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Speed Week 2020

Speed Week 2020: Boxster vs Morgan vs Nomad vs Vantage

When the sun (finally) came out, which convertible’s turn was it to shine?

Published: 15 Nov 2020

The weather is appalling. Water is gushing from the sky like a burst mains pipe, there are salmon making enthusiastic progress up Anglesey’s Corkscrew and a small ship has just launched into turn one after mistaking it for the North Sea. Last night, the campsite blew away. As in, literally blew away. At least one staff tent was last seen kiting itself merrily in the direction of Aberffraw, and no one has seen staffer Greg Potts since. My task for today? Assess convertibles. Ha-bloomin’-ha, Top Gear office.

It’s so dark that the first time I dare to venture out, the Morgan has its lights on. I think. Mainly because they don’t seem to do very much, a soft and careful light trickling from the headlights like spilled molten amber, lighting up a watercourse masquerading as a racetrack. This is... not ideal for a test. Mainly because the tarmac has the same co-efficient of grip as a recently Zamboni’d ice rink, a fact that accentuates dynamic issues all the way into the barriers. On top of that, there have already been ‘dynamic issues’ playing with the Plus Four’s pop-stud and fiddle-clamp fabric hood, as well as the more obvious gymnastics necessary to actually get into the thing. Not quite MkI Lotus Exige levels of contortion, but graceful it ain’t.

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Still, the Morgan starts on the button. And yes, it has a button, even though it also has a key. And an interior that doesn’t quite match the retro-fabulous elegance of the outside. The little screen in the middle of the binnacle seems unsuited here – and there are some very strange ergonomic decisions. But what the hell, character does not come with perfection and it looks great, so I slot first, second and third, and turn into the first big corner.

Many things happen at once. First of all, you notice that the Four feels like it has a steering column seven feet long, and that you turn the car from a pivot a very long way from the front wheels. Secondly, you become aware that the 2.0-litre BMW turbo engine is entirely healthy, and that 255bhp means that you’ve made considerably better progress than you may have assumed – which has bearing on the third point: the Morgan is really very happy to oversteer. Unfortunately, I have plus-sized arms, so correcting said oversteer in such a confined space required smashing my right elbow on the door, and punching myself in the face. 

So the recovery wasn’t particularly elegant, but one takes what one can get in these situations while peering between the Four’s triplet of slightly squeaky wiper blades. But after a few more laps the Morgan starts to resolve. It feels much stiffer than any previous Malvern product – a consequence of that new box-section aluminium monocoque – and yet rides far, far better. The generous mid-range of the BMW turbo motor makes it more effortless than you imagine, and it’s genuinely quick, though most of the responses feel a little pillowy.

In fact, it feels like a car that’s very nearly there, but requires a bit of fettling to taste – a kind of middle-aged Caterham. One thing keeps playing on my mind as a tiny trickle of water makes its way down the A-pillar: at £62,995 basic – £76,795 as tested – there’s a lot you can buy for the cash (not least the Boxster). Saying that, as I plough merrily on, the rain stops and the sun comes out. God, it seems, has a soft spot for Morgans. Welcome also, to the bipolar vagaries of Welsh weather. 

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Swapping into something equally steeped in the strong tea of Britishness seems appropriate, so it’s time for a little Aston action. But not the screaming DB5 currently lapping the track that doesn’t seem capable of going anywhere in a straight line – we’re here for the new Vantage Roadster. And boy, is it good looking, new ‘vane’ grille as a front end treatment making it more Bond-ish DB10 than before. Some of the others here have details that sit at awkward angles to each other, having uncomfortable conversations about use and function.

The subjective, irrational winner - the most Top Gear car of this set - is silly, fast, and makes no sense

Not so with the Aston – it looks slippery and high end, even sitting still. It also has a fabric roof that struts up in 6.8 seconds and down in 6.7, making it the perfect companion for the aforementioned changeable weather. Underneath, it’s the same as the coupe, featuring a 503bhp, 505lb ft AMG-derived 4.0-litre V8 and rear-wheel drive. There’s an eight-speed auto with paddles and a feeling of plush wombiness to the cockpit. Sounds lovely, too. 

But what it doesn’t feel is particularly light. It bruises its way around the track, bellowing and spitting on a trailing throttle, keeping its 1,600kg-plus contained but not disguised. Through Anglesey’s Corkscrew it never lets you forget you’re walking a shiny slick tightrope, and taps its nose heartily at the bottom. In the dry, there’s much more confidence, but right here, right now, you always remember that in the high court of physics, you are tried by grip, but judged by momentum. Dialling it back makes it a much calmer, nicer and richer experience. The perfect boulevardier with teeth. 

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The Porsche Boxster GTS 4.0-litre, on the other hand, grins with perfect Hollywood dentition, and a smug feeling of superiority. Because it’s lovely in all the right ways; 1,400-ish kg, a sonorous 400bhp 4.0-litre six-pot, oiled, slick gearbox, spot-on ergonomics. It’s by far the fastest in my hands, simply because it’s so easy to use, so dialled in, that even a man with fists of ham can muscle it around without too much effort.

The gearing feels exceptionally long – less noticeable on track – and there’s grip to spare and chatty communication when there isn’t. The roof is small, quick and excellent, and although it hasn’t got the presence of the Aston (as it shouldn’t – the Vantage is nigh on twice the Porsche’s price), there’s something complete about the Boxster. There’s just one problem – for a Top Gear test, the 718 with a 4.0-litre is just a bit... emotionally slippery. It’s so rounded that your excitement kind of slides off it, unable to find purchase. Respect, yes, but ‘let’s have another go’, not so much. 

Entirely the opposite of the Nomad. A car that lacks completeness in the same way it lacks body panels, or sanity. And yet it’s the one that I keep finding myself coming back to. It’s fast, but not necessarily traditionally dynamic, promoting oversteer in an evangelic fashion. Boot it and the windscreen becomes a throat that swallows the view, supercharger whine drilling into your ears, and you’re endlessly busy at the wheel, trimming and fiddling with line and attitude. You stitch together the gearchanges on the straights and unpick them in the corners with the single change paddle (back for up, away for down), the cymballine ‘tsch’ of the box’s pneumatics adding punctuation. It’s stupid, pointless and largely unresolved. And I love it dearly. 

The obvious issue here is that although all of these cars are in some way exposed to the elements – either by choice or design – we are comparing apples to anglepoise lamps. The Morgan Plus Four is as characterful as it is quirky, looks like nothing else on the road and performs admirably. But for 63 grand without options, it’s a car that you either get or you don’t, irrationally want or think is anachronistic, even with the new bits. The Aston Vantage Roadster, on the other hand, is much easier to quantify. It is slightly less precise than the Coupe variant, but adds in the freedom and satisfaction of a very useful convertible top. It looks fantastic, sounds like a turbocharged thunderclap, and handles with more nouse than 99 per cent of buyers are ever likely to need. It’s not a track-day car, but it scores high, hard and consistently. 

And yet the Boxster is also sublime. The Boxster is precision. It is rationality. It handles most adroitly, is likely the fastest in most situations. It is the car that you would buy if you take all things into account, average them, and make the ‘correct’ informed choice. It is equally at home as a singleton’s practical daily as it is a weekend affair, even showing up with a decent amount of storage space. It’s the right car for almost every occasion. Except it isn’t, because I’m an idiot and idiots make terrible life choices.

The subjective, irrational winner, the most Top Gear car of this set, is the Ariel Nomad R. It’s silly, and fast, and makes no sense. It’s pointless, and yet makes people grin the kind of wide smile that makes your ears hurt. The car that we would take for one last blast? It’s the one with the most aggressive ‘open air’ attitude. The one that doesn’t care for convention, or practicality. And as I make that decision, the heavens open, and I almost drown sitting bolt upright in the Nomad’s bare plastic seat. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

A huge thank you to Esso for supplying us with a few barrels of their Synergy Supreme+ 99 fuel to keep our Speed Week contenders topped up on the track

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