THE SUN HAS BECOME STACCATO, a stippled Dopplering twinkle through a fast-forward canopy of trees, accelerated from a single scene into a 24-frame-per-second motion picture by the Porsche 911 Turbo S and the politely muted howl of its 580-hp twin-turbo flat-six.
We are on a road that seems to connect no two particular places in the most serpentine manner possible. There's a sharp crest ahead, and the Turbo's front wheels briefly skip-squeak as they settle on the back side of it before I pick up the throttle once more. At the bottom of the next hill, halfway through a fast fourth-gear right-hander, a dip in the pavement sends a dampened whomp through the cockpit, and I'm required to briefly cross wrists first to the left then the right, canceling this unscheduled oscillation before it flings me into the woods at a velocity sure to be terminal.
Distant in my mirrors I see the Lotus Evora, its gaping maw hunting creases on the broken pavement under braking, then lifting just a bit as it finds grip at corner exit. There are rules we follow on these drives, and one of the rules is that you maintain visual with the car behind you. So far, I have followed the spirit of the law, if not its letter. But the teenager in me, the afternoon-detention troublemaker who surreptitiously thumbed through the pages of this magazine when he was supposed to be paying attention in his high-school literature class, chafes at this and every other rubric laid upon me by entities as diverse as the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and Newton himself.
Wordsworth tells us that the child is father of the man. So how can I reject the demands of that careless, causeless 16-year-old rebel whose ancestral decisions set me on the path to being behind the wheel of this very car at this very moment? With the flick of a left-hand paddle, I snag third gear, pin the throttle to the stop, and let the Turbo's locomotive torque complete the jump to hyperspace. Goodbye, Evora. Goodbye, rules.
Fifteen minutes later, I come to a stop in the middle of nowhere and step out. Smoke billows from the carbon-ceramic brakes, swirling all around me. Up to the trees and past them, up to the light that shines dappled on me and the yellow fastback that pings and pops as the superheated metal within cools down to the temperature of the forest floor. Then I'm back behind the wheel and moving again, waiting for the Lotus in the mirror. I put away childish things, as the apostle Paul said. I am ready once again to abide by the rules. There is work to be done.
THIS IS PCOTY, our Performance Car of the Year group test. Entrants must be new or significantly revised for 2017, and they must be traditionally shaped cars that push the limits of high performance on both road and track. That means no high-power crossovers, no hot hatches, and no rally replicas.
The test spans four days, two of which are dedicated to the fast back roads of Kentucky and Tennessee and two of which are spent on track at NCM Motorsports Park.
Although we invite every car that fits the criteria, some manufacturers are unable to meet our scheduling requirements and others are unwilling to expose their products to the harsh light of open competition. This year, we had nine contenders answer the bell (Here's what happened to the 10th contender). We chose the winner through two rounds of balloting among our 10 editors. Although we record lap times at NCM and take a few other performance measurements, this is neither a fastest-lap contest nor a battle for spec-sheet supremacy. Our goal is to find the car that best stirs the emotions, captivates the driver, and boldly faces the future. We measure with the stopwatch, and we evaluate with the mind, but in the end, we will choose with the heart.
OUR DRIVERS' MEETING takes place at sunrise, in a small parking lot just outside Kentucky's Berea College. After deputy editor Joe DeMatio gives us marching orders for the day, we fire up, form up, and prepare to head down the main drag out of town. Any of these cars would draw attention on their own, but as a candy-colored convoy, they draw a steady, antlike stream of interest from the sweat-shirted students and reluctantly caffeinated faculty on their way to class. There's plenty to catch the eye, from the bewinged cobalt-blue Jaguar F-type to the wasp-waisted Lotus Evora in bright orange, but for the college crowd, the wine-red Acura NSX is definitely primus inter pares, the belle of the ball.
I pull out of the parking lot behind the wheel of Honda's long-awaited supercar redux, electric on the avenue as the casual crowd crackles with anticipation, iPhones held high on both sides of the street. The familiarity generated by the NSX's continual presence in the media over the past year has clearly not bred any contempt in these eager young faces. Nor am I personally daunted by the odd combination of the wide-body interior and the workaday switchgear, much of it familiar from the Acura TLX sedan.
It is difficult to be the target of 50 cameraphones and not feel an urge to perform in some fashion. I don't know how to engage the NSX's Launch mode, but I can twist the center-stack knob to Sport Plus, floor the throttle against the straining brakes, and chirp all four tires from a standing start. There is a cacophony of mechanical inputs and interrupts, followed by a cheer from the people who have instantly receded into the rearview.
A few minutes later, with the town safely behind us and clear air ahead, the pace quickens, each of us stretching the legs of our mounts on the straights, then testing for grip on corner entry. It's soon apparent that at no point today will we be troubling the outer limits of the Acura NSX. Tellingly, there is no eco mode in this hybrid automobile, just three different sporting selections and a "quiet" program in which the exterior noises are muted and the engine will occasionally shut off, with seemingly little effect on forward progress.
The NSX reminds me of... something. Can't remember what. Editor-at-large Sam Smith supplies the answer: "Pedal around town isn't as nice as the 918's—more binary, with more stiction—which is only relevant because the Acura feels more evolved than the 918 in so many ways." Oh yes. The million-dollar Porsche hybrid hypercar. The NSX is like a better version of it. Not as quick, obviously, but no man would wish it quicker on these Kentucky two-lanes.
Stepping out of the Acura and into the GT-R Nismo is a culture shock, to put it mildly. To begin with, the hip point is almost crossover-high, a side effect of the Nissan's massive size. Then you have the deliberate PlayStation aesthetic of the lightly revised interior, the Casio-style LCD gear indicator, the whir and clank of the transmission. It shudders leaving a stoplight and vibrates sympathetically at speed like a piston-engined warplane. Was it just eight years ago that the early versions of this car were considered monolithic messengers of the future?
Something odd has happened here, and after perhaps 10 miles on the trot, I've realized what it is. The GT-R arrived on the scene as a technological triumph, but Nismo engineers have been steadily engineering analog feedback into the platform ever since. The steering is from the old school, with hydraulic assist and fingertip feedback. The chassis is flingable, responsive, able to rotate on the brakes on corner entry then scrabble charmingly for grip with the front wheels on the way out. While the rest of the industry has been dehumanizing their sporting cars, Nissan's been busy teaching its GT-R to pass the Turing test. This two-ton, all-wheel-drive colossus feels like a Nineties sport sedan.
In Nismo trim, the GT-R picks up a wide variety of characterful customizations and hand-laid carbon fiber, but the price is more than double the 2009-era cost of admission—$176,585 to be exact. DeMatio digs it nearly as much as I do:
"If some twentysomething guy has wanted one of these since high school, and just got his first Google bonus, I say, have at it. It's a car you'll remember owning for the rest of your life." RoadandTrack.com site director Travis Okulski dissents: "Feels old, and not in a good way."
Time for the 911 Turbo S. More 928 than classic 911, wide and airy from the driver's seat, all modern conveniences accounted for. It's been the GT-R's natural enemy for some time, but with the revision of the 991 platform and the power upgrades of the S trim, what was once a friendly rivalry now feels like an utter rout. The development and subsequent runaway success of the 911 GT3 has allowed Porsche the freedom to turn this Turbo into a combination of Mercedes S-class and Saturn V rocket.
Our man from England, Chris Chilton, damns it with faint praise: "Huge pace, but no noise. The fact that people were actually complimenting the radio speaks, literally, volumes." The stereo is indeed very good, although as the magazine's resident audiophile, I was most impressed by the Burmester system in the AMG C63 S. Associate editor Kyle Kinard was similarly unmoved: "Never has a car that's so fast brought so little joy." As an air-cooled 911 owner, I have to admit to being fascinated and horrified by the way in which Porsche has painstakingly eliminated every one of the quirks that made its early cars special. Still, if you told me I had to bet my life on getting from Texarkana to Atlanta with just one case of Coors beer, the Turbo S would be my place. It has a little bit of grace, a little bit of space, and a lot of pace.
That blend of civility and capability used to be the hallmark of Jaguar. The F-type SVR, by contrast, is a full-frontal assault on the senses and the sensibilities. Inside and out, it never stops shouting about how bespoke and English it is. Some of the touches, like the center HVAC vents that rise randomly from the top of the suede-slathered dashboard, seem to be deliberate evocations of James Bond movies. I'd trade all of it for the ability to select Sirius radio stations with a single turn of a knob instead of a furious fusillade of touchscreen stabbing.
Jaguar's turned up the wick on its supercharged 5.0-liter V8, resulting in 575 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque, but the shock damping is still soft. In small doses, this is a hugely entertaining car; the nose reaches for the sky under power, the crackle and pop of the exhaust will wake the neighbors even if you live on a hundred-acre estate, and the torque-converter automatic cracks off crisp shifts at redline and chirps the rear tires in third gear.
After a few hours behind the wheel, however, it's difficult not to daydream of exchanging our $146,845 tester for a more reasonably priced, and less outrageously plumed, plain-Jane-Eyre F-type convertible. DeMatio has the final word: "They can pump up the power all they want, they can fit all the aero they want, they can install a fancy exhaust system that makes it sound like a stock car, but Jaguar cannot make an exotic sports car out of this grand-touring platform."
The BMW M4 GTS, like the Jag, is a take on the formula that produces Alcantara racing purses from leather luxury ears. But from the moment you sink into the club-racer-style seats and pull the fabric loop that protrudes from the waffle-patterned lightweight door panels, it's obvious this is a special automobile. It boasts 493 horses with the assistance of a trick water-injection system. But in this company, that's only enough for seventh place in the horsepower ratings, ahead of the Vette and the Lotus. No, what makes this car great is the thorough and uncompromising way it has been saturated in the essence of authentic motorsport.
All you have to do is follow the GTS on the road to know it's no everyday Bimmer; the body control is sharp and quick in the best tuner tradition. Yet this is no one-trick aftermarket pony; it's the product of comprehensive fettling from the factory. "This is a weaponized BMW," features editor David Zenlea notes. "Kind of reminiscent of an old COPO Camaro or 426 'Cuda." After a few less-than-optimal experiences with the M4 on which this is based, some of us are frustrated that BMW clearly still knows how to make a traditional hot-rod Bimmer but won't let you have it unless you pay the additional $67,005 tariff for the GTS.
Former BMW mechanic and E30 owner Smith is pointed on the subject: "Not spectacular—it's the GT3 RS formula applied, with less tech and engineering time, to a heavier, duller platform. But it's quite good. I want the wing gone and that half-cage painted black. I want the composite door panels available on other 3-series. The pull straps are tacky, but I love them forever." Me too, Sam. Me too.
If the F-type is uncomfortable in its own skin, and the M4 GTS is a DTM racer with a license plate, the AMG C63 S is a stunningly competent road car with a supreme surfeit of available power. It's brilliant at being a Mercedes; everything from the seats to the stereo is optimized for an all-day journey at triple-digit speed. And it's got the AMG thing down, too. I'm still a bit weepy-eyed over the departure of the incomparable, naturally aspirated "6.3" V8 that motivated this car's predecessor, but this thing reaches for the horizon without delay in all gears and all situations while exhibiting just the right amount of Sturm und Drang.
Bossman Kim Wolfkill takes a spin in the AMG and comes back with a smile. "It's not the most nimble car of the bunch and feels most secure once the chassis has taken a set, but at no time does it feel overwhelmed." Chilton's also a fan: "Brilliant road car. Great body control, great engine that sounds epic without being overblown. If you were looking for a car to do everything, this is it."
After eight hard-charging hours on the road, most of us are pretty tired at dinner—but there's an undercurrent of excitement, a certain buzz going around the table, and much of it is focused on the Lotus Evora 400. Okulski is ecstatic: "It's the only car here that's fun when you're driving slow or fast. That counts for a lot." Zenlea concurs: "Even plodding along in traffic, the Evora entertains." Kinard was charmed as well. "It carried speed like no other."
I know the Evora well, but I'm still eager to get behind the wheel the next morning. We're running below our normal clip, because this part of our route takes us through a series of rural communities, but the Lotus is a thrill at any speed. It is the proper size and width for a sporting automobile, the deftly thrust rapier in an era that only knows the clumsy swing of a two-handed broadsword. The steering is untouchable in this company; the pedals are weighted to perfection. Feedback is absolute and millimeter-precise.
Without a doubt, the Lotus is the best pure driver's car in the group. It's enough to make me overlook the aftermarket-style stereo and the somewhat casual manner in which the interior has been assembled from commercially available parts. I worry, however, that the rest of my compatriots won't feel the same.
The Evora is one of just two cars here with a clutch pedal. The other is the Corvette Grand Sport. It would be a mistake to characterize it as a bigger, faster Evora; Smith says of the pair that "the Evora is the only real car here, in the traditional analog sense. All the rest are machines. Except the Corvette, which is a machine that does a damn good impression of a car. Every aspect of the Corvette is computer-controlled, yet it's done so well that it feels transparent."
"Exactly the right amount of power for street driving," Wolfkill notes. "Just enough low-end torque for casually popping in and out of turns and through traffic, but requires a few more revs to wake it up for serious canyon carving." The problem with the Vette on the street is that you're never going to see the edge of the tires unless you've long since gone over the edge of sanity. It's going to be best on the track, I think.
The Audi R8 V10 Plus, on the other hand . . . now this is the quintessential supercar for the street. "There's no substitute for the low polar moment of inertia," DeMatio enthuses. "And the engine? Wow. The sound above 6000 rpm. The linear response. Seize the day, ladies and gentlemen: You won't be able to buy a V10 car forever." The beauty of the R8 is that it wraps that V10 in layers of milled aluminum switchgear and straight-outta-tomorrow styling. It's the most expensive-feeling, fully featured car here by a Tennessee mile, a technological tour de force that just happens to be capable of 200-mph freeway blasts in placid stability.
On the road, the V10 is Herculean, bellowing in symphonic fashion while warping time and space. But there's a little problem: I seem to have Kinard in the NSX right behind me. Admittedly, I was paying more attention to the stereo and the "virtual cockpit" dash display than to my corner exits. But I'm realizing that the most characterful engine here is being troubled by a hybrid.
I radio him. "See if you can keep pace in a straight line." The next time there's a long section of clear road ahead of us, I squeeze the Audi's left paddle three times and let the engine roar. My God, I'd forgotten that it can rev to 8700 rpm. No pallid hybrid V6 can compete. Except Kinard is still there, pasted defiantly full-width in the mirrors. We repeat the experiment several times. I can't shake him. My heart sinks. I have seen the future, as the saying goes, and it appears to work.
I wasn't the only person to notice. This night, much of the dinner conversation revolves around the Acura. It doesn't match the Lotus for feedback, but RoadandTrack.com deputy editor Bob Sorokanich offers a contrasting point of view:
"Are we so stuck looking backward, worshipping dinosaur tech, that we've closed our minds to new, unconventional ideas about how a car should communicate with us?"
IT'S NOT QUITE 10:00 IN THE MORNING, and the temperature in pit lane has already exceeded 80 degrees when I step into the AMG to collect the first lap time of the day. As previously mentioned, PCOTY is not a contest of outright speed, whether in a straight line or around a racetrack, so the method we're using is informal. I'll be driving each car on NCM's West Circuit for between four and six laps, and the best lap will count. This is a sure way to leave time on the table. The legendary Jim Mero, the Corvette development engineer who has set lap records at the Nürburgring Nordschleife and is on hand to help fettle the Grand Sport, notes that he likes to take 50 laps of a circuit to really get down to the minimum possible time. But my method rewards cars that accurately communicate their potential to a driver. It's also easy on cars that, by and large, arrived with brake pads and fluid designed for street driving.
On track, our nine contenders break down nicely into pairings of natural competitors. Porsche 911 Turbo and GT-R Nismo. Corvette and Evora, with the only manual gearboxes. Audi R8 and Acura NSX, the mid-engine exotics. And our trio of big coupes: C63 S, F-type SVR, and M4 GTS.
The Jag's the fastest of that group, and it does it on power: Its peak speed of 132.6 mph is comfortably above the Bimmer's at 128.1 and the AMG's at 125.4. The BMW shines in NCM West's twisty, low-speed center section. Yet it would have only tied the AMG were it not for that car's lackluster performance in the final section. Of the three, however, the M4 GTS is the clear crowd favorite.
Unlike the Jag and AMG, which are both fast with their stability control set to track mode, the Bimmer's M Dynamic mode costs multiple seconds a lap. Okulski explains his secret formula: "Full DSC off, leave steering in Sport, drivetrain in Sport, DCT shift speed at level 2." Smith agrees: "Brings back the power/grip balance BMW always had." Wolfkill is both ecstatic and cautionary: "My favorite car on track . . . but its street manners showed that impressive track performance can come at a cost."
The M4 GTS may have our editor-in-chief's vote, but almost without exception, the rest of the staff reserved their highest praise for the Evora. "The ideal track car,"DeMatio raves. "Sublime purity." "No balancing act," Sorokanich notes, "just balance." Of the nine cars here, only the Evora feels absolutely at home around NCM. Aside from the Grand Sport, no other car in the test lets you get this up close and personal with its limits right away, encouraging me to take chances that I didn't feel comfortable taking on short notice elsewhere. But not even the Corvette can challenge the organic feedback of the Evora's steering and brake pedal.
So why is it the slowest car in the test? In a word: tires. Seven of the nine cars came prepared with low-treadwear track tires like the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 or the Pirelli P Zero Corsa. The Evora, by contrast, arrived with ordinary Pilot Super Sports. It is also one of just three cars with fewer than 500 horses on call. On the positive side, the AP Racing brakes didn't fade a whisker during two days' worth of track driving—particularly impressive when you consider that it was probably the most popular car in pit lane.
The Corvette Grand Sport set the second-fastest time by combining Lotus-style approachability and feedback with V8 torque and seriously overspecified running gear. "This car," Corvette's Mero remarks, "makes regular people feel like heroes." It certainly does the trick on NCM's vicious Turn 5, the track's most challenging turn. The Grand Sport achieved 97.1 mph and 1.07 g in that turn on my first fast lap behind the wheel, numbers that nothing else could match.
Forget the Corvette stereotypes: At a 126.3-mph peak speed, it is third slowest in a straight line. Like the Evora, it's down on power in this company. But the suspension? "When you hit the 'gator' curbing," gushes Smith, "you can feel it make a millisecond suspension change and just soak it up."
"In the corners," Wolfkill notes, "it shines brightest." With an eight-speed automatic transmission, this would have been the fastest car in the test. But not a single one of us would make that trade. "America done right," contributing editor Jason Harper sums up. "My favorite car here."
The alert reader will note that the Corvette had the second- quickest lap time. The quickest car? Why, it's another car on plain-old street tires, the 911 Turbo S. Porsche sent neither engineers nor R-compound tires to the NCM garages. They sent a one-page note with recommendations on tire pressure. Arrogant? Sure. But as my Southern-born mother always said, it ain't bragging if you can back it up. And the turbo backs it up with raw German horsepower. A full 13 mph quicker than the Vette on the NCM straight, the Porsche slaughters the competition in the first sector and never looks back. Yet if it did, it would see the GT-R gaining on it. I can't lie: I found the Nissan to be a thrilling drive. Only the NSX is as good at clawing out of corners with the front end, and only the Evora can match it for steering feedback.
The magic of the GT-R is that it can control all four tires independently to fulfill your fondest wishes on track at all times. The magic of the 911 is that it can do everything the GT-R does, only more subtly, more efficiently, and with more shove in the back. If you value the intangibles, you'll choose the Nissan. If you want to get the job done, buy the Porsche. Memo to self: Buy time machine, go back to 2008, read previous sentences to disbelieving enthusiasts everywhere.
Which leaves the R8 and the NSX, two future-facing super- cars with two very different powerplants. "When you hit 6000 rpm, it makes your chest expand," DeMatio says of the Audi. "Hard not to love the V10," Wolfkill agrees. But the R8 stumbles where the Corvette shines—in ultrafast Turn 5, it's slower than everything but the large coupes and the street- tired Evora. You'd be a fool to forget the big engine behind you, just waiting to overpower the narrow 245/30ZR-20 front tires with its inertia and take you into the Armco. In just four laps, I found myself playing catch-up with the back end at north of 100 mph three times. How odd is it that the car in the comparison with the most visceral engine and the most daunting high-speed behavior comes from . . . Audi?
There's no such sting in the Acura's tail. I'd hoped it would prove the R8's match in a straight line, the way it did on the street, but at NCM, it barely pipped the Jaguar for fourth place in front-straight max speed. Instead, the NSX makes its lap time the new-fashioned way: It earns it through some tricky brake programming to assist turn-in and intelligent manipulation of the front wheels to make every corner exit inhumanly perfect. "Probably the first vectoring hybrid I've driven that isn't more interested in its own work than in yours," Smith enthuses. "A reminder that the tech can be used in service of feedback and driver feel. Just does that spooky instant-response thing in the middle of a corner."
"Accessible, lots of feedback at all times," agrees Zenlea, "but the stuff my mom complains about with her TLX—like the eight-bit Nintendo graphics—carries through here." There is something a little off about the fact that the most futuristic car in the group seems a little . . . ah, modest on the inside. But if you remember the first-gen NSX, you know that po'-mouthed interior spec is perfectly on message. It falls to DeMatio once again to capture the mood of our testers in one edited-for-family-consumption phrase: "[Blank]ing fantastic."
WITH THE FIRST ROUND OF BALLOTING, our 10 judges selected three finalists. With the second round, we voted for the winner among those. Past years of PCOTY voting have been, ahem, marred somewhat by episodes like the Fiesta ST breakaway faction and the time a certain editor stood on a table and screamed incoherently for 10 minutes about the brilliance of the Viper ACR (okay, that was me), but no such tomfoolery raised its Stilo-helmeted head this time round. The envelope, please:
Third place goes to the Corvette Grand Sport. Not since 1984 has an automobile with the crossed-flags badge so thoroughly defied convention and stereotype. It's a momentum car, offering trouble-free access to every corner of its massive performance envelope. It's a driver's car, with an honest-to-God clutch pedal and a naturally aspirated engine that loves to rev. Neither as fast as the Z06 nor as tossable as the Z51, the Grand Sport combines the best aspects of both with serious style and desirability. Drivers who value track-day prowess and pace need look no further up our podium than this Corvette.
Two of our 10 voters chose the Lotus Evora 400 for first place. "The car that I had to be pulled out of because I wouldn't get out otherwise. The winner for me," Okulski says. Alone in our group, the Evora offers traditional proportions, tidy exterior dimensions, and the close-coupled cockpit that was considered an essential component of a sporting vehicle for the entirety of automotive history prior to the turn of the century. It makes everything else on the market look obese and gluttonous. Fully deserving of the ACBC badge on its nose, this brave and charming two--two is perhaps the finest over-the-road enthusiast vehicle available for sale at any price.
Receiving eight of the available 10 votes, the Acura NSX became the most universally acclaimed automobile in PCOTY history, and justifiably so. Its predecessor merely changed the supercar game in the perpetuity by proving that anvil-like reliability and the ecstatic revelation of exotic performance could coexist in a single value-priced sports. This one promises to do much more than that.
For the first time in a hybrid automobile of any price or capability, technology has been placed firmly in the service of emotional involvement rather than in place of it. The hardware, of course, is first-rate and duly compliant with all possible requirements for environmental and social relevance, but the genius of the NSX is entirely human in nature. It was tireless development by human beings that made this very complicated and capable supercar dive for the apex with joy and bully its way to the corner exit with unfettered exuberance. Everything about the car—from the way in which the brake-by-wire pedal lengthens its travel when the brakes are hot to the manner in which the midmounted V6 permits itself a bit of the ol' barbaric yawp when it's winding out in fourth gear—is intended to enhance the driver's involvement.
Able to compete on level ground with the absolute cream of the conventional crop, the NSX also represents a brilliant basis for the ongoing development–indeed, the ongoing existence–of the performance automobile. To drive it for 10 laps on track is to permanently shed any worries that the next generation of supercars will be overpowered takes on a Prius; to experience it on a fast road is to be reassured that tomorrow's technology will be accessible and enjoyable. For that achievement alone, the NSX deserves to be our PCOTY, but the fact that it does it all so well, right now, places it beyond argument. The NSX works, but it also knows how to play. Confident and capable, thrilling on both road and track, the Acura NSX is our 2017 Performance Car of the Year.