Two days, two totally different driving experiences, two key questions.Can the new McLaren MP4-12C dethrone the Ferrari 458 Italia?And how do these two high flyers compare to the sports car establishment? True, it would have been nice to include the exciting new Lamborghini Aventador, and perhaps even the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, in this contest, but we had to draw the line somewhere. That’s how the 1200-hp Bugatti and the $390K Lambo fell off the grid, as did the Gumperts, Koenigseggs, and Paganis of this world. In the end, we picked the following six competitors: Audi R8 5.2 coupe, Ferrari 458 Italia, Lamborghini Gallardo LP570-4 Spyder Performante, McLaren MP4-12C, Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, and Porsche 911 GT2 RS. Past masters like the Nissan GT-R, the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, the Jaguar XKR-S, and the Aston Martin DBS would arguably also fit in, but for clarity and compatibility we decided to concentrate on the newest and most advanced variations of the breed. The showdown was staged on the “world’s fastest” racetrack in Rockingham, Northamptonshire, England (day one), as well as on the most challenging rural roads of North Wales (day two). Ready for the ride of your life? Then come aboard, buckle up, and take a deep breath.
6. Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Equally at home on Rodeo Drive and the Mulsanne straight.
Having driven the SLS extensively on the Sachsenring circuit in eastern Germany, I was expecting the gull-wing coupe to perform with similar aplomb in the U.K. But somehow, the white two-seater fell short of our expectations. One can always find excuses, such as well-used tires or Rockingham’s tight infield corners, but in the end the SLS didn’t make the grade in this company because it’s really a GT rather than a hard-core sports car. Powered by a wonderfully vocal and amazingly torquey 6.2-liter V-8, the flagship AMG model struggles to conceal its considerable size and mass. It has very strong brakes and the best steering of any current Mercedes product, but when asked to deliver, the car can be its own worst enemy at times. Traits like roll, yaw, pitch, dive, and squat are all there in different quantities and various combinations. While the SLS loves long straights and fast corners, it feels less at home through the twisties, tends to pick a fight with every ripple and pothole it encounters, and occasionally squirms under pressure. Switch off the stability control, and the big Benz will shed its mask, smoking Continental ContiSportContacts over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sideways becomes the Benz’s preferred posture, with the accelerator offering additional direction-changing services. Shifting down to third or second is also perceived as an invitation to slide through the next corner. This is fast, furious, fabulous fun. Strong points include an intuitive paddleshift transmission, the rubber-peeling verve of the 563-hp engine, and the chuckability of the talented chassis. But at the end of the day, the SLS feels somewhat shirt-sleeved and uncouth in this dynamically sophisticated company. There’s also an issue with the awkward driving position. You sit tall and upright in a rather wide cockpit, looking either at a set of flashy instruments or over a long, phallic front end, steering the car from farther back than what seems natural.
On the track: Hilarious, feels a half-g faster than it actually is, tends to be all over the place most of the time. Glad we didn’t have to pay the tire bill.
On the road: Big, butch, bad, bold. Wide enough to mow the shoulder of the road, heavy enough to bottom out here and there, aggressive enough to momentarily raise your hackles through high-speed bends. A real handful but blindingly quick.
Mercedes-Benz SLS AMGBase price $188,500
PowertrainEngine 32-valve DOHC V-8Displacement 6.2 liters (379 cu in)Power 563 hp @ 6800 rpmTorque 479 lb-ft @ 4750 rpmTransmission 7-speed dual-clutch automaticDrive Rear-wheel
ChassisSteering Hydraulically assistedSuspension, front Control arms, coil springsSuspension, rear Control arms, coil springsBrakes Vented discs, ABSTires Continental ContiSportContact 5PTire size f, r 265/35YR-19, 295/30YR-20
MeasurementsL x W x H 182.6 x 76.3 x 49.3 inWheelbase 105.5 inTrack F/R 66.2/65.0 inWeight 3783 lbWeight dist. 46/54%Fuel mileage 14/20 mpg0-62 mph 3.8 secTop speed 197 mph
Best lap 01:33.01 minTop speed in lap 133.82 mph
5. Lamborghini Gallardo LP570-4 Spyder Performante Zorro, here comes your new horse.
Have you ever tried to push a champagne cork back into the bottle? That’s how I feel when I approach the Gallardo. OK, with the top down, it’s a little easier to slide the full length of Kacher (six feet, eight inches) behind the steering wheel, but even when eventually installed, my crouched body is in pain. Legs akimbo, head ducked forward as if on a tour of the Roman catacombs, feet frozen at funny angles, bum stashed rearward all the way to the wiring of the seat heater — I now know why Dirk Nowitzki drives an SUV and not a sports car. More compact mortals, however, are likely to be smitten with the Lambo’s style and substance. Seemingly designed by machete rather than with a pencil, the angular, wedge-shaped, hewn-from-solid-aluminum droptop pulls bigger crowds than the keyhole of Will and Kate’s bedroom. Further enhancing the appeal of the mean-looking, ground-hugging Italian is the soundtrack that the composers from Sant’Agata have developed for their awesome V-10. The normally aspirated, 5.2-liter unit needs only a couple thousand revs to stage a jam session that stimulates your auditory canals. With all throttle blades wide open and the tach needle swinging toward the 8500-rpm redline, the Performante unleashes massive vibes and triple-figure decibels. The Performante treatment includes a 10-hp increase (to 563 hp), a 143-pound weight reduction, and seats borrowed from the limited-edition Reventon, plus a neo-Gothic body kit highlighted by plenty of carbon-fiber add-ons, black wheels, and a somber Alcantara cockpit. The steering is razor-sharp but compromised by an overly large turning circle. The magnetic grip and tenacious traction are offset by a twitchy, occasionally errant, and superstiff front suspension. Rowdy handling at the limit resembles a bull ride on a nail-studded saddle. Other descriptors that come to mind are “totally involving,” “quite scary,” and “as memorable as your first bungee jump.”
On the track: Fast, ferocious, always on fire. Smooth tarmac helps the Performante shine. Driven with heart in hand, this is a great carver with amazing brakes and a commendable chassis.
On the road: An eye-opener for the first fifteen miles but hard work for the remainder of the day. Loves to fight the driver, the road, the elements — you name it.
Lamborghini Gallardo LP570-4 Spyder PerformanteBase price $253,095
PowertrainEngine 40-valve DOHC V-10Displacement 5.2 liters (318 cu in)Power 562 hp @ 8000 rpmTorque 398 lb-ft @ 6500 rpmTransmission 6-speed automated manualDrive 4-wheel
ChassisSteering Hydraulically assistedSuspension, front Control arms, coil springsSuspension, rear Control arms, coil springsBrakes Vented discs, ABSTires Pirelli PZero CorsaTire size f, r 235/35YR-19,295/30YR-19
MeasurementsL x W x H 172.7 x 74.8 x 46.6 inWheelbase 100.8 inTrack F/R 64.3/62.9 inWeight 3700 lb (est.)Weight dist. 43/57%Fuel mileage 13/20 mpg (est.)0-62 mph 3.9 secTop speed 201 mph
Best lap01:29.92 minTop speed in lap 136.66 mph
4. Audi R8 5.2A reinvented Gallardo clone ready to eclipse its secret idol.
The R8 is a neo-Italian sports car that appeals to those who prefer their pasta more marinara than arrabiata. Although the R8 has evolved into more of a Gallardo competitor, its original mission in life was to challenge the Porsche 911. True to its brand image, Audi chose a more pragmatic approach than Lamborghini by making its flagship sports car emphatically accessible, benign, and homogenous. But unlike the fast yet totally uninvolving RS5 and RS6, the R8 is rewarding to drive yet astonishingly compromise-free. The mid-engine coupe is smooth, progressive, and compliant — but smooth doesn’t mean soft, progressive doesn’t mean boring, and compliant doesn’t mean passive. With 525 hp on tap, the superstar from Neckarsulm (home of the Quattro division) may not qualify on the pole position, but it deserves praise for its fluid motions, its blend of poise and balance, and its ground-covering ability on all kinds of turf. The steering has plenty of feedback, the standard cast-iron brakes have taken out a college degree in deceleration, and four-wheel drive pushes or pulls you out of trouble with that miraculous Quattro touch. Purists prefer the R8 without the snappy carbon-ceramic discs or the jerky R tronic transmission. The manual box with the chrome gate adds a welcome retro touch. At the push of a button, the dampers and the stability control can be adjusted to further sharpen the car’s reflexes, but even with all the electronic watchdogs on full alert, there’s no shortage of suspension feedback and drivetrain response. The V-10 R8 may be a little wide, a little heavy, and a little thirsty, but despite its genetic proximity to the Performante, it is not only a talented sports car but also a fully adequate GT. You may, however, want to wait for the face-lifted model due next summer, which will boast a more efficient 540-hp engine and a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
On the track: Creamy, capable, and compelling in its blend of velocity and controllability.
On the road: A perfect four-seasons sports car for those who can afford to travel light. Provides nine-tenths of the excitement without inflicting any of the punishment you may have to live with in other supercars.
Audi R8 5.2Base price $150,250
PowertrainEngine 40-valve DOHC V-10Displacement 5.2 liters (318 cu in)Power 525 hp @ 8000 rpmTorque 391 lb-ft @ 6500 rpmTransmission 6-speed manualDrive 4-wheel
ChassisSteering Hydraulically assistedSuspension, front Control arms, coil springsSuspension, rear Control arms, coil springsBrakes Vented discs, ABSTires Pirelli PZeroTire size f, r 235/35YR-19, 295/30YR-19
MeasurementsL x W x H 174.6 x 75.0 x 49.0 inWheelbase 104.3 inTrack F/R 64.3/62.8 inWeight 3731 lbWeight dist. 44/56%Fuel mileage 12/19 mpg0-62 mph 3.9 secTop speed 195 mph
Best lap01:31.06 minTop speed in lap135.25 mph
3. Porsche 911 GT2 RSDid you take your bastard pills this morning?
This car scares me. Badly. When I first drove the GT2 RS, in the wet and for a series of cornering shots, I spun the beast twice, thankfully damaging only my ego. Of course, I don’t blame the Porsche — this was a blatantly obvious case of driver incompetence. You see, unlike the Carrera S, which will dance through hairpins without ever putting a tire wrong, the GT2 RS is like jumping from a very easy to a very difficult level of sudoku. Suddenly, everything is less relaxed and more serious. There’s the track-oriented livery with its countless air deflectors, spats, flaps, and diffusers. The stripped-out interior with its carbon-fiber trim and barren surfaces differs dramatically from the usual leather and aluminum mix. The seats feel like screw clamps even without the red, bondage-style, five-point safety harness. And then, of course, there’s the noise, which is so omnipresent, so intense, and also so dependent on what you touch and move and engage. The tiny flywheel, the evil race clutch, the sticky throttle, and the gearbox seemingly filled with Swabian maple syrup make it crystal clear that this is going to be a very physical drive. If you think the GT2 RS is simply a GT3 with a bit more poke, then think again. Think 620 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque fed to the rear wheels only; think of a limited-slip differential that cuts in like an axe; and think of a sport suspension featuring arm-thick antiroll bars, springs made of cast iron, and dampers filled with quartz sand. But then, halfway through day two, at long last something like confidence started to weave a thin ribbon between car and driver. It may take longer than expected to become familiar with this animal and its impossible weight distribution, and it takes coconut-size cojones to go exploring the limit in it, but once you’ve found the right rhythm, the right attitude, and the right timing, you can actually start working this 911 a little harder without getting stung. What always remains in the back of my mind, though, are the wayward directional stability, the sometimes-frightening load transfer, and the zero-tolerance steering. Call me a wimp, but I would rather have a Turbo S any day of the week.
On the track: Excessive blood pressure, dangerous pulse rate, embarrassing perspiration.
On the road: Less of the above, but not significantly so. Particularly careful surface reading, conscientious gearshifts, and thoughtful throttle inputs are essential to cast a favorable horoscope.
Porsche 911 GT2 RSBase price $245,950
PowertrainEngine 24-valve DOHC twin-turbo flat-6Displacement 3.6 liters (220 cu in)Power 620 hp @ 6500 rpmTorque 516 lb-ft @ 2250 rpmTransmission 6-speed manualDrive Rear-wheel
ChassisSteering Hydraulically assistedSuspension, front Strut-type, coil springsSuspension, rear Multilink, coil springsBrakes Vented carbon-ceramic discs, ABSTires Michelin Pilot Sport Cup+Tire size f, r 245/35YR-19, 325/30YR-19
MeasurementsL x W x H 175.9 x 72.9 x 50.6 inWheelbase 92.5 inTrack F/R 59.4/61.2 inWeight 3177 lbWeight dist. 38/62%Fuel mileage 16/23 mpg0-62 mph 3.5 secTop speed 205 mph
Best lap01:28.77 minTop speed in lap 139.34 mph
2. McLaren MP4-12CA great first effort lessened by lack of consistency, not absolute ability.
Over the last few months, I have driven five different MP4s. Although they were all preproduction cars, none was quite like the other. The worst specimen of the five was our yellow track car, which retired with a faulty suspension that was taking in air. The best was the car available at the first venue in Portimao, Portugal, closely followed by the triple-checked vehicle that McLaren rushed to Wales for the second day of this test. General dislikes? Not many, but a few critical remarks. Even the cars fitted with carbon-ceramic brakes (four out of five) had a tendency to e-x-t-e-n-d the stopping distance under very hard ABS-assisted braking. It may be the software, the tires, or a surface-related phenomenon, but it can grow you an extra gray hair or two. Another question mark concerns the Formula 1-derived brake-steer feature, which briefly grabs the inner rear wheel under hard cornering to tighten the line. It certainly does that, but on winding, bumpy country roads attacked with a knife between your teeth, a momentary stability-threatening tug at either rear wheel suggests that certain conditions can outfox the system for fractions of a second. Still on the debit side, we should also mention that stability control cannot be switched off completely, that the performance and handling control knobs are not as simple to use as Ferrari’s manettino, and that the effort required to paddleshift gears can be too high for a busy solitary finger. Also, the 592-hp twin-turbo V-8 simply does not sound special enough given its sensational power delivery. On paper, the mid-engine coupe from Woking has what it takes to challenge or even beat the Ferrari. But when you drive the two cars back-to-back, the McLaren, over time and distance, loses an inch of ground here and there. At2.5 turns lock-to-lock, its steering isn’t quite as quick as that of the 458 Italia (2.0 turns) and is also a bit on the light side. The brakes do a sterling job squashing energy at high speeds, but the final 60-mph-to-0 bracket is not their forte. The chassis is beautifully set up for slow second-gear kinks and for courage-testing sweepers, the ride deserves a “cloud nine” gold medal, the handling is communicative yet never impatient and inspiring but never rough-edged. I would love to spend more time in an MP4 that is up to scratch, because I suspect that deep within this conservatively dressed work of art lies a true Ferrari-beater.
On the track: Forget Rockingham. In Portimao, the McLaren lived up to everybody’s expectations. Surprisingly easy to drive fast, quite tactile in its actions and responses, and totally involving yet never overly demanding.
On the road: Fantastic. Had it not been painted arrest-me bright orange, we would have probably broken all existing land speed records between Swansea and Llandudno. Not quite as spicy as the Italia but very tasty nonetheless.
McLaren MP4-12CBase price $231,400
PowertrainEngine 32-valve DOHC twin-turbo V-8Displacement 3.8 liters (232 cu in)Power 592 hp @ 7000 rpmTorque 443 lb-ft @ 3000 rpmTransmission 7-speed dual-clutch automaticDrive Rear-wheel
ChassisSteering Electrohydraulically assistedSuspension, front Control arms, coil springsSuspension, rear Control arms, coil springsBrakes Vented carbon-ceramic discs, ABSTires Pirelli PZeroTire size f, r 235/35YR-19, 305/30YR-20
MeasurementsL x W x H 177.5 x 75.1 x 47.2 inWheelbase 105.1 inTrack F/R 62.3/65.2 inWeight 3161 lbWeight dist. 43/57%Fuel mileage 15/22 mpg (est.)0-62 mph 3.3 secTop speed 205 mph
Best lap 01:30.06 minTop speed in lap 138.54 mph
1. Ferrari 458 ItaliaFuses competence and emotion in a pacesetting package.
Front-engine Ferraris traditionally form the core of the brand, but ever since the 288GTO and the F40, it has been the mid-engine models that epitomize the technological pinnacle of a given era. Like red wine, Ferraris come in good and less desirable vintages. Whereas the 328, the Mondial, and the 348 were not exactly grand crus, the F355 Challenge, the Enzo, and the 430 Scuderia were rated 10 out of 10 by most connoisseurs. Enter the 458, which pushes the high-tech envelope even further. Its hyperquick steering, riveting brakes, trick F1 E-diff, groundbreaking ergonomics, faster-than-lightning dual-clutch automatic, and direct-injected, 562-hp, 4.5-liter V-8 convene in a sports car that leaves you breathless with exhaustion and satisfaction and lusting for an encore. Although it is loaded with high-tech items, the 458 is a surprisingly accessible driving machine. In essence, there are only three buttons to keep an eye on. The manettino adjusts the car’s attitude from tiptoe (wet) to no-holds-barred (CST OFF); the red button starts the engine; and the black button selects a softer damper setting for those crash-bang-wallop two-lanes. In Race mode, you get the best of all worlds: sledgehammer upshifts, instant throttle response, Velcro-strap grip, and enough power oversteer to change your passenger’s complexion from bronze to ashen. Bonus features include spine-tingling sound, the fastest steering this side of a go-kart, all controls within reach of your fingertips, enough cabin space to swing a full-grown tiger, and enough grunt to boggle the mind. What you don’t get are smooth clutch action during takeoff, on hills, and in stop-and-go traffic — and anything that resembles a complete equipment list. Spending $70K on extras means that the Ferrari salesperson wasn’t even trying. But the Italia is worth every penny; it holds its value better than the competition and will soon also be available in Spider (2011) and Challenge form (2012). At the end of day two, when the time had come to dispatch the keys for the return drive to Peterborough, the 458 was again more popular than the MP4. After all, it is not only very fast and highly competent, it also hits you deep down, where desire breeds.
On the track: Am I dreaming, or are the tire walls moving closer with every lap? Am I blind, or did I really see an indicated 140 mph at the end of the long front straight? Am I mad, or is this really my first-ever fourth-gear slide?
On the road: Very close to the MP4, but in the final analysis the Ferrari is marginally sharper, purer, more focused, and less restrained. It also sounds intoxicatingly good — but perhaps not all day long.
Ferrari 458 ItaliaBase price $230,675
PowertrainEngine 32-valve DOHC V-8Displacement 4.5 liters (275 cu in)Power 562 hp @ 9000 rpmTorque 398 lb-ft @ 6000 rpmTransmission 7-speed dual-clutch automaticDrive Rear-wheel
ChassisSteering Hydraulically assistedSuspension, front Control arms, coil springsSuspension, rear Multilink, coil springsBrakes Vented carbon-ceramic discs, ABSTires Michelin Pilot Sport PS2Tire size f, r 235/35YR-20, 295/35YR-20
MeasurementsL x W x H 178.2 x 76.3 x 47.8 inWheelbase 104.3 inTrack F/R 65.8/63.2 inWeight 3439 lbWeight dist. 42/58%Fuel mileage 13/18 mpg (est.)0-62 mph 3.4 secTop speed 202 mph
Best lap 01:28.30 minTop speed in lap 139.67 mph
ConclusionSo the Ferrari wins — even though a McLaren driver in a different MP4-12C test car bettered our lap time by 0.7 second two days later. But lap times are never the sole decider, nor is track performance. What really makes your heart chambers pulsate is how a car behaves on the road. On everyday terrain, it was a close race between Italy and England but not quite a dead heat. Although the top two rivals are almost equally quick, the 458 emerges as the more multifaceted and, in some areas, more talented car. But the McLaren is about as hot on its heels as Lewis Hamilton often is to Fernando Alonso, and when you consider that the MP4 architecture is planned to act as the backbone for three model ranges with nine different variants, there’s no doubt that the die will be cast a few more times. As far as three of the four other contestants go, you can get 90 percent of the flavor at 60 percent of the cost by checking out the lower portions of that model’s price list, where the R8 4.2, the 911 Carrera GTS, and the Gallardo LP560-4 are arguably better values than their top-of-the-line counterparts.
Test ResultsRockingham Motor SpeedwayInternational Super Sports Car Circuit1.94 miles
Price of AdmissionSo you wanna join the supercar club…
Trouble is, you’re probably too late.
And too bourgeois.
“The SLS AMG basically was impossible to get. It was like pulling teeth to get one for a client,” says a well-placed dealer manager who prefers to remain nameless.
The client — who has deep pockets and a large Mercedes-Benz collection — had to go through a vigorous application process before paying MSRP for an early Gullwing.
Welcome to the world of exotic cars, where simply being rich often isn’t enough to get the car of your choice without paying a premium to a broker.
Certain Ferrari dealerships, for instance, award cars to clients based on a point system, mostly earned by buying (and trading in) Ferrari models. Next time you see someone driving a 458 Italia, remember: he or she may have done time in a 612 Scaglietti and an F430.
Even the 911 GT2 RS, a $245,950 descendant of the original people’s car, is essentially unattainable at a Porsche dealership, although our source’s Porsche-collecting client managed to score one.
It’s not all bad news for Joe Millionaire. McLaren, having already produced one of the most exclusive supercars of all time in the F1, will likely build enough MP4-12Cs to suit all comers after the initial fireworks fade. Gallardos are generally easy to nab (the red-hot Aventador, however, is not) as is its German cousin, the R8. Audi dealers are happy to sell an R8 at MSRP or even slightly less. It’s basically as easy to order an A4 2.0T, a situation Audi hopes to rectify with the new, limited-production R8 GT Spyder. — David Zenlea
Future TradingWhich of these supercars is likely to be a hot commodity twenty years from now?If rarity were all it took to ensure collectibility, we could all build our own one-off supercar, put our name on it, and retire. In determining future value, however, there are other, equally important factors, such as the impact the car made on the market, the people who bought them when new, and its general mystique. How aspirational were they? A Hollywood appearance or two will help, as will showing up in Gran Turismo 9 or on an iconic poster affixed to the bedroom walls of preteens. Racing or ally wins are always a big deal, naturally. Finally, vehicles that come to represent their era often become prized collector cars, too. — Dave Kinney
The BenzThe SLS AMG pays homage to the most recognizable Benz of all time, the 300SL “Gullwing” coupe. As the 300SL’s spiritual successor, the street cred is there. If the SLS becomes too popular, though, look out; it will simply become a very expensive used car.* * * * (deduct half a star each time one is seen in a Neiman Marcus parking lot)
The LamboSeriously? Lamborghini has a habit of coming out with special editions and making a big deal out of each one. The idea is to let current owners know that their ride is no longer the baddest bull on the block and entice them back to the showroom. There’s currently no Gallardo of the Month Club, but…* *
The AudiThis could be the dark horse of the bunch. The Audi nameplate doesn’t carry the collector-car cachet of the rest of this august group, but the R8 has the distinctive look, the race-car pedigree, and, well, just the aura of something special. Volume is creeping up for a supercar, but collector interest is already strong.* * *
The PorscheIf supercars were picked for being easy to live with, the Acura NSX would win every competition. We like supercars because they don’t play well with others, not because they do. If they scare us into actually having to concentrate in order to drive them, even better. Thus the appeal of the GT2 RS. Yes, the 911 nameplate has been around since forever, and yes, you could argue that this is just another variant. But you’d be wrong.* * * * *
The McLarenThe jury is out on McLaren’s first try at a “mass market” sports car, but if it’s a winner, early examples might wind up being coveted (think purity of the initial design). That’s the best-case scenario. The worst case? The MP4 takes a swan dive into the pool of yesterday’s unloved supercars, and you’re looking at a very long wait for a return on your initial investment.* * *
The FerrariYou don’t need to hire a consultant to tell you that this is a Ferrari. As far as brand recognition goes, if you were born on earth, you pretty much know that Ferrari is an esteemed Italian sports car maker. Downsides? It’s not a V-12, and there’s no manual transmission option. Upside? Nearly everything else. For a Ferrari not to be coveted, it pretty much has to: (1) come from the Magnum, P.I. era, (2) have four seats or — God forbid — four doors, or (3) contain the word Mondial in its name.* * * * *
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