TOUCH­ING THE VOID

Be­yond quick, be­yond even re­ally quick, you’ll ind th­ese three. And one win­ner

CAR (UK) - - Sports Car Giant Test - Words Chris Chilton

JOIN ME IN THE 911 GT3, the wurst, but quite pos­si­bly the best, in a three-car su­per­car sand­wich. Ahead lies the AMG GT R, and the best back­side in the car biz not to have spent last month draped over an Aven­ta­dor on Lambo’s Frank­furt stand. The AMG looks like some year-2040 retro-reimag­in­ing of a Porsche 928, arches stuffed full of rub­ber like a Pro Street drag racer, £7500’s worth of Green Hell Magno paint shim­mer­ing in the sun.

Be­hind, glimpsed in the mir­rors, pinched be­tween the huge rear spoiler and bulging arches of my Porsche, is the sin­is­ter spec­tre of the McLaren, its men­ac­ing hol­low, black­ened eyes picked out against stealthy grey paint. Th­ese are our three fi­nal­ists. Now we’ve got a day to find a win­ner.

Yes­ter­day was mostly about the tech­ni­cal B-road stuff, and we’ll mix that in later to­day, too. But the power, not to men­tion the girth of some of th­ese cars means they’ve been wait­ing for a chance to prop­erly stretch their legs. And we’ve been wait­ing for tar­mac dry enough to let them do it.

This is our chance. From our overnight stop at Betws-y-Coed we’ve come north west along the A5, warm­ing oil, tyres and minds. It’s a fast, smooth road, bril­liant at a six- or seven-tenths pace in cars like th­ese. But only after hook­ing a left at Capel Cruig, when the road opens up and the vista ex­pands like the cur­tains on a cinema re­tract­ing for the main fea­ture, do you get chance to re­ally bury your big toe and keep it there. This, ul­ti­mately, is why we keep com­ing back to th­ese parts.

Like Pac Man in a Ch­i­ron we’re gob­bling white lines so quickly they’ve smeared into one con­tin­u­ous rib­bon of paint. We’re mak­ing se­ri­ous progress, head­ing for Snow­don, which looms men­ac­ingly in the dis­tance. But all eyes are on the road. Lin­ing up the over­takes, of which there are many. Look­ing for Plod, of which there hope­fully aren’t. That the near­est se­ri­ous

Open up the McLaren. Bamm. ‘That’s okay,’ you think. ‘I’ve got this.’ But you haven’t

speeder’s ho­tel, HMP Ber­wyn, is a state of the art gaff with the very lat­est in ta­ble ten­nis tech­nol­ogy would be some con­so­la­tion for my kids should we be rum­bled at th­ese num­bers. But it’s a long way for them to come to visit.

We snake past a shell-shocked Qashqai, one-two-three. We’re mov­ing to­gether, but alone, like three ston­ers blissed out in front of Glas­ton­bury’s Pyra­mid stage, each of us see­ing, feel­ing and hear­ing some­thing quite dif­fer­ent, but still shar­ing the very same ex­pe­ri­ence.

The other ex­pe­ri­ence we’re shar­ing is the frus­tra­tion of know­ing we can’t af­ford th­ese cars. We’re all closer to af­ford­ing the Porsche, in the way that we’re all closer to the Moon than Venus, but money is not what this is about any­way. Ed­i­tor Miller is adamant that price shouldn’t come into it. If the 911 is go­ing to come out on top, it’ll be on merit, not be­cause you only have to be ob­scenely rich, rather than grotesquely so, to buy it.

For the record, the Porsche costs £112k and for that price it’s an ab­so­lute bar­gain. It might not seem that way if you’ve got it in your head that you can buy a ba­sic 911 Car­rera that looks like a de­cent fac­sim­ile, places you be­hind the same dash­board, and surely feels mostly iden­ti­cal for £77k. Al­low us to dis­abuse you of that no­tion while we abuse this GT3, be­cause if you’ve not driven ei­ther 911 you’d be for­given for un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the gulf be­tween them.

There’s the mod­est vis­ual trans­for­ma­tion, of course; the vis­ual cues, the big spoiler, the vented bumpers, the cen­tre-lock wheels. But more im­por­tantly, and more pro­nounced, is the dy­namic one: the un­flap­pable body con­trol, the end­less grip from those Cup tyres, the beau­ti­fully weighted, pin-sharp steer­ing.

But it’s the nat­u­rally-as­pi­rated en­gine that ab­so­lutely dominates the ex­pe­ri­ence. Now with the same full 4.0-litre ca­pac­ity and 493bhp as the GT3 RS, it’s 25 horses stronger and of­fers far more mean­ing­ful pull in the low and mid-range.

As­cend­ing the rev range in the GT3 is like climb­ing one of the moun­tains that sur­round us. You crest what looks like it must be the sum­mit only to find an even big­ger peak be­yond. You feel the en­gine come on cam be­yond 5000rpm and think you’ve got the mea­sure of it, pre­sume it can’t pos­si­bly feel any stronger than this, sound any more or­gas­mic. But at six, at seven and eight the same thing hap­pens un­til you’re fizzing like a hur­ri­cane-hit Alka Seltzer plant when the 9000rpm limiter fi­nally, mer­ci­fully brings a very tem­po­rary re­prieve. And re­lax.

But not for long, be­cause the tiny fly­wheel ef­fect and seven tightly-stacked PDK gears means it’s about to hap­pen all over again. Ev­ery­one’s frothing at the re­turn of the man­ual op­tion but this ’box is so good you re­ally would have to think hard be­fore choos­ing.

‘Just imag­ine,’ Ben Pul­man muses, re­mind­ing us of the im­pend­ing launch of its GT2 RS big brother, ‘what it’s go­ing to feel like with an­other 200bhp...’

The McLaren gives us an inkling. We drive enough quick cars in this game to get blasé about the kind of ac­cel­er­a­tion that could prob­a­bly bring on a stroke in your av­er­age Corsa driver. But the first time you open up the 720S, you’ll be wish­ing you had a third hand so you can suck your thumb while still keep­ing the thing pointed on the stony stuff.

Re­ally tap­ping into the full per­for­mance ca­pa­bil­ity takes some do­ing. The ac­cel­er­a­tor travel is hugely long, like an old TVR’s, mean­ing you can open the sta­ble door a crack with­out all 700-odd horses try­ing to bolt at once. But you still have to fight your in­stinct to back off when you feel the flood­gates open.

Flex your an­kle and you hear the en­gine an­swer im­me­di­ately, but there’s that in­evitable wait for the tur­bos to spool up be­fore the ac­tion re­ally starts and 4.0 litres of twin-blown V8 starts to squeeze the air from your lungs, as it fills its own.

‘That’s okay,’ you think. ‘I’ve got this.’ But you haven’t. That’s just a left jab to dis­tract you from the hay­maker that’s about to knock you sense­less.

Hmm. Maybe, like the rear tyres on the AMG E63 S on Mon­day’s Ben Barry track­day, this one’s go­ing down to the wire

Bamm. With 710bhp on tap at 7250rpm the McLaren is fast in a way we couldn’t pos­si­bly have imag­ined even a hand­ful of years ago when cars like the Fer­rari 458 were con­sid­ered state of the per­for­mance art. 458? For­get the 488 too. Zero to 100mph in 5.5sec makes the 720S al­most as fast as a Vey­ron.

In the face of a per­for­mance like that, you’d think the AMG’d be chuck­ing in the towel al­ready. If it’s ner­vous, it’s man­i­fested in the edgy ride and steer­ing that’s bor­der­line too-quick. Some of that sen­sa­tion comes from sit­ting so far back in the car, that huge bon­net sprawl­ing ahead like you’re blow­ing six party horns to full stretch all at the same. But the GT R can still show the 720S a cou­ple of tricks. In the main the AMG’s con­sole er­gonomics are a mess, but the yel­low ro­tary ESP dial shows up the McLaren’s fid­dly touch­screen-ac­ti­vated drift mode to be over­com­pli­cated. And its 4.0-litre V8 is louder, lairier, and just plain more fun than the McLaren.

But most me­morably, the Ger­mans show their one-time part­ners how to make ce­ramic brakes in­spire con­fi­dence un­der mod­er­ate in­puts. Work the Macca hard on track or a de­serted coun­try road and you’re al­ways push­ing right past that aw­ful dead spot to the meat of the ac­tion. But in real road sit­u­a­tions, even driv­ing briskly, you’re of­ten us­ing lighter pedal ef­forts, and the feel is ter­ri­ble.

Hmm. Maybe, like the rear tyres on the AMG E63 S on Mon­day’s Ben Barry track­day, this one’s go­ing down to the wire.

We pull in, Alex Tap­ley mag­ics up a brace of cho­co­late bars, and we chew it – and them – over. Here are three cars so dif­fer­ent, yet so good in their dis­parate ways that we need to re­mind our­selves what we’re try­ing to un­cover. What, pre­cisely, is the Sports Car Gi­ant Test all about? Touch on it like a pond skater and it’s about noth­ing more com­pli­cated than driv­ing the best per­for­mance cars of the year on track and a set of roads we know well. Most fun wins. But should it not run deeper than that? Should the wor­thy win­ner not also be a car that fur­thers the cause of the per­for­mance car, in­no­vates and ex­cites in new ways? Maybe it can be both.

Whichever an­gle you take, the AMG looks like carv­ing it­self out a solid third place. And there’s no shame in that. Hav­ing beaten eight other top-drawer per­for­mance cars, in­clud­ing the Nismo GT-R and R8, to make this far, it’s only stopped from go­ing fur­ther by two ir­ri­tat­ingly tal­ented, but very dif­fer­ent ri­vals.

The GT R is a high wa­ter mark for AMG. We love the way it looks, the way it sounds, the way it makes you feel like a sev­enyear-old with its wicked ex­haust cackle. On smooth cir­cuit tar­mac and fast, wide A-roads it’s in its el­e­ment, and in to­day’s open spa­ces and sweep­ing climbs I’m re­minded of the grin I had plas­tered all over my face when I drove it for the first time, late last year at Por­ti­mao.

We’ve seen that it has the pre­ci­sion to work in the twisty stuff too. But also that it’s too wide to ever feel at home on such4

roads. And too un­set­tled in its com­po­sure on the less than im­mac­u­lately sur­faced ones. While not ev­ery­one agreed, some found the steer­ing just that lit­tle bit over-sharp, while its dual clutch trans­mis­sion feels slightly pon­der­ous after the Porsche and McLaren sys­tems. Over­all, the AMG feels special be­cause it’s less fa­mil­iar than the 911, and not be­cause it’s bet­ter to drive.

No, given the choice, should we hap­pen to be in sight of a de­serted Welsh road when news ar­rives that Kim Wrong-’un’s de­liv­er­ing a pointy present by air­mail and it’ll be along in four min­utes, we’d grab the keys to the 911 over the AMG.

And when it came down to it, there’d be times we’d take them over the McLaren. Let’s come right out and say it: the 911 is the purest sports car ex­pe­ri­ence here. It has all the per­for­mance you need, but un­like the turbo cars, it never com­prises on sound, re­sponse or char­ac­ter to de­liver it.

We’ve be­come so used to lag and lethargy that step­ping back into a car as im­me­di­ate in its re­sponse as the 911 GT3 is a won­der­ful shock. But also more than a lit­tle sad. There’s a very good ar­gu­ment for mak­ing it the 2017 Sports Car Gi­ant Test win­ner – the same one that raged in the car park over­look­ing Snow­don, that car­ried on over heated phone calls on the way home, and is still rat­tling around in my head even as I write.

Even dis­al­low­ing the fact that it costs twice as much, how can the 720S pos­si­bly win when its road-speed brak­ing feel, en­gine re­sponse and sound­track – three of the most core char­ac­ter­is­tics of a per­for­mance car – are in­fe­rior to the 911’s?

It wins be­cause the McLaren 720S is a to­tal event from the mo­ment you clap eyes on it to the one in which you climb out and walk away, jaw drag­ging on the floor.

At a ba­sic level, the McLaren wipes the floor with the Porsche when it comes to per­for­mance. It’s bru­tally quick, and it’s quick ev­ery­where. Dual-car­riage­way, broad A-road, twid­dly B: the

Macca’s not fussy thanks to the so-sup­ple sus­pen­sion that helps key both axles into the tar­mac like the rub­ber has Yale stamped into the side­wall.

Even the 911’s sen­sa­tional steer­ing starts to feel slightly less stellar once you’ve racked up some miles with the McLaren’s al­can­tara rim gen­tly wrig­gling in your palms. That’s how good the 720S is. Good enough to pick holes in the very strong­est de­fences of a car as in­cred­i­ble as the GT3.

Back in the ’60s when the mod­ern su­per­car ar­rived, its per­for­mance was only part of the su­per-ness. There was race­track­in­spired tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tion, but also a hat-tip to street ci­vil­ity, all wrapped up in a de­sign that looked like it had beamed straight out of Stan Lee’s mind. The 911 GT3 is an in­cred­i­ble car, but fun­da­men­tally it’s only in­cre­men­tally bet­ter than its pre­de­ces­sor. The 720S feels like what it is: the start of some­thing bold and brave and new.

McLaren by far the qui­etest and and quick­est. But the best? That’s tough

Be pro­fes­sional, be pro­fes­sional. Make some notes. ‘OMG !!!! ’

Makes a change from stuing the layby with muddy X‚Trails

Th­ese three are more than ca­pa­ble of out­run­ning the rain. Un­less you’re in Wales

Those crazy cats from Wok­ing, they’ve only done it again; 675LT last year, 720S in 2017

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