The nightmare came as I crested the hill: a single police cruiser in the parking lot of a small-town church, along with a Ferrari, a Dodge Viper, and a smattering of the other performance cars from our drive group. As I watched the officer exit his car, my heart sank. This was the first day of our weeklong look at the year's best fast cars, and it appeared we were all about to pay the price.
R&T's Performance Car of the Year is a fantastic test, but it's not without challenges. Our initial casting call included every new car with sporting intent that was released or revised over the past year, one or two stragglers that will be available by year's end. That early list, a whopping 30 machines, was pared down through months of argument and pretesting.
The process was far from easy, but some edits at least came quickly. The latest iteration of the BMW M3 is really two models, the two-door M4 and the four-door M3. They're mechanically identical, but we went with the M3 because everyone here is a sucker for heritage and name recognition. This year's new Porsches included GTS versions of the Boxster and Cayman, the 911 Targa, and the 911 GT3. An argument could be made to include all of them, but the GTS is largely a new package for existing performance options, and between the Targa and the GT3, we all felt the latter had the best chance at the crown.
Then came the debate over how to handle the Ferrari LaFerrari, McLaren P1, and Porsche 918 hybrids. These cars are categorically insane: Each has a million-dollar price and makes nearly 1000 hp. The discussion reminded everyone involved of the central point of PCOTY: If the task was to pick the highest-performing car, we'd simply look at our test results and choose the winner from a spreadsheet. But there's more to a great car than sheer velocity.
PCOTY focuses on the experience. Speed is critical, but it's only part of the equation—a fast car that doesn't grab you emotionally is a novelty, while one that does is worth hanging on to for life. PCOTY is half engineering, half lust—which car makes our knees wobble, and given the choice, which would we pick to hump to a track day 600 miles away?
The process contains a bit of nuance. We purposely keep the award a little loose and fluid, to accommodate the subtle trends that change from year to year. And then we layer on a consideration of the value that each car delivers for its price, no matter how high the sticker.
Which brings me back to the million-dollar trio. They're cost-no-object science experiments; I love that they exist and respect what they do, but for our purposes, they felt too removed from the more earthly cars we wanted to celebrate. So we made a tough call and left the hybrid hypercars out.
As it happened, we had more than enough exotic speed on hand. The refreshed Viper TA is ferocious, and the Ferrari 458 Speciale's wail could literally be heard for miles. Nissan's GT-R Nismo remains quick enough to humble established supercars yet seems to have finally gained a heart. All three of these cars, and the GT3, broke the lap record at our home track.
Then there were the surprises, the machines that delight despite modest origins. The brightest example is the Volkswagen GTI, a stunningly entertaining yet practical and affordable hatchback. Ford's new Mustang, I'm happy to report, still feels like a Mustang—big rumbly motor and a slightly hairy chassis—yet it confidently hustles on a lumpy back road. Ford gave the car poise without sacrificing its character.
By the time I met the cop at that church, we had whittled our list to 14 cars. We drove them everywhere, from twisty roads to wide-open interstates. The logistics took months of planning, and the idea of it falling apart on the first day was terrifying. I pulled in and watched the officer's body language. Our crew stood there, next to the cars, looking at their shoes. Then I saw the cop's smile, and the universal car-guy gesture of turning an imaginary steering wheel. It turned out that our test team had done as instructed, saving the limit driving for the track. The officer just wanted to get close to the cars. I understand the impulse.