Best driver’s cars 2024
The market is rife with stunning driver’s cars and last-gasp specials in 2024 - here’s our list of the best from past and present
With an all-electric future drawing near, car manufacturers are at a crossroads in 2023. On the one hand, the market (and legislation) demands that funding is poured into electric cars, but on the other, the internal combustion engine must surely be celebrated before it dies out.
For the ICE performance cars that have slipped through recently, engineers have lavished unprecedented attention across the all-important, tangible aspects of driving, and the results are profound. Some of the world’s greatest hot hatches, sports coupes and supercars have emerged for petrol power’s last hurrah, so we’ve collated some of our favourites - including past evo icons - all in one place.
Best supermini: Hyundai i20 N
Used: Ford Fiesta ST200, Renault Clio Trophy
Small hot hatchbacks provide an affordable gateway to performance car ownership, but don’t be fooled - on the right road, these bite-sized models can be just as thrilling as the big hitters further down this list. The 201bhp Hyundai i20 N is a case in point with its supremely capable chassis, effervescent 1.6-litre turbo four pot and generally boisterous attitude.
The Hyundai’s chief rival, the Fiesta ST, has now gone off sale, but you can pick up a used seventh-gen ST200 to sample one of Ford’s brightest stars. The Renault Clio Trophy may be nearing two decades old, but its willing naturally-aspirated 2-litre F4R motor and sophisticated Sachs dampers make it a firm evo favourite, too.
Best hot hatch: Honda Civic Type R (FL5)
Used: Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S (Mk7), Renault Sport Megane R26.R
A near fifty-grand Honda Civic may seem nonsensical on paper, but judged as a pure driving machine, the latest Type R is worth every penny and then some. The way the Civic storms along the road with such poise and intensity is captivating, and while there are whispers of a front-wheel drive Nürburgring lap record attempt on the horizon, we frankly couldn’t care less. This is the pinnacle of hot hatches right now regardless of how quick it is - and trust us, the 324bhp Type R goes very well indeed.
The Honda sits among hot hatch greats like the spell-binding Renault Megane R26.R and Mk7 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S, both of which punched well above their weight (and price tags) at eCoty 2008 and 2016, respectively. The Renault is perhaps the most visceral of the lot, but all three exude quality and depth that shames some supercars.
Best sports car: Toyota GR86
Used: BMW M2 CS, Lotus Evora
Ferrari, McLaren, Porsche. No, those weren’t the top three manufacturers at eCoty 2022, but the brands that Toyota beat with a four-cylinder, sub-£30k coupe. The GR86 builds on the GT86’s ethos to conjure huge fun from modest ingredients, but the old car’s biggest shortfalls - a lack of mid-range torque and precision at the limit - have been rectified. The result is one of the most engaging cars on sale, at any price.
The four-cylinder boxer engine now displaces 2.4-litres, power has swelled to 231bhp and chassis developments have brought the package alive. It’s now genuinely quick across the ground but still willing to indulge a more flamboyant driving style.
The same can be said of the BMW M2 CS, our 2020 Car of the Year. The standard M2 never quite came together in terms of ultimate control and finesse on bumpy roads, but with various chassis upgrades and an altogether racier S55 engine from the F80 M3, the CS was the M2 we wished for and more. The Lotus Evora - another eCoty winner - has a lighter touch but is no less brilliant, with a freakishly absorbent chassis and communicative controls that few cars have matched before or since.
Best roadster: Porsche 718 Spyder
Used: Lotus Elise, McLaren 765LT Spider
The recipe seems simple on paper, but Porsche continues to pull magic from the two-seat, six-cylinder, rear wheel drive Boxster. What was originally designed as a usable, obtainable roadster to sit below the 911 has morphed into something altogether more exotic in 718 Spyder form, with an engine and chassis that scream motorsport. There are few greater joys than slicing through gears to make the 414bhp 4-litre flat six sing, which it will do all the way to 8000rpm.
The Lotus Elise has never had such an exquisite engine, but the rest of the car is remarkable in its own right. Early models used a light, characterful Rover K-Series motor nestled within a dainty fibreglass body, and with an extruded aluminium chassis, weight dipped well below 800kg. Put simply, nothing drives like an Elise, and its purity of response is to be savoured.
McLaren's 765LT Spider is another evo star that satisfies altogether more primal instincts. It's ballistic, with 755bhp delivered in a turbocharged V8 frenzy that is truly eye opening with the roof down. A carbonfibre tub means that there's minimal compromise over the coupe - in fact, we prefer the Spider’s slightly more measured, forgiving responses.
Best saloon: BMW M5 CS
Used: BMW M5 (E39), Lotus Carlton
Few would have predicted that an 1825kg saloon would walk away with the eCoty crown in 2021, but then few - if any - super four-doors have ever been as good as the BMW M5 CS. It's quick of course, the 4.4-litre V8 packs a mighty 626bhp punch, but BMW has somehow unearthed wonderful tactility and engagement that's on a par with the world's best sports cars. There's a constant stream of detail through the (admittedly too thick) alcantara steering wheel and the composed, agile chassis will dance beautifully beneath you given some commitment.
There's a clear lineage to be drawn all the way back to the E39 M5, which is more relaxed but bewitching all the same with its rich, naturally-aspirated 4.9-litre V8. If you look further back into the 90s, the Lotus Carlton is another evo hero - a heavily re-engineered, limited run super exec conceived to be the fastest on the planet. It was exactly that in period, and more importantly, the Lotus Carlton was steeped in finesse and engagement that did justice to the first half of its name.
Best estate: BMW M3 Touring
Used: Audi RS4 (B7), Mercedes-AMG C63 Estate (W204)
The anticipation surrounding the new M3 Touring was immense, and BMW hasn't disappointed. What it's done, in fact, is produce one of the most desirable practical performance cars on sale today, a car that’s somehow more rewarding than the rare M4 CSL built using the same core mechanicals. Everything we love about the G80 M3, its relentless power delivery, impervious nature and brilliant xDrive system, has been transplanted to the Touring, and frankly, no other estate car can keep up.
But more than a decade ago, Audi and Mercedes weaved RS and AMG DNA into their smallest estates to brilliant effect. The B7 RS4 Avant has a spectacular, rev hungry 4.2-litre V8 and unwilting strength in all conditions, while the W204-generation C63 is an endearingly honest hot rod with one of the world's great engines: the 6.2-litre M156 V8.
Best GT: Ferrari Roma
Used: Aston Martin V12 Vantage S, Ferrari F12 Berlinetta
If you wind back to the 1950s and 60s, elegant front-engined machines - and not hyper alert mid-engined road racers - were Ferrari's stomping ground. The Roma proves that Maranello hasn't lost its touch, with superb bandwidth and driver appeal from its 611bhp twin-turbocharged V8 and fiendishly advanced chassis. Side Slip Control 6.0, Ferrari Dynamic Enhancer and F1-TCS are just some of the electronic augmentations, but what you need to know is that the Roma is as supple and forgiving as you'd want and expect from a GT, but it snaps into a genuine sports car at a moment's notice.
On the other hand, the Aston Martin V12 Vantage S is pretty much the same, all the time. It's deeply satisfying at all speeds, with a muscular, multi-layered tone from its 5.9-litre V12 and a similarly meaty feel to the steering and seven-speed manual gearbox. But few GT cars blend maniacal performance, sound and delivery quite like the Ferrari F12. The 730bhp V12-engined coupe is surprisingly approachable but hyperactive in its responses, so it needs a calm head and a gentle right foot to get the most from it. Driven as such, it’s sensational.
Best supercar: Maserati MC20
Used: Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0, Ferrari 458 Speciale
For a company that hasn’t produced a mid-engined thoroughbred in over two decades, what Maserati has achieved with the MC20 is staggering. On paper, a V6-engined, automatic supercar designed to accommodate EV running gear might sound sanitised, but in reality, the MC20 feels every bit a modern day Ferrari F40. The chuffs and whooshes as the twin turbos spool up and explode with energy is decidedly old school, but the MC20 is supple and refined in other areas - chiefly its chassis, which finds compliance and breadth no matter what you throw at it. It’s a controlled assault on the senses, and while the latest hybrid supercars from Ferrari and McLaren are more technically gifted, the MC20 won us over at eCoty 2022 with overall victory.
For analogue thrills, though, it’s difficult to imagine a more interactive machine than the 997-generation Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0. As the last RS model equipped with a manual gearbox, the 4.0 spawns from what could be the sweet spot of simplicity and sophistication in the 911’s history. A couple of years later, Ferrari gave us what could be its finest moment, too: the 458 Speciale. The fabulous, wailing 9000rpm F136 V8, instantaneous paddle shift ‘box and balletic chassis all seem to act as one, and it’s impossible not to be utterly mesmerised by a Speciale at full chat.
Best hypercar: Pagani Huayra
Used: Porsche Carrera GT, McLaren F1
There’s no shortage of cutting edge hypercars in 2023, but despite its age, the Pagani Huayra continues to captivate us at evo. The jewel-like successor to the Zonda has a distinctly mechanical feel, with two driven wheels, an unashamedly turbocharged V12 and a single-clutch gearbox. In any form, but particularly in BC guise, the Huayra is violently fast, too. Not even the mammoth 335-section rear Pirelli’s can contain the V12’s fury, but this balancing act is what makes the Huayra so exciting. Even when you turn things down a notch, the Huayra’s surprisingly pliant ride and biddable, alert dynamics mean it’s a joy to thread along.
It’s certainly easier than a Carrera GT. In the early days, on its original Michelin Pilot Sport tyres and with its infamously tricky clutch, Porsche’s hypercar earned somewhat of a daunting reputation, but we’ve grown to appreciate its unadulterated analogue thrills and purity of engineering. Of course, the 5.7-litre motorsport derived V10 impressed from day one.
With slightly soft on-limit responses and weak brakes, the McLaren F1 has foibles too. But none of that seems to matter when you stretch the 6.1-litre V12 to 7500rpm, the roof scoop gulping in air above your head as you guide the car from its very centre. The 240mph top speed is a side note in a car with such beautifully connected steering, an instinctive manual gearbox and of course, that noise.