What can you learn about a car from simply driving it on a race track? Quite a lot as it happens, particularly when it's a sports car like the Mercedes-Benz AMG GT.
Mercedes introduced its AMG GT last year as a replacement for the dramatic, gullwing-door SLS. It's a competitor to higher-echelon Porsche 911 and Jaguar F-Type — cars that aren't exactly short on their abilities.
The SLS that the AMG GT replaces was a car of total drama. Cartoon proportions and those doors made it a centre of attention wherever it went. But for all that, it wasn't a brilliant sports car to drive. Its auto-gearbox clunky, its size and girth made it feel hulking rather than nimble. Can the AMG GT change that recipe for the better?
Mercedes-Benz AMG GT first drive: New recipe
The short answer is yes. The AMG is much more petite; smaller in every dimension, with no gullwing doors and no real willy-waving party tricks, beyond a roudy exhaust.
It does look good. Well, from the right angles, as you can see from our pictures and how elongated the car can look from low-down. But it's a classic 2-seater sports car, with soft-yet-taught surface forms and spare, elegant details. Merc's design is really in a good groove at the moment, and the AMG GT represents that.
Step inside and the cockpit is snug. The centre console is vast — almost like it was lifted from one of Merc's trucks. Drop into that low seat and, looking past the bullseye vents and fat-boy console sweep, the steering wheel is small and chunky, the tacho and speedo large and clear.
The core knob you need to know about on that console shifts the car from comfort, through sport, sport+ and individual modes. The AMG GT progressively sharpens things up and lets you cope on your own (gears and traction system) as you go.
Mercedes-Benz AMG GT first drive: Roaring start
The GT fires up with a bark. It employs a twin-turbo charge, V8 motor, where the turbo chargers are sited in between the two cylinder banks, giving rise to the engine's nickname "hot vee".
There are two versions: GT and GT S. The GT gets 462bhp, the GT S a little more at 510bhp. The S also gets a race function to add to those sports modes we mentioned earlier, and three stages of AMG ride control — which adjusts things like damper settings. It also can have ceramic brakes, which is handy for track. However, we drove the "basic" GT — so we can't tell you more about the value of these functions and the extra power of the S. What we can tell you is that the regular GT proves pretty handy; indeed there's nothing "basic" about it.
Charging out of the pit lane at Silverstone, we leap for the first corner in an "oh dear that wall is coming up fast" kind of way. Brakes applied, hard, the rear-end jigs about a bit and then we turn hard into the corner.
The first big surprise? The steering is super light. Which at first feels odd for a sport car. We expected to wrestle with it. But as speed and laps build it makes sense — it's actually a pretty communicative steering rack; possibly better than a Porsche 911. The weighting just takes some getting accustomed to. It turns in extremely keenly, it will get wayward if you get greedy with the power too early out of the corner, but hey this is a 465bhp, rear wheel drive muscle car, what do you expect?
Down the next straight and the AMG really covers ground. The engine sounds great, and we switch the noisy exhaust function on to get it doing what can only be described as massive farts on every upshift. On downshift it pops, crackles and burbles in a very distinctive way. Everyone will know you're coming way before you arrive.
It's hard to gauge relative speed on a race track sometimes, but we have no problem reeling in the hardly underpowered A-Class A45 AMGs aloso on the track, which gives a small indication of the AMG GT's prowess.
Mercedes-Benz AMG GT first drive: Gearbox grumbles
Disappointments? Even in its fastest mode, the gearbox doesn't match a Porsche PDK for speed — in response or change. The AMG visibly yells at you, a big yellow then red "UP!" appearing in the gauge cluster as you charge in on the red line.
Pull the paddle at the moment you want to shift, and there's a small but perceptible delay before the next gear rams home. As pace increases it's easy to clout the rev limiter. We ended up trying to pre-judge, pulling the shift paddle a couple of moments before the ideal — while still accelerating — in order to allow it its momentary pause.
But that's the only real fly in the ointment. The brakes — the regular steel units, not the S's ceramics — don't fade during our six laps, which impresses given the hammer they take. And the engine, all the while, entertains with its sounds. The biggest compliment we can pay this regular model is to say that we were never wishing we were in the faster S version.
The Mercedes-Benz AMG GT is a wonderful thing on the track. Whether that translates into life on the road, we can't comment just yet, as ultimately we weren't let loose into Northamptonshire.
But based on this experience, the AMG GT has the full capability to act like a loon, will give you kicks on a race track, and looks the part too. It costs from £97,210.
So the SLS is dead. Long live the better-in-every-way AMG GT.