ASK ANYBODY WHO REALLY KNOWS HORSES: If you want to ride a thoroughbred, be prepared for anything. The best of them are hot, with vicious tempers. The worst will draw blood—like the notorious “Beau Monde,” who, according to one witness, “killed a horse on a flight, bit someone’s thumb off, broke a hot-walker’s arm in three places... and bit me in the chest so hard that I could feel the blood running down my shirt.”

Perhaps this explains why the Solarbeam yellow Mercedes-AMG GT C convertible we picked up in Stuttgart decided to give photographer Richard Pardon a bit of a warning bite on the A7 autobahn from Ulm to Kempten. Pardon had dropped the top and given it the proverbial spurs, leaving the 911 Carrera GTS Cabriolet, piloted by Porsche Supercup standout Paul Rees, in the dust. But as the speedo needle crept past the 291 km/h mark—that’s 181 mph here in the States—the AMG’s cockpit wind deflector decided to go AWOL, striking Pardon in the head before coming to rest in the passenger footwell.

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Richard Pardon & Matt Tierney

Call it the totally predictable consequence of leaving the deflector in place well past the speeds where it would be effective. Or, you can call it a little bit of thoroughbred temperament on the part of this long-nosed, sensually styled roadster, which traces its ancestry to the mighty Gullwing 300SL on its mother’s side and to the infamous “Red Pig” 300SEL 6.8 on its father’s. Either way, this was a wake-up call for Pardon to back off the throttle. Which he promptly did, and without complaint. After all, the best part of our trip would take place far from the autobahn, nearly 8000 feet above sea level, in the rarefied air of the Swiss Alps.

Richard Pardon & Matt Tierney

Humans have been challenging the Alps since the dawn of recorded history. A hiker’s wooden lunch box was found recently on the Lötschenpass, and carbon dating indicated it could be 4000 years old. Julius Caesar tried to take control of the Great St. Bernard Pass and failed; Caesar Augustus succeeded. For most Americans, the Alpine roads are familiar from the inclusion of the Furka Pass in the James Bond in Goldfinger. (The iconic scene features Auric Goldfinger enjoying fruit from a roadside stand on the pass while Bond observes him from the next hairpin up. Tilly Masterson aims her Armalite AR-7 rifle at Goldfinger from the road above both of them.) There’s even a James Bond road sign marking the appropriate corner.

Of course, history and sightseeing weren’t what our juiced-up German bruisers were there for. Soon after arriving on scene, Rees and I decided to disturb Switzerland’s long-lasting peace with a take-no-prisoners run up the Maloja Pass.

The Maloja can get congested. It’s two lanes wide in most spots, with unusually short straights between the hairpins and a severe overall grade. Early in the morning, the cyclists and tour buses had yet to arrive. Time to make time. “You want to be respectful of everybody out there,” Rees mused, “but how can you not give it a serious go?” He was in the AMG, the basso profundo of the four-liter V8 echoing off the mountainside, exiting every hairpin with serious sideways attitude.

Richard Pardon & Matt Tierney

Added boost for the GT C variant brings output to 550 hp. The familiar seven-speed dual-clutch transmission gets some revisions for GT C duty, too, including a taller first gear. Exiting tighter turns, Rees made the absolute most of the longer ratio.

From the comfortably upright driver’s seat of the Lava Orange Carrera GTS, it was all quite spectacular, the tail of the AMG sliding wide under power then squeaking the tires as its traction control intermittently intervened to prevent the 305/30ZR-20 Michelins from vaporizing under the power. There was just one problem: The Porsche can maintain the same pace with none of the drama. These roads were tailor-made for the traditional Nine Eleven rear-engine recipe, and this GTS, the latest iteration of the hottest Carrera designation, eats them up. The twin-turbo 3.0-liter waterboxer reaches its peak state of tune in this variant, putting out 450 hp. Up the hills, the car gripped and ripped, with none of the AMG’s muscle-car antics; headed back down the hill, it outbraked the big Benz by 10 or 20 feet into every corner.

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Richard Pardon & Matt Tierney

Although our pace was strong enough to make me shiver in the recollection afterwards, the Porsche was so absurdly competent that I had time to look around and observe the details. The steering wheel, new with the latest revision of the 911, has jeweler-precise silvery-plastic inlays and dainty, T-shaped metal shift paddles mounted in racer-friendly fashion to the wheel rather than the column. There’s a small four-position knob tucked between the right and the center spoke, familiar from the 918 but obviously lacking the hybrid modes. Turn it to Sport Plus and the GTS will engage in a playful game of pitch-and-catch in every hairpin. Release the wheel on exit, catch it when it’s straight, and don’t bother to spare any horses. Dispassionately observe the way the Porsche’s traction advantage effortlessly neutralizes the 100-hp disparity between it and the AMG.

Richard Pardon & Matt Tierney

Rees was grinning ear to ear when we stepped out to compare notes. “Direct and pointy,” was his verdict on the GT C. All around us, the air was thick with the smell of hot engines and brakes. “It’s nice to have three-stage stability control,” Rees enthused. “And you can really feel that rear steer working.” It took very little to convince him we should swap cars and do it all over again.

If the 911 GTS inspires respect—which it does, in spades—the AMG GT C inspires something else: affection, emotion. Everything about it, from the wide-toothed new Panamericana grille to the machined detents of the infotainment selector knob, seems perfectly designed to speak directly to whatever part of the human hindbrain evolved for cliff diving, joyful running across the ancient plains, and near-spiritual communication with those first wild horses to briefly accept a rider.

Richard Pardon & Matt Tierney
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After stepping out of the Porsche and into the AMG, I saw that Rees had selected Race mode, which is exclusive to the GT C on the cabriolet side of the lineup, and that he’d also put the transmission into manual mode. Rees is effortlessly comfortable with all sorts of drifting shenanigans. I’m not, at least not in someone else’s $180,000 car, so I dialed everything back. In Comfort mode, this car does a passable imitation of my old R107-generation 560SL, its long nose bobbing gently and the massive torque enabling a sort of speedboat approach to back-road commuting. Twist the dial to Sport Plus (depressingly, there’s an emerging convergence in the terminology of our computerized-supercar era, every car having the same basic modes and even similar fonts and displays) and any SL-similarity vanishes into the Swiss mountain fog.

The AMG’s V-8, like the Porsche’s six, is turbocharged and slathers torque across a wide plateau, but more so than the Porsche, it loves to rev and builds a tangible sense of drama as the limiter approaches. I cannot imagine wanting much more power. Not for public roads, anyway.

Richard Pardon & Matt Tierney

Now the pass was becoming quite crowded. After just a few runs, we were forced to put a stop to the mayhem. Rees, who runs a 911 GT3 Cup in the Porsche Supercup series that entertains F1 fans before the main show, finds the GTS “very reminiscent” of his race car. “But obviously they’ve softened everything up,” he laughed. “The turbo engine feels a bit flat after the AMG, but it’s more than strong enough, and the traction is absolutely unbeatable.”

One thing we both noticed: The latest 911 platform is impressively stiff for a convertible. I always preferred the Boxster to the 911 drop-top, because its smaller open area seemed to improve chassis rigidity. They feel practically even now. The light wobble you used to feel catching up with you in the 911 after some wheel-sawing heroics has been replaced by a milled-steel solidity in the steering column. (Prediction: You’ll see far more convertible 911s in Porsche Club of America driver’s-ed events 10 or 15 years from now.)

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Richard Pardon & Matt Tierney

It was a thrilling morning, but just when we were ready to consider ourselves unchallenged kings of the mountain, there was a jet roar that we felt rather than heard, accompanied by the sight of two F/A-18 Hornets in close formation, barely overhead and tearing through the canyon. There’s always a bigger fish.

The next morning, Rees and the photo team took the freeway toward the Gotthard Pass, but I contrived to separate myself from them in the AMG to roll through the dozen or so small Swiss towns between Bellinzona and the beginning of the climb. With the top down and the exhaust rumbling between the three-story stone buildings close-set to both sides, the car was an instant celebrity. Young women appeared suddenly at the doors of small shops, their delight in the car only slightly tempered by the battered old codger behind the wheel. At a curbside restaurant, a pair of loden-clad retirees made the universal crank-it-up motion, and the Benz responded with an uncouth bark that delighted all and sundry. Oh, to be rich and Swiss and with nothing but time on my hands! But I was holding up the show, and it was time to leave.

Richard Pardon & Matt Tierney

There’s a new Gotthard Pass, Route 2, also known as the nuova tremola, an astounding feat of engineering that alternately cuts wide-windowed, sun-drenched tunnels into the side of the mountain and flings itself out on improbably thin and tall pillars in the spaces between. The AMG appeared exempt from the laws of physics as it bellowed around slower traffic. At the top, where the rest of the group was impatiently waiting, the road opens up to a spectacular view of the tremola vecchia, or trembling old road, below. The Tremola follows the twisting mule path dedicated in 1236 to Saint Gotthard of Hildesheim.

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It’s a cobblestone climb, paved in the 1800s and scaled for the horse-drawn carts that still carry tourists up and down in the summer. (It’s also very popular with a certain sort of European cyclist, the kind of white-haired fellow who rides a vintage steel frame and probably should have selected the next larger size of Lycra short.)

It’s fascinating to compare the engineering of the old and new roads. They were both accomplished with the maximum technology available at the time. They’re both neat as a pin and unmistakably Swiss in the parsimony of width and the casual fearlessness of the modest protection that keeps drivers from flying off the edge of the road.

Richard Pardon & Matt Tierney

After Rees slid around a bit, we headed toward the mighty Furka Pass itself. It’s changed since the Goldfinger days; that dirt road taken by the gold-grille Rolls-Royce up from the Hotel Belvédère is now paved, as is the rest of the pass. Every effort has been made to widen the road where possible, but as it winds through the various hamlets, it frequently dwindles to the old horse cart’s gap between buildings that cannot or will not be moved from their ancient positions, history speaking to us across long centuries but very much in the present tense.

There is a sort of delicate ballet that governs the wide variety of vehicles up here in the Alpine air, a set of mutual assumptions that keeps people from colliding head-on then tumbling over the knee-height stone pillars into the valley below. I cannot explain exactly how it works; I can only tell you that it does. Sometimes the oncoming traffic yields to us without hesitation, and sometimes we understand that we are the ones who should yield. You do what you can to make the other driver’s life as easy as possible.

Richard Pardon & Matt Tierney
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Every once in a while traffic opens up, and it’s possible to run through a few hairpins. Which is fairly frightening, even behind the wheel of all-conquering sports cars with massive brakes and electronic stability-control systems. One can only imagine what it was like 50 years ago. You would have to manage your brake temperature with skilled culinary precision, lest overheated drums turn your car into a spectacularly inept glider come the next curve.

Roads like this forged the great European GT cars back when Americans were mostly worried about looking good at the drive-in. Alas, the AMG wasn’t quite as comfortable up there as an old gullwing SL might have been. It’s simply too wide, and I got in the habit of keeping the mirrors folded in. At one point, I came around a corner to find a bus emerging from the fog like the ghost of Hamlet’s dearly departed dad, hammering toward me with no intention of yielding. I had to put part of the AMG’s right tires over the edge of the road. The bus passengers gestured wildly, some with fury at being delayed, and some with approval for my open-topped sprezzatura. (The Swiss may be wealthy, but they tend to be extremely conservative in their vehicle selections, with the default upscale choice being some variation on the basic-black high-performance station wagon sans identifying badges. There was no shortage of Caymans and 911s on the passes themselves, but the color palette was limited to shades of gray, and the specification tended toward the purposefully modest.)

Richard Pardon & Matt Tierney

Rees was having no such scares in the 911. It was made for these passes, for these roads. Just narrow enough, and with traction to spare both up the hill and back down the other side. Outward sightlines are vastly superior to that of the AMG, and the shorter nose is absolutely invaluable in the tightest turns. Time after time, it easily shared the road with traffic that had to then perform a delicate folding-mirror pas de deux with the big Benz.

To drive even the wide-body GTS cabriolet variant of the rear-engined Porsche platform on the Furka Pass is to have the furious purpose of the car hammered into your very bones. It was true for Dr.-Ing. Ferdinand’s first coupes and it remains true for this broad-beamed convertible. This is a well-bred horse in its own right, and if you lived here and had the money, it’s the one you’d want in your stable.

Richard Pardon & Matt Tierney
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Ah, but what about the conditions back home? That answer isn’t quite as simple. Two years ago, we compared the hardtop predecessors of these two cars in the Blue Ridge Mountains and around Carolina Motorsports Park. It was more or less a dead heat between the AMG’s big-hearted bravura and the 911’s combination of everyday usability and back-road prowess.

It’s often said that most people are capable of dealing with adversity, but few can cope effectively with success. The previous 911 GTS was brilliant, because it maximized the practical advantages of its packaging and because the engine performed best in the hands of a capable, dedicated driver. It was the closest thing to an old-school rubber-bumper 911 S that Porsche was willing to sell. The old, naturally aspirated six was a raspy revver that had to be beaten like a dog in order to generate the desired amount of forward progress. It required effort from drivers—and rewarded them in equal measure.

Richard Pardon & Matt Tierney

In the new car, that sense of illicit exhilaration has been carefully engineered away, replaced by a supersized version of the anodyne, pseudoelectric thrust familiar to anybody who owns a modern sport sedan with a turbocharged two-liter. Which is in no way to imply that you cannot aim to misbehave in the GTS, because you can. But as a turbocharged convertible, it feels like an extremely skilled actor in a role for which he is eminently unsuited by physiognomy. The rear seats, so useful in a 911 coupe, are little more than package shelves here, while the bland shove of the turbo drains the proceedings of much-needed drama. The keen Porsche enthusiast will also notice that the GTS cabriolet’s as-tested price is firmly in territory also occupied by the sublime 911 GT3. (Admittedly, our test car was a textbook example of how to traipse through the seemingly endless Porsche options book while neatly straddling the line between irrationality and exuberance.)

Richard Pardon & Matt Tierney
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The AMG, on the other hand, absolutely blossoms as a wide-body drop-top. Losing the rather claustrophobia-inducing steel top frees the GT C to metamorphose into a sort of roadgoing speedboat, a deep-chested attention-grabber that does nothing by half measures. No doubt the coupe variants handle a little better and circle the Ring a little faster. Who cares? This is a car to make ordinary people feel like movie stars and make movie stars feel like race drivers and make race drivers feel like children who have been given the chance to skip school for the day. Brilliant in all its facets, utterly gorgeous at rest, and impossibly thrilling on the move, the AMG GT C is the mechanical equivalent of the hottest-blooded horse and a bargain even at more than $180,000. In an automotive landscape increasingly populated by the dull, the downsized, and the depressing, the big Benz is that rarest of things: a thoroughbred.

RT Staff