IF YOU’RE reading this, you, like us, are an endangered species. The walls are closing in on driving enthusiasts on every side, with every effort being made to thin our ranks. One of the leading causes of extinction is habitat destruction; countless roads around the country have had speed limits slashed from 100 to 80 or even 60km/h, making yesterday’s cautious motorist today’s miscreant.
Even worse, some manufacturers are hellbent on making drivers redundant altogether. The timeline remains unclear and the challenges are many, but like it or not, autonomous cars are coming, the process accelerated by the race to be first with this pioneering technology. They’ll save our lives, but they’ll also take our freedom. Thankfully, some carmakers are still on the side of the enthusiast and that’s cause for celebration.
The five disparate cars gathered here are linked by a common goal: the desire to entertain the driver to the fullest extent. Market and segment positioning dictates each go about it a different way and over the coming pages you’ll read about these differing approaches. This is not a comparison test – though perhaps one car will achieve its goal more successfully than the others – but a chance to enjoy these machines while we still can on one of Victoria’s best driving roads, the hillclimb to the Lake Mountain Alpine Resort.
Representing the elite end of town is the Porsche 911 GT3 Touring. Even amongst its driver-focused siblings, the Touring prioritises fun above all else. Essentially a 911R by another name, the Touring forgoes the conspicuous wings typical of the GT3, but retains the razor-sharp handling and screaming atmo engine. Oh, did we mention it only comes in manual?
The same is true of the Peugeot 208 GTi Edition Definitive. As the name suggests, this is the final version of the feisty Pug, which has enjoyed a healthy fettling from Peugeot Sport consisting of more power, a limited-slip diff, revised suspension and more. It may sit at the other end of the price scale to the GT3, but it’s equally hardcore in its own way.
When it comes to hardcore, however, Lotus almost needs its own sealed section. The Elise may have grown slightly longer, wider and heavier over the past two decades, but at 904kg it’s still an automotive waif with an interior as Spartan as the front garden of Troy. In Sprint 220 guise it’s even lighter, yet still motivated by a supercharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder.
Aiming to prove that power isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for a good time is the Mazda MX-5, here in back-to-basics, updated 1.5-litre guise. While the substantial revisions to the 2.0-litre captured all the headlines, its little brother enjoys an extra 1kW/2Nm (steady on!) and, more importantly, telescopic adjustment for the steering wheel, improving driver comfort.
But if it’s comfort you want, step inside the BMW M3 CS and enjoy its heated leather seats. Despite the inclusion of a few luxuries, the CS clearly states its intent with staggered wheels wrapped in hardcore Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. Shining brightly behind those rims on this example are golden calipers, signifying carbon-ceramic brakes. Add to this a pared-back interior and extra grunt from the 3.0-litre twin-turbo six and this is as focused as four-doors get. Enough talk, let’s drive.
ALL THE best Porsche 911s, or at least revered ones like the Turbo, GT3 and RS, sprout big, iconic wings. So why, then, for a feature like this, is our 911’s rump smoothed over? Don’t be fooled, it deserves its place.
Porsche, after years of pushing GT3s to be faster, realised not all its customers are obsessed with the stopwatch. Some want to be more involved, less compromised, so it stole the transmission from a 911R for the 991.2 series, then left the GT3’s unmistakable lairy bits on the shelf. It calls the result the Touring package.
Everything underneath its subtle Carrera 4S body is the same as a 991.2 GT3 – like a 368kW/460Nm 4.0-litre flat six engine – with only the visual aggression getting dialled down.
The centred tailpipes, GT3-specific front and rear bumper, centre-lock 20-inch wheels and a rear diffuser, which regains downforce, are clues it’s something special. They continue inside where the rear seats are missing, its redline is set at ‘9’ and it comes only with a six-speed manual.
The things that make the GT3 feel so race-bred are amplified by its understated package. You can’t see the 911 RSR’s direct injection system, a 13:3.1 compression ratio, titanium connecting roads and staged intake system, but insert the 911-shaped key into its slot, twist, and it shakes into life with a splutter to make you feel, for a moment, like you’re on the 24 Hours of Daytona grid.
Even with dynamic engine mounts, at low speed an interior panel rattles somewhere. Meanwhile its ride rocks and fidgets as its 245mm/305mm wide Dunlop Sportmaxx Race 2s endure city streets. The experience urges you to find tarmac more worthy of their grip.
Row into sixth gear on the move at 60km/h and it’ll lope along where other engines would be rattling and ready to drop the clutch. Booting it, however, is a paradigm-shifting experience you won’t forget.
The crescendo of acceleration and noise is so ferocious that when 7000rpm arrives, you rush for the next gear like a frightened fool. The GT3 Touring is claimed to hit 200km/h in 11.4 seconds, an experience so fast your eyes can only fix themselves on the road rushing towards you, leaving your ears to judge when 9000rpm is about to climax.
You let it sing for another 1000rpm in the next gear because you’re convinced that the engine, wailing with a hard-edged buzz at 8000rpm, is going to suck in everything around it. Including you. It’s only after the third pull that you adapt to its stratospheric peak. You’re then elated, with Lake Mountain’s road ahead, that’s the sound you’ll be hearing in-between each corner. But you’re also slightly intimidated.
It won’t kill you, but then again it won’t work for everyone, either. At first the massive rear tyres dominate the grip balance while the car’s consumables rise to operating temperature. But once you’re squaring off corners to leave as little steering lock as possible when coming off the brakes, it’s ballistic.
Everything is created to work with you in this zone. Its beautifully weighted shift puts you at the centre of its incredible powertrain. It’s rear suspension squats proportionately to every millimetre of throttle. The brakes have so much feedback you can feel the ABS pulse, a warning that you’re perhaps wiping too much speed. The steering is precise and you can’t tell the rear axle steering’s adding lock.
This is what’s so rewarding about its package. The reason why Porsche continue to make amazing driver’s cars is it lets as much filter down to customers as possible. The GT3 engine comes from motorsport, while the transmission and Touring’s concept is borrowed from the ultra-rare 911R. It’s like inheriting superhero powers that you can keep a mystery. A perfect combination.
ONLY ONE car here has its own mantra. Jinba-ittai is the guiding development principle for the Mazda MX-5, but it could equally be the theme of this entire feature. It translates as “the feeling of oneness between driver and car”, which is exactly what each of these five cars is attempting to accomplish.
The MX-5 has the advantage of being designed with Jinba-ittai in mind from day one. The Lotus is equally focused, but Mazda has to achieve the same level of connection while appealing to a much wider market at a far lower price point. Doing so requires some clever engineering. The primary goal for the fourth-gen MX-5 was to reduce weight. Over the years the MX-5 had grown in size and weight, each extra kilogram and centimetre dulling that feeling of oneness.
A reduction in size helped, but Mazda also adopted a ‘gram strategy’, ruthlessly cutting mass wherever possible: 20kg from the bodyshell, 14kg from the engine, 7kg from the gearbox, 10kg from the diff. Such large gains quickly add up, but the engineering team, under the guidance of program manager Nobuhiro Yamamoto, went to extreme lengths, shrinking the radiator, redesigning body bracing and drilling holes wherever possible to remove material without sacrificing strength.
In total, Mazda boasts it reduced weight by 91kg, the lightest fourth-gen MX-5, the 1.5-litre manual we have here, weighing just 1009kg. The smaller engine makes that an unfair comparison, but even the relevant 2.0-litre successor is only 1033kg. This lightness is key to the success of Mazda’s latest MX-5; it’s responsible for the responsiveness, the feeling of control, the non-existent strain on consumables like tyres and brakes while allowing it to get away with a mere 1496cc.
The recent update has gifted the MX-5 1.5 an extra 1W/2Nm. Unsurprisingly, they’re not noticeable, but the engine retains its sweet, free-revving nature, which is just as well. It’s a tractable enough unit for its size, but if you want to make decent progress lower gears and higher revs are the only option. The MX-5 1.5 is quicker than you think – our best effort is 0-100km/h in 7.5sec – but once into triple figures acceleration slows dramatically.
To be honest, now that the 2.0-litre has been injected with the same enthusiasm for rpm and 7500rpm redline it’s probably the pick, but for pure back-to-basics driving the 1.5 still has its appeal. It also has its critics, primarily due to the very soft suspension setup, and there is a disconnect between the engineering work done to create a rigid, responsive platform and that intended to provide enjoyment at road speeds.
The juxtaposition requires acclimatisation. In many ways the MX-5 is the antithesis of hot hatches like the Mercedes-AMG A45, which aim to flatter the driver and make going quickly as easy as possible. Drive the Mazda with aggression and it will behave in a manner that’s at best uncomfortable and at worst alarming. The steering response is quick, but the soft suspension and chubby 195/50 tyres ensure there is a slight delay between input and action. Sharp movements with the brakes or steering simply upset the car and make it feel clumsy.
But this is the magic of the MX-5. By exacerbating these movements it is the perfect driver training machine. It gives you the tools to drive well – quick steering, progressive brakes, 50:50 balance and a responsive engine – but a setup that demands their effective use. Extracting its best requires concentration and precision, delicate steering and brake inputs, but its lack of grip and power makes its limits easily accessible.
Its performance shortfall is brought into stark relief when following the GT3 for group cornering shots. I can tell Louis is more or less idling the Porsche along, yet I’m driving almost flat-out to keep up. Not everyone is going to appreciate the MX-5’s character – to drive it quickly is to feel satisfaction rather than excitement – but the case can be made that it helps distil driving to its purest form better than any other car.
BONDING with a car, particularly one you want to drive quickly, is every bit as important as simply ‘wanting’ it. A relationship needs to be formed. Achieving equilibrium between car and driver is paramount.
Given the notoriously spiky nature of early F80 BMW M3s, it was somewhat calming to learn that the hardcore CS version we’d taken delivery of hadn’t been run in. Our instructions were clear: no high, sustained rpm and no pushing the limits. This relationship had to get off to an amicable start. Our chance to properly exploit the CS’s wares traversing Lake Mountain would come on a solo run weeks later.
Such is the reputation of some F80s that it seemed the M3 was keener to make you an ex rather than a plus one. The CS is different, though. Its remapped twin-turbo 3.0-litre inline-six is not only more powerful (up 7kW) and more muscular (up 50Nm), it’s also less peaky, with the 600Nm coming on strong in a linear fashion. Then there’s the weight saving (10kg) with carbon fibre-reinforced plastic used on the bonnet, roof, front splitter and rear diffuser, which lowers the centre of gravity.
Other additions include Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber with a chassis tailored to optimising the extra grip, as well as tweaks to the stability aids and electronically controlled adaptive dampers to utilise the extra traction. It’s a serious bit of kit, one that wouldn’t look out of place at a racetrack.
The muscular exterior silhouette, staggered wheels and all (19 inches up front, 20 at the back), induces animalistic grunts of approval from onlookers. The stance is just right and the bulging rear guards are amply filled.
Fast forward, and a bedded-in CS returns to MOTOR HQ. Now it’s time to see what the more focused M3’s really like. Such is the unrelenting nature of the power delivery, the verdant Lake Mountain surroundings flash by at an alarming rate – 338kW tends to do that when hauling 1585kg. The robust torque curve results in staggering pull out of tight bends, with the S55 revving cleanly to more than 7000rpm. Its sound, bolstered by a CS-specific exhaust, is polarising. Yet its raspy nature alludes to E46 ancestry and the overrun burbles induce child-like chortles. It’s far from forgettable.
When hot, the semi-slick, track-focused Cup 2s savage the tarmac. The back axle hunkers down and digs in its heels as the Active M differential and 285-section rear boots find astounding amounts of purchase. MDM mode – essentially the fun button, which slackens the electronics – allows for progressive yaw movements and myriad reassurances that it isn’t going to snap into oversteer. Up front, turn-in is sharp as ever and the chassis feels taut, tied down and immediate. It’s not all solely down to the grippy Michelin boots.
Ramped up to its most aggressive mode, the seven-speed DCT is brutal. Full-throttle upshifts whack you in the back while the gold calipers clamp the carbon discs with alarming force. Driving the CS quickly is as engrossing as it is theatrical.
It all sounds like a ticket to a Diamond anniversary, but there’s prenup fine print. Those sticky Michelins have a narrow operating window – precipitation isn’t your friend. The ride quality, while surprisingly compliant for what the CS is, can be far from supple in the CBD, meaning this M3 doesn’t quite make the perfect daily despite its four-door practicality and 445-litre boot. The steering also never truly returns natural tactility and, well, there’s that $179,529 bill... sans options.
However, those who make the CS commitment probably won’t see these limiting factors. As a driving tool it makes an emphatic statement: it pushes you to drive it well and keeps you on your game. You’re never going to tire of figuring it out... the reward for merely trying to is the icing on the cake. The M3 CS is as good as the F80 gets – a true driver’s car with a sense of occasion that renders it a fitting farewell to the generation.
AS PERFORMANCE CARS get heavier, require stiffer springs, more rubber, more power and more electronics to make the heaving mass all work, those who love driving can take solace in the fact you can still buy modern sports cars that gun for more of a classic driving experience.
And it’s interesting that many are forgetting as much. Lots of people are losing their minds over the new Alpine A110 and so they should be, it’s a delightful driver’s car. However, its lightweight feeling and softer suspension set-up – one that breathes with the road – won’t be the slightest bit novel to anyone who regularly drives a Lotus Elise.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the development driver for the A110, Rudy Thomann, worked in Lotus’s ride and handling department during the inception of the original baby modern Lotus. Released in 1996, there have now been three series of the cult classic Elise which offers a raw driving experience low on power, but crucially, also weight.
For those who might find an entry-level Elise a little bit too ‘nice’ to drive, there is now this: the Sprint 220. Reviving a classic Lotus nameplate seen on models like the Elan, the Sprint channels an even more focused lightweight philosophy and thins further again from the Sport 220 donor Elise – a car that itself boasted a 40kg weight saving over its previous model. Thanks to a lithium-ion battery (9kg), carbon seats (6kg), forged wheels (5kg), carbon-fibre panels and polycarbonate rear screen (6kg), the Sprint cuts another 26kg over the Sport 220 for an incredibly lithe 878kg kerb weight.
In the back there’s the rorty, energetic Toyota-supplied 2ZRFE supercharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder, its 162kW giving the Sprint 220 a power-to-weight ratio better than a MercedesAMG A45 – and reflected as much by its claimed 4.5sec 0-100km/h time. Power is sent to the rear wheels via a Toyota-derived six-speed manual and an electronically locking diff.
Basic is the word that comes to mind as you clamber into the tight Sprint 220, your heels resting on the exposed metal floor, not far from the passenger’s, two bulges over the front wheels visible through the windscreen over the top of the relatively small steering wheel. Compact also describes the 220’s interior. A highlight is the skeletal, exposed linkage of the manual transmission proving fantastic function can absolutely also make for great form.
There is the sense that there is not much between the engine’s sound and your ears and that’s because it’s true. The supercharged four-cylinder idles loudly and crisply and when unleashed has very much a bit of angry wasp about it. Acceleration is surprisingly brisk, power delivery linear.
Through corners, the Sprint 220’s unassisted steering and allround double wishbone suspension deliver raw, joyfully classic handling. However, as you start to ramp things up, you notice that the Sprint 220 asks something specific of you as its driver and until you figure out what exactly, you might find the true Elise magic eluding you.
What the Sprint 220 wants is to be flowed a bit like a momentum car, with thoughtful inputs given the gentle bodyroll that moves through lovely arcs. However, with its sticky Yokohama Advan Neova AD07 tyres you will be flowing quite a lot of speed through corners indeed. Driving the Sprint 220 becomes a game of minimising inputs and maximising entry speed – get it right, and it’s incredibly satisfying. While the 175-section front tyres offer great grip, with the 225-section rears, the balance is also the driver’s to manage – and carefully, as classic mid-engine dynamics do lurk.
It’s during this process you realise that the Elise magic is revealing itself. In the universe of driving there’s no experience that satisfies as uniquely. The Alpine A110 is making what is old, new again – ask anyone who drives an Elise.
IN PRESENT company, the humble hot hatch feels somewhat out of place. It’s the only front-driven car here, and it’s the least likely to be recognised on the streets as a performance car. But it is a performer, and one that boasts broad appeal. Hot hatches brought performance to the masses without the need to sacrifice convenience and, depending on who you ask, GTi is hot hatch Adam... or Eve. The Golf GTI is the other.
The 208 GTi we’ve got here attempts to be the pinnacle of hot hatch characteristics, with a collection of additions by Peugeot Sport in a little weapon disguised as a city car. The Edition Definitive boasts a bespoke suspension setup, along with a few equipment tweaks, and a set of Michelin’s grippy Pilot Super Sports to transform the car into a more focused steer.
At this point you may be asking, why not use a Civic Type R or Focus RS for this feature, something a little more hardcore? Aside from the aforementioned GTi heritage, the 208 itself is more closely characteristic of a classic hot hatch. The two-door, front-drive layout and design of the car is true to tradition, plus it’s lighter than most alternatives.
Its diminutive size, weight at 1160kg, and rather muscular 153kW/300Nm outputs were a strong base for Peugeot Sport to work with, but the addition of a Torsen limited-slip differential, wider tracks, and stiffer damping aim to make the car handle like a top performer, too. If you’ve bought an Edition Definitive as a daily drive, you’ve made a horrible mistake.
If you do what we’ve done and head for the hills, you’ll find Peugeot’s go-fast division has built a car to paint smiles across the faces of discerning hot hatch fans. A short wheelbase and sticky rubber, plus the LSD all add up to a tendency towards the lift-off oversteer French hatches are so well-known for. The dynamics of the GTi are still grounded in hot hatch expectations, but with the capability of a car built in 2018.
The powerplant, for example, doesn’t make a big deal of its forced induction. You know it’s there, but its linear nature mimics an older atmo engine in some ways, and doesn’t let the exhaust crack or pop on the overrun. In fact, the induction is the loudest aural aspect at high revs. A little more old-school ‘rort’ wouldn’t hurt, but it’s not necessary.
The shift feel, pedal action, and steering are relatively light, meaning you’re not working hard to achieve the inputs necessary to drive fast. But because of the nature of Australian roads and the stiffness of the chassis setup, you need to keep on top of it to drive it well. Smooth roads make this easiest, where the tyres and differential are able to put down 153kW effectively, but harsh bumps can send the GTi hunting for the edge of the lane.
Once you’ve become used to its movements and learnt what to expect, manipulating the small wheelbase becomes rather fun. Keeping inputs smooth enough to avoid unsettling the balance mid-corner, the brakes become an effective tool to rotate the car and lean into the corner a little harder. The French hot hatch pedigree emerges in moments of weight shift-induced oversteer such as this.
It’s a riot, and driven right will provide some of the best front-driven fun you’ll have. There are no sport mode buttons, no adaptive dampers, and very few creature comforts. This car was built for people who want to drive it properly rather than use it as an outdoor appliance.
Chasing a cautious GT3 Touring on twisty roads, the GTi was able to keep up in the short, sharp bends. It was surprising and had this scribbler smiling like a lunatic for most of the time, and laughing when he wasn’t too busy concentrating.
Of course, as soon as the road opened up a little, the Porsche essentially walked away, but the fact a hatchback can make you feel like a Porsche-hunting hero more than earns the Edition Definitive a place amongst its peers here.
EACH WRITER and each car are all linked by one ambition – pure driving thrills. And we think this bunch offers great examples of that ethos from different automotive genres.
The Lotus is as raw as driving gets. You can see the gear linkages in action and the glue binding the aluminium footwells. It’s invigorating while being utterly impractical, but always pure magic on the right road.
Almost its complete antithesis is the tech-heavy Bimmer, a track-focused, rear-drive brute that actually feels more at home on the road. The F80 M3 CS is certainly rubbered up and ready to play – a true four-door super sedan at its very best.
The Touring Package bluffs its way into making everyone think it’s the ‘soft’ GT3, but it isn’t. Brimming with motorsport DNA, a manual ’box and an epic soundtrack, the Porsche comes very close to perfection.
At face value the tenacious Pug seems like an odd inclusion, but it more than proves its worth. The plucky front-driver loves to wag its tail and keep up with the big boys.
But bigger isn’t always better, and the base 1.5-litre MX-5 is proof. Affordable rear-drive fun in the sun doesn’t get much better. There’s a reason it has such a venerable reputation.
Let’s hope cars and roads like this live on into the future.