The slightly louder, less muffled sound of the locks dropping in the lighter doors echoes around the cavernous concrete room. The thin, powdery feel of the Alcantara stretched round the steering wheel heightens senses even further. Right foot to brake pedal, pause, press starter button. The eruption from the engorged 4361cc V8 has more bass to it than the standard car and the reverberations seem to travel up through the Recaro and sit somewhere inside your large intestine. The M3 GTS is a car that takes your senses to DEFCON 1 even before you’ve selected first gear. Probably just as well given we’re heading out into torrential rain towards precipitous Alpine passes…
Three other cars are also heading towards the ski town of Garmisch, high on the German- Austrian border, and the M3 couldn’t wish for stiffer opposition. Nissan’s Spec V variant of the all-conquering GT-R joins the M3 on the Autobahn south of Munich, videographer Dai Davies at the wheel. Chris Harris is in a Jaguar XKR 75 heading down from his adopted home at the Nürburgring, and somewhere in the spray behind us there is a UK-registered 911 GT3 RS with Roger Green inside.
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What binds them together? Well, they’re all what most rational people would see as an uncompromising step too far, but in our eyes that makes them potentially the most exciting road cars on sale today. Ditch the practicalities, add lightness (as Chapman said) and hone the dynamics with a focus on performance and interactivity. Ramp the motorsport ambience up a couple of clicks, stir, simmer and serve with lightly treaded rubber. Hopefully the results will be exactly what you, I, or any enthusiast would have concocted from any of the standard cars if we had the time, budget and technical skills. But it’s not a foolproof recipe…
The Spec V hammers past with its windscreen wipers going bonkers. Evidently the empty Autobahn is too much of a temptation even in weather that would have had Noah reaching for the wood saw. I cave in and give chase in the M3, although with a rather tentative right foot and without dropping any lower than sixth gear. The passenger window is open to help ventilation (no air-con) and as we pick up speed I notice the draught is starting to fill the plastic rear screen like a sail, bowing it out and distorting the view ever so slightly. I put the window up, turn the fans a notch higher and push on. With about 120mph on the speedo I glance in the mirror to check on Chris Rutter and the camera car. Bad move. Just as my eyes dart away from the road, the nearside wheels hit some standing water and the GTS wiggles its hips at two miles a minute. I quietly try to swallow my pounding heart back to where it should be and decide that I should probably wait for Chris, just in case he has trouble with the sat-nav or something…
We all eventually converge on Garmisch and after a lightning raid on a café we set off again. We’re aiming for two Alpine passes in Austria, the Namlos and the Hahtennjoch, but this is purely on the basis of a tip-off and a brief look at Google Earth. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking heading for an unknown location, particularly when the cars are as deserving of good roads as this quartet. We head through Bichlbach to Berwang, climbing through the steep streets of the village before popping out the other side and turning right at a junction. From that moment onwards there are 15 miles of motoring nirvana: perfectly surfaced roads with scenery to match. Even with rain-clouds hanging low, from the first hairpin we can see the first five or so miles twisting off into the distance. As with so many brilliant roads, there’s also a healthy dose of exposure to big drops, with surprisingly few barriers to halt any misjudged slides. Those wielding still and video cameras decide that we should start with the cornering shots…
You sit noticeably lower in the 911. With air-con, hi-fi and sat-nav, and the less aggressive non-fixed-back buckets, this particular RS feels no more spartan than a standard GT3, which takes away some of the pitlane-refugee theatre. The differences become evident as soon as you start driving, however. The lower-mass flywheel and the slightly shorter gearing mean the flat-six seems to have absolutely no inertia when it revs, and because the needle swings round the dial so quickly you find you’re more likely to use all of each gear. The tricky bit is that the revs flare so quickly that it’s easy to be too enthusiastic with blips on downshifts, not helped by the middle pedal being a little too high and far away from the throttle until you’re really leaning on it. A paddle-shift would sort this of course…
The other major difference compared with the regular GT3 is the bigger front tyres and wider front track, evidenced by the wheelarch extensions. The fundamental physics are still the same – through a long, downhill, wet, off-camber corner the front will naturally want to run away from you. But where a standard 911 might just lighten a little in your hands before washing into major understeer, the RS seems to reach the limit of grip and then push back through the wheel. You lean on the front end and it leans back; it becomes a two-way tussle all through the corner. You know you’re not quite scribing the tightest line, but you can play with the adhesion of the outside front tyre, and because the grip has increased at the front you are even more aware of getting the rear in play. Back off the throttle to quell the understeer completely and the winged tail is instantly on your shoulder, weighted up and asking the question, ready to slide if you choose to get back on the throttle. If you do get the aRSe out of line, the traction is so phenomenal that it won’t just snap inexorably away from you either, while that increased grip at the front helps you hold the pendulum.
Chris Harris sticks with the Jag for the cornering shots, so I head off to get the GT-R Spec V. You sit high and upright, in the plushest carbon buckets imaginable, so the ambience is very much like the standard GT-R. It feels huge after the 911 (the 20in Rays alloys look like 16s) and I’m not entirely sure that the road is big enough to cope with an angry Spec V.
You might think that four-wheel drive would give an almost dull feeling of security and stability, but, as soon as you move off, the car is so light and reactive that it almost never feels settled. Ally this to a front end that is the sharpest of any of the cars on turn-in and the set-up initially feels very rear-wheel drive. Spool up the turbos and in the wet the GT-R will kick the carbonfibre rear spoiler a long way out of line very easily. From that point onwards it’s a strange experience trying to hold the slide because it feels like there are three of you in the relationship: you, the car, and an engineer somewhere back in Japan. The car does something, so both you and the algorithms react to it, which can end up feeling like overcorrection, so you both react again. It’s exacerbated in the wet because the car is hunting for grip; it’s a bit like trying to contain a bucketful of eels, without the bucket.
In reality, of course, you are the weak side in the triangle, so after you’ve started the slide you need to keep your steering wheel inputs as minimal as possible, keep a constant throttle opening and let the ATTESA and ET-S do their thing. It’s a weird sensation, feeling the power shifting feverishly fore and aft underneath you, sometimes tugging the steering as an individual wheel finds more grip, but you can sustain a serene drift for what seems like ages with minimal or no lock.
I was sort of hoping that I might return to our layby car park to find Harris installed in the M3 waiting to go, but he and Roger are gathered around a laptop looking at race footage, so I settle myself into the BMW’s inexplicably XL-sized Recaro that feels big enough to take two, knock the stubby little gearlever right for Drive and then head back down the rain-soaked mountain. The reason I’m slightly reluctant to drive the GTS is the tyres (sound familiar, CSL fans?). It’s running on Pirelli P Zero Corsas that won’t even get out of bed unless it’s above seven degrees Celsius. This, combined with a very stiff chassis set-up that doesn’t feel like it will roll much even in the dry, means you have almost no warning about when the little grip that there is will run out.
It’s quite a long run to the corner where videographer Davies and photographer Rutter are waiting. The first section is downhill and you gather speed quickly through a series of turns that you can straight-line. A tricky, tightening left is nerve-wracking as it naturally seems to pull you away from the rockface and towards the edge of the road while you’re braking. Then you shift in the seat as you switch straight into the long, off-camber right where you tussled with the 911’s front end, before accelerating towards an open hairpin that leads you left and sharply downhill to a bridge suspended amongst the fir trees. Brake hard as soon as you’re on the bridge, changing from fourth to second, then pick up the throttle progressively as the right-hander starts to open out. The exit of the corner keeps on edging right, and it’s uphill too, meaning it’s a nice section to hold a slide before you try to gather everything up in time to brake for the steep, tight hairpin-left where the cameras are waiting. Then it’s a short straight into a maybe flat right-hander that hugs tight to the rockface as you disappear from view.
Every one of those wet corners is a serious affair in the GTS. The throttle is a hair-trigger, capable of spinning the rear wheels and slewing you sideways. Sometimes you only have to think about moving your right foot and you’re gathering up another load of oversteer. Even in these conditions the M3 has such a naturally good balance that after a while you can sort of enjoy it, but you can never relax because you’re living off your reactions.
There’s only one place to go to calm down and that’s the cosseting cabin of the Jaguar. Debate raged when we were back in the office (Peter Tomalin almost got out of his chair at one point) as to whether we should include the XKR 75 in this test. The lack of any titanium or carbonfibre or a roll-cage seem to mark it down as the black sheep of the group (actually more like the badger with those stripes), but it impressed John Barker sufficiently when he drove it in issue 147 that we decided to let it travel. It was a good move because although the controls feel initially light and there’s a more distant, muted sound as the four exhausts come to life, it takes only a couple of corners to realise that the lower, stiffer chassis of the 75 belongs in this company.
Although the Jag is the heaviest of the group, the healthy 523bhp from its supercharged 5-litre V8 means that its power-to-weight ratio of 302bhp/ton beats both M3 and GT-R. Apart from when you’re on the brakes, the 75 masks its extra weight remarkably well too, changing direction with a crispness that’s matched by the throttle response and, of course, the brilliant ZF autobox. There’s plenty of feedback when you lean on the tyres too. We play for a while longer, but eventually the light begins to defeat even the widest lens apertures so we retreat to Garmisch for pizza, Pilsner, stories and bed.
It’s still dark enough for the Xenons to flicker into life on the GT3 as we leave the hotel the next morning. The front axle grumbles as I wind on full lock to get it out of the parking space and the hefty gearshift feels particularly baulky when stirring it for the first time. The others all have brimmed tanks but the Porsche needs a trip to the Shell garage for some continental-spec 100-octane, so I agree to catch them up. To be honest it’s quite nice being able to enjoy the solitude of the empty roads. I love mornings in the mountains – I’m not sure if the rarefied air at altitude has an effect, but it always feels clearer and fresher. There isn’t a cloud in the sky to obscure the last few stars and the first pinkish light is just starting to catch the tops of the peaks thousands of feet above.
Garmisch lies in the shadow of Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitz, which dominates the view for the first few miles. Once the oil is warmed and we’re away from habitation, I decide to give the Austrian border advance warning of our arrival, so press the button marked Sport (rather awkwardly placed in front of the gearlever) which frees up the titanium exhaust. It’s almost unbelievably loud, clearly race-bred, and absolutely wonderful. The roads are bone-dry compared with yesterday but there are still damp patches to be wary of. The RS’s steering is slower than the darty M3’s and, despite the Porsche weighing 160kg less, the whole car feels like it sits more heavily on the road. But the stream of detail you are fed inspires massive confidence and allows you to explore the depths of its grip even in tricky conditions.
When I eventually catch up with the others I decide to head back down the same road in the GT-R. Various things strike me immediately this morning, starting with the headrest as the full force of the 478bhp (but think 600bhp) is unleashed. Roger Green is following in the GT3 and every time we get to a straight the GT-R just marches away, pulling out several car-lengths on the wrung-out 911. The Spec V is mind-bendingly fast, although ironically you spend some time cursing it for being too slow because if you catch it below 3500rpm then you’re off-boost and it feels like you’re stuck in treacle.
It’s the ride that’s the worrying thing, though. In the standard GT-R in road-driving, you never switch the adaptive Bilstein dampers to anything other than their softest setting.Unfortunately the fixed-rate set-up of the Spec V seems permanently adjusted to newly-laid- race-track mode. The Spec V simply doesn’t deal with bumps, and this in turn makes the car grow rather than shrink around you as the speed swells. You can find that your vision is being blurred not only horizontally but vertically as you hurtle down the road discovering bumps the others ignored. In the end you back off and brake early just to regain control and equilibrium. Oh, and none of us feels there is much to be gained from the phenomenally expensive carbon-ceramic brakes either. All in all, it’s not stacking up too well for the Spec V.
Once again I find myself retreating to the Jaguar to restore some calm and serenity to proceedings. The Namlos Pass has been so incredible that we haven’t yet ventured to the Hahtennjoch, so Chris Rutter and I decide to investigate. It turns out to be like a photographer’s dream.
There’s a section like the Stelvio, another that could easily be in Corsica, another that could double for the summit of Mont Ventoux and another that’s straight out of Lord of the Rings. We could spend weeks here but I decide to sedate Chris (Ketamine is kept on hand by all journalists for just such an eventuality) and leave it largely photographically untouched for a future shoot. It also means I get a clear run in the Jaguar.
With a ludicrous amount of torque to call upon there’s huge enjoyment to be had from driving it in an almost classic-car style, getting on the power early in corners and steering it through on the throttle – not oversteering it wildly, just smearing the back tyres round with hardly any steering inputs. The electronic diff seems to be happiest in this role too, opening up to bleed away the slide just as you bring the rear wheels neatly in line with the front. It’s really satisfying and you can do it so accurately that you don’t feel like a hooligan.
I’m wondering if the same will be true of the M3 GTS when I drive it on dry roads today, but then you’re always going to feel like a hoodlum in something painted bright orange. I can’t help thinking that the retina-searing paintwork is trying to mask a bodyshell that is too similar the standard car. The rear arches need to bulge for the proper M-car stance and the rear wing is far too apologetic.
After the knife-edge drive in the wet yesterday, I’m treating the M3 with caution. But as heat starts soaking into the tyres so the trust builds and you start to work with the extra accuracy and feel as you lean on the front end. Direction changes are notably sharper than in the standard car, and the ride, although very firm, particularly at low speeds, does seem to work on the road. The gearbox is remarkable, shuffling cogs seamlessly and automatically for fuel economy one minute and then being brutally responsive the next. A full-bore ‘manual’ upshift punches the change through so violently that it can unsettle the car, highlighting the lack of slack in both transmission and chassis. Even in the dry it wants to slide out of every vaguely tight corner – I don’t think I’ve ever driven a car with such a mobile rear end. But the section of road where it really clicks for me is a series of shallow, well-sighted bends where the GTS seems to need just the smallest input from the wheel to jink left and right in a rhythm, the whole car up on its Corsas, gripping and gliding at the same time.
The others are parked up near a view that Julie Andrews and some Von Trapp children might come skipping out of at any moment. We are all in agreement that the Spec V has tried to gild the lily as far as the GT-R is concerned. It may explain why it was a long time coming, but it feels like it has spent too much development time on a race track and has consequently compromised itself as a road car, which is a great shame. Especially for £125K.
The Jaguar has wooed everyone in the group with its pace and poise. The feeling is that there’s even more to come (particularly in weight reduction) because you still don’t want to push it to the very limits where our top two thrive. But the fact that it more than held its own in this company speaks volumes.
We’ve avoided dwelling on it here, but, like the Spec V, the M3 GTS is a hell of a lot of money. And given the £115K price tag, I can’t help wishing it looked more like a road-going Le Mans car rather than a privateer entry in the BTCC. That said, it’s desirable, highly collectible with just 150 being built, and the driving experience is certainly special enough to make you want one over a standard car. My drives in it will stick in my mind for a very long time (particularly those in the rain!).
Which leaves the GT3 RS. I tried to pick holes in it… and decided I wouldn’t have the decals. We all secretly hoped that it might get beaten by the M3, but honestly it was brilliant from the first corner, and then just got better. How it can generate such grip, feel and involvement and yet ride better than a standard GT3 is just flabbergasting, and to drive it on these extraordinary roads was a rare privilege. It wins.