We’ve gone back to our roots for this year’s track car of the year, shifting our focus away from the kind of extreme race cars simply because there are now so many ‘mainstream’ (to use the term loosely) performance cars that have been designed to attack a track from the outset. This is good news for people like us, because these cars deliver a duality of purpose that means you can roll up to a trackday, enjoy as may laps as you desire, then slip off your helmet and drive home again. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
For 2018’s test we’re at Rockingham for two days with 12 tempting contenders, covering every class of car and every price bracket. To make things even more interesting, we will split our desirable dozen into pairs, creating a series of head-to-heads between superminis, hot hatches, roadsters, lightweights, coupes and supercars respectively.
Our criteria for judging is fairly straightforward, with each car subjected to a number of stints in the hands of each judge before we download our opinions, discuss, and declare an overall winner.
Outright performance is important, of course, but inconsistent weather during our test days will make comparing lap times a little pointless. But this could also be considered pertinent, because timing is forbidden on most trackdays, so absolute pace is to some degree irrelevant. What’s more important is how these cars feel, how they reward and challenge, and how they stand up to numerous sessions on a circuit. Ultimately, we want to find the cars that leave you itching to get back out on track the moment the green light at the end of the pitlane glows.
Time was when a hot hatch would be a relative also-ran in a group test about track cars, a real-world alternative for those forced to combine the type’s trademark practicality with performance. No longer: while the practical element still has relevance, the large-scale 300bhp-ish hatchback no longer feels like the immediate underdog.
I won’t pretend our two contenders are on a perfectly horizontal playing field. You probably know plenty about both by now: the Civic bristling with purpose at the forefront of the hot hatch class, the i30 nuzzled just below it, offering a little less power for a fair chunk less change, in the process defiantly establishing the N brand as a convincing enthusiast-appealing entity. And yet a racing circuit in changeable weather can sometimes be a great leveller, and while the i30 is nothing like as aggressive as the proudly over-the-top Honda in terms of its visuals, its sleek, sporty styling exudes its own blend of confidence.
Rockingham allows use of the Hyundai’s far-too-stiff-for-the-road N suspension mode, and lunging towards the first corner the 271bhp i30 feels plenty fast enough, the gearshift confidence-inspiring, too. But already I’m thinking of the same few seconds in the Civic earlier, and how it sprang from the pit exit with frenzied alacrity, the next gear slotting home in a blur of mechanical precision. The i30 is fast, but it’s not that fast, it’s gearshift good, but not that great. And so the laps pile on, and the limited-slip diff works tirelessly, shifting the torque across the axle, the front-end grip good as long as the tyres aren’t overworked for too long, the brakes hanging on in there under sustained punishment. The onset of rain makes the stiffest suspension setting a hindrance again, but there’s adjustability here, and entertainment, too.
But let’s be frank, now. The i30 N is a very good road car and a decent car on track, but there’s only one ruthless monster of a hatchback in this pairing; only one five-door that genuinely makes 911 GT3 drivers perspire, especially when there’s a downpour. The Type R is an incredibly serious bit of performance car engineering, and it shows. Over to Mr Sutcliffe: ‘Probably the most impressive car here for me in the wet, McLaren and Cayman GTS included. The way you can commit the Civic to a wet corner is unique in this company. It almost feels like it isn’t wet at all, so much purchase has the Honda under braking, on turn-in, under power on the way out, just everywhere, really. Lovely gearchange, lovely gear ratios for this particular circuit, nice touchy-feely steering, great power delivery. Just brilliant, basically.’
John is no less impressed, either: ‘What a revelation. Where did all this grip come from? Even in these conditions this is a deadly apex hunter; you can drive it like the track’s dry. And it’s fast, and punchy and full of feel and feedback and you know exactly how far you are pushing it. Great traction and stability control, too.’
Against this superstar material the i30 just sort of fades into the background. ‘A good car but not a great one in these circumstances,’ notes Steve, adding, ‘and completely shown up by the Civic overall’. One of the great attractions of the Civic is that it has such depth of ability that it can be so many different things to different people. Want to push it to the limit for a great lap time? ‘Game on,’ says the Honda. Want to be a bit of a hooligan on the brakes to get the tail moving? ‘No problem,’ it says, and precise lines become more expressive. New to track driving and want to develop your skills? ‘I’ll look after you,’ pipes up the R, ‘make you look great, and still thrill you.’ When Dickie says, ‘If Porsche did a hot hatch I think it would feel a lot like this,’ he’s not the only one to utter that thought out loud. It really is that good.
The track is still glistening dimly under a scowling sky. Even the green light indicating that the circuit is open has a chilly look about it. The weather isn’t set to improve any time soon, so we may as well get out there. At least with a small, light, rear-drive car there’s not too much power to get you into trouble – and nimble, low-inertia handling to get you out of it if you do.
The Abarth is largely a Mazda MX-5 beneath the mock-’60s rally frontage, except with a 1.4-litre turbo four instead of one of Mazda’s naturally aspirated motors. It offers 168bhp with 250Nm of torque, all delivered via a standard-fit limited-slip differential. Before dropping into the 124’s bijou/snug/cramped (dependent on your size) cockpit and reclining the driver’s seat so my crash helmet isn’t wedged into the soft-top, I had been out in the BMW M4 CS, on Cup 2s. A couple of laps confirmed everything I expected of Rockingham’s unusually slippery-when-wet surface: the M4 is sideways everywhere possible. Even on the straight.
And the Abarth? It’s much, much slower but much more sideways. I’m not joking. It takes me a couple of corners to identify the whooshing noise. In my defence, the amount of opposite lock I needed to find distracted me. The whoosh turns out to be the sound of the Abarth’s rear Bridgestones overspeeding on the slick surface. Now, I like a good dollop of oversteer as much as anyone, but this is quite tricky to neatly administer thanks to the amount required and the sharpness of the steering, the latter meaning it’s easy to overshoot and further excite the car.
‘A right old handful. And a left handful. Sometimes both,’ says Meaden. Disdale reckons it is perfect… ‘if your goal is for the marshals to black-flag you three corners into a trackday at a wet Rockingham’. Sutcliffe is not amused: ‘Heroically awful.’ It is as tricky to get the Abarth neatly around a lap as the BMW. Trail-brake into a corner and the softly sprung rear will try to get a look at the apex before the front. And the angles it will get to at such low speeds are remarkable. Even with the stability control on it’ll step out in the fast turns, which is no fun.
You could probably substantially improve the Abarth’s behaviour simply by replacing those margarine Bridgestones. We say that with some confidence because the more potent BBR MX-5 is an easier car to get around the lap and it is shod with fat Cup 2s dealing with more torque. The twin-scroll turbocharger ups the power of the 1.5-litre four from 129 to 210bhp, and torque from 150Nm to 267Nm. Additionally, this car has the optional slippy diff, BBR’s handling kit and bigger wheels with those sporty Michelins.
The engine delivery is remarkably linear and the gearing feels longer, while the firmer suspension keeps the car on a more even keel and helps the Cup 2s find much more grip. The upshot is the BBR corrects most of the issues of the Abarth. You have grip and balance, and although it doesn’t feel much more potent (probably due to the longer gearing) it responds in a more measured way to steering inputs and is thus more exploitable and entertaining.
So, in very challenging conditions the Abarth is rather wayward, lacking in poise and grip. It would be different on a warm, dry day, reckons Adam, and he speaks for most when he says the Abarth’s natural habitat is a sunny B-road. Like everything else here, the BBR MX-5 will probably feel sweeter on a dry track, though maybe James is right when he says that the turbo kit and a limited-slip on a standard-chassis MX-5 would be the absolute sweet spot.
The Lotus and Caterham should be right at home here, their minimal-mass, maximum-fun philosophy tailor-made for frequent track attacks. Each takes a very different approach in its obsessive quest for pared-back performance – the mid-engined Lotus offers some everyday liveability alongside its talents for acing apexes, while the almost twice-as-light Seven demands more compromises – but each aims to leave its driver enriched and rewarded.
Lotus first. It’s been a while since I’ve driven an Elise, and this pared-back Sprint 220 feels heavier than I remember, the steering requiring greater muscle and movement than you anticipate. ‘You think it will be ultra-darty, but you need a little more lock than you expect,’ concurs Dickie. ‘The upside is a beautifully progressive chassis that responds gently but precisely to your inputs.’ In drying conditions the Lotus is able to demonstrate its beautiful natural balance, allowing you to take the car up to and over the limit of grip safe in the knowledge that the car is on your side. The stability control helps here, and in its Sport setting gives you enough wriggle room to get the rear gently rotating into and through the corner, the car’s balance adjustable with throttle, brakes and steering. It’s friendly and approachable, but with enough of an edge to keep even experienced drivers entertained.
In fact, it’s not long before you’re jettisoning the electronic safety net altogether, the Lotus’s sublime feedback and poise goading you into relying on your judgment to tread the line between hero and zero. In truth there’s nothing to fear, because even if the rear does step out of line (possible on both turn-in and under power when it’s wet) the steering almost applies the corrective lock for you, while the low weight means there’s rarely enough inertia to get the car spinning like a top. Indeed, the Elise is uncommonly benign for a mid-engined machine. ‘It’s surprising to me that it’s sweeter, better balanced and easier to drive to and over its limit than the front-engined, rear-drive Mazda, Abarth and BMW,’ notes Dickie.
With 217bhp, the Sprint 220 feels quick, too, but you have to work the supercharged Toyota unit hard for the best results – no hardship given the precise shifts offered via the gorgeous exposed gear linkage. And once a dry line starts to form, you can really attack the corners, the track-biased Yokohama Neova tyres biting hard on turn-in and clinging tenaciously from entry to exit – although you can trim your line at will, the Lotus tucking in here or being edged out there depending on how you tweak the steering and pedals. The only real criticism is the brakes, which deliver tireless stopping power but suffer from a frustratingly dead feel at the top of the pedal’s travel.
Even compared with the delicate Lotus the Caterham feels exquisitely light on its feet. Corners that demand an armful of lock in the Elise need no more than a flick of the wrists in the Seven. It’s a cliché, I know, but soon it’s as if the Caterham is no longer a car: it’s a four-wheeled extension of your body, seemingly under direct synaptic control.
It’s the Caterham’s approachability that’s so refreshing, especially in the wet. ‘Still one of the easiest cars to power oversteer, catch and correct, hold and exploit,’ enthuses John. You can experiment with your lines through corners more than in any other car here without worrying that you’re going to overcook it, because the Seven is always on your side. Our drivers can’t agree on whether the 152bhp 1.6-litre would be a bit short on puff on faster circuits, but for most people, most of the time, it feels just right. It spins more sweetly than the larger Duratec unit, plus the rasping exhaust note is more tuneful than the 2-litre’s.
It’s John that sums up the Caterham best: ‘If you want to enjoy trackdays – whatever the weather – and have fun and learn and not have to spend much on tyres and brakes, there’s still little to touch a Seven.’ Quite.