Performance Car of the Year 2005 - Hillclimb: Classic MOTOR

Performance Car of the Year 2005 hillclimb

We are at best going home early or, at worst, going to have to call partners and spouses to bail us out of the local nick.

 This article was first published in MOTOR magazine's March 2005 issue.

Various members of the PCOTY circus stand around kicking small rocks and trying to hide MOTOR logos, as editor Jesse engages a member of the local constabulary in a discussion of the What Exactly Are You Doing Here persuasion.

Or so I thought; Mr Policeman turns away from our unusually docile chief, points to the Lotus Exige and loudly proclaims, “I’ll go for a run in that, if that’s okay”. One passenger ride up and down the loop with MT later, and we’re free to continue… In some ways, the final test of the PCOTY period is the toughest one for both man and machine.

The fast fleet is beginning to fray around the edges; not the least is the Holden Commodore SS, a rocket at the airport, its brakes are throwing tanties after being tortured at Winton, the Typhoon twins have departed and there’s a strong smell of wet dog in the MG ZT 260.

FPV-Falcon-GT-P-driving.jpgBut with eight kilometres of curvaceous, broken-top bitumen each way, the climb is a good representation of what most of y’all would – or would like to – do on a typical weekend fang. Of course, most weekends don’t include access to a $460k Benz with a motor that wouldn’t be out of place in a racing boat.

But, as has happened to other hot PCOTY Mercs, the CL65 AMG pulled the pin, petulantly plonking itself into self-preservation mode at the slightest hint of a temp spike. Pity, because describing the crushing thump in the back as a Newton kay of torque rockets you up an increasingly thinning sliver of road is entirely beyond me, because I’ve never launched off an aircraft carrier.

Performance Car of the Year 2005 - Airport

At the other end of the scale, Renault’s Clio Cup is tailor-made for days like these. With easily the best chassis balance in the lightweight division – and embarrassing plenty of its supposed betters – the Cup’s front-end grip seems never-ending and its gruff little 2.0-litre is always on-song.

In this company its underwhelming looks disguise the fact it’s a fun machine through and through. Think original Honda Integra Type R that’s completed a couple of months of finishing school. Speaking of which, the Integra Type S also makes a good fist of it.

Yes, Irene, it’s slightly aloof, but bejeezuz it loves a good rev, the gear shift is peerless and you can tell the front end what to do with little argument received. Cockpit arrangements have gone from sublime to ridiculous, the too-narrow Recaro race buckets of the Type R replaced with shapeless slippery leather numbers that did the car no favours.

Performance-Car-of-the-Year-2005.jpgStill, the suspension revisions over the Type R work well in the S, livening things up without ruining real-world compliance. I’ve overheard enough chat about the Renault Sport Mégane being a decent car. This, of course, makes the discovery that the Mégane is poles apart from its sportier sibling a real kick in the guts.

It’s a willing engine, and it’s at its best left a gear or two taller than feels natural to overcome its power-down issues. A combination of dullard steering, average ergonomics and a top-heavy feel, leaves the Megsy as a car I don’t leap out of with a grin on my face.

Is ‘retro’ the word for the Mazda MX-5 SE? If yes, then paint me old school. Granted, it isn’t the most accomplished thing out here, but the peachy chassis and lovely steering are as comfortable as a well-washed t-shirt. Power delivery is disappointing and it needs to be revved and the ’box needs to be worked to get the most out of it.

But it’s superbly involving, if not that competent by the standards of more contemporary rivals, and not a bad way to spend a Sunday arvo. While the Audi TT isn’t as dated as the MX-5, it’s not far off. The V6-engined coupe is the last throw of the dice for this body, and it holds its own – just.

It feels slow-witted, but it can be a bit of fun on the road. Sounds tremendous, too. The six-speed DSG ’box is better the further you take it from the track, but the seats and distinctive starkness are great. There’s understeer issues, no room to carry anything, and it’s expensive, but in all, the TT raised eyebrows across the board – just, disappointingly, not for the right reasons.

Performance Car of the Year hillstartOf course, if carrying stuff, eating pies and watching the Great Race are things dear to you, then the FPV Falcon GT-P is more what you’d be looking for, right? Though I’m a firm believer that fake carbon fibre should be a crime against humanity, that’s not the least of the big guy’s shortcomings.

It’s a sweet motor, the Boss 290, but it sits high in the engine bay, giving the front end a feeling that it’s always tottering side-to-side, and it’s also a bit cammy in its delivery. Eighteen hundred-plus kilograms does an excellent job of hiding kilowatts, too.

Six cogs made it a more consistent car, but most judges were more concerned about its turn-in understeer and uphill power-down shortcomings. And I’m pretty sure you’ve read enough about the Typhoon to explain its DNF by now… The other performance rear drive sedan on test, however, continued to plant itself into top-ten contention, as it had from the beginning of the weekend.

The HSV ClubSport R8 is a great place to show off the throaty, torquey powerplant that is the new LS2, and makes ground everywhere else by being one of the most integrated cars on tour; great brakes and a surprisingly sweet front end with lots and lots of grip and tonnes of feel.

Make ’em heaps good smoke signals too, Tonto… Hats off, though, to the sheer audacity of the MG ZT 260. Not only is it almost twenty grand dearer than the GT-P, it weighs almost as much and has one cam, 16 valves and 100kW less on offer.

MG-ZT260-Interior.jpgIt had its moments around Winton thanks mostly to prodigious grip, but that trait doesn’t translate to the real world. Barely adequate up the hill, it’s far too isolated and sanitised in its handling and power delivery on the way down. Good seating, a Mustang motor and a nice engine note do not a performance sedan make.

While I’m in a derisive frame of mind, it might be best not to make too much mention of the HSV GTO Coupe. The upside is the LS2 motor works a treat. The auto gearbox, while much improved, is still dead painful and unpredictable to the point of causing traction breakages, and this jobbie had very average brakes which, here, equals about zero fun.

The other pseudo-English entrant, the Lotus Exige, was expected to do well here, but immense grip doesn’t quite make up for large gaps in the gearing, there’s simply not enough room on the Hillclimb to keep the Lotus singing. However, the Lotus damper boffins deserve extra cream on their scones for building shocks that ride so well and grip so hard.

It’s still all a bit ‘hobby kit’, though, with stickers covering holes where rubber bungs should live and a hit and miss approach to screw and bolt insertion. If the VW Golf R32 has one claim to fame, it’s the fact that it’s an all-wheel drive with no turbo lag.

The 3.2-litre V6 softens off at the top of the tacho, but it makes plenty of noise along the way and has good shove from middling engine speeds. There’s good grip and typical Haldex-clutched AWD understeer, but the suspension control falls apart when you’re pressing on and the R32 becomes too pogo-ey on broken bitumen.

Performance-Car-of-the-Year-2005-hillclimb-testing.jpgAs a package, it flatters to deceive. The multi-day format hurts cars like the Commodore SS; always has. Brakes and body control, particularly, feel the pinch after Winton. Thing is, a car with this much motah really should have the brakes to match. With the pedal on the floor, we culled it from PCOTY on both safety and mercy grounds.

It gave its best and had nothing left to give – and, we know, that line didn’t endear Sally Robbins in the eyes of the nation, either. Funnily enough, the second incarnation of the Monaro CV8 is spec’d with an improved brake package and it’s still fighting on feistily deep into Tuesday afternoon.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is the tightest, most together Munro I’ve yet to drive. Noise, fury, smoke, charm and passion – but while the brakes are better, it could still use more.

While it isn’t the king of the littlies, the MINI Cooper S Chilli substitutes grip for grunt, putting in a reasonable performance, though it can be a handful, bucking and reacting to a steering rack that’s just too fast for the rest of the chassis.

It’s very firm, but not an unreasonable ride, and it still attracts sideways glances from the cafe set, but its $41k should be enough to make rational people ask rational questions.

Performance-Car-of-the-Year-2005-testing.jpgIf you’re after the ultimate weekend weapon-cum-cafe cruiser to impress the ladies (and that’s not damning the thing with faint praise) or the blokes for that matter, then allow me to introduce the Mercedes-Benz SLK350.

It’s only ever going to fit you and a good friend but with its creamy, punchy, sonorous V6, surprisingly vivacious chassis and super-functional roof, this thing is the surprise find of PCOTY for many. If, however, space and cubes top your Merc shopping list, the C55 AMG may be more to your taste.

With a tendency towards power oversteer when the right foot feels for the firewall, only an ordinary slusher ’box dulls the drive. The C55 figured higher in the charts than most expected, with its ability to whisper its way through bends, and it’s a cracker of a Q-ship in anyone’s language.

There’s much talk of the Mitsubishi EVO VIII being the duck’s guts even amongst this esteemed mountain of metal, but it’s hard to judge when you can only sample a version that’s done the equivalent of the Paris-Dakar rally.

Porsche-Carrera-S-911-rear.jpgThrough the clickety gearbox, hard-punching motor and never-ending grip I catch glimpses of its ability, especially on turn-in and at mid-corner. Is it cheating to bolt semi-race rubber on a road-going car as a standard fitment? Robbie Gibson at the Goondiwindi BP wouldn’t carry too many Bridgestone Potenza RE070s.

Nevertheless, they add an element to the Subaru WRX STi that’s impossible to ignore. In my opinion the STi poops from a great height on this EVO in this condition; better tyres, braking, shifting, power-down… all sorts of areas.

Want more of MOTOR's Classic Series?

It feels slower in the first three gears than the EVO VIII, and it’s just rubbish when it’s off boost, but it now runs the Ralliart weapon closer in a straight line than ever before. Is there a reason I left the 911 for last? Not especially. Do I know why I simply wrote ‘Mmm, lurverly jubblies’ as my one-and-only notebook quote?

Yep, because this is the 911 for guys like you and me… Aside from a dash rattle that inexplicably went away after a thump on the binnacle, the depth of engineering quality is so hard to describe adequately that I won’t even try.

You’ll read people blathering about the steering being less than its 996 self, but let me assure you, if you’re missing anything, it ain’t much. Grunt forever, brakes to match, grip only surpassed by steering feel… simply astonishing.

 

 

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