There is nothing quite as menacing as the face of a street-legal race car appearing in your rear-view mirror.
Halfway through a lap of Portugal’s fearsome Portimao circuit, between the Torre and Alonso corners, to be precise, I catch a glimpse of the angry grille of the new Mercedes-AMG GT R. Inspired by the 300SL Panamericana, it’s an aggressive sight, with 15 vertical chrome teeth and piercing LED eyebrows giving it a visage of pure evil.
The intimidation factor is ratcheted up a few notches by being sandwiched between two pros. Steering the lead car is former DTM champion Bernd Schneider, while the man filling my mirrors is Cristian Gebhardt, the driving wizard from Germany’s Sport Auto who set the staggering 7min10.9sec GT R Nurburgring lap time.
Prior to embarking on our hot laps, AMG’s new flagship signalled its focus with the need to manually adjust the carbonfibre seat. As ever with the GT, cabin space is tight and these new lightweight buckets add to the squeeze, while some of the plush niceties of the GT S are conspicuous in their absence.
Schneider offers some tips on extracting the best from this beast: “Put the drive-mode selector into Race. Now switch off ESP altogether. See the display between the speedo and the rev counter? It shows the traction control setting.
There are segments, three yellow and six red. Yellow is for sissies. To begin with, you go two clicks into the red.” What the German racing legend has just been explaining is the GT R’s party piece, its trick traction control lifted from the AMG GT3 racecar.
As well as a choice of four driving modes, three damper settings and three ESP modes, with the electronic nanny deactivated the GT R offers nine different traction control settings, with the ability to transform the handling characteristics from safe and placid to manic animal.
A challenging mix of slow and fast corners, gradient changes and blind crests, Portimao makes for a memorable driving experience. With every lap my confidence grows, but while the two professional racing drivers accompanying me do a wonderful job of taking the GT R to its limits, those of us with two left feet and an impatient temperament find it all too easy to find the AMG’s electronically-defined ragged edge, killing momentum in the process.
Schneider is right, it makes more sense to loosen the traction control and carry more momentum into a corner, trusting the GT R’s wider tracks and giant Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tyres – 275/30 R19 up front and 325/39 R20 at the rear – to stick to the tarmac.
Despite weight saving measures such as aluminium suspension components, carbonfibre front guards, roof and propshaft, magnesium front deck and titanium exhaust system, at 1555kg the GT R is only 15kg lighter than the GT S thanks to the addition of active aerodynamics, wider wheels and tyres and all-wheel steering.
The variable-rate steering system is an intriguing and interesting setup. The weighting is much meatier than the GT S, but depending on speed, mode and lateral acceleration, driver input has complex consequences.
At the start of a slide, for instance, steering effort is reduced so that only minor adjustment is needed. Above 100km/h, the system smoothly and progressively transitions from counter steer to synchronicity.
As a result, the latest sports car from Affalterbach is fitter than ever, more focused, sharper and ultimately faster than its lesser brethren. On the track the active aerodynamics boost high-speed stability, replacing traditional rubber bushings with uniball joints ensures instant response and the optional carbon-ceramic brakes are worth their weight in gold, matching the colour of the calipers.
Away from the circuit, this focus does force some compromises; even with the systems at their cushiest, compliance is not exactly a GT R strong suit. On the deserted highways from Portimao to the coast at Lagos it takes total concentration to hold the car at speed.
While the wings and diffusers ensure impressive stability, the wide tyres and taut suspension hunt out every road irregularity. Furthermore, on winding country roads enthusiasm is curbed by the marginal ground clearance, vulnerable wheels and extra 57mm of width.
Regardless of the venue, however, the GT R’s straight-line pace never fails to make a dramatic impression. With the 6.2-litre naturally-aspirated V8 an increasingly distant memory, AMG is now concentrating all its efforts on the new 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8, with the turbos nestled between the cylinder banks in a ‘hot vee’.
In R guise an increase of boost pressure from 1.2 to 1.35bar (17 to 20psi) results in 430kW/700Nm, increases of 55kW/50Nm over the S. Combined with revised ratios for the seven-speed dual-clutch transaxle – a longer first gear and shorter ratios in sixth and seventh – the 0-100km/h sprint takes 3.6sec while top speed is pegged at a convenient 320km/h (199mph), presumably to leave the 200mph-plus trophy tucked away for the forthcoming Black Series.
At Portimao it propels us to an indicated 257km/h at the end of the long, downhill pit straight. The rear-biased weight distribution (52.7 per cent rear, 47.3 per cent front) ensures strong traction, though over-enthusiastic use of the throttle results in crowd-pleasing fishtails on corner exits, the electronically-controlled limited-slip differential distributing power equally between the rear treads.
With the drivetrain locked in Sport, the urge to reach for the shift paddles is palpable, but on road and track with the selector set to Race the gearbox’s electronic brain proves better qualified than this driver to time up and downshifts to perfection. It’s ability to select the perfect ratio at the perfect time is uncanny, like it has eyes that scan the road ahead and act accordingly.
In its brutal green livery, inspired by the famous German racetrack it recently mastered, the AMG GT R is an extroverted sports coupe for an equally extroverted buyer. It’s loud and brash and about as subtle as a train crash, but like similar road-going racers from Porsche and Ferrari, there’s no denying that this very special Mercedes works well for pros and posers alike, the eye-catching presence, raw soundtrack and awesome performance only adding to the ego-stroking effect.With its local price tag expected to be in the $360,000 region, the GT R is much more advanced than Aston Martin’s outgoing V12 Vantage S, more capable than BMW's M4 GTS and more focused than Mercedes-AMG’s own SL63.
Its closest challenger, in concept and price, is likely to be Porsche's next-gen GT3 RS. But while money is not likely to be a concern to many GT R buyers – local demand already outstrips supply – it is debatable whether the R is actually worth the extra coin.
The level of modification over the regular GT S is impressive, but a forthcoming GT C coupe, due in 2018, will boast 410kW/680Nm, as well as scoring the brawnier body and rear-wheel steering at a reasonable discount. For those in the market for a brawny V8 two-seater, I would either save a chunk of cash and buy the upcoming GT C, or hold off raiding the piggy bank for a little while longer and order the limited-edition Black Series.
Body: 2-door, 2-seat coupe
Engine: 3982cc V8, DOHC, 32v, twin-turbo
Bore/stroke: 83.0 x 92.0mm
Power: 430kW @ 6250rpm
Torque: 700Nm @ 1900-5500rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch
Suspension(F): double A-arms, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Suspension(R): multi-links, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Tracks: 1737/1658mm (f/r)
Steering electric rack-and-pinion, four-wheel steer
Brakes(F): 402mm carbon-ceramic discs, 6-piston calipers
Brakes(R): 360mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers
Wheels 19.0 x 9.0-inch, 20.0 x 11.0-inch (f/r)
Tyre sizes: 275/35 R19 (f); 325/30 R20 (r)
Tyre: Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2
Price as tested: $360,000 (est)
Pros: Amazing performance; razor-sharp handling
Cons: Strong demand; everyday compromises
Star Rating: 4.5/5