As our $1.8m train snakes its way to our intended base at the Tawonga Gap lookout, the rain drops land with increasing frequency and the mist thickens as we climb until it seems as though we’ve ascended into the clouds.
The lookout itself offers a stunning view if complete white-outs are your thing, so best to turn 180 degrees and examine the more stirring sight of 10 of the year’s best performance cars ready to be put to the test on one of Victoria’s finest roads.
Tawonga Gap Road is a 20km stretch linking Bright and Mount Beauty in the Victorian High Country and even among the smorgasbord of twisty tarmac in this region, it stands out. The lookout lies roughly half way along its length, offering the choice of turning left or right to sample a mix of hairpins and sweepers with plenty of bumps, cambers and elevation changes.
Adding to the challenge is the wet surface, though the rain has stopped and the cloud is dissipating, affording the odd glimpse of the stunning outlook over the Kiewa Valley and Mount Hotham.
In slippery conditions it seems prudent to start in something with four driven wheels, though given the slowest of our all-paw trio hit 100km/h in 3.59sec, that decision doesn’t reduce trepidation as much as it might. As such, the 450kW/850Nm Mercedes-AMG E63 S seems as sensible a place to begin as any, a decision validated by the incredible wet weather grip of its new-generation Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres.
Were it not for the obvious visual evidence you’d swear the road was dry; obviously, traction is absolute – in stark contrast to every other generation of fast E-Class – but lateral grip levels are equally astounding.
The speed the E63 is capable of is so immense that even a casual sighting run is enough to upset the sensitive stomach of videographer JP, who thankfully exits before redecorating the AMG’s sumptuous interior. Despite its confidence-inspiring demeanour, using the Merc’s entire performance envelope is impossible as it’s not the conditions that prove constraining, but the physical dimensions of the road.
It accelerates so rapidly that by the time you’ve approached full throttle the next corner has arrived. The 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 is a monster; in its angriest modes it feels so sharp and sounds so aggressive – though the note is a little manufactured – that it makes the similar engine in the C63 seems almost tame. The steering is well-weighted and linear, the brakes impervious and the new nine-speed gearbox a clear improvement over the old seven-speeder.
Only two potential criticisms exist: the first, slightly churlish one is the E63 S now feels a bit prescriptive; it wants to get from A-to-B in the shortest possible time. Its speed, size and traction means it’s not a car you get to move around on the road so the slightly over-engined character of previous E63s has been lost.
The bigger issue for a number of judges is whether the AMG possesses the refinement expected of a $260K premium sedan. As DC puts it, the E63 always feels “on”. Its performance is staggering, but the ride is firm and road markers thud through the structure often enough for questions to be raised.
Still, a blast in the GT-R Nismo puts refinement in perspective. In an earlier comparison against the BMW M4 GTS we praised the Nismo for its relative comfort, but among more ‘normal’ vehicles the Nissan’s track focus is obvious. On the road, selecting Comfort for the dampers is as much a part of the start-up process as turning the engine on.
Yet, even so, the Nismo is ruthless in its approach to body control.
The road is drying, but still damp – conditions that, contrary to internet opinion, would tie a regular GT-R in knots. Its Dunlop rubber enjoys water as much as your average household cat, but for reasons that can only be guessed at – softer compound, perhaps? – the Nismo’s R-spec Dunlops find plenty of purchase.
Light steering and an elevated driving position make it difficult to get an accurate read on the road, yet the GT-R’s outright grip levels are such that you’re unlikely to be close to its limits.
There is character to the Nismo; it looks like it’s escaped from Gran Turismo, the increased lag from the larger turbos makes the boost feel even more ferocious when it does arrive and the drivetrain’s clunks and clanks lend it a racecar vibe, but the engine sounds no better than ordinary and it always feels like it would be happier back at Winton.
The similarly focused HSV GTSR W1 straddles the line between road and track more comfortably. Those trick SupaShock dampers are undoubtedly firm – too firm for Morley and Robbo – and the exhaust drone can be distracting, yet both issues are mainly a problem for rear-seat occupants. The driver is better isolated and likely to be having too much fun to care.
On these tight alpine roads the W1’s size and weight are always a factor, but it remains as usable as a regular GTS primarily due to possessing the same attributes: accurate (if a little slow) steering, sensational brakes, lots of grip and great chassis balance.
Those trick Trofeo R tyres aren’t the liability you might expect on damp roads – though we wouldn’t like to hit standing water – and in the dry they grasp the tarmac like they’re acutely aware of the value and rarity of the car they’re supporting.
The main barrier to exploiting the W1 on the road is its gearing. When first stretches to 97km/h and second to 145km/h, cog-swapping opportunities are rare, HSV’s hottest offering being virtually direct-drive on our test route – simply leave it in second.
That said, the length of first makes it genuinely usable in tight corners, and the brutality with which it punches out, then continues to haul virtually unabated in second, is a unique and awesome feeling.
Arguably the best W1 experience, though, is waiting at the lookout and hearing the thunderous LS9 bellow through the trees like a dragon from Game of Thrones.
Like the W1 and Nismo, we suspected the BMW M4 CS would also be happiest at Winton – more fool us. Its beefed up stance, subtle carbon aero, weight loss, extra power and sticky Michelin Cup2 rubber all scream ‘take me to a track day’, but on-road this butch Beemer blows us away.
Key to its ability are those tyres; once warm, the extra grip gives the CS a stability the M4 has always lacked, giving the driver the confidence to exploit its mind-bending speed.
The improvement is such, though, that the changes feel to go deeper than merely a change of rubber. There’s better control over nasty mid-corner bumps, the MDM stability control setting is more refined and the engine angrier and more vocal.
Whereas the standard M4 would be hopping over bumps with spikes of oversteer, the CS more often than not grips and goes, yet if you really dig in it still loves a cheeky hint of oversteer on corner exit.
This talent makes it even more of a shame that BMW hobbled the CS with the ‘lightweight’ interior from the hardcore GTS. Lightweight it may be, but the single-zone air-con looks cheap (which the CS is definitely not), there’s a severe lack of storage space and the composite door cards look like the work of a pre-school arts and crafts session. Nonetheless, the M4 has suddenly vaulted itself into the reckoning.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for the Lexus LC500. It looks fantastic, inside and out, and you could make a case that it’s the best sounding car here, but sadly the substance doesn’t match the style. That’s a tad harsh, as in many ways the LC500 is Lexus’s most polished performance product yet.
The revvy V8 combines beautifully with the slick new 10-speed auto, and though 540Nm motivating almost two tonnes makes the lardy Lexus possibly the tardiest car here exiting a corner, it never feels slow.
Unfortunately, as soon as you turn the wheel that weight starts to hurt the LC500. It doesn’t offer a whole lot of feedback and feels too soft to effectively control its weight, yet skitters over bumps, putting the overly sensitive ESP system on high-alert.
Inexcusably, there is no sports ESP mode; the atmo Lexus doesn’t have the traction struggles of its turbocharged rivals, but to force drivers to disable all the electronics in a $200K car to drive even remotely quickly seems wrong.
Despite its grand tourer brief, the ride is also jittery to the point of annoyance and the infotainment system seems deliberately unintuitive. Despite this, the LC500 remains an easy car to fall for, if you like the way it looks, that is.
Another car that divided the judges on its aesthetics was the Kia Stinger.
You can make up your own mind about its looks, but another trait it shares with the Lexus is its drivetrain being the highlight of the package. It might sound about as rowdy as a silent rave from outside, but the 3.3-litre twin-turbo V6 makes a nice enough growl from the inside, revs smoothly and has mid-range torque to burn. If only the chassis could use it.
The kindest way to describe the Stinger’s chassis is ‘unfinished’. If you’re intending on buying Kia’s new rear-drive sports sedan as a day-to-day cruiser, it’s likely you’ll have no complaints, though the way it floats over larger undulations yet fidgets over small amplitude bumps is a little disappointing.
When it comes to driving hard, however, the Stinger is most definitely a work in progress. We’d start with a better tyre. The way they completely fell apart on track suggest the Continental ContiSportContact 5s aren’t suitable for this level of performance, but a more focused tyre would only help mitigate some major handling flaws.
Laterally and longitudinally, the Stinger is seriously grip-limited in the rear; power oversteer is easily induced even in third gear, which might sound entertaining, but it’s the Kia’s lack of consistency that is its biggest issue.
Actually, the almost complete lack of brakes after Winton is currently the Kia’s biggest issue, but inconsistency is a close second.
Contrary to Kia’s claims, the ESP doesn’t deactivate completely, operating more like a very lenient Sports mode. This is fine – welcome, even – except that sometimes the system is overzealous and other times checks out completely; combine this with its oversteer-first handling balance and the Stinger can be an eye-opening ride.
Forget SS-V Redline, a VFII Calais V (RIP) displayed more balance and composure.
As mentioned, as a sports-luxury cruiser it does a decent job, with heaps of grunt and a great interior, but even at a slower pace the lack of a proper manual mode for the eight-speed auto grates. As a performance car, it needs more tyre, more brakes and more control – maybe the adaptive damper-equipped GT is better?
Virtually identical in mechanical spec to the Kia is the Alfa Romeo Giulia QV, a rear-drive sedan powered by a twin-turbo V6. In contrast to the Stinger, however, the chassis is undoubtedly the highlight of this Italian stallion.
A period of familiarisation is required, for initially the super-light, ultra-sharp steering and wooden brake pedal make each corner a jerky combination of uneasy inputs, like searching for the light switch in a dark room. Slowly but surely, however, your inputs and its responses sync and you can play with this 375kW four-door like a cat batting at a ball of yarn.
The only way to experience the Alfa’s true talents is in Race mode. This more or less deactivates the ESP completely – a midway mode would be welcome – yet the Giulia QV is so friendly at the limit it seems almost a crime to electronically shackle it.
In some cars the limit is a ledge, others a cliff, but in the Alfa it’s a wide plateau; with warmth in the sticky Pirelli P Zero Corsas you can play with its balance endlessly in that grey zone between grip and slip.
Combine this with outstanding touring manners – its ride is probably the best on test – and you have an excellent package, more than worthy of the 4.5-star rating we gave it last year. But this is PCOTY and that missing half-star proves crucial.
Blasting down Mount Hotham with a DC-piloted BMW M4 CS in hot pursuit, the Alfa Romeo Giulia QV feels out of its comfort zone. Its ultra-short gearing leaves it caught between second and third in tight corners with annoying frequency and larger bumps flummox it, particularly on braking and mid-corner.
To these ears it also sounds uninspiring, with a flatulent exhaust note and a wheeze-like whine under heavy load emanating from the engine bay.
The experience from behind the wheel of the Audi TT RS couldn’t be more different.
The noise barking from its 2.5-litre turbo five rips open a hole in the space-time continuum, instantly transporting you to a road in the French Alps in 1984, the height of the Group B rally era. The TT RS sounds like a Quattro S1 at full noise and it goes like one too, furiously rocketing from corner to corner – you could make a strong case for buying this five-pot TT for its engine alone.
Despite its proficiency in the art of point-and-shoot, the Audi excels in faster corners where there’s enough momentum to get its rear moving slightly, something the Sport ESP setting is more than lenient enough to allow, helping point the front wheels at the corner exit and allowing power to be applied earlier.
However, while the TT RS is no boring, stuck-to-the-ground automaton, of the three all-wheel drives here it’s obviously the only one that’s predominantly front-drive, shuffling power to the rear when required.
In tight turns either the system can’t react quickly enough or not enough power can be sent rearwards, as instead of pivoting sharply on throttle application the front is dragged ever so slightly wide – patience is a virtue when getting the best out of the hottest TT. It also suffers the same gearing issue as the Giulia, the big gap between second and third often leaving the engine in no man’s land.
The Audi’s preference is for smooth roads, as bumps encountered under load will have the car skipping, hopping or (occasionally) jumping depending on their severity. Its ride is definitely on the firm side, though thankfully without the wince-inducing crashing of the TT S.
The interior is a beautiful place to sit and while the rear seats are utterly useless, fold the backs down and the TT RS is genuinely practical. It’s also fast, fun and characterful, but tough to wrap your head around – the RS3 uses the same drivetrain for $60K less, but then the TT RS offers R8-style pace for half the price.
Unfortunately for Ingolstadt, the Porsche 718 Cayman S shows what the Audi is lacking. As a driving tool it’s virtually perfect.
Like the Audi it can get flustered over bumps but doesn’t lose its composure to the same degree and otherwise it’s difficult to imagine what more you could want from a car dynamically. The steering is spot-on, brakes powerful and easily modulated and grip levels immense, yet while it doesn’t move around in the manner of the M4 or Giulia, it still always manages to feel alive.
Of course, there’s never been much to complain about with the Boxster/Cayman chassis, but the difference with the 718 is it now possesses the grunt to fully exploit the dynamics in a way only 911-engined models (Cayman GT4, Boxster Spyder) have previously managed.
The 2.5-litre turbo flat-four will never make your ears tingle like the old sixes, but it sounds okay from inside and anyone used to 981-or-previous Caymans will be shocked at the new car’s speed – I certainly was when I encountered it coming the other way on the exit of a tight bend with a certain Bathurst champion at the helm.
The 718 Cayman is now a very expensive car – more than $170K as tested without carbon-ceramic brakes – yet somehow it still feels good value, simply because it could easily be used every day while being so polished that, in engineering terms, it’s almost faultless.
However, while the Cayman can certainly teach the TT RS a thing or two, the Audi offers a lesson of its own in terms of character. Every judge is full of admiration for the Cayman’s excellence, yet at no point does anyone profess a desire to own it.
As a precision driving instrument, though, it sets the benchmark, which only makes it more remarkable that as I shut off the Civic Type R’s 2.0-litre turbo four my foremost thought is: “I think this is the best car I’ve driven today.”
Every superlative just used to describe the $170,000 Porsche applies equally to this $50,000 Honda, yet it’s remarkably difficult to explain why this hot hatch is so good.
It doesn’t shock with ferocious performance like the E63 S, wow with a feral engine note like the W1 or task your skills like the M4 CS, it simply does everything... right.
Adding a turbo means the VTEC engine majors on mid-range torque rather than screaming rpm, but it’s beautifully responsive, revs hard and keeping it in the sweet spot is a cinch thanks to the closely stacked ratios of the sweet-shifting six-speed manual.
Quick, accurate steering controls a front-end that is absolutely nailed to the road, the stable rear ensuring quick corner entries and the tricky limited-slip diff allowing all 228kW/400Nm to claw at the road on exit, with occasional torque steer on bumpy surfaces the only price to pay.
It’s unbelievable how early this powerful front-driver will allow the driver to get hard on the throttle mid-corner and, like the Cayman, it has the rare knack of possessing masses of grip – the Civic’s new-generation Continental ContiSportContact 6s are awesome – without ever feeling too stuck down.
Driving the TT RS, I’m unable to gap Robbo in the Civic uphill or down, despite the Audi’s obvious power advantage. Even more impressively, this cornering prowess doesn’t come at the expense of ride.
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Despite its looks, the Civic eschews the “firmer is faster” school of thought by offering staggering compliance in comfort mode given its focus and 20-inch rims without ever sacrificing body control with the dampers set to sport. Like the Porsche, this remarkable Honda begs to be driven hard and feels at ease at every point within its performance envelope when you do so.
It begs the question: is the Civic Type R the best car here?
THE GAS GUZZLERS
Which car got closest to its claim?
|1st||Honda Civic Type R||7.7L/100km||15.1l/100KM||+7.4L|
|2nd||Audi TT RS||8.4L/100km||15.8L/100km||+7.4L|
|3rd||Kia Stinger 330 Si||10.3L/100km||17.7L/100km||+7.4L|
|4th||Porsche 718 Cayman S||8.1L/100km||16.8L/100km||+8.7L|
|5th||HSV GTSR W1||16.5L/100km||25.2L/100km||+8.7L|
|6th||BMW M4 CS||8.4L/100km||18.0L/100km||+9.6L|
|7th||Alfa Romeo Giulia QV||8.2L/100km||19.9L/100km||+11.7L|
|9th||Nissan GT-R Nismo||11.7L/100km||24.4L/100km||+12.7L|
|10th||Mercedes-AMG E63 S||9.3L/100km||23.4L/100km||+14.1L|