eCoty 2019: evo Car of the Year

Our annual evo Car of the Year is here, in print and online

It’s funny to look back a decade or two at stories predicting the end of the performance car. Here we are, in 2019, and evo Car of the Year is in its 21st running - with another field of contenders that illustrate all that is great about the year’s driver’s cars.

Sure, we do seem a little closer to the automotive end of days a few decades down the line since the first eCoty, but that’s just even more reason to celebrate the fact that there are still companies out there that believe in creating cars that are more than mere transportation and instead, something life-affirming.

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This year we’ve found six such cars, and after several wet and windy years in the British Isles, eCoty once again moves abroad for 2019. Our six contenders will be driven on the glorious roads around Ronda in the south of Spain, with a mix of smooth and challenging surfaces, open sweepers and tight hairpins, and scenery almost good enough to pull our attention away from the cars.

What’s more, 2019’s event enjoyed the hospitality of both the Ascari Race Resort, and of our colleagues at evo Spain - without whose assistance putting together such a test would have been considerably more difficult.

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Our Ascari location also allowed us to take the cars on track to explore their limits. While track time is rarely the focus of evo Car of the year, ever-escalating performance means there’s nowhere better to really see what a car is capable of. We’d be lying if we said it wasn’t also great fun, of course…

The judges

Ranging from seasoned eCoty veterans who attended the very first running of the event (north Wales in 1998; no suntans acquired that year apparently) to a pair of first-timers (Ambre Solaire at the ready), and all of them members of the most experienced road-test team in the business, please meet your esteemed judges for eCoty 2019

Richard Meaden - contributing editor

Co-founded evo, wrote the eCoty blueprint, and puts empty water bottles in car exhausts on shoots. His disdain for bad cars is matched only by his disregard for deadlines.

John Barker - contributing editor

An evo founder with Meaden, softly spoken JB can cut a car down to size with a few choice words. Still finds enjoyment in twanging a ruler on the edge of a table.

Henry Catchpole - contributing editor

An adventurer on four wheels and two (pedal power), there are few great roads that Henry hasn’t experienced. Surprised us all by not packing a bike in his hand luggage.

Adam Towler - deputy editor

Picked the location, cars, judges and accommodation, and wrote 6000 words for this year’s eCoty. So blame him. Tactically let the boss have the largest room in the Ascari Country House.

Antony Ingram - staff writer

His first eCoty, Antony discovered first-hand that it really isn’t a week sitting around the pool counting the money left by Porsche in its car. Copybook marked due to white jeans incident.

Stuart Gallagher - editor

Brought his cracking smile, hilarious wit and happy disposition to eCoty 2019. And his credit card. Beginning to wish he hadn’t volunteered to write these biogs.

Steve Sutcliffe - contributing editor

When not presenting our eCoty video, Steve’s filming experience meant he was able to capture the consequences of Dickie’s bottle-up-the-tailpipe antics.

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The Location

The roads: Southern Spain doesn’t just have friendly locals, excellent food and year-round glorious weather on its side – it’s also home to some spectacular twists of tarmac. This year’s eCoty takes place on the roads around Ronda, north-west of Marbella, and their diversity makes them challenging and entertaining in equal measure. From snaking forest routes to narrow mountain passes via tricky ribbons across the area’s open plains, you’d have a blast in a scruffy airport rental car, let alone a thoroughbred sports car. But only the very best will truly shine here – our contenders will need to offer agility on tighter roads and security at speed, while also being able to traverse bumps as well as they do mirror-smooth surfaces.

The track: Nestled within the Ronda countryside, Ascari is our base for this year’s eCoty. Opened in 2002 by ex-racer Klaas Zwart as a place to push sports cars to their limit in a way that simply isn’t possible on the road, its circuit packs 26 turns into its full 5.4-kilometre length. Several are modelled after corners from circuits such as Spa, Laguna Seca and Sebring, and feature names to match. Banked turns, elevation changes and tricky kerbs all add to its challenges, while the facilities are far beyond the average circuit’s, with accommodation, a restaurant and a workshop all on site. Ascari will allow us to push the cars harder than we could on the road and explore their behaviour at and over the limit.

Evo Car of the Year 2019 contenders

And now all is ready to be revealed, Our full evo Car of the Year video is live, revealing out 2019 eCoty champion and below are the six contenders we brought together for eCoty 2019 plus the final verdict...

Morgan Plus Six

  • Engine: In-line 6-cyl, 2998cc, turbo
  • Power: 335bhp @ 6500rpm
  • Torque: 369lb ft @ n/a
  • Weight: 1075kg (dry)
  • Power-to-weight: 317bhp/ton (dry)
  • 0-62mph: 4.2sec
  • Top speed:  166mph
  • Basic price: £77,995
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Morgan’s brand of thrills has always been unique. You could charitably describe it as a company that majors more on the experience of motoring than it does on satisfying the needs of keen drivers, but as limits become ever higher, there’s plenty of room for a car that delivers its best from the moment you twist the key.

That would undersell the Plus Six though. It’s more modern than most Morgans, certainly - with a BMW-sourced turbocharged six-cylinder and ZF automatic, it’s essentially got the drivetrain from a BMW Z4 (or indeed a Toyota Supra). There’s a lot more aluminium in the average Morgan’s construction these days, too.

Here is a car that thrills from the word go. Z4 power but sub-Z4 weight makes it hugely quick in a straight line, and it’s not bad around corners either. Few cars look better blatting through the English countryside - but the warmer weather of our Spanish location will be much more appropriate for top-down driving...

Renault Sport Megane Trophy-R

  • Engine: In-line 4-cyl, 1798cc, turbo
  • Power:  296bhp @ 6000rpm
  • Torque: 295lb ft @ 2400-4800rpm
  • Weight: 1306kg
  • Power-to-weight: 230bhp/ton
  • 0-62mph: 5.4sec
  • Top speed: 163mph
  • Basic price: £51,140

The Megane Trophy-R arrives at eCoty with the weight of expectation upon its blistered shoulders, its predecessors not just great cars in their own right but among our favourite performance cars full stop.

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It also has a score to settle: In last year’s event, the car upon which it’s based, the Megane Trophy, finished at the bottom of the pile. Since then we have discovered the basic Megane Renault Sport is more satisfying more of the time, but in this year’s company the entry-level Megane RS would surely be outgunned.

The Trophy-R though brings incredible focus to the hot hatch segment, with less weight, more exotic components and a completely revised suspension setup. Better still, our eCoty contender wears its full carbon battledress, with lightweight carbonfibre wheels at each corner, and carbon front brake discs.

The price is eye-watering, but will the holder of front-wheel drive lap records at the Nurburgring, Spa and Suzuka beat its eCoty rivals on road and track?

Mercedes-AMG GT R Pro

  • Engine: V8, 3982cc, twin-turbo
  • Power: 577bhp @ 6250rpm
  • Torque: 516lb ft @ 2100-5500rpm
  • Weight: 1575kg
  • Power-to-weight: 372bhp/ton
  • 0-62mph: 3.6sec
  • Top speed: 198mph
  • Basic price: £188,345

This isn’t the first time we’ve had an AMG GT in eCoty, but it could be the platform’s best chance for glorious victory. AMG rarely drops a clanger, and continuous improvement means the GT has been transformed from appealing 911 rival into one of the most exciting road cars on sale.

Not that it looks much like a road car. If the regular AMG GT R was brawny, the GT R Pro looks like a works GT3 racer with hastily-attached numberplates. The matte paint scheme and green stripes aren’t subtle, but since when have the best AMGs been shy and retiring?

Still, there’s some tough competition in this year’s eCoty, and in previous years we’ve seen that the most exotic and most expensive cars don’t necessarily walk away with the top prize. There’s no chance of a ninth-place finish like 2015’s AMG GT S this time around, but the Pro still needs to be fun and involving as well as simply fast if it’s to challenge for top honours this year.

Porsche 718 Cayman GT4

  • Engine: Flat-six, 3995cc
  • Power:  414bhp @ 7600rpm
  • Torque: 310lb ft @ 5000-6800rpm
  • Weight: 1420kg
  • Power-to-weight: 296bhp/ton
  • 0-62mph: 4.4sec
  • Top speed: 188mph
  • Basic price: £75,348

The Porsche 718 Cayman has had a rocky ride since replacing the 981 Cayman, and that’s been almost entirely down to Porsche’s adoption of four-cylinder power instead of the old sixes - the rest of the car is as great as it ever was.

So in returning to a naturally-aspirated flat six, and a four-litre one at that, the new 718 Cayman GT4 is off to a good start. The GT4 badge has eCoty form too - the old 981 Cayman GT4 won 2015’s competition, fending off the excellent McLaren 675LT and even its close relation, the 991 GT3 RS.

This year’s GT4 has the old car’s affordability on its side, and that compelling combination of characteristics that is a naturally-aspirated powertrain, mid-engined layout and manual transmission. It arrives at eCoty on the back of predictably excellent first impressions, but being only subtly different from 2015’s winner, will the game have moved on too far for it?

Jaguar XE Project 8

  • Engine: V8, 5000cc, supercharger
  • Power: 592bhp @ 6500rpm
  • Torque: 516lb ft @ 3500-5000rpm
  • Weight:  1757kg
  • Power-to-weight: 342bhp/ton
  • 0-62mph: 3.3sec
  • Top speed:186mph
  • Basic price: £149,995

A five-litre supercharged V8 and compact saloon body should make for one of the most appealing driver’s cars on the market, but while our initial introduction to Jaguar’s Project 8 was cautiously favourable, it’s always been a struggle getting past the brash styling and enormous price tag.

The more recently launched Touring model though, despite being identical on paper, has much greater appeal. Shorn of its wild rear wing and graced with a rear bench seat, it now feels like a class-leading supersaloon rather than optimistically-aimed 911 GT3 rival.

And given the way Project 8 drove was never the problem before - it’s fast and fluid, and handles much better than its hefty kerbweight suggests - it now feels like an appropriate contender for eCoty, where a broader spread of talents are required. Bursting with character, the Project 8 could be capable of an upset.

Mercedes-AMG A45 S

  • Engine: In-line 4-cyl, 1991cc, turbo
  • Power:  415bhp @ 6750rpm
  • Torque: 369lb ft @ 5000-5250rpm
  • Weight:  1560kg
  • Power-to-weight:  270bhp/ton
  • 0-62mph: 3.9sec
  • Top speed: 167mph (limited)
  • Basic price: £50,570

One of two hot hatchbacks in this year’s event, an eCoty billing is something we never could have imagined with the previous-generation Mercedes-AMG A45. That car was fast but also flat-footed and uninvolving - aspects nowhere to be seen in Affalterbach’s latest attempt at a four-wheel drive hot hatch.

It enters the fray as one of the most powerful hot hatchbacks ever, and with a specific output we’ve not seen in a 2-litre engine since the days of the old Mitsubishi Evo FQ-400. The A45 S in fact develops 416bhp and 369lb ft, and sends its drive to all four wheels too, so it has more in common on paper with those old rally-bred saloons than it does most hot hatches.

As we discovered on the car’s launch though, there’s far more to the A45 S than its numbers. This is a genuinely involving driver’s car with a remarkable level of ability and a searing powertrain - well worthy of a spot in eCoty

eCoty 2019: the verdict

Below you can find the definitive verdict on where each of this year’s contenders ranked and why, culminating in the 2019 evo Car of the Year...

6th: Morgan Plus Six

It’s rare for a car that hasn’t claimed an eCoty podium spot to gain such universal praise from every judge, but the Morgan Plus Six endeared itself to all who drove her. Primarily this was because every drive was one of grin-inducing hilarity and, as Dickie Meaden so eloquently described, the Morgan engages you in the thrill of driving throughout every single metre travelled. It’s a welcome relief in today’s world of autonomous this, electronically assisted that.

Granted, the Plus Six is far from a high-gloss product. Its chassis could use some additional layers of polish to get the most from the BMW-sourced turbo six. A higher level of body control and more sophistication to the damping would also enable the car to work better over large compressions. More grip it doesn’t need, but a more progressive and higher-quality tyre would go a long way to providing more predictable and linear feedback. This engine will also take BMW’s six-speed manual gearbox… Oh, and the car is crying out for a better seat. One with more support than a pillowcase.

Regardless of the above, the Plus Six more than earns its eCoty stripes. New cars this fun are few and far between and should always be celebrated.

What we said

'Roof off and side screens removed, you are completely at one with the elements in the Morgan.'

‘This car in a word? Charming.’

5th: Renault Mégane RS Trophy‑R

There’s always one at eCoty. One car that polarises opinion like no other, and this year Renault’s Mégane RS Trophy‑R claimed that gong. Dickie was the Mégane’s biggest advocate, placing it third and quite rightly pointing out that Renault Sport should be applauded for going to such lengths to create a hot hatch as focused and extreme as this. And he’s right. He’s also right in saying that if Renault Sport didn’t make such cars the roads would be very dull places. 

Why only fifth, then? Of the other judges, only Antony Ingram placed it higher than fifth, the eCoty virgin scoring it a point less than he had the AMG A45 S and the same as the Morgan. The common theme was that the rewards the Trophy-R is capable of come at the price of commitment levels many of us feel are too high for the road. We all had one great drive in the Mégane, but that’s the killer: it was only one great drive and it was normally on an isolated piece of road, where the sight lines were clear and the driver’s game could be ratcheted up to suit the car’s on-paper credentials. 

There’s a great car inside the Trophy-R somewhere, but it’s proving frustrating trying to uncover it.

What we said

‘I’ve driven few road cars with a greater hunger for corners than the Trophy-R.’

‘The way the Trophy-R changes direction is sensational.’

‘Something, somehow, conspires to make it not quite the sum of its parts. It’s a fight, not a flow.’ 

4th: Jaguar XE SV Project 8 Touring

From three podium positions, one as high as second (Mr Sutcliffe likes his supersaloons brawny), to a dead last with the lowest points awarded by any of our judges for any car this year (new boy Antony clearly less of a supersaloon fan), Jaguar’s Project 8 Touring had the widest scoring spread of our half dozen contenders. But what was plainly evident is that Jaguar’s approach to building a supersaloon is very much the evo way: raw, focused and unapologetic in everything it does and how it approaches every challenge.

One short drive in the Project 8 delivered more thrills than the 20,000 miles I covered in evo’s long-term M5. Its presence and performance might suggest a thuggish approach but, as many commented, the Project 8 has the finesse in its chassis to reward and excite in equal measure. Yes, it has the power and torque to disguise its weight, but the way it could latch on to the tail of the A45 S or GT4 and keep them honest no matter how technical the road became won it admiration on the hills around Ronda and a lap of Ascari. 

Downsides? For all its brawn, the 5-litre supercharged V8 feels its age, and with a sharper-responding engine and gearbox the Project 8 Touring would be better still. That it finished just a single point behind the third-placed car demonstrates the high regard in which we hold the Jaguar.

What we said

‘All-wheel drive makes a massive difference to the driveability of this Jag.’

‘There’s delicacy and precision to the way it steers, and a keenness to change direction and dig for traction that’s unique for any Jaguar.’

3rd: Mercedes-AMG A45 S 4MATIC+

If there was an underdog heading into eCoty it wasn’t the Malvern maverick, but Affalterbach’s hyperhatch. The AMG A45 S docked in Spain with more baggage than an around-the-world cruise liner, for its predecessor was such a damp squib that few of us gave this latest iteration much hope. 

But there was a glimmer of hope, because its calmer, 302bhp A35 brother had already proven itself to be a hot hatch contender earlier in the year, so much so that many of us would have one over the ubiquitous Golf R. But the A45 S? With 415bhp could it be a victim of its own excess of power over dynamic ability? A few miles gripping its Alcantara steering wheel put paid to any doubts. 

Four judges placed it on the podium and it finished no lower than fourth on anyone’s score card. Dickie picked up on its need to have gears constantly thrown at it, a consequence of its turbo four firing as much torque at all four corners as it does power across a relatively short bandwidth. Antony was just relieved his recommendation to include the smaller of our AMGs came good: before eCoty he was the only evo writer to have driven it.

His faith paid off, for in the 45 S Tobias Moers and his team have created a devastatingly accomplished hyperhatch, one that reminded a good few of us of the very best ’90s WRC homologation specials. It really is that good. 

What we said

‘I’m giggling at the absurdity of getting on the power so early in a hatchback.’

‘ I am amazed by the A45, and for the first time ever the hyperhatch genre seems to have a point to me, beyond mere bragging rights.’

2nd Mercedes-AMG GT R PRO

If 2015 was the AMG GT’s eCoty low point (the S derivative finished third from last), 2019 was its coming of age. It’s taken a while to reach this point but finally the GT, in R Pro guise, is a genuine contender for those looking for an alternative to Porsche’s 911 GT3 RS and McLaren’s 600LT. 

Settle into its snug bucket seat, tighten the harness, thumb the starter and allow yourself to be transported to the heart of a VLN grid. Just as the Morgan raises a smile with every mile, so the GT R Pro makes you feel every inch the (wannabe) GT racer. It puts you in the zone from the off, the V8 vibrating ahead of you, the rear wheels seemingly slapping your arse cheeks with each rotation. A hooligan if you wish, as sharp as a comedian’s wit when you need it to be. 

All of us placed it in our top three, with Antony putting it first, which speaks volumes because evo’s resident fan of small French hot hatches is hard to please when it comes to 500-plus bhp supercars. And even if we hadn’t had the opportunity to exploit it on track its final position would be the same, because its performance on road was captivating. Spending time with the Pro on track only cemented our opinion of it and proved it would take a very special car to beat it.

What we said

‘This is heavy weaponry being drawn into a hand-to-hand skirmish.’

‘The Pro is a meat and potatoes formula. It brings the meat, you bring the potatoes.’

‘The steering is very fast and surprisingly delicate, and everything it does is magnified by being perched directly on top of the rear axle.‘

1st - Porsche Cayman GT4

There is more to the 718 Cayman GT4’s victory in eCoty 2019 than its half dozen first-place rankings. The junior Porsche GT model personifies a performance car recipe that the industry needs to embrace and follow, just as Alpine has and we wish a few more manufacturers would too. 

The GT4 is remarkable at everything you expect it to be. It has the best drivetrain here, one that combines an engine that’s rich in character with a manual gearbox that will impress even the most ardent ‘two pedals are best’ evangelists. Every sweep of the GT4’s tacho needle is akin to a conductor working their orchestra, building to a crescendo, intensity increasing with every thousand rpm. It’s the very best reminder that performance cars are finely tuned machines that deliver their best when invited to perform on the biggest stage. That manual gearshift, with its exquisite precision, only adds a further string to the GT4’s bow. 

As does the steering: relaxed when it needs to be, but vocal when you push beyond your comfort zone, offering reassurance the front Michelins have all the grip you need and the rears will follow suit. Throw in damping that feels a class above and you have a perfectly executed and proportioned performance car package.

In essence the Cayman’s victory comes down to the fact it combines the very best elements of not only all the cars that made it to Spain but also those that didn’t make the final cut (see page 102). As with the Jaguar, the Porsche’s steering and chassis demonstrate why these two elements are so crucial in separating the merely good from the very best. Likewise the GT4 has the race-bred precision that allows the commitment of the GT R Pro on track and raises as many smiles as the Morgan on the road. It’s as focused as the Mégane Trophy‑R and it is as exciting as the A45 S on a charge.

Were there any negatives? Antony questioned if it moved the game on enough from 2015’s winner, the 981 GT4; Henry felt its Boxster Spyder cousin was a more appealing, involving car primarily because its open cockpit delivers a very different aural experience; and all of us would prefer shorter gearing. Not that any of this stopped anyone from turning down the opportunity of additional GT4 wheel time.

That the Cayman GT4 is the very best performance car of 2019 is a further example that power isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to making a great driver’s car. It rarely is. Weight, engine response, the precision of the chassis, the involvement and engagement available to the driver, and being of a size that means the aforementioned can all be enjoyed and exploited – it is all of this which elevates one of the very best performance cars of 2019 to the position of evo Car of the Year.

What we said

‘It is a further example that power isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to making a great driver’s car.’

‘Everything about it is honed and set up to aid precise, rewarding, fast driving.'

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