2018 BEST DRIVER’S CAR
A RECORD-BREAKING YEAR MORE POWER. MORE PERFORMANCE. ONLY ONE WINNER.
There is a heavy stillness in the air, the weight of expectation.
Less than an hour before, our resident pro driver, Randy Pobst, had flung the mighty Mclaren 720S around Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca in 1 minute, 29.78 seconds—the fastest lap ever recorded in the history of our Best Driver’s Car competition. Now, he’s powering the 911 GT2 RS down the infamous Corkscrew, the echoes of the Porsche’s barrel-chested bellow, so much like the iconic 935 racer, cascading through the surrounding hills.
A silent crowd clusters around the giant Racepak monitor in the pit garage. The folks from Porsche North America HQ are here, as are Chevy handlers from Detroit, the Mclaren and Aston Martin support teams from the U.K., the Lamborghini guys from Italy, a pair of helpful Honda people, and a posse of Motor Trend editors. We hold our collective breath, transfixed by the real-time trace showing the Porsche’s progress around the 2.2-mile track. The clock deconstructs the lap, by fractions of a second. The 911 explodes onto the front straight and dashes for the finish line.
Distance. Time. Time. Distance. Eyes flicker across the screen; synapses snap the calculus.
Let’s back up. Our Best Driver’s Car shootout is not about a lap time. It’s about confidence: the confidence a car gives you when you take it to the limit, be it your own or the car’s. But when the lineup includes four of the most powerful supercars sold in America, lap times add spice to the competition. At stake? Bragging rights. The fastest car around Laguna Seca may not be Best Driver’s Car. But it will be king of one of the world’s most famous road courses.
Along with the Mclaren and Porsche, the big dogs of BDC 2018 include Chevy’s refreshed Corvette ZR1 and Lamborghini’s Huracán Performante. “Seven hundred horsepower is the new 500 horsepower,” Chris Walton muses as he eyes this 2,786-horsepower quartet. And 500 hp is the new middle ground, with the 600-horsepower BMW M5 and 400-hp Audi TT RS bracketing a group that includes the 460-hp Mustang GT with Ford’s Performance Pack 2, plus Aston Martin’s all-new 503-hp Vantage and the 505-hp Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q4 Quadrifoglio.
Wait ... an SUV in BDC? Yep. The Stelvio is so fast and agile, it damn near defies the laws of physics. It’s a driver’s ... er, SUV.
Power isn’t everything, however, and the final three cars making the cut this year did so on the quality of their chassis rather than the output of their engines—though with 306 horsepower from just 2.0 liters, the turbocharged four-banger under the hood of the Honda Civic Type R has the fifth-highest specific output of this year’s field. Joining the Type R are Kia’s Stinger
GT, whose poise had impressed us during last year’s COTY evaluations, and Mazda’s MX-5, back with a 17 percent boost in power and other detail tweaks.
Why no Ford GT? Of course we asked, and Dearborn initially agreed to send one of its low-slung, 647-hp supercars. But two weeks before we were due to start testing, Ford suddenly pulled the car, for reasons the PR department requested we not make public. Send your emails to Ford Motor Company. Maybe they’ll tell you why one of the most exciting driver’s cars ever to carry the Blue Oval wasn’t at BDC.
As usual, BDC opens on Route 198 in the sun-bleached hills of Central California. Our 4.2-mile test section, closed to traffic by the California Highway Patrol, allows judges to evaluate the contenders on a real-world road, albeit in closedcourse safety. Climbing about 1,000 feet and crossing the San Andreas Fault en route to a turnaround point at the top of the hill, it’s a bewitching mixture of quick corners and mid-pace sweepers (if triple-digit speeds can be counted as “mid-pace”), with humps and heaves that test the limits of suspension travel, shock tuning, and chassis balance. The downhill run puts a different set of loads through the chassis and a spotlight on braking, stability, and steering precision.
Route 198 always throws us some unexpected moments. The monstrously fast 911 GT2 RS causes sharp intakes of breath for some judges when they arrive at corners with a wooden brake pedal and no sign of retardation. The culprit turns out to be the ultra-stiff sport setting for the shocks: It’s calibrated purely for track work, and using it on bumpy Route 198 means the Porsche’s front wheels can be in the air at a critical braking point, causing extreme ABS intervention. “Hated this car on the way down the hill!” Frank Markus gripes as his pulse rate returns to normal.
There are sidelong glances at the Corvette, too. Everyone loves the Herculean supercharged V-8 under the hood, its ferocious power accompanied by a volcanic wall of sound. But no one loves the chassis. The massive brakes haul the ZR1 down from dizzying velocities with insouciant ease, and the hyper-aggressive turn-in response is backed up by impressive front-end grip. After that, it all falls apart, the rear axle failing to provide support on corner entry or traction on corner exit. The big ’Vette is a tail-happy handful. We had all seen the footage of GM product development boss Mark Reuss casually looping a ZR1 into the wall while pacing the Detroit Grand Prix. Now we understood how easily that could happen. “The ZR1 needs to come with warning labels,” Ed Loh mutters.
The Audi TT RS seems quick and has that distinctive five-cylinder thrum that has defined performance Audis since the original Quattro Coupe. But the suspension lacks travel and feels underdamped, leaving the little coupe bucking and bouncing its way up Route 198. “A tad disconcerting,” Erick Ayapana notes.
Thanks to the super-sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires that come with the
BEST DRIVER’S CAR IS NOT ABOUT LAP TIME. IT’S ABOUT CONFIDENCE: THE CONFIDENCE A CAR GIVES YOU WHEN YOU TAKE IT TO THE LIMIT, BE IT YOUR OWN OR THE CAR’S.
Performance Pack 2, the Mustang GT has a ton of mechanical grip. But it feels clumsier and less composed than the Chevy Camaro SS 1LE that impressed us so much in 2016. “It’s hard to have a lot of confidence in this car,” Mark Rechtin grimaces.
There are pleasant surprises, though, like the Aston Martin Vantage. “It’s fascinating to drive the Vantage on U.S. roads after Jonny Lieberman and I tried it in Scotland,” Jethro Bovingdon says. “Over there it seemed a real monster—wide, stiff, and always shouting at you to drive faster. On 198, it’s different but no less engaging. The whole vibe is one of effortless control, and the car hums with feedback.”
Although at entirely different ends of the BDC spectrum, the Mclaren 720S and Mazda MX-5 perform as expected. Those of us lucky enough to have spent time in the 720S beforehand knew the big Mac’s endless surge of acceleration, delicately detailed steering, outstanding brakes, and remarkably fluent ride would impress first-timers. And the MX-5 did what Miatas have always done best: offer one of the purest driving experiences you can get, at any price.
Honda’s Civic Type R is another crowd pleaser, and not just because of its remarkable engine and precise gearshift. At $35,595, it’s the second-cheapest car in this year’s shootout ( just a couple hundred dollars more than the Miata), but the chassis feels like a million bucks on Route 198. Tremendous front-end grip is complemented by a rear end that tracks faithfully, regardless of throttle condition and road surface. “Incredibly capable and confident and easy to drive fast,” Scott Evans gushes.
BMWS have underwhelmed us recently, so not many editors expected the new-generation BMW M5 to feel so effortlessly fast and supremely composed. The engine is staggeringly good, a 600-hp iron fist wrapped in a velvet glove. Traction and chassis balance are terrific for a big, heavy sedan. The steering is linear and consistent though still lacking the delicious tactility that once defined Munich’s best sport sedans. “It’s a family car and a sports car at the same time,” Miguel Cortina smiles.
Kia’s Stinger GT and Alfa Romeo’s Stelvio Quadrifoglio also win hearts, because both outperform our expectations. “Beneath the slightly soft-edged responses is a chassis of real balance and a subtle, nuanced delivery,” Jethro notes after stepping out of the Kia. Chris swoons as he exits the Alfa, impressed by its exhilarating twin-turbo V-6, sure-footed chassis, and sharp steering. “Wow! Way better than I had ever hoped it would be.”
Jonny had been saying for months that the Lamborghini Huracán Performante was a supercar to rival Ferrari’s 488—last year’s BDC winner—and the Mclaren 720S. Those of us who hadn’t driven it were skeptical. Flashy, loud Lamborghinis have tended to overpromise and underdeliver; the Aventador’s last place in 2012 is a case in point.
A thigh-high wedge of weapons-grade machismo, the Huracán Performante turns heads wherever it’s parked. The first few turns on Route 198 reveal substance behind the showmanship—superb steering precision, immense braking capability, prodigious cornering grip, lovely chassis balance, and terrific traction. Randy speaks for us all after hurling the shrieking Lambo up the hill and back: “This car makes you into a god. You just get in and you drive like Ayrton Senna.”
Over a sun-blasted roadside lunch from our favorite Tacos La Potranca De Jalisco and dinner at The Cork & Plough in King City, we exchange praise and snark as we rank the contenders after our Route 198 test session. There’s fierce argument over whether the Porsche was better than the Mclaren and whether the Aston and Honda really deserved to be ranked as highly as some thought. And what was an SUV doing here?
But there was nearly unanimous consensus as to which car should top the list: The Lamborghini would head to Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca as the leading contender for the 2018 Best Driver’s Car crown.
EVERYONE LOVES THE HERCULEAN SUPERCHARGED V-8 UNDER THE ZR1’S HOOD.
Laguna Seca is where Randy shines. He’s hot-lapped every Best Driver’s Car contender for the past nine shootouts, delivering not only a benchmark lap time but also concise commentary on how each car felt at the limit. Randy’s innate talent is an ability to get the best out of a car from the get-go, often extracting its quickest time on his first flying lap.
He’s also remarkably consistent. If Randy’s times fade on subsequent laps, it’s because of tire degradation, brake fade, or a spike in intake temperatures causing the engine to pull power.
Motor Trend therefore has a unique data set at its disposal: lap times for more than 120 performance cars, set by the same driver on the same track using the same methodology. The evolution of performance can be tracked right here.
Over the years we’ve relied on the talents of our in-house Gyro Gearloose, testing director Kim Reynolds, to create and build a multitiered Racelogic Vbox system that captures not only lap times but also key data points that help us understand exactly how a BDC contender behaves during the lap, which enables us to correlate objective information with Randy’s subjective commentary. But for 2018, Kim’s triple-redundancy setup has been augmented with the brand-new Vantage CL1 data-logging system from Racepak.
Racepak’s CL1 multichannel data acquisition unit receives data directly from a vehicle’s OBD II port (including engine revs, coolant temperature, and throttle position) and merges it with any external channels you choose, plus its own highly accurate accelerometer and GPS data (including mph). Then it’s Bluetoothed to (and stored in) a windshield-mounted iphone so Randy can see, real-time, his speed and how much he’s ahead or behind his best previous lap on its display. Simultaneously, the app sends the data, via cell connection, to a server in Phoenix, where the information is rendered into graphics and overlaid onto a swipeable and rotatable track map. Racepak president Tim Anderson says the highly intuitive graphic interface allows team members to watch, as it happens, a car’s performance from anywhere in the world.
Randy will start Day 1 with the allwheel-drive cars and lower-powered contenders. For Day 2, he’ll open with the big dogs: “I want to do those when I’m sharp.” Those cars that need it will be fueled with 101 octane straight from the pump at Laguna Seca—normal practice among track day mavens. Several manufacturers have sent support teams to advise optimum settings for suspension, transmission, and stability control and to monitor tires and tire pressures.
First out is the TT RS, and Randy is surprised to learn the anodyne Audi’s best lap of 1:39.95 was a tenth quicker than that of the emotionally enthralling Porsche 718 Cayman S he drove last year. “It’s quick for its size and power,” he says, “but the speed does not translate into driver satisfaction.” After disappointment, delight: The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio’s best lap of 1:43.50 is nearly 0.3 second quicker than the one Randy posted in the ultra-light mid-engine Alfa 4C sports car in 2015. “Its performance is absolutely amazing,” he says, grinning.
Randy reckons his third car of the day, the Honda Civic Type R, to be one of the finest factory front-drive cars he’s ever driven. He loves the little turbo motor’s desire to rev and the consistency of the chassis, though for track work he wants a little lift-off oversteer to get the car into corners quicker. Its 1:44.22 lap time is a record, the quickest lap of Laguna Seca by a front-drive car, beating the previous champ, the 2008 Chevy Cobalt SS, by a whopping 3.5 seconds.
Laguna Seca is a power circuit, and with more ponies under the hood, the 2019 MX-5 is 2.2 seconds faster than the Miata Randy lapped in BDC 2016. But what the Mazda has gained in speed, it’s perhaps lost in poise. As with all ND models, the 2019 still has too much roll oversteer.
Although it’s much happier on the smooth surface of Laguna Seca than on choppy Route 198, chassis balance is also an issue with the Ford Mustang GT, which Randy found oversteered to a fault on corner entry. The Performance Pack 2 is designed to get the Mustang GT on par with a 1Le-equipped Camaro SS, but the Racepak data reveals the brutal truth: Despite a 1:38.42 lap time that made it the second-quickest Mustang ever around Laguna Seca, it’s still 0.65 second slower than the Chevy.
Randy loved the Aston Martin Vantage on Route 198, ranking it in his top three. But here at Laguna Seca he’s irked by a twitch on corner entry and a lack of traction on corner exit. Puzzled at the Vantage’s sudden fall from grace, Aston Martin dynamics engineer Ian Hartley suggests changing the shock mode from Track to Sport+ and switching tires from the fresh set fitted that morning back to the ones used on Route 198. That doesn’t solve the traction problem, but it tames the twitch a little, delivering a lap time identical to the Mustang’s.
Randy beams as he steps out of the understated BMW M5. “So good, so balanced,” he gushes. The quickest and fastest non-electric sedan over the quarter mile we’ve ever tested, the M5 backed up its favorable showing on Route 198 with a stellar performance on the track. Its 1:39.81 lap time is the third fastest set by a sedan in BDC history, bested only by
the lighter, more agile Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio (2017) and the lighter, more powerful Cadillac CTS-V sedan (2016).
As we arrive for Day 2 at Laguna Seca, the morning air is still and cool, with a hint of moisture—perfect weather for biglunged, big-horsepower engines. Although the big dogs would be the focus of attention, the Kia Stinger also gets its chance on the track today, and the lovely balance of its chassis would deeply impress Randy en route to a 1:46.16 lap time. (That’s a second quicker than a 2015 Subaru WRX STI, before you start hurling, “How come … ?” insults masked as inquiries.)
Randy feather-foots the Corvette ZR1 up to Turn 6 on his out lap so the 755-hp V-8’s snarling, crackling exhaust note doesn’t break the Laguna Seca noise limit. (We try to be good neighbors.) His first flying lap is a 1:33.20, and the Chevy guys frown—it’s over a tenth off the Z06’s best lap here in 2016, and that car had 105 fewer ponies. Next lap is better, a 1:32.46, downforce from the big wing allowing Randy to hold the Corvette flat over the crest at Turn 1, hitting 141 mph, according to our Vbox data.
The ZR1 is the fastest production Corvette to lap Laguna Seca. But it’s still 0.8 second slower than last year’s BDC champ, the Ferrari 488 GTB, and 2.0 seconds slower than the Dodge Viper ACR tested in 2016. The problem is the lack of rear-end grip. Randy loves the mighty engine and the hand-of-god stability through fast corners from the ZTK package’s high wing. But he just can’t get the
THE MORNING AIR IS STILL AND COOL, WITH A HINT OF MOISTURE—PERFECT WEATHER FOR BIG-LUNGED, BIG-HORSEPOWER ENGINES.
big ’Vette to hook up coming out of slow turns. “I have to just roll that power in,” he grumbles.
Just how much that lack of traction hampered the ZR1 is made plain when Randy hits a staggering 154.67 mph over the crest at Turn 1 on his first flying lap in the Mclaren 720S. Most of the speed differential is down to the Mclaren’s superior drive out of the 90-degree left of Turn 11; although the 720S is 500 pounds lighter than the ZR1, the power-to-weight ratio of both cars is almost identical.
The Mclaren’s first flying lap is a 1:30.62, and to prove it was no fluke, the next time around is just .07 second slower. Randy drops another threetenths on the third lap, and the Mclaren technicians swarm around the rear of the racing orange 720S when it returns. Those three laps had boosted the rear tire pressures to 36 psi, well above the 32 psi at which the 720S works best. So we air down the Mclaren to 29 psi and set the variable drift control a further two clicks away from the “off” setting before Randy heads out again.
His subsequent record-breaking 1:29.78 lap is almost a second quicker than his best time in the 904-hp Mclaren P1, set during the 2015 Head 2 Head test against the Porsche 918. This surprises Randy, who thought the lap was a sloppy affair; he’d spent the whole time busily working behind the wheel to find the balance between understeer and oversteer. “I’m sweating! It’s a difficult car to go fast in,” he says. “But boy is it fast!”
Now, the Porsche. The lap timer is in the low 1:20s as the GT2 RS launches out of Turn 11. No one breathes. The Porsche had been 6 mph slower than the 720S over the crest at Turn 1 at the start of the lap, but the Racepak traces have shown consistently higher midcorner and corner exit speeds—5 to 10 mph higher. Where the Mclaren had been a highspeed high-wire act, constantly dancing about the track, the Porsche stays planted and hooked up.
There are gasps of disbelief when the clock stops: 1:28.30. It’s the fastest lap ever recorded at Laguna Seca by a streetlegal production car on street-legal tires, 0.35 second quicker than the absolute
record Randy set in the quasi-race Viper ACR for a Dodge PR stunt in 2016. And the über-911 did it easily. “It’s balanced, working all the way through the corner, right on the edge of the maximum grip,” Randy enthuses.
The Lamborghini still hasn’t run, but factory test driver Davide Conforte already has conceded bragging rights to Porsche and Mclaren. “They have more horsepower,” he shrugs. However, everyone gathered around the Racepak monitor knows the Huracán Performante still has a real shot at the 2018 BDC title. Randy’s feedback will be crucial.
The Lambo’s first flying lap stops the clock at 1:30.00. And with that, BDC 2018 is one for the record books: The three quickest laps in the history of the competition have been set in a single morning.
Randy’s second lap in the Huracán is 1.3 seconds slower, however, and as he watches time slip away on the Racepak display in the cockpit, he decides to pit early. “I think the tires gave us some magic, and then the pressures came up,” he says. Indeed, the rears, which had started at 26 psi, are at 35 psi, while the fronts, set at 29 psi, have zoomed to 40.
Because the Lamborghini has twice broken the noise limit and a third strike would restrict the car to 30 mph on the track, we decide to switch to the quieter action of filming and photography before we try a final hot lap later in the day. By then, though, with the track temperature up, the magic is gone for good, and a 1:31.00 is all Randy can manage. Still, that’s nearly seven-tenths quicker than the Ferrari 488’s best time last year. (To watch Randy’s hot laps, go to Motortrendondemand.com.)
Would finishing third on the track be enough for the Huracán to keep its perch atop the rankings, given its untouchable effort on Route 198? Could the sly Mclaren be a darkhorse? Would the Porsche’s rocket performance at Laguna help it grab the title? We gather in a pit row suite to haggle over the finishing order.
The qualities we admired in the Huracán Performante on Route 198 still shone brightly at Laguna Seca. “It’s just really a beautiful thing,” Randy smiles. “It would oversteer a little bit, but then it just stayed there, a confident power oversteer that I enjoyed. And that exhaust note! It sounds like a racing car!” His only grumble: a lack of initial bite from the brakes. Added Jethro: “A total assault on the senses, the definitive supercar experience.”
And that is the essence of the Huracán Performante: the emotional quotient that put it just ahead of the undisputed king of Laguna Seca, the staggeringly accomplished Porsche 911 GT2 RS, which intimidated some judges on Route 198. This Lambo allows drivers of all abilities to revel in that experience while confidently exploring and expanding the limits—its, and theirs. And that’s what makes the flamboyant, operatic, joyously Italian Lamborghini Huracán Performante our 2018 Best Driver’s Car.
THE LAMBORGHINI HURACÁN PERFORMANTE IS “A TOTAL ASSAULT ON THE SENSES, THE DEFINITIVE SUPERCAR EXPERIENCE. ”
Additional Photography: William Walker, Robin Trajano, Jade Nelson, Brandon Lim
WORK MATES We couldn’t make Best Driver’s Car happen without California Highway Patrol, who make Route 198 safe for testing. In between runs, the officers check out the contenders.
ALL IN ONE Racepak’s Vantage CL1 supplemented our twin Vbox data loggers to never miss a lap. FINAL TUNE Porsche, Mclaren, Lamborghini, and Aston Martin sent crews to swap tires and make adjustments before Randy Pobst began his hot laps at Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca.
DATA DUMPThe versatile Racepak Vantage CL1 data-logging system enabled us to watch and compare Randy Pobst’s Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca laps in real time. The screen can be configured to graphically show different data streams on a rotatable and swipeable track map while drivercritical information (“Am I faster? Am I slower?”) is transmitted to a windshield-mounted smartphone in the car.
LAP DANCE Randy Pobst is surprised to learn his best lap in the Mclaren 720S is almost a second quicker than the one he set in the 904-hp Mclaren P1 in 2015.
LITTLE AND LARGE The rear tire from the Mazda MX-5 Miata (right) is dwarfed by massive meat from the Porsche 911 GT2 RS (left).
FAST COMPANY Despite having the most horsepower, a lack of rear-end grip meant the Corvette ZR1 struggled to get anywhere near the Lamborghini, Mclaren, and Porsche.
THREE AMIGOS Check out the Motor Trend Network (formerly Velocity) or Motor Trend’s own on-demand channel to join Jonny, Randy, and Jethro behind the wheel of this year’s BDC contenders.