Porsche 911 GT2 RS vs McLaren Senna vs Ferrari Pista vs Alpine A110 vs BMW M2 Competition vs Aston Vantage
From Svelte Alpine to Ballistic McLaren, 2018 Is a Vintage Year for Going Fast. Time to Find The Best Among The Merely Brilliant
NO HOT HATCHES, no super saloons, and definitely no SUVs. That’s the mantra for CAR’s 2018 Sports Car Giant Test, because as talented as the Ford Fiesta ST or Lamborghini Urus might be, when faced with a proper performance car their compromises just won’t cut it.
Instead, we’ve whittled this year’s most talented newcomers down to just six absolute standouts.
The shortlist starts with a feelgood story, that of the Alpine A110, Renault’s reborn little sports car. A one-time collaboration with Caterham, this £50k French fancy could’ve been a disaster, going the way of the underwhelming Alfa 4C.
Instead the lightest, least powerful car here is a joy, with just enough power to test its lithe chassis. It’s a reminder that you don’t need a lot to have a good time.
But if the Alpine is the gateway drug of this test, then the McLaren Senna is DiCaprio’s full-blown coke and Quaalude addict in The Wolf of Wall Street. Aside from the same aversion to surplus kilos, it’s the antithesis of the Alpine, with an extra 550bhp, up to 800kg of downforce and trick suspension that drops the Senna closer to the ground when you’re at a race circuit. When you simply must win, choose the Senna.
Between those two fascinating bookends we have what might well be Aston’s finest ever car (helpful just before your first IPO – see page 10), BMW’s new M2 Competition (the one with the M3/M4 engine) and two 700bhp supercars which in any other month would be the headline act: the Ferrari 488 Pista and Porsche 911 GT2 RS. None of them have manual gearboxes, all of them have at least one turbocharger, but the real uniting factor is that they’re the best of the best. Which is why our Sports Car Giant Test is a little tougher this year…
Just as the kids go back to school, we pack passports, and in less time than it takes to fast-charge a Tesla, the Channel Tunnel has us in France. We’re heading for Clermont-Ferrand, home to Michelin and its fearsome Circuit de Charade test track, a former Grand Prix circuit. The antithesis of the anonymous modern proving ground, Charade is known as France’s Nürburgring, yet is perhaps even more intimidating given the barriers are solid concrete, not (relatively) forgiving armco…
We’re not just here for the track though, because Charade nestles on the edge of a volcanic mountain chain that gives us both Volvic water and some rather tasty roads – win-win. It provides a chance to judge the cars on track and on road, giving the likes of the Senna time to shine in the environment for which it was designed, and due prominence to stretches of tarmac winding through the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes countryside where the Alpine might be more at home.
We’ll then argue over steak-frites, pick the two cars that have impressed us most in both disciplines, and head to the deserted Cévennes and Monts d’Ardèche National Parks for further fun… sorry, for further rigorous final assessment of road-going performance before methodically crowning a winner. And it all starts over the page.
Price > £51,805 Engine > 1798cc 16v turbocharged 4-cyl, 248bhp @ 6000rpm, 236lb ft @ 2000rpm Transmission > 7-speed twin-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive Performance > 4.5sec 0-62mph, 155mph (limited), 44.1mpg, 144g/ km CO2 Suspension > Double wishbones front and rear Weight > 1103kg
BMW M2 Competition
Price > £51,930 Engine > 2979cc 24v twin-turbo straight-six, 404bhp @ 5250rpm, 406lb ft @ 2350rpm Transmission > 7-speed twin-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive Performance > 4.2sec 0-62mph, 155mph (175mph derestricted), 31.3mpg, 206g/km CO2 Suspension > MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear Weight > 1575kg
Aston Martin Vantage
Price > £120,900 Engine > 3982cc 32v twin-turbo V8, 503bhp @ 6500rpm, 505lb ft @ 2000rpm Transmission > 8-speed auto, rear-wheel drive Performance > 3.6sec 0-62mph, 195mph, 26.8mpg, 245g/km CO2 Suspension > Double-wishbone front, multi-link rear Weight > 1630kg
Ferrari 488 Pista
Price > £252,765 Engine > 3902cc 32v twin-turbo V8, 710bhp @ 8000rpm, 568lb ft @ 3000rpm Transmission > 7-speed twin-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive Performance > 2.9sec 0-62mph, 211mph, 24.6mpg, 263g/km CO2 Suspension > Double wishbone front, multi-link rear Weight > 1385kg
Porsche 911 GT2 RS
Price > £228,548 Engine > 3800cc 24v twin-turbo flat-six, 690bhp @ 7000rpm, 553lb ft @ 2500rpm Transmission > 7-speed twin-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive Performance > 2.8sec 0-62mph, 211mph, 23.9mpg, 269g/km CO2 Suspension > MacPherson front, multi-link rear Weight > 1430kg
Price > £750,000 Engine > 3994cc 32v twin-turbo V8, 789bhp @ 7250rpm, 590lb ft @ 5500rpm Transmission > 7-speed twin-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive Performance > 2.8sec 0-62mph, 208mph, 22.8mpg, 280g/km CO2 Suspension > Double wishbones front and rear Weight > 1309kg
THRASHING SIX DOWN TO TWO
‘IF THE NÜRBURGRING is number one, Circuit de Charade is number two,’ says Jackie Stewart, who won at Charade in 1969 and ’72. ‘It’s difficult to learn, some corners are very similar, there are fast corners, slow corners, steep downhill and uphill sections. You cannot make a mistake: there’s no run-off and just off-track there was black stone, razor sharp. I remember seeing Helmut Marko in hospital after he was hit and lost an eye.’
The rocks are gone now, the Clermont-Ferrand circuit shortened to 2.47 miles from the five Stewart raced, but it’s still a fearsome place: cut into a volcanic landscape that makes you wheeze just walking over it, narrow at nine metres wide, and with elevation that plunges by up to 100 metres and punishes shortfalls in braking and stability.
We arrive as sunrise glows orange over deserted grandstands. The McLaren Senna’s dihedral doors are up in a Karate Kid stance, the GT2 RS rumbles with its jackhammer idle, the Ferrari 488 Pista barks and rattles the floor. There’s an Aston Vantage, a BMW M2… but both James Taylor and I are eager to acclimatise in the Alpine A110. The lightest, smallest, least powerful car at Sports Car Giant Test 2018, it’s a sensible way to ease in to a circuit this serious.
James goes out first, strings together some neat-looking laps and pits with a huge grin that says it all. He loves Charade’s camber, the elevation, the commitment demanded, and he’s properly clicked with the A110 already. ‘It was one-dimensional on the road, lots of steady mild understeer,’ he says. ‘It’s so much more adjustable on track.’ He chucks me the keys, then rumbles off in the Aston Vantage.
The Alpine’s driving position is pure recumbent bike. You sit towards the rear of the chassis, low in bucket seats with fixed backs, generous padding on the base, even on the headrest too. The dimensions are so compact it feels you could touch each extremity – the Alpine is 20cm shorter than a Cayman. Try not to think of that Porsche when eyeing the cheap plastics, infotainment by Mr Rubik, or realise that the front and rear boots are more croque-monsieur pockets than luggage compartments. Besides, there’s aluminium double wishbones both ends, a bespoke chassis, weight pared to 1100kg.
Drive moderately quickly and you’re struck by the bassy gurgle of the turbo four, a Toyota GT86 with more character and poke, off-throttle crackles like gunpowder tossed at a Bunsen burner.
Quickly you sense this is a nimble, quick-witted machine of sublime delicacy. The electrically assisted steering does have an artificially smooth feel, but it telegraphs tremors from the 205-section Michelin Pilot Sport fronts as they seem to swell and balloon towards their limits. The nose darts eagerly in the direction of every steering movement, the suspension soaks up kerbs just like it glosses over imperfections on the road, but the relatively soft springs and mid-engined layout translate to bodyroll and mass gathering over the outside rear wheel on corner-entry, pooling just below your hips; nothing untoward, but an early indication there’ll be weight transfer to manage.
As you pile in to corners leaning hard on excellent four-piston brakes, a twist of steering initiates the weight transfer that brings into play the oversteer and throttle adjustability that defines this car, despite a modest 248bhp.
Soon all stability systems are off, and I’m tapping out tunes on the accelerator like improv jazz, using momentum to loosen the rear and position the car for each corner, then riding slides on the power. I couldn’t be working harder – or having more fun.
After three hard laps, only the fuzzy dual-clutch shifts earn a black mark, then power suddenly bleeds away, and I click at the paddles like Verstappen cursing a Renault powertrain failure, coasting to a parking spot. An electrical problem stops play.
I give James the international distress signal, and he selflessly stands on the Aston’s brakes and pops open the passenger door to shuttle me back to the pits. Despite the Alpine’s DNF, we’re agreed it’s sensational when fully operational, and note the significance of a car costing a fraction of a supercar feeling fast and exciting on officially the world’s second best racetrack. That it’d be so much lighter on fuel and consumables is another plus. Several laps in, James says he’s warming to the Vantage too.
The damping, he says, is particularly impressive – he’s got the thing nailed in Track where I’ll later lean towards the extra compliance of Sport Plus, but both work here. I hang in my seatbelt when he stands on the brakes, vicariously feeling the body control and lateral grip as we roll through a left-right flick, the Vantage riding the track’s curls of positive camber like we’re on a bobsleigh run. By the time we get back to the pits, I’m itching for my turn behind the wheel.
You’ll probably remember this car is a big deal – Aston’s entry-level model, its first all-new Vantage since 2005. The bonded aluminium platform and double-wishbone front/multi-link rear suspension is derived form the larger DB11, the V8 shared with the least expensive DB11 too, but the brief is to play the aggressive sports car to the DB’s loungier GT.
The soundtrack is pure theatre: a deep, cultured burble in Sport, public-school puberty in Sport Plus, and the full vindaloo in raucous Track. There’s a fraction of lag and you need 2400rpm to really get motoring, but mostly the power feels instant and relentless, blending a keenness to rev out with a torque-rich delivery that keeps on giving like Geldof. The sensation of constant acceleration is emphasised by the auto ’box’s shifts that punch much more cleanly than a DB11’s.
On the press launch at the Portimao racetrack, I remember being deeply impressed by the Vantage on nearby twisting roads but irritated by a lateral bobbing that amplified on some of the long, fast corners at the track. We found the same at Rockingham in the summer. But when I tackle Charade’s often quicker flicks of direction, that feeling is nowhere near as pronounced. But at 1630kg the Aston weighs 500kg more than the Alpine and comes in as the heaviest car here. Naturally it’s a more hulking thing to hustle, and even though that twin-turbo V8 is snug behind the front axle, there’s understeer to manage as you chuck it at a corner. Cool your jets on corner-entry, accelerate when the nose is settled and you’ll find surprisingly good traction balanced with mild oversteer – a sweeter, more manageable balance than the over-cautious ESP Track mode allows, actually.
Fast-paced steering helps shrug off kilos – chunkily welldefined at top-dead centre, its speed quickly ramps up with just a few degrees of lock. I repeatedly take a few nibbles at the steering through a single corner, suggesting the ratio is perhaps not as intuitive as it could be, but it’s good.
On the road, the damping of the Vantage can feel a little tight at low speeds even in its softest setting, and James and I both comment on the early brake travel being a bit fussy to modulate, but the stutters smooth with speed, and it’s clear the Vantage makes a better road car than track car as it rips with eager poise and abundant performance over roads that coil like carelessly fired party streamers. Seeing as that’s where most will spend their time, this is important.
That it wears a tux while the others favour Nomex is another consideration: the Vantage has the most sophisticated styling of this test. Shame the interior isn’t as convincing – scattergun buttons and some cheap looking garnish fall below expectation.
For stark contrasts, look no further than the Aston and the Porsche 911 GT2 RS. The latter’s a car that could bluff its way onto a Le Mans grid – and then put in a decent showing. Surely owners of a car so focused would accept sacrifices, and yet there’s alcantara and leather, touchscreen infotainment, solidity and luxury in equal measure. The seats are beautiful carbonfibre- backed buckets that drop you low in the bodyshell and embrace you snugly, yet are still comfortable for motorway stints. Even the titanium rollcage in our Weissach-spec car somehow gels with the upscale appointments.
But underneath, it’s very much a racer for the road. Essentially, it takes the GT3 RS – the Porsche road car most comparable to its Le Mans racers – with its ultra-wide bodyshell, then firms up the spring rates a little and swaps the naturally-aspirated 4.0-litre flat-six for a tuned 3.8-litre Turbo engine. It thumps out 690bhp and 553lb ft (GT3 RS: 513bhp and 347lb ft!) helping it to a bonkers 6min 47sec lap of the Nürburgring. That’s supercar territory… and only £23k off Ferrari Pista money at £229k.
I take the GT2 RS on the road loop and I’m not quite convinced: the ride is super-compliant for a car so hardcore, the steering and chassis sweetly communicative, but I don’t think there’s quite the delicacy of a GT3 RS, and a nagging sense that you’re only dipping into the GT2 RS’s vast reverses of power.
But on track it’s sensational. You need mid-threes on the rev counter for the variable-geometry turbos to kick, but it’s not laggy like a McLaren engine down low, still tractable and malleable, and with full boost it just hunkers over its rear axle and fireworks down the track, PDK gearbox popping in changes.
It doesn’t sear like a naturally-aspirated GT3 – peak power comes at 7000rpm, not the GT3 RS’s 8250rpm, and more tellingly peak torque at 2500rpm not 6000rpm – and the soundtrack is pure Swedish death metal – machine-gun drums and parched-Satan vocals – but somehow there’s character and raw excitement here.
The steering is perfection: light enough to make such a serious car feel wieldy, tactile and relatively quick too. You wind on some reasonable lock before the GT2 RS settles, but there’s an elastic, slightly springy feel as it bobs around in your hands, like you’re gently leading a dance partner by the fingers, picking up on its nuances all the time, responding to them.
But it’s the way in which a car apparently so intimidating manages to feel so approachable, so playful, that’s captivating. Go in hard on the brakes and the merest nudge of steering makes the heavy rear end begin to rotate, the balance centred around your spine where the mid-engined stuff pivots about your middle. This slight slide bypasses any of the 911’s inherent understeer, and then it just settles at a mild attitude, a hunk of weight pressing over the rear wheels. It makes the GT2 RS feel solid and settled, so you flatten the throttle, oversteering gently, torque just edging the tug-o-war with the 325-section 21-inch Michelin Cup 2s. All this with stability control on! Magic.
The carbon-ceramic brakes are the biggest flaw: their stopping power is generally extremely good, but the pedal softens after several laps and there’s excessive ABS intervention, especially on bumpier roads. I let them cool in the pits, and jump in the M2.
On a test like this, there’s often one excellent car that feels a little underwhelming among high-calibre opposition. This year, the BMW M2 Competition seems to be filling those boots. It is our only contender based on underpinnings developed for people more concerned by CO2 than bhp, though M division has had its way with those foundations, squeezing an M4 chassis under that compact little body. And now, upgraded to Competition status, the original M2’s 365bhp single-turbo six is replaced by the 404bhp M4 twin-turbo engine. It’s a lot of muscle in a tight little T-shirt, and you also get rear seats, a decent boot and infotainment that’s easy to operate. It’s comparable money to the Alpine at £52k, but you can put things and people in it and it didn’t even break when we hammered it.
James and I weigh pros and cons: the M2 feels porky for a compact car (it’s 1575kg), there’s a woolly layer between the ground, the controls and the driver, and there’s some roll and understeer to pre-empt. The seats are pretty fantastic, particularly the way they cup you around the ribcage, but they’re mounted so high they’d give a Wimbledon umpire vertigo; the brakes are effective but mushy, the straight-six hugely potent but rather charmless in the way it churns with a deep monotone drone – a complaint we’ve always levelled at the same unit in the M3 and M4. James thinks the M2 rides well on the road; I find it a bit tightly-coiled, if just on the acceptable side of the line. Strangely, I also find it the least intuitive car to slide for photographer Pardon’s pleasure; it just feels a bit clumsy, like working wearing oven gloves.
Then I head out for faster laps and start to bond with the M2. There’s one section of track in particular, where you slow at the bottom of a hill and coil left, then fire up and out through two rights that progressively open onto a straight. The M2 just hooks up and powers out, and you can feel the diff locking and the rear tyres just starting to over-speed, and suddenly you’re powering towards one of the quickest sections of the track, balancing this feisty little thug right on the edge of oversteer, knowing you couldn’t give it any more. In such moments the BMW’s brilliance makes itself known in no uncertain terms.
But in this context, the M2 is still falling towards the back of the pack. And if any context will put that into sharp relief, it’s the Ferrari 488 Pista, the more driver-focused version of Ferrari’s driver-focused 488 GTB. James is rolling into the pits as I’m parking the M2. ‘I’ve never driven a chassis this good,’ he beams. ‘And wow, what a gearbox.’
Essentially the Pista is a 488 GTB with up to 90kg less and 50bhp more power – for a peak output of 710bhp. Like the 911 GT2 RS, it borrows from motorsport: brake servo, crank and flywheel from its Challenge one-make racecar, diffuser from the Le Mans GTE car. The already excellent engine is said to be 50 per cent new. This is no sticker special edition.
The Pista weighs 1385kg to the GT2 RS’s 1430kg, but even so it feels much brisker despite having just a claimed 20bhp edge – floor the throttle and you wail down the circuit so rampantly that, at first, it’s overwhelming, the rush of speed knocking you back in the low-set seat, a shocking early punch. Red lights strobe over the crown of the steering wheel as revs zing to 8000rpm, you pull the long blade of a paddleshifter, third gear ka-blams in – no lag, no let up, just pure, visceral acceleration, butterflies and excitement swirling.
The Pista is flighty, up on its toes. Its steering is far faster than the 911’s, and as you twist it the Ferrari feels wide and low and locked down, the weight in its nose settling quickly into the corner, 245-section front tyres biting hard, arcing you through the apex. Limits are high, but you make quick, constant corrections at the wheel, edging just a little into understeer here, lifting the throttle, transitioning into oversteer, then getting the e-diff working and flinging down the next straight. At times, when the Pista rides up on the kerbing, the nose light, rear end writhing away and the V8 yelping ferociously, it is fabulously and sometimes dauntingly intense.
But there’s huge confidence to be found here, partly because you can go almost suicidally deep into a braking zone on carbon-ceramics that never waver in their performance – no palpable ABS, no fade, just stopping power like a superhero fist.
Partly because you can chuck it into a corner and the front end will grip. And partly because the CT Off stability-control mode gives you just enough rope. It makes a surprisingly polished road car too: supple suspension, unintimidating to potter about in, power delivery that’s enjoyable at saner speeds too.
I find the Pista’s knife-edge responses harder to manage, and feel more at home with the GT2 RS’s more languid rotation and the way it settles into gentle oversteer with a chunkier, more planted feeling. James finds the 911 GT2 RS harder work, more understeery, lacking on the brakes. One more lap? He’d take the Pista.
To be honest, I need a nap before I do one more lap in anything, let alone the yet faster Senna. I mumble about making notes, and watch as James closes the Senna’s dihedral door and buzzes down the pitlane, the optional lower door glass giving the curious appearance of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark in race trim.
The Senna’s carbonfibre tub is unique in this test, if familiar from the McLaren 720S, so too the dual-clutch gearbox and 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8, here tuned to 789bhp and 590lb ft. The rest is more specialised, including lightweight carbonfibre panels that weigh just 60kg combined, hydraulically interconnected suspension that drops to the ground in the Race mode we’re running, carbon-ceramic brakes that shed heat four times faster than regular ceramics, and active aero for as much as 800kg of downforce. McLaren bills it the ultimate road-legal track car, then bills each client £750k – at the very least. Later, when we swap stints on the road, we’ll come back with different takes: James adores the Senna, the naughtiness of using effectively a GTE racecar on the road, the visibility, the laser-guided handling and outrageous performance. I find the resonance and the buzzing too harsh, the powertrain too charmless, the steering a bit too sensitive to cambers to properly settle. It’s fun flat out, but too much of a pain in the backside to contemplate using frequently.
We find common ground on the track, though. ‘That section at the back, where it flicks left and the camber sucks you towards the wall?’ says James. ‘It feels like you’ll have an accident in everything else, but the Senna just monsters it without breaking sweat, like it’s painted onto the road.’
Tyres like a sticky toffee pudding, it’s my turn. You buckle in the low-set seat, canted back, surrounded by weapons-grade lacquer-free carbonfibre. Serious, but the Senna calms nerves: perfect driving position, excellent vision, a pace and relative lightness to the steering for a nimble, friendly feel, a gloss to lowspeed gearshifts where a racer would huff. But there’s absolutely a racecar edge, partly due to vibrations through the body. Sod pleasantries, it’s saying – let’s crack on with going hard.
With 789bhp firing 1309kg down a quick racetrack, the Senna naturally feels crazy-fast. But it’s not outright acceleration that separates it from the GT2 RS and Pista, it’s the speed it carries into, through, and out of the corners, the way it uses its Trofeo Rs, killer brakes, adaptive chassis and that monstrous rear wing to devastating effect. Remember that faster section of Charade that had the M2’s rear tyres fizzing, its driver working the wheel? The Senna is just flat, and you’re gripping the wheel, gritting your teeth, knowing it’ll do it, trying to shut out the visions of a crash-landed 747 that inevitably creep in. It feels insane.
It is also sublime when you finally brake almost as late as the exceptional brakes allow, leaving it a whisker from the gravel or the walls and yet somehow getting it all back under calm control. You pour it into the turn that follows with that beautifully-weighted steering loading and a little roll building to contextualise the lateral loads, Pirellis gripping like suction cups. Go really deep into a tight turn and it’ll start to stickily slide, and when you steel yourself to accelerate early the rear tyres flare on a spike of boost as you jab in steering lock. Involving? Yep. Scary? That too.
The Senna isn’t perfect: there’s safety understeer in this car’s set-up that makes it push through slow turns, a trait exacerbated by a reluctance to boost south of 3500rpm. But the Senna remains astonishingly capable on track, a drive to remember.
Pink with exhaustion, giddy with adrenaline, we settle into chairs in a pit garage to rank our six finalists. Placing the BMW M2 Competition last is pretty straightforward. It’s fun and fast and the only car here that seats more than two, but we both crave more charisma and feel. Still, it’s one of the six best performance cars of the year; if you need something relatively affordable and practical, but still exciting, buy one
Fifth place is harder, but ultimately falls to the Vantage. It’s a performance road car of huge talent, and entertaining on track. As a car to do the business without looking ridiculous, it stacks up. But the Pista and GT2 RS are both significantly more focused, while losing little in either practicality or civility.
The Alpine is fourth. You could argue for the win based on its attainability, approachability and fun factor, and there are times on tighter roads where its small footprint makes it as quick as the big hitters. On circuit it’s also more enjoyable than the Vantage, and a great ‘budget’ substitute for the others. But we’d be fibbing if we said we’d grab its keys before those of the far more expensive cars we’ve placed ahead. We just wouldn’t.
On track, the Senna is mesmeric in its speed and composure – its braking, acceleration and handling are genuinely awesome, it demands commitment to take to its extreme limits, and yet it’s approachable for those who aren’t professional race drivers. There’s no doubt it honours the Senna name.
Is the Senna a better track car than the GT2 RS and Pista? Yes. It’ll monster the numbers as much as it’ll bend your mind, but it does the subjective stuff too: it entertains, it thrills. If you want the ultimate track car and you can actually find and afford one, you must buy a Senna. But it doesn’t make the final.
The Porsche 911 GT2 RS and Ferrari Pista might be ultimately less capable on track but they’re more playful than the McLaren, more approachable and more than exciting enough. You never lap the Porsche or Ferrari and crave more, and they translate those thrills better to the road in a more usable package. Over to James to settle it once and for all…
A TRACK LIKE ONE OTHER
WRITHING THROUGH hilly country less than 10 minutes away from Clermont-Ferrand, Circuit de Charade is enough to give even seasoned racing drivers the shivers.
Opened in 1958, the highly technical track even hosted the French Grand Prix for four years in the late 1960s and early ’70s. It was modernised in 1989, effectively cut in half, and is now home to heritage motorsport events, driver training and, most crucially, tyre testing.
There’s a special link between Michelin and Charade. The track is close to Michelin’s HQ in Clermont-Gerrande, and its gruelling cambers and tight corners make for a strenuous tyre test facility. Jerome Haslin, a test driver for Michelin, says: ‘Michelin doesn’t own the Circuit de Charade, it’s owned by the region. But we do have a special relationship with the track.
‘It’s handy having Charade on our doorstep and we use it for endurance testing our sports tyres. It’s like a mini Nordschleife, with good elevations, a decent spread of technical complexity and some faster sections – it’s perfect for developing our performance tyres like the Michelin Pilot range. If they can cope at Charade, they can cope anywhere.’
Just like our 2018 Sports Car Giant Test rivals.
THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE
HOW LONG CAN the average human go without blinking? With the 488 Pista’s octagonal steering wheel ahead of me, its 710bhp V8 behind me and France passing beneath on fastforward, I’m about to find out. My eyes are stretched as wide as they’ll go, seeking vision further and further down the road, and the brain-like space behind them is doing its best to keep up with the stream of information coming in. Ben Barry is following in the 911 GT2 RS; I bet his eyelids aren’t moving much either.
So, these are the final two cars standing, the two we chose to drive for one more day to pick an ultimate winner. Both are the most extreme expressions of their respective species: the Porsche 911 and mid-engined Ferrari V8 berlinetta. Both have similar power outputs: 710bhp for the Ferrari, 690bhp for the Porsche, both unlocked by twin turbos and exotic engine internals, and accompanied by racecar downforce and chassis tech. Both need fewer than three seconds to reach 62mph, both can hit 211mph, and both are all but sold out, despite a £200k+ asking price.
We’re on hillside roads approaching Lac de Villefort, the kind of tarmac these cars were born for. Fast sweepers and stop-press hairpins carved into picturesque valleys, birds of prey lounging on the thermals above the warm tarmac, sunbeams refracted through the trees and hitting us with their full heat on exposed hillside sections – and barely another car in sight.
The Pista’s front-end grip is quite incredible, like a full-size slot car with its guide dug into the road. It’s aided by beautifully judged power steering; weighty, but not overly so, and so precise.
The rack’s very fast, requiring barely any lock for even the tightest of turns, yet it’s anything but nervous. Ben notes the Ferrari’s steering has less self-centring effect than most cars. ‘It gives you support to lean on as you unwind the lock; it’s not trying to ping back to the middle,’ he says, approvingly unwinding an imaginary air-wheel in a measured manner.
Fast, but precise – the same can be said for the Pista’s astonishing throttle response. Half of the V8 has been revised over the engine in the base GTB, with eye-wateringly exotic titanium conrods and new inconel exhaust manifolds, plus a race-spec crank and flywheel for minimal inertia. The result is wondrous: a turbo all but devoid of turbo lag. You can pick up the throttle very early in a corner, as you would in a naturallyaspirated car, then feed it in further with absolute precision, like a superbike – with bike-like acceleration to match. Illuminating one of the five shift lights embedded in the top of the steering wheel feels fairly mind-blowing. Light all of them and you worry your brain might melt and pour from your ears.
Time for a breather and a car swap. Ben is almost as smitten by the Porsche’s powertrain as I am by the Ferrari’s: ‘Although the Pista’s engine feels more exotic and its responsiveness and speed is up a notch, I love the explosiveness of the Porsche. Yet it combines that with a completely linear throttle adjustability.’
He’s not wrong. The GT2 RS feels far smoother and more driveable than a near-700bhp monster surely has a right to. It employs a mutant evolution of the 911 Turbo’s 3.8-litre flat-six, one with bigger turbos, a charge-air watercooler, titanium exhaust and another 160bhp in the process, but somehow it retains much of the base car’s tractability. In terms of handling, too, the GT2 RS has that enviable sense of precision, of just-soness that Porsche does so well. The steering’s a little lighter and less speedy than the Pista’s, but equally precise and measured in feel. Unlike the 488, the Porsche features rear-wheel steering, and it’s equal parts intuitive and unobtrusive. In high-speed corners it teams up with the aero kit to imbue the car with uncanny stability; manoeuvring at parking speeds, onlookers can see the giant rear wheels pivot to shorten the turning circle, and inside you hear it, too – so much sound-deadening material has been stripped out you notice the wheel motors whirring.
Brush the brakes and you hear giant pads against ceramic discs like 60-grit sandpaper, get on (or off) the throttle and you hear gasping sounds from the intakes behind the seats, and belches and whooshes from the turbos. It sounds quite malevolent, a barrel-chested burr with a real resonance to it when the giant exhaust valves are snapped open, but it’s more monotone than the Ferrari, whose turbo bass is lifted by zingier overtones.
It’s a stark contrast to the naturally-aspirated 4.0-litre in the cheaper (but just as tricky to obtain) Porsche 911 GT3 RS, which shares much of the same chassis and body upgrades as the GT2 RS. The GT3 packs one of the most spine-tingling soundtracks on sale, and the more muffled-sounding GT2 can’t quite match it. The chassis feels very similar to the GT3, though, which shouldn’t come as a surprise – they share the same rose-jointed suspension and adaptive dampers, with slightly different spring rates at the rear, to account for the weight of the intercooling and plumbing ancillaries.
Perhaps it’s the extra weight and the slight shift in its distribution, perhaps the different engine, but the GT2 RS doesn’t feel quite as special as the GT3 RS. Memory is a fickle thing, but I’m convinced the naturally-aspirated car feels sharper, more alert, has some extra magic running through it that the GT2 almost – but doesn’t quite – summon. But if this is a car that’s 95 per cent as good to drive as a GT3 RS, that still makes it one of the very best driver’s cars in the world right now.
Crucially, its huge hit of extra power also propels it straight into the supercar league, and lets it go toe to toe with the Pista. In fact, of the two I’d say it’s the 911 that demands more of its driver, because if the Pista was like playing an arcade game on easy mode – limitless grip, the ability to brake impossibly late and afterburner straightline speed – the GT2 RS is like cranking things up to medium difficulty. Your hands are busier with the wheel, working with weight transfer that’s more pronounced than in the 488, your braking distances longer in deference to ABS that’s triggered earlier and more easily. You’re working harder, but in return you get the feeling you’re making more of a difference.
While it’s more challenging than the Pista, it’s arguably more involving too, with a finer degree of feedback. Where the Ferrari has front-end grip like Araldite, the Porsche has a mild infusion of understeer, a typical rear-engined trait. Ben, who speaks 911 more fluently than I do, doesn’t experience that understeer on track. ‘Being deep on the brakes brings the rear round, then it lets you stamp on the power and ride it all out with mild oversteer,’ he says. ‘Leaving a margin on the road, you feel that less, and it’s more about managing light understeer while feeling all that torque tear at the rear tyres.’
Like the Ferrari, those rear tyres are soft-compound Michelin Cup 2s, but so fully do the 911’s fill its rear arches that I can’t fit my fingers between the bodywork and the rubber. And yet, impossibly, the 911 rides smoothly. Some sections of road here are like a patchwork quilt but both cars absorb them without fuss, particularly the 488, with its dampers switched to fondo sconnesso (‘uneven ground’) mode. Both cars’ docility and lowspeed ease of use is quite astounding.
The Porsche’s race-derived suspension is fully adjustable for track use, and our car’s optional Weissach pack includes carbon anti-roll bars, magnesium wheels and a titanium rollcage. The 488 Pista features the same rear diffuser design as its GTE Le Mans cousin, and the underbody, brake servo and many engine components from the 488 Challenge racecar.
Both rock a stripped-out-racer vibe inside, too, the 488’s glovebox binned for nets, and the doors’ armrests replaced by a vestigial escarpment of carbonfibre you can just about get the edge of your elbow onto. More storage space than the Alpine, though, and surprisingly reasonable luggage space under the nose too. The Porsche is the more practical, its seats a great example of one-size-fits-all buckets, and if you get creative with squashy bags you’ll fit them through the rollcage like a ship in a bottle. Getting them out again might be altogether more challenging.
So, a winner? Both are astounding achievements. The GT2 RS is more accessible than you’d ever expect a 690bhp rear-drive 911 could be, and just as exciting. But in every measurable respect the Pista is the finer car. It has the better brakes, the better gearbox, better damping, a broader dynamic envelope and feels faster in a straight line (remarkably so, in fact). And for more intangible, emotional reasons too it simply has to win this test – to drive a 488 Pista is to redefine your understanding of what a road car can be capable of, to experience physics bent and shaped in ways that shouldn’t be possible. A supercar with super-powers, it’s the unanimous winner of this Sports Car Giant Test.
With thanks to Michelin, Eurotunnel and Sir Jackie Stewart, who was talking on behalf of Race Against Dementia