Audi and McLaren trade blows with Fer­rari’s turbo bel­ter

Fer­rari’s 488 has rewrit­ten the book on su­per­car speed, but it’ll need more than pure pace to best the Audi R8 and McLaren 570S

Motor (Australia) - - CONTENTS - By BEN BARRY pics JOHN WYCHERLEY

The road’s dry, its sur­face bleached with smears of late-win­ter grime. Corners stretch out traf­fic-free, so I push the McLaren 570S’s ac­cel­er­a­tor to its stop, let the car run wide for the fastest line, the oth­ers dart­ing be­hind. The sun flares through a swim­ming-pool sky as hun­gry in­duc­tion plenums gob­ble chill air, and dual-clutch gear­boxes ham­mer like a drum­mer count­ing in a four-four beat.

I glance in the mir­ror, cast an eye over the McLaren’s hard-work­ing twin­turbo V8, see the flash of the Fer­rari 488 GTB, the pierc­ing yel­low of the Audi R8 V10 Plus, DRLs locked on like snipers’ lasers.

The oth­ers must be sniff­ing vic­tory as they close on the least pow­er­ful car, but al­ready the McLaren’s mak­ing a bid for the spoils: the tac­til­ity, agility, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and, yes, pure speed. The 570S will not be an eas­ily picked off runt of the lit­ter.

This in­cred­i­ble car is proof of how far McLaren has pro­gressed in five years, from be­ing ini­tially blind­sided by ob­jec­tive num­bers to let­ting sub­jec­tive feel take the wheel. But no mat­ter how im­pres­sive McLarens have be­come, there’s one in­escapable truth: when they go head-to-head with Fer­raris, they typ­i­cally lose.

The 570S forms part of McLaren’s new Sports Series, a mid-en­gined V8 su­per­car for $379,000. Take that money to Fer­rari and they’d talk you up to a fold­ing hard­top for $409,888, yet the 570’s spec is a fac­sim­ile of the 650S, McLaren’s true 488 ri­val. Has McLaren caught Fer­rari nap­ping with a sim­i­lar con­cept for $90K less? We’ve two days to find out.

Not that McLaren has the $400K su­per­car mar­ket wrapped up: long be­fore McLaren trum­peted its dayto-day us­abil­ity over the more fre­netic Fer­rari, Audi nailed it with the R8.

Like all re­turn­ing block­busters, the Audi R8 se­quel doesn’t mess too much with the for­mula: there’s no V8 this time, no open-gate man­ual, but the styling is so gen­tly evo­lu­tion­ary that Darwin him­self might not record it, the all-wheel drive fun­da­men­tals re­main, so too the V10. The pur­vey­ors of Vor­sprung Durch Tech­nik, shov­ing an old-school Lam­borgh­ini 5.2-litre V10 in the back of a new car? Did the memo die in

“Long be­fore McLaren trum­peted its us­abil­ity over the Fer­rari, Audi nailed it with the R8”

the VW Group shred­der? Isn’t everyone down­siz­ing and tur­bocharg­ing be­cause emis­sions reg­u­la­tions are forc­ing their hands?

There’s an al­most or­ches­tral qual­ity to the V10, a per­cus­sive bassi­ness at low rpm that soars to the high­pitched strings of the red­line and what sounds like a suc­cess­ful Gun­pow­der Plot on the over­run in Dy­namic mode; it’s me­chan­i­cal, sonorous, and zings with a re­sponse that makes a firearms unit look slack.

Max­i­mum torque of 560Nm at 6500rpm might sug­gest a hole in the power de­liv­ery down low, but ac­cel­er­ate from 1500rpm and the revs spin so quickly you’ve a job to count the num­bers on the dial, the de­liv­ery stretch­ing out lin­early un­til – some­where around 5500rpm (I was busy!) – there’s even more ur­gency, like some­one’s fast-for­warded you to the 8250rpm head-rush. Pity the trans­mis­sion some­times dithers when you sud­denly floor it, like it’s chan­nelling the Gal­lardo’s old-school au­to­mated man­ual, and high-rpm shifts lack what the Ger­mans call ‘emo­tion’.

I wind back the pace, but even at a cruise you no­tice the Audi’s im­proved front-end re­sponse. Twist the flat-bot­tomed steer­ing rim and the front jinks like one

solid piece; no slop, no time de­lay, just one co­he­sive tran­si­tion to where your hands are point­ing.

Our test car gets op­tional dy­namic steer­ing, per­haps that’s key, but there’s no doubt­ing the re­spon­sive­ness owes much to the stiff Audi Space Frame. Alu­minium dom­i­nates, but car­bon­fi­bre forms the trans­mis­sion tun­nel and rear bulk­head like a spine and broad shoul­ders. Even com­mut­ing, the un­der­ly­ing rigid­ity is tan­gi­ble.

Over the A14, I set­tle back into the op­tional sports seats, pneu­matic bol­sters squeez­ing my frame just so, 6Mu­sic belt­ing from the op­tional B&O stereo. The lowslung driv­ing po­si­tion, the qual­ity of the ma­te­ri­als, and the deep, low scut­tle is déjà vu, and yet so much has changed. The steer­ing wheel now takes a leaf out of Fer­rari’s man­ual, al­low­ing you to switch be­tween driv­ing modes and ac­ti­vate the sports ex­haust with­out let­ting go of the wheel. But there are also – un­like the Fer­rari – in­fo­tain­ment func­tions in­te­grated in the spokes. It’s busier than Syd­ney traf­fic, but it works.

Three hours slip by, (op­tional) adap­tive sus­pen­sion ab­sorb­ing bumps, 449kW pick­ing off traf­fic in ef­fort­less surges, and the bril­liant Vir­tual Cock­pit either fill­ing the TFT in­stru­ment bin­na­cle with high-r es satel­lite­nav­i­ga­tion, or bring­ing speed and rpm to the fore; nei­ther Fer­rari nor McLaren do tech like this.

When the roads tan­gle into twists, the R8’s sure­footed han­dling com­bines with rel­a­tively mod­est torque. But it’s the thrill of the drive that’ll stay in my mind long af­ter the metal’s stopped ping­ing, es­pe­cially the way you can pick up the power early and feel the front tyres pull you from the curve with un­ruf­fled com­po­sure in a flurry of speed. The sus­pen­sion and steer­ing even works in Dy­namic mode this time, rather than fill­ing the tyres with ce­ment.

Fa­tigue slain by adren­a­line, I reach our stopover, grab a beer to come down, and pon­der if you can ac­tu­ally bet­ter the Audi’s blend of driver en­joy­ment, safety and high-tech in­fo­tain­ment; if you use your su­per­car reg­u­larly, I doubt you can.

Out­side, the Fer­rari’s flat-plane crank set­tles to a con­stant, bassy idle, and a minute later James Tay­lor walks in. The sta­bil­ity con­trol’s been work­ing over­time, snuff­ing out slides be­fore they even started, he says. CJ Hub­bard’s had an eas­ier time of it, the McLaren’s Pirelli Sot­toZero win­ter tyres meld­ing with the sur­face as tem­per­a­tures plum­meted.

At 7.30am the Fer­rari’s still coated in a thin veil of frost, like a monarch shrouded in a chrysalis. It’s very con­di­tions sen­si­tive, which doesn’t sur­prise with 492kW and 760Nm. Even at 4°C on dry roads, it feels edgy on its Miche­lin Pi­lot Su­per Sports, en­gi­neered around its trick sta­bil­ity con­trol. So I set­tle in, steel my­self for the warmer tem­per­a­tures later that day.

I par­tic­u­larly like how ev­ery­thing – sca­lene air vents, in­tri­cately con­toured steer­ing wheel, pe­riph­eral in­fo­tain­ment and ve­hi­cle dis­plays – trains your vi­sion towards the cen­tral rev counter like a burst of light at the end of tun­nel.

That rev counter might still read to 10K, but it’s now red­lined 1000rpm ear­lier at just over 8000rpm be­cause the 458’s 4.5-litre V8 makes way for an all­new 3.9-litre V8 twin-turbo. It’s a mas­ter­piece. Throt­tle re­sponse is in­stant, turbo lag non-ex­is­tent, and the revs quickly ta­per away when you back off. It even sounds fan­tas­tic, that droney idle be­com­ing a fa­mil­iar Fer­rari bwoooor towards the red­line. Low in the mix, you hear turbos sub­tly hiss­ing away.

The re­ally clever part is Vari­able Torque Man­age­ment: in­stead of the 488 giv­ing you all 760Nm in the lowto mid-range as you’d ex­pect, Fer­rari drip-feeds it, en­cour­ag­ing you to use the revs.

The seven-speed dual-clutch gear­box is fa­mil­iar and con­tin­ues to con­sume ra­tios like a schoolkid flick­ing

“I wind back the pace, but even at a cruise you no­tice the Audi’s im­proved front-end re­sponse”

lugs on a bus, but the ra­tios are a lit­tle longer. Had they not been, the 488’s mas­sive ex­tra mid-range and lower peak power would have had you nut­ting the lim­iter con­stantly. You might ping off the red­line a cou­ple of times, but mostly you’ve got so much mid-range, so much speed and still so much head­room that you rarely do. It’s a great pow­er­train.

When the mer­cury hits 8°C, I head out for a faster drive. You no­tice the steer­ing’s a lit­tle firmer than the 458 Italia’s, with more road-sur­face fizz too, but it’s still su­per-quick, and this time its keen­ness to change di­rec­tion just feels im­me­di­ately nat­u­ral, not shock­ingly darty like the 458 did if you’d just stepped from a hum­drum hatch; is that fa­mil­iar­ity over the years on my part, or is the 488 some­how bet­ter sorted?

The R8 felt light and keen to switch di­rec­tion in isolation, but al­ready the 488 shades it. The pu­rity with which the Fer­rari shadow-boxes through bends, up on its toes, only high­lights that the Audi turns

and drives at least partly with the fronts; the slight un­der­steer the R8 gen­er­ates un­der power might ping you out of round­abouts un­be­liev­ably quickly, but it does in­tro­duce a lethargy to di­rec­tion changes.

De­spite the Fer­rari’s mas­sive slug of torque – and be­cause of Vari­able Torque Man­age­ment – trac­tion is ac­tu­ally very good, Miche­lins key­ing in and let­ting go pro­gres­sively when they can take no more. When rear tread­blocks do squirm, the trac­tion con­trol al­most im­per­cep­ti­bly cov­ers your tal­ent deficit. Pray for own­ers who learn to drive a su­per­car on this ba­sis, then dis­able ev­ery­thing; they’ll make Ken Block out­takes look as lairy as the Queen be­ing chauf­feured to the Ceno­taph.

I grad­u­ally work my way ’round the manet­tino dial, tweak­ing the gear­box, en­gine, ABS and safety set­tings, fi­nally build­ing the nerve to go ESC Off. Three shrill bleeps ring out, pre­sum­ably cov­er­ing the Ital­ian ex­ple­tives the fan­dango’s try­ing to hurl at you.

Where the 488 had felt flighty at 4°C, at 8°C it’s to­tally di­alled in. The front tyres are half-an-inch wider than a 458’s, and while at first you lean on the ex­cel­lent car­bon-ce­ramic brakes early – shared with LaFer­rari, but miss­ing the strange pedal feel caused by the hy­brid pow­er­train – soon you learn to carry speed into the cor­ner, feel the sus­pen­sion com­press a lit­tle, then just roller­coaster right through the bend, un­der­steer ab­sent from the lex­i­con. With the front bit­ing hard and loaded up, you’re free to climb on the fast pedal, and still you sense those re­serves of trac­tion, the pro­gres­sive slip into over­steer. “Wow!” says CJ later, step­ping from the 488 and point­ing at it. “The R8 is a sports car. That is a su­per­car!”

Ham­strung by win­ter tyres, I wait for tem­per­a­tures to dip be­fore driv­ing the McLaren. McLaren says the 570S is more live­able than its serenely sup­ple 650S, and has even re-en­gi­neered the MonoCell with 80mm lower sills, so you no longer sneak through the gap in the open di­he­dral doors like Franken­stein strug­gling into the bot­tom bunk.

The McLaren’s steer­ing wheel is starkly naked af­ter the oth­ers, and you sit for­wards and low down, the view through the wind­screen un­ob­structed like

a fighter-jet canopy. Even at very low speeds, the McLaren com­mu­ni­cates that it’s light and ag­ile, that there’s no fear in tak­ing lib­er­ties. The stiff, light­weight car­bon­fi­bre struc­ture feels to­tally co­he­sive, the elec­tro­hy­draulic steer­ing crack­les with in­for­ma­tion, and even the dainty hips play a part, help­ing you thread the McLaren through gaps that squeeze the oth­ers.

I’m not a nat­u­ral left-foot braker, but the McLaren presents its brake pedal so per­fectly to your limb that it feels rude to refuse. Do­ing the same in the Audi is like try­ing to pedal a penny-far­thing, so high and off­set are ac­cel­er­a­tor and brake. Even with my de­sen­si­tised hoof, I learn to push through the McLaren’s min­i­mal slack and feed off the build­ing pres­sure com­ing up through the pedal, trust­ing the end­less re­serves of the – stan­dard – car­bon-ceramics.

I build up speed, head­ing to my favourite road, all fast flicks, open-sighted sweep­ers and zero traf­fic, set­ting the han­dling and pow­er­train modes to Sport and de­ac­ti­vat­ing the sta­bil­ity con­trol.

You quickly find a rhythm with the McLaren. The steer­ing both con­stantly jig­gles in your hands and lets you place the front tyres with laser-guided ac­cu­racy. There’s so much dia­logue with the sur­face that cats’ eyes bang up through the car­bon struc­ture like plod

“The McLaren com­mu­ni­cates that it’s light and ag­ile, that there’s no fear in tak­ing lib­er­ties”

knock­ing at the door; it might sound un­couth, but you’re just get­ting con­stant un­fil­tered mes­sages from a very sup­ple car. “It feels how you’d imag­ine a Lo­tus su­per­car would,” com­ments James Tay­lor. Spot on.

You might think test­ing the 570S on win­ter tyres un­fair, and at times they are a li­a­bil­ity, squidg­ing un­der brak­ing, writhing like jelly through esses. But I’ve also driven a McLaren on the stan­dard P-Zero Cor­sas, a pretty ag­gres­sive tyre (reg­u­lar P-Ze­ros are a no-cost op­tion), and it felt in­cred­i­ble. There’s no un­der­steer, bags of trac­tion, and the way the body stays flat and you skim through corners in one fluid move­ment is awe­somely com­pelling. You can even revel in slid­ing the 570, such is its poise and bal­ance.

Where Maranello re­ally mon­sters Wok­ing is with the pow­er­train. The McLaren’s gear shifts are quick – and cer­tainly more in­ci­sive and obe­di­ent than the 12C once was – but the Fer­rari’s are sig­nif­i­cantly punchier, trim­ming slack from the man/ma­chine in­ter­face; and the Fer­rari’s shift pad­dles – fixed to the column, not the wheel like the McLaren’s – en­gage with a shorter click and feel nicer, too.

McLaren’s 3.8-litre V8 has an am­ple 419kW and 600Nm, but this is a much more con­ven­tional-feel­ing turbo en­gine, laggy down low, with a sog­gier pedal and a no­tice­able – if thrilling – turbo hit at just on 3000rpm, it lacks the Fer­rari’s eerie pro­gres­sion. The last 570S I drove had the op­tional sports ex­haust, bring­ing a hard me­chan­i­cal edge. With the stan­dard pipes, this 570 sounds gruff, even trac­tor-like at low rpm. Tick that ex­haust box.

Neg­a­tives fall by the way­side when you find your­self on an open road, the lag that maybe frus­trated through slower kinks no longer an is­sue. You start to revel in the up­per reaches of the McLaren’s flex­i­ble de­liv­ery, and the sound­track be­comes more goosepim­ple in­dus­trial the higher the revs climb. You keep the revs and speed high, cut­ting cross-coun­try, feel­ing the sus­pen­sion breathe be­neath you, con­fi­dent that you can use all the power, all the time.

There’s no deny­ing the 570S when it comes to driver feed­back and en­joy­ment. It doesn’t even feel like it lacks power in this com­pany, prov­ing you re­ally don’t need Fer­rari horses to have ri­otous fun.

When we park up for our clos­ing shot, there’s no de­bate that the Fer­rari wins. But the fact that the McLaren 570S de­liv­ers much of the thrill of the 488 GTB for $90K less – or al­most $135K when both these cars’ lav­ish op­tions are tal­lied – weighs heav­ily on the re­sult. The 570S is a deeply ex­cit­ing and com­mu­nica­tive drive, a sports car that steers like a su­per­car and of­fers huge sav­ings over its Ital­ian ri­val from the class above. Just imag­ine if Fer­rari stepped down to the McLaren’s level with a new V6 Dino; then we’d have a proper scrap on our hands. Today, the McLaren can hold its head high with a strong sec­ond.

That the Audi slips into third place is tes­ta­ment to the qual­ity of this group. When op­tions are in­cluded it’s the cheap­est car here, packs a fire­cracker of an en­gine, and melds sen­sa­tional dy­nam­ics with the most use­able own­er­ship propo­si­tion of the bunch. If you need one su­per­car to do ev­ery­thing, buy the Audi.

Right now, tank brimmed, sun set­ting, roads clear and dry, I’m get­ting an­other fix in the Fer­rari.

570S lacks some of the clever chas­sis tricks of its 650S older brother but might be all the bet­ter for it

Take care when the tyres are cold, be­cause the 488’s huge torque can over­whelm the rear rub­ber, though its clever ESP keeps things largely un­der con­trol

Audi’s R8 has a level of tech­nol­ogy lack­ing in either the Fer­rari or McLaren, and cru­cially re­tains a nat­u­rallyaspi­rated en­gine

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