Ride of the Valkyries: Chasing Automotive Valhalla in Three Angels of Acceleration
I’d been conflicted for two days, but when I got the call, I knew which car would be our winner. I don’t often get calls from co-workers on the weekend, especially when none of us is working, but when Jonny Lieberman called me out of the blue to rave about the drive he just finished, it all fell into place. Each of us has a long list of cars we like, but actually calling someone just to babble about a car is unusual. This was one of those cars.
Five Days Earlier
Coming off several intense weeks of endless planning meetings and two back-to-back comparisons, all of us were ready for the road trip, a chance to just drive. Great roads, beautiful scenery, spotty cellphone coverage—it had everything.
Our myriad meetings hadn’t been for naught. All the planning ensured testing at Willow Springs International Raceway’s Big Track the previous Thursday had gone off without a hitch despite the high workload. Our driver Randy Pobst had tested a trio of serious sports sedans first before taking on my cars, a Mercedes-AMG GT S, a Nissan GT-R 45th Anniversary Edition, and a Porsche 911 Turbo S, and his initial reaction to lapping the 911 was to send the sports sedans packing.
“This is a track car,” he told Lieberman. “I came out of it kind of high because the 911 is doing everything right. It’s beautifully balanced all the way around the track, hardly ever understeering, hardly ever oversteering. Broad power curve from the engine—it’s always there. The braking, oh my God, super strong with very light effort and very little pedal travel, so when I go to the pedal, the response is instant. The transmission does exactly what I want it to, too.”
He wasn’t as kind to the GT-R. “[It’s] really a disappointment on the racetrack,” he said. “The car has been altered for comfort. It feels very soft, a lot of roll, less-controlled vertical motions. GT-Rs have always been pretty darn stiff, but not this one. The turn-in is reasonably good, the tail comes out a little bit, there’s a bit of roll, but once the weight finishes transferring, the car goes into a big understeer. Understeer dominates the car’s personality around the racetrack. With light throttle it seems to free up a little bit, but trying to accelerate off a corner, big push. Even at high speed, in Turn 8 over here, the car understeered so badly I thought I might drive it off the road. The car stopped OK, but the pedal travel was long. The stopping was adequate but nowhere near the ballpark of the Porsche. This car just does not have the track-ready personality of the older GT-Rs.”
The AMG GT S, though, was another story. “I want to make love to that car,” he said. “I want to pull down its back bumper and—” Well, you get the idea. “It’s one of the best-handling cars I’ve ever driven. Certainly the best in the big, powerful bruiser category. Completely hooked up, without understeer. The car comes right into a corner, but the tail doesn’t come around. It’s just beautifully balanced all the time. Gearbox was good. A couple of times it didn’t have as low a gear as I wanted, and it didn’t decide to downshift until after I went to the throttle. Braking was tremendous, reminded me of the Porsche. I can’t get over how well it handles. That’s one of my favorite cars ever.”
“America’s Stelvio Pass” is so good we voted to keep it a secret.
His lap times mostly mirrored his subjective impressions. The GT-R, resplendent in 1990s Toyota/Lexus Boring Gold paint, turned a disappointing 1:30.48, 5 seconds off a GT-R NISMO’s pace. Why didn’t we bring the NISMO? It’s too track-focused and wouldn’t have stood a chance against the Grand Touring Germans out on the road, where most of our comparison took place. Though Pobst believed the GT S to be quicker, it came in less than half-a-second behind the 911, at 1:28.12 to 1:27.81.
Heavy lifting done, we headed north. Out through the Mojave Desert, east around the back side of Owens Lake, and on to the small town of Lone Pine for lunch. It took 10 minutes to get any service, as the entire staff, along with half the town, was looking at the cars in the back parking lot.
From there, we continued north on to the next town before turning west onto a road so good, we voted to keep it a secret. “America’s Stelvio Pass,” as we called it, dead ends at a campground and is thus lightly traveled as it twists and climbs 9,000 feet up the backside of the Sierra Nevada. With these clues and a map, you can find it easily enough, and it’s so far out of the way I’m confident it won’t become inundated with sports cars.
Out here, we began to understand Pobst’s input. The GT-R’s long brake pedal, although manageable at low and moderate speeds, became a liability at high speed. Coming down a long straight, you’d go to the brakes and get a long pedal that firmed up well and feel a pull against your seatbelt as g force increased. A split-second later, though, you realized you weren’t stopping nearly as quickly as you should be. After a brief panic, standing on the pedal would do the trick.
“The brakes, oh boy,” Nate Martinez said. “It had to be this particular car because in no other GT-R have the Brembos been so mushy, so lackluster in bite and feel. You’re stomping hard on the pedal to annihilate speed, and at many times this was extremely disconcerting. It had me not pushing as hard as I wanted.”
I wouldn’t discover this myself until the following day, as I had pulled rank with the always convenient “I’m writing the story” excuse and hogged the GT S all day. I’ve driven 911s and GT-Rs; I wanted to play with the new toy, and once I had a taste, I didn’t want to let it go.
The next day in Bishop, California, my fellow editors voted me out of the GT S and into the GT-R. Between the brakes and the bumpiest, loudest ride in the trio, “Goldzilla,” as we came to call it, was the least road trip-friendly car, and the hundreds of miles were wearing on the other drivers.
Leaving Bishop, we rocketed north again up U.S. Highway 6 toward the Nevada border with almost no traffic and zero police presence. Stretching the cars’ legs on 6 was fun, but the highlight of the trip came when we turned west on State Highway 120. Immediately following our climb out of Benton Hot Springs, we instructed the photographer to park on the other side of the hill while we ran back down and up that wonderful stretch of road. Tight hairpins, fast sweepers, blind crests, camber changes, elevation—this bit of road has everything. Here, driving all three back-to-back, their distinct personalities became inescapably clear.
“The 911 may lack the flashiness and wicked character of the badass Benz, but this ‘sleeper’ of a Porsche got my attention,” Martinez said. “Why? Because it does everything beyond well. Ask it to demolish a twisty back road, and it will, no problem. The flat set it carries from corner start to finish, the steering’s nuances felt by its driver’s fingertips, the never-ending stick from the Dunlop/all-wheel-drive combo, the active aero’s perceptible effect on the Turbo’s demeanor—it’s all brilliant.”
Indeed, the 911 was unflappable. It did everything right, braking strongly and confidently, turning in with razor sharpness, sticking with more grip than seemed possible, and firing out of the corners as if the tires had spikes and the engine unlimited power. What’s more, it was easy. It never demanded your absolute attention, and it let your minor errors slide without so much as a hand slap.
Then there was the GT S. “This thing is basically just the greatest car there is,” Lieberman said. “Too hyperbolic? Well, it’s certainly not as well-mannered as the Turbo S. And that’s a good thing. Philosophically speaking, a little bit of attitude, a bit of misbehaving, that’s kind of what we all prefer, right? Antiheroes are more fun than straight up heroes. Han Solo is cooler than Luke Skywalker. Batman is cooler than Superman. The AMG’s not as ergonomically sorted as the Porsche? Good!”
Driving them back-to-back, their distinct personalities became clear.
Where the 911 was flat through curves and clawed its way out with all-wheel drive, the GT S delivered beautifully direct and communicative steering and just a few degrees of body roll, pitch, and dive that made it feel like you were really working the car even though it had plenty more to give. Race mode delivered shifts nearly as telepathically as the 911’s and allowed several degrees of slip angle so you could power oversteer off corners just for fun. The throttle response from the alternatively roaring, bellowing, and thundering twin-turbo V-8 made the other two feel like they were using ’80s turbocharging technology.
And the GT-R? “I’m a Godzilla-phile—always have been—but the GT-R simply felt old,” Martinez said. “Its heft and slowish reactions were even more evident given the smaller, lighter company. Mid-corner, the car plows as non-NISMO GT-Rs do, but it still pulls out of the bends with a ridiculous ferocity. Against the Germans, its twin-clutch sounded and felt the most antiquated and was the least refined and most finicky away from the good roads and racetrack. Don’t get me wrong; the car is still phenomenal in ways that other sports cars could only hope to emulate. But against the other two, it stands little chance.”
Yes, for 2015, the standard GT-R was softened and quieted to make it more palatable to the masses, and in doing so its edge has been dulled. At high speed, and especially over Highway 120’s big whoops as we headed farther west, it wasn’t as stable or confident as the Germans. Where it used to thrill, it relies on its big party trick, blasting out of a corner full-throttle. Sure, it’s a better GT car than it’s ever been, but at the expense of what made it special: a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.
On the other side of the spectrum is the 911. “Remember that dude in school?” Lieberman asked. “Perfect hair, perfect teeth, natural athlete, 4.5 grade point average, looking at medical schools in eighth grade, teacher’s pet, constantly reminded you not to swear, and the girls all thought he was cute? That’s the Turbo S. There aren’t really any flaws with this thing. Quicker than 99.9 percent of all cars ever built? Yup. Faster on track than whatever you’re driving? Yup. Catlike reflexes, Herculean power, OCD-level build quality, aircraft carrier arresting-gear-imitating brakes, and cooled, comfortable seats? But of course. Is the lack of flaws a flaw? I’m thinking, weirdly: kind of.”
The 911 was the perfect sidekick, always in lockstep and making you look good but with all the personality of a butler. It made your life easier but not always more exciting. There was no pushback, no challenge to better yourself. If you want clean, quiet, unobtrusive perfection, here’s your car.
If you want thrills and excitement and entertainment, the GT S is your car. It does everything the 911 does but with just enough hints of danger to get your blood pumping. “It’ll kill momentum, jink, stick, and rocket away from bends like a Le Mans racer,” Martinez said. “If the GT S is indicative of a new era in AMG history, all others had better watch out.”
<img src="http://enthusiastnetwork.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/sites/42/2015/07/2016-Mercedes-AMG-GT-S-vs-2016-Nissan-GT-R-45th-Anniversary-vs-2015-Porsche-911-Turbo-S-03.jpg" alt="Divergent Drivetrains Although they rely on a trio of wildly different architectures for creating speed, all three are sizzling fast.” class=”wp-image-47398″ />
Explained Lieberman: “The GT S is a big Miata, whereas the 911 is a big WRX. The Subaru will have more power and all-wheel-drive traction and will be quicker when measured, but wouldn’t you rather be driving the eminently fun Miata? In this case, I’d much rather be behind the wheel of the howling-mad GT S.”
I was wavering. I love the 911’s any time, any place, any condition capability, but its all-business attitude left me a little cold. The stunningly beautiful GT S with its in-your-face attitude had my heart, but it was objectively slower (as if that word is really appropriate here). I drove the GT-R home from Yosemite National Park while Martinez and Lieberman each took a car onward to other events in northern California, and I found nothing more to love about it. Only one of them called me the following Saturday afternoon rambling about the once-in-a-lifetime drive he’d just had out on Highway 198 (our Best Driver’s Car road). When a car leaves that kind of impression on guys who drive new cars for a living, it’s something special. The Mercedes-Benz AMG GT S is that car.
3rd Place: Nissan GT-R 45th Anniversary Edition
The once almighty GT-R is hit with a one-two punch of age and an audience-chasing softening, the sum of which is a disappointing showing.
2nd Place: Porsche 911 Turbo S
The consummate Yes Man, the 911 is everything you want and everything you need, so long as you keep things strictly business.
1st Place: Mercedes-Benz AMG GT S
Passion, lust, excitement—this is the car we, as drivers and enthusiasts, want every manufacturer to build. It’s not as frustratingly perfect as the 911, and that’s why we love it.
|2016 Mercedes-AMG GT S||2016 Nissan GT-R 45th Anniversary||2015 Porsche 911 Turbo S|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD||Front-engine, AWD||Rear-engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Twin-turbo 90-deg V-8, alum block/heads||Twin-turbo 60-deg V-6, alum block/heads||Twin-turbo, flat-6, alum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||243.0 cu in/3,982 cc||231.8 cu in/3,799 cc||231.9 cu in/3,800 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||503 hp @ 6,250 rpm||545 hp @ 6,400 rpm||560 hp @ 6,500 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||479 lb-ft @ 1,750 rpm||463 lb-ft @ 3,200 rpm||516 lb-ft @ 2,100 rpm|
|REDLINE||7,000 rpm||7,000 rpm||7,200 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||7.3 lb/hp||7.2 lb/hp||6.4 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed twin-clutch auto.||6-speed twin-clutch auto.||7-speed twin-clutch auto.|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Control arms, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; control arms, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Control arms, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, adj shocks, adj anti-roll bar; multi-link, coil springs, adj shocks adj anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F;R||15.8-in vented, drilled carbon ceramic disc; 14.2-in vented, drilled carbon ceramic disc, ABS||15.4-in vented, drilled disc; 15.0-in vented, drilled disc, ABS||16.1-in vented, drilled carbon ceramic disc; 15.4-in vented, drilled carbon ceramic disc, ABS|
|WHEELS, F;R||9.0 x 19-in; 11.0 x 20-in, forged aluminum||9.5 x 20 in; 10.5 x 20 in, forged aluminum||9.0 x 20-in, 11.5 x 20-in forged aluminum|
|TIRES, F;R||265/35ZR19 98Y; 295/30ZR20 101Y Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2||255/40ZRF20 97Y; 285/35ZRF20 100Y Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT 600||245/35ZR20 91Y; 305/30ZR20 103 Dunlop Sport Maxx Race|
|WHEELBASE||103.5 in||109.4 in||96.5 in|
|TRACK, F/R||66.1/65.0 in||62.6/63.0 in||60.6/62.6 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||179.0 x 76.3 x 50.7 in||183.8 x 74.6 x 53.9 in||177.4 x 74.0 x 51.0 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||37.7 ft||36.6 ft||34.8 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,691 lb||3,911 lb||3,563 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST., F/R||47/53 %||55/45 %||39/61 %|
|HEADROOM, F/R||39.5/- in||38.1 in||37.8/26.0 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||43.5/- in||44.6 in||66.7/26.0 in (est)|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||58.3/- in||54.3 in||53.4/47.3 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||12.4 cu ft||8.8 cu ft||4.1 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||1.6 sec||1.1 sec||1.0 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||1.4||1.5||1.3|
|QUARTER MILE||11.6 sec @ 124.2 mph||11.2 sec @ 122.0 mph||11.0 sec @ 124.6 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||100 ft||103 ft||98 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||1.09 g (avg)||1.00 g (avg)||1.07 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||23.2 sec @ 0.95 g (avg)||23.5 sec @ 0.90 g (avg)||22.9 sec @ 0.95 g (avg)|
|2.42-MI ROAD COURSE LAP||88.12 sec||90.48 sec||87.81 sec|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,700 rpm||2,200 rpm||1,650 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$154,420||$104,660||$187,430|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, side, head, and knee||Dual front, front side, front curtain||Dual front, front side, front curtain, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 mi||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 mi||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||Unlimited||3 yrs/36,000 mi||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||19.8 gal||19.5 gal||18.0 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||16/22/18 mpg||16/22/19 mpg||17/24/20 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||211/153 kW-hrs/100 miles||211/153 kW-hrs/100 miles||198/140 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||1.06 lb/mile||1.06 lb/mile||0.99 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|