There was no escaping the rain. It had followed us across Kentucky and Tennessee, three days and nights in a row, alternating between indifferent sprinkles and fervent cloudbursts, hiding treacherous pools of water around every corner, blowing leaves and branches across our path. It reached through the seals of expensive camera lenses and mercilessly soaked vehicle interiors delicately crafted of aniline leather and open-pore wood. Every minute spent at speed wore on nerves already rubbed raw by episodes of hydroplaning across soggy debris.
Which perhaps explains why the walkie-talkies were mostly silent as we hustled through the night toward NCM Motorsports Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Or maybe it was the majesty of any time spent in the McLaren Senna’s jet-fighter cockpit, surrounded by fixed windows on which a thousand raindrops skittered and slid in accordance with the hypercritical desires of British wind-tunnel engineers. In those moments, searching for bits of grip on roads that had never seen this sort of hardware, none of us wished to be anywhere else.
This year’s Performance Car of the Year (PCOTY) test, our sixth such event, was notable for more than just the biblical deluge that haunted us on road and track. The breathtaking ability of players, including the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, Ferrari 488 Pista, McLaren Senna, and Porsche 911 GT2 RS, took us to the kind of rarefied air traditionally inhabited by pur sang racers. Which is why we asked our very own IndyCar blue blood, 2011 Indy 500 rookie of the year and R&T contributor J. R. Hildebrand, to wring out the last gasps of their potential against the clock.
The other half of our eight-car group promised to keep things interesting. BMW’s M5 Competition makes the leap to hyperspace courtesy of a 617-hp twin-turbo V8 and an ultraslick front differential that offers the tail-out delights of a Late Model stock car coupled with the all-weather capability of an F-86D Sabre. The Audi RS5 used to be a one-trick pony with a sonorous, high-revving V8; now it’s a multitalented street and track weapon with a neutral-handling drivetrain and a twin-turbo, small-bore V6.
We are firmly in the era of the performance sport-utility vehicle, and Alfa Romeo’s Stelvio Quadrifoglio impressed our editors earlier this year with its fortissimo power and harmonious chassis. But we also invited the Alfa’s natural enemy, the superbly accomplished yet charmingly utilitarian Mercedes-AMG E63 S wagon, for a different take on the supersonic bread box.
The class of 2019 exceeded expectations, with the top four entrants outpacing the Mercedes-AMG GT R that set our all-time NCM West fast lap last year. It wasn’t just due to raw power, although that was present in spades. Credit, too, the unflinching advance of aerodynamics, suspension design, and black-magic tire trickery. Consider also this field’s total dedication to performance, even at the expense of driver involvement; for the first time, none of the contenders arrived with more than two pedals.
The constant rain and frequent fog forced us to think about these remarkably rapid cars in ways we hadn’t before: How much of that fearsome power can you use? Are the latest stability-control systems as magical on a shiny-slick back road as they are on a perfectly groomed track? Isn’t it my turn to drive the all-wheel-drive wagon? Are you sure about that?
Yet by the end of our fantastic and stormy voyage, every one of us had some cheerful anecdote to share: the joy of seeing fog twirling off the end plates of a carbon-fiber rear wing, the challenge of driving a car with roughly half-tread-depth tires on a flooded freeway, the magic of a 90-minute, late-night dash across roller-coaster terrain in order to get to a drive-thru restaurant before it closed. And when the time came to cast our votes, we realized that the winning choice was brought into sharper focus by the conditions. So buckle up, readers: Here comes the rain again.
You could say the Audi RS5 and BMW M5 are greater achievements than PCOTY’s aero-heavy track stars. These aren’t occasional Sunday cars, they’re everyday heroes for drivers who don’t want to wait for the weekend to get their jollies. They have to go fast in any condition—a quality we certainly appreciated during this year’s waterlogged testing. They have to cruise quietly on the freeway while carrying multiple people and more luggage than just a helmet. That’s a hell of a mandate.
Attempting to meet the challenge was an Audi RS5 that swaps the old naturally aspirated V8 of R8 fame for a 2.9-liter turbo V6 developed with Porsche. Its 444 hp is six fewer than the old engine’s but the deal is sweetened by an additional 126 lb-ft of torque, all delivered to the ground through a ZF eight-speed automatic and Audi’s Quattro system.
And in a case of can-beat-’em-but-join-’em-anyway, we brought the first BMW M5 to sport a set of front driveshafts. A clever setup lets the driver sideline them and run the car in two-wheel-drive mode. Our car was the Competition, a $7300 upgrade that adds 17 hp to the twin-turbo V8’s standard 600 hp, along with a host of suspension tweaks aimed at delivering an even more focused driving experience.
Perhaps a little too focused. The M5’s light, fast-ratio steering gives the BMW an agile but slightly nervous feel, even when you've spent an eternity trying the different permutations of chassis and drivetrain modes, saving your two favorite combos so you can call them up later via thumb switches above the left and right steering-wheel spokes. "I suspect you’d have to spend a month fiddling with all the different settings to find your favorite," said deputy web editor Bob Sorokanich.
Rather more immediate is the response you get from a stomp on the right pedal of a sedan whose unholy 0-to-60-mph time feels far closer to Porsche’s RS than Audi’s. "The M5 is fast enough that you could almost certainly make some money at the drag strip," editor-at-large Sam Smith noted. But you could just as easily lose it on the street. It’s a testament to this car’s outright speed and the way you can deploy it anywhere that the M5, the plainest-looking 2019 PCOTY machine, was the only one to land a tester a speeding ticket.
Packing 173 fewer ponies, the RS5 was never going to feel as urgent, even with 256 less pounds to haul. But editor-in-chief Kim Wolfkill said it has "more than enough steam for any sane street driving," and the chassis makes the most of the extra torque. In two days of mostly wet-road driving, the Audi capitalized on its real-world strengths, letting us lean hard on the surprisingly capable Hankook tires into turns and then again on the gas on the way out, confident we could predict the outcome every time.
More predictions: On the track, in dry weather, the Audi would inevitably reveal itself, as most non-R8 Audis do, to be as two-dimensional as a South Park animation. We all agreed. After all, no one cried too much last year when the blunt-edged TT RS threw a check-engine code and defaulted to limp mode, curtailing track action. The BMW M5, with its supercar-grade power and ability to tweak the rear-biased handling to pure rear-drive, was going to be the one to deliver excitement.
"I was the most sideways in it through Turns 1 and 2 and through the fast right-hander at the end of the back straight," Hildebrand said with a smile. "It was fun to drive. To me, it was in the top three most fun cars to drive on the track."
The thing is, Hildebrand wasn’t talking about the M5, but the RS5. Swapping out the old car’s high-revving V8 for a torquier turbo six might have lost it some kudos—"Sounds like an International school bus," Sorokanich moaned—but it also helped the Audi lose 68 pounds of front-end mass. And that, together with the torque-vectoring Quattro differential overspeeding the outside rear wheel, enabled the RS5 to change tack in a way we weren’t expecting. Only the low-stamina brakes (even with carbon-ceramic front rotors, part of the $6000 Dynamic Plus package) stood out as negative in Hildebrand’s track notes.
By contrast, the M5 proved a lot harder to hustle. "It’s the only car that I found myself on throttle thinking, I wish it was not accelerating as much," Hildebrand said. "It was the hardest car to get around the track. It was impossible to drive smoothly. I hated the steering."
Clocks aren’t concerned with hate. VBOX data showed the M5 lapped NCM’s two-mile course in 1:34.64, more than seven seconds adrift of the nearest sports car but 3.57 seconds faster than the RS5, the next quickest of the family-friendly cars.
In the final reckoning, though, the relatively mortal lap times are not what kept the M5 and RS5 off the top step at PCOTY. Rather, it was the fuzzy math of feelings. Editors pined for the blissful balance of older M5s and the soulful sound of the V8 RS5.
Outright speed and emotion are what matter in a test like this. Yet in the real world, where most of us lack a fleet of cars to choose from based on the weather forecast, these blindingly fast everyday machines, with their all-wheel drive and full-tread tires, are among the smartest. As the old racing saying goes: To finish first, you must first finish.
For the first time, PCOTY has a villain. The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio arrived to raised eyebrows. Editors muttered suspicion over evening cocktails. "It has no business being here," contributing editor Jack Baruth said of the first SUV to compete in our annual fast-car test. "We do the readers a disservice by legitimizing this vehicle or even discussing it."
So what was it doing at the rodeo? Long answer: Despite 20- years of us pooh-poohing them, SUVs refuse to disappear. Performance SUVs, once an oxymoron, now put up numbers we can’t ignore. For plenty of people, a fast utility vehicle is the simplest way to fit driving excitement into family life and a single parking spot. And the Stelvio Quadrifoglio, more than any other ute we’ve driven, attempts to match the fleet-footed driving experience of a good sport sedan.
Shorter answer: We wanted to see if the Alfa could hang. And if professional wrestling and the Beach Boys taught us anything, it’s that every villain must face a hero.
Enter the Mercedes-AMG E63 S wagon. Staff reaction was farcical. My colleagues welcomed the long-roof Benz like it came with unlimited nachos and a bucket of puppies. I tried to coax them into verbalizing their love for the liftback. The answer was a tautology: A fast wagon is cool because a fast wagon is cool. Duh.
The AMG is plenty fast: 603 hp, 627 lb-ft of torque, 0 to 60 mph in 3.0 seconds—quicker than the damn ZR1. A grudge-match dragster’s exhaust note. All-wheel drive by default, switchable to rear-drive when you want to get drifty. "Faster and more interesting than it has any right to be," Wolfkill said. Contributing editor Chris Chilton invoked the word "naughty," as only a Brit can.
Car nerds are compelled by a muscle wagon. The Mercedes makes the case. When you’re not blowing the doors off supercars—hell, even when you are—it pampers you. A jewel-like interior, one of the best in the business; hushed and placid on the highway, rock-steady at autobahn speed. "True to the AMG idea," Baruth said, "a Mercedes-Benz first and foremost, with extra power."
There’s no denying the mass of the E63; it handily outweighs even the Alfa SUV. Wiggle the steering wheel on straight highway and you can get the big-body Benz sloshing. Doomed by the weight of the wagon? Hardly. As website director Travis Okulski said, "It’s much more nimble than it lets on. On the road it feels big, heavy, and quiet, but when you’re actually trying on track, you’re surprised at how good it is."
Only one of these two family haulers holds a Nürburgring lap record, and it ain’t the Mercedes. In Alfa Romeo parlance, "Quadrifoglio" means "the fast one." Under the Stelvio’s louvered hood quivers the 505-hp, 443-lb-ft twin-turbo V6 from the Giulia Quadrifoglio, an engine with Ferrari fingerprints all over it. Thanks to all-wheel-drive traction, the five-door Alfa bellows and snorts to 60 mph in 3.3 seconds, quicker than its rear-drive-sedan sibling. Active dampers, steering-wheel-sized carbon-ceramic brakes, a dedicated Race mode—the Stelvio isn’t here to fool around.
Let’s also note that the Alfa SUV is 417 pounds lighter than the Mercedes and cheaper by nearly enough to buy a new Miata. Evil? Or simply misunderstood?
In our rain-soaked road testing, the Stelvio didn’t act like an SUV. The steering is sports-car quick; the active dampers keep close watch on the body motions. As with In-N-Out, you gotta go off-menu: Dial up Dynamic or Race mode, then hit the damper button, which takes away just enough rebound and compression to smooth out poor pavement.
"Really nice midcorner feel," Smith said of the crossover. "It moves on throttle and will shift its nose on a lift." Hildebrand noted, not without surprise, that the Alfa feels more agile on the road than the AMG.
Villains turn on you though. That twitchy-quick steering is fun for a fling but nearly devoid of feel and liable to make your back-seat passengers sick. The interior quality is disappointing in a $43,000 base-model Stelvio; a Quadrifoglio commands almost twice that. And the brakes are a mess. Alfa’s brake-by-wire system apparently reaches max braking pressure quicker than a conventional setup, which is great if your commute involves full-ABS panic stops, but it’s impossible to modulate smoothly. A gentle brush of the pedal brings a microsecond delay, followed by more whoa than you asked for. Imagine a car with the brake pedal in the passenger footwell, where you slow down by squeezing your co-pilot’s arm. That’s the Alfa’s braking character. From the shotgun seat, it feels like you’re riding with a first-time driver.
"As with the Giulia, every Giulia, the pedal on this thing needs to be chucked into a dumpster," Smith fumed. "Calibrated by someone who once had brakes described to him over fax," Okulski quipped.
The sole person with a kind word for the Alfa’s stoppers was Hildebrand—the only one among us who lapped the SUV around NCM in the dry. "On the track, in straight-line braking, I was really impressed with how well the brakes work, how much they stayed under it for multiple laps in a row," he said. But our pro driver noted that the grabby pedal and darty steering gives the rig unrefined responses at speed.
Exciting but flawed. The Alfa turned a 1:39.37 lap, nearly two seconds quicker than the Honda Civic Type R we tested here last year. That’s undeniably, quantifiably fast, but how many crossover buyers are sweating lap times? And does great track performance outshout all the caveats?
This is where you’d expect our hero, the Mercedes-AMG E63 S wagon, to swoop in and save the day. Unfortunately, that’s not in this screenplay. A parking-lot mishap gave the Benz’s front bumper a nudge, damaging a hose on one of its perilously low radiators. The wagon was in for repair during the only sunny lapping session of the week; Hildebrand never got to run it on a dry track. So we don’t know how the Mercedes compares with the Alfa in terms of lap times. Pity. But our editors were unanimous: Each would pick the Benz over the Alfa.
That’s the thing about hero stories: Deep down, you know who’s gonna win.
Supercar conversations always come down to numbers. The active rear wing on a McLaren Senna can support 100 times its own weight. The 711-hp Ferrari 488 Pista laps the company’s Fiorano test track just 1.5 seconds slower than the 949-hp LaFerrari. A Porsche 911 GT2 RS carries 145 percent of its mass behind the rear wheels; the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1’s 35 radiators weigh half an ounce each; a McLaren 720S—last year’s PCOTY winner—saved a busload of orphans from careening off a cliff and then bought them all ice cream, and the cost was $203.45, but the sprinkles were free.
Some of those numbers are gibberish. No matter. They’re no more likely to be remembered in 20 years than the real statistics. Like expensive laptops, new supercars are sold largely on stats and fashion, but that stuff is always trumped by next year’s model. The difference lies in heart—truly great exotics feel vital long after the science goes stale.
The four machines in this PCOTY group are that breed of outlier—genuinely special live wires, crazy stats eclipsed by emotion and feedback. The 755-hp Corvette ZR1 is the most affordable of the four; it’s essentially GM’s less expensive Corvette Z06 with more supercharger boost and 105 more horsepower. The Pista is a track-focused version of Ferrari’s 661-hp 488 GTB, all stripy sprezzatura. Porsche’s 700-hp 911 GT2 RS is Stuttgart’s motorsport-proof 911 GT3 RS turbos and mad science; the result makes enough raw shove to produce both eye-watering stoplight snort and a top speed that had to be electronically limited to 211 mph to keep the tires from coming apart.
Finally, there is the Senna. Named for Ayrton Senna, a McLaren Formula 1 driver and the most spectacular talent F1 has ever seen. At 789 hp and nearly a million dollars, the McLaren is the most powerful and most expensive car ever invited to PCOTY testing. Its active bodywork trades style for downforce. It looks like an ugly fish until you stare at it up close. At which point it looks like a very close-up and transparent ugly fish that has eaten a McLaren.
McLaren employees generally shrug when you tell them this. The reaction seems odd, and then you remember that the Senna produces more downforce than any production car in history. And you stop thinking about looks and just tell yourself that 2018 has been a hell of a year for automobiles if it has managed to produce a testing context where a 700-hp 911 is a legit power underdog.
Strange as it sounds, the $328,880 Porsche is the sleeper of the four. The least impatient and compromised in traffic, the easiest to see out of, the most luggage space. If you don’t know the details—the available carbon-fiber anti-roll bars, the water-spray system for cooling the heat exchangers, the space-program engineering required to pull 700 horses of heat from that tiny cave of an engine bay—the GT2 RS resembles nothing so much as a $92,000 Carrera in a body kit. It doesn’t even give the GT3’s high-rpm yowl. Turbos tend to calm an engine’s honk, especially Porsche engines, and the GT2 is a poster child for that, gruff and huffy across the tach.
Whether you like the noise is a matter of taste. I more than once stuck my face over the wall during Hildebrand’s laps, inches from the Porsche’s slipstream, just to smell the fuel wake and feel the audio wallop. The sensory assault is great, equal parts stinky-rich chemical plant and Le Mans 30 years ago.
That blend of throwback vibe and modern tech is fitting, because every 911 is based on an old blueprint. Rear-engined, a Sixties silhouette. Another matter of taste. Some in our test group found it silly to charge more than a quarter of a million dollars for a car that looks like a ’roidy 911 and is so ruthlessly quirk-free that it can occasionally feel like a Camry. Baruth said the GT2 was styled like a "jungle toad with a thyroid problem," wondering aloud if similar engineering effort applied to Porsche’s "lesser" mid-engine Cayman would have produced a faster result. Others loved the subtlety of the GT2’s talent—a strange-but-true assessment of a device that can rip to 60 mph in 2.6 seconds, all day long, as temperature-stable as any two-wheel-drive car we’ve tested.
The GT2’s stability turns lapping into a staggeringly consistent party trick: that telepathic seven-speed twin-clutch, the phenomenal rear grip, the nose sharper and the chassis more immediately confidence-inspiring than any car here. Plus, it wore the latest and greatest Michelin performance tires—Pilot Sport Cup 2 Rs. "The Porsche just kind of gives you the lap time," Hildebrand said. "Hands-down the easiest in this group." Anyone with a modicum of skill can be up to speed in three laps. The car simply inhales human and gasoline and spits out pace.
The only complaint, almost universal among our drivers, was that it felt a bit distant in this company. A little too robotic, less than visceral.
No one said that about the Ferrari. Italian cars live on theater, and the Pista is no exception. Even the bits where function obviously trumps form, like the Pista’s aerodynamic nose "vent," seem to carry an extra dose of Look-a me, amico! Mwah! If you stand over that vent and stick a foot under the front bumper, you can shove an arm through the car and touch your shoelaces. Giant intakes in the rear haunches exist solely to feed the intercoolers; on the GTB, they’re smaller and also supply intake air.
They also dialed in a few surprises. The Pista is almost impossibly friendly on a back road. More compliant and comfy than Ferrari’s last two mid-engine track stars, the 430 Scuderia and 458 Speciale. Or any track-happy Ferrari in recent memory, for that matter. The 488 flies down the road in a series of prowly rips, glassy and limber over nasty stuff but still connected and alive. Thank the magnetorheological dampers, for one—but then, the Speciale had those as well, on the same basic platform, and it was more of a twitcher, best in short intervals. The Pista, you could drive L.A. to New York and climb out feeling as if you’d just taken a nap.
R&T’s last drive of this car was in Italy, under ideal conditions, and Italy under ideal conditions demands a grain of salt, because even the traffic there seems romantic. In Kentucky and Tennessee, huddled discussions were held, no small amount of shock: What price composure? The Scud and Speciale were spazzed-out, naturally aspirated maniacs, animal cannons of compromise, and better for it. The Pista’s turbo V8 gives more power and a fat smack of torque at high rpm, but it’s quieter around town, less likely to get you arrested. Even at full bellow, when the exhaust bypass valves whack open—whaaa to WHAAA—it seems too calculated. As if some engineer had purposely made the car calm, then been ordered to espresso it up.
Not that it isn’t worth the money. "Special immediately, when you sit down inside," Wolfkill noted. "Interior is a master class in how it’s really done," Baruth said, "airy and spacious in a way that Lamborghini and McLaren can’t or won’t emulate." "Amazing old-school steering," road-test editor Kyle Kinard added. Everyone who drove the Ferrari at NCM allowed that it was hellacious and quick. But the magic ran dry at the limit. "Disconnected through a corner, and work to drive fast, but not the right kind," Hildebrand said after his timed laps. "You look at the throttle, it instantly loses traction."
A phenomenal car, like the Porsche, but PCOTY testing is full of phenoms. There were more huddles, back-and-forth discussion.
And then there is the ZR1. A violent piece of work, flawed in a handful of ways but rarely parked, because everyone wanted the key. "All the characteristics of every other seventh-generation Vette," Sorokanich said. "It doesn’t feel distinctly different in any category—braking, acceleration, grip, feedback—it’s just more." The base Corvette’s shrink-around-you joy is here, but the ZR1 makes 300 more horses than that car and 255 more pound-feet of torque. It also has approximately 3000 percent more hood bulge and a face like a nuclear mutant.
More hyperbole, sure, but Corvettes are exaggeration on the hoof. Every great one has been America at the gym after a few beers, yelling, and this is no exception. The car is all bulges and loud add-ons. With that enormous hood cowl, most of what you see through the gun-slit of a windshield, dominating the view.
It’s fitting, because the engine is a tornado and a half, more center stage in its home than any mill here. The ZR1’s 6.2-liter pushrod V8 uses the same basic construction as the one in the Z06, but it’s strapped to a supercharger with a whopping 52 percent more displacement. The blower looks like weaponized luggage and helps produce a linear fire hose of grunt, enough to spit the rear tires loose at highway speed. Like the Pista, the car fights for traction, but it also seems more encouraging and calm about its insanity. All capped by that devil-whoop exhaust note and a suspension tune that never prompts occasional moments of personal clenching. (This means you, Z06.)
Not that you get Achilles without a heel. To all this GM adds an interior that feels low-rent at this price and the awful eight-speed automatic of our test ZR1. The eight-speed is faster over a lap than the standard (and excellent) seven-speed manual, but so frustratingly dim-witted and slow to respond that it has no place in a fast car. Plus, the performance doesn’t always match the experience. When we told Hildebrand that his ZR1 top speed on NCM’s back straight (143 mph) was nearly 10 mph slower than in the Pista (151), GT2 (also 151), or Senna (152), he was shocked. "Would never have guessed it was that far off," he said. "Goes to show that a good scream makes you forget about the data points."
This business in a nutshell. Which brings us back to the Senna, a car that should be nothing but data. McLaren claims the fish makes 1764 pounds of downforce at 155 mph. It has adaptive suspension, adaptive aerodynamics, and no trunk whatsoever. The car was hot-rodded up from a 720S, more power from McLaren’s ubiquitous twin-turbo V8 but the same basic platform, for the sole purpose of pulverizing corners. Rear visibility is atrocious. The carbon-sheet seats carry less padding than the typical bicycle saddle. The Senna is so serious in focus and intent that the usual McLaren road-car details—a warranty, lights, turn signals, a killer Bowers & Wilkins stereo—all feel like laughable put-on.
But that downforce.
Context is everything. The mass of air pressing onto a Senna at a buck-fifty-five weighs almost 300 pounds more than a Sixties Lotus Elan, 1.5 times as much as a Steinway concert grand piano. Seventeen hundred pounds is above-average weight for a full-grown cow. The Senna makes 441 pounds more downforce than McLaren’s last seven-figure exotic, the P1, but is 434 pounds lighter. Its downforce is on par with a 2018 IMSA GTLM race car. The Senna is a genuine revolution, too advanced to be legal in any racing series, built from ideas so useful that they were banned by the FIA.
Even by supercar standards, the McLaren’s behavior is mind-warping. Fast corners are mostly trust at first, a spooky process of slinging the car toward an apex and listening to your inner ear while simultaneously telling yourself that it’s entirely normal to be ripping through a fourth-gear sweeper 10 or 15 mph faster than should be possible. It’s remarkable, as is the seamless thrust on tap, the intuitive transmission, the utterly transparent brake pedal. Road cars aren’t supposed to work like this—the stability in flicked transitions at high speed, the way the active front wings pin the nose as you crank off the brake. If your first-ever lap in a Senna steams smack up to the limit of tire and aero, then good for you, you are not of this earth. The car’s high-speed composure and grip surprised even Hildebrand, a man no stranger to wings. Then he said NCM wasn’t fast enough to really highlight the McLaren’s air magic or its capability gap over the other cars. Half the paddock raised an eyebrow, the other half dropped a jaw.
The feel, though, is what really gets you. The Senna oozes the special you expect from a car with dihedral doors—window switches and starter button on the roof console, gimmicky windows just above the sills. Numbers cars aren’t generally talkative or involving, but this one is lively and playful. It’s not overwhelming on public pavement, either. McLaren says the Senna’s Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tires are really only for driving on or to a track, but the ZR1 was more of a handful on a wet road. Those alien seats make your back less cranky than the fixed buckets in the GT2. Even the rock-solid motor mounts—you can feel the engine buzz in your teeth—are somehow calming. The whole package feels almost normal, right until it doesn’t.
Still. A million-dollar car should be good. We brought the Senna to PCOTY because we couldn’t resist its charms and because of the watershed it represents, but price has always been a consideration in this award. It’s a measure of the competition that the McLaren didn’t dominate the conversation—and a measure of the car that we couldn’t stop talking about it weeks later.
There was a clear separation in ability between the four track-inspired cars and the rest. Yet our testing at NCM Motorsports Park is about more than lap times. This is where the personalities of the cars become most distinct. As it happens, there was something to love about each of them. The Stelvio has a delightfully loose corner-exit balance on throttle, the RS5’s famous Quattro system with the active rear differential allows unmatched high-speed cornering yaw, and the M5 builds momentum under acceleration that feels like hyperspeed. The Pista supplies on-demand oversteer whenever desired, while the ZR1’s reactive chassis and menacing supercharger scream excite the senses at every curve. The GT2 RS simply produces effortless speed, and the Senna gives you supreme confidence to push as hard in the fastest area of the track as the slowest. The NCM circuit, already demanding when dry, had been hit with days of rain before we arrived. But the lower-grip surface only helped to parse out the diversity of the machines—and to cement just how exceptionally fast this year’s roster is. —J. R. Hildebrand
We expected the Senna to be quick, and it did not disappoint, serving up the best PCOTY lap time ever. The time is particularly impressive considering the track configuration we use doesn’t fully showcase the car’s aero trickery.
The rain began yet again as our voters convened, a distant drumming on a ceiling snare that gathered force and tempo in time with our increasingly pointed discussion. In years past, we chose the Performance Car of the Year in NCM Motorsports Park’s spacious and window-lit main classroom, but this time, our Gang of Eight convened in the close quarters of a blank-walled upstairs storage room, where each disagreement felt more immediate and personal.
As is always the case, there was initial discussion regarding the decision criteria for PCOTY. It’s not a numbers game, although some readers might prefer it that way, and that would make the judging infinitely simpler. This race is almost never to the swiftest; none of the previous winners fared better than second-place around the track.
Instead, it’s a game of intangibles. Words like "significance" and "relevance" were thrown around like tractor tires at a made-for-cable-TV fitness competition. Our job was to discover, discuss, and judge based on qualities no stat sheet can reveal. To put it in a modern context, we couldn’t just read the Tinder bios and swipe left to reject seven cars. We had to go on old-fashioned dates with each of them, so we could learn who chews with their mouth open and who abuses the waiter when their soup is cold. Those readers who grew up in the era before smartphone dating might see it another way: Kissin’ on the racetrack doesn’t always last, but cookin’ in a wide variety of conditions usually does.
When you go on eight separate dates with eight separate cars, there is a strong possibility of falling in love multiple times. Which explains why some of us were already raising our voices as the folding chairs were dragged out and set up, particularly with regard to the McLaren Senna. We all knew it would slay on the track, but nobody had been prepared for the considerable charm it would exert everywhere else. On the other hand, it cost more than twice as much as the next most expensive competitor—and it’s already sold out. How relevant is PCOTY if it amounts to nothing more than congratulating 500 one-percenters on a purchase they’ve already made?
Another bone of contention was the lone crossover of the group. The Stelvio Quadrifoglio was always going to come in for some criticism, yet the VBOX data showed it belonged: It had near-identical acceleration traces and top speeds on the straights as the Giulia Quadrifoglio we tested last year, the all-wheel-drive system almost perfectly canceling out its weight disadvantage. Maximum g-loads were about the same. What killed the Stelvio around NCM compared with the Giulia was transition behavior, managing the weight in and out of each corner. That’s often where drivers enjoy themselves most and where the SUV form factor pays a penalty. "All of us would take the E63 over the Stelvio," Chilton noted. The Mercedes’s lower height, balanced suspension setup, and well-tuned all-wheel-drive helped make the most of its prodigious power. You could say the Stelvio was the Fabio of the group, all bulging muscle and Italian flair, best enjoyed in suburban conditions. Someday, there will be an SUV that truly drives like a sport sedan. This isn’t it.
If, on the other hand, you’re waiting for a sport sedan that accelerates like a supercar, that day is right now, courtesy of the M5 Competition. Quicker than an M4 GTS around NCM and festooned with every luxury feature possible, including illuminated seat-back logos, this M5 is more Abu Dhabi than autobahn. When Mark Donohue made his famous comment about never having enough power, he might not have been talking about two--ton sedans.
The M5 offers a technical solution to every problem: turbos to solve the power-to-weight equation, a smart all-wheel-drive system to keep you from looping out in your driveway. What it lacks is subtlety and balance. The original M5 was brilliant because it had just enough power to adjust the chassis behavior on the move. This one uses chassis trickery to restrain the engine’s insanity, which is backward.
Can commodity components, properly massaged, beat a bespoke specification? That’s the question Audi seems to be asking with the RS5. "Embarrassing that there’s not more to it," was Hildebrand’s verdict. To some degree, the chassis giveth what the engine taketh away; nearly everyone was impressed by its friendly tail-out demeanor and all-weather capability. When the skies opened up and rain fell in sheets, the Audi raced into the storm, unfazed. In this field, however, special tends to come standard.
The 488 Pista has all the special it needs, from the carbon-fiber-intensive interior to the frankly overwhelming power of its frisky-sounding, mid-mounted flat-crank V8. It also blew us away with its competence on the road. When we tested its spiritual predecessor, the naturally aspirated and mostly unmuffled 458 Speciale, few of us could stand to be in the thing for more than an hour. This one will take you across the country. So why did we keep thinking about that brutish old 458 the whole time we were driving this brilliant 488? The heart wants what the heart wants, we suppose. It didn’t help that Hildebrand found it, in this company at least, less than super on track.
The Porsche GT2 RS didn’t suffer from any lap envy. Prodigious power and some very special tires had this old-school 911 within a second of the hypermodern Senna. "The first time I blasted up through the gears, it was hard not to think about some of Porsche’s landmark rear-drive turbo race cars, like the 934, 935, and the 993 GT2 Evo," Wolfkill said. "This thing is probably faster than all of them, but it’s somehow comforting to know that decades of turbo engineering is baked into each new GT2 RS."
Yet its very familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then something less than outright love. "I have a problem that it still looks like a 911 but wears a Ferrari window sticker," Chilton said. "Porsche wanted to prove it could make a supercar out of the 911, but supercars are about more than going fast." And as with the 488 Pista, there was no shortage of longing for an unpressurized take on the same formula. In this case, however, Porsche is still selling the GT3 RS. With the exception of your author, who was obsessed with tea-tray 930 Turbos as a wayward youth, most of us would take the junior RS over the senior. Which did not stop some jurors from voting for the Porsche as performance car of the year. And why not? The GT2 offers Gemballa levels of powertrain insanity with a factory warranty and somehow still feels like the rear-engine sports car we’ve enjoyed for decades.
Which brings us to the prizefight: the pedigreed Senna, as bespoke in concept and execution as a Richard Anderson sport coat, versus the pushrod-powered working-class hero from Bowling Green, Kentucky. Yet they’re far from being complete opposites. "There are two cars in this group that if I’m sitting at a stoplight, I can just reasonably say, 'The hell with anything that pulls up next to me,'" Hildebrand said. "And those cars are the Senna and the ZR1. They are animals on the street."
Other areas of similarity: the quality of feedback and driver experience on the track. Those voters with current competition licenses all rhapsodized about the near-perfection of both the Corvette’s and McLaren’s suspension tuning, particularly with regard to mechanical grip, that quality of holding the road as tightly as possible at lower speeds, where the wings and spoilers don’t have enough air to work. Regarding the ZR1, Hildebrand said, "the more you put into it, the more you get back." The Senna also has that direct and satisfying relationship between effort and reward. At the track, if a lap felt faster, it was faster. On the road, the ZR1 eschews head-bobbing drama in favor of a long but controlled damping moment at the end of every big pothole or expansion joint. The precision of that final moment isn’t easy to discern during a sloppy run up a mountain, but it’s crystal-clear at race pace.
Yet this closed-course competence comes at a price. "If your friend picked you up from the airport in a car that was as noisy and rough-riding as the Senna," Sorokanich said, "well, that car’s a piece of junk, right?" The McLaren pushes the limits of what’s acceptable on the street, particularly with regard to cabin and engine noise. On the other hand, the seating and visibility are nothing short of superb, as long as you’re both in vaguely decent shape and willing to forget about anything that might be trying, and failing, to catch you from behind. The Corvette, while offering a much better and quieter ride, came in for criticism regarding the speed-bump-seeking radiators in its extended nose—and let’s not forget that absurd cowl hood, which seems designed to block the driver’s view of crossing traffic and other cars coming over from right-side freeway lanes.
In the end, the vote was close, yet clear-cut. Second place: the McLaren Senna. It is the best million-dollar car in history, bar none—and that is no longer a backhanded compliment in this increasingly plutocratic age where you can have everything from a Ferrari hybrid to a 16-cylinder pocket battleship for that kind of cash. Impeccably special in every detail, with a form driven purely and beautifully by the required function, the Senna is a warp-speed fishbowl with boomin’ bass and fingertip responses. It makes its 675LT sibling, previously the apex of this genre, feel like a ’78 Cressida. If you’re one of the 500 owners: congratulations.
The Corvette ZR1 won because it brought out the wide-eyed enthusiast in all of us—IndyCar pros, club racers, and jaded journalists alike. Everyone wanted more time in the ZR1. Every aspect of the ZR1, from the rib-cage-vibrating engine note to the adjustable traction control, strikes a chord. The Chevy also happens to exhibit many of the McLaren’s qualities at one-seventh the price. It, too, is awkwardly but compellingly styled by the demands of the air and the engine. Like the Senna, it combines an appetite for lap time with a remarkable ability to handle imperfect roads.
"If the Pista, GT2 RS, and McLaren all cost the same, the ZR1 likely isn’t on par with them, because it’s not as comprehensively designed," Hildebrand said. "But it would still be the car I’d feel most guilt-free about driving the hell out of whenever I wanted, over and over again."
We chose the ZR1 because it exhibits every traditional Corvette virtue while rectifying many of the weak points that plagued its predecessors. It’s loud enough at idle to produce a cease-and-desist letter from the homeowners’ association, but you can converse quietly with your passenger on the freeway. Drag racers will like the extra radiators; road racers will like the aero package. It makes big numbers, the way Corvettes always have, but it also conveys the intangible qualities of steering feel and high-speed balance typically associated with smaller, more restrained sports cars. Don’t think of it as a faster Z06; compared with that car, which failed to impress the 2016 PCOTY jury, the ZR1 is a finished piece in all respects. A closer comparison would be to PCOTY 2017’s third-place Grand Sport, which thrilled us with its feedback but occasionally felt underpowered in the fiercest company. The ZR1 redresses that grievance and then some.
Just as important, this imperial Corvette is a product of a team that treats the customer with both affection and respect. Your dream ZR1 may be a stick shift with the cheapo interior and the ZTK aero package. Others surely dream of an automatic, small-wing car with stitched leather on every surface. The beauty of the ZR1 is that both choices are valid, both choices are available, and with a multitude of options in between. We are too often told nowadays that such-and-such a degradation is inevitable, that as enthusiasts we must be prepared to put up with everything from a mandatory P-R-N-D-L pattern to a seven-inch ride height because there is no longer any other sensible option. The Corvette ZR1 is a 755-hp refutation of that assertion, a hammer thrown into Big Brother’s twin-clutch telescreen, a warp-speed expression of stubborn American independence. It is the 2019 Performance Car of the Year.