Rain always sounds worse on a conservatory roof,’ I tell photographer Matt Howell as we sit down to our hotel breakfast. I can’t explain away the wind tearing at the fabric of the Groes Inn or the fact that by the time we’ve cleaned our plates the sky has changed only marginally, from black to inky deep blue, even though the sun has officially risen. Secretly, I’m not that bothered. Parked in the rain-lashed car park are three four-wheel-drive supercars that are designed to be reassuringly, comfortably brilliant in such conditions.
As it happens, by the time we’ve gathered our things and paid our bill, the near-apocalyptic weather has magically blown through, leaving peaceful, watery sunshine. Over the next couple of days we’ll experience a useful variety of conditions, enabling us to decide if Porsche’s mid-life revisions to the 997 Turbo have done the job, namely to draw it closer to its arch nemesis, the thorn in its side, the Nissan GT-R.
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Porsche’s engineers haven’t confined themselves to tinkering around the edges: the Turbo has an all-new, direct-injection 3.8-litre engine, a new paddle-shift PDK gearbox and, as I discovered driving here yesterday, a new attitude. There’s a tautness to its demeanour that’s more GT3 than previous-edition Turbo, suggesting a shift in focus towards control at the expense of a little comfort. And when you get the throttle to the stop and feel the air squeezed gently from your lungs as the bigger, 493bhp engine works rapidly through seamlessly shifting gears and into three figures, you know the GT-R has a real fight on its hands. Yet even as that prospect looms, you can’t help wondering if in targeting the Nissan, the Turbo hasn’t left more room for the third car in this test, the Audi R8 V10.
We’ve already put a couple of hundred miles under this trio’s wheels getting here and there will be many more. On this occasion, north Wales is not the destination but the stepping-off point, as we set out on a tour of the principality’s race tracks, of which there are three. Not a bad tally for a country whose national motorsport I’d always assumed was rallying. First stop is the much re-worked Anglesey Circuit, and from there we’ll travel the length of the country to visit Pembrey and Llandow on the south coast, cadging a lap or two where we can and hopefully discovering some brilliant new roads on the way.
All three of our contenders have four-wheel drive, 500bhp give or take, and pukka supercar abilities, yet only the Audi conforms to the accepted definition of a supercar. The two-seat R8 has its engine mid-mounted, and it’s a belter, a naturally aspirated 5.2-litre V10 that spins to over 8000rpm to deliver a mighty 518bhp. Sleek and low on its Fat Face logo-like alloys, it looks like a cooler way to blow £100K than the rear-engined 911, which, in yellow, contrives to look just like A N Other 911. And then there’s the Nissan, just £58K. It stands head and shoulders above the others, square-edged, bulky, dark and menacing, like an assassin in a leather trench- coat. It’s packing 3.8 litres, six cylinders and twin turbos, just like the 911, but the six are in a vee, the engine is up front and, as of now, its 478bhp is pipped by the revised Turbo’s output.
I can imagine the GT-R frustrates the hell out of the engineers at Porsche. It feels rough hewn initially, the drivetrain occasionally fumbling a pull-away or shift and sending a thump through the car, the front wheels distracted and fidgety and the twin-clutch gearbox keen to shuffle into the highest gear possible if left in auto. As a consequence, the car feels a bit first-thing-in-the-morning dozy. Then you feed in a decent slug of throttle, the turbos spool up and the car snaps to, like it’s just had a double espresso. Energised, the GT-R becomes alert, poised, purposeful, and you’re engaged, interested. The GT-R has got you.
Yes, it’s a bulkier car than the 911, heavier too – by almost 200kg, according to our scales – but once it’s clear of suburbia it reveals a huge swell of low-down torque, a natural, easy gait and a comfortable ride. You feel connected through the wheel and seat, and, once you’ve selected paddle-shift mode, in charge. Relax a bit with the steering and your progress over Anglesey’s bumpy, puddled B-roads is storming.
It's a while since I’ve been to Anglesey Circuit and it’s a surprise to find the old hairpin and top straight are now the feeder road to the circuit office. From the top of this dramatically re-engineered track you now get an even better view across Caernarfon Bay to the white- peaked Snowdonia National Park. I always enjoyed the tricky old circuit and it’s great to discover that the new one also has plenty of challenges and elevation changes. I imagine it’s a tough lap to master, and a tougher place still to race at. Wouldn’t mind a go, naturally…
Our schedule demands that we don’t loiter. For the first leg south I drop low into the cockpit of the Audi. It feels more special than the others; the architecture is more dramatic, the instruments and switchgear higher quality. There is also an absolute stand-out feature – the open gate and manual gearlever.
There has to be a beefy clutch between the big V10 and the six-speed ’box but you’re not aware of it. The left pedal is light and the take-up creamy yet positive, a perfect complement to the slick, positive, click-clack shift. Wristing the knurled lever around the gate, you feel like a master of the manual shift within a mile, by which time you’ll have also discovered what a superbly polished device the R8 is, the ride supple and refined, the car flowing sweetly down the road. And what a contrast the engine is. Both the Nissan and Porsche have very responsive twin-turbo powerplants, but they don’t get close to the instant, solid, any-gear response of the 5204cc V10 at your back here. And while the others may deliver bigger, boosted mid-range torque, there’s an endless thrill to revving out the flat-toned, warbling V10 and feeling the manic kick beyond 6000rpm.
We’re heading for Barmouth on the open, meandering coast road, and the Audi feels well suited to it. Even more than the 911, it feels light-nosed and heavy-tailed, which is fine, except that when it flattens a cat’s eye the rear wriggles slightly. It might be four-wheel drive but particularly in the wet you find yourself driving this R8 as if it was merely rear-drive, with due consideration for the mass behind you.
Just outside Barmouth we stop for a car swap. We all agree that the Audi has a delicious, quality feel. ‘Buttery’ is how Ollie Marriage describes it. Stepping back into the 911 Turbo, the Porsche’s focus and economy of movement are even more apparent. This is one tightly tied-down chassis, and although you corner it in traditional 911 style, picking up the throttle once the nose is settled and using the torque to nail the back tyres to the road on the exit, it commits to a turn more positively than the Audi and is more reassuring for it. It’s also remarkable just how much of the potent flat-six’s energy the chassis can contain and deploy before the stability control twitches into life.
Leave the gearbox to do its own thing, pin the throttle and there’s a good deal of shuffling before the appropriate gear is summoned and full boost arrives (it’s even more long-winded in the Nissan), by which time the Audi has gained a few car lengths. But why would you leave it in auto if you’ve specified the +/- paddles (hurrah!) and simple three-spoke steering wheel, a must-have £270 option that gives instinctive manual control of PDK’s seven ratios?
This car also has the Sport Chrono option, a press of the Sport button offering a more alert gearchange strategy, punchier shifts and overboost (raising torque from 479 to 516lb ft for up to 10sec). However, for the most devastating hit it’s best to have the correct gear pre-selected when you hit the gas at the end of a 30mph limit. From that point you’ll be pinned to the backrest for as long as you keep the throttle down, which won’t be long if you want to stay legal. When we got our test gear on it, the Turbo recorded 0-60mph in 3.2sec and 0-100 in 7.3. In the wet. (You can read more about this and see the video at www.evo.co.uk.)
So how come the Nissan is always on the 911’s case? Through a testing series of curves on the A487 towards Machynlleth, the GT-R has the Turbo pegged. It’s bigger, it’s heavier, but once you’re off and running it doesn’t feel clumsy or outsize. Its responses and agility seem to belong to a smaller, lighter car. Partly this seems to be down to how four-wheel-drive it is. The Nissan’s front and rear tyre sizes are much more closely matched than those of the Audi and Porsche, reflecting their share of the load, and although it’s nose-heavy, its weight distribution is closer to 50:50. Understeer seems to have been engineered out, and when the solid outpouring from the gravelly turbo V6 does get the better of the grip it’s the rear that steps out of line.
There are fabulous views down the valley to the wide River Dovey as we head for fuel and a late lunch stop in Aberystwyth. From there we elect to forego what look like lowlands on the direct route south and instead head down the B4340 towards the Cambrians. I feel pretty comfortable leading in the Audi. The high-hedged road crests, twists and falls almost without pause but it’s a great challenge, and the instant response of the V10, and its top-end shove, are great assets. It’s a car you drive as smoothly as you can, trying not to excite the back end or overload the front, and I feel I’ve done a good job when we reach narrower roads and stop for a breather. It’s certainly been absorbing and there’s a satisfaction in staying just inside the R8’s perceived limits. That lasts until Catchpole saunters up, smiling. ‘You were going as fast as you wanted, weren’t you?’ he asks. Yes, why? ‘Well, you know those sequences of corners you straight-lined? I slalomed them in the GT-R, just for fun…’
With darkness, and the temperature and rain falling, we head for our blind-booked hotel. We find comfortable accommodation, half decent food, and a full-length skittles alley and dartboard, which is fun, but the four of us being chatted up by a pensioner and leered at by a chemically altered, slightly grubby young lady is a bit unsettling. At breakfast next morning the receptionist tells us: ‘You missed all the fun and frolics last night. Someone got naked… and you can probably guess who.’ I don’t want to.
The day has dawned cold and soggy and the Audi is a great place to be with its bright, clear instruments, glowing switchgear and supple ride. It’s a fine thing but, by the time we arrive at our first destination of the day, Pembrey Circuit, it has confirmed what we agreed last night. There’s much to like but despite the brilliantly responsive V10 and manual ’box, it’s not as precise or rewarding a drivers’ car as the Porsche or Nissan. That V10 seems to compromise the balance. As we’ve said before, the V8 version remains our choice of R8s. This is now a two-horse race.
There’s not much we can do at Pembrey because the track is booked for an exclusive test. Shame. I haven’t been here since the early ’90s, racing Caterhams in the rain, and would love to have had another look around the track, which I remember being challenging and fun, despite being utterly flat and airfield-based.
Marriage suggests we head for another motorsport venue on this coast. Well, not so much on it as a part of it. Less than an hour later we’re on Pendine Sands, the home of land speed record-breaking in the mid-’20s, until the death of JG Parry-Thomas in ‘Babs’ on March 3, 1927. The sands are still glossy from the ebb tide and the beach stretches away for miles to our left, vanishing into an ozone haze. It’s hard to imagine what it must have felt like to sit in a car like Babs, behind its open-piped 27-litre aero V12, ready for a run. Empty beach plus car normally equals doughnuts and skids, but none of us has the appetite today.
I drove the 911 Turbo here, so for the last stint to Llandow Circuit, near Cardiff, I get into the GT-R again. It’s telling that in the Audi and Porsche sooner or later you find yourself looking to see how you can tweak the damping, change the feel, but you just take the Nissan as it is. Crisp, accurate, beefy steering relays a remarkable, almost hyper-real willingness to turn, followed by a feeling of pivoting around the gearlever and enormous grip. Picking up the power early settles the car slightly onto its tail and sets it up for firing out of the corner. It’s not just effective, it’s involving and fun. ‘The impression people seem to have is that the GT-R is anodyne, that it does it all for you,’ says Catchpole. ‘It’s not and it doesn’t; you’re in charge.’ And what an engine, not just for its potency but for the stimulating sounds it makes, a guttural, clanking V6 burr overlaid with whiney, whistley turbos. You find yourself short-shifting just to hear its tone change.
The Porsche may be fractionally quicker in a straight line but the experience seems almost two-dimensional after the Nissan, as if all the character has been sucked out for fear it might compromise the efficiency. The new Turbo’s acceleration is staggering, not far off a McLaren F1, but it’s utterly linear, PDK denying it gearshift punctuation, the 3.8-litre capacity allowing lower boost from the variable-vane turbos for a more consistent delivery. It’s a rocket sled, and in the corners it’s Velcro grippy, but less 911-like in its attitude than it ever was. (Not surprisingly, it returns the best mpg – 18.1 over the 600-odd miles, compared with 16.0 for the Nissan and 15.8 for the Audi.)
It begs the question, was the 911 Turbo broken? The previous version set a GT2 and GT-R rivalling lap time at the Bedford Autodrome and then, switched back to the default damper setting, became the everyday, all-journey, all-season supercar. The new Turbo feels like it’s missing that car’s comfort setting. ‘I think they should have ignored the GT-R,’ says Catchpole. ‘They’ve got GT3s and 2s for that.’
We’re almost done here. Tucked away in an industrial estate-like area is our final destination before home, Llandow Circuit. The unpromising location reveals a neatly kept, simple, friendly track. We’re let on to get a few tweaked-up cornering shots with all stability aids off, and bag the odd lap too. It’s a brief, inconclusive insight into what happens beyond the limit. In all three you have to drive through a bit of understeer; once you’ve pushed the door open and fallen into oversteer you find that the Audi holds a big angle easily, the Porsche will if you back off to catch the initial swing and then get on it again, and the Nissan will fight you to get the slide back in line. (Interestingly, when Chris Harris ragged the three of them around a wet Bruntingthorpe he came to the opposite conclusion, which perhaps shows the limited usefulness of a fast, wet airfield…)
Just then the skies darken and the rain blows in again, effectively bringing the curtain down on an adventure that has been most excellent, even if it hasn’t thrown up any surprises. We haven’t discovered any blinding new roads, and nor did we find an all-weather supercar more appealing than the Nissan GT-R. The badge may still not sell the car to some, nor may the looks, but for depth of character and ability there’s nothing here to touch it. The fact that it’s more or less half the price of this top-spec 911 Turbo is no more than an interesting aside.
A plaque on the side of the Beach Hotel supplies the facts, but neither it nor the museum (closed from November to April) adequately captures the glamour or importance of what happened here 85 years ago. For three years in the 1920s, Pendine was the epicentre of record breaking, the land speed record pushed up from 143mph to 174mph on the seven-mile beach.
The speeds don’t seem that dazzling now – during its time with us we’ll see the 911 Turbo get to 180mph in under 30 seconds – but the danger involved back then was immense. On his way to reaching 174.88mph in February 1927, Malcolm Campbell hit a bump that dislodged his goggles, but blinded and driving one-handed, he managed to pull them back on, keep his foot in and grab the record. Legend.
The following month, Campbell’s great rival John Godfrey Parry-Thomas paid the ultimate price. The tall engine cover of his 27-litre Liberty aero-engined car ‘Babs’ meant he had to lean out the side of the chain-driven monster to see where he was going. The chain snapped at 170mph and the Welshman became the land speed record’s first fatality.
His death signalled the end of Pendine’s reign. Less than a month later Henry Segrave would push the record beyond 200mph on the ten-mile-long sands at Daytona in Florida. The circus had moved on, but even today a pilgrimage to Pendine is strangely affecting.