We’re in the deserted car park halfway up the Stelvio Pass and the loudest noise is the ticking of hot brakes as the Aston Martin Vantage S Roadster that’s just delivered me here cools in the chilly air. It might be the middle of July, but the Alpine weather seems closer to a British spring than an Italian summer, its mood swinging between sun and showers as the wind moves high clouds across the sky like a video timelapse.
Leaning against the front wing of the aptly-named Vantage, I’ve got a perfect view down the scree-strewn slope at the series of short straights and savage hairpins the Aston and I have just negotiated. It’s the perfect perch for what’s coming – the next car up the hill for snapper Jamie Lipman’s lens is going to be the Alfa Romeo 8C Spider, with none other than Andy Wallace at the wheel. And if there’s one rule I intend to live the rest of my life by, it’s to never miss the chance to watch a Le Mans winner thrash an Italian sports car up an Alpine pass.
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I’ve barely got time to hum the opening bars to ‘On Days Like These’ before the Alfa enters stage left as a blurred red shape. Wallace, predictably, isn’t hanging around: I can see the back of the car bob under braking for the first hairpin and then squat down on its haunches as Wallace gives it what looks like all the beans on the way out. But although I can see the speed, I can’t hear it – the wind at my back is robbing me of any soundtrack beyond that provided by the Aston’s ticking discs, the Alfa carving silently through the landscape.
Sensing the need for a punchline, the breeze drops for a moment. Suddenly – and I promise not to use this line again – the hills are alive with the sound of music, the Alfa’s exhaust note echoing back from the surrounding mountains, a yowling wail that’s as much animal as it is mechanical, every microscopic movement in the throttle pedal reflected by its varying pitch. Throw in the cracking fusillade of bangs and pops every time the throttle gets lifted – ringing around the hills like small arms fire – and you’ve got a noise that could reanimate a petrolhead’s corpse. Let’s face it, we didn’t need an excuse to bring four of our favourite soft-top sports cars to one of Italy’s foremost driving roads. But we’ve got one anyway – we’re here as part of our ‘Sound of Speed’ cover feature. Because there’s no better way for a driver to experience the sound of a well-chosen engine than through nothing more than thin air. To that end, all the cars here have been selected on the basis of prior experience of both their aural and dynamic characters.
We’ll start with the odd one out – the only car here that doesn’t have a V8. Like the rest of its extended family, the Porsche 911 Carrera GTS cabriolet has a rear-mounted flat-six, here displacing 3.8 litres and driving the rear wheels. The ‘997’ 911 is on the verge of getting its pension, but the run-out GTS is definitely going to be remembered as one of the stars. The GTS combines two driven wheels with the ‘wide track’ body that Porsche previously reserved for the four-driven and ‘motorsport’ versions of the 911. There’s a tasty-looking bodykit and the brawnier ‘Powerkit’ version of the 3.8, meaning 402bhp – plus a standard-fit sports exhaust. It’s here because we reckon it’s the best sounding 911 Cabrio, and at £85,249 – before options, naturally – it’s also something of a bargain, barely more than the Carrera 2 cab and the cheapest car here.
The Aston Martin Vantage Roadster has been a firm evo favourite since it was launched thanks to its combination of looks, performance and usability. Over the years it’s been tucked and tweaked, but the fundamentals are unchanged – it’s a baby Aston you don’t need to make excuses for, and which, at the bottom of the range, comes dangerously close to affordability. You’ll need deeper pockets for the car you see here, the recently launched Roadster S, which lists at £110,700 – about 12 grand more than the standard V8 Roadster. But the extra investment brings the most powerful 430bhp version of the 4.7-litre V8, bigger brakes, quicker steering and the new seven-speed ‘Speedshift II’ single-clutch automated system, claimed to be 20 per cent quicker than the old six-speeder.
Next, there’s the still-fresh V8 version of the Audi R8 Spyder, here as the roadster that requires owners to make fewest compromises over its coupe sibling. Other than the ever-present risk of sunburn, and the need to find an extra £9000, it’s hard to think of any real downsides thanks to the near-identical driving experience. Power comes from the familiar mid-mounted 420bhp 4.2-litre V8 and – because this is an Audi, and they have to stick the ‘quattro’ badge on it – drive is supplied to all four wheels. This German press car arrived with the six-speed manual gearbox, but also the optional carbon brakes. In the UK the standard car costs £96,595, the ceramic stoppers adding another £7295.
Which brings us to a car so good that we dug it out of a museum. Well, almost. Alfa has sold all 500 examples of the 8C Spider, the last of which are just being delivered to customers, and there are no press cars available. But such are our collective memories of the 8C as one of the great-sounding V8s, we decided to beg the company into letting us have a go in the one it saved for its own heritage collection. The 8C has a dry- sumped 450bhp version of Maserati’s 4.7-litre V8 and comes with both a standard-fit single-clutch transmission and carbon brakes. The erstwhile UK price of £174,000 also means it’s the most expensive car here, although you can shave a few grand off that with a barely used second-hander. Consider its presence a bit of artistic licence.
When it comes to the Stelvio, getting there definitely isn’t half the fun. It’s one of the more obscure Alpine passes and isn’t really on the way to, or from, anywhere – meaning that reaching it is a long, slow grind. The 8C has come from Milan, with Alfa PR boss Davide Kluzer delivering it in person, but the Porsche and Aston have driven from the UK – a ten-hour journey from Calais for Wallace, photographer Lipman and staff writer Stephen Dobie. Which leaves film maker Freddy Wichert and myself to land what seemed the cushiest gig – picking up a factory-fresh Audi R8 Spyder from Munich and blasting down from the Austrian side.
Things start well. A clearish Autobahn and the R8’s enthusiasm for life to the north of 150mph gets us to what the satnav tells us is 100km from the top of the pass barely two hours after finishing breakfast. Actually making it to the summit takes another two and a half hours, as it becomes clear the Stelvio’s fame has made it into a destination in its own right. The northern side of the pass is filled with cars, tourist coaches, seemingly suicidal motorcyclists – and what seems like every single Dutch-registered motorhome. Then there are the cyclists, dozens of lycra-clad types who clearly reckon the Stelvio’s 2760 metre summit will make for a light morning workout. The tarmac is crumbling and the road is barely two cars wide. The R8 handles the grind without complaint, but for some stretches we hardly manage to get out of second gear for minutes at a time. This definitely isn’t what anyone would call a driving paradise: have we made a terrible mistake?
Fortunately, breasting the summit makes everything clear, and clearer. It turns out the traffic is concentrated on the Austrian side, and the road on the northern side is both wider and, mercifully, quieter – although with equal numbers of corners and hairpins. The R8 is suddenly in its element, with the rev-happy V8 happy to go to work demolishing the straights and those ceramic brakes shedding the momentum tirelessly for the bends. The R8 makes effortless progress down a road like this, barely breaking sweat at speeds few other cars could match, and happy to carry serious speed into and through the quicker corners. The controls are light – it takes a while to get a decent heel-and-toe position on the brake pedal – but moving the gearshift through its magnificent open gate is one of the great tactile pleasures. It’s only on the way out of the (many) hairpins that the quattro drivetrain can be felt doing its thing, shunting drive to the front as the rear wheels approach their limits, the steering tugging slightly as the drive moves forwards. Hell, I’m having so much fun that I’m most of the way down the hill before I realise what’s missing – even with the roof down, the R8’s soundtrack seems a bit subdued, needing a real dose of revs to really make it sing. Maybe it’s that thin mountain air.
We rendezvous in Bormio, the biggest town hereabouts. Porsche and Aston are wearing the spectacular insect debris that tells of a high speed cross-European trip – one fly took at least three feet of the 911’s bonnet to die – but it’s the Alfa that’s drawing the appreciative crowd of onlookers. I ‘missed’ the 8C Spider when it was new and this is the first one I’ve seen that’s not sitting on a motor show stand. The roadster misses the coupe’s spectacular bubble roof profile, but it’s still a strikingly attractive thing – especially when I’m climbing into the cockpit with the keys in my hand.
Now this is what an engine should sound like. The Alfa fires up into a surprisingly light idle – baritone rather than bass – with the induction side’s woodwind section overlaid by a lovely rasp from the exhausts at the slightest pressure on the throttle, and then the firing squad impression when you lift off.
Not that the 8C gets all the attention. Italians might always support the home team, but they’re far from immune to the considerable charms of the Vantage. With the convoy formed and rumbling back towards the hills, it’s the snap, crackle and pop of the Alfa’s over-run that turns the most heads – but it’s the Aston’s tight lines and spot-on proportions that seems to keep the most attention. By contrast, the Porsche and Audi are almost completely ignored.
Heading back up the SS38 towards the pass, traffic disappears and the speeds start to rise. The front-engined 8C is a very different proposition to the R8 – taller, less wieldy and slower to react to steering inputs. Take too much speed into a corner and the front washes wide; the Alfa needs to have its nose pulled tight to a slow apex before you get back on the gas. But even then you need a fair bit of restraint – overlapping throttle and steering inputs either sets the big yellow light flashing or, with stability off, leaves you scrambling for some corrective lock. But with everything pointing in the right direction and the blue touchpaper lit there’s no arguing with the way the 8C does its thing. It’s definitely got the legs on both the Aston and the Porsche, acceleration helped by the way the gearbox automatically bangs in the next ratio as the limiter arrives, even in manual mode.
The next time we stop, Andy is grinning from behind the wheel of the 911 GTS: ‘I was right behind you and I could hardly hear this – looks like you were having to work hard, though.’
The Aston seems the obvious place to go next, sharing as it does the Alfa’s combination of a front-mounted V8 engine and a single clutch manumatic sending drive to the rear wheels. The 8C does manage to make the Vantage look like an unlikely bargain, and even after six years the babiest ’Martin is still a stunner. The ‘S’ is the most powerful version of the V8 Vantage – it’s got 10 bhp more than the N420 – but like the rest of the clan it has to be revved to deliver – and also to sound its best. The first thing to do is to press the ‘sport’ button, which sharpens the gearshift and frees up the exhaust. Even with that done, the Aston remains a car with a split sonic personality. At lower engine speeds it’s got a light, slightly raspy tone – pleasant, but not exceptional. The spinach-tin moment happens at 4000rpm, when flaps in the exhaust open and you’re suddenly listening to the full noise of the hard-working V8. It’s a gorgeous sound, less sonorous than the 8C – which sounds like it’s got most of an orchestra stuck under the bonnet – but with a harder, almost racy edge to it.
The ‘S’ pack also means slightly less weight – so equipped, the Roadster is 30kg lighter than the standard car – and it also gets a slightly quicker steering rack, with 2.6 turns between locks instead of the normal 3. Like the Alfa, the Aston feels predictably nose-heavy in this company, with similarly limited tolerance for too high an entry speed into the slower corners. Traction is good, though, with a disappointed Andy Wallace reporting that, even when he wanted to go sideways, the Aston wanted to stick. But the Vantage’s brakes are quick to protest the all-hairpin diet with a spongy pedal.
Still, the Aston is a brilliant eight-tenths car – easing the throttle to smooth the gearchanges, enjoying the way the suspension flows with the road – and using a slower entry speed as an excuse for a bit more noise on the way out. And as we climb higher, the Aston reveals another surprising facet – what seem to be deeper lungs than our other contenders. As we pass above about 2000 metres, both the Alfa and the Audi suffer a noticeable decrease in power as the oxygen levels fall away, the R8 also developing a slight hesitancy to small throttle inputs. Yet, despite its similar capacity, and an equal lack of forced induction, the Vantage doesn’t seem to notice. Useful to know if you’re planning to buy one for your alpine chalet.
And the Porsche? Aurally the GTS struggles to make itself heard above the other cars here, despite the best efforts of its sports exhaust. In isolation it’s got a lovely, crisp flat-six soundtrack – one that works particularly well in the series of tunnels, blasted from solid rock, which punctuate the hairpins. But the 911 lacks sonic firepower when compared with the V8s – to the extent that, as Wallace reported, its driver often has difficulty hearing it over the monsters of thrash. At risk of sounding like a frustrated wine taster, the scrawl in my notebook describes the 911’s noise as ‘light and crisp with a slightly metallic aftertaste’. Make of that what you will.
More important, of course, is the fact the Porsche offers the purest driving experience here. It’s got the least power and the least torque, but it also scores the lowest mass and – as a result – its power-to-weight ratio of 270bhp-per-ton is bested only by the substantially more powerful Alfa’s 273. The relatively svelte kerbweight also helps with braking, the GTS suffering from far less fade than the Aston, despite a similar lack of carbon discs. On these tight, demanding roads, the Porsche has a lightness and agility that belie its rear-biased weight distribution, with impeccable drive out of the slower corners but also a real sense of ‘slingabilty’ in the quicker ones – throw it in, feel it settle and then adjust the line with steering and throttle.
The top of the Pass gives us a chance to compare notes, and to reach the shared realisation that the test has divided neatly between the two cars that are best to drive and the two that are best to listen to. Dynamically, the 911 and the R8 are the head of the class. The R8’s all-paw traction gives it the ultimate legs on the 911, but the Porsche has the better steering. Then again, the Audi boasts one of the finest gearshifts on the planet. As an overall proposition, the R8 just shades the GTS, but on these roads it’s the closest of points verdicts.
But when it comes to the question of which of these cars makes the best noise, the tables turn. And while fully acknowledging the subjectivity that goes into preferring any tune to another, the consensus at the Stelvio was that while the Porsche and Audi both sound great, the Aston and the Alfa are in a different league. The Vantage’s split personality will appeal to many – the aural equivalent of an iron fist in a velvet glove. But if you had to pick one of these cars to provide the soundtrack for your funeral – or at the very least turn it into your ringtone – it would be the Alfa.