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TG Speed Week: the Scotland Showdown

  1. Sam Philip: It’s tough to top the Scottish Highlands on a cloudless summer’s evening, sun shimmering off still lochs, Britain’s tallest mountains fringing the horizon. Unless, that is, you’re in the Scottish Highlands on a cloudless summer’s evening with seven of 2012’s finest performance cars, ticking themselves cool after two days of driving on perfect, near-empty roads.

    Ollie Marriage: We’re in Fort William with a distinguished shortlist: McLaren MP4-12C, Porsche 911 Carrera S, BMW M5, Lotus Exige S, Radical SR3 SL, Toyota GT86 and Ford Focus ST. Not the definitive winners of our Dunsfold face-offs, but the cars we thought could best handle the 500-mile slog north, and then do the business on Scotland’s roads as well.

    SP: So it’s down to me - a driver ably representing the ‘enthusiastic but limited’ quotient - and Oliver Marriage, Top Gear’s Officer of Oversteer and possessor of the most aerodynamic head in Europe, to distil the findings of Team Scotland into something logical and semi-literate over a couple of pints of something brown and liquid that claims to be beer but smells strongly of meat.

    OM: Is it haggis?

    Words: Sam Philip and Ollie Marriage
    Photography: Jamie Lipman

    This feature was originally published in the August 2012 issue of Top Gear Magazine

  2. SP: Is haggis liquid? Anyhow, this could be tough, because it’s been a magnificent 48 hours on the edge of Britain. We have exhausted TG’s petrol kitty. I am entirely sunburnt. So I hate to start on a negative note, but let’s dispense with the car that came last in everyone’s rankings, apart from yours. The Radical, Mr Marriage. We made you drive it to the top of Scotland in a single go, through the night, just to force you to concede that it’s a silly vehicle…

    OM: I concede. The SR3 SL is completely daft, spectacularly compromised in almost every way. But, just because a car isn’t technically perfect doesn’t mean it can’t be a lot of fun.

    SP: The showers in our austerity-spec hotel aren’t technically perfect, but they’re not fun. They’re just scaldy. Similarly the Radical. It’s about as much fun as anaesthetic-free dentistry.

    OM: Not so. The drive up here in the Radical was one of the most unforgettable things I’ve ever done in a car. And not just because of the pain and deafness involved. A great car should be memorable, and you recall driving this one in lumino-green, Technicolor detail.

  3. SP: I mainly remember being scared. Even when you’re just following the Radical down a bumpy lane, you can see what a fighty little bugger it is, rear end hopping about incessantly. And then there are the creaking noises, the never-ending thud of cat’s eyes against underbelly, the faint smell of burnt fibreglass….

    OM: I do rather wish the steering was less hyperactive and it had more straight-line stability. Sadly, the Radical is proof that a race-bred car doesn’t work brilliantly on the road: the anti-Nürburgring principle. It runs super stiff, unbushed suspension, and a faster rack than any of the other lightweights, which means that the front wheels govern your direction almost as much as the steering wheel. This is unnerving, and makes your muscles ache. But it has a truly spectacular gearbox - one that goes ‘pffft’ when you pull a paddle - and tremendous mechanical grip, though this might not make up for the fact that a malfunctioning ECU caused some, ahem, ‘minor issues’ with idling and turbo boost. It needs more development time and miles, a less aggressive steering rack and a calmer nature on bumpy roads. I love it, but it’s not a winner.

    SP: Talking of aggressive, just look at the Exige S. It’s the kind of car schoolboys scribble in the back of exercise books: all wings and diffusers and pointy bits. It looks brilliant, right until you open a door. Some might call the Exige’s interior minimal, but I’d say it’s just… not there. £60,000 for a car without an inside.

    OM: You’re missing the point. Think of it as a halfway house between the Radical and the 911. It has a roof, but only half an interior. Better still, think of it as the best pure driving car here.

  4. SP: After driving it for a morning, I hated the Exige - its piggish lack of comfort, the big scratchy-plastic sills, the notchy gearshift, the fact you have to rest your left knee against a sharp metal cup-holder… but then I took it on a proper blast along an empty, wild, mountain road, and there was noise and speed and the steering wheel was bucking around in my hands. All of a sudden, I felt like Stirling Moss in one of those ridiculous deathy Sixties road races. It was terrifying, but in that moment I got the Exige, I think. It’s like being strapped to a Lockheed Martin rocket. In a good way.

    OM: It’s about drama and speed and fizz. It makes the 911 feel big and dull, the McLaren distant and aloof. Two things surprised me about the Exige S: how good it looks on the move and what a brilliant race-car buzz it makes. Stuff that didn’t surprise me: how amazingly stable it was in the wet, how it made corners more engaging than anything else here and how very fast it is.

    SP: Not as quick as the MP4-12C. On real-world, real roads, I’m not sure there’s anything that could hold pace with that McLaren. On the Mallaig road, I chucked it into a long, rising left-hander as fast as I dared. It stuck, I kept accelerating and the McLaren just got quicker and quicker until there was no blood on the left-hand side of my body. It wasn’t just that it clung on, it was the total lack of apparent weight-shift, of one wheel taking more strain than the others. It’s like Ron’s white-coated army in Woking took a long look at the laws of physics, ummed for a while and then said, “Yeah, let’s not worry about those.”

    OM: It’s one of those cars that’s hard to fault: the interior design is exceptional, the steering wheel perfect to hold.

  5. SP: The brakes are a bit strange. The rest of the McLaren eschews the supercar clichés of a pig-headed, steroid-pumped brute - the steering is light and easy, the engine more technological masterpiece than an unreconstructed petrol-gargler - but its brakes felt a bit old-school to me.

    OM: They’re one of the few things McLaren has got wrong. You put a bit of pressure on and get a bit of braking, but press a bit further and suddenly you get a lot of braking, which makes slowing jerky and a bit frustrating if you’re trying to drive smoothly with a… distinguished guest on board.

    SP: Come on, Marriage. Tell the ladies and gentlemen who you took for a ride in the McLaren.

    OM: Best not. Can I just say he has a, er, role in local affairs?

    SP: And how fast did you go?

    OM: I’m not at liberty to divulge that information. But I can say that, at pace, the McLaren rides with uncanny poise. That blast along the A861 beside Loch Ailort was one of the very best drives I’ve ever had. What a road. What a car. OK, so the McLaren’s doors need a bit of a bang, and the touch-sensitive door ‘handles’ are temperamental, and - though it’s less muted than the car we drove last year - the noise is still just noise, without real tone and shape. Minor gripes. The McLaren is the all-round supercar, and it’s getting better every year.

  6. SP: Leading us conveniently to another all-rounder: the new Focus ST. It’s superb on the daily grind, but here I thought it felt a bit springy, a fraction loose, where everything else on our test seemed glued down.

    OM: You called it the world’s “best all-round car” last month.

    SP: I did. And for everyday driving - commuting, motorways, back roads - I love that Ford hasn’t chased Renault down the hard-as-very-hard-nails handling route. But, purely from a going-fast perspective, is the ST a touch soft?

    OM: It is. I found myself breaking our seven cars into groups, and had the ST lodged with the M5 in the rapid, capable, but ultimately-a-bit-fat category. Both seemed to fill the road, or at least require a large portion of it. Incidentally, using the same strategy, I had the Exige and Radical together, the 911 and McLaren together, leaving the GT86 on its tod.

    SP: On dodgy Scottish roads, the ST is a supercar-seeking missile, tough to shake even in the McLaren. Admittedly it’s easier following than leading on a damp, deer-infested Scottish road, but, still, this is a truly rapid real-world car.

  7. OM: It has a mean turn of speed. If I’m honest, I hoped the ST would be a bit edgier, like the RS Megane, so initially I found it podgy. But, as I spent more time with it, I really got it. The engine’s sharper than the old five-cylinder and doesn’t rely on turbo noise for character. It sounds marvellous. There’s a little torque-steer, but I liked how adjustable the ST was. It’s a rufty-tufty hot hatch, robust and meaty and fun. But, by the standards of this group, I just found it a bit bouncy. For me, a bit more focus from the Focus would’ve been nice.

    SP: Hopefully, there’s an RS on the way for that. And Scotland loved the Focus. They get hot hatches up here, and, honestly, the ST drew more cameraphone clicks than the McLaren.

    OM: I guess the Focus is a car we can all aspire to. I’m expecting to come up here next year and see hoards of STs wailing through the Glens, every one painted vivid orange.

    SP: Tangerine Scream, you mean?

    OM: Bear this in mind. Unlike the Astra GTC, which only failed to deny the Focus its place here on cost grounds, the ST doesn’t have much mechanical trickery to boast about. No RevoKnuckle suspension like the old Focus RS, no mechanical LSD. Just torque-vectoring, which isn’t as clever as it sounds. You can see how Ford got the price so low. Even its engine is a commoner. Another car here is powered by it: the Radical.

    SP: At least the ST has a roof. And a roof means respite from the midges. No one warns you about the Highland midges. They attack in their millions, burrowing into every orifice and turning you into a flapping, screaming madman. I’ve been bitten in places I didn’t even know a midge could reach.

  8. OM: Could you talk about the 911, not your crotch bites?

    SP: With pleasure. It’s brilliant. Fast, practical, comfortable, beautifully engineered…

    OM: Do I sense a ‘but’ hoving into view?

    SP: But it costs a lot. And has the latest generation lost a little of its 911-ness? The 991 certainly doesn’t feel so stubbornly rear-engined, and the steering is - though good for an electro-mechanical set-up - a bit dull by traditional Porsche standards. The package is amazingly polished and complete, but have they sacrificed a bit of fun in the process?

    OM: No. It’s just different. Yes, the two characteristics that historically made the 911 what it is have been engineered out: the bobbly front and the steering feel. Time for a quick physics lesson. The 911’s rear wheels have been moved back, which means that heavy engine at the back can’t lever the nose into the air so easily. The pivot point has moved, so the 911 is better balanced. You can place it more accurately and have more confidence that the nose will stick where you put it. I like that.

  9. SP: Don’t I remember you declaring that the 911’s controls “all feel like they’ve been dipped in flour,” and then suffering abuse for the next two hours?

    OM: That was fair. But I was wrong. Because I’d forgotten to press the sport-and-loud buttons. They make far more difference here than in either the McLaren or M5, turning the 911 into, well, not a GT3, but a good GT1.5. It’s a car that gives you so many options and really grows with you. It’s not scary for beginners, but if you’re good, it still tests you.

    SP: So it’s a sort of… sports-car onion? Multi-layered?

    OM: If you must. In many ways, I preferred it to the McLaren. The 911 had better throttle response and made a nicer noise. It’s easy to overlook the 911’s engine, but I love the way the sound ebbs and flows, rising in a crescendo as you progress through the rev range. Nothing else here does that.

    SP: But, aargh, that 7spd manual ‘box. On the top ‘row’, as it were, you’ve got five options - reverse, first, third, fifth and seventh. I’m not clever enough to deal with five options.

    OM: True. But the 911 is one of the few cars here that places no demands on its driver and yet never ceases to make you feel special. Brilliant cabin, too, even better than the M5’s.

  10. SP: Ah, the M5. Turbos and all, I expected the BMW to be a bit… muted. It isn’t. That V8 is monstrous. Drop a couple of gears for an overtake, and you’re clubbed down the road. I thought it’d run out of power by 5,000rpm, but it keeps pulling like a Shinkansen train. Why is anyone pining for that old V10?

    OM: It’s a mighty engine, but the M5 troubles me. It’s a bit of a thug. The big dog of the group. It requires the whole road. It has fat seats. Technically, it’s a mighty accomplishment, but really wind it up, and you sense it struggle, making a valiant but doomed attempt to keep under control. Earlier today, heading from one heaven-sent chunk of scenery to the next, I was ‘making progress’ in the M5, as those police pursuit drivers put it. When we stopped, Editor Turner was raving how wonderful the drive had been in the Radical. Not for me. The M5 doesn’t fully connect. It stomps around too heavily.

    SP: You don’t half feel its weight when you get hard on the brakes. Bringing the M5 to a swift halt is like trying to coax a moon into an emergency stop. But it destroyed everything else on the drive up here. It’s the sort of car that dispatches 500 miles in the gentlest of yawns.

    OM: It’s too big for Scotland. The M5 is good at skids, good at speed, good at office-car-park one-upmanship, but a bit blurry round the edges. I could level the same criticism at the Focus.

  11. SP: So it’s the multitaskers that struggle?

    OM: Indeed. The jacks of all trades. We want them to be practical and habitable 24/7, and it’s difficult to square that with real driver thrills.

    SP: For driver thrills, may I present to you the GT86? This is my sort of performance car. Good steering, nice crisp gearchange, revvy engine. You - by which I mean I - can find its limits, slide it around, without fear of being inadvertently deposited in a loch and devoured by otters.

    OM: Technically, it does suffer a few issues. The ride isn’t as supple as it should be, there’s vibration through the gearlever and it all feels a bit unsophisticated.

    SP: It’s old-school, yes. But do not try to pretend that you didn’t totally adore it.

    OM: I love how lightly it treads. The BMW is a blunderbuss, the McLaren is too focused on speed, and even the Porsche feels a bit heavy-handed in comparison. The Toyota is dainty and maximises the benefits of its lay-out and low centre of gravity. It’s a car that asks why you need to go round a corner at a zillion miles an hour. You don’t. Even pottering around, it’s different and interesting: the steering is unfashionably weighty, the rear end heavily sprung. Though the boxer engine lacks torque, it’s no hardship to cane the bejesus out of it.

  12. SP: Is it too pricey? I know that yen shock is partly to blame, and I know that £25,000 is cheap by the standards of a Top Gear Performance Showdown Megatest, but you can buy a faster hot hatch for the same money with proper rear seats, a decent boot and an interior not sourced straight from 1994. Also, and there’s no escaping this, the Toyota isn’t especially fast. There are diesel hatches that’ll hit 60mph in eight seconds.

    OM: No, it’s not fast, but I don’t think it feels slow. It’s an eager, revvy engine, keen to get going; that alone helps make up for the absence of meaningful torque. And it has delightful balance. It shows the real benefits of a simple front-engine/rear-drive lay-out combined with a good old-fashioned mechanical diff. It just works and works well. Sod torque-vectoring. This is better.

    SP: It raises a zeitgeisty issue: what are we looking for in a performance car? It’s about more than flat-out speed, isn’t it?

    OM: I have an admission. I don’t like speed.

    SP: Yes, you do.

  13. OM: OK, I do like speed, but only as a by-product of entertainment. Acceleration is fun, but the noise is as important as the kick in the back, and I’d rather spend 30 seconds wringing the GT86 up to speed than three seconds being pummelled by the McLaren. You have more time to enjoy it, you feel more part of the process and you don’t put plod’s nose out of joint so easily.

    SP: The problem with the McLaren and M5 - and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the 911 - is that you have to hit some deeply antisocial speeds to find their limits. This is the only place in the UK to enjoy, er, ‘spirited driving’ for more than a few seconds at a time, but even Scotland barely grazes their capabilities. The GT86 makes you feel like a driving god at 50mph.

    OM: I do like the McLaren very much, but for half the price the Porsche does a better job in many ways. The Focus is in the bottom half of the grid for me, along with the Radical, though it grieves me to say it. It’s too nervy, too flawed, too costly. My top three are 911, Exige and GT86. The 911’s the one I want to live with most, the Exige is the one I want to drive most and the GT86 is the one I could actually afford.

    SP: In a highly unscientific show of hands, our seven testers had the McLaren, 911 and Exige in a photo finish for second place, with the GT86 out in front. The Toyota isn’t big, it isn’t especially clever, but it’s fun. Good, honest, affordable fun. The 911 and Exige are, despite my earlier whinges, both fantastic, but they’re very slick examples of the formulas perfected by Lotus and Porsche over generations. The GT86 is a new, different recipe - or at least an old recipe car companies forgot about for the last decade or so.

  14. OM: And in five years’ time, a whole generation of drivers will be able to buy ragged, second-hand examples for under 10 grand and learn all about the joys of rear-drive.

    SP: Or ditches.

    OM: Either way, it’s a missionary. And it’s my winner.

    SP: So are we declaring the slowest, least powerful, second-cheapest car here our overall victor? This feels strange.

    OM: But right, I think. The Toyota was the car everyone kept jumping into for “one last quick go”, and the one they got out of with the daftest smiles on their midge-bitten faces.

    SP: So there we have it: the GT86, Top Gear’s Speed Week Champion. Congratulations, Toyota, and thanks for all the rear tyres. Another pint of haggis, Oliver?

    Click on for a quick word from Jeremy on the GT 86…

  15. “This is hysterical.

    It’s so much more powerful than you’d think. But it’s a hideous thing to behold. The gearshift is excellent, the driving position is excellent, the seats are good. At £25,000, it’s extremely good value for money. No wonder the Japanese economy is going backwards.

    There’s no need to make it firmer. My only criticism is that the throttle’s so sensitive, it has such an effect on the angle you’re sliding at. They’ve certainly given it a loose back end, as they say in reviewing circles. Often, with an engine of that smallness, you don’t have the power to hold a slide, but you can in this. Normally, you run out of ability before you run out of power, but this slides forever.

    It’s very ugly, very impractical, but it’s aslo brilliantly good fun. Of course, you’d have the Subaru so you didn’t have to tell people you have a Toyota…”

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