Best performance cars

2022 was a year of fabulous mid-engined supercars and the rebirth of some of the biggest nomenclatures in the business

What exactly is a performance car? It can take any shape, size and colour, but inherently must appeal to the single metric that we at evo consider to be the most important element of any car – how engaging it is to drive.

Performance cars put the experience at the centrepoint of everything; interaction between you and machine is key. And while different performance cars do that in different ways, all must be engaging and capable in equal measure.

So from a £30,000 compact coupe to cutting-edge hybrid supercars, our list includes the best high-performance cars that arrived in the 12 months of 2022.

McLaren Artura

McLaren’s Artura, the company’s first step into its second decade, was a story of broken deadlines and delays, but with production now in full swing the long-awaited new era has begun.

It impressed Jethro Bovingdon on the launch, delivering the McLaren trademarks of peerless ergonomics, impeccable ride quality and near unbeatable steering, but it also still betrayed some other, less desirable McLaren characteristics, such as malfunctioning systems and the small matter of catching fire. Steve Sutcliffe got away more lightly with his launch car, which suffered from failed air conditioning during a Spanish heatwave.

But as new CEO Michael Leiters explained to evo in late 2022, the Artura wasn’t ready earlier in the year, which is why he stopped production and deliveries until it was. The cars we’ve since driven in the UK have behaved impeccably, looking sensational covered in an early autumn morning dew.

When McLaren gets it right, few can match its cars when it comes to mixing performance, engagement and a sense of being in a machine designed to do a specific task better than it has any right to.

Ferrari 296 GTB

Keen to make up for our less than sterling experience with its first plug-in hybrid supercar, the pressure was on when Ferrari quickly doubled down with the new 296 GTB. Thankfully, for the sake of our relationship with Ferrari, the new V6-powered 296 is an absolute superstar, almost instantly finding its way into our affection.

Adam Towler, a man not easily swayed by power outputs or hyperbole, was blown away by the 296 GTB’s capability on the car’s launch, his initial messages back from that event suggesting he had driven 2022’s eCoty winner. Jethro was equally impressed when Ferrari insisted he drive it before he attended McLaren’s launch of the Artura. There was a strong feeling Ferrari had a contender on its hands.

Yet the Ferrari’s brilliance doesn’t just lie in its greater integration of the electric powertrain elements, but also its all-new V6 – the first to officially grace a Ferrari. It’s an outstanding unit, one that is colloquially known within Maranello as a ‘point-five’ V12. With its unusual 120-degree cylinder bank angles and stunning performance, it feels just as specialised as the V8 and V12 units that have come to define Ferraris in the modern era.

Maserati MC20

Maserati hasn’t really built a brilliant high-performance car for nearly 15 years, so has hardly been at the forefront of the enthusiast’s mind in the interim. There have been a few highlights, such as the Ghibli and Quattroporte Trofeo, yet many lowlights, too. But that was yesterday and Maserati’s tomorrow starts with the MC20.

It’s sleek, with an unapologetic supercar look and feel matched with a turbocharged V6 that ignores any form of hybridisation. But, and this is perhaps the biggest point of all, Maserati hasn’t produced a mid-engined supercar it can call its own since the Bora over 40 years ago.

Its legacy and experience in this space is virtually non-existent; it makes McLaren look like a seasoned pro, Audi a historical master and Ferrari… well, Ferrari is Ferrari. The MC20 arrives with huge amounts of goodwill behind it, but an even heavier weight of expectation hanging over it.

The good news is that it absolutely delivers. It’s not a perfect supercar, there are flaws, a few rough edges and it doesn’t have nearly the spread of sophistication or capability of the latest hybrid supercars from McLaren and Ferrari, but it has an appeal that goes beyond on-paper figures to be a truly desirable performance car. It won our hearts, and as a result the eCoty 2022 trophy as well.

Toyota GR86

Few cars represent the paradox of the car industry quite like the Toyota GR86. It is, perhaps more than any other, representative of the affordable performance car – a type of car that’s become an endangered species in the current climate of electrification, three-ton electric SUVs and inflated retail prices designed to reap back some of the billions being spilled into modern EV development.

You’d imagine that the affordable sports car is a rare being because there’s just not the desire for it from the market, but quite the opposite is true. The GR86’s admittedly tiny European allocation sold out within hours. And it’s not just Toyota. Hyundai is selling every single N model it gets its hands on. Even Mazda’s evergreen (and seven-year-old) MX-5 is currently oversubscribed!

So why, you might ask, is the affordable performance car being squeezed out when demand is so clearly there? Beyond the blunt detrimental legislation and tax implications of producing petrol-powered cars like these, manufacturers are being forced into creating cars for consumers that they neither want nor can afford.

Its formula is one that many manufacturers claim can’t be made to work in today’s world as they look for excuses to move away from cars people desire to those that suit a PR-friendly mantra. ‘No one wants affordable performance cars!’ they cry. Toyota simply laughs at them.

As for the GR86, specifically, well what looks to be a heavily revised GT86 is in fact a thoroughly transformed car. A larger-capacity flat-four, more power and torque as required rather than for the sake of it, an improved gearshift and a myriad of detail chassis changes – from increasing the wheelbase length by 5mm to reducing the centre of gravity by the same amount – have created not only one of the best affordable sports cars we’ve driven for a long, long time, but one of the best driver’s cars period. Its inclusion was never in doubt regardless of the exotica that’s been launched over the last 12 months.

BMW M4 CSL

BMW’s been in serious form lately, with not one but two eCoty wins with the M2 and M5 CSs, so when the already brilliant M4 Competition was up next, and with an even more focused CSL moniker to go with it, you can understand why BMW M’s confidence is riding high.

But applying the CSL name to a BMW road car sets hopes exceptionally high, meaning the lightest, most focused, most driver-oriented current M car arrives with nowhere to hide.

First impressions are of a car with immense performance from the in-line six, an engine that we wouldn’t be surprised is producing more than its advertised 542bhp. There’s power and more specifically torque everywhere, and thanks to the relatively short ratios from its eight-speed auto is constantly nudging into the traction control system.

On soggy British roads with bumps, awkward cambers and even occasional streams of water crossing the road, the CSL proved to be just too much. It couldn’t find enough purchase into the surface, the front would skate wide, and the rear would snap into oversteer without much warning. 

Our initial drive in issue 303 found a good car desperately wanting to prove it was a great one, but it left Jethro feeling that experiencing that last ten per cent was a judgement call as to whether the reward was worth the risk.

It might well be a different story on smooth roads, in warm weather and on the optional Cup 2s, but the best performance cars should work on all roads, not just the ones it’s clearly been set up to shine on. It’s a problem that’s begun to hamper lots of high-performance cars that we know.

Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 RS

This is the Cayman that has been talked about, rumoured and denied would ever happen since Porsche revealed its mid-engined two-seater back in 2005. Since then the original GT4 has demonstrated the Cayman’s potential by being crowned 2015’s eCoty champ, an honour its successor repeated in 2019. But the RS? This is hardcore with a capital ‘H’.

The baggage it’s saddled with is oversized, the expectation it carries almost suffocating. The appetite for it to be the best driver’s car ever made? Insatiable. It makes a GT3 feel almost undercooked, its specification as mouthwatering as it is intimidating. Those who have driven it know what’s to come, their anticipation matched by the sense of excitement from those of us yet to experience a fully blown Porsche Motorsport-developed Cayman.

There’s a quiet confidence oozing from the GT4 RS, as there always is from Porsches that have swapped out the usual enamel shield on the bonnet for a sticker. The promise of its ethos – ‘the car you are as likely to take for a road drive as you are a track blast’ according to its maker – is almost overwhelming. It’s a car that has blown minds on its own and held its own against more titled icons both past and present.

Yet, just like the M4 CSL above in this list, the GT4 RS is too restricted by which sort of road you find yourself on. The suspension is so tight that it takes only the smallest of bumps to have the rear axle flying off the ground. And while the engine is just as amazing as it is in the back of a GT3, the induction’s placement right behind your head can be a little too much on longer drives.

On the right road, or more accurately on track, the GT4 RS is a stunning high-performance car, but the best RS models are able to make a memorable drive on any road, not just the ones it’s suited to.

Mercedes-AMG SL55

The decision for Mercedes-Benz to hand over the reins of its iconic SL to AMG was a decisive move for the brand, ripe to potentially give the SL the dynamic chops that made the moniker such an icon nearly 70 years ago.

On paper it certainly appears to have what that goal would require, including an aluminium chassis into which is installed Mercedes’ latest adaptive four-wheel-drive system, air suspension, every conceivable driver aid and a 4-litre, twin-turbocharged V8.

We’ve still not had a go in the range-topping 577bhp SL63 - its presence has been conspicuously absent on the UK press fleet - but the SL55’s 469bhp variant of twin-turbocharged V8 should be plenty in a car that’s as much GT as it is a hot-rod.

Speaking of which, the SL has always had a tough assignment as it serves a dual role. While it might have a reputation as being a laid-back open-top cruiser, there’s still a distinct expectation that it will still drive with poise and precision. Being paired with the latest AMG GT, the latest SL has a stronger base than any modern SL to deliver, especially considering it has all of AMG’s considerable catalogue of chassis and powertrain tech to throw at it.

Audi R8 V10 RWD Performance

It might feel like the current Audi R8 has been with us for about a million years, but every now and then a variant comes along that reminds us what made the R8 so special when it was initially revealed way back in 2007. The latest R8 V10 RWD Performance is one of those exceptional variants, offering a new combination of powertrain and chassis set-up that together with a spread of other small updates make it a fabulous high-performance supercar.

Those updates included a simplifying of the line-up, leaving just the range-topping Performance quattro and Performance RWD on sale, the latter benefiting from modest 29bhp power and 8lb ft torque hikes over the non-Performance RWD, taking the totals to 562bhp and 406lb ft.

That’s still some way off the 602bhp of its Italian cousin, the Huracán Evo RWD, but the R8 has never been about chasing headline power, and with the standard 19-inch wheels it’s a night-and-day improvement over an example fitted with optional 20-inch rims. The fixed-rate dampers and steel springs work better with a taller sidewall and lower unsprung mass, the result an additional suppleness that allows the car to breathe more cleanly with the surface, adding clarity to the messages it sends back.

Earlier this year, against the new Corvette C8 and Porsche’s Cayman GTS (evo 303), the R8 was a match for the Vette’s brawny character thanks to its intoxicating V10, exotic looks and more sophisticated dynamics that indulge you more of the time. Against the Porsche it showed it had an almost equal level of dynamic polish, and what it lacked in ultimate gloss it made up for with personality.

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