2020 Performance Car of the Year
Eleven worthy competitors, one surprising winner.
Crowning the Road & Track Performance Car of the Year is not an easy task. Each fall, we gather every new or revised performance car that we can get our hands on. While some of these candidates naturally worm into our hearts, this is more than a popularity contest—the award doesn’t simply go to the machine we like the most or the one we think is the coolest. PCOTY is about looking to the future and finding the car that provides the most hope for the enthusiast: a machine that offers everything you expect of a modern vehicle yet still tugs at the heart.
To pick a winner, we used the following criteria:
- Outright speed and testing numbers are part of the package, but they don’t determine the winner. Beyond sheer pace, a car has to bring emotion to the table.
- The car must embrace track duty while still being enjoyable on the road.
- Technology has to be used in service of the driver, not just added speed. Feedback and sensation via complexity is great, but complexity alone doesn’t cut it.
- Lastly, we ask ourselves, would any other manufacturer build it? Does the car feel uniquely of its story and brand, with a personality all its own?
This year’s test saw 11 cars join us for two days at Northern California’s Thunderhill Raceway Park. A staff vote at the end of our track time cut the field to six contenders. Those six were then road-tripped on a winding, demanding test route through the Sierra Nevada, ending at Lake Tahoe. A final vote at the end of the journey determined the winner.
You might be wondering why we elected to conduct track testing first this year. Past PCOTY contests have tested cars on the road first, then trekked to a closed course. Our current method gave the staff a chance to drive every car in similar conditions, learning their limits in a safe, controlled environment.
When it came to lap times, we enlisted a licensed club racer with no Thunderhill experience: me. We did this for a reason, and it wasn’t to build my ego. Most of our readers are not pro drivers. When you buy a new car, a professional’s lap time at any track is an interesting metric, but it’s rarely reflective of a normal person’s experience. We wanted to stress accessibility and adaptability. How easy is it to get up to speed in a given car? How communicative is the car? Is it hard to learn the quirks? Under the watchful eyes of our testing staff, every PCOTY contender got a quick warm-up session to set tire pressures, then no more than seven timed laps. Just enough to establish a representative lap and suss idiosyncrasies, not enough to set a record.
Of course, no method is perfect. Ambient temperature during our lapping day started at around 85 degrees Fahrenheit and eventually hit 107. That kind of heat doesn’t help lap speed, and it ensured that late runners needed shorter stints, as times immediately dropped off. While I made every attempt to, as one of our contributors once said, “underserve all the cars equally,” most amateur drivers will get faster over the course of a day at a track they had never before seen, learning the pavement’s nuances, and I am no exception. With those caveats in mind, it’s best to view the lap times as bellwether, not absolute. A loose guide to judge the spectacular machinery on these pages.
In the end, that’s the key. We hold PCOTY testing each year as reason to celebrate the future of the performance car, not lament it. The industry is undergoing transformation. More than ever, regulations try to force automakers into a box. Consumer trends lean toward amorphous appliances. At Road & Track, we drive hundreds of new cars each year, which means our affection for hydraulic steering, natural aspiration, lightweight efficiency, and a good, old-fashioned stick shift is tested on a regular basis.
Yet look at the field we have here. These cars are proof that there’s still plenty to be excited about. None of them fade into the background or aim to remove you from the experience. In a time when we’re told that the driverless car is around the corner, these machines put the driver squarely at the front of the experience. As it should be.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is this PCOTY thing?
One of this magazine’s crown jewels: A racetrack. A multi-day road route covering hundreds of miles. A king anointed among the year’s most significant new sports and exotic cars. Our priorities are emotion, engineering cohesion, relevance, and price, in that order. Plus beef jerky. (It’s a road trip. There’s always beef jerky.)
It’s not cheap. While fast cars have to work in cities, they’re most effectively and safely tested in the middle of nowhere. In this case, that meant shipping employees and equipment to a remote location, then orchestrating hotels, food, support vehicles, data collection, and two photographers. (Plus we spent $5 on giant stick-on googly eyes.)
That was senior editor Zach Bowman. Never give a Tennessean a corporate card in a Walmart.
Did you stick them on something?
One of the dim-looking minivans we use for chase and photography.
What did that poor van do to you?
Not much. But Bowman did walk out of that Walmart with a CD copy of Black Sabbath’s 1970 masterpiece Paranoid, because he wanted to hear “War Pigs” at ear-bleed level while wearing aviator sunglasses and doing van burnouts at stoplights.
That sounds awfully specific.
PCOTY is all about specifics. And generals gathered in their masses.
I’m sure nothing went wrong.
One staffer “ran out of pavement” (his words) and put the McLaren off at Thunderhill. (No one was hurt, and the car was fine.) The Lexus and Lotus got flat tires. And one of our vans was broken into in San Francisco—they took deputy editor Bob Sorokanich’s backpack, but not the copy of Paranoid. Editor-at-large Sam Smith left an open bag of Haribo gummy bears in the van during the break-in and then grumped for a bit because the bag had broken glass in it.
Was Bob upset?
Smith was heartbroken.
Who are the other mooks here?
Staff mooks joined by contributing mooks! Some adept at track driving, others with a penchant for sussing out a car’s foibles on the road. While a few fancy themselves engineers, others have actual engineering know-how. But all love sports cars and have strong opinions about which end of the Corvette should house the engine. You could say each participant brought a very particular set of skills.
Like Liam Neeson in Taken.
Only with more Lamborghini. And Bob, a professional editor who intimidates approximately nobody, speaking calmly about his backpack theft. (“I have a particular set of skills with… adjectives.”)
Why Thunderhill Raceway Park?
It’s a perfect arena. Demanding of both driver and car, modern, safe. Plus great roads in spitting distance.
The mid-engine Corvette: how’d you get a car so rare and new?
We asked to borrow a preproduction C8 from GM. They said yes, with caveats. The Corvette had minders, and they took the car back each night, checking it over. We also had to agree to an embargo, keeping drive impressions confidential for weeks.
What a peek behind the curtain! Got any more secrets?
Maybe! Ask Matt Farah about his superpower. Ask Bowman why he had an obsession with Gatorade Limon Pepino. And whatever you do, don’t ask Smith and Jason Cammisa what happens when Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” hits the radio on a road trip. They will demonstrate. And you will regret it.
This year’s PCOTY field was one of our strongest, but as with every year, there were notable absences. The absentees generally fall into one of three categories: the car you’re thinking of wasn’t launched as a new vehicle in the year preceding PCOTY testing (and was thus ineligible), the manufacturer wouldn’t lend us one (privately owned test cars are impractical), or the car in question just isn’t any good. Here are the models that received invitations but couldn’t make the party.
2019 Aston Martin DBS Superleggera: A lightweight DB11 with 715 hp. Aston elected to not participate in the test.
2020 Audi R8: The first facelifted R8s arrived in the U.S. a week before our test. Sadly, there wasn’t enough time to get one shipped to Thunderhill.
2020 BMW M8: The new flagship M car was first shown in June, but BMW only made it available for review (in Europe) the same week as PCOTY.
2020 Ferrari F8 Tributo: The 710-hp V-8 from the wild, track-focused 488 Pista, in a more road-oriented package. Ferrari couldn’t provide one during our test window.
2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500: Supercharged V-8 and hellacious speed, but Ford didn’t provide test cars to journalists until a month after PCOTY testing.
2019 Mercedes-AMG GT R Pro:
A track-attack version of a car already known for circuit prowess. Only hitch: the first GT R Pros didn’t cross the Atlantic until the tail end of 2019, after this issue shipped to the printer.
2020 Polestar 1: A 600-hp, hybrid, carbon-bodied GT from Volvo’s new electric-performance offshoot. Polestar wasn’t ready to let us borrow one, but don’t worry—we’ll drive it soon.
2020 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4: On paper, a PCOTY front-runner. Which is a shame, because Porsche had no test cars in the country.
2020 Subaru WRX STI S209: The WRX STI might be a few years old, but the S209 promises to be the best version yet. Subaru held a media test event for the car during PCOTY week, so its loaner 209s were all tied up.
We love bleeding-edge science experiments from companies like Bugatti, Koenigsegg, Pagani, and Rimac, but hypercars just don’t fit the spirit of this particular test. Mostly because of their near-unattainable prices. We’ve made exceptions in the past, due to circumstance or serendipity (last year’s PCOTY included a McLaren Senna, for example), but in this case, we preferred to avoid the archetype.
Where We Drove
We based the 2020 Performance Car of the Year test out of Willows, California, mostly for the town’s proximity to Thunderhill Raceway. The staff of this magazine spent two days there, setting lap times and evaluating the competitors in the rolling grass north of Sacramento.
Two days at any track is a blessing, but turning laps is less than half of what makes a sports car compelling. Everything about a Lotus or a McLaren hints at where the machine might take you, the lines of the thing whispering how the two of you might burn a tank of fuel. Or three.
We were aiming for gold country. Those mountains played stage to the 1800s boom that brought more than 300,000 people to Northern California in search of a fortune. By 1855, the rush had largely turned to bust, the masses vanishing as quickly as they had appeared. Those people left plenty behind—mostly vestigial towns dotting the hills, but also a spiderweb of wagon-route roads connecting them. On a map, the highways look like sports-car catnip. We only had to get there.
The farmland around Willows is flat and drab, fruit orchards aligned in dusty grids. Our unlikely caravan shot through it in the morning, over Highway 162, a thin needle across the state’s Central Valley, from Willows to Oroville. It’s strange and beautiful, home to the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. Great egrets loped through the wetlands on either side of the highway. They chased their reflections for one slow-motion moment, then turned skyward.
Whatever envy we felt only lasted as long as it took us to make our way to Highway 70. The two-lane runs vaguely northeast, winding up and through a fir forest from Oroville. A year ago, the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, devoured the landscape, and the place still shows the scars of it. Gutted stone homes, black tree trunks like charcoal scrawls. But that road is a work of art, the pavement stitched to the north fork of the Feather River as it pools and falls down the mountain.
The water runs through the core of California’s mother lode, a seam of gold-rich land just three miles wide but more than 120 miles long. John Bidwell found gold in the Feather in 1848 just outside Oroville, creating what would become Bidwell’s Bar, one of the richest mines in the area. Three years later, the place was home to 2000 miners, each aimed at digging money from the ground.
The radio crackled. It was contributor Matt Farah.
“I don’t know who picked this road, but it’s spectacular.”
Farah is a Californian, an East Coast transplant who lives in Venice Beach. He’s a journalist and R&T contributor who spends his days driving around the state, and there we were, on a stretch of pavement he’d never seen. Proof that a hundred lifetimes wouldn’t show you every inch of California. When we stopped for a driver change, the judges gathered on the side of the road. We’re all prone to big gestures and loud voices, but something about that place, the sound of the water and the stillness of those trees, kept us quieter than usual, our vocabularies sapped by the sight of Northern California at its finest. Editor-at-large Sam Smith looked down at the Feather, a coil of green basins. “I can’t believe this is in the same state as Los Angeles.”
Some of our favorite roads are wedded to water, and Highway 70 is one of the best. We chased it upstream for better than an hour. It was already autumn in the hills, the light sharp and clear as it filtered through the trees and splashed over our windshields. Far below, sunbathers and fishermen sat on the banks in the sunlight, oblivious to our passing as the road writhed over steel-trestle bridges and through old stone tunnels.
We paused in Quincy for fuel, the cars jockeying for pumps. The day before, in Willows, it had been 107 degrees, but we’d been gaining elevation with every switchback, and the air now sat closer to 50. None of us dressed warmly enough, but we didn’t care. Every convertible had its top back and the heat cranked, an idiot grin glowing from the driver’s seat. We left the gas station and took off toward Quincy’s main street, then hung a right on Highway 119. The road abandoned the river and climbed further into the ragged mountains.
Up there, teetering snow poles marked the shoulder, placed to guide plows through the winter. They towered over the cars. Suddenly, the sepia photos we saw in every convenience store made sense: 1930s Fords and ’40s Buicks parked beside 20-foot walls of ice and snow.
Highway 119 spilled onto the long, windswept Bucks Lake, and we arrived in a blink, settling into the gravel lot at Lakeshore Resort, a small restaurant and lodge on the shore. With the cars tucked in next to local pickups, we headed inside for lunch. The restaurant’s back patio was drenched in that crackling sunlight that seems so particular to Northern California afternoons. Iced tea arrived by the pitcher, and we washed down burgers as bald eagles circled the lake.
Senior editor Kyle Kinard looked out over the water, whitecaps forming on the surface, whipped up by a far-off wind. He had planned the route, arriving weeks before to scout the path and lay out a map.
“I don’t know how to say this without overselling what’s coming, but it gets better from here.”
After lunch, we turned onto Highway 120 toward La Porte, another wonder. Tighter even than the climb to Bucks Lake, the pavement ascending thousands of feet. In some spots, the road narrowed to one lane, the pavement necking between sheer rock walls and thick stands of trees. One moment, we dived into a set of wooded hairpins. The next, we broke into a clearing above a thousand-foot drop. Kinard was right.
The rest of the day carried on the same. A series of exclamation points. After the mountain, the road unwound, Highway 120’s tight bends making way for a river of fresh tarmac. The trees thinned, replaced by golden fields and stocky barns covered in flaking red paint. The caravan dropped into high gear, enjoying a few miles of lazy pace as the sun set.
Night descended as we made our way toward Tahoe, parading through one camp town after another. We caught Highway 49 through Tahoe National Forest, the trees turning to dark pillars in the fading light. The cooler air made for eager engines, exhausts popping and echoing through the woods. The group spread out, and it wasn’t until we caught up to each other at a stop sign, leading onto a highway, that someone noted we had all been running windows down, stereos off.
We called it a night outside Truckee, filling the garage and driveway of an Airbnb house with more than half a million dollars of sports cars. Editor-in-chief Travis Okulski stood in the drive for a moment, hands in his pockets, surveying the cars as everyone gathered luggage.
“This whole day has been like a movie,” he said.
It was true. We’d run through a series of driving bests. We had watched the roads spiral and contract, fell head over heels for a corner of California as the sun sank low. How many perfect days behind the wheel do you get, really? Sports cars demand so much from your life. Time. Space. Money. They don’t fit the family. They cannot brave a Costco run. Most spend their days slogging through a commute or languishing in a garage. But a good run up a clear bit of asphalt can wipe all that away. A day of it is the stuff of fantasy.
When we woke the next morning, we found ourselves with a pile of sports cars in the heart of some of the country’s best driving. We loaded up again and pointed at Donner Pass. California can be an insufferable place. Expensive and full of itself, but also so gorgeous it hurts, packed with more perfect roads per mile than anywhere else in the nation. The route up the pass felt as precious as all that ore Bidwell and his miners pulled out of those ridges. From up there, Donner Lake shone in the sun, reflecting that unreal California sky back at itself. We parked the cars and marveled.
You rip toward Turn 1. The straight is shorter than it looks. Fourth gear, though, at the end. Then into the first corner, a tight left-right combo. Looks like a needle-thread: Huck the car in, all the brake for the right, trailing it, maybe, to keep the nose under you in the corner’s second half. Don’t put it in the grass; people put it in the grass here. (Remember the old saw: don’t look for the wall, or you’ll find it.)
Uphill to the right after that. Turn 2, a third-gear left that goes on forever, painted across a hill. Camber will probably make the car push wide in the midcorner, the nose indifferent and light, and then the front tires set, third or fourth gear as the corner opens into the downhill straight that follows, the tail on casters.
Delicacy! Two corners in, it’s obvious: this place wants finesse.
Turn 3 leaps into your face. Overslowing will happen, because it looks tighter than it is. Mountains to the west, filling the windshield. The first time through 3, you realize you can straight-line the sucker, ripping over the curb. Some cars fly a wheel or two. Then the track changes again, blind, Turns 4 and 5, undulating pavement and no camber where you need it, big grassy berms on exit. The car doesn’t turn, then it turns too much. Turn 5 pinches down and seems to want you in that dirt. It’s a quick transition, but you have to keep your hands tidy or the car won’t settle enough to stay on the pavement.
A breath. Bit of a break, the track seems to open up here.
Six seems normal. It’s not. Your first time through here is also a wake-up, a realization as the pavement appears: 6 connects to 7! So you place the car properly or run out of road when you least expect, committed to a line you can’t see, the exit over a hill. There are divots in the grass at the exit, bites in the dirt where people have tried to hit it early, snipe a little more speed on entry, a little more room on the way out.
Seven is a tight left, arm over arm. Doesn’t feel right and probably can’t. Eight and 9 are waiting games. You go up and over the blind-right 8, cresting a hill at the apex, taillights light. Down into a tight, grippy right for 9, and finally the slow, hard left of 10, a release onto the straight.
It feels like walking through an open door—all that paved runoff, hands unwound as soon as you can, right mirror almost kissing the tires stacked next to the wall. The car yelling its guts out, waiting for 1 again. Lot going on here, you think, passing the flag stand. Do it better next time, your inner voice says, as you wrap that first lap.
And with every one after.
Mazda Miata RF 1:34.64
Hyundai Veloster N 1:31.44
Toyota Supra 1:28.93
Lexus RC F Track 1:27.56
BMW M2 Competition 1:26.91
Lotus Evora GT 1:25.35
Nissan GT-R Nismo 1:23.80
Porsche 911 Carrera S 1:23.08
Chevrolet Corvette 1:22.83
McLaren 600LT 1:20.42
Lamborghini Huracán Evo 1:20.00
We Chose a Hyundai
A Hyundai hatchback, over some of the most significant supercars of our era. Over the second coming of the Toyota Supra, an all-new Porsche 911, and even that beast of myth and legend, the mid-engine Corvette.
It seems impossible. But before you set this magazine on fire and use it to light a pitchfork-lined path to our door, understand that the Hyundai was not the convenient answer.
Politics and popular opinion all but demanded we hand our laurels to a brand with a dusty pedigree. Over the course of PCOTY testing, each of our judges squirreled away feelings on the hatchback, guarding them from others for fear of ridicule or expulsion. But the truth is simple: the 2020 Hyundai Veloster N is a greater celebration of the philosophies we treasure than any other new vehicle.
Let me explain.
There were 11 cars, handpicked and brilliant. They had to prove capable and engaging on the two undulating miles of Thunderhill Raceway Park’s West track before we’d set them loose on our demanding public-road test route. After two days of track time, only six cars would be allowed to join us on the street drive.
The job should have been easy work for machines like the McLaren 600LT, the Lamborghini Huracán Evo, and the Nissan GT-R NISMO, but 2019 was a big year for sports cars. The Supra has returned. The Chevrolet Corvette is mid-engine for the first time. And the Porsche 911 has entered an all-new generation, a sharper, stronger iteration of the world’s most versatile fast car. The others were no less honed, representing every facet of performance, from affordable gems like the Mazda Miata RF Club and the Hyundai, to serious hardware like the sleeper BMW M2 Competition, the bristling Lexus RC F Track, and the exotic, focused Lotus Evora GT.
We’ve never had such a competitive or disparate group of vehicles, each with an honest shot at taking home the prize. This isn’t an editor’s-choice award or a lap-time sprint for gold. Road & Track’s Performance Car of the Year must work well on a track, but it can’t be a one-trick pony; excellent apex behavior must give way to on-road competence. And most of all, a PCOTY winner has to use its technology in service of driver emotion, not just loftier speed. Automakers are increasingly occupied with deleting humanity from the automotive experience, and these days, speed is easy. The harder job is building a car worth driving.
So the Supra should have won, right? It’s a fast, ultra-modern coupe pointed directly at people like us. The Supra nameplate, with its long and storied history, is now engineered in concert with a company—BMW—that rose to prominence selling “the Ultimate Driving Machine.”
Except the Toyota didn’t win. Our judges voted it out, almost unanimously, in the initial cut. The car didn’t leave the track.
Why? How? The Supra is a magnet, low and small and absolutely electric, our testers trying to hide their excitement at simply seeing the thing, let alone driving it. But there’s not much Supra here—none of the name’s legendary solidity and brawn—or even much Toyota. The chassis and driveline are shared with the BMW Z4; the badge on the hood has a BMW part number. The interior smells like a BMW. And despite the Toyota-specific suspension and driveline tune, the car suffers from the same maladies that plague most modern BMWs.
Not that it isn’t seriously fast. Editor-in-chief Travis Okulski took the Supra to a ripping 1:28.93 around Thunderhill West, only a few tenths slower than the more powerful RC F Track. Much of the Supra’s time came from its spectacular front-end grip and precision, the front tires responsive and predictable, though filtered through dead steering. But the real problem is in how the thing does its job. At the limit, it can be twitchy and distant.
“The Toyota somehow manages to be joyless,” editor-at-large Sam Smith said, after his first session. “There’s no reward for focus, no incentive to be a hooligan… It doesn’t feel like any fast Toyota I’ve driven. None of the confidence or unflappability of a second- or third-generation Supra.”
Some of this likely lies at the feet of the car’s maker—without undoing a single fastener, we counted 28 separate uses of the word “BMW,” or the BMW logo, under the Supra’s hood. For a few years now, the Bavarians have been content to turn out cars the mechanical equivalent of the music student who can hit every note at recital but still miss the point of a piece. No surprise, then, that the BMW M2 Competition suffers some of the Supra’s pitfalls, despite clocking an impressive 1:26.91. With 405 hp, the 3600-pound M2 is far from slow, but BMW seems to have worked hard to isolate the driver. All that hustle occurs through a cotton filter. The steering is light and vague. The extra grunt and suspension stiffness over the discontinued, 365-hp base M2 are part of a wholesale trade, exchanging a bit of that car’s talk for straight-line speed and a willingness to drift.
“I have mixed feelings,” contributor Ross Bentley said. “It’s not a bad car, just not what it should be. Good brakes, a little too much understeer. It gives confidence because it’s not going to do anything bad.”
A shame, because nearly everyone praised the M2’s slick gearbox and perfectly positioned pedals. Proof that deep down, BMW still remembers the pleasure of a manual transmission. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to make the cut for the road portion of the test. Heartbreaking for a group of judges packed with BMW owners.
And those cars weren’t alone. PCOTY always carries a few surprises and underdogs. The Lexus RC F was out of its depth in this company, but we adored the car’s audacity, its snorty V-8 and too-stiff chassis. It’s a perfect caricature of a Dodge Challenger: great and hilarious, but unrefined and outshined.
Nothing paints a clearer picture of the field’s competitiveness than the strengths of the vehicles left behind. Five cars had to go, and the Lexus was too flawed to stay. Same for the Nissan GT-R NISMO. Who cares that the GT-R is now in its 12th model year? The Nissan is effortlessly fast and laugh-out-loud entertaining. Of all the six-digit cars on hand, it was also the only one that didn’t come with an army of factory minders. Just one guy in a Nissan Armada carrying an extra set of tires. When we asked him if we should make any concessions for the test’s 107-degree heat, maybe bleed off tire pressures, he just shrugged and smiled.
“Nah, it’ll be fine.”
It was. Despite being the heaviest car in the running, the 3865-pound GT-R popped a 1:23.80, less than a second behind both the Porsche and the Corvette. Nissan has improved the car almost every year since its 2007 launch, taking it from distant missile to talkative weapon. The NISMO feels like an old friend, but this year’s updates weren’t enough to keep its head above water. A great car outdone by exceptional ones.
The Lamborghini was also glorious, but it didn’t leave the track, either. Prior to PCOTY, most of us had only experienced the 630-hp, V-10-powered Huracán Evo on public streets, where phrases like “involuntary manslaughter” and “reckless endangerment” shackle you to what’s possible. Unleashed on a closed circuit, the Evo proved its abilities. Miraculous and terrifying ones, mostly. Violent shifts that echo like small-arms fire. Acceleration that rummages through your stomach to see what you had for lunch. That all-wheel-drive system performs the unnatural with a shrug, thanks partly to a front end that feels stitched to the ground. And when you think you’ve come to the edge of that ocean of traction, the Lamborghini digs around in its cupboard and produces another pitcher of the stuff. Trip into a slide, the car almost catches itself, despite feeling big as a city block.
The Evo was hands-down the fastest car around the course. The sound chased it from corner to corner, a Doppler flag marking position. In a field packed with muted and turbocharged exhaust notes, that barking, naturally aspirated engine could not have stood further apart.
“Lamborghinis are supposed to be all style and no substance,” said contributing editor Jason Cammisa. “This has both in equal measure.”
Okulski had just stepped from the car after his laps when Smith cornered him, curious.
“Remember 2018’s Huracán Performante?” Okulski asked.
“Yeah. Sublime. Nothing wrong with it,” Smith said.
“This is better.”
The only problem lurked on pit lane in white paint. A cannon that bumped the Lamborghini from the list of finalists despite being slower around the track. From its nonsensical doors and carbon-fiber buckets to its airy cockpit and turbocharged, theatrical V-8, the McLaren 600LT managed to out-occasion the Huracán at every turn. The LT had the same lightning acceleration, just married to a lithe chassis and the most tactile steering in the business.
Switching from McLaren to Lamborghini was like trading skin and bone for a pattern of pixels. And while the ever-stable Huracán seems to always have a guiding hand on your back, the McLaren could not care less if you chased your dumbest instincts. Drop the hammer in a second-gear hairpin and it does exactly what a 592-horse rear-driver should: spit you sideways in smoke and noise, the limiter kicking at your skull. The British car accomplished as much as the Italian but said more in the process, pushed you to greater heights. Shouted messages to your spine where the Huracán was all murmurs. And when it came down to it, that was the common thread through our six finalists—a hint that someone in R&D did more than tick boxes.
So we left that Lamborghini behind. The McLaren led the pack on the way out of Willows as we hopscotched a series of slow-moving 18-wheelers. The Veloster was next, followed by the 911 and the Corvette. The Miata bopped along behind, the Lotus and its supercharged bark last in line. We worked our way east, toward Tahoe.
Passing in a 600LT is a profanity. Tap the left paddle twice, check the oncoming lane, then plant your right foot and wait for England to put a boot to your chest. For all of our braying about speed’s irrelevance, there’s plenty to be said for a straight road. And while the McLaren’s capabilities are far past the legal limit, the car has other tricks. You can fold the hardtop or roll down the back cabin glass to let that V-8 gasp in your ear.
Before you die, try to execute at least one full-throttle rip through a mountain tunnel in a 600LT with the roof peeled back. It’ll make the best-of when your life flashes before your eyes.
Our stops turned into mini conferences, judges gathering to point and pick at the cars.
“I cannot believe they just let regular people buy these,” contributor Matt Farah said, gesturing at the McLaren. “It’s so obscenely fast. Feels like the craziest engine on Earth is bolted to your spine.”
“It’s the car Lotus wishes they could build,” deputy editor Bob Sorokanich added. “It simply disappears underneath you.”
The Corvette, too, had a way of vanishing in your hands. Few vehicles have felt so uniquely crafted to flip our switches. Our test car, a pre-production unit supplied by GM, brought caveats. For the record, this is not generally how we like to do things. There can be wide gulfs between a car’s test-build performance and job one, and judging a nearly complete effort isn’t always fair. But the eighth-generation Vette is the most significant sports car in recent memory, and GM said that if we wanted that icon in this year’s PCOTY, we had to accept a prepro car.
No one cared when they rolled it out of the trailer. The Chevrolet turned us into children, pointing and crawling over it even as it was backed from the hauler. The C8 is a weird cocktail of familiar and foreign. It smells like Corvette inside, that faint whiff of glue. The valve covers are sparkly, bass-boat red. You can stuff a live human into the cavernous rear trunk. A single individual can remove and stow the roof panel. You sit so far forward, all but atop the front axle. Which is partly why the steering feels instantaneous.
The Corvette has been nipping at supercar heels for years, and it finally seems poised to take a proper bite. The C8 is a brilliant car. “Some elements—engine blueprint, sound, power delivery—are emphatically Corvette,” said senior editor Kyle Kinard. “Others—seating position, turn-in, rotation—aren’t.” As Smith pointed out, the Corvette has always been centered on the democratization of an experience: an affordable version of the European sports car in the 1950s, of the cocaine-cruiser highway vibe of BMW and Mercedes-Benz in the 1980s, and in recent years, Porsche-besting performance with a Silverado price tag. Viewed through that lens, as a Lamborghini for Lubbock, it is pure success.
But there are kinks. The C8’s cabin felt more claustrophobic than that of the front-engined C7, and someone in the General Motors chain of command decided that this car, mid-engine for the first time, needed to drive a lot like the old one. Steering aside, it feels very much like a C7, minus a bit of balance. We missed the liveliness and poise of other mid-engine cars, the nose grip. The delta prompted a question: if you’re going to scrap 66 years of brand precedent and abandon the manual transmission altogether, why look back? Go for broke.
Still, you could make an argument that such things are irrelevant. So the Corvette doesn’t pirouette like a European supercar costing twice as much. Who cares? In Okulski’s lapping, the Chevrolet was still quicker than its longtime rival, the 911, beating the German by a quarter of a second.
And on the road to Tahoe, it was as good as a Corvette has ever been. Comfortable and relaxed when you wanted, eating miles with that V-8 barely breathing. Or sharp and alive, dicing through switchbacks.
When we stopped for fuel, curious strangers lingered near the fleet, making slow passes on their way to the cashier. The Corvette was king, onlookers ignoring the McLaren and 911 for a better look at the C8. In that crowd, certain cars simply vanished, the Veloster N and Miata RF all but invisible. Win some, lose some.
The hitch, sinking the C8, was the transmission. A twin-clutch automatic, Corvette’s first. In automatic mode, on track or the street, it is perfectly adept, handing out shifts quicker than thought. But manual mode is a half step behind the competition, denying downshifts or letting the engine bash the limiter, unsure of how much intervention to provide.
If you must take our clutch pedals, at least swap them for a transmission that wants to play. GM benchmarked the PDK dual-clutch in the 911 while developing the Vette’s transaxle, and it’s clear why. There is no more satisfying or evolved two-pedal gearbox. The PDK in the new 911 Carrera S is quicker and more focused than any human, but it doesn’t rub your nose in it or rap your knuckles when you slip up. Lap after lap, the trans works with you to be a little quicker, covering your tail when you miss a shift and dropping a gear if it thinks you can gain a tenth.
Maybe the Corvette’s production gearbox will be better. Regardless, the disparity was instructive. The 911 and Vette come from different schools of thought. Chevrolet used to know how to subtly refine a product while guarding its identity; Porsche still does. This new-generation 911 fully embraces its rear-engine heritage, and on track, you can feel that delicious weight imbalance, the car’s strengths helping to fire you off each apex.
“This thing is so good, it’s almost impossible to hate,” Farah said. “Who could ask for more power? Who could ask for better steering or more grip? How do you argue with PDK? The only real problem is that you don’t need to spend nearly as much to go this quick, if you don’t want a Porsche. But the 911 is still the Swiss Army knife of sports cars.”
That’s no small compliment. The Porsche’s back seats are large enough to stow a couple kids or a few small pieces of luggage. And when you don’t have the car by the scruff, it fades from your mind, so you can wrestle with what’s for dinner instead of struggling to see out the back window.
On the other hand, maybe that’s the 911 curse. As Cammisa noted, at commuting speeds, the car turns into a Panamera Coupe, Porsche’s luxury sedan, always in the background.
No one accused the Lotus of blending into anything. The car seemed to have dropped in from a different dimension. Or at least a different time. The Evora GT is a snapshot of sports cars from 10 years ago, bare and alive, a minor evolution of a relatively simple platform that debuted in 2009.
It’s weirdly bad at being a car. The seats are mounted a bit too high. The stereo is an aftermarket afterthought. The ignition sequence is an annoying secret handshake—a series of unintuitive button presses to disable the factory alarm—designed to make you look like an idiot at the valet. The rearview mirror provides a spectacular view of the engine’s wastegate actuator and nothing else. It’s loud. And none of that mattered, because the Evora is that good. The GT’s supercharged 3.5-liter V-6 is the same Toyota engine Lotus has used for years, but it sings. As I chased the Corvette up Northern California’s Donner Pass in second gear, roadside granite bluffs bounced the noise back through the open windows, the blower whine crawling around in my lap. On track, the gears felt a little long, the cable-shifted six-speed too clunky for quick shifts, but on the street, the gearbox was divine. It’s the car most of us would have in our garage.
“Fast, winding canyons are like sailing or skiing or ice-skating,” Smith said. “Just dancing. You choose the flow and the Lotus serves it up on a platter.”
There is magic here, and not from electronic trickery. No electronically adjustable shocks or computer-controlled differentials, just careful geometry and tuning. The stuff that has long made Lotus, Lotus. Unlike others in this group, the Evora demanded something of the driver. Skill was necessary for quick laps, but the car never punished a lack of it. You need more than a pulse to make an Evora circle a road course. But that was also true of another machine.
By cold logic, the Mazda Miata RF Club, the slowest and least powerful car at Thunderhill, should not have made the final cut. The RF is essentially an ordinary Miata with a folding steel hardtop in place of the base model’s soft convertible top. Unlike the convertible, however, the RF cannot meet most track-day roll-over inspections without substantial modifications. But Miatas are not logical cars, and those downsides were trumped by the simple fact that the Mazda is a kid’s birthday party behind the wheel, all sugar and pony rides and bliss. The yards of suspension travel and narrow tires make it the perfect forgiving trainer, intentions shouted through body roll. Much of the good came from the Mazda’s new engine, a rev-happy, 181-hp 2.0-liter. That four is best within a whisper of redline, and while most of us loved using every ounce of its performance, some judges were less interested in thrashing a tiny four-cylinder.
At a stop, Farah held up the Miata key, shaking it.
“I don’t like the Mazda much if you’re not caning the hell out of it,” he said. “Those transitions when you’re passing a semi, say. You have to go from sixth, to fifth, to fourth, to third.”
“Oh, I dig that,” Okulski grinned. “I was behind the Miata earlier, and every time it had to make a pass, you could tell the driver was ripping off downshifts. Looked fun.”
“You have to be comfortable owning a car you have to beat the hell out of all the time,” Farah said. “It’s not fun if you’re going slow and the whole thing is vibrating. It’s buzzy.”
Several other judges met him with cocked eyebrows. Cammisa spoke up. “A car that can rip off a 5.8-second 0-to-60 isn’t slow for most people.”
“Well, I still don’t fit in the damned thing,” Farah laughed.
Either way, the power differential was inconsequential in the Plumas National Forest. That was the Miata’s playground. Tight corners, short sightlines, and the Mazda’s accelerator bolted to the floor—those high-dollar cars couldn’t use their power, and they had nowhere to run. There are moments in our driving lives when everything clicks, and the Miata has long been a reliable key for opening that door. The current RF is the same. Even with some of the world’s most athletic vehicles on hand, the Miata was never left behind, carrying its momentum without spilling a drop.
As we sat around a table discussing the week, competitors dropped from contention one by one. The McLaren, for all its supercar glory, could be simultaneously dull and exhausting at a public pace. Gearbox complaints felled the Corvette from grace; every judge wanted an honest manual in place of the dual-clutch, in part because the manual C7 in similar trim was more joyous and alive. And the 911, so close to perfect, still felt big on those back roads. The Lotus, with its wailing V-6, missed the mark in refinement and, like the GT-R, is an old car trying to stay young, not so much moving the sports-car game forward as preserving it in amber. Even the Miata came up short, hamstrung by a folding hardtop that makes installation of a proper roll bar difficult—necessary hardware if you want to take the car to the track.
Only one machine garnered rave reviews all week, painting every driver’s face with a mile-wide grin. Only one gathered an almost unanimous vote.
The Veloster was an outlier—outgunned and outclassed by nearly every other car in this test. A gawky front-drive hatch, zero brand pedigree, in a field of slinky sports cars. But the Hyundai’s behavior quickly set it apart from the crowd. Hyundai’s head of performance development, Albert Biermann, spent 30 years working for BMW, back when the German company built a different sort of car. It shows, because the Hyundai is a love letter to folks like us. After a few happy miles at Thunderhill, Cammisa took to a logbook to remind us that front-wheel-drive cars famously fall apart on a road course—stumbling over themselves, running out of brake, drowning in understeer. But if that’s a universal truth, no one told Biermann. His work behaves like a front-wheel-drive greatest-hits album: want the savagery of a John Cooper Works Mini with the fleetfoot bliss of a Ford Fiesta ST? Turn-in is immediate, the steering precise and bubbling with feedback. The Hyundai has a more sorted front end and more cohesive feel than cars costing three times as much.
“This is a $30,430 car that makes a Volkswagen Golf R irrelevant,” Cammisa said.
What he did not say: The Golf R, one of history’s great hatchbacks, costs around 10 grand more and feels numb by comparison.
Because the Veloster N is so cheap, anyone with a nine-to-five can sign a note and ride off with one of the sharpest cars on the market. But it was more than price. Pressing the “N” button on the steering wheel changed the car dramatically. We tend to turn up our noses at drive modes on fun cars: Why does a Lamborghini need a Sport setting? Didn’t you buy the expensive loud one? The button makes perfect sense here, switching the car from quiet and comfortable daily driver to snotty hot hatch, the exhaust popping and snapping with more authority than anything the Corvette could muster. It is so fantastically neutral, pivoting at your hips, the throttle and brake yaw rheostats.
No front-drive car should work this well, but the Veloster is eager, urging you to run up and stick a pin in some expensive supercar’s ego. To watch it deflate as you fill their mirrors.
“It doesn’t care how you treat it,” Kinard said. “You can drive it on its tippy toes, like someone who knows what they’re doing. Or you can drive it like me, a ham-fisted Colin McRae wannabe. The thing rewards you.”
“That’s what the Civic Type R should have made people say,” Smith agreed.
There are flaws. The engine has all the character of an ink-jet printer, and the gas and brake pedal occupy different zip codes. But after five minutes, it doesn’t matter. As we chased the new Corvette away from our lunch stop on the final day of testing, the Hyundai had that mid-engine thing’s number, dancing and playing but forever confident. Kinard called it a bucket of puppies, but that’s not quite right. I’ve never met a puppy that can run down a McLaren on a back road.
For all their bluster and power, their lap times and displacement, most of the carmakers at this test made a deal with the devil—they traded what once made them great in the search for outright speed. Never has the disparity been greater between the capabilities of a modern fast car and what is legally possible. The new definition of performance isn’t what a car can do, but what it will do on a good road.
The Veloster N is what a great front-wheel-drive car should feel like. A delight that welds a smile to your face every time you drive it. It cheers you on, treating you like the hero. And it came from a company that had no reason to build it. Chevrolet has to make a Corvette; Porsche, a 911. Short of a giant meteorite or nuclear winter, those names will always exist. Cars like the Veloster N are more special, crafted not of obligation, but for the sheer joy of driving. That’s why the Hyundai Veloster N is Road & Track’s 2020 Performance Car of the Year.
We got your letter, Hyundai. We heart you, too.
Sorry, you can keep your Veloster. I think the car was chosen just to make news.
November 5, 2019 at 12:41 pm