MY jetlagged brain is playing tricks on me. Last week I was whipping through misty snow-capped granite peaks, shamrock-green hillsides and rolling pine forests in the north of Germany. But this is Victoria, and the scene is exactly the same.
It’s a postcard-perfect early spring day, though the heavy clouds to the south belie the forecast of a brutal cold front sweeping up across our PCOTY fleet. It’s a real mix of price points, ability and agility this year, and one that, despite first appearances, is very likely to end in an argument around the pizzeria table on the last night.
My favourite today is the Peugeot 208 GTi 30th Anniversary Edition – the one that looks, if I’m honest, a bit half-painted. Great in concept, this $4000 two-tone finish might have been better left on the showroom floor.
Ignore the paint, though, as it’s the least of the Pug’s party tricks on the open road. Wider rubber, a Torsen front slipper, wider track and tweaked suspension give this 208 a more robust, tied-down feel than its regular brethen.
This is the proper old-school hatch of the group, with a narrow-and-tall interior, racy seats, a proper manual and a teeny, tiny steering wheel. The Torsen slipper is a key addition, working in conjunction with sticky – and expensive – Michelin Super Sports, stiffer springs, and softer anti-roll bars to provide a front end that just won’t quit.
At the other end of the scale lies the new Holden Commodore VF II SS V Redline. I say ‘new’ as the paint was literally still drying on our test example, and Editor Dylan instructs the more social-media savvy among us (not so much Cockburn and Morley, then) not to include it in any sort of Snapchat action. Ahem.
The party trick here is the HSV-pinched LS3 6.2-litre kicking out 304kW and a steaming wedge of 570Nm. Some tidying up of the rear end, a re-valve of the dampers, an amazing exhaust and a hint of rose tinting, and the last of the Mohicans is transformed into an astonishingly capable cross-country weapon. Saving the best ’til last? Too right, cobber.
The same cannot be said for the Ford Falcon XR8. Again, a monster motor is deemed appropriate; this time, a supercharged 5.0-litre V8 takes pride of place under the power bulge.
Unfortunately, the rest of the car has suffered at the travails of its performance in market – it doesn’t sell, so no money is spent on it, so... it doesn’t sell. The dated chassis and interior contrasts markedly with that of the Commodore’s, so much so that it’s more than a bit sad to compare the two once-mighty foes.
Day 2: Taming the Mount (Buffalo)
“So we’ll roll out at exactly 8.30am,” says Dylan over dinner the previous night. “Make sure you’re on time!” So at exactly 9.24am, the PCOTY fleet rolls out on the Alpine Way, towards the Victorian Alps.
The run up to Mount Buffalo, I’m told, is a bit of a cracker, so I sidle over early to the Jaguar F-Type to stake a claim. And oh boy, I pick right.
It takes a while to get over the emotional high that the crackling, roaring, blatting exhaust note induces, but up here, the all-wheel drive F-Type lifts its petticoats and gets royally stuck in. I’m chasing the AMG GT S, and I’m – to my shock – keeping it honest.
Trusting the front end to find grip, feeding in throttle earlier and earlier then pushing in the mat invokes an effect akin to being shot from a howitzer, with a noise to suit. It’s utterly intoxicating and totally addictive. The Jag soaks it up, too; it’s a willing companion that coaxes you into more mischief, but won’t punish you for being too ham-fisted or footed.
The F-Type’s driving mode adjuster can be customised from the centre console, so in a quiet moment, I change the damper settings from dynamic to normal. The change is marked and the F-Type is instantly softer and more pliable over the sharper rolls and undulations of this cold-ravaged road, keying into the rough tarmac like a lump of large, fast Blu-Tack.
On the way down, I make a beeline for the MX-5. The way up would have been a trial of wringing necks, planting throttles to little or no avail and cursing at the elevation. I suspect that downhill will be a different story – and I'm so, so right. If ever a drive could be described as a rollercoaster ride, the run down Mount Buffalo in the MX-5 qualifies in absolutely every respect.
Heart in throat? Check. Wind in hair? Check. Being thrown from side to side, ever fearful you’ll be thrown off, but knowing deep down you won’t be? Check. What a blast. What. A. Blast. This little car is such a ray of talented sunshine. Out of the box, its manners and its attitude are so close to spot on, it’s not funny. With heated seats and a howling gale of warmth from the vents, I’m comfortable even in -5°C temperatures, too.
Day 3: Halfway to Hotham
Perhaps as a punishment for our tardy ways of the day before, it’s a 7.30am muster. A little tired and peaked as a result, I head for the cosseting warmth of the C63. Only it’s not so cosseting. The seats are hard, the ride has teeth and the V8 under the bonnet doesn’t do cosseting. We leave at precisely 8.54am.
It’s a multi-faceted haul up yet more sinuous alpine roads towards Mount Hotham, where temperature gauges drop into low single digits. It’s cold enough to pay heed to grip levels on the damp sections of road, with several cars warning of icy negative outcomes.
The C63’s tyres, for example, aren’t at their best in the freezing conditions – the optional Michelin Cup 2s are, in fact, downright nerve-racking, with even mild throttle applications resulting in a jerk from the rear end and a muttered expletive from the driver’s seat.
Trying to explore the AMG GT S’s limits today, too, proves frustrating and illuminating in equal measure. No doubt there is immense ability here, but in order to exploit it, you are asking a lot of yourself and the conditions.
The Jag slips back a little for me today. Its composure and linearity on the run to Mount Buffalo falls away, with the soft-feeling shift paddles and softening brakes taking the edge off the fun.
The 911 GT3, too, displays its ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ side on the run home. It’s always on point and, if you’re up for it, its on-road performance is from another dimension. Such depth of ability! How is this thing not turbocharged? So much pace, so much mid-corner speed!
But with massive road and engine noise, a slippery Alcantara wheel under light fingers and a slightly irritating touchscreen that’s hard to use over bumpy roads, it can lose its fun after a couple of hours spent droning along at the national limit.
The ridiculously-named Renault Sport Megane RS275 Trophy-R is a late arrival, but it has quickly wormed its way into several hearts with its insanely tactile chassis. The chassis is made even better by the deduction of unsprung weight via alloy hubs and lighter wheels, and the addition of a seriously tricky diff. I’m not convinced, though.
For me, it’s half-pregnant. Sure, it’s got racing seats, a fancy steering wheel, a stripped-out rear and no stereo or aircon – so why not go all the way and rip out the door cards and carpet, add fabric door pulls and a proper half-cage?
A run up the mountains, though, breaks my heart – such is the sublime ability lurking within. The ageing Megane has always been a MOTOR favourite, and this final iteration brings it all together in fitting style. Laser-rivalling turn-in, astonishing power-down and unfathomable levels of mechanical grip are only let down by the laggy turbomotor, though the slightly short gearing helps it out of a hole here.
There’s a lovely chassis underpinning the Lexus RC F, too, and the IS F-sourced and Yamaha-fettled V8 has always been a peach. It’s pushing some mass around, though, and it’s obvious it hasn’t got the corner-to-corner pace of something like the C63.
Its interior, too, is off – the seats sit too high, the roof sits too low and the console between the seats sits very tall. The fingerpad arrangement, too, is batting a thousand in this age of swipe pads and Apple CarPlay – it’s hard to use in motion and feels decidedly unnatural.
I score the i8 for the last leg of the day from Bright to Benalla, through an Alpine-special sunset that lightens my spirit. The i8 leaves the last station with 204km of range (including 5km on the batteries), but pulls into Benalla 100 or so kilometres later with 216km of endurance left!
Lots of things have been omitted from the car – multiple seat adjustments, radar cruise, heated seats – in what we can only assume is an exercise in power management. But, despite being specced like a mid-level 3-Series, the i8’s touring credentials are sound, with its rock-solid CFRP chassis nicely complemented by well-tuned springs and dampers.
Winton dawns bright, cold and covered in burnt bits of road car tyre. The track is a mess, but it’s MOTOR’s way of sorting the final field out. The three-day stint through the highlands of rural Victoria has brought this contest to a bit of a head. Early indications were that a certain German wunderkind would waltz away with the silverware, but as the 2015 fleet rolls into Winton, the result is far from decided.
|Ford Falcon XR8||13.7L/100km||14.47L/100km||+0.77L|
|Porsche 911 GT3||12.4L/100km||14.74L/100km||+2.34L|
|Lexus RC F||10.9L/100km||13.37L/100km||+2.47L|
|Peugeot 208 GTi 30th||5.4L/100km||8.37L/100km||+2.97L|
|Holden SS V Redline||12.6L/100km||16.25L/100km||+3.65L|
|Renault Megane Trophy||7.5L/100km||11.86L/100km||+4.36L|
|Jaguar F-Type R AWD||11.3L/100km||17.74L/100km||+6.44L|
|Mercedes-AMG C63 S||8.6L/100km||18.92L/100km||+10.32L|
|Mercedes-AMG GT S||Not available||Not available||Not available|