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Performance Car of the Year 2019: Track test

By Scott Newman | Photos: Ellen Dewar & Alastair Brook, 28 Feb 2019 Performance COTY

Performance Car of the Year 2019 Track test feature

Dynamic surprises lie at the limit and beyond as we blitz The Bend, Australia’s hottest new track

The road from Melbourne to Adelaide is never going to rank on anyone’s ‘greatest drives’ list. When the highlight is a giant, crazy-eyed Koala you know attractions are few and far between. Meanwhile, most other motorists delight in that Aussie road trip tradition – driving 10km/h below the speed limit only to channel their inner Lewis Hamilton at the first sight of an overtaking lane.

Regardless of whether it’s your final destination, The Bend Motorsport Park is well worth a visit to break up the tedium. It’s a petrolhead oasis, offering good food (salad! At a racetrack!), a lobby full of drool-worthy exotics and historically important racecars, not to mention the lure of the world’s second-longest permanent racetrack.

The Bend offers a variety of layouts, the headline act being the 37-corner, 7.77km GT circuit. We considered using it for PCOTY, but even if all the judges managed to avoid getting lost (no sure thing) the length of the lap is such that we’d still be testing now.

The International circuit, used by Supercars, was also tempting thanks to its super-quick, triple-apex sweeper and gnarly, uphill, blind-exit right. In the end, though, the West Circuit offered everything we needed.

At 3.41km it’s 410m longer than our traditional Winton test track and its 12 turns (four left and eight right) range from an acute hairpin to a top-of-fourth-gear kink with decent elevation change and a variety of cambers thrown in for good measure.

Bar the big stop at the end of the 1km straight, it’s not super tough on brakes and its freshly laid surface is relatively easy on rubber, with only the M5’s rear tyres showing significant wear – but more on that later. All in all, the perfect production car playground, leaving the only question as which car to tackle it in first?

The sensible approach is to start at the slow end of town and gradually increase the pace. Trouble is, PCOTY rookie Rick wants to do the same and has commandeered the hot hatches, so what to choose?

The M5 has the surety of all-wheel drive, but best to leave the tyres and brakes fresh for Rick. The GT2 RS won’t have any such durability issues, but 515kW is a bit much first thing in the morning. The RS4? Ah, the Mustang.

The previous-gen ’Stang was a bit soft to be a track star, yet had enough grip, grunt and brakes to be a lot of fun – in the dry, anyway. Select Track mode and the MY18 is a much sharper tool. The MagneRide dampers stiffen, the steering weights up and the transmission is set to maximum attack, the revs barely dropping as the 5.0-litre V8 snarls through gear after gear.

There’s not a whole lot of feedback from either end of the chassis, but the adaptive suspension and Michelin rubber combine to offer much sharper responses and greater predictability. This new Mustang is much more interested in grip than slip, requiring real commitment to hang its tail out in the time-honoured muscle-car style. It’s fun... briefly.

Sadly, the Mustang can’t even complete two flying laps before the gearbox overheats, cutting power and refusing any shifts. This lack of stamina is a serious shortcoming for a car that many owners will expect to be able to use on track.

Transmission woes prove to be the Camaro’s Achilles’ Heel on track, too, albeit for a different reason. Unlike its Blue Oval rival, the Chevy will complete lap after lap without complaint, but its eight-speed auto’s steadfast refusal to downshift is an ugly fly in an otherwise tasty soup.

Manual requests are routinely ignored and left to its own devices the gearbox will only select the right gear once you’ve applied throttle on corner exit. It’s a shame as the Camaro is otherwise very enjoyable. It feels bigger, heavier and softer than the Mustang, but its greater adjustability – via brakes or throttle – makes it arguably more fun. Love the engine, too.

The RS4 is not at home on a racetrack. The extra suspension compliance that makes it such an effective road car works against it here; even in Dynamic mode it rolls significantly and this fast family hauler doesn’t have the tyres or the brakes to effectively rein in its weight. Likewise, that torquey twin-turbo V6 continues to deliver effortless pace, but feels 500rpm short of the real deal on track.

Up to a certain point the RS4 is enjoyable; it’s happy to adjust its balance on corner entry and the diffs shuffle power around beautifully, however, it ultimately starts to run out of ideas just when you want it to come alive.

Unlike the Hyundai, which absolutely loves the track. The Bend’s fast, flowing nature exposes its lack of top-end grunt – the straight feels v-e-r-y long – but the i30 N goes where you want it to go and does what you want it to do.

PCOTY 2019: Road test

It’s not overly adjustable, particularly in the stiffest damper setting, which has this hot hatch hopping even on The Bend’s dead-level surface, but you’re having too much fun going as quickly as possible to really care. Get the line right and the turn five kink can be taken flat at 170km/h, yet if you do stuff it up the i30 isn’t going to spit you off in spite.

The Alpine is not quite so forgiving. Rick returned from his laps swearing, having had the A110 slide sideways big time through the kink at high speed. It seems Alpine’s engineers have attempted to replicate its iconic predecessor’s rear-engined dynamics, as the A110 is incredibly sensitive to pitch. Too much throttle lifts the nose and generates power understeer, while trail-braking is to be avoided unless you’re happy to drive on the lock-stops.

At the absolute limit it’s a handful, but drive purely for fun and the A110 is a riot. It sounds brilliant, is faster than you think and needs only the slightest provocation to traverse every corner in a glorious arc of oversteer. Best of all, because it’s so light, tyre and brake wear are virtually non-existent.

Renault’s more traditional challenger, the Megane RS280, feels more at home on track, but it still lacks the magic of its predecessor. The chassis displays remarkable composure at speed, its grip and accuracy making nailing apexes easy. However, the engine feels breathless at the top end, there’s little evidence of the Megane’s traditional adjustability and the much-vaunted bi-material brakes give up way too easily. Very disappointing indeed.

Disappointing certainly isn’t the right word for the M2 Competition. Amazing is much closer to the mark. The standard M2 is great on track, but feels to have M-car grip without M-car grunt. The twin-turbo S55 re-balances the ledger beautifully, while the optional brakes also impress with their resistance to fade.

MOTOR opinion: The 'dangers' of PCOTY 2019

Perhaps most surprising, though, is the M2 Comp’s communication and cohesiveness. Want to drive a neat, tidy lap? The baby Beemer has the grip and accuracy to oblige, but if you want to set the tyres on fire at 100km/h it’s more than up for that, too. In short, it gives you options, while also sounding great and being bloody quick.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that despite two extra driven wheels and another 158kW, the M5 Competition could only beat its little brother by 0.2sec. What is surprising is how much more of a handful this super sedan is at the limit.

Combine a chassis that’s extremely eager to rotate on corner entry with an all-wheel drive system that feels to artificially promote oversteer and the result is a constant flurry of steering corrections to keep the beast pointing in the intended direction, all while accelerating at warp speed.

The straight-line pace of the M5 is phenomenal, but the soundtrack is weird, the steering vague and in 4WD Sport it feels like it’s trying too hard to entertain. Of course, if it’s entertainment you want, simply select 2WD and revel in what must be the world’s easiest car to powerslide. Childish, yes, but a right laugh.

There’s nothing funny about the AMG GT C; it is a very serious sports car that comes into its own at the track. With proper temperature in its giant Michelin Cup 2 tyres and no bumps to worry about, it feels a lot more cohesive than on the road.

Right at the limit the edginess returns, which is not ideal as you’re going at a fearsome lick, but in general there’s so much tyre supporting the chassis that you can make full use of the insane powertrain. Driving a GT C flat-out is a physical, breathtaking experience, the lateral and longitudinal g-forces blending with the sensory assault of its speed and soundtrack.

Whereas the AMG is a brute, the R8 RWS is much more delicate. As you’d expect, Audi’s supercar is capable of tremendous speed, cornering flat with fantastic brakes, beautiful steering and a drivetrain to die for. It all feels fantastic, until you overstep the limit, at which point you suddenly and vividly remember the 5.2-litre V10 behind you and the relatively sensible tyre specification.

Personally, this makes me love it even more. If you want to extract the absolute best out of this supercar, you have to bring your A-game. Clumsy inputs are punished, but get it right by carrying the perfect amount of brake pressure to the apex and exiting with a quarter-turn of opposite lock and you’ll wonder if driving can get any better than this.

But it can. It will surprise no one that the GT2 RS was an absolute monster on track. It simply blew everything else away, clocking a time 3.3sec clear of the second-placed AMG GT C, itself an absolutely ball-tearing performance car.

Its straight-line speed is astonishing, clocking 270km/h down the main straight (20km/h quicker than the M5, for example) with no hint of slowing, yet you can confidently brake as late as in any other car.

Lateral grip is outrageous, its precision unmatched and still it will complete lap after lap after lap without breaking a sweat. Unlike the wide-eyed driver. The only chink in its armour comes on the tricky braking approach to the hairpin, where a change in surface triggers the ABS and lengthens the braking distance quite dramatically.

Undoubtedly the 911’s greatest attribute, though, is its user-friendliness. The intimidating nature of its looks, sound and speed are at complete odds with its benign nature at the limit. A hefty helping of steering slides the rear, at which point 750Nm start eviscerating those 325mm-wide Michelins. It still requires respect, for at smaller slip angles the GT2 will happily oversteer while accelerating at a fearsome rate, but it shouldn’t be this easy to drift a 500kW-plus 911. I need a lie down.

2019's best sorted on road and track on PCOTY 2019

3.41km of Pure Adrenaline

The Bend's West Circuit is probably its easiest configuration, but that doesn’t make it easy. Picking the appropriate braking marker for T1 is crucial as you’re arriving at around 215km/h in the i30 N and about 270km/h in the GT2 RS.

There are a number of lines through T2 and T3 and it’s a perfect place to hang the tail out. T4 is just an acceleration zone, T5 requires a dab of brake and rewards the brave before approaching the hairpin at high speed.

At this point the Supercars turn left but we hook around and rejoin the main track via the tricky off-camber T7. T8 is blind on exit and the long T9 requires patience to ensure a good run over the T10 crest down to the tight T11. T12 looks tighter than it is and it’s important to carry as much speed as possible down that long main straight.

PCOTY 2019: Welcome to Performance Car of the Year 2019

West Circuit Lap times

Rank Vehicle Lap time
1 Porsche 911 GT2 RS 1min 24.0sec
2 Mercedes-AMG GT C 1min 27.3sec
3 Audi R8 RWS 1min 28.5sec
4 BMW M5 Competition 1min 30.8sec
5 BMW M2 Competition 1min 31.0sec
6 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS 1min 32.3sec
=7 Audi RS4 Avant 1min 34.0sec
=7 Ford Mustang GT 1min 34.0sec
9 Alpine A110 1min 35.2sec
10 Renault Megane RS280 1min 36.3sec
11 Hyundai i30 N 1min 37.3sec

Rick Kelly's track thoughts

01 - Porsche 911 GT2 RS
“Jeez, this thing’s got a lot of grunt.It feels like a racecar on a road tyre. Like a Supercar, on a wet tyre, on a dry track. It just wants a race tyre underneath it. It made me smile”

02 - Mercedes-AMG GT C
“If I could change one thing, it would be to quicken the steering so when the rear does do something you weren’t expecting, you can correct it quickly. It’s a car you have to respect due to its power”

03 - Audi R8 RWS
“It’s so fast, and there’s not a lot of grip in the middle of the corner, so it forces you to work at it to get the best outcome. It’s got a beautiful engine/gearbox and hearing that V10 behind your left ear is special”

04 - BMW M5 Competition
“It’s big and luxurious, but it goes places, fast! Sounds incredible and the shifts are super precise. It’s the entry/heavy turning phase in slower corners it struggles with; I think that’s simply the weight”

05 - BMW M2 Competition
“What a little monster! You get some understeer, but then you stand on the throttle and it’s got enough grunt to power slide on exit. Nicely balanced, easy to control a slide. Just a whole heap of fun”

06 - Chevrolet Camaro 2SS
“A typical, big, American muscle car with a heap of noise and big V8 power. I found the steering too heavy; corrections were difficult at times. Gearbox downshifts also not quick enough into corners”

07 - Audi RS4 Avant
“Fair bit of body roll and a lot of entry/mid-corner understeer, which you end up waiting for before you can get on the throttle. It feels like too much of a road car to perform well on track. It sounds incredible”

08 - Ford Mustang GT
“It has a nice, firm brake pedal and brakes well, but it produces more entry and mid-corner understeer than the Camaro, and has a lot less throttle oversteer. It’s enjoyable, predictable and feels really nice”

09 - Alpine A110
“You’d expect quite a consistent balance, but on track, it can produce some pretty difficult situations in terms of car control due to entry oversteer. Engine and power were really sweet, as was the gearbox on upshifts”

10 - Renault Megane RS280
“All the controls are well suited to track-day use – steering weight, pedal layout and gearing. Suffered from understeer; no real oversteer to speak of. Nice, consistent balance without any nasty traits”

11 - Hyundai i30 N
“It feels like a nice, little, stiff car, but the compound of the tyre felt hard and, as a result, you don’t get the braking grip you want. It also resulted in quite heavy understeer, or what I call, shudder understeer... you can feel the vibration through the car”

At the Drags

For most of the year we test on an unprepped dragstrip, valiantly searching for skerricks of leftover VHT among the hard-baked layers of discarded rubber. A warm, freshly laid racetrack is like superglue in comparison, hence the 11 sets of impressive numbers before you.

The Alpine is easily the least powerful car on test, but with just 1103kg to propel the A110 is surprisingly potent, shooting to 100km/h in 4.79sec and maintaining its momentum to clock a 12.90sec quarter mile at 179.84km/h.

It runs the far more powerful M2 Competition close, the baby Beemer managing 4.5sec to 100km/h before stretching its advantage over the quarter with a 12.52sec effort at 182.57km/h. Those figures aren’t much quicker than the standard M2, but the S55 sounds and feels stronger. Braking isn’t a strong point, however, its 36.61m 100-0km/h stop the longest of the whole field and two metres longer than the Alpine.

The Camaro makes a strong bang-for-your-bucks case. For $20K less than the M2 it offers very similar pace. It trails by a couple of tenths to 100km/h (4.73sec) and over 400m (12.72sec), but its 186.35km/h means it’s running the BMW down. Impressive brakes, too, with a remarkable 32.45m 100-0km/h stop.

But when it comes to value, the Mustang is king. Our test car is heavily optioned, but there’s no reason a standard V8 auto couldn’t manage 4.65sec 0-100km/h and a 12.64sec quarter mile at 188.91km/h. Shorter ratios give it a roll-on acceleration advantage over the Camaro, dispatching 80-120km/h in 2.3sec rather than 2.5sec, but it also impresses by stopping from 100-0km/h in 33.86m.

You could throw a blanket over the hot hatches. The Renault has the edge to 100km/h, its 5.98sec bettering the Hyundai’s 6.25sec, but just 0.07sec separate the two at 400m (Renault 14.22sec; Hyundai 14.29sec) with the Megane carrying just 2km/h more speed.

From 80-120km/h the two are identical at 3.7sec, while the Megane stops six centimetres shorter than the i30 N from 100km/h (33.71m vs 33.77m). Given the Hyundai’s lower price, it's a good result.

At this point driver skill takes a back seat, the remaining five cars relying on launch control. The RS4 Avant couldn’t be easier, its twin-turbo V6 and all-wheel drive making it effortlessly the quickest car so far with 0-100km/h in 3.87sec and a 12.02sec quarter mile. Still, its 187.25km/h trap speed can’t match the Mustang, nor can its 2.4sec effort from 80-120km/h.

Strange as it may seem given the numbers, the M5 Competition’s launch control wouldn’t play ball. Its 3.78sec 0-100km/h is fairly ballistic, but well short of its 3.3sec claim, and subsequently 11.53sec is a couple of tenths shy of its ultimate potential, too. Nonetheless, a 203.09km/h trap speed and 80-120km/h in 1.8sec illustrates just how ludicrously fast this Bavarian monster is. Braking is strong for a near two-tonne car at 34.59m, though the RS4 bests it at 34.28m.

Undoubtedly the surprise packet of the whole field is the Audi R8 V10 RWS. With just two-wheel drive and the less powerful of Audi’s two V10 tunes it has no right to clock 0-100km/h in 3.57sec (0.13sec quicker than its claim). From there it only gets quicker, rocketing through 400m in 11.35sec at an incredible 206.87km/h. Overtaking from 80-120km/h matches the M5 at 1.8sec, while 100-0km/h requires just 31.24m.

The AMG GT C feels faster, but isn’t. Not that 0-100km/h in 3.66sec and an 11.55sec quarter mile at 204.34km/h is anything to sneeze at. Its carbon brakes also take time to build temperature, resulting in a 35.33m 100-0km/h stop, while less opportune gearing is responsible for the 2.1sec 80-120km/h time. Anything capable of these numbers is well into the realms of insanity.

Which means the Porsche 911 GT2 RS needs to be locked up, Hannibal Lecter style. On the one hand the ultimate Porker disappointed, missing its 0-100km/h claim by 0.33sec, more than any other car bar the M5. On the other hand, it still blew the field away with a 3.13sec time, despite plenty of wheelspin off the line.

The rest of the numbers are just laughable, the GT2 RS existing on a different performance plane. Its 10.63sec quarter mile at 220.85km/h makes it the quickest car we’ve ever tested – as in, ever ever – while its 1.5sec 80-120km/h time is also a benchmark, as is the 30.12m stop from 100-0km/h. That’s the ‘Performance’ criteria nailed, then.

Drag time results

Rank Vehicle 0-400m
1 Porsche 911 GT2 RS 10.63sec @
220.85km/h
2 Audi R8 RWS 11.36sec @
206.87km/h
3 BMW M5 Competition 11.53sec @
203.09km/h
4 Mercedes-AMG GT C 11.55sec @
204.34km/h
5 Audi RS4 Avant 12.02sec @
187.25km/h
6 BMW M2 Competition 12.52sec @
182.57km/h
7 Ford GT Mustang 12.64sec @
188.91km/h
8 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS 12.72sec @
186.35km/h
9 Alpine A110 12.90sec @
179.84km/h
10 Renault Megane RS280 14.22sec @
166.02km/h
11 Hyundai i30 N 14.29sec @
164.26km/h