Performance Car of the Year 2013: Sports Cars – Classic MOTOR

I don't remember MOTOR’s Performance Car Cup (or its PCOTY equivalent) ever seeing a battle like this before.

This Performance Car Of The Year article was first published in MOTOR Magazine January 2013.

It’s an inter-town stoush like no other – Stuttgart versus Stuttgart, luxury-marque Mercedes-Benz against performance heavyweight Porsche. Battles don’t get any more personal than this. Round One began on the grippy, but occasionally rain-sprinkled surface at Sydney Dragway.

2012-Mercedes-Benz-SLS-AMG-side.jpgThe big-hitter there, of course, was the SLS AMG Roadster, thanks to its dry-sumped, satanically possessed 420kW 6.2-litre V8 and relatively trim 1620kg kerb weight. Or at least it should’ve been. Even AMG’s launch control couldn’t find the sweet spot between grip (or lack of it) and horizon-hauling go.

As with the two other AMG cars (SLK55 and E63), the fastest launch technique for the SLS was full-manual gear selection and throttle control dictated by the driver. The factory claim is 3.8sec to 100km/h for the SLS, but on the day, in very humid 21-degree weather (at 8am!), AMG’s phallic drop-top took 4.48sec to reach 100km/h and 12.35 to cross the 400m mark.

But you need to read between the lines for a true representation of the SLS’s phenomenal thrust. Increment by increment up to 160km/h, the SLS gradually reined in Porsche’s supersonic new 911 Carrera S, but once past that point, it began to exert its dominance – from three hundredths ahead at 160km/h to a good half-second by 200.

At the 400m mark, it was travelling over 5km/h faster, but it was in the 80-120km/h rolling acceleration test that AMG’s porn star beat its chest like King Kong. You’d need a 911 Turbo or a GT2 to plug 80-120km/h in less time than the SLS’s 2.16sec, which makes sense when you consider its near-$500K asking price!

2012-Porsche-Carrera-exterior.jpgOnly in this context does the Carrera S’s 2.57sec 80-120km/h time seem slightly less praiseworthy. The brilliance of the rear-engined 911’s traction and the efficacy of Porsche’s unfailing launch-control system make the new-generation Carrera S PDK sling-shot quick.

A big-bore, hard-revving 3.8-litre flat six with 294kW and a rapid-fire, seven-speed dual-clutch ’box do the muscle work, but it’s a combination of all that with the 991 911’s considerably longer wheelbase and broader stance that make its performance so seamless.

With PDK and Sports Plus, Porsche claims 0-100km/h in 4.1sec and 0-200km/h in 13.6, and our test car was bang on the money – 4.08 and 13.64. Proving that 12 is the new 13, the Carrera S demolished 400m in a field-best 12.09sec (at 189.75km/h), and then to back that up, it stopped from 100km/h in an eye-popping 33m – more than a metre clear of the next-best braker (Boxster S – 34.42m).

Yet just as impressive as any of these numbers is the 911’s stunning 0-60km/h time – 1.97 seconds! Make no mistake, this one-up-from-base 911 is a serious performance car. At half the price, though, the new-gen Boxster S’s performance is arguably even more impressive.

2012-Porsche-Boxster.jpgIt has a bit less of everything (weight – 1350kg; engine capacity – 3436cc; power – 232kW at 6700rpm; power-to-weight – 172kW/tonne), but it manages to keep the big-hitting 911 clearly in its sight.Up to three figures, the difference isn’t great.

The Boxster trails the 911 to 60km/h by 0.21sec and by just under half a second to 100 (4.55sec). By 140, the difference is a second. By 200, it’s three-and-a-half seconds, but the ‘underpowered’ Boxster S still produces stellar performance.

Any car capable of the old ‘standing quarter’ in a 12.7 is the sort of machine that would make a great companion for fast get-aways and/or criminal activity. Given that role, the Boxster S would be a bit more stealth than the SLK55.

The baby Benz roadster might seem like a hairdresser’s drop-top on the juice, but it plays incredibly arousing tunes from its quad rear exhausts, and as the only V8 roadster in its class, that’s something no rival can match. It’s also no slouch, though unlike the Porsche pair, off-the-line traction is not its forte.

2012-Mercedes-Benz-SLK-55-AMG-interior.jpgAMG claims 4.9sec to 100km/h, but the best we could manage was 5.24. That said, like the SLS, the SLK55’s true accelerative ability is hidden between the lines. It was faster than the RS5 and nearly a second quicker than the Boxster S to 200km/h, and its 80-120km/h time was a watch-me-disappear 2.76sec.

Its 400m number also seemed relatively tame at 13.25sec, but its terminal speed of 180.59km/h matched the twin-turbo V8 S7’s, while beating the RS5, M135i, and Chrysler SRT8. So if you were a hairdresser and needed a nimble little convertible for quick blow-drys and bogan-beating traffic-light prowess, the SLK55 would be hard to beat.

Problem is, it can be such a hard car to tolerate on the road. Having a thrash on bumpy surfaces with the roof down is about as pleasant as a prostate exam, with the body wobbling as the overly firm suspension bashes and rocks the car’s occupants all over the place.

The SLK’s steering isn’t hugely interested in what’s going on, either, until you wind a fair amount of lock on, and the combination of all that is a performance roadster that only works in selected environments. Thankfully, one of those is Sydney Motorsport Park.

2012-Mercedes-Benz-SLK-55-AMG-interior.jpgOn track, with the roof locked into place, the SLK’s unforgiving suspension became one of its best assets. Sitting long and low in its SLS-inspired cabin, with AMG’s naturally aspirated 5.5-litre 310kW V8 belting out generous helpings of ground-shaking, crowd-pleasing bass, it’s about as metrosexual as a Megadeth album.

Despite a relatively short wheelbase of just 2430mm, the SLK55 feels surprisingly stable and well-balanced around The Creek’s fast sweepers, and even though it never challenged the top order for corner speed or lap time, it was a long way from disgraced.

Crucially, it was never too far behind the benchmark Boxster S (2:13.7 versus 2:12.1 for lap time) and it smashed its Porsche rival’s V-max – 223.56km/h against 217.36. Even more crucially for this exercise, the SLK55 was as driftable as any AMG has ever been.

Flawed and image-compromised it may be, but show it a racetrack and the SLK55 displays far bigger cojones than its shaved legs would imply. Only a brief stint was required in the Boxster S to demonstrate just how lacking the SLK55 is as a multi-faceted performance tool.

Mercedes-Benz-SLK-55-AMG-SLS-AMG-Porsche-Carrera.jpgWhether pottering to the shops in your jarmies for a litre of milk or nudging the 7800rpm rev limiter around the Nurburgring Nordschliefe, the Boxster S is a blindingly capable machine.

Even the PDK transmission’s laughably shit control interface – confusing wheel switches with near-invisible markings, plus a raised PDK badge across the top of the steering wheel that blocks the digital speedo – can’t dull the Boxster S’s brilliance.

Please Porsche, swallow your pride and make the optional paddles standard! It’s really the only black mark on an otherwise near-flawless car. On track, wearing massive, optional 20-inch wheels, you can push the new-generation Boxster S even harder than the old one and it still hangs on.

Its handling balance is so unbelievably neutral that it’s actually a challenge to get the car to really step out. And it’s these enormous reserves of roadholding that arguably take a little bit away from the Boxster S on the road.

2012-Mercedes-Benz-SLS-AMG-side.jpgYeah, it feeds back plenty of information, it can carry loads of corner speed and it does so with nonchalant ease, but it doesn’t move around a whole lot and there will be people out there who wish the Boxster S wore less rubber.

Porsche’s chassis engineers always said the original Boxster worked best on 16s, yet even the base 2012 Boxster has massive 235/45ZR18s up front and 265/45ZR18s on its drive wheels. Still, you can’t argue with a lap time just one second slower than the SLS Roadster’s.

So what does virtually double the money buy you in a 911 Carrera S PDK? In this field, it buys you the top-shelf of just about everything. In acceleration, braking, lap-time, and three out of eight measured corner speeds at The Creek, the 911 was top dog.

Of the others, it was second in V-max, fourth in Turn One, third in Turns Six, Eight and 11, and second in Turn 15 (behind Boxster). Dynamically, if the Boxster is awesome, then the 911 is something else again. The difference isn’t huge, but the 911’s sublimely fluid adjustability, its stunning power down and its delightfully rear-engined balance are the icing on the cake in my book.

2012-Porsche-Boxster-exterior.jpgIt has greater dynamic character, and that’s something that deserves to be cherished. Ignore any whinging about the absence of the old car’s bobbing nose and non-electric steering – this car is as close to perfect as a 2012 sportscar can be. And just one ludicrously expensive option – a $5890 sports exhaust – makes it even better.

I don’t think today’s Carrera S sounds as ‘traditional’ as the crackly, sports-exhausted 997 Carrera S we drove in a comparison way back in March 2008 (911 v M6 v R8), but it’s a special noise that is impossible to match, unless you specify a Boxster S with the same exhaust!

If we’re talking noises, though, the SLS AMG’s would be bloody hard to beat. And what better way to amplify one of the greatest V8 exhaust notes in the world than by removing the coupe’s silly gullwing doors and putting a cloth roof in their place?

Hard as it is to believe, the SLS works better as a convertible, and not just because you can hear its engine more clearly. Like Jennifer Grey and her nose job, it’s about looking in proportion, and the SLS Roadster has both presence and proportion. And heart-in-your-mouth thrills. Without trying to sound sexist, it’s a man’s supercar.

Mercedes-Benz-SLK-55-AMG-&-Mercedes-Benz-SLS-AMG.jpgDriving the SLS Roadster hard around Eastern Creek is like going Marlin fishing with a hand reel. It has a take-no-prisoners balance, with a really bitey nose and a loose-as tail, and even though cornering it hard is like trying to tame an animal, it’s bucket loads of visceral fun.

And despite all this, it still managed to set the fastest corner speed in Turn 6! Where the SLS Roadster hands the baton to the 911 is in sheer usability. On the drenched Putty Rd during our road loop, keeping the SLS pointing straight while making good time was a huge ask.

Want more Classic MOTOR?

Then there’s its price, and a boot that can’t take a suitcase, and a nose that’s in a different postcode to the rear bumper. But hedonistic decadence like this deserves to be celebrated! Especially when it’s not just part of a dick-measuring process.

Almost predictably, though, the 911 Carrera S is the victor of MOTOR’s 2012 Performance Car Cup. It’s everything you’d pretty much ever want in a performance car, as well as sexy, characterful, beautifully built, amazingly user-friendly and guaranteed to retain much of its value for years to come. And that’s something its home-town rivals can’t take away from it. Wir lieben Stuttgart.

MERCEDES-BENZ SLK 55 AMG

Overall Rank: 9
JUDGES NOTES
Andrew Maclean - 9th: “Surprisingly fun on the track, but frustrating out on the road”
Curt Dupriez - 9th: “Sweet roadster. Different character to Boxster, but that’s no bad thing”
James Cleary - 8th: “Tougher than expected. Ballsy and fun. Hairdressers need not apply”
Nathan Ponchard - 11th: “Hit-and-miss on road, but after a track thrashing, I can see the point”

WARREN LUFF SAYS
“This is a bit of a surprise packet. On the road I wasn’t overly impressed with it, I found it too soft in the front end but here on the circuit it actually works okay. It’s a car that you can have fun with and know it’s not going to catch you out considering how short it is; generally a short car is taily but it’s quite placid”

MERCEDES-BENZ SLS AMG

Overall Rank: 3
JUDGES NOTES
Andrew Maclean - 4th: “I’m glad they still build cars like this; compromised but so full of character”
Curt Dupriez - 3rd: “You’d better have your eyes on when pushing this monster hard”
James Cleary - 4th: “Brawny. Beautiful. Feels more at home on track than open road”
Nathan Ponchard - 3rd: “Supercar with a visceral punch that leaves you deaf and totally aroused"

WARREN LUFF SAYS

“It’s a really difficult car to drive on the limit, you’ve literally got to drive it with your fingertips. It’s got so much front-end grip and no rear. If you drive it for the grip at the front of the car, you’ll just spin out every corner. It’s got massive amounts of front-end grip but the rear can’t keep up”

PORSCHE BOXSTER

Overall Rank: 2
JUDGES NOTES
Andrew Maclean - =1st: “Almost as brilliant as the 911 for almost half the price”
Curt Dupriez - 2nd: “It has a chassis that's so good you believe it’s underpowered”
James Cleary - 1st: “Fast, superbly precise, balanced and communicative. Sounds brilliant”
Nathan Ponchard - 2nd: “You can push it even harder than the old one and it still hangs on”

WARREN LUFF SAYS
“It’s so good to see the evolution of this car over the generations that it hasn’t lost its soul. It’s still that fun, throw-around car that’s now got more power. The dynamics of it are getting closer to the 911. It’s a car the average person can get in and enjoy without having to go through all the grief”

PORSCHE CARRERA

Overall Rank: 1
JUDGES NOTES
Andrew Maclean - =1st: "The most resolved, multi-dimensional car ever made. Near faultess”
Curt Dupriez - 1st: “Awesome. The harder you push, the better it seems to get”
James Cleary - 2nd: “Superb. Balance is hard to fault. Engine howl is addictive”
Nathan Ponchard - 1st: “If the Boxster is awesome, then the 911 is something else again”

WARREN LUFF SAYS
“Unbelievable. It’s like James Bond films, but in a car, they just keep getting better every time. Around this track it’s awesome, it does everything right, it stops, it goes, it handles, the new PDK gearbox is just awesome, it’s such a sweet transmission. You couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Get your free weekly report from the world of fast cars - subscribe to the MOTOR newsletter!