The best fast cars you can buy
Welcome to Top Gear magazine's round up of The Best Cars In The World. That might seem a trite observation, but after much deliberation, haranguing and three bouts of raised voices, the vehicles we will present to you over the coming week represent the cars that TG magazine would happily recommend to family and best friends, without reservation.
Any of these cars - within their brief - are the best at what they do. They are the TG benchmarks, the class leaders.
There are three loose price points to scale our ambition: an attainable version, an aspiration and a dream.
So, allow us to guide you through the cars you should consider before all else. Today, it's the really quick stuff...
Every time I drop into the driver's seat of a Porsche Cayman, a single thought jolts my mind: "How can I get one of these into my life?" And sure enough it does this time, at 2,509 metres above sea level at the top of the Timmelsjoch at the Italian-Austrian border. The thought of the Cayman is enough to divert me from the views, tumbling down to valleys slashed in the landscape below and up to dizzying battalions of jagged Dolomite peaks crowning the horizon. And it's even enough - just - to ameliorate my sad parting from the Ferrari 458 Speciale that's lit up my day so far. And also enough to calm the giddy anticipation that tomorrow I'll be swapping this Porsche for another, vastly more stellar: the 918.
Pictures: Joe Windsor-Williams
This feature was originally published in the September 2014 issue of Top Gear magazineAdvertisement - Page continues below
How do you compare the best fast mid-engined sports car that £50,000 can buy, the Cayman S, with another, the Ferrari, that's four times as much, never mind the 918 that's 15 times as much? Or 325bhp with 605 with 888? You don't. You just enjoy them. And not just by driving around in circles. Oh no. This is to be an epic TopGear relay. It begins by collecting a 458 Speciale from its home in Maranello and taking it to some of Italy's highest, most epic roads. At the border I toss aside its key and head down the other side of the pass into Austria in the Cayman S, for a night flit across that country and the quieter corners of south Germany to a morning rendezvous in the Schwarzwald with the 918 Spyder. Tracing through the forest and along some autobahn, the trip winds up at the 918's developmental home, the Porsche engineering centre at Weissach.
But that's getting ahead of ourselves. We start with the four-point harnesses of the 458 pulled tight, the barking-mad V8 awoken to a sharp idle, the factory barrier rising, the Speciale trundling out into suburban, industrial Maranello, its truck-choked roads traversing a plain to the A1 autostrada, Italy's transport backbone. This stuff is generally glossed over in Ferrari driving features, but already it's clarifying the Speciale's character.
Its name isn't fibbing. The Speciale is a special case, its powertrain not entirely housetrained for this sort of dawdling. However gentle you are, every gearshift is as good as instant, play-kicking your body through the seat. Even as the rev-counter passes a mere 3,000rpm, the exhaust flaps open and an edgy boom vibrates your spine and bawls at whomever's nearby. You can't just grease unobtrusively through traffic. As if you ever would pass unnoticed, what with those stripes and shark-like side-fins and frontal ‘turning vanes' and an active rear diffuser to dwarf the Channel Tunnel.Advertisement - Page continues below
Soon we're onto the autostrada, first skirting Modena and then off northward in the direction of the Brenner Pass. Stopping for a toll gate, I smile and tense my muscles and senses for the time-honoured game of joyous flat-out acceleration: nought-to-unmentionable. You don't just idly let the Speciale apply its entire efforts to the road. You give it due consideration. The way it hurls itself to vanishing point demands maximum alertness.
Ferrari people say this is the last hurrah for the naturally aspirated V8. What a way to go. It's a mechanism of intensely vivid moods and sentiments. It has a caffeinated obsession with change, its sound and reactions shifting with each tiny variation in pedal position or crank speed. It shares that with the best of its predecessors, but none of them could quite operate in this realm of brutal performance, not once the 458 hits its stride between 6,000 and a crazed 9,000rpm. In the middle revs, it's charismatic and attentive and strong, but then things swell into something really quite drastic, and it just goes on gaining in brazen hysteria until that red line. All of which means it's a busy but profoundly engaging job to get the best from it, because you need to use the gears to keep the revs high, but with those high revs comes such acceleration that you're very much occupied with other things. Like keeping the car aimed in the right direction. The shift-up lights around the top of the steering wheel rim - and the electrifyingly quick transmission - become your special friends in this ceaselessly absorbing task.
Prudence mandates a steady cruising speed on the motorway, mind. But soon the Dolomites start rising out of the horizon, first in shades of grey like a school craft lesson, overlapping glued shapes torn from tracing paper. Then they saturate into early-summer colours, and the motorway follows a deep slot gouged between. Time to turn the Ferrari's nose skywards, onto the tricky, fascinating roads that swerve and back-double their way to the high passes. The tree-line is high here, and we need to get above it to find clear sight-lines to exercise the Speciale's legs.
Name your corner: tight, fast, smooth, bumpy. They're here in abundance, and the Speciale is a voracious omnivore. In the fast corners, its grip is epic, your confidence in it buoyed by the astoundingly lucid and precise steering. In slower corners, it's the dragonfly agility that spurs you on, and the controlled adaptive-damper suppleness that effortlessly shrugs off poor surfaces. In the hairpins you're working with the ultra-quick steering rack and, if there's space, the Speciale's party-piece ‘side-slip control' lets you put in cheeky skids while still protecting you from yourself.
And so the hours pass in a series of sawtooth undulations. Every few minutes we gain then lose then gain altitude; every few seconds we go left then right then left; and in even faster rhythms the V8 joyously cycles through its upper octaves. All this drama and force and control, played out amid a stageset to end them all. Finally, we cross the epic Monte Giovo pass, fall back down into the trees and spur up again towards the Timmelsjoch. The Italian side, the Passo del Rombo, having been started as a military route pre-war, wasn't finished until 1967. Big buses and trucks are barred, and it's shut at night. You can see why. Towards the top are two hairpin staircases, the road clinging by its fingernails to the vertiginous rock faces. The Speciale lights it up, a firework of redness and resonating howl. At the top it stops, its engine silent but for the pinging of cooling metal. For a few minutes I sit and allow the continuing sensations of the trip to marinade me.
Heart rate subsiding, I hand over its key and take the Cayman for the descent into Austria. Can it compete with the Ferrari? Don't be silly. The Austrian side of the pass is smoother, more flowing and wider - probably more of a Ferrari road, if I'm being honest. Because gravity is with me at first, I don't actually miss the Speciale's immense power. The immediate difference is that for the sake of daily-use refinement, the Porsche's body movements are looser, and its steering and brakes feel slightly bubble-wrapped alongside the knife-sharpness of all the red car's connections. But dig deep into the Porsche's actions, and it's clear it knows how to work with its driver. It does precisely what you ask, with
a warm and generous spirit.
Oh happy day, it's a manual. Porsche might have invented Tiptronic and PDK and all that, but these guys have never forgotten how to do a gorgeous shift. It's not just about the movement of the lever, snicky though this one is. It's about the perfect feel and progression of the clutch pedal, and how, through the neutrals, the revs fall decisively or rise just-so to a tickle of the throttle. In Sport Plus mode, it does those downshift-blips for you, but I can't think of a car that needs it less.Advertisement - Page continues below
Much has been said about how the Porsche's new-gen electric steering isn't quite as bewitching as the old hydraulic set-up, but its precision is in no doubt. It's progressive but lower-geared than the Ferrari, which is a good thing for a long trip into night. Ditto the softer ride and the quieter engine.
Quieter, but still dazzling at the £50k price. There's a strong rhythmic mid-range, then a truly aristocratic journey to 7,500rpm, all with the satisfyingly quick and progressive throttle response no turbo driver could begin to imagine. And it's properly quick. Along cursive Austrian A-roads, it's a handy scythe to overtake trucks. And in southern Germany, as the golden sunset bathes the empty, derestricted autobahn, we repeatedly see 260, 270, 280kph on the speedo. I don't know how just how accurate that is, but 280 translates as 174 of our mph, and the official spec says 175 all-out, so I'd guess from the continuing acceleration we must be at 160-plus. At which rate your eyes are gazing a very long way ahead, your foot waiting at red-alert for the signal to brake, and the world proceeds backwards very fast indeed. The Cayman, meanwhile, feels good as gold.
Striking north-west will string together a series of rural roadways across rolling countryside, all the way to the morning's Black Forest rendezvous. As night closes in, the car settles down and swoops through them. Here's the Cayman's great trick. It's one of the best-behaved mid-engined track cars, yet it also manages to be a brilliant GT, pitching an ideal combination of stimulation and comfort. We point it to a small-town hotel. Round the corner it turns out a Bierfest is in full swing. I have little trouble resisting, as I want to get cracking early in the morning.Advertisement - Page continues below
After a couple of hours more of this lush span of Swabia, we're into the hills of the Black Forest, homing in on the second handover of this TopGear fast relay. Parking the Cayman S, the same thought hits me as it did when I got in yesterday. I want one, and am struggling to see why this wonderful and beautiful car sells fewer than the Boxster, 911, Panamera, Cayenne and Macan. In that order. Yes, Porsche is an SUV company with a sideline in sports cars. Still, there's one model that they make in even fewer numbers. And it's sitting in this lay-by among the trees. The 918.
The final leg of the relay begins in innocent mode, the petrol engine silent. The birds continue to twitter undisturbed in the trees. Walkers aren't disturbed. Yet even in this all-electric mode, the power is more than a 1974 911 Turbo's. It's as swift as it is discreet. But if e-mode is a handy trick when you want to slip through a postcard village or avoid waking the neighbours, it isn't at all what this car is about. From the inside, the carbon tub reverberates with the thumps from the hard-set suspension. There are whirrs and clicks from various fans and pumps. We're doing something naive and simple in a car that's bewilderingly over-complicated for the job.
OK, let's give it the task it was made to do. A simple steering-wheel switch configures the 918's systems for hypercar mode. The V8 engine's ancestry was in racing, and there's still a head-splitting dose of track aggression in its character. In pure numbers - cylinders, size, power, revs - it's a dead-ringer for the Speciale's engine. But, of course, the 918 plays another trick. On top of the 608bhp, the e-motors give (depending on which gear you're in) up to 282 more, delivered with a vast dollop of instant low-rev torque. It's this torque that makes the 918 drawn so ridiculously strongly forward. While the Ferrari demands that you're in deep cahoots with its rev-counter and gear paddles, this Porsche just goes: whatever, whenever. If the V8 isn't at its high-rev best, the e-motors will fill in. And because the biggest part of that e-torque is at the front wheels and the petrol engine aims rearward, you've got a flatly astounding dose of 4WD traction to catapult out of a slow corner.
And then it goes ballistic. The V8 doesn't have the Ferrari's operatic vocals: it's a simpler, deeper, harder vowel that rises in pitch and intensity towards its road-drilling climax, emerging from a pair of megaphone top pipes just behind your ears, as the car hurls forward. Faster at the top end than the Speciale? The figures say yes, but keeping either of their throttle pedals fully depressed on a twisty road is an experience of such brevity that it's hard to be coolly calculating about it all. They're both barmy, it's just that the 918 is the barmier.
It has brakes to match, though they're better when mashing you into your seatbelt than when you're trying to finesse a medium-weight deceleration, when the blending of friction with hybrid regeneration can be awkwardly calibrated.
But hey, I always brake the 918 too much anyway. The cornering grip is huge, with laughably little roll and amazing agility for a car that's substantially heavier than the Ferrari. They do that with four-wheel steering, which turns contra to the front wheels in a tight corner. This has the effect of quickening the steering or shortening the effective wheelbase, however you want to look at it. At big speed it turns in the same direction as the fronts, which stabilises the car. The Speciale's wheel getsa little prickly at the high numbers, whereas the 918's set-up is right at home on the autobahn. On the other hand, I fancy the 918 doesn't have the delicious steering feel the Ferrari has through these second- and third-gear corners.
You just know how firm the 918's ride is going to be when you see how tightly the arches are wrapped around the tyres. So it proves over slow-speed bumpy tarmac, and yet, as you get up more speed so the dampers start to breathe and it stops short of being so brutal as to upset the car or the driver.
The 918 is, then, a cross-country machine of an effectiveness no other can match. Anywhere.
We turn onto the autobahn. But this part of Germany has an overloaded network, and the afternoon traffic is building. It's not like the open stretches we had last night. Instead, progress is a spiky graph of imagination-defying doses of acceleration, even steeper braking, and then a slightly impatient cruise until the outside lane clears again and we rip up another heady gulp of delta-v over delta-t.
Which leads us to be parked outside Weissach, Porsche's vast engineering mission-control, all square-cornered steel and glass and white concrete glinting in the afternoon sun. It's exactly the sort of place you'd need if you wanted to develop a car of the 918's ambition. A machine that doesn't only seem to use 65-second minutes to get around a racetrack, but also a car with the technical intrigue and the sheer beauty and soul to shift your perception of its price from outrageous to proportionate.
Yet the tides of technicians washing in and out of the Weissach gates seem sated by the 918. Few of them even glance at it. Given the thrills it has just given me, I can't imagine ever being able to ignore so awesome a machine. Maybe these guys need to go on a TopGear relay to get their appetite back.