Friday, November 2, 2012

Autocar Online - News

Autocar Online - News

Hero cars: Porsche Carrera GT

Posted: 02 Nov 2012 05:25 AM PDT

We drive the iconic Porsche Carrera GT supercar

As a new era of ultra high-tech supercars arrive in the shape of the McLaren P1, Ferrari F70, and even the hybrid Porsche 918 that will be this car's spiritual successor, we take the opportunity to revisit the iconic Porsche Carrera GT.

Vauxhall targets former VW China chief

Posted: 02 Nov 2012 04:14 AM PDT

Former head of Volkswagen's Chinese operations is poised to take over at the top of Vauxhall/Opel

High ranking Volkswagen manager, Karl-Thomas Neumann, is set to be appointed Vauxhall/Opel chairman, according to German media reports.

Citing comments from internal Opel sources, the Financial Times Deutschland reports Neumann, former head of Volkswagen's vast Chinese operations, has been tipped to take the top job at General Motors' financially embattled European operations from mid-2013.

Neumann, whose current Volkswagen contract includes an anti-competition clause that prohibits him from joining Opel/Vauxhall sooner, would replace interim chairman Stephen Girsky.

"Neumann as boss would be good for Opel. He has the credentials that we need," an Opel board member told the Financial Times Deutschland.

Officials from Opel/Vauxhall's headquarters in Russelsheim, Germany, would not comment on the media reports when contacted by Autocar.

2013 Nissan GT-R tweaked

Posted: 01 Nov 2012 06:00 PM PDT

Nissan is featuring a number of modifications to its 2013 GT-R to improve responsiveness and cornering

The Nissan GT-R will receive a raft of updates for the 2013 model year, aimed at improving engine response, high-speed stability and ride.

The 542bhp 3.8-litre twin-turbo powerplant features new injectors and a new relief valve has been fitted to the turbocharger to suppress the loss of boost. Both are said to improve engine response.

A new oil pan baffle helps to maintain pressure and reduce friction.

Modifications have been made to the front dampers, springs and anti-roll bar, lowering the car's centre of gravity. Additionally, cam bolts have been installed on the front suspension in the pursuit of camber accuracy and stability during hard cornering.

Nissan's engineers have added reinforcements around the cabin to increase body rigidity and improve suspension control

Nissan says the changes have been employed following lessons learned from the firm's outing at the Nürburgring 24-hour race. 

Further information, including performance data, will be announced when the GT-R's creator, Kazutoshi Mizuno, unveils the car later this morning. 

First drive review: Mercedes C250 BlueEfficiency Coupé Sport – Engineered by AMG

Posted: 01 Nov 2012 07:44 AM PDT

AMG chassis modifications raise the Mercedes C-class coupe's dynamic appeal, but it deserves a better engine Audi has its popular S models, BMW its more recently established M-Performance line-up. Now Mercedes-Benz is getting in on the action with a limited range of overtly sporting models marketed under the 'Engineered by AMG' banner, including the car driven here, the C250 Coupé Sport.As the name suggests, the new C250 Coupé Sport – Engineered by AMG has been tweaked by Mercedes' own in-house performance off-shoot in an effort to imbue it with a more distinctly sporting character than its standard sibling.It is not a full-blown AMG model in the mould of the C63 Coupé AMG, but is a less hard-hitting offering that, for the time being at least, can be had with either the 201bhp turbocharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine on test here or a 201bhp 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel unit – both of which go unchanged mechanically.

Volkswagen California

Posted: 01 Nov 2012 04:24 AM PDT

The Caravelle-based Volkswagen California camper offers a clever and cost-effective combination of family transport and accommodation. And it needn't be motorhome-beige The next time you're having 'that' conversation, the one about what you'd buy when your six lucky numbers come up, and one of your mates  suggests that a California would be in his lottery winner's million-pound garage, ask him which one he means. Because for anyone who's serious about owning proper track machinery, who knows about the real-world practicalities of getting circuit cars to and from paddocks all over the UK, the Volkswagen pictured above could be a much better choice than the Ferrari. The namesakes could hardly be less alike - the subject of this appraisal being a full-sized monocab camper van with seats for up to seven occupants and sleeping space for up to four, and rated to tow up to 2.5 tonnes. Based on the Transporter, the California mixes the space and robust capabilities of a proper commercial vehicle with very respectable ride and handling attributes, and quality fixtures and fittings that do the VW brand no harm at all.With a towbar, a trailer and your circuit weapon of choice all coupled up, it could be exactly the sort of machine to bring your racing pipedreams to life: you drive it to the Nurburgring 24hr, sleep in the paddock in it, and drive home again regardless what happens during the race.Volkswagen UK broadened the California range in 2012 with the addition of a more affordable model called the Beach. Thanks to that, prices start at under £35,000 for a 113bhp Bluemotion Technology model, emitting a very reasonable 184g/km of CO2. At the top of the line-up you'll find an SE model with a 178bhp twin-turbodiesel engine, four-wheel drive and a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox — yours for a whisker under £50,000. All are powered by a 2.0-litre TDi engine, with the Bluemotion Technology model returning close to 40mpg at a 70mph cruise. The Beach model can be had with either four or five seats as standard, and two extra swivel chairs at extra cost. Whichever way you configure it, the rear bench folds flat to create a large, fully padded double bed for those sleeping on the ground floor. Meanwhile, there's also a fold-out roof bed accessible via a hatch above the front seats, where you'll find room for a couple of growing kids or one large adult to stretch out in.Barring some neat storage solutions, though, that's all the camping equipment you get at entry level. You can have a parking heater, a wardrobe, a fitted fridge, a gas cooker, a sink and an awning if you want 'em, but you'll have to spend more.The California's dynamics aren't car-like, but they're quite impressive viewed in the right context. This isn't a drive to savour, it's a functional vehicle, but it rides smoothly and quietly, it's decently mechanically refined, directionally easy to manage and performs well enough. The 113bhp Beach model is quite slow. As a towcar it'd be slower still, and probably quite an effort to keep rolling at a consistent motorway pace — although the standard cruise control would certainly help. Performance for the 138bhp Beach model is more respectable, which takes a smidge over 14sec to get to 62mph. The BiTDi front-driver will hit the same mark in a more authoritative 12.4sec. The fewer fixtures and fittings you have, the better the California's rolling refinement will be. Cars fitted out with lots of internal closures can rattle a bit over ruts and bumps, and the rear-mounted pushbike rack can also clang and vibrate when stowed. But over smooth roads — gently undulating ones, even— the ride is pleasingly supple and compliant, while lateral grip and body control is good enough to make you feel confident and secure at the wheel.To camp in, the California is surprisingly flexible and generally easy to use, with one or two exceptions. The swiveling 'captain's chair' front seats are a good idea, but want a better execution. As it is, it's too easy to foul them on the cabin's internal pillar plastics and handbrake mid-swivel - and you'll leave ugly trim scuffs when you do. There's also no easy way to access the roof bed without standing on those front seats; a stowable ladder or step would be a welcome addition.On top of that, VW really ought to offer its electric cabin heater as standard equipment. Without it, heating the cabin necessitates a lot of fiddling with the handbrake, seat, clutch and gearbox in order to swivel the driver's seat and start the engine without letting the camper roll away. Even in light of those bugbears there is a great deal to like about the VW California, particularly for those who might otherwise be sleeping under canvas. While its size still limits it as an alternative to a proper motorhome, for short family trips away or motorsport-filled weekends when it's simply somewhere to lay your head, it's ideal. And the fact that it's a proper VW rather than a third-party conversion — that it's decent to drive, and available in proper colours rather than so many shades of cream and beige — makes the California all the more appealing to those outside of the camping and caravanning set.

First drive review: Audi R8 V8 S-tronic

Posted: 01 Nov 2012 03:52 AM PDT

Much-improved gearbox and enriched spec makes the Audi R8 even more technically impressive, although it still lacks supercar allure It's a mid-life facelift for the Audi R8 super-sports car. If you want the abridged version, it consists of new LED headlights, a new gearbox, some extra standard equipment and a small price hike. No changes to either engine or suspension, though; Neckarsulm isn't fixing what it rightly considers ain't broke.There are a few exterior styling updates for the R8, of the blink-and-you'll-miss-'em variety. All cars now get a new rear valance design with two large-bore exhaust pipes (previously, you could tell a V8 from a V10 by the smaller quad pipes of the former). There are also new LED taillights with indicators that 'sweep' from one side to the other, instead of blinking. Something done, you suspect, for sufficiently moneyed  David Hasselhoff fans who model themselves on TV's Michael Knight. To everyone else, it'll look a bit naff.Inside the car you'll find a few more matt-finish aluminum trims around the cabin than were there before, and a slightly more generous kit list that now includes iPod connectivity, Bluetooth, sat-nav and heated nappa leather seats.But otherwise it's the same R8, complete with cocoon-like driver's seat, a slightly high but otherwise excellent driving position, and a typically German if slightly conservative cabin ambience.

Road safety is no place for politics

Posted: 31 Oct 2012 09:48 AM PDT

Safety charities should leave the politics to the politicians and do what they're best at

Politics is everywhere. The very act of driving a car is in effect a statement that you don't mind shoring up the society we're are all in together by paying oodles of road and fuel tax.

Alternatively it is a statement that you are free-thinking individual who shuns public transport in favour of your own personal transport agenda.

But sometimes there is no place for politics.

According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), the accident prevention charity, we need to help low-income families who are most at risk of road accidents.

A RoSPA's report shows how exposure to danger is a factor which can vary significantly between socioeconomic groups. For example, children in families in the lowest income bracket cross 50 per cent more roads than families in the highest. 

The report also makes a series of unfathomable recommendations including this one:

"Education interventions need to help individuals and communities to overcome the social factors which act as barriers to safer behaviours, and empower them to have more control."

Yes, it's a bunch of social worker speak drivel and makes the point that because the poor can't afford a car with a million airbags its all our fault. They might as well ask for redistribution of wealth, as well as taking over the means of production and blaming Thatcher.

We live in a reasonably free society where if we work hard we can buy a fancy car that's safe. Also if we look both ways when crossing the road, or at least wait to attack that six pack of Stella Artois until we get home, then chances are we won't be knocked over. It's all about choices and some of us make bad ones, including buying a Proton Impian and whether or not to use a Pelican Crossing.

In my view, as soon as charities start making political points rather than doing excellent work, they should lose their tax-free charitable status. Or stand for election. Now, RoSPA, put your reflective tabards back on and leave us all alone.

Britain's best driver's car: Figures, facts and fast laps

Posted: 31 Oct 2012 04:42 AM PDT

For some, laptimes make or break a car. It's not the case in our BBDC test, because as we learn, speed doesn't always correlate with fun

Ah, lap times. We don't judge cars based on their speed around a circuit, but it gives us a yardstick by which to measure their performance.

We expected, for example, the Lotus Exige S to be the fastest car around Bedford's (damp-patched) West circuit by a mile, but because of a gearshift unfit to grace a Raleigh Chopper, it wasn't. 

For fairness, to limit the wear on the heavier, more powerful cars, and so we could get through them all in consistent conditions, each car got the same treatment: an out lap, two fliers, and an in lap.

The time quoted is the quickest. Beyond the Lotus, any other surprises? Not a lot. The Cayman's wonderful balance let it go quicker than a 911. The RS4 is a frankly astonishing piece of kit.

And the GT86 is proof that speed does not necessarily correlate with fun.

Britain's best driver's car: The winner

Posted: 29 Oct 2012 10:27 AM PDT

The Toyota GT86: Britain's Best Driver's Car

Don't feel bad for the Ford Focus ST or the Audi RS4. It's not their fault. We hesitated when inviting the Audi because big cars rarely do well in the BBDC contest, but neither it nor the ST were last-placed certainties. The compliments paid to both suggest that it would be possible to argue a case for either winning outright. In the end, though, their daily usability left them slightly less desirable than the rest.

The Alpina's and Aston Martin Vanquish's problems were not of desirability but, simply, the quality of the competition. The B3 GT3 has a straightforward approach to driving thrills won it many fans. But the Aston, pleasingly well damped and balanced though it is, comes with a price that our judges couldn't quite shake from the back of their minds.

There is no disgrace, either, in being a 911. The cooking model finished mid-order, impressed us with its indefatigability on a circuit and whetted appetites for the more sharply focused variants still to be launched. Besides, there are other Porsches here, and the Boxster's keen balance pushed even the hilarious C63 Black Series off the podium.

There is no surprise in finding a light Lotus and a focused Porsche in the top three: the Cayman R's second place – by a single point – is the closest a returning BBDC champion has come to retaining its crown.

The victory is taken, however, not by the lightest car here, nor the most powerful, nor the fastest, but by a Toyota that impressed solely with the joy of driving it. That's as it should be. Life does not reward only the quickest or biggest. If it did, cheetahs and blue whales would rule the earth. Instead, life rewards the most intelligent and adaptable of species, those which can integrate with and mould into their surroundings. The Toyota GT86 is a car of that mindset.

Instead of being too fast for the roads on which it finds itself, its lowered limits mean that they can be approached at sensible speeds. Instead of tearing through consumables, it is the only car here for whose tyres we didn't fear, even though it spent the most time sideways. The GT86 has altered the sports car genre. It is the performance car made relevant again; it is the new supercar. And, as such, it is arguably the worthiest winner Britain's Best Driver's Car has had.

Britain's best driver's car: Heavyweight bout

Posted: 29 Oct 2012 10:21 AM PDT

Britain's Best Driver's Car: Aston Martin Vanquish vs Audi RS4 Avant

They're a pair of titans, these two. They have presence, they have throat in their exhausts, they have more than 1100 horsepower between them and they sit at the upper end of automotive craftsmanship. They are, though, very unlike one another in concept, both of body design and mechanical layout. The Aston Martin Vanquish's 565bhp V12 drives the rear wheels of a large coupé; the Audi RS4's 444bhp V8 propels both axles of a five-door estate.

But both are Tarmac-gorging long-distance machines, both happen to weigh much the same, their engines are normally aspirated and they've both been conceived with driver entertainment as a high priority. In either of these cars you could contemplate a gloriously indulgent weekend spearing eastwards to the Nürburgring, chamfering away a few hundred pounds' worth of rubber around the pine-lined track and (hopefully) rumbling home again satisfied. But are these cars simply too big, too heavy and too powerful to generate pleasure through the high g-force switchbacks of a race circuit?

Grand tourer or not, there's no question that the Vanquish looks well equipped for such an exercise; its mix of tautly muscled lines, fatly rubbered wheels and piercing, aerodynamic proboscis promise plenty of thrust and, hopefully, the grip to go with it. You sit low in the Aston's sumptuously leathered cockpit, mildly reconfigured for this latest iteration of the long-lived VH platform to provide more room, a slightly less bulky dashboard and some centre console controls that look strangely unfinished. Sinking the glass ignition fob produces a slightly adolescent blip from the V12, while the oddly shaped but comfortable wheel provides a couple of buttons very relevant to what we are about to receive. The left-hand one controls the dampers through Normal, Sport and Track firmnesses, the right-hand one alters throttle response, gearbox reactions, exhaust note and steering weight. Usefully, it also prevents the transmission from changing up when you're closing on the rev limiter.

If the idea of unleashing 565bhp sounds a little daunting, the Vanquish makes it seem anything but. This is a game, easy car to drive, with crisply measured, predictable and grippy reactions that do much to make you feel at home. And if that sounds a little unexciting, the burbling yelp of the V12 soon adds the required frisson. These fine manners, together with good chassis balance and a reassuringly progressive set of brakes, make it easy to go harder in this Aston and reveal a relaxed composure which makes its abilities that bit easier to exploit. It understeers slightly when pushed, but push on harder still and those wheel-mounted buttons allow you to counter with a sliver of tail-out trajectory adjustment.

And yet… This car doesn't really feel like it has 565bhp of firepower, and nor does the driving experience feel like it's worth £190,000. One tester reckoned this Aston felt "old", adding that the engine "feels strong but not that fast"; another felt that it was more tourer than track car. It's certainly old in the transmission department. The six-speed auto is not the most responsive. Several found the seats short of lateral support, too.

In this company, what the Aston lacks most is on-track adjustability and an eagerness of response that has you champing to probe its reserves. Instead, the Vanquish's manner is more reassuring hand on the shoulder than wailing assault tool for the track. However, a grand tourer is what Aston set out to make, and on the open roads it fulfils this brief pretty effectively, not least with suspension that feels surprisingly pliant, even in Sport. This is mixed with the sophisticated refinement to make a day's drive to Milan a journey to be relished. But it's hard not conclude that with a name like Vanquish and a £190,000 price, this car should offer a wider array of personalities. And one of them should be a lot more dynamic.

Audi's RS4 sounds not just dynamic but thunderous with it. The throbbing rip of its V8 promises a monstrously hard charge, and especially so with its 8250rpm red line. Part of the appeal lies in the unlikeliness of 444bhp beneath the bonnet of an estate car, although this bodystyle has you wondering whether corners are impediments to be flailed through or direction changes to be savoured. The promise of some savouring is certainly there. The previous RS4 is a bit of a legend, and this one similarly benefits from a four-wheel drive system that can send plenty of torque – up to 85 per cent of it – to the rear axle.

As with the previous RS4, it feels like an admirable exercise in containment – of understeer (mostly), body roll and trajectory, aided by its quattro drive system. There's a slightly teetering character to its progress through corners, although it never lets you down with slithering, straight-on slides. But what's intriguing – and not a little beguiling, at least on track – is that you can deal with the understeer with a bold stab of the right foot, a motion that has the Audi reconfiguring the V8's torque dispersal to defeat the front-end's grip deficiency and even have its tail swaying lightly sideways.

"The result is not always elegant," said one tester, "but at least the RS4 now makes you feel like a decent-sized cog in the machine." Another suggested that "throttle is the answer to most problems". And it is – at least on the track.

The RS4 really belongs on the road, of course, and it's here that the all-weather security of its all-wheel drive system adds a warming safety net of protection when you're embarking on the long journeys for which this car was built. The sheer quality of its cabin is an enduring pleasure, too. Which makes the lightly turbulent ride a little disappointing, despite the compensation of a roundly brilliant drivetrain.

Ultimately, this Audi is undermined by a finesse shortfall and a less than fully engaging dynamic personality, whether on road or track. It's a weapon, and a magnificent sounding one at that, but it's a little too crude in this company.

Britain's best driver's car: The fast show

Posted: 29 Oct 2012 10:13 AM PDT

Britain's Best Driver's Car: Alpina B3 GT3 vs Lotus Exige S vs Mercedes C63 AMG Black Series

This group was always likely to produce the fastest lap time, what with the Lotus Exige S being a thinly disguised trackday car, and the Alpina and Mercedes both bursting at the seams with raw horsepower. But would it also produce the best driver's car outright? And by that we mean not just a machine good for travelling sideways in for hundreds of yards at a time (that'll be the C63, then), but one that can also deliver on the road every bit as much as it can on the track. To begin with, no one quite knew, but we would have a ball finding out, even if the tyre budget might take a hit in the process.

The Alpina and AMG both adhere to a similar philosophy and adopt a theoretically similar approach to the business of going quickly. Both are rear-wheel drive and both are based on more humble machines that we already love. Both boast more than 400bhp, too.

Look more closely, though, and there are some fairly major differences in the hardware that they employ. The Benz has a thundering 6208cc naturally aspirated V8 that's mated to a seven-speed semi-automatic paddleshift gearbox, and it produces 510bhp and an eye-watering 457lb ft. It also costs a faintly astonishing £110,000, weighs 1710kg and can, claims AMG, get to 60mph in 4.2sec on the way to a top speed limited to 186mph. It is a monster of a car, to say the least.

The Alpina B3 GT3, on the other hand, appears almost dainty by comparison. Despite lacking the cartoonish  muscularity of the AMG, it does a different kind of mean beneath the skin, and one that's only a touch less dramatic than its arch rival on paper. Thanks to a tweaked version of the standard 335i's twin-turbo straight six, it provides its driver with 402bhp and a fulsome 398lb ft to play with. And, as ever, it comes with Alpina's six-speed Switch-tronic gearbox.

The B3's trump card is not what lies beneath the bonnet, nor even its beautifully tweaked chassis, which features adjustable coil-over suspension and a limited-slip diff that can turn a common or garden roundabout into a grown-ups' play area in less time than it takes to say "undergrowth". What distinguishes the Alpina is its kerb weight because, at 1535kg, it is a whopping 175kg lighter than the AMG. And that means that the C63's power and torque advantages are all but wiped out in practice, making the two cars as good as inseparable in a straight line.

And what of the Lotus? It gets thumped so badly by the Germans on paper that, in theory, it might as well pack up and go home right now. Its 3.5-litre V6 engine is supercharged and attached to a much-improved six-speed manual gearbox, but with a mere 345bhp and 295lb ft to call upon, it is nowhere in the grunt stakes beside its rivals.

And in reality that matters not one iota because, like the Alpina but only more so, the Lotus is light on its feet. Weighing just 1176kg it has the fruitiest 0-60mph time of this group, at 4sec dead. And that's before you so much as mention the fact that it's mid rather than front-engined, wears super-sticky trackday tyres and has been created by some of the most gifted chassis engineers in the entire solar system. The Exige, you therefore deduce, can take care of itself, even when faced with just about everything the mighty Teutonic coupés can throw at it.

In isolation, in fact, it feels absolutely unbeatable around a circuit. Although the west lap at Bedford is quite tight, it also features four big braking areas and two fairly high-speed direction changes, through all of which the Exige felt nailed to the ground. The way that it could be drifted gently through the high-speed corners, with just a touch of well balanced oversteer on call if necessary, was properly breathtaking. But it was under brakes and in the two key traction areas when exiting the two slowest corners that the Lotus came into its own.

In both instances, the Exige was in a league of one. You could brake a good 10m later into the hairpin at the end of the pit straight than you could in either of the other two, yet at the exit the Lotus could put its power down not only sooner but also harder. The only thing that let the Exige down on the circuit was its recalcitrant gearchange, which refused to be rushed.

The gearchange wasn't an issue on the road but with its uncompromisingly stiff suspension, cramped cockpit and relative lack of sound-deadening, the Exige S has plenty of other flaws as a road car. And in the end, its practicalities are such that it is really only a car to endure on your way to whichever circuit you might be driving towards next. As a track car, it's sensational; as a road car, it is anything but.

Unlike the Alpina B3 GT3 or the C63 Black Series, then. Both of these cars are firm and fairly frantic to use on the road, but both could quite easily be driven and enjoyed as everyday vehicles. The B3 is slightly more chilled in character but both are pleasantly refined, so long as you dial down their various settings. The B3 you adjust manually, with spanners; the C63 you tailor electronically to suit whatever mood you're in.

It's on the track, though, where they come alive, the B3 less so because of its tendency towards understeer in extremis, and because of its infuriatingly slow-witted auto gearbox. Which is surprising given that the Alpina is the lighter of the two and should, in theory, be the more agile on a circuit.

In reality, however, it's the AMG that shines brightest when you start to throw it around on the track. Its resistance to understeer is little short of miraculous for such a big, heavy machine, but it's the way that the C63 disguises its weight during direction changes that's most spooky of all. If you didn't know, you'd guess that it weighed maybe 1250kg-1300kg. Genuinely, it feels that agile on the track and is that rapid around the lap as a result.

So much so that, quite incredibly, it actually set the fastest lap time of the day at Bedford, faster even than the Exige S wearing trackday tyres. It also whipped the Alpina by almost two seconds, and that was all about the AMG's extra agility and its surprisingly decent traction.

Making it go fast is ultimately down to how much of its power you can deploy neatly on to the road, and how much of its mighty acceleration you can summon before the rear wheels start to spin. But get it right – which is surprisingly easy to do thanks to the excellent gearbox, deliciously precise steering and its decent traction – and the AMG hits the spot harder than most. For me, it was the outright winner. For the majority, it might not have won quite such high acclaim, but it was universally admired, and rightly so.

Britain's best driver's car 2012: Three of a kind

Posted: 29 Oct 2012 04:54 AM PDT

Britain's Best Driver's Car 2012: Porsche 911 Carrera S vs Boxter S vs Cayman R

Three Porsches? Seems greedy, doesn't it? In fact, we'd started with four on our shortlist, because we weren't sure whether the standard or S model would best serve the Boxster's cause. In the end, the S won.

As last year's winner, the Cayman R was in attendance by right, and with the 911 and Boxster new to the market and earning rapturous applause, there seemed far more to lose than gain by leaving one behind. Besides, which would you drop?

Additionally, there was an issue that needed resolving, one whose significance broke free from the confines of revealing the identity of Britain's best driver's car to ask questions about the entire future direction of Porsche sports car design. Could its new hybrid aluminium and steel architecture, atop which the Boxster and 911 sit, improve on the standards of the old?

The Cayman R set off first. Those of us who've attended this event for 20 years or more could not recall another at which the returning champion had been more readily backed to win again. Last year, it didn't just win; it annihilated the opposition. If the Cayman R's nemesis was lurking in the paddock, its identity was far from clear.

In fact, the Cayman didn't win, but that says more about the eventual victor than any inherent weakness in the design of the Cayman R. Just look at the judges' scores: one placed it fourth overall, every other put it on their podium, and two of us ranked it first.

Praise came from all directions and for all reasons, and in so doing revealed its secret. The Cayman R did not climb that far up the leaderboard just because it was quite handy at doing skids. On the contrary; it is the lack of anything you might identify as a weakness that so distinguishes this previous-generation Porsche.

And it was sobering to be reminded just how good was the old Porsche steering. Because it uses expertly chosen geometry, spring rates and bushing, Porsche has no need to artificially create the sensation of sportiness. The Cayman R has a large wheel with a thin, hard rim, all the better for conveying information to your fingers, and relatively low gearing to stamp out any sensation of nervousness. And it does so brilliantly.

Realistically, we could not hope for the Boxster S to get anywhere near the Cayman R, and not because it is less powerful. More persuasively, it is a roadster and, inevitably, torsionally less sound. Moreover, even in S form, the Boxster is a car that'll be used on circuits by a tiny constituency of owners. By contrast, the Cayman R has been designed and honed specifically for trackday warriors. And finally, there's the steering: electric (Boxster) versus hydraulic (Cayman). Electric power steering is improving exponentially at the moment but we've yet to encounter one that actually improves on the hydraulic power steering it replaces.

And we'll not find it here. The Boxster's steering is perhaps 90 per cent as good as the Cayman's. All the precision is there, the same deliciously linear off-centre response and no apparent loss of accuracy. It's the way it communicates that's different. The feel is there but it seems manufactured rather than inherent, as if created not by the natural passage of inputs from the steered wheels to the steering wheel but synthesised by electronics boffins with brains the size of Berlin.

The result is a car that split opinion among the judges, one placing it as high as second, two as low as seventh,and no contender had a wider range of scores. Where there was near unanimity, however, is where it should come relative to the Cayman, with just one judge ranking it ahead of its older stablemate.

A failure then for the Boxster? By no means. Indeed, the fact that it tied for fourth place in the overall standards with the epically wonderful C63 Black shows the esteem in which we hold this car. All judges were lost in admiration for the way that Porsche had mitigated the weakness inherent in all convertible cars. One called it "the best skill-deficit reducer here"; another said he could scarcely believe a mid-engined car should have so playful a chassis.

He was right. When the track was damp in the morning, there were times when it felt more like a Mk2 Ford Escort than amid-engined Porsche, so easy was it to drive over the limit.

And so to the 911. If you'd told us before the event that just one judge would put it in their top three, with everyone else scoring it fifth or worse, we'd have laughed you out of the pub. During tests on road and track in the year since we first drove the new 911, praise for it has flowed off these pages. What can possibly have gone so badly wrong?

Very little. You can read every note written by every judge and fail to find any who were disappointed by it. Some noted more understeer than they'd have liked and another said that the steering was less good than an old 997-generation 911's. But comments like "still fantastic", "one of the most exciting cars here", "more confidence-inspiring than you could imagine a rear-engined car to be" and "all the performance car you'll ever need" are far more representative of the judges' predominate sentiments.

Sometimes, though, being even very good isn't quite enough, particularly when a car is forced to slug it out with lighter, better balanced, two-seat, mid-engined stablemates. It's worth bearing in mind, too, that had this been the only Porsche here, it would have come fourth and we'd be marvelling at it.

What did it lose to the Cayman R? We sent them out together to find out. The first surprise was that, over a lap, they were almost inseparable, with whatever the lighter, less powerful car lost on the straights being recovered in the corners and under braking. In the end, their times were separated by 5/100ths of a second, and in the Cayman's favour.

In the end, it came down to this: in the entry phase to a corner, the back of the Cayman would stay more firmly planted, giving you the ability to lob it on a trailing throttle. Then as you opened up the throttle towards the exit, the 911 would understeer sooner, squandering its inherent traction advantage away from the apex. You had to try harder to stay smoother and went slower as a result.

All we've said about the 911 stands and its final placing speaks volumes about this year's freakishly high overall standard. Next year, we hope to have the new GT3 here, and maybe that will have what it takes to put the 911 back on top of the pile. For now, however, sixth is the best it can do.

Britain's best driver's car 2012: Big thrills, smaller bills

Posted: 29 Oct 2012 04:35 AM PDT

Britain's Best Driver's Car 2012: Ford Focus ST vs Toyota GT86

This year's Britain's Best Driver's Car test was grounded by a twin-test sideshow that we've been anticipating all year. The issue of Ford Focus ST vs Toyota GT86 was set to be a duel of affordable virtuosos with real sporting pedigrees, and already in possession of glowing road test recommendations. These were cars at the apex of entertainment and attainability, of the sort that have taken past panels of Autocar judges by storm. But they arrived here via philosophies so different that choosing between them was never likely to be the work of a moment.

Ford's new Focus ST isn't just usefully cheaper than the Toyota GT86; it's also quite a lot quicker and has all the usability advantages that you'd expect of a five-door family hatch compared with a smaller two-door notchback. And then there's the trademark fast Ford handling, which was never likely to be found wanting on sheer excitement.

Throughout the duration of BBDC judging day, and even in the presence of cars with much more focus and raw performance, neither the Ford nor the Toyota stood ticking cool in the Bedford pitlane for longer than 10 minutes. Lotuses were overlooked and Porsches put firmly on the back burner as long as this one teasing question loomed over proceedings.

Bedfordshire's excellent rural roads were the obvious place to begin looking for answers, and the Focus took to them like a 400m runner on his home track. It doesn't tear down straights quite like Usain Bolt's four-wheeled double – whatever that may be – but it's in the same stadium. That turbocharged engine, quick to respond with its 250lb ft, allows it to eat short straights with serious pace. T

he chassis tune is typically 'Ford', so strong-willed, but soft-edged. It's compliant enough to keep four tyres in contact with the ground, even when you hit a mid-corner bump that you hadn't seen coming. But it's firm enough to check body roll before it disturbs grip levels, not to overwork the front end under braking, and to inspire more than the confidence generally needed to take a typical B-road apart, corner by corner.

What it isn't, however, is a scruff of the neck, chuck it in and sort it out kind of car; beyond a certain point, the harder you drive the Focus ST, the less impressive it gets. At its most rewarding – about eight-tenths of your maximum commitment levels – the Ford has super-quick steering that allows you to carve smooth, neutral lines through turns, provided you don't rush your inputs. Leave the ESP on and traction is strong. But there's plenty of torque steer, still not as much steering feedback as from the best front-drivers, and one very apparent omission in the case of an open front differential. All of which can make your corner exit ragged with the ESP switched out and if you're too keen with the controls.

The circuit brought out no shortage of amusing off-throttle adjustability in the Ford but, that apart, it served only to confirm a key suspicion: that this is above all else a road car. It is as practical and as usable as any other five-door and perfect for everyday entertainment, but not quite capable of the most vivid thrills.

The Toyota GT86 is more of your John Regis than Usain Bolt: not slow, but not fast, at least not in the strictest terms. Keep it wound up, flat four strumming belligerently away between 5000rpm and 7500rpm and, just as the Focus is fun enough, the GT86 is fast enough. Fast enough, just about, to feel like it belongs on a circuit as much as it does on the A361. Fast enough, just about, to reward you for wringing every last drop of available speed out of it, which is something you can do more often than you might think, even on the UK's roads.

Yet there's so much more to the GT86 than the buzz of sheer velocity. More than enough, even, to make you wonder how much better several of the other cars in our test might have been if they weren't so devoted to the false idols of grip and stability. Perfect poise, instant and utterly progressive handling responses, spellbinding controllability – these are the delights that capture your imagination in the Toyota, lap after lap and B-road after B-road, never dimming as they might in a heavier car with deteriorating tyres, never failing to present themselves when you ask, and never likely to get boring, ever.

One tester had it about right when he summed up the Toyota's handling repertoire: "It's rear-biased to the extent that you think a back tyre may be flat – but that's okay. The car wants you to have a good time – at high speeds, at low speeds, whenever and wherever you like. I like having a good time. I'll play."

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