Speed Week: the final road trip
Top Gear magazine's Speed Week has been temporarily inconvenienced by an avalanche. It's not a particularly impressive avalanche, and we're probably being generous to describe what appears to be a relatively modest slump as a natural disaster, but technically the road is blocked because the mountain we're driving on has shrugged a couple of thousand tonnes of last winter's greyish slush all over itself. It is therefore, an avalanche, and we are summarily inconvenienced. There is a path past, but it involves rocks, fathomless mires and a great deal of freezing mud, and nobody fancies trying to force a McLaren P1 to off-road. The Caterham Seven 160 jounces merrily past, and ‘fathomless' turns out to be about seven inches. I sigh. I have no idea what the Caterham is doing here. It has a blowing exhaust, we've lost the doors, and it won't idle below 3,000rpm. The engine light blinks a baleful yellow eye almost permanently now, but like an annoying, part-crippled homing pigeon, it keeps appearing. Some time after the rest have arrived, granted, but the ergonomically inept little thing is like a bloody beige boomerang.
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We're most of the way up a mountain in Andorra, though our exact location seems somewhat muddled. With typical Top Gear forthrightness, we decided that we should head for the twistiest, loneliest roads we could find for our little road trip, which meant heading upwards. Luckily, Europe's highest capital city, Andorra la Vella, lay just a few hundred miles above our position in Spain, Andorra itself a tiny principality only a couple of hundred miles square. Tax haven, lightly populated and, judging by the maps, possessed of some of the wiggliest bits of road in the vicinity, so we hooked the C-37 and went hairpin-hunting.
The drive up is largely uneventful, the motorway giving way to sweeping arcs of A-road that hug the curves of the Gran Valira river through the valley floor. Good roads, fast roads. Roads that shepherd themselves towards the entrance of Andorra in the eastern Pyrenees, as the Coma Pedrosa - the biggest mountain in the area - sits sunny and impassive in the near distance. It's all going swimmingly. Less surprisingly, we attract a good deal of attention. Ollie Marriage is propositioned in the P1 by a couple of female ‘hitch-hikers' (everyone looks away and coughs when he relates this story), and the sight of some of the world's best fast cars merrily trotting north has a not-inconsiderable effect on the local bandwidth. People are definitely surprised to see a Porsche 918 and McLaren P1 lightly duelling amid their commute.Advertisement - Page continues below
Mind you, bar those couple of obvious exceptions, I'm surprised to see this final battalion. If you'd laid bets on the cars that would end up on the road trip a few days ago, you'd have lost money. The McLaren P1 and the Porsche 918 were just too compelling to consider leaving behind, and by default negated the need for any other of their kin to join us in the hills. Which means the McLaren 650S and Porsche's Cayman GTS and Turbo S were left, somewhat begrudgingly, down in Castellolí. We couldn't decide between the VW Golf R and Audi S1 from the vaguely real-world group - both were in the running if only for their flattering 4WD rapidity and chuckable size - until he-who-shall-remain-nameless (it rhymes with Tarlie Churner) took the S1 out for a literal hot lap and set fire to it, handing the spot, somewhat ignominiously, to the Vee-dub.
The Stingray was nothing but purest surprise, but for all the right reasons. We loved the Jaguar F-Type R Coupe, but when pushed properly hard, the Jag became excessively rabid, habitually swatting exit kerbs with its rear. Fun for a while, but we couldn't help feeling the V6S version might be a bit less like trying to domesticate a forest fire. Into the gap left by the F-Type's casual attitude to the racing line stepped the C7. And it kept stepping up. It hasn't quite got the Jag's class or stylish ooze, but to drive hard, it's utterly brilliant, and for the price, simply astonishing. Which means that in a decision taken for more than just wordplay, a Vette ended up putting down a Jaguar. There were other fights, not nearly so clear-cut, too. The Bentley nearly made it for the sheer bemusement factor of having the Hurlingham Club on afterburners bounding around after a Porsche 918, but seeing as we were heading into the mountains, the thought of the W12 Speed on Armco-less cliff roads made everyone a little squeamish. If you'd seen it braking at the end of the straight at the circuit, you'd understand - the energy it poured into its brakes from nearly 130mph could probably light Birmingham for a week.
Which left us with the BMW M4. Surprisingly, the most controversial of the group. The car that divided opinion, the one that caused excessive fuss. It was responsible for several heated ‘discussions' and also the fact that Piers Ward had to be taken outside, given a stiff Vimto and told to calm down. Why? Because on the track, it wasn't what we hoped for. But the reason it wasn't what we hoped for is because it wasn't what we were expecting. It's easy to confuse the two. And so, the M car got a place on the road, with everyone hoping that it could impress away the grumbles. Inevitably, ‘The Mighty' Caterham crashed the party. So we've ended up with a pair of hybrid hypercars, an American sports car, a sports coupe and a hatch, with a turbocharged three-cylinder tin coffin tagging along behind in their wake. Like I said, it makes for an interesting little convoy.
We soothe through the Andorran border and head into a series of longish tunnels. The Top Gear gestalt mind is as one. Go-faster dials are spun and Sport buttons depressed in unison. No hybrid running for us. Not here. Plunge into a throat of darkness, and whichever car is in the lead floors the accelerator. It's like singing in rounds; there's the hissing, subsonic burble turbo note of the Golf R, overlaid a second later by the bassy, almost lazy but climbing tones of the C7's enormous 6.2 V8. The M4 chimes in, with an odd, chainsaw-like rasp, before the P1 winds up and devours the available atmosphere, spurting a great torrent of turbo static and electric motor whine out of its shovel of an exhaust. It sounds like a nuclear-fed jet turbine, like someone trying to contain an explosion in a too-small box. And while the P1 handles the low-end, the 918 finally kicks in with its solo, and the walls melt. The 918, it's fair to say, does not sound like a hybrid. It sounds like Eau Rouge at 3am. It sounds like a sleepy F1 car. It sounds like a tiny apocalypse in a tunnel. But, above all, it sounds fast. In fact, it's a wonder everyone doesn't pass out through lack of oxygen - with this lot all at full chat in a confined space, I'm surprised we're not suddenly in a vacuum.Advertisement - Page continues below
We keep swapping cars, and it becomes obvious that - bar the Caterham, which I have decided is absolute crap - all of these cars are more than capable of carrying miles without extinguishing your sense of wellbeing. The Golf is, well, a Golf. The 918 and P1 intriguingly compliant, given their performance, though both suffer from expanses of bare carbon fibre with the acoustic damping qualities of a tin roof in a hailstorm. And the Corvette and the M4, for whom ‘bipolar' is easily the most comfortable word, are sublime boulevardiers. Out here, in a world of dodgy surfaces, unexpected potholes and balky traffic, they shine. Schlepping either down a normal road proves to be one of the most soothing things about the entire trip - seventh gear in both pleasingly soporific, decent stereos, comfy chairs and plenty of kit to keep you amused. The Vette might be manual, but you only really need third and seventh, and the BMW's thumping mid-range means it never feels any less than on point. We wind through the Andorran mountains through the excellently named Xixerella, climbing ever higher through the more prosaic Pal, and just as things start to get properly interesting, the avalanche stops play. Another route must be sought, but it's already getting late, so we retreat back down to Andorra la Vella for the night, and some welcome rest.
Next morning, we wind out of the capital, and start to fling ourselves off in random directions in search of smaller, more intense roads. We flicker through what amounts to rush hour towards a place called Sant Julià de Lòria, and then up a series of long-legged hairpins towards Aixirivall and the Coll Jovell. Time to stretch a few legs. Now, you'd think that, given their bare-knuckle performance on the track, the 918 and P1 would be rough-edged nightmares on the road: fidgety, hemmed-in and frustrating. But they aren't. They don't chunter or buck, or feel like they have camshaft profiles modelled on the very Pyrenean mountains we're driving through. They are tractable and gentle if you respect them, easing through the gears with a thick backbone of interstitial electric torque. They do, however, have a habit of innocently hacking along at an indecent pace. The P1 is still the car you have to concentrate in most, and second and third gears bring the kind of acceleration that furrows brows deeply enough to leave permanent lines. My God, this thing just never stops. Engage those turbos, and this is not a car that you can relax in, or take lightly at any point. Even with all the electronic minders fully engaged, you still get plenty of wheelspin in Sport, and the only thing that keeps the P1 from the suspiciously stout trees is the telepathically sharp steering. Around these mountain roads, it feels like a monstrous, properly-put-together Lotus Exige. Which is a massive compliment for a car capable of such extraordinary performance.Advertisement - Page continues below
The 918 delivers more surprises. Pottering, it feels like a 911 Turbo. Physically, it's lustier, but there's nothing particularly intimidating about the delivery or the way it drives. The engine is frighteningly, excellently loud, and you don't ever quite forget that you're in an über Porsche, but the way it negotiates fast B-roads is exactly like it is at the track: tight, tractable, reliable. Wind on the speed, and it remains staunchly resolute, sticking to whatever line you happen to throw its way through equally prescient steering. And it's blindingly rapid, though slightly less instant than the P1 when it comes to consecutive direction changes. On the way to El Quixol and Arcavell, something becomes obvious: with similarly quick-witted drivers behind the wheel of each car, the P1 can negotiate tighter, harder turns more quickly and leap ahead. The 918 feels more secure on the brakes, allowing you to lean harder into the apex, and if said corner is long and loaded, it gives more confidence in terms of traction to wind on the power far earlier. They effectively negate each other down a varied course. But one fact remains stark: the driver of the P1 will be working harder and sweating more. The 918 is definitely a friendlier thing.
Several hours of intestinal backroads later, we fire out of Andorra and back into Spain, set on a course for the N-260, whipping a quick shortcut through the village of Alp, before settling onto the road towards La Molina. And everything starts to get a bit dangerously frenetic. At least, it does in the M4. The 918 and P1 have already scythed off into the distance, inexorably drawing away with any hint of a straight. The road is well-surfaced, looped around the side of a mountain and infected with the kind of corners you only see in erotic dreams. If you're dangerously obsessed with cars, that is. The clouds are glowering; the valley, emerald green. It all feels faintly epic. And yet, the golden BMW is absolutely all over the place. Literally. I try driving it with the traction control switched on, but the slip fairies seem hyper-alert, and the sideways light never stops twinkling. When I switch it off, the BMW slews about like it was trying to negotiate mid-corner ice with balding tyres. The front axle plants itself neatly, the steering accurate, the brakes exceptional. But as soon as I breathe near the accelerator, the M4 pushes the tail wide in what proves to be one of the most frustrating 20-minute drives of the whole week. It simply cannot make use of its - admittedly excellently brawny - engine. A fact compounded when I swap into the Corvette and absolutely murder it using nothing but third gear.
The Stingray really does make mincemeat of the BMW. The front sticks where you put it, the rear only breaks traction if provoked. The transition from slight understeer to languid, half-turn oversteer is gentle and controllable, the noise part- American muscle, part-enduro GT racer. Yes, the shift action is long and allows for too much rev drop between second and third, and Track mode is simply a bit hard for road work, but tap into the spirit of the Corvette, really make use of the incomparable brakes, and you realise just what a brilliant car this is. Engineered by people who really know what they're doing. It might not have quite found the European quality groove, but it's no particular trial, and at least it's got a bit of character compared with the M4, which feels a bit too much like a pimped 335i for comfort. Here, on this road, there is no comparison. I'm almost loath to relinquish it.
But there's one last proper car to drive, and it's possibly the most humble of the lot. As I'm waiting for the Golf R, our chase car arrives, and the quality of the road is eloquently described by the fact that the Alhambra's brakes are most definitely on fire. On fire in that very definite way that suggests someone really ought to slow down a bit, or we're going to have to resort to extinguishers for the second time. The Golf arrives, and Sam Philip extricates himself, looking faintly bemused. He says it's fabulous. It just looks like a Golf to me.
It isn't. Given the fact that in this company the Golf R looks almost ridiculously discreet, it soon becomes clear that the depth of talent it offers is profound. On these twirling, deceitful little roads, the way the engine offers just enough second- and third- gear wallop is nothing short of startling, and the way the AWD manages to feel nothing of the sort is one of the best engineering sleight-of-hand tricks I've ever experienced. The DSG 'box is sharp and reactive; the front end, almost unbelievably trustworthy. Like the 918, it's a superbly flattering car and desperately, intensely fun to drive hard. The only criticism is that by the end of another 20 minutes of - ahem - ‘spirited' driving, the brake pedal has the texture of a down pillow and the brakes are smoking like a Seventies pub lounge. Seriously, enough with the BBQ braking systems. The Caterham putters up just after, and I idly wonder whether it'll ever die.
We spend another day in the mountains doing pretty much the same thing, except with rather more stops for brake refreshment, and the results are invariably the same. The BMW M4 never comes alive. It has elements of greatness, but when it comes down to it, the newest M car never gives that extra dose of character that makes your brain fuzz with emotion. It's fast, efficient and an excellent daily driver. It will also do quite spectacular skids. But it's lost some of the sense of humour that previous Ms have had in spades. It feels staid and synthetic and, for me, it's a huge disappointment. Not one person came forward in its defence.
The choir sang loud for the Corvette Stingray, mind. Expectations weren't exactly low but they were guarded, and the C7 blew everyone away, on road and track. It's not perfect, and it's not necessarily to everyone's aesthetic taste, but there is no denying that Chevrolet has finally made a car that can hold its head up in any company. It's always had soul, but now it has talent. It's a heady brew.
The Golf R, surprisingly, was similar. No one really expected a humble Golf to be quite so much fun, but when it comes to laughing out loud without being in fear of your life, the R is that car. Anything that can thoroughly stick it to a supercar down a twisty road for less than 30 grand is OK by TopGear. It's immense.
Which leaves us with the P1 and 918. Without wishing to state the bleeding obvious, these two are right at the outer edge of what's possible with the road-going car in 2014, and both deliver in every possible way you can imagine. They're the reason you're reading this magazine, the reason we all love cars. They're painfully fast, implausibly arresting in real life, simply sodding incredible. But one fact became clear over Top Gear magazine's Speed Week on road and track: at my level of driving skill, I am faster in the Porsche 918, simply because it's easier to drive on the limit, for more of the time. The McLaren P1 is undoubtedly as brisk, but to access the outer limits of its capabilities, you have to spend way more time in it, and very possibly take some race-driving instruction. You don't get comfortable with downforce in a week. It also means that in a real head-to-head with a pro the winner will be circuit-dependent - they're that close. Jeremy Clarkson said that if the 918 beats the P1 around the TG track, he'd change his name to Jennifer. At least he wouldn't have to change his letterhead.
So there you have it. Top Gear magazine's Speed Week over for another year: judgements made, fires extinguished and tyres destroyed. And, yes, I did finally drive that damn Caterham Seven 160 on the road. And, despite my better judgement, I actually really quite enjoyed it.
Just don't tell anyone, OK?