Ultimate Driver’s Car 2016
If you didn’t know better you’d think a skirmish had broken out in Cape Town’s CBD what with all the explosions, percussive pops and hisses bouncing off the skyscrapers that bookend Adderley Street near the foreshore. We apologise to fellow commuters and employees of the city for disturbing the peace – really, we do but we just can’t help ourselves. Especially me. I’m usually the guilty party in this regard revving and kicking the throttle pedal in an attempt to compose some sort of mechanical masterpiece. See I’m in the all-new Audi R8 V10 Plus which is an appreciably loud machine thanks to its naturally aspirated 5.2-litre engine. The unfiltered V10 is free-revving and crisp but I can’t access the full wrath of its 8250rpm rev range just yet as it’s not quite up to operating temperature… Naturally aspirated monoliths of this kind are like hen’s teeth at the moment with most manufacturers opting instead to employ the services of turbocharging to replace the displacement in a bid to meet ever-stricter emission regulations. I’ll consider myself a very lucky man then.
My rear-mirror is like looking through an automotive kaleidoscope as it flickers with the LED headlights and the vivid colour schemes of the other vehicles in our cavalcade. A red traffic light halts progress and I’m soon joined by a BMW M3 Competition Pack, Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe and Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport. An odd mix yes but we’re still waiting for two more vehicles – the Honda Civic Type R and McLaren 570S driven by Peter and Calvin respectively. We’re on the way to one of our usual rendezvous points, the Engen garage located on the N1 where we’re sure to garner even more attention when we fill our tanks. By now I’m sure you’ve gathered this isn’t a traditional comparison… Yip, this is our annual driver’s car assessment and we’ve amassed six cars we think best represent the tenets of the ultimate driver’s car across three categories: hot hatch, sports saloon and supercar. Our planned route is a bit of a mixed bag taking in parts of the N1 and R44 before tracing our way along the rural outskirts of the R45 and finishing via the R46 near Hermon through to Wellington where we’ll climb the infamous Bainskloof Pass to test the performance, suspension resilience and cornering compliance of each car. A fun day beckons indeed…
The forecourt of the Engen resembles a scene out of a zombie movie as petrol attendants, customers and passers-by gravitate towards our parked convoy in slow motion, heads down and arms extended with camera phones out. It’s a pretty creepy sight but our travelling circus has this kind of effect on people – especially the exotic-looking McLaren and R8. Kerbside drama and the Audi R8 go hand-in-hand. Muscular and hunkered down it looks as if it’s been crafted from a slab of granite by some Germanic deity. Each crease line has been carefully considered resulting in a near-perfect balance of shape. The Daytona grey metallic paintwork is spectacular, as too are the dark 20-inch alloys wheels and carbonfibre side blades – elements which instil an unprecedented malevolence. Surprisingly the two hatchbacks are garnering a huge support base of their own. The words, ‘Joh’, ‘Oh my word’ and ‘Look at that wing’ are just some of the phrases being repeated by the crowd. The Honda Civic Type R does have a certain holding power though doesn’t it? It is pure metal origami punctuated by a slew of somewhat obnoxious styling riffs that hark back to the Fast and Furious era of the early noughties. I like it, always have, and I appreciate the Japanese way of doing things differently to the norm. Even its cockpit takes raciness to a new level with red detailing its central theme. The GTI is the complete antithesis choosing to eschew the gaudiness of the far-east movement in favour of the classier touches we’ve come to expect from Wolfsburg. What we get is a balanced form contrasted by an equally impressive and refined cabin that pulses with aesthetic merit.
The McLaren makes a late entry as it splutters and burbles its way over to the other cars. It looks other-worldly. The zombies seem to agree as they haphazardly limp towards the silver 570S waving their arms and mumbling words of approval. They’re losing their minds. Most of them have no clue what they’re looking at with ‘BMW i8’ being lobbied about among the rabble. ‘Ums and ahs’ follow as the driver’s scissor door swings upwards to reveal a bashful Calvin Fisher who’s struggling to wipe a smile off his face. I don’t blame him. Just look at it. The McLaren 570S is a special machine coming from a bloodline steeped in pedigree as made famous by the all-conquering F1. With traces of the P1 lurking about and minimalist yet striking new light detailing it’s hard to believe this is an entry-level McLaren. Of the cars assembled here the 570S and R8 have the largest carbon(fibre) footprints here using the material liberally in both their construction and aesthetics, harbingers to their performance bents no doubt. Surprisingly it’s only once the two saloons are fired up that the attention shifts to the Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe and BMW M3. This is no ordinary Sakhir orange M3 – it’s the Competition Pack meaning power is up 14kW to 331kW, there’s an M sports exhaust, the suspension arrangement has been wildly tuned for better handling and there’s lightweight sports seats, exquisitely detailed star-spoke 20-inch alloy wheels and shadow line exterior trim. It’s certainly a lot more menacing-looking than the C63 S Coupe but that’s never been the Mercedes way now has it? Instead the C63 S Coupe adopts a stately appearance, almost S-Class in execution, with subtle references hinting at its performance potential. It sounds amazing too as a lumpy idle and flurry of revs from the standard AMG performance exhaust sees it depart followed closely by the M3.
Calvin hands me the key to the McLaren. ‘Take it before I change my mind,’ he commands. I quickly oblige and slip behind the somewhat minimalist steering wheel. For a car of its nature it’s quite Spartan inside lacking the outright drama, fit and finish and dynamism of the Audi. Take the R8’s seats for example – finished in argyle-style stitched leather the attention to detail and layering of colours, shape and texture is quite exquisite as it creates a sense of symmetry with the exterior. As clean as the McLaren cockpit is there’s something missing here despite the use of leather and carbonfibre. Sure the streamlined switchgear is a little easier to operate than the R8 but the cabin appears at odds with the detailed exterior. That said the way the 570S segues between driving modes is unparalleled, shifting from cruiser to rip-snorting firebreather at the touch of a button. It’s a ludicrously fast machine. Select ‘Active’, switch both the transmission and powertrain toggles to Sport (Track if you’re brave enough) and brace yourself for an all-out assault on your senses. Hoof the throttle pedal and boost comes on immediately, the turbochargers hissing angrily as they suck up huge pockets of air to feed the combustion process. It’s loud, cantankerously so, blasting its way to 100kph from standstill in just 3.2 seconds – a statistic it shares with the Audi R8. It’s a radically different experience to the Audi which relies a lot on the neck-snapping gear changes of its 7-speed double-clutch S tronic transmission to keep it in contention. The R8’s power delivery is linear and builds aggressively as it passes 6000rpm before blurring its way to 8250rpm where it produces 449kW.
It’s not long before we pass the C63 S and BMW M3 which seem to be having a battle of their own. The cocktail of noise resonating from their bonnets is very different to the two heavy-weight supercars up front but an intriguing sound nonetheless. The M3’s 3.0-litre turbocharged straight-six employs a sports exhaust system that raises its soundtrack level to V8 standards, something the C63 S doesn’t quite like. The C63 of course is the real deal, a pedigreed 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 rumbling with confidence and ready to answer any attack the M3 may lay down. On paper it’s the M’s 331kW/550Nm vs the C63 S’s 365kW/700Nm – figures that favour the Mercedes. Cornering ability however is just as important as straight-line shunt and in this regard the M3 is a natural born thriller gripping the road surface like a limpet to a rock. The connection it forms with the driver is tangible as man and machine feed off each other symbiotically. Much of this comes down to the new springs, updated dampers and stiffer anti-roll bars, as well as the reconfigured drive modes and stability control. Still, no matter how aggressively you drive the M3, the Mercedes-AMG C63 S always manages to stay in view, especially in the sinewy lead up to Bainskloof Pass. Like the M3 it has a plethora of driving modes to choose from making it quite adaptable to any situation at hand but it’s let down by its steering (a speed-sensitive electromechanical setup). It’s very light at low speed and then suddenly weights up as you dial in more lock which is quite disconcerting in mid- to fast corners. It’s only comes alive at higher speeds where it’s able to pass the Beemer quite comfortably, a fact no doubt attributed to the stupendous torque that helps catapult it from corner to corner. On paper it will claw its way to 100kph in only 3.9 seconds, a feat the M3 achieves in four seconds flat.
There’s an interesting battle unfolding in my rear-view mirror as the two hatchbacks fly past as if to provoke some sort of reaction. It works and soon we’re all scything through the narrow bends of Bainskloof. The surface is known for its choppy nature but the Clubsport and Type R clearly have a lead going into the first left-hand hairpin, a corner that signals the start of Bainskloof proper. Despite their massive power deficits it takes some doing for the others to catch up, as the surrounding valley is treated to a Dolby 7.1 surround sound experience. Both hatches are front-wheel drive, equipped with limited-slip differentials and turbocharged 2.0-litre fours but vary quite significantly in power and torque outputs. The Honda and its 228kW and 400Nm comfortably trumps the Golf’s 195kW and 350Nm, but the GTI’s DSG transmission manages to keep it in the running. I waxed lyrical last month about the GTI Clubsport and how, in my opinion, it’s the greatest GTI ever made and quite possibly the best hot hatch available at present. Nothing has changed and while the tactility and feedback from the Type R is far superior to that of the Golf its ride quality is less compliant and it fails to deliver its power as efficiently, this despite it possessing a better power-to-weight ratio. Instead the power and torque come in quickly, often overworking the differential resulting in understeer and wheel spin. The unsettling nature of Bainskloof’s corrugated surface does little to upset the Audi R8 and McLaren 570S who both look quite comfortable bringing up the rear. The M3 and C63 S driven by Calvin and Wayne respectively have finally caught the hot hatches but Ray and I resist the urge and slow a little to give the two supercars one last blast up the Pass. The Audi R8 is lapping up the twisties with ease thanks to its optional Magnetic ride and updated four-wheel drive system which can apportion up to 100 per cent of the torque towards either axle. It’s just a matter of picking a line, pointing the wheel, squirting the throttle and repeating. While the Pass is just a little too narrow to fully experience the R8’s cornering prowess it demonstrates just how good it is at adapting to different situations. It’s proving to be my favourite here. Under the skin the aluminium spaceframe is bolstered with a carbonfibre centre tunnel making it stiffer and lighter than before. And you can feel it – particularly in the way it responds to steering inputs and changes in the road surface. The 570S boasts some clever engineering trickery of its own: it’s got a carbonfibre tub and a twin-turbocharged 3.8-litre V8 driving the rear wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. Despite the absence of a limited-slip differential it’s still able to harness the most of its power delivery – particularly in a straight line and the superlative levels of grip enables it to devour the corners just as efficiently as the R8.
One last stop for some photography gives us a chance to deliberate among ourselves as well as an opportunity to take in the scenic splendour and views of the Wellington Wine Valley below us. It’s clear that each one of these cars deserves its spot here despite the huge discrepancies in power, price and practicality. Of the hot hatches it’s the Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport that comes up trumps. It’s fast, focused and refined, and is probably the easier choice of the two to live with every day. Both do corners very well and while the Type R would be able to lap a track more consistently it fails to deliver the same level of compliance owing to its firm ride quality and track biased set-up. The BMW M3 and C63 S Coupe are both seriously quick machines equipped with enough vooma to keep the two supercars in their sights. The Mercedes-AMG C63 S is superb – its cabin is a class above the ageing BMW’s and is immensely rewarding to drive at any speed but while it benefits from the composure and surefootedness of the C63 saloon it ultimately lacks the precision of the BMW M3 Competition Pack, particularly during cornering manoeuvers. The connection the M3 shares with its driver borders on spiritual – it’s so good, so sharp and so sophisticated at times I found myself questioning whether I’d chose it over the 570S and R8. But after spending time in the Audi and McLaren their superiority is immediate. The Audi R8 is every bit as entertaining to drive as the McLaren 570S. Better still, it provides an even more intimate experience owing to the lack of filters, turbochargers and the like. It’s more emotional and the easiest car of the two to live with – be it at the limit or trundling along in peak-hour traffic. Not only is it cheaper than the 570S it’s purer too – a regal manifestation of the perfect driver’s car and our unanimous choice. It’s a 1, 2, 3 for the Germans.