2016 Best Driver’s Car Contenders Part 2: V12 Vantage S, Camaro 1LE, R8 V10 Plus, NSX
Our 2016 Motor Trend Best Driver’s Car introduction continues, and we’re ready to reveal the next set of cars: the 2017 Aston Martin V12 Vantage S, 2017 Chevrolet Camaro 1LE, 2017 Audi R8 V10 Plus, and 2017 Acura NSX.
Keep reading for a brief overview of the contenders, plus insights from professional race car driver Randy Pobst on each car.
More 2016 Best Driver’s Car content:
- Meet the Contenders, Part 1: Mercedes-AMG GT S, BMW M4 GTS, Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R, McLaren 570S
Everyone needs a V-12 in his or her life. It propels a car with that unmistakably historic, silky, shrieking gravitas that no other engine can. There’s something nostalgic about it, too, as if it were an endangered species (it probably is), and it’s this rarity—especially with a seven-speed manual gearbox where the driver can conduct the aria—that makes driving the 2017 Aston Martin V12 Vantage S that much more special. To date, this is the most sporting Aston Martin we’ve tested. Not the quickest, not the fastest, not the most nimble, but certainly it is the most ambitious in terms of mission.
The press kit tells us an “all-alloy, quad overhead camshaft, 48-valve, 5,935cc V-12” makes 565 horsepower at a heady 6,750 rpm, but it’s the experience of driving it that left a lasting impression on every judge this year. If not the outright performance, was the experience enough to elevate the V12 Vantage S up the ranks?
The Aston Martin V12 Vantage S is old-school good, and it embodies a lot of the qualities that we loved about Aston Martins over the years. It feels much more like a traditional sports car than a lot of the hot rods we’ve been driving all weekend—in good ways. It has a big V-12 up front with a fat torque curve that makes gloriously unique noises. The engine never feels like it’s stressed, even when it gets near its unmarked red line. Wonder why they do that? And it’s got a close-ratio seven-speed, and I still found a wrong gear frequently, which I’m going to blame less on the dogleg and more on insufficient spring-loaded lockouts to make sure you’re not getting in the wrong gait, thank you very much. I did an extra lap because I really wanted to focus and make sure I had the right gear everywhere around the track, and I pulled that off. The ratios are so closely spaced that there’s no drop in acceleration on the shift, and the engine pulls cleanly and in a smooth, relaxed manner to redline. It is really satisfying, and it feels racy. It also has a rear-drive, and it’s powerful enough to break the rear wheels loose if you drive like a fool. But if you drive like a capable driver, the car is extremely rewarding, and that’s something I like. It’s not sudden. Feeding the power on, I can choose my yaw with the mechanical limited-slip. I kept [the power on] in Turn 11, looking for that perfect drift coming out of the corner—made the car a really enjoyable driving experience.
The brakes were impressive in that they stayed with me, just on and on and on. The car is a little on the heavy side, and it’s powerful, and I just didn’t expect that. But I looked, and they’re gigantic carbon rotors, just like a lot of the other cars. So the enjoyment from the Aston comes from a more traditional front-engine, rear-drive feel of a classic British [car] and high quality.
There’s a reason the Chevrolet Camaro was named Motor Trend‘s 2016 Car of the Year, and the addition of the 1LE option for 2017 takes something good and makes it into something great. For its 50th Anniversary, we highlighted Chevrolet Camaro performance through the years. Had we tested this 2017 Camaro SS 1LE, it would’ve proven one of the all-time greats. In fact, it made us re-write our Camaro record book.
In what one might call cherry-picking from the Chevy parts bin, the $6,500 1LE specification takes a little something from each go-faster box. Powered by the same 6.2-liter, 455-hp LT1 V-8 as a Camaro SS 1SS with a six-speed manual transmission, the 1LE adds dual-mode exhaust and an electronically controlled limited-slip differential with a 3.73:1 ratio and combines adjustable magnetorheological dampers from the 2SS trim with higher-rate FE4 springs and thicker anti-roll bars. Putting that chassis to work are Brembo six-piston calipers up front, four-piston rears (SS has four-piston front/rear Brembos), unique 20-by-10 front and 20-by-11 rear forged wheels (SS are cast), bespoke Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar 3 tires (SS has narrower F1 Asymmetric 3 run-flats). To call the 1LE merely a track pack would be a disservice. Not only did the SS 1LE set new all-time Camaro records (braking, skidpad, figure eight), but it also lowered the Camaro’s lap time around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, beating those heavy hitters, the 2012 Camaro ZL1 and 2014 Camaro Z/28.
I’ve been looking forward to the new Camaro SS 1LE because the versions I’ve been in have been really terrific. The engine is a big V-8, great sounds, fat torque curve, but it takes a while to get to the redline, I think partially because the car has really tall gears and a fairly wide ratio split. That braking capability was very impressive, almost unbelievably good considering it’s on a Goodyear Eagle F1 tire, which is a pure street tire. It’s not an R compound track tire. The best feature is the front-end grip. All the way though the corner, I could adjust the car with the steering. The front end never died, which is kind of unusual on a front-engine, rear-drive V-8-powered ponycar. The 1LE strikes me as an incredibly good value for the performance and the lap time and just the all-around performance automobile you can get for the price—really great to drive on track.
Audi’s mid-engine cut-rate Lambo has become a BDC regular, having won the inaugural 2008 event in its original V-8 guise. From there it dropped to second in 2009, plunged precipitously to seventh place in 2011 with the harsh-riding and unrefined roll-caged V10 GT variant, and most recently rebounded to third place in 2013 with a much more civilized V10 Plus version. This year we’re sampling the completely redesigned 2017 V10 Plus model, which takes a baby step toward addressing the primary complaint from our last outing—insufficient torque—by boosting output from 550 hp and 398 lb-ft to a whopping 602 hp and 413 lb-ft (that’s full-bore, 205-mph Lambo Huracán-spec tune). That Plus designator shaves a claimed 77 pounds from the base model, thanks to carbon-ceramic brakes and carbon-fiber construction of the rear diffuser, fixed rear wing, and minimally adjustable racing-shell seats. And it gets a quicker-shifting seven-speed S tronic twin-clutch transmission. Sufficient improvement to stay on the podium?
The Audi R8 V10 Plus pulls so strong—the higher it revs, the faster it goes. It’s a very satisfying engine on track. Transmission: same thing, incredibly smooth; I don’t think there’s a smoother one. In the most aggressive Drive Select mode, it only allows manual shifting, which disappointed me. We don’t get many laps here, and sometimes it’s hard to remember how many times to downshift for various corners, so I had to actually look at the gear indicator. The brakes are very strong, but on my last lap, at the end of the big brake zone into Turn 2, the pedal got soft and went all the way to the floor. This track is very hard on brakes. The car had a tendency toward trailing-throttle oversteer on corner entry if I went to a really low gear, so I chose to downshift later or not downshift at all to try to tame that. Aside from that quirk, I find the Audi R8 tends to understeer a lot more than the Lamborghini Huracán. The car feels very well put together, partially due to the extreme smoothness of the engine and transmission. But I found that the handling varies more between understeer on the way out and oversteer on the way in than I would prefer. I think the R8 could really be better in that respect.
It’s been a long time coming, this car. More than 25 years after the launch of the original, the second-generation Acura NSX, developed and built right here in America, swaggers into the 21st century supercar fray jam-packed with innovative technology.
There’s an all-new, twin-turbo, 3.5-liter V-6 that develops 500 hp at 6,500 to 7,500 rpm mounted longitudinally mid-ships, a 36-hp electric motor driving each front wheel, and a 47-hp electric motor mounted between the engine and the bespoke nine-speed dual-clutch transmission. Total system output is 573 hp and 476 lb-ft of torque.
A sophisticated integrated dynamics system enables the powertrain to pull off track-day tricks like front axle torque vectoring and launch control yet also allows the NSX to be programmed for smooth, civilized, and surprisingly efficient daily driving around town. Track-friendly options include carbon-ceramic brakes and sticky Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R or Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires.
The engine and drivetrain are very smooth. And the body control is really good. It felt racy, firm. The braking is strong and consistent, though the pedal felt just ever so slightly numb. I never became conscious of torque vectoring or of the electric motors pulling the front wheels. Any electrical intervention was completely seamless.
What wasn’t seamless was the car’s balance through a corner. If I trail the brake too long into turns, the tail comes right out. If I don’t trail brake, it’s much better, much more controlled, but I have to be careful with it all the time. I was thinking about when exactly I had to come off the brake on the entry to every corner. The oversteer is reasonable to control, but average drivers will spin this car all over the place with its stability control off. It’s just too loose.
I didn’t feel I drove the car terribly consistently. I was always trying to find that right place, that right balance, in the corner entry, whereas the exits were typically really beautiful. I like the way the car exits a corner. It’s definitely more stable under power, under acceleration.
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