sunny De­light

Two cabrios, one sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter en­dowed. But is the new Merc GT C miss­ing the point of top-down driv­ing?

Top Gear (Philippines) - - Gt C Vs. Mx-5 - Words by Jack Rix Photography By Alex Tap­ley

This is prob­a­bly the part where I should waf­fle on about the sim­ple plea­sures of driv­ing a con­vert­ible: the wind whip­ping about your jowls, the sun hold­ing you in its warm em­brace, not just the sight, but the smell of the coun­try­side stream­ing by. Then, I’d trot out some sta­tis­tics about UK mo­torists buy­ing more drop tops than any­where else in Europe, for some un­known rea­son.

But the truth is, I don’t much care for con­vert­ibles. I like the idea of them, but the re­al­ity? Not so much. I can’t hear hands-free calls, they mess up what’s left of my hair, and I get sun­burn within 12 min­utes (even on a cloudy day).

But to­day is dif­fer­ent. The phone is turned off, I’m creamed up like a tod­dler on Bondi Beach and I’ve gone for an ex­tra dol­lop of strong-hold gel. To­day I’ve been dealt a blinder to un­tan­gle a sim­ple co­nun­drum—if be­ing open to the ele­ments is your thing, do you need to spend big to get the de­sired ef­fect? Does more power, more bling, more noise, more ev­ery­thing nec­es­sar­ily mean more fun, es­pe­cially on the UK’s uniquely nar­row and crumbly roads? Just to be crys­tal, this is not a di­rect com­par­i­son, cross-shop­ping be­tween these two cars is… un­likely. This is an ex­er­cise to prove that when you fo­cus right in on fit­ness for pur­pose, an un­der­dog can punch well above its weight. En­ter our dis­parate pair­ing…

At the af­ford­able end of the spec­trum we have the sin­gu­larly bril­liant Mazda MX-5, the de­fin­i­tive pared-back road­ster with only a mod­est 158hp from its 2.0-liter en­gine, barely a ton for its sparkling chas­sis to haul around and a man­u­ally op­er­ated roof. Sim­ple, sporty, man­age­able, sub­lime. Yet some­how the prospect of driv­ing one on some of the UK’s pret­ti­est sun-drenched roads isn’t re­ally tick­ling my pickle right now.

It could be some­thing to do with the AMG GT C that’s just pulled up along­side, like some vast silken shark. Wider track and arches from the GT R, low, hos­tile, it looks spec­tac­u­lar bur­bling away in the morn­ing light—you could prob­a­bly park an MX-5 on the bon­net alone. Mercedes will do you a cook­ing GT Road­ster, but the GT C is the one you want. Tak­ing the best bits from the GT R—the wider track, four-wheel steer, elec­tronic rear diff, adap­tive sports sus­pen­sion, toothy Panamer­i­cana grille, louder ex­haust, lighter lithium-ion bat­tery—and mar­ry­ing them with a 549hp ver­sion (28hp less than the GT R, 28hp more than the GT S and 80hp more than the stan­dard GT Road­ster) of Mercedes’s twin-tur­bocharged 4.0-liter V8.

Right now, we’re on Beachy Head Road, up early to beat the Saga tour buses, and strangely I’m not think­ing about cruis­ing or en­ter­tain­ment, it’s a game of dam­age lim­i­ta­tion. It feels ab­surdly wide, wide enough for two ac­com­mo­dat­ing seats, a fat cen­ter con­sole, and sur­gi­cally en­hanced whee­larches be­yond that. The steer­ing isn’t help­ing, ei­ther—it’s on con­stant high alert. This is the epit­ome of a mod­ern su­per­car steer­ing set-up: light on feed­back, even lighter to turn (even in S+ and Race modes), but with a su­per-high ra­tio giv­ing the front end a feel­ing of tele­ki­netic re­spon­sive­ness.

So the road, quite lit­er­ally, isn’t a great fit for the GT C, but with an en­gine like this you’ll be amazed at what can be for­given. You don’t need more than the length of your drive­way to re­al­ize it’s a stonker, all gruff and woof ly at idle —like it’s car­ry­ing a nasty chest in­fec­tion—but give it some

‘The GT C is like some vast, silken shark. Low and hos­tile, it looks spec­tac­u­lar’

revs and it makes all sorts of noises to keep you and your neigh­bors en­ter­tained. For­get Com­fort and Sport modes, they’re far too tame, go straight for S+ or Race (not for­get­ting to dial back the sus­pen­sion to the soft­est of its three set­tings) and the ex­haust baf­fles open fully un­leash­ing a snarling crescendo and a 21-gun salute when you lift off.

Hop­ping into the MX-5 on the same bit of road is like swap­ping ski boots for slip­pers. It just fits. It feels like a puppy let off the lead for the first time—a gen­tle growl from the ex­haust, just enough per­for­mance to keep you in­ter­ested and your foot welded to the floor. Of course, the en­gine is spar­row­like com­pared to the Merc’s, but with no tur­bos there’s no de­lay and whereas the GT C can hap­pily short-shift at 4,500rpm and still be bar­relling along at mighty speeds, there’s a re­quire­ment to rev the Mazda. Hard.

Like the AMG the steer­ing is light, but then so is ev­ery­thing else—the gearshift, the ped­als...the whole car, in fact. The AMG is im­pres­sively damped and never bot­toms out, but it still rides with an un­der­ly­ing firm­ness, whereas the MX-5 glides down the straights and rolls and pitches around the cor­ners—un­de­sir­able for ’Ring records, but wonderfully in­volv­ing on the road. Nowhere else are these car’s op­pos­ing ap­proaches bet­ter demon­strated than with the roofs. The Merc, a whirring me­chan­i­cal bal­let of mag­ne­sium, steel and alu­minum last­ing 11sec and op­er­a­tional up to 50kph. The Mazda is a man­ual, no-frills, un­clip, flip and click ar­range­ment op­er­a­tional up to what­ever speeds your bi­ceps per­mit. Both have the de­sired ef­fect.

One word of cau­tion: if the at­ten­tion a su­per­car brings is a con­cern, then a cabrio am­pli­fies it con­sid­er­ably. Sit­ting at the lights in a coupe at least you’re largely ob­scured by glass and metal, but with the roof down in the GT C you’re con­stantly on pa­rade. I find my­self not know­ing what to do with my fa­cial ex­pres­sion—do I grin like I’m the luck­i­est guy in the world and I know it, or do I go for some­thing cool and sullen, what­ever that looks like? In­vari­ably, I de­cide a straight-on mid­dledis­tance stare and awk­wardly drum­ming my fin­gers on the door is the way to go.

Right, enough pos­ing, time to find a road with a lit­tle more wig­gle room, some­where the GT C can shine. What you quickly re­al­ize is how rigid the re­in­forced chas­sis feels and how much you can lean on it through the cor­ners. Where width was once the en­emy, it now trans­lates to in­de­struc­tible lat­eral grip. You’ll need a race­track to dis­cover where it ends and the slid­ing be­gins. Four-wheel steer­ing on the other hand is just bril­liant at any speed—bring­ing a sense of agility to match that hy­per­ac­tive steer­ing, it’s like a cou­ple of hun­dred ki­los have just been stripped away.

Yet the MX-5 still doesn’t feel out­classed or out of its depth, be­cause these are the roads and the days it was made for. It has abil­ity to sim­plify and dis­til the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and make ev­ery­thing else seem too com­pli­cated and un­nec­es­sary. And it’s true, on UK B-roads or around town, the GT C is overkill, but Merc hasn’t taken any short­cuts so it’s a car that feels in­dul­gently over-en­gi­neered for the sim­ple process of clip­ping along with the wind in your hair. Bring a race­track into the equa­tion and the GT C would eat the Mazda for lunch, but if track days are your thing, we’d go for the GT R any­way.

Which all sounds like I’d take the Mazda, but I wouldn’t, I’d have the Merc.

Who­ever said money can’t buy hap­pi­ness was a liar.

AMG GT C ROAD­STER Price: £139,460 (P9,113,000) En­gine: 3,982cc V8 twin­turbo, 549hp, 680Nm per­for­mance: 0–100kph in 3.7sec, 315kph max Trans­mis­sion: 7-speed dual-clutch auto, RWD Weight: 1,735kg

Loud ex­haust, soft sus­pen­sion, roof down. Job done... Har­ri­son revels in the twin joys of a nar­row car and am­ple hair

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