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Performance Car of the Year 2004 - Road Test: classic MOTOR

By Greg Kable, 23 Dec 2019 Performance COTY

Performance Car of the Year 2004 Road Test feature

The track is one thing, but PCOTY glory insists on real-world brilliance. It’s here that the heroes lift to another level…

Ker-rack! You know the sound. It’s when ultra-low-profile tyre meets pothole, rams an underdamped shock absorber into its bump stop and sends that painful crash through the car like a crack of lightning. Cringe factor is off the scale, credibility takes a hit.

This feature was originally published in MOTOR’s April 2004 issue

Both Avalon and Winton are, as you’d expect, rather smooth. Fine for power and numbers, but the real- world test is an empty, snaking ribbon of road that ranges from smooth hotmix to a coarse blue metal deck, complete with tricky off-camber corners, broken edges, loads of nasty potholes and more. We know it simply as The Hillclimb. For one day we put every car under the microscope, driving the same 16km – 8km up and 8km back.

We twist the volume of speed down a few levels, so the mind has more time to assess each car’s strength and weakness. And if a car fails to light the candle down the 3km of strip or 3km of track, it’ll often reverse the trend and make its point very clearly on the road.

By now we have a fairly good idea of the top 10 or so, but apart from march flies the size of eagles, The Hillclimb is always good for a few surprises. If past Performance Car of the Year experience has taught us anything, it’s not to count out any car until it’s been given a chance to prove its abilities on the road.

Exhibit A is Subaru’s Liberty GT – slowest over the standing kay, just 2km/h faster than the Astra, third slowest around Winton and no better than 15th in the seven time or speed tests. But it came back strongly at The Hillclimb with sharp steering, fine balance and great brakes. Its power still feels soft, but the less rushed nature of road driving allows more time to think about and play with the auto’s shift buttons.

Another car that came back into the reckoning on the final day was the Mazda RX-8. The fact that it sneaked ahead of more fancied machinery at Winton helped to raise the level of respect for its dynamic properties, but it wasn’t until the run up the hill that the RX-8’s true colours began to shine through with any great clarity. With direct steering and a superbly balanced chassis, you can take great liberties in the four-door Mazda. With an ultra-low centre of gravity, its body remains remarkably flat during cornering and the suspension soaks up any bitumen nasties with excellent control.

The RX-8’s relative lack of grunt is no less evident on the road, though. To tap into any meaningful performance, you’ve got to be prepared to wind the rotary to the heavens. By the time you’ve got it percolating, its rivals are down the road somewhere.

The Holden Astra SRi Turbo is a perfect example of why PCOTY is not merely a track-based competition. Finishing dead last at Avalon and Winton, it felt agile and fleet-footed. The steering rattle was more obvious, there was less push, but the long and rubbery shift kept calling at every change. The brakes felt better, but it could still use more squirt.

Not so the Alfa; there’s enough wheelspin already, thank you. Its chassis seemed to be constantly fighting the weight of its V6 engine, pushing wide early and refusing to regain its line until power was cut altogether. Placing its considerable (by hatchback standards) reserves through the front wheels also exposes weaknesses in the form of torque steer when you get on the power hard out of tight corners.

And it was the one voted less able to handle a pothole. Remember that crashing sound? It was describing the Alfa, which lacks control over broken sections of bitumen, with an apparent lack of travel, especially at the front. 

The Chrysler Crossfire might have had more mechanical grip than MT on the Lambo’s key, but its wide, low-profile hoops crash over bumps almost as badly as the Alfa. There’s no disguising its origins. Heavy throttle springing, slow steering, notchy gearshift and an ESP system that cuts in even when you’ve thumbed it off are all long-time traits of the soon-to-be-replaced Mercedes-Benz SLK.

Add a chassis devoid of much feel and a 3.2-litre V6 engine that lacks for grunt at the top end and you begin to understand why it didn’t fair too well on the road in this company. Actual on-the-limit handling is pretty good, but there’s not enough communication being fed back for you to really enjoy it. The Crossfire scores four yawns for excitement.

CSV’s grunting Mondo felt completely at sea on the hill, but ironically it also seemed even faster than on the track. Its enormous underbonnet reserves spear you up the road at a ferocious rate and its brilliant brakes wipe off speed in masterful fashion, but the slow-witted, remote steering just can’t keep up once you’ve lined up an apex. There’s lots of initial understeer, but once committed in a corner you have to be very careful with the application of power.

Too much too soon and a surge of torque heading toward the rear wheels sees the Mondo’s tail hang wide with little warning at all. A lack of suspension travel also had the Malvern Marauder crashing against its bump stops and feeling anything but composed. It’s challenging and fun in a curious kind of way, but I never felt comfortable – not with Evans looming large in the mirrors behind me in the HSV ClubSport R8, at any rate!

You can’t argue with the efforts of the Jaguar XJR’s gutsy supercharged 4.2-litre V8. Not when it’s mated to the world’s best six-speed automatic gearbox. The Jag steers accurately, but the weighting isn’t there to back it up. As such, your inputs need to be finely measured to get the best from it.

The long-travel suspension is marvellously comfortable but just a little too soft when you’re hurrying along, with the odd moment of float before settling down over rough roads. The XJR approaches the outer boundaries of adhesion in a nice, progressive manner – but it’s hard to get excited about it doing so. Bloody nice thing, though.

The same could be said for the Volvo S60 R. It might be reasonably quick on the straights and grippy when the road is smooth, but there are far more rewarding (not to mention more keenly priced) alternatives here. It suffers from anaesthetised steering, a rather slow gearchange and a computer-controlled suspension that can’t quell vertical movements sufficiently in any of its three settings. As one judge moaned, “show me feel, show me directness, show me control”. Sadly, the Volvo is deficient in each of them.

By far the most contentious of this year’s PCOTY entrants, the Porsche Cayenne is proof, if ever you needed it, that mud-slinging off-roaders make lousy performance cars. The Cayenne gathers speed like a runaway train and stops just as impressively, given that it weighs well over two tonnes. But on the road it rolls with conviction and the front end eventually squirms into progressive understeer with powerdown. It’s got wonderful suspension control for such a big beast, though, but the seats lack for lateral support when you’re really on it. It’s a petrol-slurping dragster wrapped up in a military uniform.

It mightn’t have been the tidiest car up the hill, but the Bentley Continental GT put a huge smile on the face of each and every one who drove it. Incredibly and effortlessly fast in short bursts, you quickly learn to keep a watchful eye on its speedo; what feels like 100km/h is often a lot more! Floor the throttle and it surges forward with all the athleticism of a big-engined sports car, albeit in complete silence.

Problem is, it does this without delivering any meaningful feedback. You know you’re travelling quickly, but at the same time you’re mindful that it’s not delivering the full story. The steering is light, and it fails to communicate its actions with any great clarity. The air suspension is actually quite impressive in sport mode, where it manages to control body movements with authority over fast, open roads.

In the end, however, the big Bentley just can’t hide its mass. It weighs 1000kg more than the BMW M3 CSL, for God’s sake! Its weighty engine is mounted well forward of the front axle line, placing lots of mass where you really don’t want it to be. Pitch the Conti at a tight apex and, while its huge tyres manage to put up a good deal of resistance, they just can’t oppose the laws of physics. In the end, a combination of increasing body roll and all that weight pushes the front end wide.

Most of the judges reckoned the BMW Z4 provided the most fun. Its 3.0-litre six is the perfect companion to the German roadster’s delightfully adept rear-wheel-drive chassis, with a typical rev-happy nature and enough torque at low to middling revs to ensure solid punch out of corners. Accurate and superbly weighted steering, along with excellent body control and high levels of grip, let you exploit its handling to the full without feeling like you’re about to come undone in dramatic fashion. It’s certainly not the fastest, but on a challenging road the little BMW is the real deal.

Drive the 4.2-litre V8-powered Audi S4 up the Hillclimb after the Mazda RX-8, as I did, and you quickly become aware of just how disparate some of this year’s PCOTY contenders are. The Audi has power and torque in places the RX-8 can only dream about. This made the S4 more tolerable in real-world conditions, although few of the judges would contend that it was any quicker over the course.

The trade-off is more body roll, but few cars manage to place their power to the ground or offer up such high grip levels as the S4. Cam tried to disprove that opinion by dropping a rear wheel onto the dirt around a sweeping right-hander and having the sliiiide of the day. And if a pro said it was big, we were all cursing that we weren’t on that corner to see it!

The HSV versus FPV form at Winton continued at the Hillclimb, where the Falcon GT lacked the dynamic presence to see off the well-sorted ClubSport R8. While there’s no doubting its power, the Falcon just can’t seem to get its reserves down as well, either off the line or over twisty terrain. Nor is the FPV as poised as the HSV when approaching its limits.

When pushed hard, the GT is subjected to noticeably more body roll than the well tied-down R8. Both cars are big on entertainment value, though, with progressive power on oversteer out of tight corners. Still, when push comes to shove the Falcon feels less forgiving than the remarkably adroit Clubbie.

While the HSV was always high on the judges’ mental list of potential finalists, that was far from the case with the Nissan 350Z Track after the first two days. The Japanese coupe had only managed to manoeuvre itself into the top half of the PCOTY field on the strength of its heightened handling at Winton. Could its ascendancy continue at The Hillclimb? Yes and no, as it turned out.

In terms of driveability, the rear-wheel-drive Nissan was one of the real standouts. The flexible nature of its engine and the snappy feel of its six-speed manual gearbox allow you to build speed with utter confidence. But despite accurate steering and a chassis that keeps body movements to a minimum, its ride is too firm and lacking in compliance for the road, where its progress is easily upset by camber changes and broken surfaces. The 350Z is great when the road is smooth, but less than convincing on rougher surfaces.

The Audi RS 6 also continued its impressive run by romping the 16km in spectacular fashion. No one expected the Ingolstadt stormer to do quite so well at Winton, where it bagged a top three spot. If anything it felt even better suited to our road course. It didn’t lack for pace or traction, despite having a hefty 1865kg to haul.

The way it gets its reserves down in such clean and clinical fashion on rough roads is quite amazing. Had it been raining, only the Gallardo would have stood a chance against the RS 6. It almost didn’t stand a chance when Jesse came close to a head-on in it with the Gallardo, which was charging vigorously. We won’t name names, but let’s just say his initials are the opposite of ‘full’…

As Jesse will attest, while the RS 6’s steering is direct in its actions, it doesn’t communicate with quite the same clarity as some of the more fancied cars in this group. Turn-in is also a little slow. However, once you’re committed there’s heaps of grip. You simply place the RS 6 in a corner and it resolutely sticks to its line. Nice ride, too. If ability and versatility are what you’re looking for, there may be no better performance car on the planet right now.

The M3 CSL had perhaps the most to lose. Engineered primarily as a track racer and running on Michelin Pilot Cup tyres, its meeting with the road was heavily anticipated by the judges. But with one of the world’s best road car engines, an idiot-proof gearchange, extraordinary chassis balance, big brakes and accurate steering, the lightweight M3 hardly put a foot wrong.

Its only real failing was an underdamped feel on big bitumen corrugations or potholes, a drawback of its suspension being tuned primarily for smooth-surfaced track work, no doubt. Nasty bumps and ruts can knock it off line, and it gets a lot of lateral head-toss, but it’s remarkably well composed and a blast to drive hard.

Sounds dreamy, too, with the high pitch giving due warning to the road workers who’d decided mid-afternoon to patch a few of our prized potholes. But thanks to the BMW’s mechanical howl, instead of a ‘slow down’ sign, they gave us the thumbs up.

Just like the Lamborghini Gallardo, in fact. Imposing as it might look, it really is a peach to drive on the road. The shove provided by the 5.0-litre V10 engine is mind blowing – especially at the top end, which just never seems to end. Its soundtrack is quite special, too. I certainly wasn’t the only one to wind down the shallow side window just to sample the Sant’Agata supercar howling at 8000rpm off the rock-face walls at close range.

What moulds the Gallardo’s on-road character the most, though, is its four-wheel drive underpinnings. They allow you to place all of the engine’s mighty reserves to the ground in a measured and confident manner. There’s no theatrics here. The chassis is superb, providing the best balance between front-end bite and rear-end grip of any car assembled here.

It’s also adjustable when the limits of adhesion are exhausted through deft steering wheel and throttle inputs. Ride is surprisingly compliant for a car in this exulted league – the suspension being firm but not crashy when the surface deteriorates. This inherent firmness also keeps body movements to an absolute minimum. And what brakes! If only all cars stopped like the baby Lambo!

Still, there’s a price for the excellence, an eye-watering $190,000 more than the already hugely capable and confidence-inspiring CSL. So, despite its immense ability, the Gallardo is anything but a shoe-in for the title at this stage.

So, 19 cars down, and three days of testing are over. It’s time to head back into town for another $1000 refuelling stop and to whittle the field down to the six distinguished finalists.

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