TOUCHING THE VOID
Beyond quick, beyond even really quick, you’ll ind these three. And one winner
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 stuing the layby with muddy XTrails
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