Uncaged: Three AMGs. One post-lockdown adventure.
Like with all legendary road trips, hindsight truly is 20/20. But I get ahead of myself. Because when you're thumbing the starter button to an angry V8 at 3:30 in the morning, the only thing you're thinking of is not waking up the neighbours.
After five months of being locked down, a relaxation of the rules brought with it a seat-of-the-pants plan of a long drive down one of the best stretches of road we know. And the promise of "the best kebabs ever" at the end of it in Balasinor, a former princely state in Gujarat - with no dishes to clean up after either! Considering the 500km distance one-way, memories of smooth, fast roads and the fact that we wanted to fit in an eight-hour journey before lunch, we decided things would be infinitely more interesting in cars that were made to munch miles. Quickly. Dramatically.
You know, cars that have the two magical words 'grand touring' in their names. Like the ferocious AMG GT R which Rohit chose (got to first, rather), and the GT 63S 4-door that caught my fancy with its 'most powerful AMG' tag. And since Bert can't seem to get enough of the hilariously entertaining rear-wheel drive C 63 Coupe, that was his weapon of choice. Funny enough, the three cars share more than just a common maker, with similar 4-litre biturbo hearts placed in their engine bays.
These AMG M177/178 engines from the brand's Affalterbach factory are something quite special. For starters, they're one of only three engines that get built there - the others being the V12 that goes to Pagani, and as of 2019, the 2-litre four-cylinder as well. The V8 is essentially two of AMG's 2-litre engines on a common crankshaft. You'll likely remember those engines holding the record for being the most power-dense four-cylinders. And considering AMG has vast experience in building Formula 1 engines that cream the competition, the trickledown tech like the advanced cylinder coatings, just adds to the credentials.
Of course, the main reason these AMG engines stand out from similar capacity engines from other manufacturers is for the simple virtue that each engine is assembled by hand, at the hands of a select few master enginer builders at Affalterbach. The 'one man, one engine' philosophy means that even if an engine doesn't get finished in one shift, the same engine builder comes back to work on it the next day. The fact that the 600-odd parts in each engine are meticulously put together over the span of four to six hours with the finishing touch being each engineer's signature on the engine cover, just makes each engine feel like a masterpiece in itself.
And as we sat idling at our meet-up parking lot, with each car's V8 beating almost perfectly in sync with the other, mounting to a low rumble you could see reverberating in the puddles of rain on the ground, I could almost picture Luca, Mehmet and Dieter high-fiving each other. Or maybe it's a simple pat on the back, keeping in the understated fashion of the Germans. Though, there's nothing understated about the GT 63S' figures. Like I said, it's the most powerful AMG ever put into production, with its V8 tuned to 639PS, and anti-friction roller bearings in the turbo helping it spool faster than its application in the other two AMGs alongside. I can't help but think how impressed my 15-year old self would be with where I'm sitting - a hypercar like the Pagani Zonda made do with 550PS from its AMG-built V12 just over a decade ago!
In fact, this four-door sedan, at 3.2 seconds to 100kmph, is a good half a second quicker than the Pagani! And the first time you plant your foot down, voluntarily pinning yourself into the GT 4-door's snug bucket seats, you'd certainly be forgiven for thinking Mercedes has equipped the GT 4-door with a time machine under the hood. It's otherworldly just how quickly it covers distances when it's accelerating, even in the relentless downpour that followed us along the way.
As anyone who's ever travelled the Mumbai-Surat highway in the monsoons will tell you, slippery when wet applies here. And though the road surface is good across the border, the faintest trace of ruts makes for an entertaining drive or ride as you cross lanes, even more so when the rain is relentless and streams flow across the road. "Guys, be careful. The roads are very, very slick!", came Bert's radio instructions from the lead, just moments before we see the C 63 Coupe enter a sweeping left-hander with its tail hanging right out! Showboating, we thought, before he came back on, "F*%k! It's slippery out here!" Progress in the GT 4-door was far less hairy, being the only one in the trio with 4Matic all-wheel drive making for huge traction even in tricky situations. Still, given how readily wide tyres can aquaplane just because of physics, we weren't about to take any chances.
We needn't have worried actually, because the closer we got to Surat the worse the road became, automatically slowing us right down. After a while it began to feel like we were playing Minesweeper on wheels, trying to out-guess the patchwork of potholes from just loose surfaces. If you think bad roads are frustrating in a regular car, it takes a whole other level of restraint and patience to deal with in cars that can go from 20-120kmph in less than five seconds, and can just as quickly lose a tyre sidewall over a pothole. The GT 4-door's lift function probably lulled me into a false sense of security though, seeing as to how much extra ground clearance it had to deal with the really rough stuff. And though the ride is firm, even in the suspension's softest setting, you learn to stop cringing and soldier on. By the time we stopped for a quick bite, the GT 4-door had worked up a couple of minutes lead over the other two, with Rohit in the GT R really having to crab over speed breakers and potholes to keep the underbody intact.
This was definitely not how any of us remembered the road, even having travelled it as recently as a month before the lockdown. It appears the road work we'd been used to seeing in Mumbai may have been confined to the cities, because there sure wasn't any of it happening out on the highways. Probably compounded by the fact this highway is an important cargo route, with lots, I repeat, lots of truck traffic. We didn't have a lot of time to dwell on the plight of the truck driver, who'd been battling these roads for the last five months while we were at home. We had a lunch to get to, and it was time to jump into the C 63 Coupe.
Though, dropping into the C 63 Coupe is more apt. Its cabin is more in line with a C-Class than the GT 4-door's clearly GT-inspired cabin, the C 63's seats are set much, much lower. It's also a louder, more guttural sounding thing sports exhaust open, or closed. Revving it in neutral, you can feel the body rock back and forth, with the V8's snarls seemingly right behind you. For its size and weight, the 474PS/650Nm is plenty. A racy heads-up display helps keep track of the revs this engine loves to build, and for a turbo engine, there's a lot of shove right near redline too. It's all I could do to keep myself entertained, with the roads allowing short pulls in the lower gears before the optional carbon ceramic anchors needed to be thrown down. Considering how much slowing down we needed to do on the regular, we're glad all these cars came with the exotic brakes, seeing as to how carbon ceramics work better than steel rotors in the rain anyway.
So far, the mad dash for lunch had been more punctuated by long pauses as we waited for traffic to clear the pitted sections of the NH48, and turning off the highway before Vadodara towards Halol seemed like it may have been the respite we were looking for, if memory served right. And initially, it sure seemed like it. In turning onto the NH47, we were greeted by smooth four-lane roads, tree-lined medians and sparse traffic - the perfect recipe to enjoy the AMG's soulful noise, bouncing off the trees. Except for the unexpected potholes.
With just 60-odd kilometres to go, the GT 4-door became the first casualty of sorts, with the smallest of sidewall bulges on each of its 20-inch front tyres, which we luckily spotted after a quick pitstop to fuel up. The C 63 Coupe was next, earning a puncture in its 19-inch front tyre from a shallow pothole that looked so innocent, you wouldn't think twice about driving right into it. Unfortunately, the puncture was on the sidewall. So out came the complex Mercedes-AMG jack, the compressor and the surprisingly good looking spacesaver.
Modelled after one of AMG's greatest wheels in my opinion, the Monoblock, the 19-inch spacesaver looks the way it does to clear the massive brakes. And other than the downside of the recommended speed limit of 80kmph, I'd gladly drive around with spacesavers on all four wheels - they're that tasty looking! There's a video of Chris Harris hooning around in the previous-gen C 63 Coupe on four spacesavers, and he actually called it the best handling car ever! Of course, we weren't about to be going sideways anytime soon, with our stomachs already grumbling for a long overdue lunch.
Rolling into the Garden Palace in Balasinor closer to tea time, the grand welcome the AMGs got almost made us forget the tough luck we'd had on the way there. Though, the thoughts slipped further away as each course of the delicately spiced and sumptuous meal disappeared from the table. Just how good was the food? Even the vegetarian dishes found takers amongst even the most hardcore carnivorous of us. And while our host can't quite reveal the secrets to the flavours, we do learn the recipes have been handed down from generation to generation, with most everything from the spices to the poultry being procured from their very own farm. Life's simpler here, and seemingly richer because of it, going by the stories our host shared with us.
An old acquaintance of OVERDRIVE's, the Nawab of Balasinor Salauddin Babi runs the ancestral property as a homestay to try and share some of the great heritage in this erstwhile princely state, which includes history that goes as far back as the Jurassic age! As poetic as it would have been to visit the fossil park (the second largest of its kind in the world) the family also manages in these great hunking AMGs that suck down fossil fuels, our lunch plans had already swollen to include dinner plans. Not that we were complaining. But there still lay the return journey ahead. And only the promise that lay in the beautiful key fobs embossed with the signature apple tree and valve on our bedstands held any hope for a better drive on the way back.
And trust me, there's no better feeling in the world than starting your day with hearing an AMG bark into life, slowly clearing its throat and settling into an idle, even if your day starts before the break of dawn like ours did. And having finally, finally tricked the GT R's keys away from Rohit, it seemed almost surreal to be sat just a few inches off the ground, yet surrounded by carbon fibre, Alcantara and the sound of that V8. In a way, the GT R's cosy cabin feels like its function is to serve as a speaker enclosure for the musings of the engine, with each whoosh, growl, crack, pop and bang amplified within. Then there's the seats. Similar AMG buckets to the GT 4-door, here they're placed just inches ahead of the rear wheels. They're so close to you, you could probably reach a hand out the window and check the tyre pressure if you wanted! Speaking of, the tyre pressures on these AMGs go from regular pressures around 34PSI or so, to nearly 50PSI if you want to take your family to the 315kmph top speed in the GT 4-door!
The GT R has harder edges, obviously being the most hardcore of the GT range, in the way it drives. Where the GT 4-door managed the approach to the Garden Palace without breaking a sweat, the GT R had to be carefully lined up so as to not leave behind its exotic carbon fibre splitter, diffuser or even the underbody bracing. Even then, it popped a wheel in the air, giving us a demonstration of the electronically-controlled limited slip differential at work, sending power to the rear wheel still on the ground. Built for the track, the GT R does feel a little out of its depth on the road.
You certainly can't appreciate the nine levels of traction control in Race mode, or the finely-tuned selectable AMG Dynamics that can make a driving god out of anyone. But you can appreciate that the GT R allows you to left foot brake, and get back on the power in the corners even with the brakes still on, giving you an extra feel for the balance of the car, especially on wet roads. And every now and then, if you get too happy with the throttle mid-corner, it'll step out of line just enough to keep you on your toes. After driving the other two AMGs, the GT R felt alive and restless, in the way that only race cars can. Its 7-speed multi-clutch transmission feels closer stacked than the 9-speed in the others too, relentlessly eating up revs when you get the chance to open up the engine and let it sing. So where the C 63 Coupe felt like a fighter jet, and the GT 4-door felt like a Concorde, in the GT R, you feel like you're strapped on to a missile. You go the distance, but you're hanging on for dear life.
Through the drama, the GT R proved to be quite livable with. When navigation suggested a detour to pass a two-hour long pile up on the highway, the GT R made it through broken rural roads, and even a flooded section, like a champ. When we ran out of luck and got stuck in one of said jams further up the highway, the GT R sat idling with the air-conditioner running and no sign of the temps shooting up even after a good hour or so at a standstill. With all the trappings of a luxury Mercedes, it's a cabin that doesn't leave you wanting for much, despite its racetrack focus.
But like we said, hindsight is 20/20. A mere 35km from Mumbai, the unthinkable happened. Call it a massive stroke of bad luck, or just Murphy exercising his law, but a deadly 8-inch bolt, presumably shaken off a truck, found itself in the path of the GT R, smack in the middle lane of the highway. Avoid it as we tried, it still managed to find the outer tread on the rear wheel of the GT R, gouging a hole in the tyre immediately. With the last of our luck left in reserve, we found a puncture repair shop a few minutes away. And six puncture plugs later, we found ourselves making slow progress back home, the tyre miraculously holding air. Which is more than I can say for us, the last hopes of a peaceful return dashed in but a second. But in the depths of that despair, one can only look at the flipside - that tyres are meant to be replaced eventually, but the feeling of being on an open road with seemingly endless reserves of horsepower at your command, after all these months of sitting at home; that is priceless.
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