This year, we’ve been blown away by the breadth of incredible performance cars unleashed upon the world. With downsizing taking hold plus more and more manufacturers setting out their roadmaps for electrification, we’re in a golden era of fast, petrol-burning cars that we need to enjoy as much as we can before everything becomes rather quiet and, err, self-driving.
In 2017 we drove shouty supercars with big engines, engaging hot hatchbacks and impressive middle-weight sports cars neatly slotting in between. But we also drove older cars that impressed us just as much.
We could try and choose one car out of the hundreds we’ve collectively driven this year, but to avoid one gigantic argument, CT editor Matt Robinson, video chief Alex Kersten and contributors Matt Kimberley and Dan Trent have each picked two cars they drove in the last 12 months. One 2017 debut car, and one car that’s a little older.
Here’s what we came up with:
Choosing my car of the year should have been an agonising choice. The manual-equipped Porsche 911 GT3 should have been fighting for the top spot with the all-new BMW M5, plus the bloody hell where did that come from Hyundai I30 N. But in the end, a late entry made the decision a complete no-brainer. And that late entry was the Alpine A110.
It’s my choice not because of what it has as car, rather what it hasn’t. It doesn’t have a stupidly powerful engine. It doesn’t have fat tyres. It doesn’t have an ultra-stiff suspension setup with trick adaptive dampers. As a result, it’s incredibly light (1080kg in its most spartan configuration), and doesn’t - like a lot of modern sports cars - feel too overblown and over-capable to be enjoyed on the road.
What the Renault-owned brand has decided to do is stick two fingers up to Nurburgring lap times and big power figures, and concentrate on something that’s just damn good to drive. And I’m totally onboard with that ethos.
By pretty much every measure, the Porsche 918 Spyder - essentially the antithesis of the Alpine - was the best non new car I drove this year. Except for one thing: while it left me a wide-eyed, blithering wreck after a 190mph autobahn blast, it didn’t make me smile anything like the silly big muscle car I drove a few months prior.
It was a Dodge Challenger SRT Scat Pack (yes, I know that name doesn’t translate brilliantly over in the UK) I drove in California while out there for a tyre launch, and I grinned like a moron every time it was brought back around the front of the hotel by the valet parking guy. Who was also grinning like an idiot, just from being behind the wheel for all of 30 seconds.
This 6.4-litre HEMI V8-powered brute is too heavy, understeers quite badly and doesn’t particularly enjoy fast changes of direction. But it’s under no illusions as to what it is: it’s about cruising around in the sunshine with the windows down, accompanied by a rumbling V8 and the sight of the intake bobbing around through the bonnet thanks to the ‘Shaker Hood’ setup. Every greedy application of the throttle was an utter joy, and you can’t help but appreciate the hilarious lack of traction from its 245-section rear tyres. Yes, a Hellcat has all these attributes (minus the Shaker Hood) yet amplified, but the 475bhp Scat felt just right.
Ever since handing back the keys, I’ve wanted to move to a remote part of the USA and buy one. It’s a car that makes me want to completely rearrange my life just so it can be accommodated, and that’s why it’s awesome.
“Let’s abandon downsizing, forget boost and give the people what they really want!” That’s how I like to imagine the discussion ending after Lambo bosses got drunk on seven bottles of Limoncello and decided to build the Performante, a supercar so cool it was given motorbike-inspired exhausts that sit above the number plate.
Kidney crushing grip with an all-wheel Huracan is obviously a given, but thanks to the Perf’s clever aero and rear spoiler whose electric actuators open and close either side depending on corner, that impressive Huracan grip doesn’t only crush your kidneys, it blends them into pate if you’re not careful. Seriously, if you look up ‘grip’ right now, you’ll see a picture of the Performante (don’t actually bother, because the first image result is actually of a pistol grip).
There’s so much more to the Performante that makes it my new car of 2017, though. The naturally-aspirated 5.2-litre V10 with 631bhp sounds like a car guy’s Greatest Hits album of love songs, and then there’s the fact that this car completely redefined what I thought about supercars; that they’re over-hyped, soulless, impossible to enjoy and too focused on making their drivers look rich…because the Performante proved to me that supercars like this are awesome, entertaining and surprising enough to make a skeptic like me cry…
Another first for me this year - I’d never driven a Lambo before the Performante - was driving a rotary-engined car. The Mazda RX-8 R3 you see here kicked off a new series of ‘Automotive Misfits’ (more to come in 2018) about cars that you dare not buy for various reasons like expense, poor reliability, or because your friends told you to stay away.
What surprised me about the RX-8 to the point of infatuation was how good it made me feel. Not only is it a wicked thing to look at - anyone who disagrees is wrong - the rev-happy nature of rotary engines never fails to entertain.
So long as you know how to look after a rotary, I maintain that it’s a great buy, a hugely rewarding car to drive hard and something that I guarantee will surprise you for all the right reasons. Just don’t buy one without watching our video first!
In the hot hatch sector the usual suspects have stepped up a gear. Cars that used to be more or less ordinary biffabouts with more power have morphed into bespoke weapons of mass destruction (of lap times).
The likes of the Seat Leon Cupra R and Ford Focus RS are so good that the ‘best’ is largely subjective, but for me, this year, that might just be the mighty, incredible, explosive Civic Type R. The new engine defies all attempts to find fault. Kitten-docile for collecting bread and milk, but like Popeye on spinach, this latest Type R grows comedy muscles out of nowhere.
It has exhilarating speed, amazing versatility, surprising comfort on its rubber-band style 245/30/20 tyres, a genuine top-end rush and handling straight out of our dreams. I love it.
The NSX. It’s a legend whether you wanted one or not. This year I finally got to drive the mid-engined classic. It belongs to Honda UK; a later NA2 car that’s looked after as if it were a newborn baby.
As with most sports cars designed in the 1980s and 1990s, you slide into a just-supportive-enough bucket-type seat that’s a couple of inches higher than you’d want, but beyond the wonderfully retro interior the NSX is pure magic.
Aside from the lovely handling balance and heavy controls (by modern standards, at least) there’s an achingly addictive – and totally organic – V6 shriek. There’s just a civilised whirr until you press the long-travel loud pedal harder, and harder again, but at that point your jaw is dropped by the rich, resonant V6 behind your head.
Frankly, this car is marriage material.
There are many things I like about the McLaren 720S, not least the absolutely astonishing way it goes. But the main one is that it really seems to upset people. I’ll admit a proper supercar lives or dies by the gut reaction it inspires on first sight, that reaction in many people seemingly being ‘WTF is with those lights?’ Trust me though, it makes more sense when you see the car for real. And I think McLaren deserves credit for the rapid evolution from the play-it- safe 12C to being a supercar brand with a distinctive visual identity all of its own.
We can beg to differ on the lights then. If you’re going to tell me the 720S is too clinical and soulless to drive then, I’m sorry, you’re wrong. Especially if you’ve driven it and still came to that conclusion. Because if you got out of a 710bhp supercar saying it wasn’t exciting there’s only one reason – you weren’t driving it hard enough.
That the 720S is both significantly more powerful than a 488GTB or Huracan AND a chunk lighter should give you a hint. Numbers are one thing - the way this thing goes is quite another. While Ferrari has its history of naturally-aspirated screamers, McLaren has no such emotional baggage and I like the fact it’s not scared to make its turbo engines feel turbocharged. Or sound it - the mad scream of forced induction air being rammed into the 4.0-litre V8 beyond 8000rpm is frankly as terrifying as the sheer speed. Obviously you’ll need to keep your foot in to unleash that wildness, which brings me back to my earlier point about those saying it isn’t exciting enough. Man up, put your foot down and the true sensibly-dressed madness of the McLaren 720S will win you over as it did me.
I was lucky enough to hang out with Mercedes DTM legend Bernd Schneider earlier in the year. As an AMG ambassador he’s driven – and could own – anything from the company’s back catalogue. Quite the dilemma. But when I asked him what he’d pick, the answer was immediate. “SLS Black Series,” he said. “This was an outstanding car. I wish I’d bought one because the prices have increased so much.”
He’s not wrong, the big boys’ Black Series now knocking on half a million – double what they cost new and a hell of a lot for an SLS that looks like it’s been dragged the wrong way through a pile of Mansory carbon off-cuts. Why the crazy money?
I found out when I drove one at a track day celebrating AMG’s 50th anniversary. Trust me, it’s not all about the V8 either.
OK, it’s a lot about the V8. As it should be, given it displaces 6.2 litres, revs to 8000rpm and delivers 622bhp as it does so. It sounds AMAZING too. AMGs have always been about big V8s but the Black Series handles too - special dampers for the engine and gearbox meaning the (carbon) torque-tube linked transaxle powertrain doesn’t twist and wobble on its bushings at maximum attack. Nerd fact – the transmission is also mounted 10mm lower as part of a range of tweaks to improve the handling. It all works together brilliantly - the Black Series has the intent and track poise of a GT3 race car while keeping all the Mercedes creature comforts you’d want for the road.
You and me both Bernd, you and me both.
What do you think of our choices? And what were your cars of the year? Get to the comments!