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Performance Car of the Year 2004 - Track Testing: classic MOTOR

By Dean Evans, 22 Dec 2019 Performance COTY

Performance Car of the Year 2004 Track Testing feature

If there’s one place that sorts the gems from the toys, it’s Winton Raceway – arguably the toughest test in PCOTY. Helmets on!

Winton is not Australia’s best racetrack. Harsh but true. There isn’t a high-speed straight, there’s little character, it’s dry, brown, dusty, remote and almost always hot and unpleasant.

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

If you nominated Winton as your favourite track, you’d have as many rocks in your head as a gravel trap. But the majority of Victoria’s V8Supercar teams use Winton as their official test loop because, like it or hate it, the 3km national circuit is a tough, tricky technical challenge that tests engines, gearboxes, tyres and brakes through a good mix of slow, medium and fast corners. Perfect for PCOTY! A quick time is under 1min 40sec, while the PCOTY record is 1:36.35, set by Porsche’s stonking 911 GT2 in 2002.

Just one of the judges officially races the clock. Cam McConville is given an out lap and two fliers to squeeze out a hot time – itself a sub-test of a car’s ease of driving. The other six judges use the track to push each in an arena that’s safe and controlled. All for science and quantitative comparison purposes, of course. At the end of the day we combine Cam’s times and comments with our own thoughts and arrive at a general assessment and agreement of each car. And those who don’t agree with the majority are shouted down and/or beaten.

With that mindset, and 45psi hot pressure in all its tyres, the smallest fish jumped into the big pond. Holden’s Astra SRi Turbo, the Current Bang For Your Bucks champ might have been 19th fastest from 19, but it didn’t feel it. As one of only two front-drivers in the field and the cheapest by almost 15 grand, the lone budget banger Astra faced a tough job to impress.

Its sharp throttle response and torque allow for a higher gear, though the steering is a little slow and its soft suspension lights up the inside tyre. “It likes longer radius medium to high-speed corners,” said Cam. If it’s a consolation for the wooden spoon, the Astra Turbo feels faster than its lap time suggests.

Certainly much nicer than Alfa’s Romeo 147 GTA, the other front-driver that’s $23,000 more and just 0.9sec quicker on lap time. A glorious engine with thrumming tunes and torque everywhere, its steering is super-sharp, but its suspension super-sux.

Apart from yawing and twisting around the vertical axis mid-corner, it combined turn-in oversteer with power-on understeer – and lots of it! Hitting kerbs was like riding a jackhammer and its 300Nm at 4800rpm laid down black strips on most exits. And ASR would stamp on the brakes when it thought the driver had run out of talent – which was sometimes good, but more often bad. Not fast, but a bit of fun.

Rather a contrast to the Subaru Liberty GT. The fact that it wasn’t slowest around Winton was a surprise following its modest straight-line speed. Put it down to the sharp steering, strong brakes, a well balanced chassis that held good corner speed and 180kW, giving it a slim 0.2sec advantage over the Alfa. An impressive road car, but uninspiring around Winton.

The more competent, more involving (but double the price!) Volvo S60 R scraped into 16th spot ahead of the Sooby by just 0.06sec. Another all-wheel-drive turbo, its five-cylinder engine drone was more pleasant from outside than in; not so the park-bench levels of upper body support.

The trippy shifter shuffled through gears smartly, but high-stepping clutch action made smoothness more of a chore than a challenge. Sharp steering wasn’t the only advantage of the 18-inch wheels; grip was strong and balance neutral with a trace of front-end push. Strong brakes weren’t enough to impress Cam, who said the S60 R was better suited to sweeping corners like Phillip Island.

The Commodore SS can feel a little unlucky, being pipped for 14th by Porsche’s Cayenne Turbo. The Aussie 5.7-litre sedan proved a decent all-rounder, but a little underperforming. Cam loved it (he should, he drives one daily), giving it the thumbs up for steering, balance and powerdown, but the majority of judges were twisting flat-hands, citing lack of speed, a slow shift and mild understeer among its main criminal accusations. The SS also seemed to tire quickly; by day’s end it felt sloppy, slow and weary. The SS might be a bit short of thrills, but it’s second best on bills.

Which leads nicely to the decadent $203,400 Cayenne Turbo. Despite having 331kW, the Cayenne’s got one problem – or, more specifically, 2355 of them. Kilograms. Not a lot of love for the fat chick, and though she sprints like an Olympian, there’s that important subject of corners and having to slow for them. Brakes were good on lap one but quickly started to overheat and shudder.

Changing direction was like turning the QE2 from port to starboard. And its insane speed and weight meant braking distances were doubled. The Cayenne might have been like the juggling clown at an X-rated party – there for novelty value – but its 1:46.12 lap walloped the BMW X5 4.6i from last year by 4.56sec. A lumping piece of lard, but a damned quick lumping piece of lard.

Marginally better was Jaguar’s XJR, and we mean marginally. Two-tenths faster, 298kW of supercharged V8 means little when it cuts power due to overheating. Just like last year. It also suffered from a tendency to spin an inside wheel, an unhelpful, confusing gearbox and brakes that went to lunch before we did. Next!

If there was one vehicle that contrasted the Jag’s lack of fun factor, it was FPV’s Falcon GT – the quintessential drift car. Beautifully balanced, heaps of torque, not a lot of rear grip and handfuls of steering angle meant it was a challenge (and a travesty) to drive the GT straight. So no one did. Especially MT, who claimed the first spear-off of the day while trying to drive it at a 100-degree angle.

A great soundtrack kinda distracts from the lack of mid-range urge. And the average two-three shift. Steering is a little vague, there’s a frustrating lack of redline or limit marking, and it had serious issues with powerdown and a quick lap.

It was too easy to oversteer, with the norm being screeching levels of full opposite lock, smoke-churning, koala-scaring, engine-on-limiter oversteer from entry to exit. And the GT soaked it all up without a complaint. Only okay fast, but two-thumbs-up fun.

BMW’s Z4 was almost the anti-GT, with a modest 170kW from its 3.0-litre six and a chassis that felt like it was magnetised to the track. Cam was begging for more power, which was a sign that (a) the chassis is sweet and (b) BMW’s two-stage traction control wasn’t fully disabled, which would have easily dropped a second.

Cam sprouted “very neutral”. A good all-rounder with a spread of power and gearing that seemed well suited, despite a notchy shifter, with great turn-in, nimble steering and glued powerdown. Still, it was relatively slower here than at Wakefield Park in BFYB, which indicates that it prefers faster corners. The Z4 was also the first real sign that we were getting to the good stuff.

Almost. Then there was Bentley’s Continental GT, which scraped into the top 10. And we all looked at each other, shaking heads. The porker of the field with a lardy 2410kg, it’s a big, heavy barge but impressively doesn’t feel like it. Nimble isn’t right; try ‘not as bad as you’d think’.

The ginormous 405mm front rotors were fine, but the pad compound struggled. And after just two laps the temperature needle climbed into the red. Cam summed it up: “It’s impressive for the weight, but if I spent $400,000 on a car I’d have the Lambo.”

Chrysler’s Crossfire evoked mixed feelings. Cam labelled it forgiving and docile; everyone else was less PC, proclaiming it dull. Two-stage ESP cuts the fun, the steering is woolly, the brakes don’t inspire confidence and it sounds a bit flat. The surprisingly quick 1:44.8 lap was down to its good balance and loads of tyre grip.

Cam added: “The rev limiter’s so soft that the engine just disappears and you wonder what’s wrong. It’s easy to drive at 9/10ths, but unrewarding and understeery if pushed more.” Easy to drive fast, but barely raised the pulse above idle.

If it’s all about intensity of the drive, this is where 9400rpm of chimed redline rotary in Mazda’s RX-8 shines. With a beautiful chassis, precise steering, great brakes and awesome powerdown, the fact that it was only two-tenths quicker than the ‘Misfire’ dropped jaws.

The seating position is perfect, but it’s a little twitchy on the limit, and there the DSC (even deactivated) rams on the brakes if there’s too much yaw. Very easy to drive and a lot more fun, it just didn’t have enough squirt pulling out of Winton’s many tight corners. Please, Mazda, bolt a blower on it!

Audi’s newest baby, the S4, also suffered turbo envy simply because its big brother, the RS 6, was here. Grip was good, thanks to the driving-fast-for-dummies quattro system, and the silky, throbbing 4.2-litre V8 revved oh so smoothly, even if it didn’t do a lot above five grand. But the shifter was overly springy, as was the clutch action, challenging smooth downshifts. Yep, it did understeer, and the steering was a little slow, while its lack of top end disappointed some in power, if not noise. The S4 proved that one man’s dull was another man’s delight, and seventh fastest was deserved.

HSV’s ClubSport R8 was harder edged, the first of the big-bangers. Quite a complete package, the R8 had good turn-in, grip, with a touch of early-corner push, before settling and sinking in the rear on exit. The mid-range grunt is thick and it loves a rev, the extra few hundred from HSV helping a lot. It rarely felt short of urge, the brakes stood up to all but Cam’s punishment, and it rated high on the funzo scale. Back pats to HSV.

With 79kW, 147Nm and two cylinders less, plus a weaker weight-to-power ratio, it was a damned impressive feat when Nissan’s 350Z trumped the R8 by more than three-tenths. Cam was indifferent: “Underwhelmed. Braking is good, but not up to the RX-8. A little boring because I had a third more understeer, which probably means it had more rear grip. Another car where a secondary DSC jams on the brakes at times of extreme stress – but it’s here when the fun starts.” Or, thanks to DSC, stops.

The Z is a more masculine car than the RX-8; its engine, gearshift, brakes and steering are all a level firmer and gruffer. Fifth fastest, Z sure ain’t dead, showing plenty of speed.

‘Plenty’ isn’t nearly enough for the Monaro-based CSV Mondo GT370R. With a thunderous 370kW and 580Nm on offer from its 6.5-litre Gen III, being eight-tenths faster than the HSV is impressive more because of its weaknesses. Of the go/stop/corner trio, two out of three ain’t bad, but it ain’t ballet, either.

The CSV is simply a bullet down the straights, with incredible, powerfully effective brakes that relish a rogering. But its slow-rack steering and softish handling were proof of its test mule status and age.

With little relative grip, getting the power down was a lesson in throttle control, as Strap-On found out big time! Cam said: “You feel like you’re driving in the wet; you have to feather the throttle.” In fact, it felt quicker (and safer) with the traction control on.

Audi’s RS 6 grabbed the lap dash bronze medal, six-tenths clear of the Mondo but a massive 4.6sec off second place. And did it on its back, hands behind head.

“It’s good to see Audi has made something that puts a smile on your dial,” spilled Cam of the 4.2-litre, twin-turbo quattro supercar. “It’s awesome. By far the best Audi I’ve ever driven. It’s got so much more power, it’s less understeery, has heaps of mid-corner grip and the engine is just awesome with so much torque – and you can hear it. Fantastic!”

The RS 6’s turbo grunt launches it from corners with a remarkable resistance to understeer, and the top end belts out with a deep, throbbing blast, upshifting automatically, but inviting manual downshifts while stamping on the brakes, which faded slightly after a decent punishing (thank that 1865kg). Even with its quick 1:42.09, it surprised us to discover the RS 6 didn’t even break into the all-time top 10!

It took the agile and amazing Lamborghini Gallardo to do that, slipping into a clear fourth in the all-time top 10, and runner-up in this year’s field.

Simply amazing, the Lambo sliced around Winton like a pro. There are just so many reasons why the Gallardo is fast: 5.0-litre V10, 367kW, 510Nm, just 1450kg, fatter track than a Commodore or bulldog-like RS 6, wide 19-inch rubber, all-wheel drive with 70 percent rear bias. But what really boils the lobster are the brakes; 365mm front and 335mm rear ventilated and cross-drilled rotors, eight-piston front and four-piston rear calipers are just so damned effective that they almost stop time!

There simply isn’t a road car we’ve driven that stops better than the Gallardo; a heavy shove on the skinny middle pedal just sinks the nose into the tarmac like the index finger of God is pushing against the windscreen.

Turn-in is intuitive, the rear drifts a touch to banish the thought of understeer and the quick steering (2.3 turns lock-to-lock) seemingly pulls the nose towards the apex. The immense grip, chassis balance and torque split take care of the high mid-corner speed and once the apex is nailed, so’s the throttle. On the limit the tail slides just a touch as the front is already pulling it back into line, all the while as neutral, addictively electrifying yet easy as anything we’ve ever driven.

With highlights like the perfect seating position, Cam was smitten: “It looks like it might be fearsome to drive but it’s not. It just dangles the carrot – ‘go on, a bit more, a bit more’ – each lap.”

It wasn’t all sugar and spice, though, the shifter proving a pain constantly baulking the second-to-third shift like an XR6. Cam’s forced solution was to double-clutch during the upshifts, losing at least a few tenths. “Certainly the biggest grin factor by far,” he added. “And the sound is even better than the M3.”

Not so its lap time, though. A clear half a second faster, the grand champion of Winton 2004 is BMW’s glorious M3 CSL.

“Where can I get one?” was Cam’s first question. “Or more importantly, how can I afford one? It’s probably the most spot-on road car I’ve ever driven around here. It feels like a race car; it brakes unbelievably well and it even blips the throttle. And it’s so consistent.”

Of course, the sticky Michelin Cup tyres are made for hot lapping, and though some reported a dead feel on turn-in, they’re probably good for at least a second a lap. Maybe two. But it’s not just the tyres; it’s also easy to drive, with fantastic balance and an innate way of making you feel like a racer.

The sound is pure sex – a high-pitched, thrumming wail that sounds like it’d shatter glass. If the Lambo sounded best from inside, the BMW was the pick from pitlane. The SMG gearbox works a treat, allowing downshifts before the corner, while the single-piston 345/328mm brakes hung in impressively well.

Difficult to fault, its pace was only slowed through the old turn one, which demanded third gear but forced it out of its happy power zone. With a 1:37.06 lap, any car that can match or beat a Porsche 911 Turbo and Lamborghini Gallardo is a deserving track champion. M3 CSL, a gold medal performance.

PCOTY 2004: Winton Lap Times

  Car Lap Gap
1st BMW M3 CSL 1:37.06  
2nd Lamborghini Gallardo 1:37.51 +0.45sec
3rd Audi RS6 1:42.09 +5.03sec
4th CSV Mondo 370R 1:42.71 +5.65sec
5th Nissan 350Z Track 1:43.18 +6.12sec
6th HSV ClubSport R8 1:43.50 +6.44sec
7th Audi S4 1:44.31 +7.25sec
8th Mazda RX-8 1:44.62 +7.56sec
9th Chrysler Crossfire 1:44.87 +7.81sec
10th Bentley Continental GT 1:45.03 +7.97sec
11th BMW Z4 3.0i 1:45.28 +8.22sec
12th FPV Falcon GT 1:45.57 +8.51sec
13th Jaguar XJR 1:45.94 +8.88sec
14th Porsche Cayenne Turbo 1:46.12 +9.06sec
15th Holden Commodore SS 1:46.13 +9.07sec
16th Volvo S60 R 1:47.00 +9.94sec
17th Subaru Liberty GT 1:47.06 +10.0sec
18th Alfa Romeo 147 GTA 1:47.22 +10.16sec
19th Holden Astra SRi Turbo 1:48.14 +11.08sec

PCOTY 2004: The Professional Opinion

V8Supercar race driver Cameron McConville spills his speed beans

Holden Astra SRi Turbo
"A really good engine, but it doesn’t like the tight stuff. It’d be 50 percent better with an LSD."

Alfa Romeo 147 GTA
"Really aggressive on turn-in. The engine sounds fantastic; it just needs a bit of suspension sorting. A lot of power for the chassis and it lights up the inside tyre too easy."

Subaru Liberty GT
"Engine’s nice, revs well. Nothing flash. It felt very rolly. Auto won’t shift down when asked, and in an undesteery car you need engine braking for balance."

Volvo S60 R
"Nice – I like the gear change. Not much feel in the brakes, but quite neutral. A bit of understeer on tight corners, which you’d expect from all-wheel drive. Just doesn’t feel that fast. Needs more grunt. Easy to drive, quite a surprise."

Holden Commodore SS
"A docile version of the R8. Could do with more grunt. Turns in well (with a big clunk) and has good powerdown, with some mid-corner push. Chassis and brakes felt good."

Porsche Cayenne Turbo
"Awesome engine. Tiptronic was frustrating; wouldn’t go into the right gear. A lot more understeery than I thought. It doesn’t like changing directions. The brake pedal was on the floor on the second lap. Not a racetrack car."

Jaguar XJR
"Lights up the inside tyre on the tight stuff. Had brake shudder pretty badly. Not that nice to steer, either – very vague, not that responsive. Temperature went to red on the second lap and then it lost power."

FPV Falcon GT
"Similar to the R8: too much body roll. Felt smaller than the HSV but not quite as good on powerdown. Stopped well, with no brake fade. Initial turn-in was good, but light high-speed push."

BMW Z4
"Very pleasant and neutral. The chassis feels like it could handle more power. Brakes went long on the last lap. Traction control probably slowed me down a couple of seconds a lap."

Bentley Continental GT
"So much power! Box won’t downshift, even at 4500rpm. It overheated and went into limp-home mode going down the straight the second time."

Chrysler Crossfire
"Surprisingly quick, and very docile. Could do with more power. Heaps of grip, but go past the limit and the ESP brakes the unladen wheel. A novice could be quite safe on a track."

Mazda RX-8
"Not overly powerful but a lot of fun on the limit. No brake fade, gearbox is one of the best I’ve used and the engine sounds great, just needs more herbs. Mid-corner speed is where it picked up time."

Audi S4
"Engine sounds great but doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere. Brakes are great, gearbox is fantastic, steering’s nice but a little bit vague on initial turn-in. Easy to drive, but a little dull."

HSV Clubsport R8
"Turns in really nicely with a bit of exit understeer on high-speed corners, meaning it’s quite low in the rear and it squats down well. Had a little bit of pedal fade on that second lap. A good, fun package."

Nissan 350Z Track
"Felt grunty! Better power than the RX-8 but not the same grip. More understeer, but still neutral and a little taily coming off the turns. Gearchange isn’t as nice but still short. Good mid-range, but could do with more."

CSV Mondo GT370R
"Needs more work on grip and less on power. Have to drive it like you’re in the wet; you just can’t get the power down. Horsepower rich and grip poor."

Audi RS6
"Awesome. So much grip, that engine note, so much mid-range torque – best engine so far. It’s got so much power you can actually steer it through the corner rather than having the mid-corner push quattro traditionally has. Well done, Audi!"

Lamborghini Gallardo
"Has so much grip. Could have a bit more grunt down low; everything happens around 5000-6000rpm. So much mid-corner speed and very little understeer. Awesome brakes, no fade at all. Across-gate gearchange is slow. Probably not as quick as the M3 but biggest grin factor by far."

BMW M3 CSL
"A race car hidden under a soft bodyshell! Bit light on the steering and aggressive on turn-in. Gearbox is great; nice to have a sequential ’box that changes down when you tell it to. No noticeable brake fade, tyres didn’t go off and the engine is just awesome – revs all the way to 8000rpm. Can’t fault it, as a track car it’s perfect."

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