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Performance Car of the Year 2020: The Road Course

By Louis Cordony | Photos: Nathan Jacobs/Alastair Brook, 11 Feb 2020 Performance COTY

Performance Car of the Year 2020 Road Course feature

PCOTY testing begins with our 10 finalists tackling some demanding tarmac in South Australia

Skid marks – huge, snaking elevens into and out of corners, all the way up the hill. Yes, we have arrived on the road down which we’ll be punting our 10-strong, kilowatt-packed convoy, and somebody’s rubbery graffiti indicates as much.

Only a couple hours ago, before coming all this way to the north-east of Adelaide, there was a chance our target road could have been anything but the driving nirvana it seemed on Google Maps. But as we hunt it along the Stott Highway between Angaston and Sedan, ascending to the ridge that looks out across the Mount Lofty Ranges, I let out a sigh. Then a gasp.

The enormous knuckles of earth lying between us and South Australia’s dusty eastern plains look as if someone had chiselled a slice of the Nürburgring Nordschleife into the side of them. It has delivered on our hopes.

Fast corners whittle down into challenging sections as the road twists and tightens. Then it loops downwards, disappearing around foothills before appearing again and running around another. The surface is superb, mostly, but gnarls for just long enough to ask a car’s chassis the questions you won’t find on a billiard-smooth racetrack.

As we snake down the road in convoy my pulse quickens at the very idea of wrestling our 10 contenders up and down this blacktop. Almost every second corner boasts full sight lines. And after a year where rain plagued every significant MOTOR event leading up to this one, the skies are clear.

So, rather than tease myself and leave the most anticipated car until last, once we’re all accounted for at the turnaround point I lunge for the 992-gen Porsche 911 Carrera S. The company turbocharged its icon in the second half of the last generation, which should make its acceleration less surprising, but as I pull away it’s bloody obvious turbocharging has stuck a rocket up the new 911’s clacker.

Its twin-turbo flat-six is super flexible, building speed from as low as 2000rpm in high gears but also delivering a heady top-end rush all the way to the 7400rpm redline. And there’s plenty of grunt spread through the rev band, thanks to new cylinder heads and turbocharger layouts helping extract 331kW and 530Nm from three litres.

The Porsche’s effortless urge suits the rest of the car perfectly. From the natural seating position to the imperceptible PDK shifts and brilliant forward vision, it gels with you. The damping is supple yet beautifully controlled, so it feels like it’s gliding up the hill. And it is guided by steering that is as pure as electric systems come for weight, feel and accuracy.

As godly as it is, though, I’m not the only one who thinks a little more trail-braking is needed to turn it in. And the 911 is almost its own worst enemy. Even on humble Goodyear Eagle F1 rubber, the grip levels are so high that scaling the heights of its performance seem a silly idea on these public roads.

When I return to the parked convoy, a white Mercedes-AMG A35 promises a more mortal experience. I slide inside and stomp the throttle to feel its upgraded A250 engine pull in a nice linear fashion, even if it feels a little short on grunt, while the front-biased all-wheel drive system delivers total traction.

If the A35 was a dog, I’d bet on it being a beagle. It does everything you want. The steering is clear and crisp, the damping firm and confident, the brakes bite well and the MBUX-dominated interior is a nice place to sit at this price. But while obedience and predictability are admirable qualities, you’d wish it would yank on the leash and give you a fright once in a while. Or bark a little louder.

Perhaps its dark side will reveal itself on the track, which is a better place to explore the myriad of drive modes and settings accessed through the excellent C63-spec steering wheel. And while it should not be marked down for being fast, safe and classy, since that’s what AMG wants it to be, we think it deserves just a dash more lunacy.

After all, AMG does lunacy so well. Take the GT63 S. This is a two-tonne-plus four-door with 470kW/900Nm, but it steers so direct, handles with such agility, and its chassis is somehow more impressive than the famed shuttle-launch acceleration.

The GT63 S works each contact patch with balletic finesse.

Nudge the steering into a corner and you will feel the inside rear wheel jack to help release the nose. The grip balance is perfectly judged, but there’s still a limit to how hard it can be hustled. Push too far and roll oversteer can unglue even the sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s that give it so much bite under braking and traction under acceleration.

AMG thankfully tuned its ESP system to perfection, nipping at the appropriate wheels to keep things tidy just when you realise you’re in trouble. The drive modes also make an obvious difference. Sport and Sport Plus suitably prime the nine-speed auto and air suspension. It’s firm in any mode. But you’ll be going so fast you won’t notice it thudding over road joints. It is brilliant at max attack.

Next is the Lexus RC F Track Edition. I’ll never get over its engine, that’s for sure. That Yamaha-developed 5.0-litre atmo V8 tears away with a loud, hair-raising induction howl, but things aren’t so exciting once the road starts winding.

The eight-speed automatic downshifts slowly, and frustrating ratios make it impossible to find a suitable gear for these bends. Second is too short, while third overestimates the V8’s mid-range torque, so I find myself either right on redline or needing more grunt.

New carbon exterior bits haven’t made as much difference to handling as the sticky Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres and, while others are willing to forgive the RC F’s doughy steering in favour of its sharp and balanced chassis, it never feels cohesive to me. Granted, its new carbon-ceramic brakes are brilliant, with bite, power and modulation in equal measure, but the Track Edition will need to shine where its name suggests.

Speaking of names, the Trophy-R moniker carries a special place in most judges’ hearts alongside memories of the pin-sharp RS275 version from a few years back. But since the Cup-chassis Megane RS struggled at last year’s PCOTY to convince us Renault Sport had again achieved greatness, I didn’t know what to expect from this new range-topper.

Things start well, as the 1.8-litre engine with its new ceramic ball-bearing turbocharger pulls hard, with a mean rort, and the six-speed manual shifts a lot more smoothly than I remember it operating in the regular RS.

You can also sense the Renault’s barrel-chested confidence before you have even turned the nicely weighted steering wheel, as it sits planted on Ohlins suspension and broad Bridgestone S007 rubber.

As with any track special, it has followed a radical diet. A lighter overall weight helps it change direction with enthusiasm, tackling the road loop like a rally car on a special stage. It’s also immediately obvious the steering has improved since Renault Sport dropped the rear axle’s 4Control system, while the rear end never threatens to step out too far, but rather helps point it into corners.

Next, I find myself in the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q, which is proving divisive for obvious reasons. While its 375kW/600Nm powertrain should make it a bona fide performance car in anyone’s books, a few judges are finding the SUV’s inherent compromises hard to accept.

Still, it acquits itself well for a 1.8-tonne beast. It bolts between corners as fast as anything else and holds on to the road with tenacious grip like an overgrown hot hatch. But there’s something about its fast steering and that centre of gravity that never leaves you comfortable enough to push its limits. It feels fun up to about eight-tenths and I’m just not confident enough to push beyond that here.

It’s almost the same story in the Lotus Exige Sport 410.

It might share its bones with the Elise, but one glance in the rear mirror’s view, crowded by a hulking supercharger atop a 3.5-litre V6, is all you need to quickly adjust your respect for this shrunken supercar.

Thankfully traction is excellent on Cup 2s when that charged V6 delivers its god-like shove and rings its howl through the cabin, so your brain becomes fixed on chasing that throttle-induced dopamine hit whenever possible.

But it’s the rear-drive chassis, defined by heavy, unassisted steering and stiff, short-travel suspension that warns you the Exige might not be capable of the cornering speeds you might think it is on these roads. The heavy steering jolts in your palms as the front wheels struggle to settle over less-than-smooth surfaces. And the tightly spaced pedals can obstruct the brake when you need it most.

Driving the Exige becomes a battle between heart and head, experiencing its hellish acceleration between corners without overestimating its chassis. So I fall out from it, almost literally, feeling more alive than ever, perhaps because I’ve flirted with death more than I would have liked to enjoy its appeal.

There’s no such crisis in the Toyota Supra GTS, the test’s only other two-seater. Its pedigree might be less pure, since it’s based on the BMW Z4, but it’s obvious on these roads that the car is the result of a superb team effort between brands.

While I’m more than familiar with its turbocharged powertrain and silken power delivery through an obedient eight-speed automatic, since it’s standard grade in any 40-badged BMW, the expertly judged ride and handling come as a massive shock.

Toyota has developed the Supra’s suspension into a supple yet controlled package that makes it encouraging at its limit. Some won’t like sitting on the rear axle, as you feel one step behind the front-end, but once you get comfortable with the car’s slightly delayed steering it becomes incredibly easy to unleash on a winding road.

But the Supra isn’t the only car to borrow its underpinnings from elsewhere. Genesis relied heavily on the Kia Stinger through parent Hyundai Motor Company in developing the G70. That’s no bad thing, since the 3.3-litre twin-turbo V6’s surge in a straight line immediately underscores the G70’s credentials.

Genesis worked hard to breed dynamic talent into its genes and that might be why the steering is nicely weighted and the brakes deliver good feedback to easily fine-tune its weight balance. Just as well, though, since its natural tendency to push into corners means you will need to trail-brake more than usual.

This is not easily fixed with the throttle, either. The G70’s soft rear-end fails to tame the 510Nm that arrives in a big fat turbocharged lump, so it breaks away suddenly and without much warning. The ESP isn’t very consistent either, and the eight-speed auto compounds the problem by reverting to auto mode, but come time for the transport stage and you’ll know that the brilliant ride and accessible grunt will make it highly sought-after.

But right here, on these roads, you need a warrior. Cue the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. Besides looking more menacing than Darth Vader, and with a heavily blown V8 threatening to atomise its rear Continentals, the ZL1 is surprisingly friendly if you’re being half sensible.

The Camaro’s brakes and steering are meaty, so it demands measured but firm inputs before giving its best. Dig deep, though, because that chassis, bolstered by adaptive dampers at each corner, steers true and does an unbelievable job in taming the 881Nm channelled through its electronic locking rear differential.

It’s amazing how long the rear Continental hold on. The ZL1’s state-of-the-art electronic safety aids manage grip, but only the brave will wind back their complete assistance. I find myself wanting more time in the ZL1 knowing there’s so much more to extract from it. And that is its charm. It’s easy to enjoy, but hard to master.

Luckily, that’s PCOTY, an event that lets us explore a car in bites, peeling back layers at a time to assess its true nature. With the road section done, we’ve started that process, revealing some early favourites and others that have a fair bit of work cut out for them. But that could all change. So, without further wait, let’s hit the track.

Finding 2020's best on Performance Car of the Year 2020

PCOTY 2020 - The Road Route

7km of bliss: The Angaston-Swan Reach Road
This stretch of the Stott Highway is best approached from Angaston for the most breathtaking view – and to grab a bite at Mount Pleasant. The road starts fast, with a couple of long, flowing corners that tighten as it descends. Then it’s a zig-zag of second- and third-gear bends. It eventually bottoms out with a sweeping right-hander that hooks into a double-apex left, which marks the start of some decreasing-radius corners that finish with a stretch of road ripe for a few full-throttle blasts.

PCOTY 2020 - Fuel notes

Hey, big drinker! 
Which car got closest to its claimed consumption?

Rank Vehicle Claimed* Measured Difference
1 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 15.3L/100km 16.9L/100km +1.6L
2 Lotus Exige Sport 410  10.4L/100km 12.1L/100km +1.7L
3 Mercedes-AMG GT63 S 11.3L/100km 13.6L/100km +2.3L
4 Genesis G70 10.2L/100km 14.3L/100km +4.1L
5 Mercedes-AMG A35  7.6L/100km 12.1L/100km +4.5L
=6 Lexus RC F Track Edition  11.2L/100km 15.9L/100km +4.7L
=6 Toyota GR Supra GTS  7.7L/100km 12.4L/100km +4.7L
8 Porsche 911 Carrera S  9.5L/100km 14.3L/100km +4.8L
9 Renault Megane Trophy-R  8.0L/100km 13.2L/100km +5.2L
10 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q  10.2L/100km 17.2L/100km +5.0L

*Combined urban/freeway fuel consumption

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