth of extra goodies.
Throw in the best infotainment interface in the business, an optional Burmester Surround Sound system and a panoramic moonroof, and the AMG GT establishes a unique mastery of both luxury and performance that is less expensive than comparable Ferraris and more convincing as a touring car than a Porsche 911. Mercedes is updating the GT model line for 2018, adding a roadster and an uprated GT C version to the three existing variants (base GT, S and R). And while that might seem like more AMG GT than the world needs, we should probably trust a company whose rationale has proven its mettle time and again.
MSRP: Base, $131,200; as tested, $170,210
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