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Performance Car of the Year 2020: The Track Test

By Scott Newman | Photos: Alastair Brook/Nathan Jacobs, 12 Feb 2020 Performance COTY

Performance Car of the Year 2020 Track Test feature

Put on the track suit and lace up those sneakers, it’s time to test the athleticism of our 10 PCOTY challengers

Remember school sports day? Your feelings on this event, a chance to perform in front of students, teachers and parents, were probably dependent on your athletic prowess. Perhaps it’s different in this ‘everyone wins a prize’ era, but when I was a kid success meant cheers from your peers, while failure led to jeers and tears.

Essentially, the PCOTY track day is MOTOR’s version of school sports; some cars relish the opportunity to strut their stuff, others just want the whole ordeal to be over.

No prizes for guessing which category the Genesis G70 falls into. Hot-lapping The Bend’s West Circuit wasn’t in its design brief and it’s quickly apparent that this quasi-luxury mid-sizer prefers a gentler pace, its 1:40.7sec lap time earning it the wooden spoon. It doesn’t do much wrong; it’s just not at all designed for this type of driving.

There are no complaints about the engine, the 3.3-litre twin-turbo V6 singing a sweet song and motivating the G70 to north of 220km/h down the long main straight. It’s difficult not to draw comparisons with the Kia Stinger, for while the two aren’t direct rivals they share mechanicals and the resemblance is clear behind the wheel.

The Genesis is the better operator, but so it should be given its $20K premium. Like the Stinger, the G70’s eight-speed auto doesn’t have a manual mode per se, but flick the paddles and it won’t revert to automatic down the next straight like the Kia. It steers accurately enough and the balance is relatively benign up to, say, eight-tenths, at which point the rear end begins to slip. Time this with the arrival of turbo boost and the result is a lurid slide, which finds favour with the photographers.

Like the Stinger, the G70’s brakes and tyres are badly underdone; this much power deserves Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S rubber (the current Michelins lack that crucial ‘S’) and it takes only two laps for the brake pedal to hit the floor. It’s all very well to say a car isn’t designed for circuit use, but all a track really does is simulate consecutive hard stops (three in the course of a lap in the case of the West Circuit) and the Genesis isn’t up to it.

Happily, the Mercedes-AMG A35 is. It might only undercut the Genesis by a solitary second (1:39.7) but it’s much more comfortable on track. With just 225kW/400Nm to play with, there are no prizes for guessing that the A35 isn’t the quickest thing in a straight line, its 208.62km/h V-max almost 40km/h less than that recorded by its GT63 S sibling, which basically uses two A35 engines and then some.

Outright grunt aside, however, the A35 is a fun little package. Gentle front-end push is its default behaviour, but the new Haldex system reacts quickly enough to prevent power understeer rearing its ugly head and a quick flick with the steering under brakes swings the tail wide. It could use more engine – the fun’s over by 6000rpm – and a quicker gearbox but then that’s what the A45 is for. As it stands, the A35 is a nice, sensible semi-hot hatch.

Sensible isn’t a word to describe the Renault Megane Trophy-R – I mean, just look at it. It has stickers, bright red wheels and a massive slab of plastic where the rear seats should be. It’s built for the track and is the current Nürburgring front-wheel drive record holder – albeit with the carbon wheels and brakes that will only adorn one car in Australia – which only makes the fact that it’s a bit underwhelming at The Bend even more disappointing.

Make no mistake, it’s very good – quick, grippy and accurate – but it gives its speed quite easily so you’re left craving more. Once up to temperature, the trick tyres offer so much grip that most throttle adjustability is eradicated and while there’s enjoyment to be found in the Megane’s precision, I can’t help feeling a Honda Civic Type R on these tyres would be more enjoyable again. And probably quicker.

Nevertheless, the Trophy-R is an improvement on the standard Megane RS280 sampled at this venue 12 months ago, but enough to justify that $75K price tag?

While we’re asking questions: what to make of the Stelvio Q? Like the Megane Trophy-R, this high-riding Alfa set a lap record around the ’Ring, though its 7min51.7sec SUV benchmark – 11.6sec slower than the Megane – has since been beaten by the Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S.

At The Bend the places are reversed, the Stelvio besting the Renault by 1.7sec, but it’s a deeply strange experience. It feels a bit like those celebrity sporting matches featuring recently-retired players; the skills are still evident but the athleticism has clearly suffered. All the Stelvio’s component parts are great – the engine is super strong, the gearbox nicely responsive, the brakes hold up well and there’s certainly adequate grip – but they’re installed in a bodyshell that feels well out of its depth.

Softening the dampers helps. Set to full stiff the suspension feels to be constantly fighting a losing battle against its mass; pressing the ‘bumpy road’ button allows the weight shift to be used as an advantage by adjusting the Stelvio’s attitude – it’s probably not any quicker but it is more fun.

Sadly, despite being ‘off’ in Race mode the ESP will step in if it feels the situation is getting out of hand and the all-wheel drive system can be frustratingly inconsistent, at times allowing plenty of power oversteer, at others focusing on total traction.

No such dramas with the Toyota Supra; simply stick it in Sport, turn the electronics off (if you’re comfortable enough, otherwise the ‘Traction mode’ is very good) and drive the wheels off it. The brakes could be better and the steering is unnecessarily weighty in Sport, but otherwise there’s very little to complain about. It’s a surprisingly sharp sports car, with strong lateral grip and an unwillingness to relinquish it.

The suspension is quite soft and initially the body movement can feel a little odd, but quickly you learn to trust the car to settle and dig deep into its reserves. Burrow down far enough and you’ll find the rear end will edge wide under brakes and 500Nm of turbocharged torque will hold it there for as long as you wish. Yes, as you’d hope for a Japanese sports car (yeah, yeah, BMW blah blah) the new Supra drifts like a champion.

As does the Lexus RC F Track Edition. With a 351kW/530Nm 5.0-litre V8 turning the rear tyres that mightn’t come as a surprise, but what does is the extra effervescence the Track Edition displays compared to the standard RC F. Its enhancements primarily shed weight, but whether it’s the diet, the extra grip of the Pilot Super Sport tyres or the result of more subtle tweaks, the front end bites with newfound enthusiasm.

The steering is still pretty mute, but at least you now have confidence it’ll stick when committing to a turn. And commit you can, safe in the knowledge you don’t have a million turbocharged newton metres to manage on corner exit. The RC F’s V8 is a perfect illustration of ‘enough’ power, the outputs nicely matched to what the chassis can cope with.

Other cars may be faster – though a 1:34.7sec isn’t too shabby – but the appeal of being able to drive the Lexus lap after lap, its circuit-spec brakes and tyres showing little sign of stress, shouldn’t be underestimated, especially with that rev-happy atmo V8 singing beyond 7000rpm.

Despite the weight loss, you can still feel the Track Edition’s girth in direction changes and it seems to find bumps no other car notices on The Bend’s seemingly super-smooth surface, bouncing up and down through the Turn 10 kink in a unique manner.

Now we’re getting serious. There’s no other way to say it, the Camaro ZL1 is a beast. It’s an all-out assault on the senses as you peer out of the pillbox-style windows, your ears bombarded by V8 bellow and supercharger whine, your head spinning in concert with the rear wheels as each attempts to deal with the effects of 477kW/881Nm.

The experience is made more intense by the super short gearing, each ratio used for a mere nanosecond before the next one is required; this makes selecting the appropriate gear for each corner a challenge, particularly as the mighty 6.2-litre supercharged V8 has a torque band as wide as the massive 305mm rear Goodyears.

Ah, yes. Tyres. You’re probably aware that the Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar 3s fitted to the ZL1 in the US didn’t pass the ADRs for road use, but are available as a $1000 ‘Track Pack’ so given we’re on a track we decided to use them, as it seems reasonable to assume most owners would do likewise. Unsurprisingly, they love The Bend, but the ZL1 itself rejects any notion that American cars can’t do corners.

To be frank, it handles brilliantly for such a big machine. The super-heavy steering is weird, though you get used it, but it controls a front end that can be placed with precision, while as long as you don’t ask for every kilowatt at once, traction is incredibly strong. There’s fantastic balance, too, with real adjustability using the throttle and brakes. As I said, the ZL1 is a beast.

The Lotus couldn’t be more different, which makes the fact it and the ZL1 are so similar in pace all the more remarkable. Remember the school sports day analogy? Well, if the Genesis is the nerdy kid that wants to stay home, the Exige Sport 410 is the athletics team captain who’s been training for weeks. It’s built to lap all day and will do so with a noise like an endurance racer at full noise. Morley, Robbo and our tame racer Michael Almond are unashamed fans, but I’m not convinced.

Driving the Exige is an absolute event; virtually every other car feels doughy and full of rubber after the lightweight Brit and you know that everything it does is the work of you and you alone. Trouble is, if you’re going to be an out-and-out track car, either be blindingly fast, utterly brilliant at the limit or, preferably, both.

The Exige is quick (1:33.7) but only a second ahead of the far porkier Lexus and while it’s great fun up to nine-tenths, right at the limit, just when you hope it would come alive, it becomes quite sensitive to pitch and a bit spooky. For most people, a Cayman will be faster and more fun.

Speaking of Porsche, it’s really dropped the ball with the new 992 911. Just kidding, it’s utterly brilliant.

The widened front track makes it easier to drive quickly than ever, the engine delivers its substantial power in a beautifully linear fashion, the steering chats away to you constantly, the brakes shrug off the demands of track work, it’s rewarding to chase a lap time in yet if you want to hoon about like an idiot it’s more than happy to oblige. It’s sublime, its feedback providing reassurance to the less experienced and its malleability and speed a challenge to sports car veterans. But, with a 1:30.6, it’s not quickest.

No, this year that honour goes to a 2025kg luxury sedan-coupe-hatchback-thing. The AMG GT63 S is an incredible triumph of engineering and technology over physics, besting Stuttgart’s sports car by over a second (1:29.5). Obviously, having 470kW/900Nm helps, the monster Merc hitting 245.81km/h at the end of the straight, but it’s in the bends that the GT63 really warps your mind.

How can a car this big turn in with such alacrity? And resist understeer like it hasn’t heard of the term? Huge Cup 2 tyres do their part, as does the clever all-wheel steer system, but credit also has to go to AMG’s 4MATIC+ system.

If, by some miracle, you’ve steamed into a corner hard enough to push the front tyres wide, adding throttle actually corrects the problem, presumably by overdriving the outside rear to right the ship. If you’re really silly with the throttle it’ll slide into oversteer, but in general you simply teleport to the next corner on the back of that insane 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8. Unless you select Drift Mode, that is, which specialises in turning Michelins into fluffy white clouds. So, with the races run and won, it’s the beefy posh kid that’s going home with the ribbons. Bet you didn’t see that coming!

Pick of the 2020's on Performance Car of the Year 2020

PCOTY 2020 - The Professional's View

Carrera Cup Pro racer Michael Almond gets the honour of becoming PCOTY 2020's professional helmsman. So we set him off in each of our finalists to get a laptime around The Bend's West Circuit and get his two cents on each of them.

01 - Mercedes-AMG GT63 S (1min 29.5sec)

“I had to look and check I wasn’t in the AMG GT3 car I raced. This thing is wild. Sounds awesome. For such a big car it feels nimble. Brakes are amazing but they faded hard after a lap. Power delivery is easy to control... the engine is unbelievable.”

02 - Porsche 911 Carrera S (1min 30.6sec)

“I would’ve thought it’d be a little bit quicker, but it felt like there was a little bit of understeer. It would’ve been nice to have a grippier tyre. Gearbox is amazing. Plenty of grunt, you can barely tell it’s turbo. Comfortable, chuckable, solid.”

03 - Lotus Exige Sport 410 (1min 33.7sec)

“Fantastic car. Gearbox is very direct and solid. It’s nimble, there’s a lot of front-end grip no matter where you are. Brakes are strong and you can brake deep because it’s light. Could do with a little more power. A little dancey at speed, but that’s exciting!”

04 - Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 (1min 34.0sec)

“I had it in race mode but on the in-lap I turned traction off... I reckon I could’ve gone quicker without it. It’s a bit cautious. But it’s got so much grunt, it pulls hard in a straight line. It’d be hard work to control with a manual. It doesn’t feel overly heavy.”

05 - Lexus RC F Track Edition (1min 34.7sec)

“I really like this. Very linear power, and slow corners you need to shift down to second. It’s easy to manage the throttle and balance mid-corner. Really strong, direct brakes. It’s quite stable, and neither understeery or tail-happy. Steering was a bit light.”

06 - Toyota GR Supra GTS (1min 35.4sec)

“A lot of grunt with low-end torque around 3000-3500rpm. On some corners you can leave this in third and it pulls out strong. Brakes are well-balanced... the car was very stable under brakes. I was never worried about the rear coming out either. Good car!” 

07 - Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q (1min 36.1sec)

“You forget you’re in an SUV. It’s nimble with lots of grunt. Gearbox is awesome, downshifts are precise. Stable through high-speed turns, and can be balanced on throttle. Brakes are amazing for such a big car. Biggest weakness is the front end push.”

08 - Renault Megane Trophy-R (1min 37.8sec)

“It’s a cool-sounding car with big slabs of low range torque, but doesn’t understeer or torque steer. It has plenty of front-end. The tacho has a confusing redline... it took me two laps to realise I was short-shifting. It didn’t seem to make a massive difference.”

09 - Mercedes-AMG A35 (1min 39.7sec)

“Quite a punchy car, throttle response is really good and the power is very linear. Pulls all the way to redline. Gearbox is really intuitive left in sport auto, never missed a gear. Brakes are really strong. It rotates nicely on slow corners, but too fast and it pushes.”

10 - Genesis G70 (1min 40.7sec)

“It’s got a lot of power, particularly on slow corners in low gears... you can light the rears up nicely. It feels heavy and has a lot of roll. Brakes were fantastic but definitely faded. Initial turn-in is a little vague but once you’re towards the apex there’s more front-end there.”

PCOTY 2020 - Lap Numbers

The Bend West Circuit, 20˚C, dry.
Driver: Michael Almond
Official timing supplier: www.vboxaustralia.com.au

PCOTY 2020 - The Inside Line

The Bend’s West Circuit - PCOTY's ideal playground
It's tempting to look down on The Bend’s West Circuit. It is, after all, the shortest and simplest of the many configurations available, but that doesn’t make it easy. It’s a great circuit for testing road cars as the surface isn’t abrasive, there aren’t too many big stops, there’s a nice variety in corner speeds heading left and right and even a bit of undulation thrown in for good measure. A fast car will top 250km/h down the long main straight while the super-quick Turn Five kink is probably the most exciting corner on the circuit.

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