|Press the loud pedal and the Corvette seems to gather you up and hurl you towards the horizon|
These are cars for people who place a premium on the driving experience, people for whom every tunnel is the one in Monaco, people who don’t mind a slightly firmer ride if it means they can be sure of hitting that drain cover on the long left-hander on the exit of the roundabout three miles from home if you’ve taken the medium-long way back from work. Road racers; cars that feed your fantasies of being on the Stelvio or the Nürburgring.
First up, and indicative of the breed, is the Aston Martin V12 Vantage. With the 12 cylinders of the DBS squeezed into the Vantage, the engineers at Gaydon have created a truly wonderful car. It seems absurd that a body this small should be packing nearly 6 litres and 510bhp. A quick look at the tread pattern of the tyres and the aerodynamic tweaks straight from the N24 race programme shows that this isn’t just intended to be some straight-line monster either. Like many other Brits, the Aston will no doubt feel that this magical corner of Germany is a home from home.
Next up, a car that makes the mighty Aston seem under-engined – the Corvette ZR1. Even written on the page, 638bhp is pretty eye-widening, but it’s the torque that’s the most frightening number – 604lb ft, and all of it available at 3800rpm. Fortunately, as with the Aston, the wheels hide huge carbon-ceramic discs. The Roots-supercharged American should be a force to be reckoned with in the corners too, as weight has been kept down to 1528kg by using carbonfibre for the roof, bonnet, splitter and front bumper. And if the new Vette’s chassis builds on the Z06’s then we’re in for a treat.
Audi’s R8 has been an all-conquering hero
in plain V8 form, so with the addition of two more cylinders and another 104bhp (bringing the total to 518) it ought to turn every road it travels over to gold. The chassis has also received some minor adjustments, mainly to cope with the V10 but also to add a frisson of additional grit. We’ve eschewed the R-tronic paddles in favour of the wonderful open-gated manual and if the weather turns ’orrible then expect the quattro drivetrain to simply walk away from the others.
Finally, we come to the bargain basement end of the line-up with the £82K Porsche 911 GT3. We know it’s a fantastic car and no test of road racers would be complete without the RSR’s road-going cousin. But with only six cylinders, over 80bhp less than the next least powerful car here and barely half the torque of the ZR1, it’s quite possible that it will be left floundering in a few wakes. Obviously, it will fight back with the lowest kerb weight (1395kg) and Porsche tends to do a good job of little things like steering feel, but for once I don’t think the 911 is going to have it all its own way…
Brought together in a sandy car park-cum-tip, the four cars make a fantastically diverse and exciting group; engines from six, through eight and ten, to twelve cylinders, placed in the front, middle and rear of the chassis. Consensus is that the best looking is the Vantage, even in white, which makes it feel slightly like it should belong to an ageing millionaire’s wife in St Tropez. Then the Audi R8, all clean lines and still so futuristic three years after its launch, and very Will Smith in its box-fresh-sneaker white. The GT3 looks terribly upright in this company, but also small, and if it were in white too you can guarantee it would have been the easiest to sneak unnoticed into the 24 Hours’ rolling start. The ZR1 is mean, angular and so low, but whereas we’ve all delighted in having cars like the Audi show off their mid-mounted engines, the Corvette’s little window onto its massive LS9 V8 is not quite so successful.
I take the Audi as we leave Brunchen and head for a nearby road where we’re going to base ourselves. You feel almost single-seater low in the R8, bum skimming the tarmac, and although the switchgear is no more special than a TT’s, things like the carbonfibre hoop that arcs from the transmission tunnel round the back of the instrument binnacle and into the door make the R8 a very special place to be. The throttle is scintillatingly sharp, revving the V10 behind almost telepathically quickly; the damping’s delightfully precise and you pour the car through corners. Yet all the controls work so effortlessly that you could use it every day and anyone who can drive an A3 would feel perfectly happy pottering around in the R8 V10. They’d even recognise the very slightly over-servoed brakes.
What an A3 driver wouldn’t feel comfortable with is the almighty pace the new engine summons up. There’s masses of urge from about 3000rpm, but the extraordinary, almost unexpected thing for a big V10 is how it just keeps revving up and up. You initially find yourself grasping the knurled gearknob and short shifting – clack-clack – through the open gate at about 6000rpm. Yet if you look through the steering wheel and concentrate on the rev-counter framed in front of you then you’ll see that you’ve halted the needle in the midst of a furious scramble all the way to 8500rpm. High up there, it does genuinely sound like the Gallardo to which it’s related, but in true Germanic fashion it’s turned down to seven on the volume dial – it’s like smooth orange juice as opposed to the full-blooded stuff with bits in. Of course, if you want the whole orange tree then you need the car that’s shrieking and roaring up ahead of me every time John Hayman gets on the throttle…
Yes, the Corvette. You know those tests where the writer says that they knew just by the smell of the key fob as they walked towards the car that it was a winner? Well, I’m afraid the ZR1 is the car that everyone knew within the first 50 yards was going to be in last place. Even pulling out of a lay-by, each of the far-flung corners of the Vette seems to have its own agenda. The Magnetic Selective Ride Control dampers are unique in the Corvette range and unfortunately not an improvement on the Z06’s set-up. Just as in the Audi, a switch turns between Touring and Sport modes and tunes the dampers appropriately. Unlike the Audi, the switch has to be left in Sport mode just so that the suspension feels like it has some control over the vertical movement of the wheels. It doesn’t actually seem to sharpen anything, it just reduces travel. Ollie Marriage drove the Corvette here from home yesterday and reckons the ride was almost unbearable on Belgian motorways, such was the tyre noise and wheelslap.
And then you press the very loud pedal and you remember what Corvettes do best. Ideally you’ll want to be a gear lower than you’re used to because second is good for 96mph and third for around 130(!), but with so much torque it doesn’t really matter. What happens first is that the big leather chair you’re sitting on rocks back unnervingly as the forces are unleashed, then you seem to be gathered up and hurled towards the horizon. And as the speed builds, so the car appears to grow around you like some Alice in Wonderland fairground ride, its extremities becoming more and more remote; even the steering wheel seems to get further away. Then, just when it feels like the car won’t fit on the road anymore, you have to change gear (thankfully with an improved, short-throw ’box), but soon the ZR1 is getting bigger again, so you lift off – except the response is lazy so the acceleraton continues for a second whilst you transfer your foot from accelerator to brake, which reassures you a treat I can tell you.
At least the big carbon discs are exceptionally powerful and offer a decent amount of reassuring feedback, but all is not well here either, because the feedback you get through the steering while you brake suggests that the ZR1 has become a customs dog looking though a flight recently landed from Jamaica. With 285-section Michelins at the front and gargantuan 335-section ones at the rear, the American dream tugs, weaves and tramlines all at once. The truck-rutted inside lane of motorways is best avoided, so what this car’s claimed 7min 27sec lap of the Ring must have been like is unthinkable…
The morning passes, Barker arrives, we listen to his tales from the weekend’s race, we do some cornering shots (quattro or not, the R8 is very rear-wheel-drive if you want it to be, and when the mid-mounted engine starts to swing… well, just watch the video online). Later we lunch on burgers, chips and chocolate milk from the cabin next to the Döttinger-Höhe petrol station and swap opinions. We’re divided over the GT3’s centre-locking wheels, Johns Barker and Hayman unconvinced by them, Ollie and I loving them. (The two Johns reckon age has given them taste; Ollie and I think their eyesight must be going.) We all agree that the Porsche’s gearshift can be a little baulky, though. The Aston is impressing hugely, with everyone saying how much more it gives you over the V8. And as Barker comments, ‘It’s only when you check the speedo that you realise how bloody fast you’re going, which is the ultimate compliment, really.’ Ollie says the ZR1 ‘makes everything else feel slow, but is so crude’. ‘Bonkers,’ says Hayman even more succinctly.
Having driven it last month, I know how good the Porsche is. I drove the Aston last month as well, so I know how good that is too. Both are five star cars. Both are challenging for top spot along with the Audi. I won’t be happy going to sleep tonight without a proper back-to-back drive between the V12 and the GT3. I intercept Ollie on his way to the bar and ask him to help me out. So he jumps in the Porsche and I swing the Aston’s door up and drop into the best driving position in this test. With the wheel facing your chest and the low, ever so slightly reclined seat having the perfect blend of luxury and grip, it feels right straight away. If they could just put the gearlever forward a few inches then it would be perfect.
Press the Emotion Control Unit (key) into the centre console and the starter spins for a second before that big engine explodes into life, rocking the nose slightly as it catches. The gearshift is the lightest here, which suits the almost velvety feeling of the whole car. The road opens up right outside the hotel and a quick prod of the Sport button releases the full vocal range of the exhausts as we head off down the straight. In many ways the Aston and Corvette are the most comparable cars here, with oversize engines in the front driving the rear wheels, but the Aston feels slightly short geared where the Corvette is long and the Vantage is compact and confidence inspiring where the ZR1 is intimidating.
I turn off the main road with the 911’s LEDs bright in the mirrors, catch the tail as the P Zero Corsas spin up on a rain-soaked patch of tarmac, hold the slide just for fun and then grab third and fourth before sinking the middle pedal towards the carpet as a long right-hander approaches. The brakes give feel all the way through the travel and there’s weight in the steering around the straight-ahead. The nose grips initially as you turn in before going slightly light in your hands as the big engine up front wavers fractionally from the line you want to take. This is the understeer that most people comment on after an initial drive in this car, but on second acquaintance you find that it’s not wash-out, scary understeer, it’s telltale and workable, an invitation to play with the balance of the short wheelbase and use the throttle and steering to adjust grip throughout the corner. Then the road unfurls in front of you and no matter what gear you’re in or what revs you’re at, as soon as you get on the throttle you seem to tap straight into the juiciest part of the torque curve and unleash phenomenal acceleration. It’s involving, exciting, beautiful and balanced. But better than a 911 GT3?
Ollie and I swing into a side road and turn round before leaping out and swapping places, barely acknowledging each other as we pass between the still-running cars. I slot down into the GT3’s optional buckets, which grip you so intimately at the thighs, hips, ribcage and shoulders that you barely feel the need for a seatbelt. Hayman suggested that if you want to up the ‘road’ half of the road-racer equation then perhaps you might want to leave in the more thickly padded standard seats rather than ticking the option for these Carrera GT fixed buckets, and I agree, but right now I want these. As we pull out in tandem and head back the other way I pull down the sun visor as the low evening sunlight skims over the fields. The engine starts to work as the revs rise above 4000rpm and the hairs on the back of my neck rise in appreciation as the flat six begins to howl.
‘Damn you GT3,’ is all I can grumble after the first corner. Even after jumping out of a car as good as charismatic as the Aston or as beautifully resolved and of such ingrained quality as the Audi, the GT3 just feels on another level.
The following morning I nab the key to the GT3 again and go for another drive to try and pinpoint exactly what it is that sets it apart. And it comes down to this: it feels more honed than any other car in this test. There just isn’t one iota of slack in it, so you are never, ever guessing or making allowances for the car. You can literally drive as hard as you want and the harder you go the more rewarding it is. More throttle, less lock, fourth gear – it all happens instantly. You can brake so fiercely that it feels like running into a brick wall, or throw the nose into a fast corner so hard that you wince and hold your breath, and yet you’ll always find the car taut underneath you, telling you calmly and with clarity everything about the forces working on the tyres, chassis and drivetrain. And because it never dithers, you gain confidence and find yourself being the best that you can be, and that is every bit as addictively intoxicating as the huge grip the GT3 generates.
‘THERE IS A PLEASING lack of bullshit about it, but a very un-pleasing lack of talent, too.’ That was how Ollie summed up the ZR1. After he’d driven it in the wet (with traction and stability on) he was even less polite. The Corvette crashed in the 24 Hours and, metaphorically at least, it crashed and burned in this test too. You can’t help but love that engine and if you think that driving fast should feel like permanently wrestling an accident, then you just might love the ZR1. But if you want a good Corvette, buy a Z06 and save yourself £54,000.
And if you want an R8 (and why wouldn’t you?) then you can save yourself money there too by buying a ‘basic’ one that looks identical to the V10 but has two fewer cylinders. Unlike the Corvette, this isn’t because the V10 is a flawed car – far from it – but where the standard R8 has an almost Lotus Elise-like delicacy to it, the V10 seems to just sit a bit more heavily on the road and is therefore slightly less magical. Of course, the upside of the V10 is access to that fantastic engine, but it would have been nice if Audi hadn’t relied entirely on an extra 100bhp and a different soundtrack to differentiate it.
However, where Audi and Chevrolet have disappointed in their attempts to improve on their smaller-engined models (albeit to wildly varying degrees), Aston has struck gold. In a way the V12 Vantage is the car we always hoped the V8 would be, with a decent ride, proper performance and engaging handling. When you add this to classic Aston lines, it’s a fantastic car. ‘This is clearly the best Aston the company has ever made for people like us,’ says JB. ‘Money no object I’d have it over the Porsche. Maybe.’
Maybe. Arguments were put forward that the new GT3 is now too fast, too grippy and too brutal. Barker suggested that Porsche should have designed it with the same power as the previous generation car but with less weight. And we nodded. But every time anyone came back from a drive in the GT3 they would just get out of the car smiling and shaking their head. You simply can’t deny this 911 its victory. It is wonderful. If you want the ultimate road racer, the car that will turn any road into your own personal Targa Florio and make you long, day and night, for your next stint behind the wheel, then you need a GT3.
||Astom Martin V12
|1/4 Mile sec