► What is the best sports car out there?
► Porsche's 992 911 takes on R8 and 570S
► Can Audi and McLaren topple the titan?
That Porsche's rear-engined icon reigns is almost a given. But does a new 911 give the McLaren 570S and tweaked R8 a shot at glory?
Porsche (992) 911: in a word? Emphatic
Clearly, my freshly minted argument isn't going to hold water. After a few hours swapping from low-slung Audi to LMP1-serious McLaren and back again, I'm all set to hop back into the Porsche and declare it lacking as an out-and-out sports car. I mean, do they not have physics or history books in Germany? Haven't they read about how, some half a century ago, the plucky British popped a ditch-pump in the middle of a single-seater, rather than at the front, and gleefully brought about the mid-engined revolution in Grand Prix racing (after a tease from Auto Union in the '30s)? Don't expect to compete when your engine's at the back and you've space for four – physics doesn't negotiate. Honestly. A little homework wouldn't have gone amiss, lads.
Our Porsche 911 (992) review
Three minutes later, like a big-fee prosecutor whose entire case has just been shot from under him by a rogue DNA result, I'm left in absolutely no doubt that a fundamental re-think is in order.
This magnificent stretch of empty Lincolnshire B-road is doing almost everything at once, generously scattering spring-stretching crests and chin-scarring compressions upon an impressive bedrock of endless corners: corners of every conceivable camber, radius and severity.
Just when you expect the Carrera S to start running out of answers – when you push it to really excel and excite in the company of two true mid-engined supercars, on a stretch of road that asks for grip, power, agility and driver confidence all at once – it simply refuses to do so, preferring instead to go to another level; one that, in the words of Carly Simon, makes you feel sad for the rest.
Allow me to elaborate. First, imagine your dream driving position: butt on the deck; great seats that are comfortable because they're the right shape, not because they're fat with padding; and a wheel that feels incredibly rigid – somehow engineered – in your slightly clammy palms. In front of you, the new 911's new touchscreen infotainment and similarly slick frameless, floating driving instruments. Capable of showing everything, from your nav route to a night-vision image of all the innocent nocturnal mammals you're bearing down upon, it's nevertheless of no interest now: you need only the huge central tacho. Twirl the drive mode wheel on the wheel to at least Sport (ergonomically, the McLaren wins here – fussy though its Active Dynamics panel is, it's the only mode selection system that doesn't ask for a visual check) and depress one of the five central toggle switches, with their deliciously precise, military finish, to slacken the stability control leash. Into Drive on the lovely little selector, prod M for manual shifting, go.
Great fast cars breed trust, and in moments you'd trust the Carrera S with your life, the lives of your children and – no kidding – that of your dog. As speeds and effort build, the Porsche refuses to relinquish its composure. Body control is virtually absolute, with no roll and, thanks in part to a new generation of more sophisticated PASM damper, wheel movements are dealt with in a single stroke, with no lost motion to manage or allow for. At the same time you guide the low, broad nose apparently on thought alone, as if the intervening physical mechanism – your arms and hands; the car's wheel and electrically assisted power steering – cease to exist. The front axle's dependability under duress is astonishing, and the biggest dynamic step forward over the 991.
But still you don't need to be driving like your trousers are on fire to enjoy the Porsche's chassis: it delights and rewards at any speed.
But while grip and stability are beyond reproach (the Carrera S's 21-inch rears and broad front track are inspired by the GT3 RS, and there's plenty of that car's miraculous combination of pliancy and poise here), the 911 is no blunt instrument. Just as the steering's accuracy and tactility are as pleasing at five-tenths as they are at nine, so the car's clearly telegraphed sensitivity to weight transfer is there for everyone to enjoy.
Carrying so much speed that the view in the mirrors is a haze of engine heat, dust and roadside debris blown in the sky by the Porsche's passing, my foot leaps to the brake pedal. It's a key point of interaction with this most interactive of sports cars, and nothing less than the best of both worlds: the reassuring solidity and accuracy of the McLaren's pedal with something of the Audi's table manners. You can slow the Porsche at will, while also helping it change direction with such conviction that, as with this car's astonishing engine, you wonder where the inevitably harder, faster GTS and GT3 can possibly go from here. And once into the corner, this monstrously tyred machine is as pliable and sensitive as a Caterham, tweaking its line and attitude to the tune of your hands and feet. Toweringly capable but accessible, indomitable but playful, the Carrera S is every bit as brilliantly oxymoronic as its engineering layout.
The powertrain, too, is persuasive. An evolution of the 3.0-litre flat-six that came before, the main changes are particulate filters and shorter, more direct plumbing for the turbochargers, for quicker responses, achieved via expensive cast manifolds and bespoke turbos for each cylinder bank, rather than a common design flipped. With oceans of torque, a midrange that'll drop a Civic Type R at full chat and a top end that doesn't feel far off the McLaren's, despite the on-paper deficit, it's not hard to forgive the occasionally comedy turbo-heavy soundtrack, not least because that haunting flat-six cry is still in evidence (helped here by a £1844 sports exhaust). And the gearbox? Oh, the gearbox. Eight ratios, shifts so fast and smooth you'll think you dreamt them, and no pointless theatre to the action of the paddles, just a near-silent click that is the entire car in microcosm: precise, engineering-y (not a word, I know; forgive me) and entirely bewitching.
It's at this point you normally have to start making excuses for the 911's dated interior but, right now, the 992's is a triumph. Elegant, luxurious and yet appropriately focused and flab-free, it makes you smile every time you climb in, just as the 10mm lower suspension option, while worth its weight in gold when you're really trying, makes you wince. (Too unyielding for UK roads, you need it only if you're planning regular trackdays – same with the ceramic brakes.)
So, there it is. The 992 is an inspired update of Porsche's timeless sports car, one that manages to broaden its versatility while trading none of its purity. Come on then, Audi and McLaren, waddya got?
Audi R8: the friendly face of fury
If the McLaren is a racecar chassis with a pretty functional – if extremely potent – powertrain along for the ride, the Audi is neatly the polar opposite: an astonishing, raging combustion engine in a car so refined, comfortable and unintimidating it could be a lower, wider A3. Or a TT after the mother of all engine transplants. And this, depending on myriad factors, from the weather conditions, through what kind of upbringing you had, to how much rope you like to climb with (metaphorically speaking), is either the genius of Audi's R8 or the reason you'll be bored of it in days.
Web editor Curtis Moldrich, who's been in the Audi a couple of days, is eyes-wide-open when he pulls up after a stint in the 570S. 'The McLaren feels like a competition car,' he gushes. 'It's incredibly direct, with a precision powertrain and a super-firm brake pedal that builds confidence; stamp on it to stop instantly, or graduate your pressure for rich feel and feedback. When it all clicks it's like you're doing your third stint at Le Mans; raw and aggressive, and when you climb out your wrists feel like you've been pneumatic drilling for a couple of hours. That,' he mutters, nodding in the Audi's direction, 'is a road car.'
Our Audi R8 review
The irony of the race comparison being made about the car from the marque that didn't spend most the last two decades utterly dominating Le Mans isn't lost on either of us, but the truth is undeniable: if, suddenly, you were tasked with jumping into one car for a 30-minute stint at Spa, you'd be pulling down the McLaren's beautifully weighted driver's door in seconds, before screaming into Eau Rouge like a carbon comet with a soft human centre.
But if, with the same lack of notice, you were tasked with driving to Spa, rather than around it, say overnight, and with no rest stops, you'd grab the Audi. On first impressions the R8's high-rise seating, sofa-spec padding and delectably well-executed cockpit are as welcome as they are underwhelming; welcome because you're immediately at ease, underwhelming because, well, shouldn't a £128,295 mid-engined performance car intimidate a little?
But it'd be wrong to suggest there's no fun to be had here. Like the McLaren, the Audi's engine can't abide laziness. Want a thump in the back and acceleration to scalp anything that moves? Then bloody well put some effort in, and choose the right gear. After the Porsche's ludicrously torquey and flexible flat-six (compelling drive from 2000rpm, anyone?), the Audi's paucity of low-rev drive is vaguely alarming. Where the McLaren wakes at 3500rpm, the Audi needs 5000rpm – 5000rpm! – showing to do its best work.
Counter-intuitively, perhaps, it's the same story with the chassis. At the risk of sounding like your old primary school teacher, you get out what you put in. Where the Porsche and McLaren are a tactile joy at walking pace, the Audi comes alive with a bit of effort.
Guards Red Porsche in my mirrors, the Audi and I peel left and drop downhill, like a fighter jet suddenly coming off standby to drop altitude, gain some speed and engage. V10 screaming madly behind me, a brilliant little sequence awaits: fast-ish left into tighter, uphill cambered right.
Fumble and you'll understeer, the Audi frustrated – and frustrating – if you've no weight on the nose and no engine revs to play with. But on a trailing throttle through the left, the R8's fast, grippy and incredibly pliant, even in Dynamic. And the slower, cambered right-hander is a joy: brake (via the ludicrously soft pedal, particularly after the McLaren's rock-hard set-up – the Performance R8 gets ceramics), down to third to really tether your right foot to the V10's potency, then off the throttle, slug of lock, back on the gas.
Momentarily weightless, the R8's rear helps pivot the car into the corner, whereupon the steadying effect of tapping back into the power is immediate and tangible, like suddenly freeze-framing the car's entire mid-corner dynamic. And now, if you really wring out the V10, the rear axle will quite happily help tighten your line, all-wheel-drive system notwithstanding. This, you smile, is more like it...
But whatever you do, the Audi's nagging vagueness, imprecision and lifeless steering remain. To assume that Audi wanted the R8 to be as unrelentingly direct as the 570S and somehow failed to manage it is, of course, preposterous. It could have gone way further with the incremental increase in focus that underpins this revised R8, and once again dropped the powered front axle (saving weight and boosting fun), as it did so successfully with the RWS. But that's not what Audi buyers – even R8 buyers – want, apparently. The question is, what do you want?
McLaren 570S: as the driven snow
The odds are long but that doesn't change the fact that it happened. Smiling already (because if sliding aboard a McLaren like a modern, road-legal Group C racer doesn't make you smile, it's probably time to give up), I slide under the 570's featherlight door, into its near-perfect cockpit (into the fabulous little pocket on the front of the seat goes my phone – iPhone storage, Colin Chapman-style) and go to leave the layby also occupied by a brand new 911 and an R8 – only to have to pause for a flying fireball-orange Lexus RC F (that's the £61k, 470bhp V8 coupe that's not the very pretty one, should you not speak fluent Lexus).
We're clearly headed the same way, and for the same stretch of testing, undulating rural B-road. Through the 40mph limit he's bang-on; love that. And when it's done, he doesn't hesitate – down through gears, rear squats and... bang, his big V8 gets busy bending the physics. The McLaren, still in fifth, bogs so badly when I jump on the throttle pedal I fear it might be broken; the same unsettling lack of any drive whatsoever that Toyota's Le Mans drivers are having years of counselling to get over.
The Lexus steals a lead. The McLaren, perhaps bewildered by my very un-McLaren lack of intelligence or precision, patiently waits for me to click down to something like the right gear. What happens next is a graphic demonstration of the difference between a fast car and a supercar; between one conceived to be a car first and fast second, and one engineered from the tyres up to be a fast car.
Our McLaren 570S review
With the best part of 500bhp, the Lexus is quick: 0-62mph in 4.5sec and 168mph where conditions permit. But the McLaren (ahem, driven properly...) reels in the RC like an F1 frontrunner lapping a Williams – with 562bhp pushing just 1452kg (to the RC F's 1765kg...), the space and time between the two cars simply collapses before my eyes. But it's what happens next that's really interesting. We both know the road, and he's trying, but as contests go it's about as fair as a Sopwith Camel fending off an X-Wing. Held back by an excess of mass, a lack of feedback and the truth that, unfortunately, he's sitting in the wrong part of the car – way too high, and behind his engine rather than ahead of it – he must brake for every curve and feed the machine in, managing the change of direction with the kid gloves of a bomb diffuser. By contrast, I feel superhuman. I can change direction or gain and lose speed in a heartbeat, and with such bewildering accuracy and confidence that I would never, ever get bored in this thing. (Though I'm already bored of the optional sports exhaust's blare: don't do it.) In the 570S you're hard-wired in, and it's the combination of outlandish performance with absolutely no slack, doubt or confusion to dull your speed that re-writes the rules of the game in your favour. In the McLaren, fast is not something you persuade or cajole the car to do. Fast is what it exists to do.
And so that lead vanishes to nothing, and still I've so much in reserve I doubt my resting heat rate has lifted much above its slovenly office-worker norm. When, bowed but content, he flashes his hazards in salute and I turn off, I haven't the heart to admit we weren't really trying.
And in this, more exalted company? The principle still holds. You sit low – really low – in the 911, but swapping from the McLaren back into the Porsche still feels like getting into a normal car. The Porsche's steering, while nicely meaty, accurate and blessed with no little feedback, can't live with the McLaren's standout connection between brain and bitumen. In the dry, it's a sensory delight. In the wet (or on a dry circuit, where you can really commit), studiously edging up to the front tyres' limits, you sometimes check the apparent madness of your actions, only to realise that so clearly is the McLaren communicating what its front axle can and cannot do in that precise moment that there's nothing remotely foolhardy about your actions.
But the first autumn leaves of age are creeping in the 570S's very special foliage. Much has been written of the 3.8-litre V8's dearth of charisma, not to mention its lagginess, but the truth is that it has a character all its own, a machine-like relentlessness and pulse-pausing top-end rush. It won't charm your ears or your happy gland like the Audi's V10, but it is punishingly fast. No, it's the transmission's lack of immediacy and silk next to the 911's eight-speed PDK that really stands out. Then there's the interior, which is either a stark place of work with slightly dated screen graphics – the truth, probably – or a casualty of the strides the 911's cockpit has made with this new 992-generation car.
And the R8? With its intoxicating engine, the Audi lands a ferocious blow on the only real chink in the 570's otherwise near-unbreachable armour. Ordinary folk, either from the pavement or the passenger seat, will vote Audi on the strength of its 5.2-litre V10 alone. But they won't know the truth: that out where it matters, the more nimble, tactile and agile McLaren always comes out on top.
Best sports car: just how serious are you?
The best sports car here is the McLaren 570S. The best car here is the Porsche 911 – there it is, out in the open. Phew. The 992-generation Carrera S is a phenomenal machine from a team of engineers with it all on their side: budget, group-wide technical resource, a GT programme from which to borrow ideas (and indeed wholesale solutions), an unbridled enthusiasm for the job at hand and, crucially, the time to drive, drive and drive again each successive prototype that led them here.
At the heart of the 911's appeal is its rubbishing of the notion that compromise, refinement and versatility are all somehow dirty words. The Porsche is almost the sports car the McLaren is, but – tyre roar aside – it's also supremely comfortable and cosseting, while offering a gorgeous, tech-laden interior you'll have to be deadly serious about driving to shun in favour of the McLaren's sombre cockpit. Yes the McLaren's steering is better, and its entire engineering architecture conducive to a visceral thrill and giddying agility the Porsche cannot live with, but in every other way the 911 is just as compellingly sorted: otherworldly body control, mighty grip and a chassis from which unwanted movement and any sense of confidence-sapping doubt have been mercilessly eradicated. Do you need the optional rear-wheel steering? No. Do you need the 10mm suspension drop? No. Do you need the new Carrera S in your life, whatever the cost? Yes.
Unless you're selfishly dedicated to the hedonism of driving – then you might want to call McLaren. You'll have to rule out more than one passenger, long journeys without coffee breaks, being able to hand over to a suite of driver-assistance systems or anything resembling decent fuel economy (you'll also have to find a lot more money, though the more affordable 540C hits 99 per cent of the S's highs), but it'll all be worth it.
The contradictory, enigmatic Audi R8 only serves to highlight the deft balance the Porsche strikes: where the 911 is a sports car with GT ability, the Audi feels like it paid for its impressive user-friendliness with its soul. Occasionally a car comes along, be it an Audi or a Lamborghini, that's as joyously responsive as the 5.2-litre V10 it carries – but this R8, in this guise at least, is not that car.
Best sports cars: verdict
First place: Porsche 911
Wickedly capable, rewarding, versatile and desirable: a masterful reinvention.
Second place: McLaren 570S
Loud, demanding and low-tech, you forgive the 570 everything for the highs it hits.
Third place: Audi R8
Superb powertrain in a chassis that forgot it’s a sports car. Refined, desirable, frustrating.
Check out more Best cars lists here