Five of our writers took nearly £2 million worth of metal on road and track to determine the best cars for this year
While none of the cars ranked below are direct competitors, each one has been picked because they excel in one area: driving ability. Some, however, do it even better than others.
Helping to guide you through this smorgasbord of eclectic machinery are our road testers; Matt Prior, James Disdale, Richard Lane, Illya Verpraet and Andrew Frankel. They will provide you with first-hand experience at what it's like to pilot each of these cars at the absolute limit.
Listed below are a group which we think are the best driver's cars, unmatched in their capabilities, both on road and on track.
1. Lamborghini Huracan Sterrato
Time after time, judges would come back from a run up the road in this car and start pontificating at anyone in earshot. By not sacrificing all at the altar of adhesion but by backing off spring rates and tyre sizes a little, Lamborghini has created a car with a feel unlike that of any in the modern era.
No longer do you play the role of observer; instead, you’re in the thick of the action. But, like the 911 Dakar (mentioned below), here too was a slight concern: cars that are this good on the road rarely meet such standards on track.
Given the harsh conditions on track at Anglesey, it was a surprise to detect a certain V10 ripping up to its 8500rpm red line as it fizzes by the pit wall. It’s Illya Verpraet, who at only his first outing as a BBDC judge doesn’t appear to be taking prisoners.
Yet far from appearing reckless, his eagerness with the 601bhp Huracán Sterrato only underscores what we all learned on the road: this is a remarkably confidence-inspiring supercar. By lunchtime everybody has been in the Lambo’s perched bucket seat and the plaudits flow.
“Hilariously adjustable and exploitable,” said Disdale, who like of all us had discovered that (a) the Sterrato’s all-terrain Bridgestones must use a compound concocted with black magic, so well does it resist understeer, and (b) this chassis will let you take a sliver of oversteer through even the fastest bends, as if it were a Caterham Seven exiting a second-gear hairpin.
The near clown car that is the Sterrato is not by any stretch a track-day tool, and yet today its specific brand of precision hooliganism isn’t just working well: it’s excelling.
2. Ariel Atom 4R
On our wet test roads the Ariel is simply too fast to exploit any more than a fraction of its potential, and while it was as reassuring as you can expect such an extreme car to be – and now with the benefit of both ABS and traction control – you cannot escape the sense that this is not what it was designed for and that, to an extent at least, it was merely humouring you while waiting for its moment to shine.
In torrid weather on track, however, the class of this little jewel of a supercar slayer shines through.
Verpraet is a touch dubious – “It’s like riding a tiger: very exciting but not particularly enjoyable” – yet everyone else seems sold. The featherweight, sequential-gearboxed, outrageously unfettered 4R can bite if you fail to anticipate the arrival of turbo boost, and care needs to be taken not to lock the brakes.
The driving controls, however, give you an innate confidence and you’re soon steering the car well and truly on the throttle. Might you have more fun in the regular 4? You might, but that’s splitting hairs.
3. Porsche 911 GT3 RS
This car's secret, and it’s a good one, is its ability to allow you to slacken the dampers and relax the diff from the comfort of your figure-hugging seat to provide a level of dynamic control we know of in no other car.
Suddenly, this stiffly sprung downforce monster starts to ride acceptably well – at least as well as a stock GT3. On more street-friendly Goodyear rubber than the usual no-nonsense Michelin covers, a first taste is nothing like as wild as you might imagine. Not even slightly scary when properly configured it bodes well for its prospects over the next couple of days. And that’s putting it mildly.
On track, the 911 GT3 RS shows poise, precision and confidence-inspiring drivability in conditions somewhat outside of its comfort zone. As much is in evidence when back into the drivers’ briefing room stormed a breathless Frankel: “Makes a gen-two 991 GT3 RS look incompetent in these conditions.”
Quite a statement, that, but understandably it goes unchallenged. On a day like today, the GT3 RS is nowhere near its potential but still finds grip where you don’t expect it to and moves with the exquisite precision we’ve come to expect from Porsche’s GT-badged cars.
Cold semi-slick tyres mean direction changes require some initial patience, rather than being ripped into with abandon, but it’s crackers how much full-throttle activity the Beast of Weissach will tolerate.
“Those tyres don’t work in its favour on a damp circuit,” said Disdale. “But manage the turn-in and this car is incredibly immersive. It sucks you in and goads you into being a faster, better and smoother driver.” Prior echoed Disdales’ sentiment: “Not intimidating, not unfriendly, just poised.”
4. Porsche 911 Dakar
The Dakar showed us something different. It’s quite softly sprung and light on contact patch even by normal 911 standards, but out here that confection works exceptionally well. You don’t need the additional grip but appreciate instead the way it breathes its way over the road rather than bludgeoning it into submission.
It feels more natural, so you feel more in control. There’s also a sense that, because grip is not limitless on those on/off-road Pirelli Scorpion tyres, you need to manage the car more while thinking harder about placing it and setting it up for the corners ahead. And that means more involvement and, therefore, more fun.
The Huracan Sterrato is a tough act for the 911 Dakar to follow. Both have been created in the same moment and would always be compared intimately, but how do you compete with something as joyfully cohesive as the Sterrato? As we found on the road, the answer is with a better driving position and more intuitive steering.
Moreover, once on track it’s clear that while the Dakar lacks the wild performance of the Lambo, get it sideways and it’s the more natural operator. “You can exploit it with confidence, and the way the 4WD system works is actually very sweet,” said Frankel.
Once the Sterrato goes beyond a certain angle of yaw, its driveline can squirm, as if it can’t decide whether to let you ride out the drift you’re requesting or pull the car into line and fling it forward. The Porsche is more malleable; it gives you options. Its handling is pedigree, but you do wonder if the desert-grade 911 is joyful enough in the face of a very competent Lamborghini that administers laughs intravenously.
5. Tolman Edition Peugeot 205 GTi
The Tolman is better tied down than the original upon which it is based, and therefore less ridiculously eager to pivot around its mid-point according to throttle setting. But anyone who recalls just how feisty they once were will probably accept this is not all bad news.
The engine doesn’t feel like it’s giving the full 200bhp – which would put its power-to-weight ratio on a par with a Porsche Cayman – and its on/off throttle mapping needs finessing, but there’s plenty to keep the chassis busy and leave you grateful for that optional Quaife differential. It’s a promising start.
You’d rightly expect it to be lost on a circuit, drowned by the scope of the place and even more so in these grip-limited conditions. But it isn’t; in fact, it’s a little marvel. It has all the throttle adjustability you could ever want, and then some. It rolls and pitches but never, it seems, to any problematic extent.
With increased physics at speed also comes increased – and gloriously controllable – oversteer on turn-in, but it’s all so measured and the car’s torque-biasing Quaife differential unobtrusively gives enough traction to maintain momentum and drag yourself out of corners. With only 895kg to corral, the brakes don’t fade, and feedback is, in general, immense. There are some questions of the Tolman’s throttle mapping and gearshift quality, but these are just niggles, really.
6. Prodrive P25
The Prodrive P25 was granted a rather chilly reception as we started learning its ways. Nothing seemed natural, least of all changing up and down using the same paddle. More because the job required it than from a real desire, driving harder and faster.
And then it seemed to change, becoming more indulgent and easier to flow through corners. And that’s its secret: more even than the Atom, this is a car to drive as fast as you possibly can or not at all. It has no interest whatsoever in a six-tenths approach, but that only boosts its track performance.
What an extraordinary device this is on track. It’s one that lends itself to the vagaries of an interesting cross-country road but can only fully be let loose if that road is closed to the public – or if you happen to be on a track.
The trick is to launch it in to bends in such a way that the centre of gravity tips violently towards the rear outside wheel. The moment you begin to rotate, it’s time to open the throttle. Wide.
At this point, you’re treated to a combination of a four-wheel drift and massive traction. Get it right and it is an absurdly rewarding, absorbing and dramatic process; get it wrong and you’ll understeer uncomfortably, hating every second. What you absolutely can’t do is try to drive the P25 as if it were an M3 CS. It just won’t tolerate this, and the driveline needs bullying at all times. Stunning steering, too.
“It’s a one-minute thrash-metal single,” said Prior. Or, as Frankel put it: “It’s a car for driving absolutely as fast as you can make it go, or not at all."
7. BMW M3 CS
On the road the M3 CS is capable and satisfying while never letting you forget that, ultimately, it was born for better things than this: come track time, it might just light up your world.
It seems more prone to spikes of oversteer when you don’t always want them than its little brother, the M2, and it understeers more readily in the wet. Yet the CS fights back with the sweeter, more mature helm of the two. Awesomely effective suspension also means the more senior car feels lighter. Or does it? The M siblings split opinions like little else.
“On track it can be driven hard and precisely or with the brain-out abandon of a D1 drifter,” said Disdale of the M3 CS.
“Still showing the way for M cars,” countered Frankel of the M2, finding the two-door car more rewarding, despite it lacking the M3’s profound sense of drama. “Nothing genuinely exceptional here, but zero serious flaws.”
Prior concurred, giving special mention to the CS’s steering accuracy: “Preferable to the M2. In the dry, I can imagine it being as good as the old M4 GTS – which I mean as a compliment, although not everybody would.”
“The M3 CS feels much more sorted to me,” said Verpraet, adding that the M2’s limit handling is less progressive and that the M3 deploys its front driveshafts to perfection.
8. Alpine A110 R
During our test, the Alpine A110 R was alone in being supplied on pure track-day tyres – the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2, which is the only OE rubber available for it.
For as long as it was dry or merely damp – so the tyres didn’t have to physically displace any standing water – it was superb: agile, accurate, full of feel and near instant in its execution of instructions. Except you’d have been able to say exactly the same of the standard A110 five years ago.
The Alpine struggles to win hearts and minds. Having been neat and tidy when driven at moderate commitment levels on the road, it can’t seem to find purchase on the cold, damp asphalt of a circuit.
Everyone is perplexed by the pronounced manner with which it oversteers on the way in to corners but then lets the front axle wash wide on exit. It’s a peculiar habit, and it gets in the way of one’s enjoyment of the A110 R as a sort of pint-sized endurance racer.
For nearly £100,000, you might also want for a more pulsating powertrain. As Prior says, the Alpine demands a very precise, “finger-tippy” driving style, but it isn’t all that rewarding when driven flat out.
9. BMW M2 Competition
The theory says that the new M2 Comp might have an edge on the road thanks to its more compliant suspension, stick shift and playful rear-drive chassis.
In fact, it felt born for the wet conditions of this test. It’s a heavier, more grown-up car than the old M2 Comp, but it hasn’t forgotten its fun side and is as entertaining as it is easy to fling across the countryside. Rear-wheel drive and a manual gearbox add to the engaging analogue experience.
It’s not all about joy, of course: other emotions are available. There is the deep and serious satisfaction the M2 gives as it slides through yet another corner, at an angle of your choosing and with almost flawless balance.
On the road, BMW M’s most junior model (only, with 454bhp, not that junior) proves more tractable and biddable than the bad-boy M3 CS. And while it is perhaps the most complete car here, we just didn't gel with it. Most found it too flabby and languid to be a true baby M product.
10. Honda Civic Type R
We enjoyed the punch of its engine and its manual shift as much as ever, but some of the fun we expect from the Type R has been expunged. It wasn’t very adjustable on the throttle, traction was limited and the feel we would once have taken for granted was limited.
This car's lack of star quality comes as a surprise to all. The FL5-generation CTR is essentially an evolution of the all-conquering FK8, and it should be mesmerisingly good. Wet weather should also play to the strengths of a front-drive hot hatch. So what exactly has gone awry for the hot Honda?
It’s a combination of factors. On a wet track, this firm chassis struggles to get torque down without locking up the limited-slip differential.
Lapping the Civic Type R fast is therefore an exercise in restraint – and occasionally gearing up. Hot hatches shouldn’t need to be driven like this, and the car’s lack of easy-access, mid-corner sensitivity to the throttle suggests it could simply be too grown-up for its own good.
What’s also clear is that, on track, this chassis needs serious loadings to come alive, and these low-grip conditions aren’t allowing us to exploit that. The Honda’s ultimate potential remains frustratingly out of reach as it fails to adapt to conditions.
11. Audi RS7 Performance
The Audi provides the greatest possible contrast to so much else we have on test. Stolidly dependable though it was, there was little fun here, unless you count being flung down the straights like a conker out of a catapult.
It’s just too big and heavy for this kind of work, and even on ceramic brakes and coil springs (both optional) it needed more space than it had. Which of course still left the somewhat tantalising suggestion it might yet have something unexpected to show on track – something absolutely not from the traditional nose-first Audi RS school of thinking.
On track, the RS7 appears to be quietly making ground since its lukewarm on-road performance. There's even confusion among the writers, regarding just how well the Audi gets in to damp bends and then oversteers neatly on the way out. The entire process is so linear, the handover from grip to slip so smooth.
“More agile and up for antics than you’d expect,” said Verpraet.