These days performance cars come in all shapes and sizes – from city cars to SUVs and everything in between, there’s a go faster version to suit every taste and budget. It’s testament to the enduring appeal of cars that prioritise driver thrills ahead of minimising bills that there are more high performance models out there than ever before.
What’s more, they’re quicker than ever, with many seemingly sensible saloons now delivering the sort of acceleration that’ll leave decade old supercars choking in their smoking tyre tracks, and the odd hot hatch that’ll humble serious sportscars on any given track day.
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So which is best? To make life a little easier we’ve whittled the long list of contenders down to 10 models – each one from a distinct category. While every car delivers different power outputs, drive layouts and bodystyles, they are all instilled with a philosophy that attempts to put the driver front and centre. So, in no particular order, here’s our diverse performance car top 10.
Top 10 best performance cars to buy in 2019
- McLaren 720
- Bugatti Chiron
- Peugeot 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport
- Honda Civic Type R
- Alfa Romeo Giulia Veloce
- Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio
- Lotus Elise 220
- BMW M4 Competition Pack
- Porsche Macan GTS
- Bentley Continental GT
Where do you start with the McLaren 720S? Less than a decade after the brand first got serious about making road cars, it has delivered a car that has redefined what a supercar should be capable of. From its shattering performance to its uncanny ability to deliver both razor sharp handling and a supple ride, the 720S sets new standards seemingly at will.
Crucially it looks the part, its blend of complex surfacing, flowing curves and numerous vents, the McLaren oozes supercar kerb appeal. The aluminium panels look like they’ve been shrink wrapped over the carbon structure, while every aspect of the shape hints at the single-minded pursuit of aerodynamic performance. Of course there are some flamboyant flourishes too, particularly those dihedral doors.
Performance is mind scrambling, with the blast from 0-62mph all over in 2.8 seconds and a top speed very much the wrong side of 200mph. And while the whooshing and sighing 710bhp twin-turbo 4.0-litre can’t match the aural drama of its Italian rivals, its brutal pace more than makes up for that.
Then there’s the handling, which melds tenacious grip with beautiful balance and engagement. Take it a little easier though, and the McLaren rides with the easy-going gait of an executive saloon. Few other cars fuse so completely such scintillating performance, approachable handling and everyday usability. The 720’s greatness is assured.
In the already rarefied sphere of the hypercar, the Bugatti Chiron stands head and shoulders above its limited band of rivals. Of course, there’s the performance – the raw data alone will take you breath away. You want details? Well, how about the gargantuan 8.0-litre 16-cylinder engine that utilises four turbochargers to deliver 1479bhp and 1189lb ft of torque, which results in a 0-62mph time of less than 2.5 seconds and a top speed that’s limited, yes limited, to 261mph (it’s the tyre technology rather than the car itself that requires the need for an electronic restraint).
Yet unlike some of its bespoke, one-off rivals the Chiron combines this attack on Einstein’s theories of time and space with incredible civility. Getting about in one is no more challenging than piloting a VW Golf to the shops. A massive, low-slung 1500bhp Golf, but a Golf nonetheless. So what’s it really like to drive? I’ll let our own Dickie Meaden explain. ‘Pretty much straight away you sense the connection and detail through the steering. Of course there’s tons of grip and unshakable traction - anything less would be extremely negligent given the power and torque on-tap - but it’s the fact you now know how much you’re using and how much is left that marks the Chiron out as something special.
‘The problem, if you can call it such, is the range and accessibility of the performance. A squeeze of the throttle sends you surging down the road with the insistence of an avalanche. Give it a proper push to the carpet and there’s the briefest sense of the W16 filling its lungs and then you simply punch from where you were to where you were looking, waaaaay down the straight. It’s more like matter transfer than conventional acceleration. Nothing in my experience connects the corners quite like this.’
Peugeot 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport
For the best part of three decades Peugeot has been sitting under a 205 GTi shaped cloud. The flyweight hot hatch wasn’t the first of the breed, but it arguably came to define it, and as a result every subsequent Peugeot pocket rocket – 206, 207 and 208 – has been hobbled by the weight of history.
However, if you’re willing to whip off the rose tinted glasses, then the (it’s a bit of a mouthful) Peugeot 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport is proof positive that the French firm hasn’t lost its magic touch. Acrobatic and engaging handling, searing performance and compact dimensions make the little Peugeot our favourite hot hatch. Sure, the optional two-tone Coupe Franche paint job won’t be to all tastes and the i-cockpit dashboard is either distinctive or disastrous depending on your viewpoint (literally), but drive the 208 and these controversies will be quickly forgotten.
So, where to start? Well, there’s that fizzing 205bhp turbocharged 1.6-litre engine that seems to get stronger with every rev before reaching its raspy, redline crescendo, plus the tireless Alcon brakes that can trace their roots back to the 206WRC.
Yet it’s the sparkling chassis that marks the Peugeot out for greatness. The steering is quick, direct and meatily weighted and is connected to a front axle with terrific bite on entry and Torsen generated traction on exit. It’s the car’s playful balance that really marks it out, with a tweak of the wheel or lift of the throttle changing your angle of attack in an instant.
It’s not perfect, but then few cars of character ever are. The combination of shallow grooved Michelins and stiff suspension mean the Peugeot is twitchy in the wet, while the driving position and its awkwardly placed pedals will vex some drivers, but overall the 208’s infectious personality is impossible to resist. 205? What 205?
Honda Civic Type R
The Honda Civic Type R has elevated the art of the front-wheel drive hot hatch to new levels. In terms of power, performance and grip, it treads on the toes of four-wheel drive hyper hatches, but it does so without losing sight of what makes less exotic pocket rockets great.
However, look at the Civic and it’d be easy to dismiss the winged wonder as some Saturday night McDonald’s car park head banger. The sizable spoiler, various vents and Super Touring stance give the Honda something of a boy racer image, but understand that it’s all for go rather than show and you’ll be able to make peace with Type R. The first thing that strikes you as you settle into the low set seat is the deliciously precise and consistent weighting of the controls, which feel expensively engineered. Squeeze the throttle harder and the lag-free and muscular response of the 316bhp 2.0-litre turbo will grab your attention. It’s not the most exciting sounding unit, but it delivers startling acceleration and is mated to six-speed manual of rare precision.
Perhaps what’s most surprising about the Civic is how it picks apart a twisty stretch of tarmac. Despite its aggressive looks this is a car that breathes with the road, rather than pummeling it into submission. The adaptive dampers have hard-as-nails track setting, but most of the time they serve up a mesmerizing blend of cosseting compliance and cast iron control. Factor in the limpet-like grip and near unbreakable traction and few cars at any price will catch an enthusiastically piloted Civic on most give and take roads. Of course, the icing on the cake is the fact it’s a spacious, cost effective and easy to live with as any Honda. Sum the Honda up in one word? Brilliant.
Alfa Romeo Giulia Veloce
The Alfa Romeo Giulia Veloce sits below the lightning quick Quadrifoglio in the line-up, but it certainly doesn’t play second fiddle to pricier and more powerful flagship. Yes it doesn’t have that car’s explosive acceleration, snarling soundtrack or it’s ability to perform track day miracles, but the Veloce’s remit as a sports saloon means it brings a subtler blend of talents.
Like all Giulias, the Veloce gets the same flowing lines and gorgeous curves as the Q-car, but smaller wheels and an unvented bonnet give it a less pugnacious kerbside attitude. Inside you miss out on some of the Alcantara and leather, but the low-slung, straight-legged driving position remains.
On the move, the Veloce doesn’t sound as serious as its V6-engined cousin, but the turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder is torquey low down and revs smoothly and with Latin enthusiasm. More importantly, with 276bhp it’s no slouch either, rattling off the 0-62mph sprint in a claimed 5.7 seconds. It feels quick too, thanks in part to the well-chosen ratios of the quick-enough eight-speed auto.
Yet it it’s the Alfa’s remarkable ride and handling balance that really impresses. When fitted with adaptive dampers it flows down the road with impressive suppleness, yet at the touch of a button the car tenses up and hunkers down, allowing you to attack corners with real relish. You can’t switch of the stability control, but there’s more than enough rear-wheel drive feel and the steering is every bit as quick and sharp as Quad’s. It’s a brilliantly rounded display.
Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio
For so many years Alfa Romeo has disappointed, so the Giulia Quadrifoglio came as something of a shock - it wasn’t just good for an Alfa Romeo, it was good full stop. In fact, it’s rather better than good – it’s absolutely fabulous. The combination of 503bhp twin-turbo V6, rear-wheel drive and the guiding hand of the team behind the Ferrari 458 Speciale should have given us a clue, but with Alfa Romeo you never really know.
Even before you so much as pull on the door handle, the Giulia looks like a car that means business. The standard car’s voluptuous lines are enhanced by the mesh bonnet vents, the quad exhausts and those lovely enamel four-leafed clover badges on the front wings, which are formed in aluminium along with the door skins. Carbonfibre is used for bonnet, roof and bootlid.
The lovely shell-backed Sparco seats are set low, while the steering wheel is perfectly placed, McLaren style. Set on the centre console is the DNA rotary controller, which like the menus in all the best restaurants features a short but tasty list of options – All-weather, Normal, Dynamic and Race. Each one ramps up the steering weight and the response of the throttle and gearbox, while the latter disengages the stability control. You can also select from three damper modes, which essentially cover the comfort, normal and sport briefs.
On the road, Dynamic is best as it allows you to access the 2.9-litre V6’s instant and electrifying acceleration, plus it adds some much needed aggression to the otherwise anonymous sounding engine. Front end grip is terrific, while the super quick steering means any waywardness from the tail can be collected with a flick of the wrists.
Almost as remarkable as the Alfa is poised through the corners is its deft and cosseting ride when the Giulia is knocked back into Normal. This really is a supersaloon for all seasons.
Lotus Elise 220
Over twenty years on from its debut, there’s still nothing quite like a Lotus Elise. It’s the delicate, lightweight tonic to the ever-increasing numbers of higher powered but far more portly sportscars.
You can choose from a bewildering array of engine sizes and trim levels, but for our money the 217bhp supercharged Toyota unit (soon to be the entry-level powerplant) makes the most sense. With just 904kg to haul around it’ll allow the Elise to crack 62mph in a seriously quick 4.6 seconds. Yet it’s the elasticity of the performance that impresses; the feeling that there’s a big motor carrying a very light body, which is essentially what is happening.
Yet the real party trick of the gossamer light Lotus is its uncanny ride and handling balance. Few cars connect you so completely to the road, while also filtering out all the stuff you don’t need to know. The steering is alive with feedback and the transition from grip to slip so well telegraphed that you’re rarely caught by surprise. And on the odd occasion you are, the Elise’s dinky dimensions means you’ve got more road, and therefore more options to play with.
It’s not just the driving experience that’s great, because the Lotus still looks so good. The Series 2 car’s sharp creases and organic curves give it timeless appeal, while the endless personalization options mean you can really make it your own. Then there’s the knowledge that you’re building something pared back, with no more added to it than necessary – in these efficiency conscious times major manufactures could do a lot worse than take a leaf out of the Lotus playbook.
There are still niggles (cramped cabin, laughable fabric roof and very little refinement), but once your ensconced behind the wheel you won’t give a fig about NVH or how long it takes to raise the hood in the rain, because you’ll be too busy having the time of your life.
BMW M4 Competiton Pack
We’ll not beat around the bush here – the MY18 BMW M4 Competition Pack is the car the M4 always should have been. Sure, when the M4 burst onto the scene in 2014, all rippling muscles and turbocharged aggression, it promised to redefine the fast coupe rulebook. It was certainly quick, its 425bhp turbocharged straight-six saw to that, but the way it went about its business was more thuggish than we’ve come to expect from BMW’s M cars. Wild wheelspin and spiky, sudden oversteer were par for the course, and when conditions were slippery your confidence was sapped almost as quickly as the M4 could snap sideways.
Fast forward four years and the BMW has finally graduated from finishing school. Most of the change in character can be traced to the Competition Pack, which adds stiffer springs, recalibrated adaptive dampers and tweaked electronic limited slip differential. There was also more power (444bhp to be precise), but whereas that would have been a recipe for the disaster in the old car, with the latest machine it’s merely an extra tasty garnish.
The effects have to be experienced to be believed, because the M4 is now a beautifully balanced and far more predictable companion than before, allowing you to lean harder on its prodigious grip and make the most of its blistering performance. You still need to be wide awake when the BMW does let go, but it’s better telegraphed and more progressive than before, and the meaty steering and sharp throttle allow quick corrections. On the right road it’s a fast, fun and thoroughly absorbing machine, while on more humdrum routes it slips easily into your daily routine. Welcome back to the multi-talented and magnificent M machine.
Porsche Macan GTS
Put simply, the Porsche Macan turned the SUV rules of engagement on their head when it debuted in 2014. Up to this point all off-roaders were so dynamically compromised, Porsche’s larger Cayenne included, that a drive in one caused your heart to sink faster than the fuel gauge needle in a Mercedes-AMG G63.
However, that all changed with the Macan. It starts with the driving position, which despite the raised ride height gives the sense you’re hunkered low in the car. Then there’s the steering, which on the move has more than a hint of the weight and response that marks out the set-ups used on the 911, Cayenne and Boxster. There’s plenty of bite on turn-in too, the Macan locking tenaciously onto your chosen line with the zeal of a bloodhound on the scent before clinging on gamely all the way to the exit. Four-wheel drive means that there’s lots of traction to fire you up the next straight, yet the rear-biased set-up delivers surprising adjustability, particularly when the surface is slippery.
Yet it’s the Macan’s cast iron body control that really has you scratching your head at the physics-defying magic that Porsche has weaved into the springs and standard adaptive dampers. In its sportiest setting, the GTS feels taut and composed, resisting body roll in a way that nothing this tall should be able to.
The Macan is fast too, it’s turbocharged 355bhp 3.0-litre V6 dusting the 0-60mph sprint in just 5.2 seconds. Granted it’s not the most charismatic sounding unit, but the combination of 369lb ft at just 1,650rpm and the effortlessly quick and smooth eight-speed PDK mean it can cover ground alarmingly quickly.
Drive with a little more restraint and the Porsche is comfortable and refined, while its cabin is spacious and beautifully trimmed. In this context it’s not hard to fathom the current fashion for SUVs. Ultimately, at evo we’d always plump for a fast estate if performance and practicality are what’s required, but if only an SUV will do, then the Macan is head and shoulders above the competition.
Bentley Continental GT
I know what you’re thinking: ‘Bentley Continental GT? Beautifully built, but it’s a bit of a barge’. If we’re talking about the old car, then you’d be right. Tipping the scales at over two tones and brimming with VW Group technology that was about two generations behind that found in the latest Golf, it was a car of presence rather than true substance. It was a lovely thing to be in and the W12 and V8 engines delivered performance that belied the hefty kerbweight, but it always felt more ocean-going liner than Blue Riband racer.
That’s all change with the latest car. It’s new from the ground up and shares all the right bits with the current Porsche Panamera, including its too-clever-by-half four-wheel drive system. And while it looks similar to the old car at a glance, clever design work actually reveals a lower and leaner looking machine. Inside it’s wall-to-wall wood and leather, but the infotainment system is cutting edge rather than dial-up.
Yet it’s on the move that differences can really be appreciated. It’s still heavy (engineers have trimmed 76kg off the old car’s kerbweight), but it feels so much lighter on its feet. The totally new air-springs, adaptive dampers and active anti-roll kit imbue the Bentley with remarkable agility and grip, while the four-wheel drive system does its best to behave like its rear-drive, allowing you to start steering the car on the throttle. You’ll need plenty of space mind, but the fact you can even contemplate such a thing is a remarkable achievement.
Of course, the twin-turbo 6.0-litre W12 remains a highlight. With a staggering 626bhp and thumping 664lb ft (at just 1350rpm no less) it’ll punch past 62mph in 3.7 seconds and won’t stop going until its hits 207mph. If those figures look remarkable, then they feel even more incredible – the Bentley accelerates with the relentless urge of a large boulder being dropped off a very tall cliff. Switch the car into Sport (you also have Comfort and Bentley, which is the engineers preferred choice) and the exhaust emits a fusillade of the sort of pops and bangs that are normally reserved for 21 gun salutes. It’s hard not to laugh out loud.
Drive more sedately and the Continental GT is transformed into, well, a GT for swallowing continents. The ride is pillowy soft, the cabin a hushed vault of calm and the engine emits barely a murmur, only making itself known when you need the odd burst of interstellar overtaking muscle. It’s a Bentley Continental GT, but not as we know it.