Right now though, we’re at the Swartland Engen 1-Stop on the N7, intent on stocking up with padkos, caffeine and fuel. It’s freezing outside. The temperature has dropped to a bone-stinging six degrees Celsius and, to make matters worse, a thick blanket of mist has rolled in over the winelands, so visibility is pretty much zero. The Porsche and Jaguar are first to fire up their engines and transform the surrounding forecourt into a veritable NASCAR paddock. Without delay, I press the red start button of the GT-R and the 3.8-litre V6 erupts into a deep, resonating idle. It’s nowhere near as loud as the other two, but then again it has no reason to boast on paper, it’s the fastest car here.
It’s still pitch black outside and the congested morning traffic on the N7 is a nightmare. Perhaps I’ve picked the wrong car because driving a GT-R in morning traffic is like Usain Bolt having to run the 100 metres in a swimming pool it’s very frustrating. Thankfully, the nature of the GT-R goes from hostile to affable by simply placing the suspension and transmission modes into Save and Comfort respectively. It really is remarkably easy to drive at low speed but you constantly get the impression that it’d rather be going faster.
As soon as traffic starts to disperse the 911 scampers ahead leaving me with a fresh cloud of carbon and sulphurous stench of catalytic converter to inhale thanks Calvin. The 911 may be the only naturally aspirated vehicle in this group but thanks to the PDK transmission it smears down all 294kW and 440Nm of torque so effectively that it initially opens up a sizeable gap on the GT-R. I give myself a moment to engage R mode on the transmission and suspension settings before giving chase. As I bludgeon the throttle pedal, the cabin momentarily fills with the distinct whistle of turbo impellers spooling-in their metallic housings before the full wrath of 628Nm of torque kicks in and unleashes itself on the Tarmac. Crikey, this GT-R is fast! According to Nissan, the GT-R will blitz from zero to 100kph in a Lambo Aventador-humbling 2.8 seconds it certainly feels that quick. In fact, in the moment it’s taken to blink my eyes the speedo needle has already hit 100kph. Blink again and I’m admiring fine droplets of condensation on the rear bumper of the 911. Tap the gargantuan six-pot Brembo stoppers and my peripherals light up in a red hue as the brake lights reflect in the dense mist. The GT-R is a truly visceral experience. Not only are the gear changes spine-shatteringly brutal but you can also hear the entire mechanical componentry turning and grinding in the transmission tunnel alongside. A mere 0.15 seconds are all it takes to change gears.
Van Rhyns Pass looms. Linking Van Rhynsdorp and Nieuwoudtville it’s a magnificent Armco-lined sled track littered with sharp switchbacks and an acrophobic elevation change of 800 metres. After only two turns I can already smell the carbon ceramic brakes of the 911 fanning back to me. Using the only exploitable straight, I overtake the Porsche and tuck in behind the Jaguar XKR-S, which appears to be quite a handful in the bends. I can tell Wayne is struggling to tame its feral demeanour but as soon as the road uncurls it accelerates with fury before backing off again for the next corner. The Porsche and GT-R are at home in this environment, devouring hairpin after hairpin without remorse.
The 911 doesn’t seem to be suffering from any form of altitude sickness and proceeds to slingshot past the XKR-S and goad me to munch through the final few corners. The GT-R is sublime in the bends; the asymmetric suspension set-up keeps the chassis neutral and balanced no matter how much speed you dial in. And the steering is phenomenal perfectly weighted with adequate feedback. It’s the easiest car in this group to drive fast and doesn’t require the same level of concentration as the other two. However, the Porsche’s breadth of talent is truly amazing and it is perhaps more proficient in the corners than the GT-R.
By the time we hit Calvinia all three fuel tanks are nearly drained. I overhear Calvin and Wayne discussing the Jaguar’s fuel economy, which is averaging almost 18 litres/100km I’m surprised it’s made it this far, really. The GT-R and 911 have merely sipped their way here, consuming a modest 13 litres/100km apiece.
The rest stop also gives us a chance to admire all three cars against the picturesque backdrop of the Namaqualand. Of the three, it’s the GT-R and its belligerent presence that’s been drawing crowds. Its origami-imbued form is by far the most intriguing fasade here but a spurt of revs lure the rabble of bystanders to the brightly coloured 911 and XKR-S it’s time to move on.
As we continue through the Little Karoo the road begins to unravel as far as the eye can see. All three cars dash forward each one screaming out their credentials to the desolate landscape. Our reign of aural tyranny continues for another 10 kilometres before a series of gentle meanders guides our supercar cavalcade into the small town of Brandvlei.
THERE GOES THE NEIGHBOURHOOD
I can’t imagine anything less than Darth Vader’s Imperial March providing an ominous enough soundtrack to the triple-threat convoy that was rolling into the little town of Brandvlei. Can you imagine it? ‘Dun, dun, duuuun, dun, dun, duuuuun’ punctuated by a crackling flat-six exhaust note, ‘dun, dun, dun, duuun, dun, dun’ followed by the whip-crack of a pair of turbochargers. Please excuse the Star Wars reference, but when you’ve been piloting a trio of Millennium Falcon-trumping sports cars for as long as we have, things happen inside your brain. You have conversations with the cars, form relationships with them long term, I hope. They have our lives in their hands after all…
I’m piloting a low-slung 911 through the barren lanes of a rural town, its pavements littered with rubber-necking inhabitants, each wearing the same look of trepidation in their eyes that generally only extreme athletes display. The Porsche features a button (one of many) that controls the audacity of the exhaust note I refuse to disengage it, tickling instead the throttle to emit a stream of crackles and pops man-made music, for mad men. I’ve prompted a noise war as Wayne revs up that howling Jaguar V8, its supercharger zinging along in accompaniment to that massive aluminium 5.0-litre engine. Aaron’s GT-R is barely audible amongst this sonorous crowd, but what little can be heard is disturbingly menacing, like a whispered death threat charged to the power of two.
Climb into the brain of the Jag and it’s a cheery Brit who likes a bit of tail-out fun, nudge-nudge, wink-wink. The Porsche initially comes across all clinical but playing with it reveals a wicked sense of humour. The Nissan however, is a sinister thing, silent like a cyborg assassin waiting for you to make the move that eventually ends your life just so it can tsk-tsk at your lack of talent. I’ll say it again, you have a lot of time (too much) to make chit-chat with these cars.
‘We’re losing light’ warns our photographer, and sure enough at 15h00 we had an ever-diminishing window of opportunity to exploit before the sun would say ‘cheers’. That left us just enough time to drop off our kit at the overnight venue, a quaint little huisie that we’d return to in the wee hours, before venturing off in pursuit of The Pan. Travelling inland meant carefully weaving along a dusty rural network linking one farm to the next until, on the verge of the salt flat we encountered a miniscule town, half hidden in the dirt. By now the situation had become dire with nothing but the robotic voice of an optimistic navigation system to affirm the direction of our quest, so it was comforting to be pointed in the same direction by the locals. ‘Just through that gate a bakkie driver advised, pointing off into the dust. Shortly thereafter, with copious trepidation, we crossed the threshold of Verneukpan.
Desolate yet beautiful, flat as the horizon and textured like the granular skin of an elephant, it evoked a sense of awe in us all. Even our dusty steeds seemed humbled like wild animals returning to their natural habitat. Here at last were vast plains for them to thrive in, yet, oddly, we’re all compelled by the exact same reaction to just stop and admire. I
I’d like to say that what followed was a ritualistic stretching of these magnificent machines legs. I’d like to pretend we let them run loose over the salt surface, but with just over an hour of sunlight left we deemed best use of the time available would be to record the marvellous scene for your benefit. And besides, we’d have plenty of opportunity on the return trip the next day.
The painfully slow trundle back to Brandvlei, during which the sun duly removed itself, gave us a bit more time to consider the many facets of each car. The Porsche tracked true, its electrically-assisted helm feeling every bit as accurate and responsive as the hydraulic unit we enjoyed in the Cayman R. The Jaguar was an oddball experience, powerful and extrovert but ultimately lacking the finesse of the German car or the technical prowess of the Nissan. We all absolutely adored it despite its eccentricities. Then there’s that GT-R. You never feel close to exploiting its entire repertoire on public roads and rightly you shouldn’t an onboard G Force meter means it takes this performance malarkey quite seriously. Its 310kph top speed reinforces the lunacy, and its four-wheel drive system feels like an almost superficial safety net. Goodness, it’s fast!
We could debate one car’s superiority over the other all night if we wanted to in fact, the opportunity was imminent as the parking lot of Die Windpomp eatery rolled into view. Here, fuelled by man-sized burgers and lofty draught beers, a massive unresolved debate would rage into the night. Our only conclusion was that the 700km return trip was all we had left for us to make up our minds.
UPON COLD REFLECTION
It’s no more than two degrees Celsius. The feeling in my fingers has cycled through numbness and settled on throbbing pain. What little pigment I had in them has receded beyond my wrists. I’m staring at the reflection of the shiny GT-R in the pooling water around it as the rest of our crew continue to caress and coax yesterday’s clingy Northern Cape dust off the Porsche and the Jag. We’ve turned the concrete slab behind the Kolarita Guest House into an impromptu car wash for which owner Kola is surprisingly well kitted. Yes, even in a klein dorp like Brandvlei, there’s a solid appreciation for a good chamois.
Nothing matches up to washing a car by hand to get a feel for the intricacies of its design. The Nissan is almost exclusively composed of large, flat surface areas joined acutely and precisely, making it both blunt and sharp at the same time, a triumph of Japanese design. The Porsche, too, is a symbol of evolved purity and heritage it’s classic 911, only perfected. Not that the XKR-S is without heritage think E-Type and XJS it’s just that not even the mighty XJ220 had such visual menace. That angry catfish mouth, pronounced carbon fibre front splitter and whale shark-like side gills aren’t the usual Jaguar fare.
With cars washed and bills settled, we ease away from the now muddied driveway and head off to Brandvlei’s sole architectural highlight, the local church. Considering the state of the roads, I’m happy to be in the big cat. Like the softly padded paws of a feline, its more absorbent suspension allows it to cope better with the crumbling, broken-up tar that passes for streets in this neck of the woods. It’s the only car here with a proper old school torque-converting auto, in this case ZF’s excellent six-speeder. Unsurprisingly, it wins the low speed refinement test, narrowly edging out the PDK-equipped Porsche. Upping the ante though, turns the tables.
Photographer Peet isn’t happy with the light, so it’s time to leave this fiery wetland and its mixture of accommodating locals and trance party workers in their high-visibility vests behind. The R27 to Calvinia is a seemingly endless hell of stop ‘n’ go road works, a frustration made only slightly more bearable by the smiling faces of yet more cellphone-wielding trance party workers who man and woman these places of transport purgatory. Once freed to cruise at normal highway speeds, moods brighten considerably. Now this is what these cars were built for. All three are ICBMs (that’s intercontinental ballistic missiles…) of the highest order, capable of devouring kilometres with ridiculous ease. But there are differences.
The Porsche requires a deliberate approach, its accelerator pedal keeps pushing back as if trying to dissuade you from going faster. On the run up to Verneukpan I resorted to using the Porsche’s cruise control to keep a constant pace. The 991 generation’s wider front track and improved weight distribution really have put paid to older 911s legendary tendency to emulate a roulette wheel. This new one is light, nimble, precise and extremely well balanced a broad spread of talents that, combined with an unforced, ultra responsive mill and a high-IQ dual-clutch transmission, dials into you, not the other way round, telepathically sensing what you want it do.
Compared with the 911’s stiffly sprung throttle pedal, the softer Jag almost goads you to press harder, making it easier to cruise. If it’s not tramlining on the straights, then the XKR-S is wagging its tail in the corners. Uninvolving it is not. Fun it most certainly is. But best you back off if the road gets slippery, because when that supercharged 5.0-litre V8 unleashes all 680Nm of twist, it unsticks the rear with alarming ease. And it doesn’t need loads of revs to do it either. Peak torque is spread from 2500-5500rpm. Good thing body control courtesy of thicker, all-aluminium uprights is as good as it is otherwise driving it quickly wouldn’t be much fun at all. Interestingly, in a group that includes a 911, the Jaguar is easily the lairiest.
Pace is something the incredible GT-R does effortlessly, tracking laser-like at the sort of speeds that require furrowed brow levels of concentration in the Jag.
We hit Van Rhyns Pass at midday with little to no traffic about and head downhill as fast as is prudent. Again I get the feeling that I’m holding up the others. It’s hard and sweaty work wrestling this 1753kg Jaguar around the pass’s hairpins and fast sweeping curves as we drop down 600 metres crossing the provincial border between the Northern and Western Cape. Perhaps it’s the steering that makes the cornering experience less confidence-inspiring: it’s responsive and communicative but could be weightier, Still, there’s so much to love about this characterful British brute, not least the throaty roar mixed with the supercharged whine of its powerplant. It’s compellingly quick, addictively entertaining and yet really quite comfortable, having the best seats on offer here. However, stacked up against the science-defying GT-R and the electronic brilliance of the Porsche, the Jag just fails to measure up. Plus it’s far more expensive than either rival.
If this was a drag race, no contest, the warp-speed Nissan would walk it. It’ll take a 911 Turbo S to get proper performance parity. But everyday road-tripping, grand touring supercars must stimulate the senses, fill the driver with emotion and be outstanding at every task. Barring crawling speed hiccups, the GT-R is blessed with all-round greatness, but while fast is without feeling. And that is something you cannot level at the cheaper, even more broadly talented 911 Carrera S. It’s a marvellous piece of kit that can be driven by mere motoring mortals closer to its limits more of the time.