If opposites really do attract then seeing the Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster and Audi R8 Spyder V10 go head to head along a great piece of road is a bit like watching King Kong and Alien get it on. And the results, as you can imagine, are nothing if not spectacular.
The AMG is a traditional front-engined bruiser with a never-ending bonnet that just about manages to contain its twin-turbo V8 and quintessentially rear-drive chassis. The R8, on the other hand, is far more delicate in its appearance, and initially more exotic in its personality in that it is very obviously mid- rather than rear-engined. And when you fire up its naturally aspirated V10 engine for the first time, the sound that bursts forth is altogether more sophisticated in tenor beside the pavement-shuddering rumble that erupts from the AMG V8.
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And yet... these two open-top sports cars that could even be described as supercars, and which look so very different to one another, actually deliver quite similar results on paper. The AMG costs £110,160, has 469bhp and can hit 62mph from rest in four seconds flat before maxing out at 188mph. The R8 costs a touch more, at £132,020, but it also boasts a bit more poke – 533bhp – and thanks in part to its four-wheel-drive system can also hit 62mph almost half a second quicker, in 3.6sec, on its way to a 197mph top speed.
So although there are small differences in their outputs and in their resulting potential, the AMG GT and R8 Spyder are surely aimed at much the same kind of customer, even though they go about courting them in intriguingly different ways.
Let’s focus on the Mercedes first, because being the newer of the pair it’s the reason we’re here in the first place. It may be the entry-level GT Roadster (we sampled the 549bhp GT C in evo 235), but it’s still a bit of a beast, and not merely because it features yet another incarnation of AMG’s ubiquitous 4-litre twin-turbo V8 engine. In the flesh it looks like a properly thunderous piece of machinery, a bit like a Mako Shark Corvette but redesigned for the 21st century. As such, its proportions would be comical were they not also so perfectly balanced from front to rear, and from side to side, albeit in an old-school, chest-thumping kind of way.
However, beneath its muscular-looking, mostly aluminium skin, the GT is very much at the cutting edge. Its chassis and suspension are digitally controlled, carbon-ceramic brakes are available as an option, and the steering, controversially perhaps, is hydraulically assisted but also speed-dependent in its weighting.
As ever with contemporary AMGs, the Roadster also features a multi-adjustable drive program that allows you to play almost endlessly with the maps for the throttle, gearbox, exhaust, dampers, steering and so on. So even though it has just one electrically powered canvas hood that lowers or raises gracefully into or out of the rear bodywork in around 15 seconds, in reality the Roadster can be many different cars, depending on the road, the driver, their mood and the occasion.
For a strict two-seater convertible it’s a fairly practical car, too. Its boot is pretty decent in size given that there’s all the electric-roof gubbins to accommodate, the cabin is well specified, and the whole shebang feels extremely well built, with a genuine sense of quality to all its buttons and controls. The range of adjustment on the excellent (optional) sports seats means almost any shape of driver can get comfortable behind the wheel too, which, as we’ll discover, isn’t the case in the R8.
No matter how good the AMG is to sit in or just look at, it is its engine and seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox that define it. So too, to a lesser extent, does its chassis. In this respect it’s a refreshingly simple car to get your head around; it has that long bonnet, that V8 engine in its nose, a nicely sorted rear-wheel-drive chassis and lots of torque to play with. So stick the key in the ignition (well, press the starter button, if we’re being pedantic), drop the roof and let’s go (Daddy-O...).
Except the AMG Roadster turns out to be a wee bit more sophisticated than that on the move, even though it does feel like a good old-fashioned hot-rod at heart most of the time, especially beside the theoretically more incisive mid-engined Audi.
We may already know most of what there is to know about the undeniably fine R8 Spyder. Its chassis is a mix of aluminium and carbon composite, and its engine is the same 5.2-litre naturally aspirated V10 that has been making us giggle for aeons now in the middle of R8s – and Gallardos and Huracáns – albeit heavily revised in this instance to produce 533bhp at 7800rpm and 398lb ft at 6500rpm. (You can now also get a Plus version of the Spyder V10, with the same 603bhp as the Plus coupe.)
But no matter how well you might think you know the Audi R8, and no matter how familiar you may be with its brilliant V10 engine and seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, it always takes your breath away the first time you go back to it, and then nail it, all the way to the 8500rpm limiter. And when there’s no roof above your head, and maybe some kind of a bridge or, better still, a tunnel involved, the raw thrill it can deliver is that much more palpable, that much more dramatic.
And even with ‘just’ 533bhp to play with and a touch more weight to carry around than the coupe R8, the Spyder never feels anything other than bloody quick, especially over the last 3500rpm, where its energy levels reach something of a frenzy. This alone separates, and indeed elevates, the R8 above and beyond anything the AMG can produce subjectively by way of a reply, no matter how impressive the Roadster’s absence of lag or pure straight-line thrust might seem in isolation.
The simple truth is that the AMG is a hugely rapid car, with huge torque available at astonishingly low revs – 465lb ft from 1700rpm – seemingly in any gear, and seemingly from any speed. And in the mid-range it really does fly, with monstrous throttle response and immense traction – to a point where even if you turn everything off and go without traction control, it still sinks its big (but again optional) 295-section 20in rear Continentals deep into the road, squats a touch and then just goes, without wheelspin (in the dry) from second gear onwards. At the same time it also delivers a quite delicious V8 soundtrack to accompany your every move, with crowd-pleasing crackles and bangs on the overrun during downshifts and a deep-chested roar under load.
But it isn’t as quick as the R8. Neither is it anything like as spine-tingly wonderful to listen to at full chat. So before you go anywhere near trying to work out which one steers the sweetest, rides the best, turns in the sharpest, handles the most crisply and so on, the R8’s screaming V10 engine and its frankly incredible dual- clutch gearbox – which is so quick and so smooth it feels almost like a CVT – provide it with an edge the AMG is always going to struggle to recover from.
But recover it does, occasionally in areas that you absolutely would not expect. Like, for instance, its driving position, which is just about perfect so long as you like to sit nice and low and snug behind the wheel. In the R8 there’s barely enough legroom even for a relative short-arse such as me at five foot ten, so for anyone of six foot or more the Spyder’s cabin will surely be a no- go zone, which is highly unusual for a company that otherwise gets its interiors pretty much perfect.
The R8’s fuel consumption is also horrendous relative to the AMG’s. In 700 miles of testing on various types of road, driven at various speeds, it averages just 17.9mpg compared with 22.1mpg for the Mercedes. What’s more, it’s a much noisier car to travel in on a motorway with the roof up, with more tyre and wind noise and, for some extraordinary reason, no cruise-control fitted as standard (unlike the AMG) despite costing £20k more.
These are small things that add up to a surprisingly significant total in terms of how useable these cars are, day-in day-out. And they are, let’s be clear, both designed to be used properly; these are not toys to be brought out on sunny days only, so we’re talking here about things that matter, albeit more to some than others.
What matters most, though, is not the practical stuff, or the fact that the AMG would probably fit more easily into most people’s lives than the R8. What matters is that when you let rip in these cars, it’s the R8 that goes deepest, hits hardest, and satisfies on a level that the AMG can never quite match.
The fact that the R8 also has the sweeter steering of the two, a fair bit less shudder over less-than-perfect surfaces and, amazingly, the better ride quality when both cars are in their most comfort-orientated modes is almost a bonus in the end. But it all means the R8 simply goes down the road better than the AMG when you just climb in and start driving. That said, neither has steering that’s anything to write home about. The R8’s feels a touch more natural than the AMG’s overall perhaps, but both steering systems suffer from being too light, a bit too nervous in their initial response, and delivering little in the way of feel through the rim.
But it’s what happens when you dial their respective drive programs to the max (otherwise known as Dynamic in the R8 or Sport+ in the AMG) and start changing gears manually via the paddles that you get the sharpest contrast of all between these two. The AMG grows horns aurally when you do so, true, but to be honest its ride and handling – and to a lesser extent its steering – go ever so slightly to pieces on UK roads.
Yes, you get more roll control and, yes, the gearchanges get quicker and sharper, as does the throttle response from the V8. But the ride becomes so harsh – without a corresponding step up in either turn-in crispness or overall handling agility – that it’s not long before you reach for the dial to tone it all back down again, certainly as far as the chassis and steering responses are concerned. And the most disappointing thing of all is that at no point during the button-twiddling process does the AMG ever really find a sweet spot.
The R8, by contrast, will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand quite perfectly stiff to attention in Dynamic mode. And it’ll do so on most decent UK B-roads driven at speed, despite also suffering from a touch of shake on the worst of them. Its steering is good enough but its chassis responses, its extra agility, its body control and, most of all, its engine and gearbox combine to provide one of those rare driving experiences that can leave you oscillating slightly through a combination of excitement, mild fear and pure disbelief.
It is, in the end, easily the more exciting of the pair to drive hard, to simply go for a blast in, just for the heck of it. And the fact that it looks more exotic, sounds more dramatic and is, ultimately, a fair bit quicker than the AMG is cream on the top. That driving position, though; they really need to sort that next time around...