Huracan, Cayman GT4, Corvette Z06, 458 Speciale, C63 S and Megane RS head to the mountains
“Lust auf eine swap?!” bellows a man from the burly redoubt of an overladen VW Passat estate. At least, that’s what I think he shouts. It takes a moment for my creaky German to do some on-the-fly translation, and even though the engine is only idling, the bare carbon interior of the 458 Speciale is doing an irritatingly good job of reflecting every minute vibration and filling my head with high-compression white noise.
Words: Tom Ford // Pictures: John Wycherley & Rowan Horncastle
I’ve also just driven up a mountain pass, at speed, and am feeling like someone has punched me repeatedly in the adrenals.
“Yes!” I shout, miming being attacked by a small swarm of imaginary bees, “A FERRARI – it’s very NOISY” – the last accompanied by such a spike in tone that it makes me appear lightly lunatic. I’m somewhat distracted by the fact that the man’s hairdresser appears to have got bored and given up mid-cut, and that his children look a bit scared.
“Ich spreche nicht Österreich – NO OFFENCE!” I shout as he starts to reverse. If he were on foot, at this point he would be backing away slowly, palms out, making gentle cooing noises. His wife is also looking increasingly concerned, and muttering something from the corner of her mouth. As soon as there’s a gap in traffic, the Passat pulls away faster than is necessary.
Having done my bit for international relations, and realised belatedly that it’s probably not possible to ‘speak Austria’, I pull out, follow a now-terrified German family up the mountain, and go and join the rest of the group at the top. And what a group.
After an increasingly frank – by which, I mean ‘offensively sweary’ – conversation about what to bring on our road trip, and at least one flouncing strop about the flagrantly illegal Mazda MX-5, we have settled on what we think are the most satisfying cars. Not necessarily the fastest, just the ones that made us grin the most. Unsurprisingly, this is TopGear, and we’ve ended up with most of the fast ones anyway, but I’m not sure anyone’s particularly surprised.
Still. The Ferrari 458 Speciale and the Lamborghini Huracán seemed obvious. Similarly, the Porsche Cayman GT4 waltzed straight through the qualification round smiling smugly and making everything else feel a bit silly and purposeless. The Megane arrived as a hot-hatch blue-collar hero, although it’s a silken collar, seeing as the RenaultSport costs nigh-on £40k.
The Z06 caused some debate, but after a brutal track showing, we felt the newest iteration of the Corvette worthy of some road miles. The C63 also snuck in as a wildcard, everyone impressed by its neat ’n’ complete duality: more-door Dr Jekyll usability combined with the Mr Hyde tyre-shredding hooliganist.
And then there’s the Nomad. Not even a sports car. But the one that everyone desperately seemed to want to have a go in. Until it got cold, or rained, at which point every single person beelined for the aforementioned Merc.
But it was as a happy little convoy that we headed off into deepest Austria to find some bumpy and irregular real-world roads. It didn’t, in all honesty, take long. We headed down the S36 from Spielberg and joined the 317 west, before hitting the 96, the 97 and then, somewhat counter-intuitively, the 95, towards a place called Turracherhöhe whose pronunciation merely requires a vigorous throat-clear.
We then ran some busy, sweeping valley roads, licked through a series of tiny hamlets trying unsuccessfully to remain inconspicuous, and a few hours later turned left past the village of Unter-Winkl towards a road called the Nockalmstrasse.
We end up with the really fast ones. No one is surprised
Now, the Nockalm road is a little-known stretchof curious wiggle in the middle of the Nockberge National Park, swaddled in the Kärnten (Carinthia) region of Austria. It connects the Lieser valley with the upper Gurk valley, and features essentially a one-road, two-lane playground over 34km and 52 variously cambered hairpins, peaking at over 2,000m.
The lower reaches are thick with spruce, larch and stone pine, and as you climb, the vegetation peters out to provide serious views of the region, what the local tourist board refers to as the ‘Nocky Mountains’. It sounds faintly comedic, but rest assured it isn’t. The bottom bits are flowing, fast and well sighted, starting to compress into challenging hairpins and sweepers nearer the top – perfect.
It’s at the bottom the trouble starts.
You’d think that it’d be easy. After all, I’m driving an all-wheel-drive, 600bhp, V10 Lamborghini Huracán, and the orange UFO following me only has 235bhp, RWD and off-road tyres, not to mention what looks like jellified suspension. But, try as I might, without getting all dangerous and antisocial, I cannot lose the little Ariel Nomad.
Whatever editor-in-chief Turner is doing, he seems to be doing it effectively, because the Somerset missile is bounding around like a demented collie, suspension compressing, and camber and castor at crazy angles. Actually, what Turner is doing, is cheating. I catch him cutting corners with gay abandon, wringing everything from the Honda 2.4-litre four, apparently steering with too many elbows. It’s like watching someone wrestle a climbing frame.
The Huracán, on the other hand, is simply solid. Medium-to-pressing-on speeds, it remains utterly unflappable, with a gearbox that doesn’t shunt, suspension that absorbs in all the right places and all the body control that you expect from such a low-flying wedge. Go faster, and you foster a whole new extremity of widened eyes.
The littlest Lambo starts to move around, feel more rear-wheel drive, really dig and claw into corners. The steering feels a little fake – but it’s hard to remain impassive. As the ‘base’ of the range, the Huracán is an especially mighty starting point. Maybe I shouldn’t have begun with the Lambo – it’s possible everything else is likely to feel a little tame.
Soon, we’re at the ticket gates – the Nockalm Road is a toll – and we pause for breath. The National Park road stretches away up the mountain, and it looks bucolic – it was only opened in 1981 – and just recently reopened after the year’s snow melt. Time for the Nomad before it gets too cold, methinks. Suitably strapped in, we fire off up the road, and I see what all the fuss is about.
By crikey, this thing is the best sort of daft fun. It should be lethal, what with the big tyres and soft suspension, but it just isn’t. Yes, it leans crazily and, yes, the steering loads up enough mid-corner to make your wrists creak, but once you get used to it, it’s wantonly rapid. You have to work the engine hard, but the manual ’box is accurate and quick and the motor happy to react. It’s also light (650kg), and easy to adjust mid-corner. Odd to slide around in – but one of those cars whose character overwhelms its dynamic inefficiencies.
It’s way, way more approachable on the limit than the Atom, slower, but more amusing. I find myself chuckling, hit some gravel mid-corner, nearly fall off a cliff and rein it in. But it’s that sort of car – it goads. In a good way: you could get yourself into all sorts of scrapes in this thing.
Looking for a counterpoint, as we descend from the peak-post Eisentalhöhe parking area for the first time, I go looking for the Corvette, thinking that some supercharged V8 grunt might be in order. I find the grunt, but also find a little too much of it. Honestly, trying to wrestle the Z06 up these kinds of roads is bottom-clenching – the gearing feels galactic, requiring mostly just the first two, and the delivery of 650lb ft something of a finagle to produce without wheelspin.
Even though the tyres are super-sticky, the engine is so brawny that you tend to get a confident front end during turn-in, followed by a rear that sticks hard before letting go ultra suddenly. The Performance Traction Management system helps, but there’s something about these roads that demands a more natural connection – to be blunt, where the big Vette was almighty on the track, it feels big, over-tyred, over-powerful and sledgehammer unwieldy on these tight, technical roads.
It’s disappointing, if I’m honest – the cruise down was all genial burble and ocean-swell torque, and although the Z06 is undoubtedly a fantastic thing, it just doesn’t suit where we are.
The Megane doesn’t suffer from muscle-car syndrome. Seriously, if you wonder about the relevance of cars with 650bhp, the Trophy-R is a good reason why you can make a perfectly satisfying performance car with less than half that.
So it’s not got the drama of a serious engine note – more turbo whoosh than aural ‘experience’ – and it feels utterly dull inside, but once you’ve got used to the way that you can point it at any of the hairpins on the Nockalm and let the mechanical front diff drag the nose, it’s faintly addictive. Why? Because you can really use it. Repeatedly bash it off the rev-limiter, bung it at a corner and feel safe, small and intuitive.
The Nomad is hilariously, wantonly rapid
There’s no incipient lift-off oversteer, just comforting, easy-to-deal with understeer at the ragged edge, and a whole heap of fun in between. Much as I wanted not to like it – the harnesses are ridiculous – the Trophy-R is a real-world weapon. Stuff like this really helps when you’re in a place where the Armco is specific and patchy, and untidy has consequences.
The C63 is another surprise on the road. With sober, bordering on dull, looks, the AMG saloon looks like it might be the straight man of the group – here just to provide a counterpoint to all the other high-drama silliness. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Snarling, popping exhaust, tidy control, decent steering; the Mercedes sheds perceived weight when you go fast and goes the full AMG, with a twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8 that’s never found lacking. Switch everything off, and it’s actually slightly deranged, but more amenable than BMW’s M3. It’s absolutely brilliant. A business suit with boxer’s knuckles at the cuffs.
However, after many hours, and several trips up, down, and around the Nocky Hills, there were two cars that stood out. The Ferrari 458 Speciale and the Porsche Cayman GT4. If any two cars were made for mountain passes, it’s these two. They have several things in common: pointiness with a side-order of steering precision, a glory of naturally aspirated revs and predictable, generous grip.
The Ferrari is obviously the more theatrical, bouncing V8 Armageddon off every rock face and flat surface, reaming its gears and turning with the barest flicker of the steering wheel. It is, for all the pretension that the Ferrari brand brings, something almost transcendent. Everything you imagine a modern Ferrari to be, this is. Which makes it ironic to imagine that by the time you read this, the Speciale will be superseded by the turbocharged 488.
The Ferrari also costs £208k, which makes the Cayman GT4 even more of a bargain. Here is a car that feels more 911 GT3 than warmed-up Cayman S. A car that polishes your inputs, refines your abilities. A manual gearbox that adds extra involvement, matches your downshifts as you brake and change direction, carving and slicing through the countryside with monotonous brilliance. The engine builds to a raw, mechanical climax, the suspension is firm but compliant, and there’s always more – more grip, more speed, more fun. It’s an almost seminal sports car at this price level. At any level. It dominated the track, and on real-world roads, it’s another flawless performance.
Two cars really stood out: the Ferrari 458 and the Cayman GT4
Having already winnowed the original field down from an exceptionally strong starting line-up, it’s no surprise that there isn’t a loser here. The Z06 doesn’t suit these roads, but given the right situation, there is nothing that can hold a candle to it for devastation per dollar. The Ferrari and Lamborghini are exceptional, each offering something entirely different on an experiential level, both incredibly satisfying on an emotional one.
The Megane would be a giant-killer if it were half the price, but for £37k it really ought to be this good, and the Merc C63 shows that you can have the calm as well as the storm. The GT4 is imperious, incredible and well worth selling a child for, and the Nomad stands out for being utterly stupid, but effortlessy desirable as a driving experience. Everyone present decided that as a toy, it doesn’t get any better.
I was pondering the thorny issue as I caught sight of a familiar overburdened VW as the light faded and we sliced down through the bottom of the hill in small convoy, noisy, silly, fast and fabulous. As the slightly panicked faces receded in the mirror, I decided that, no, I don’t want to swap. Not a single one of them.