Best German cars – the greatest performance machines, past and present

Check out the evo team’s take on the most engaging and desirable German performance cars

Since we launched evo magazine in 1998 the editorial team has desired, debated and – best of all – driven an almost continuous stream of delectable German performance cars.

Picking our all-time favourites was always going to be contentious, because evo’s very existence is predicated on the premise that ‘greatness’ is a thoroughly subjective quality. Others take a more objective approach to these things, with a calculus built on engine stats, acceleration figures, lateral G-force measurements, or circuit lap times, but we try to take our readers beyond the raw data. evo reviewers are focused on revealing a car’s character, and uncovering qualities that speak to a driving enthusiast’s heart and soul.

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If that wasn’t enough to set evo team members at each other's throats in the selection process, there’s also the small matter of chronology. To come up with a definitive list of the best German performance cars, each must be judged against the context of its period. That means holding contemporary twin-turbo powertrains with reduced cylinder numbers to a different standard than normally aspirated multi-cylinder ancestors. It means weighing up the thrill of a lightning-bolt paddleshift against the satisfyingly deft snick of a short-throw gearlever, or balancing the sci-fi quality of modern active electronic chassis systems against the rawer ‘seat-of-the-pants’ feel of older machines… you can see how the trouble might start.

What we all agreed on straightaway was that Germany has delivered more than its fair share of sublime performance-orientated machinery. BMW Ms, RS Porsches and Audis, thundering AMGs and a smattering of unforgettable hot hatches have all helped to make Germany a rich hunting ground for performance enthusiasts.

We also agreed on this list. Eventually. So read on for evo’s pick of Germany’s best performance car efforts in modern times.

evo’s top ten best German performance cars

Our favourite German sports and performance cars are listed below, with the top ten ranked in order of preference, and the subsequent slots filled in no particular order at all…

BMW M2 CS

The limited-edition BMW M2 CS is a track-focused iteration of the already fabulous M2 Competition, and it’s so good we couldn’t resist naming it as evo’s Car of the Year in 2020.

What’s to like? For starters, the CS has a 444bhp version of the TwinPower Turbo in-line six just like its bigger brother the M3/4, which means it will crack 0-62mph in four seconds dead. The extra power is backed up by adaptive M suspension, and you can spec the CS with manual gears as well as the double-clutch auto, the latter-equipped car being quicker by a couple of tenths to 62mph, though not our favoured option.

With 406lb ft from 2350rpm and an engine that revs out gloriously to 7000rpm, the CS absolutely flies. The superbly balanced chassis provides a fluid driving experience that, in the absence of stability control, encourages tail-out cornering attitudes even in third gear. Even the steering manages to impart some feel – a rarity in current BMWs – helping to cement the CS as one of the finest M-cars in recent memory.

Porsche 718 Cayman GT4

The current 718 Cayman, like its Boxster sibling, has won few friends for its four-pot turbo motor, but there are no such worries with the rabid GT4 incarnation, as sitting amidships is an atmospheric four-litre flat-six derived from the 992’s 3-litre engine. With 414bhp on tap it’s hugely quick and offers a better soundtrack all the way up to its 8000rpm red line. Zero to 62mph takes 4.4sec and top speed is a mighty 188mph, and while throttle response is truly epic above 4500rpm it’s the chassis and aerodynamic addenda that really make the car.

The GT4 chassis has much in common with that of the latest 911 GT3, but takes a more purist approach with no rear-wheel steering. Objectively it’s hugely capable, but it’s the GT4’s emotional appeal that’s so convincing. It’s every inch the proper Porsche GT car with effectively 911 GT3-spec suspension that gives you a wonderful connection with the car, both on road and track. With a base price of £76k it should be considered a bit of a bargain, too.

Porsche 997.2 GT3 RS

With 429bhp from an updated, 3.8-litre version of the flat-six, the 2009 update of the perennially almost perfect 997 GT3 reached new heights, but the RS version planted the Porsche flag firmly on the mountain summit.

A 15bhp power hike to 444bhp gave the 997.2 GT3 RS a 35bhp advantage over its predecessor, but it’s the sense of mechanical, intuitive precision that keeps this car’s memory vivid. In this era of extraordinary power outputs, electric steering, paddleshifters, driver aids and laboratory-tuned exhaust sounds the 997 GT3 RS may no longer represent the apogee of unlimited production GT performance, but for those who cherish the art of feet dancing over pedals to balance a perfectly poised chassis, who relish the snick of a short-throw six-speed gearlever and the snarling howl of a race-bred non-turbo Mezger engine, it doesn’t get much better.

There’s no mistaking an RS either, with its immense carbonfibre rear wing floating on aluminium pylons, huge sticky Michelin tyres, titanium exhaust tips and chequered flag graphics. It’s a legend; the winner of our ‘This is evo’ in issue 200 that named our favourite car of the first 200 issues of the magazine. 

Porsche 981 Cayman GT4

The GT4 variant of the second-generation 981 Cayman was widely hailed by the motoring media as the version Porsche always should have built – a race-inspired production sports car that unleashed the potential locked away inside the 911’s smaller sibling.

There had already been R and GTS versions of the Cayman, which teased at the potential, but it wasn’t until 2015 that Porsche’s GT department really got to work on the car. The Cayman GT4’s 380bhp was delivered by a slightly detuned version of the 3.8-litre flat-six fitted to the 911 Carrera S, which in turn delivered a 4.4sec 0-62mph time and 183mph top speed via a six-speed manual transmission. Running 30mm closer to the ground than a standard Cayman, and with an aerodynamic nose backed up by an effective rear spoiler, the Cayman GT4 also featured dampers from the 911 GT3 and a torque-vectoring differential.

Inside, carbon bucket seats provided little insulation from the GT4’s hard, sporting ride, but its agility, poise and steering response are still near to peerless when attacking a favourite B-road or – even better – the track. 

VW Golf GTI Clubsport S

The Mk7 GTI Clubsport S was built with an assault on the Nürburgring lap record for front-wheel-drive cars in mind, and it delivered with a 7min 47sec record that would have kept a Porsche GT3 driver honest.

Under the bonnet there’s a boosted 306bhp variant of the standard GTI’s 2-litre four, coupled to a six-speed manual transmission and an electronically controlled limited-slip diff to help put the power down. The 5.8sec 0-62mph sprint, on the way to a 165mph top speed, is helped by an impressive 280lb ft of torque between 1850 and 5700rpm and an equally impressive approach to weight saving which inspired VW’s engineers to junk the back seats and install an aluminium front subframe.

Running on Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, and with specially tuned dampers and other suspension tweaks, the results are phenomenal. With heat in the tyres providing immense grip and traction that virtually eliminates understeer, fabulous throttle response and precise, direct steering, track performance is outstanding. Yet there’s a pliancy to the suspension that makes the Clubsport S equally joyous over a challenging British B-road too.

Mercedes-AMG GT R Pro

The AMG GT R is already an evo favourite, but the track-focused Pro version takes the game to another level thanks to a carefully considered package of suspension and aero upgrades designed to shave crucial tenths off your lap times.

The heart of the AMG GT R Pro is its thumping 577bhp twin-turbo V8, and AMG hasn’t felt the need to add any extra muscle. With a 3.6sec 0-62mph time and a 198mph maximum you can see AMG’s point.

All the engineering has been directed at the chassis which features manually adjustable dampers and anti-roll bars – the front one in carbon – and airflow. Attention is immediately grabbed by the lift-cancelling louvres on top of the front wings, an extended front splitter and vertical blades behind the rear wheels.

On the circuit the GT R Pro delivers as much excitement as you’d expect, with the raucous thunder of that magnificent V8 always at the heart of the action. The chassis is a revelation too, with crisp turn-in and sensitivity to steering inputs and phenomenal traction out of corners, yet always ready to oblige with oversteer in response to a squeeze of the throttle.

Porsche 987 Cayman R

If proof was ever needed that the most fun comes in small packages, the Cayman R proved the point a decade or so ago. It required just 325bhp and an adroitly agile, beautifully balanced and confidently composed chassis set-up to deliver one of the purest driving experiences of its era.

The heritage of the R badge in Porsche’s racing history caused some marque followers to glower over a power increase of just 9bhp from the 3.4-litre six fitted to the Cayman S, and a limited number of technical upgrades that included marginally stiffer suspension and tweaked anti-roll bars. The R rides 20mm lower than the Cayman S due to shorter (and stiffer) springs, and weight-saving measures included the adoption of aluminium door skins and the deletion of air con and in-car entertainment, though these last two could be ticked back in as options on the order form. A modest rear spoiler and more aggressive front end rounded off the R upgrades.

On the road the changes were as subtle as they sounded, but helped to elevate the Cayman R to a level beyond that of the already unimpeachable Cayman S.

Audi R8 4.2 FSi

The Audi R8 was previewed as the Le Mans quattro concept car in 2003, which celebrated the marque’s trio of back-to-back victories on the Circuit de la Sarthe in the early noughties.

By the time the production version arrived in 2006, Audi’s R8 Le Mans prototype had added two more consecutive 24 Hours wins to its tally, and the R8 road car boasted a specification that showed Audi had joined the GT car elite.

Available with V8 power or – later – a 5.2-litre V10 as well, the smaller-engined 4.2 FSi variant was the sweet spot of the line-up from the purist perspective. Not only did it feel nimbler than the V10 without giving away too much in outright performance, but you could get the V8 with a manual transmission that we described as one of the most tactile, slick and satisfying shifts in production.

The R8 driving experience was fantastic too, with a superbly balanced and poised mid-engine chassis that offered outstanding performance while retaining a supple ride that made the R8 a joy to rack up miles in.

Porsche 991 911 R

Imagine Porsche wanted to build the ultimate 911 for road use, uninhibited by the constraints of chasing elusive 100ths off lap times, and with the focus on pure driver involvement.

That was the ethos behind the thrillingly fabulous but disappointingly rare 911 R from 2016, which Porsche engineers delivered by slotting the GT3 RS’s 4-litre, non-turbo flat-six with a manual six-speed gearbox into a ‘regular’ GT3 RS with the rear wing and roll-cage deleted.

The car is 50kg lighter than a GT3 RS thanks to carbon front wings, eliminated PDK gubbins and a spartan interior, so with 493bhp and 339lb ft the 911 R is hugely rapid. Porsche claims 3.8sec to 62mph and 201mph, and the lack of a stabilising rear wing is partially compensated for at higher speeds by a bespoke rear diffuser.

The 911 R is a simply dazzling drive, with an engine that’s hungry to rev and a deliciously precise gearshift that begs to be played with. It’s also a 911 that you can enjoy at relatively sane road speeds, although when the Cup 2 tyres are up to temperature and you’re leaning on them the reserves of grip are mind-blowing.

Mercedes-AMG A45 S

It takes something pretty special for a hot hatch to make the top ten list of evo’s favourite performance cars, and in the case of the A45 S it’s not just a four-cylinder turbocharged engine with enough power to blast you into the middle of next week.

Some 415bhp at 6750rpm ensures it will do just that, mind you, as befits the most powerful 2-litre engine in production. To help keep things on an even keel there’s four-wheel drive, while the eight-speed dual-clutch transmission is aided and abetted by a pair of multi-disc clutches that apportion torque to whichever rear wheel can best make use of it.

The officially quoted 0-62mph time is 3.9sec, while top speed is 167mph, but it’s the way the A45 S goes about its business that sets it apart. Instant throttle response is backed up by the sort of crackling, popping fireworks you’d expect from an AMG exhaust, while acceleration is of the inexorably building kind that ends in a mighty top-end rush of power that’s truly addictive.

Even better, the chassis delivers a superbly fun and engaging drive, with genuine power oversteer on tap, in a much more engaging way than its rather soulless predecessor.. 

Runners-up, in no particular order…

Mercedes CLK63 AMG Black Series

The Porsche GT3 was in the firing line when the CLK63 Black Series was conceived, and AMG tooled up its version of the Merc coupe with a 500bhp 6.2-litre V8 coupled to the standard seven-speed auto gearbox. That added up to a 0-62mph time of 4.2sec and a 186mph top speed, but it was the way the Black Series went about it that was game-changing. Thanks to virtually bespoke suspension and a track-focused set-up, this big coupe offered fabulous balance and seriously engaging handling. It may not have been quite as sharp as the GT3 in the final assessment, but the muscle-car V8 roar was fine compensation. Some things never change.

VW Golf R (Mk7, three-door manual)

Although there’s a Mk8 version of the Golf R with a bit more power and tech, it’s the previous Mk7 version that really gets our blood coursing. Equipped with a 296bhp version of the latest 2-litre four-cylinder GTI engine, with 4MOTION four-wheel drive and an honest-to-goodness manual gearbox for those who didn’t want to drive a DSG, it really was hard to fault the exceptional all-round qualities of the Mk7 Golf R as the ultimate practical performance car. The 0-62mph sprint of 5.1sec felt suitably ballistic, and it confidently outhandled front-drive rivals as they scrabbled for grip in extremis. It looked like a sleeper too, which was all part of the fun.

BMW M3 Competition (E92)

It was hard to think of ways the mid-noughties E92 M3 might have been improved, and obviously BMW felt the same as the M3 Competition didn’t feature much in the way of upgrades. It packed the same 4-litre V8 making a prodigious 414bhp at a howling 8300rpm, plus 295lb ft of torque from less than 4000rpm, giving a 0-62mph time of around 4.5sec. However, it featured retuned stability control and electronic damper settings to provide an even more thrilling handling balance (albeit at the cost of some ride quality) and some very tasty 19-inch alloy wheels.

It wasn’t quite the ultimate E92 M3, as that accolade fell to the M3 GTS, but the Competition Package added an extra level of focus for enthusiast drivers.

Porsche 718 Spyder

We described the Spyder as a rare gem of a sports car, but that wasn’t a surprise to anyone familiar with the 718 Cayman GT4 and its 414bhp normally aspirated flat-six engine. The Spyder and the GT4 are the same under the skin, so both get a six-speed manual gearbox, and similar performance – 0-62mph in 4.4sec and 9.0sec to 100mph. Top speed is 187mph with the top up or down, and while the Spyder lacks the downforce-inducing big wing and splitter of the GT4, it’s easily the most exciting open-top car to drive for anything like the sub-£75k price. Razor-sharp steering, iron-fist brakes and immaculate body control combine with a delicacy of feel and thrilling soundtrack that rivals can only dream of. Oh, and it looks pretty fabulous too.

Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series

One glance at the GT Black Series sends shivers of anticipation down your spine – or anxious trembles if you’re a Porsche GT2 RS or McLaren 765LT. That’s the calibre of competition AMG had in mind when applying its ‘no holds barred’ Black Series magic to the GT coupe, and its Nürburgring pace proved the potency of their spells.

Power comes from a heavily revised V8 with enlarged turbos making 720bhp and 590lb ft of torque – enough for a 3.2sec 0-62mph time and 202mph. Weight has been stripped out through extensive use of carbon, while stiffness and aero performance are both significantly improved over that of the AMG GT R.

Instant and unrelenting throttle response, plus chassis finesse, make the Black Series a truly awesome driver’s car.

VW Up GTI

It’s hard to deny the appeal of VW’s sporty Up model, which serves as the entry point to the world of the GTI. Light weight, chuckability and tenacious grip give the VW Up GTI a genuine appeal that belies the on-paper limitations of modest power and low price.

Zero to 62mph comes up in 8.8sec, but the three-pot turbo engine feels gutsier than the numbers suggest, and the six-speed manual gearbox makes fast gearchanges a pleasure. Couple that with a chassis that feels far more sophisticated than the price tag suggests, minimal body roll, great grip on smoother tarmac, and a character that really encourages the driver to push the limits, and the inclusion of this pocket rocket in our list makes sense.

BMW M5 (E39)

There’s no substitute for cubic inches, as the saying goes, which in this case meant an extra 1.1 litres of capacity courtesy of a couple more cylinders for the first V8-powered M-car in 1998.

It was a different kind of car to the outgoing 3.8-litre six-powered E34. The E39 M5 had almost 60bhp more under its bonnet with a total output of 394bhp, but of more note was the engine’s 369lb ft of torque which helped deliver its 5.3sec 0-62mph time.

While M bodykits were all the rage for middle managers in their 528is, those in the know would instantly recognise the quad tailpipes and the M5’s unique stance with its front 245- and rear 275-section tyres on spoked 18-inch wheels.

Audi RS4 (B7)

The heart of the RS4 was a stonking 4.2-litre V8 that revved to 8500rpm while making 414bhp and which also happened to appear in the mid-engined Audi R8 supercar. A rear-biased four-wheel-drive quattro system, plus Dynamic Ride Control, also meant the RS4 gripped and handled with formidable poise, while a six-speed manual gearbox added to the highly engaging driving experience.

On the outside, meaty flared wheelarches revealed the RS4’s intent, while features such as aluminium bonnet and wing panels and seats that gripped tighter in Sport mode all upped the appeal. The RS4 came in saloon, estate and cabriolet versions too, with the handsome estate variant being arguably the most alluring.

Porsche 911 GT3 (996)

At the turn of the millennium Porsche needed a homologation road car to create a new series of racing 911s based on the newly introduced 996 road car, the first all-new 911 since the type’s inception in the early 1960s, and the first 911 to use a fully water-cooled engine.  

The resulting GT3 used the standard-width 996 bodyshell adorned with a deep front splitter a and now iconic bi-plane rear spoiler, but was no lighter than the standard Carrera.. Suspension and brakes were upgraded, and the car featured a brand new normally aspirated flat-six engine, in time referred to as the ‘Mezger’ unit, making first 360bhp and then later 375bhp in the 996.2 version. Two-wheel drive was used too in the quest to save weight, and the GT3 legend was born. Naturally, its outright pace and ultimate ability aren’t a match for  today’s equivalents, but history records it as not only the birth of a vitally important lineage, but also a wonderfully pure driver’s car in its own right..

BMW M5 (E60)

Adding a 500bhp V10 to the already successful M5 formula, the E60 version’s performance was shattering when the snarling, yowling engine was allowed to do the thing it liked best, which was to rev out towards its 8250rpm red line while reeling in the horizon at a neck-snapping pace. Zero to 62mph in 4.7sec was the official number, but independent reviewers recorded times as low as 4.1sec. With the M driver’s package unlocking the limiter, top speed was 190mph, and the E60 had all the right chassis and brake upgrades to make good use of the potential – an 8min 13sec Ring time attests to that.

The car looked the part too, with bespoke body panels and flared arches over a wider track. A controversial car, with terrifying thirst and high running costs in its old age, plus a single-clutch automated gearbox that’s hard to love, we’ll not see its like ever again.

VW Golf GTI (Mk5)

The 2005 return of the Golf GTI was a revelation following various limp-wristed and/or misguided interpretations of the Mk4 variety. For the Mk5, VW’s engineers seemed to regain their focus, and the Golf GTI its mojo.

It came with a 197bhp 2-litre engine with a turbo and front-wheel drive, and would knock off 0-62mph in a brisk 7.3sec. Top speed was 146mph, and the image was bang on with a honeycomb grille, black door sills and five-hole alloy wheels outside, and tartan-trimmed sports seats and a leather wheel in the cabin.

On the road, the eager engine, manual ’box with six well-spaced ratios, and a superb chassis – now with a multi-link rear axle – recalibrated with stiffer anti-roll bars, springs and dampers, make the Mk5 a joy to drive.

BMW M2 Competition

While the original BMW M2 never entirely fired our imagination in the way we’d have liked, the 2018 arrival of a revised version toting the twin-turbo six-cylinder engine from the M3/M4 changed our perception. Some 404bhp in a small two-door saloon will do that, especially when it's delivered with such a gloriously bombastic soundtrack, and while not a whole lot faster than the earlier M135i-engined version, the rev-hungry engine makes performance seem even more explosive. Zero to 62mph in 4.4sec and 174mph are the critical numbers.

But what really mattered was that the M2 Competition also benefited from a range of suspension and braking tweaks  that finally unlocked the potential that had always been there with the M2 recipe. A charismatic car, and a great all-rounder.

Audi R8 V10 Performance

The V10 Performance is as good as the R8 gets, which means 611bhp from a wildly exotic-sounding engine that will rev all the way to 8700rpm if you let it. Zero to 62mph in 3.1sec and 205mph are only part of the story, as the ferocious power is delivered in a quattro 4x4 chassis that makes best use of every single horsepower. With nicely weighted steering, and terrific body control, only the onset of understeer at the limit has the potential to rein in phenomenal A-to-B times. It takes a track, bravery and plenty of room to overcome this tendency at high speeds, but it doesn’t detract from the R8’s outstanding competence as a road car.

Porsche 718 Cayman GTS 4.0

If you’re looking for a cut-price Porsche Cayman GT4, then the GTS could be it. It packs a mighty punch thanks to a detuned version of the GT4’s magnificent flat-six, and offers 90 per cent of that car’s thrills for a lot less dosh.

The GTS only gives away 20bhp to its racier sibling, boasting an impressive 394bhp, and identical torque at 310lb ft. It’s a joyously ‘mechanical’ engine that’s fiendishly rev-happy, and quick with a 4.5sec 0-62mph time. A mechanical limited-slip diff and PASM adaptive dampers are also on the spec sheet, along with Sport Chrono driver modes, a sports exhaust and Pirelli P Zeros on 20-inch wheels. Long gear ratios take the ultimate shine off the otherwise excellent six-speed manual, so this is one Porsche where we might be tempted to opt for the PDK ’box. 

BMW M3 CSL (E46)

The E46 M3 is another modern classic from BMW’s performance division, and it arrived boasting a 338bhp straight-six with Double Vanos VVT, a lightweight crankshaft and graphite-coated pistons allowing a heady 8000rpm. The track-inspired CSL was a stripped out road-racer which joined the line-up in 2003, and was instantly recognisable thanks to a front splitter and single-inlet front bumper, carbon roof panel, kicked-up bootlid and Alcantara-clad interior. Power rose to 355bhp with a simultaneous drop in weight from 1570kg to 1385kg, and suspension and tyre changes meant sharper turn-in and improved rear grip over the already excellent M3. And nothing sounds as good as that straight-six bark. 

Porsche 911 GT3 (992)

Technical highlights for the latest GT3 include new double-wishbone front suspension – for Porsche previously the preserve of racing cars – plus weight-saving and aerodynamic measures to help elevate the car’s performance.

With 503bhp and 347lb ft, 0-62mph is achieved in 3.4sec (PDK), matching the previous GT3’s figure, while top speed goes 1mph better at 199mph. The chassis upgrades and new aero produce astonishing grip on the track, and astonishing response from the front end. The 315-section Cup 2 tyres mean it takes real commitment to unstick the rear and maintain a slide, a hint of a lift bringing everything neatly back into line.

BMW M4 Competition (G82)

With 503bhp from the twin-turbo straight-six the latest M4 will dismiss the 0-62mph sprint in just 3.9sec, while thoroughly reworked suspension and a more rigid chassis mean the handling breaks new boundaries for the model. The extra stiffness is immediately apparent when you turn up the wick, as the steering precision is a delight and the poise impeccable in corners.

Power delivery is linear to over 7000rpm and even the fact you can only choose an eight-speed torque-converter auto on UK cars fails to dampen our enthusiasm – shifts are smooth and quick.

The M3 saloon version provides an even more practical solution to your performance needs, not to mention fatter rear wheelarches.

Mercedes C63 AMG Edition 507

Available across the C63 line-up in 2013, so saloon, coupe and estate models, the Edition 507’s power upgrade meant 0-62mph arrived in 4.2sec and top speed was ‘delimited’ at 174mph. Your extra £10k over standard also bought you a vented aluminium bonnet just like the Black Series, a gloss black rear spoiler and mirrors, plus a set of gorgeous 19-inch alloys.

Standard AMG sports suspension made the car stiff but not unbearable, and responsive steering meant the C63 was a car that would oversteer at any speed and hold its attitude with ease in the hands of a competent driver.

BMW M3 GTS (E92)

BMW took on the mighty 911 GT3 RS with its 2010 track special, and only ten examples of the 150 built are believed to have made it to the UK. Notable features include a half roll-cage, Perspex windows, stripped out interior with no rear seat, solid rear subframe mounts, adjustable dampers and a 444bhp version of the standard car’s 4.4-litre V8 giving a 4.4sec 0-62mph time and 190mph flat out.

With Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres and a seven-speed DCT transmission, the M3 GTS was a weapon on the track, but couldn’t match the 911 GT3 RS for its finesse or lap times. The BMW also cost more than £100k, making it hard to justify in purely objective terms.

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