Long Term: 2016 Mercedes-AMG GT S

After Vroom.com clawed back my red 2016 Mercedes-AMG GT S, I said, “The next one will be for keeps.” Little did I know that “the next one” would be from (still questionable) Vroom.com too. It was a black-on-black 2016 Mercedes-AMG GT S with 36k miles. At $67k, it was the cheapest in the country, and the available $3,500 6y/75k mile extended warranty further sweetened the deal. So I bit.

“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” How much of a fool would I be this time around?

The car arrives early on a Saturday morning. The trucker who pulls it off the transporter remembers me: “Didn’t I deliver you a red AMG a few months ago?” “Uh, yes, you did. That car got returned due to an overheating transmission.” Idling in front of my house, the car winks at me with just one yellow parking light. Sigh, here’s Vroom quality for me!

Having been trucked from Texas to California through the winter rains, the GT S is filthy. Through the muck, I can see chips and scrapes on the bumper and rocker panels. Wavy irregularities on the rear bumper and masking lines on the front bumper are evidence of a low-budget respray. The popped-collar spoiler refuses to retract. The tires are mismatched, with summer Continentals up front and all-season Nittos in the rear. This tire mismatch is expected—visible in Vroom’s advertising—but the rest of the imperfections are not. Oh Vroom, shame on you! But as a repeat Vroom customer, I’m not really surprised by the surprises.

The biggest cosmetic flaw of my earlier (red) Vroom GT S was its sun-shrunk dash leather. I was quoted $2,800 to reupholster the swooping red-and-black dash. Thankfully, the new GT S’s dash is in better shape. I have to poke around to find any issues; there’s just one high-tension location behind the instrument binnacle where the leather has unglued. The fancy interior trim—carbon fiber and aluminum—is damage free, though the steering wheel and armrest are filthy. Bolster wear blemishes the driver’s seat, but this was evident in the advertisement.

I take the morning to wash the GT S. Black is my least favorite car color—I hate the swirls it accumulates and displays—but I’m increasingly pleased with the appearance of the Magnetite Black Metallic paint as it’s wiped clean. Under the sun’s rays, it appears dark gray with hints of green.

The same sunlight reveals a little more of the GT S’s history. The front bumper respray is terribly inconsistent, showing overspray on the passenger side headlight and a complete lack of shine and clarity in the grill recesses. (There’s also a strange white etching where the panels come together; I can’t decide if it’s a build-up of wax that needs to be wiped clean or if the paint has been worn/scratched through to the basecoat. My detailing clay clears it away in some places but not others.) I find another patch of frosty respray on the rear bumper just behind the passenger side wheel. But the weirdest thing of all is that the inscription plate of one rear wheel is missing its AMG lettering. Is this a blatant counterfeit wheel?

It’s a few days until I find time for my inaugural drive. Laser-focused on giving the black GT S a vigorous workout, I beeline for Livermore’s Mines Rd. Mines is an important test because the first Vroom GT S overheated here after just 5 minutes of flogging. I want to give this second GT S the same exercise, and I hope today’s 45° F morning air won’t invalidate my test. Warily I watch the digital engine and transmission temperatures as I build pace. The temperatures climb, then settle. When I take a breather from the writhing twists, the numbers quickly fall. I think I’ve got a healthy drivetrain!

But the chassis has a few problems. Earlier, on the highway, the steering wheel was cocked right even when I was traveling straight. Here in the twisties, I’m finding unbalanced grip. When I power out of right-handers, the GT S sticks and goes. But do the same out of left-handers, and the coupe’s tail unnervingly steps sideways into oversteer! And the GT S pulls towards the soft shoulder under hard braking. I suspect the alignment is off, and/or the brakes may be grabbing unevenly. My pre-purchase phone sleuthing revealed that the brake pads were replaced recently, and I could be bedding them in at this very moment.

(An alignment does fix the GT S’s ditch-loving tendencies and makes it stable, trustworthy, and true under full gas or brake.)

Another surprise is a cyclical brushing or shushing noise from the driver’s side front wheel well. It happens when the car is making high-G right-hand turns, then goes away when the lateral forces subside. Its cadence appears to be speed-related; I wonder if the brakes are brushing on the rotors or if something more sinister is afoot. (Curiously, the alignment fixes this too.)

Thankfully, the surprises end there. I fall into a rhythm with the car, working the sharp and feelsome steering through the corners, then carefully apply power post apex. The twin-turbo V8 delivers tremendous—and lag-less—torque, and it takes a carefully-calibrated right foot to balance the engine’s road-wringing twist to the rear tires’ limited stick. (The Nitto Motivo all-seasons are doing a decent job of road holding, and they don’t feel too mismatched to the Continental DW’s up front.)

When called upon, the big red brakes erase the GT S’s speed as quickly as—or quicker than—the V8 adds it. The brakes are fade-free, but the pedal feel is inconsistent. I find softer bite at slow speeds and firmer bite at high speeds. I believe I’m sensing Mercedes’s intelligent braking system, but I’d rather have a consistent, firm, and easily-modulated middle pedal in all scenarios.

I can’t decide if I like the suspension Comfort setting or Sport setting best on bumpy and uneven Mines Road. (Sport+ is right out: too firm!) Comfort is most comfortable—obviously!—but it lets the car roll in the corners and (slightly) float over the whoops. Sport erases the roll and float but delivers more jostling and jolting to my gut and brain. (I can’t wait for the day that Mines is repaved!) I toggle back and forth between the modes depending on the quality of the road.

I only stop for photography and biology. On both accounts, I’m delighted to see my favorite oak alive and well after the region’s recent fires. Its grand trunk and gnarled branches give time to the backcountry scenery. I can imagine cowboys resting under this tree, their horses tethered to its trunk. I idle my steed under the same canopy, snap photos and munch on lunch. The AMG’s stump-pulling 479 lb-ft of torque says it is a draft horse, but its sleek lines and fiery temperament say it is a thoroughbred.

Rested and refueled, I make the final rush to Mt Hamilton’s summit. The stacked hairpins allow me to play with the stability control settings. In the full-on position, the ESP shuts down shenanigans before they even start; I don’t use this mode at all on my backroad blitz. Sport ESP lets me drive right up to the limits, but not an inch beyond. When I want more rein—and the opportunity to paint the pavement after the apex—my only option is to switch ESP off. (I’d love to have the rotary dial from the AMG GT-R that lets you draw back the traction control bit by bit.)

Once the ESP is fully off, the GT S lets me tickle little slides out of it. This is what I want out of a sports car, the power to find the edge of traction and a little more, and the confidence to play at the chassis’s limits. The GT S has power leftover for wilder antics, but I’ll save that for some future fun on a skidpad.

At Mt Hamilton’s summit, feelings of gratitude wash over me for the brave firefighters who saved Lick Observatory from the August fires. I can see that telescopes survived unscathed, and most of the residences were spared too. The stargazers can continue their investigation into the cosmos. I can turn my rocketship around and head for home.

And a rocketship the GT S is. It’s got a long tapered nose and a flared tail, and when you light the engine, there’s a steady roar and seemingly endless thrust as you’re shot to the horizon. (If you are feeling really cheeky, you can even dial-up Race Start, chant “3, 2, 1, Blast Off!”, release the brake, and be launched into the heavens.)

As I roar back to Livermore, the GT S reminds me of the Nissan GT-R, another car with stellar thrust, a tight chassis, and a high G-force pummeling for its occupants. Both cars deliver solidly supercar performance, and both leave me slightly bewildered as I hold on for dear life.

That last bit tumbles around in my head on the drive home. In the final days of my shopping, I made offers on 997 GT3s, Lotus Evora 400s, and Mercedes-AMG GTs. The GT3s and Evoras shared the theme of being classic light-weight driver-first sports cars. With their right hands on the shifters and their left feet on the clutch pedals, GT3 and Evora drivers are melded into the drivetrains as biological elements of cyborg machines. Conversely, the AMG GT S follows the modern supercar approach of handling the drivetrain nitty-gritty itself and bringing the human along for the ride. I wonder if my excitement at being a gobsmacked rider will last as long as if I’d purchased the Porsche or Lotus and become a happy dancer. Time will tell!

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