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Mercedes aiming for Porsche fans with new $129G sports car

Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche, who also heads Mercedes-Benz

Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche, who also heads Mercedes-Benz Cars, shows off the new Mercedes-AMG GT. Credit: Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz, seeking to become world’s biggest maker of luxury vehicles again, is targeting potential Porsche buyers with a new top-of-the-line sports car that costs about half the price of its predecessor.

The Mercedes GT, which was presented Tuesday in Affalterbach, Germany, to replace the SLS, will start at about $129,000. That doesn’t mean Mercedes skimps on performance. The two-seater boasts more power and faster acceleration than the Porsche 911, adding zip to a brand best known for safe and comfortable sedans.

“The new GT is an important signature vehicle for Mercedes,” said Juergen Pieper, a Frankfurt-based analyst with Bankhaus Metzler. “The GT embodies the new brand image, which is a lot sportier and more dynamic.”

The Daimler AG unit is targeting higher volumes for the cut-rate sports car after the SLS proved to be too exclusive. Chief executive  Dieter Zetsche has been rolling out edgier compacts like the CLA sedan to shake off the perception that a Mercedes is an old man’s car. The strategy is focused on leapfrogging Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s namesake BMW marque and Volkswagen AG’s Audi to become the world’s biggest luxury-car brand by the end of the decade after losing the top rank in 2005.

The GT abandons the SLS’s stylish, yet awkward, gull-wing doors to make it more practical. It’s also six inches shorter than its predecessor, helping reduce weight by 440 pounds to boost performance.

Powered by a newly developed V-8 engine, with internally mounted turbo chargers, the 462-hp. GT surges to 62 miles per hour in as little as 4 seconds. By comparison, the $116,000 base version of the 911 sports a 350-horsepower engine and can accelerate to 62 mph in 4.4 seconds. The GT can drive as fast as 188 mph, bested only by the top end of the 911 range. Sales of the 510-horsepower GT S variant start in October, a few months before the base model.

“The goose bumps inside my eardrums took days to recede,” said reviewer Georg Kacher in a July report for Germany’s Car magazine after a test ride in a GT prototype. “The no-holds-barred ride will forever rank high on my list of great passenger-seat adventures.”

With such plaudits and its lower price, the GT is set to more than double sales of the SLS, estimates market researcher IHS Automotive. Still, with peak sales of 6,500 vehicles in 2016, it will trail the volumes of other high-end sports cars like the 911 and Jaguar F-Type, according to IHS.

The new GT is the second model exclusively developed by AMG, Mercedes’s performance unit. The Stuttgart, Germany-based carmaker is turning to AMG to take on  rivals like Porsche and counter other halo cars like the Audi R8 and BMW’s i8 plug-in sports car.

AMG now offers 21 vehicles — typically souped-up versions of production sedans like a $303,560 version of the S-Class — compared with 17 five years ago. The offering includes compacts such as the $64,500 A45 hatchback.

Helped by the broader lineup, AMG sales have doubled in five years to about 32,200 vehicles in 2013, beating an annual target four years early. That compares with a 44 percent jump in Mercedes sales in the period to 1.46 million autos.

AMG’s first-half deliveries totaled 23,000 cars and will exceed 40,000 for the full year, the unit’s chief Tobias Moers said.

“Fifteen years ago, nobody would have thought that AMG would grow so fast,” Moers said in an interview with Bloomberg News. “We’ve become an important part of Mercedes-Benz. AMG helps Mercedes in its effort to rejuvenate” its image.

AMG’s hallmark are engines that have been signed by the technician that built them by hand. The same goes for the GT, which creates a limit to the volumes the unit can produce. Still, the point of the model is to cast an aura across the lineup rather than boost sales.

“AMG extending beyond special versions of Mercedes models gives Daimler the ability to compete with the likes of Porsche, Maserati and Jaguar,” said Neil King, a London-based analyst at Euromonitor. “These vehicles have a halo effect on the rest of the range.”

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