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2013 Motor Trend Best Driver's Car - A Closer Look

I don't know who had the idea first, Car and Driver or Motor Trend, but they both go out every year and line up a group of the best performance cars that were updated or introduced the preceding year in a comparison test. The first Lightning Lap feature was in 2006 and I believe the first Motor Trend feature (used to be America's Best Handling Car) was in 2007. I'm not sure if either had earlier equivalents but based on these dates, it looks like Car and Driver had the idea first. I actually like the Lightning Lap feature better. I think it's because ranking in Car and Driver's Lightning Lap is based only on lap times.

A better lap time does not necessarily mean a better car. However, ranking cars based solely on their lap times makes the feature very objective. The issue that I find is that many (many) people disagree and argue about Best Driver's Car rankings but there's no arguing with lap times. I think Motor Trend's staff knows this so I usually notice that they fixate on the strengths of a car that they like and want to rank higher than they think many readers would rank and vice versa - fixate on the weaknesses of a car that they don't like and want to rank lower than they think many readers would. The folks at Car and Driver know that their opinions and driving impressions do not affect the rankings, positively or negatively, so they list what they like and don't like about each car and move on to the next. It makes the Lightning Lap less subjective in my opinion because no one is trying to convince you of one thing or another. I don't get the feeling that anyone is trying to sell you their point of view. Nevertheless, I enjoy reading Motor Trend's Best Driver's Car a lot and, as with Car and Driver's Lightning Lap (Car and Driver's Lightning Lap 2013 - A Closer Look), here are the cars that I think are truly impressive or disappointing.



The Highs:


Mercedes Benz E63 AMG S Model (wagon) - It's a wagon. It has nearly as much room as today's crossovers, weighs over 1,000 lbs more than most and it's quicker than an E92 M3. It is simply awesome. There are a couple of issues with it though. The first issue is that it is a impressive based on Car and Driver's ranking criteria, which is lap times, but low based on Motor Trend's - how good a driver's car it is. Okay, I haven't driven it, but based on the review, I don't have a good impression about it being a great driver's car. Let's look at what they had to say.. "Where the E63 faltered was at the edge. Driven all the way to the limit, it begins to fall down." "Not the Best Driver's Car due to its numb steering, heavy build and understeer." "an absolute riot in a straight line but corners, especially ones that stack up, are another story." So, to sum it up, it's a great driver's car as long as you don't take it to the limit which is very contradictory. It's a car that can only be a great driver's car as long as it's driven at 8/10th or lower.


Make no mistake, this doesn't make it a bad car. This is a super wagon. Its selling point is that it can be all things to all people. It can shuttle people along with half their stuff, half an hour later it can be doing hot laps at the local track or making passes at the drag strip and it can do either task very well. Because of this and the fact that it's a Mercedes, it has to be big, comfortable and pack a lot of luxury and safety features (i.e. heavy) and it has to be safe at the limit (i.e. understeer). The weight probably is what's killing the steering feel and response and its purpose requires it to understeer at the limit. 






Mercedes Benz SLS AMG Black Series - Here's another surprise from AMG. Besides the S Class, AMG cars have been know to be oversteering beasts that are built to put a huge smile on your face. They are fun cars not precision handling cars. I think most reviewers are very wrong when they say AMG is the M3 equivalent from Mercedes. It's far from it. I think AMG simply knows that there's a market for fast and powerful luxury cars so they give people an alternative. Not an equivalent, an alternative. I have met many AMG and M3 owners at the track and they are very different. It seems that they are going a different route, though, and trying to be taken seriously. 

They turned the C63 AMG into a fierce track machine by applying the Black Series treatment. They gave the E63 AMG AWD. All the reviews that I read about the SLS AMG were in line with the regular AMG image. It's a fun car. A blast to drive and great on the road. A precision handling car, it isn't. The Black Series treatment, again, changes that just like it did with the C63 AMG. 






The Lows:



Aston Martin Vanquish - The price, power and looks suggest a much quicker car. This Aston and the Jaguar F-Type V8 S are originally GT cars that want to double as sports cars when taken to the track. Despite the Jaguar being 77 hp down on power and lacking a rigid roof compared to the Aston, it is only 0.10 seconds slower. I think Aston Martin has been surviving in a similar manner to Toyota. Toyota has been making boring, soulless and bland looking cars for years that sell only because people expect them to be reliable. Aston Martin makes cars with technology and performance behind its competition but they sell because they look and sound the way they do. 

It isn't a necessarily a bad thing though because, to me, it is part of the charm of Aston Martin. Whenever I see an Aston on the road, I instantly make the judgement that the owner does not care about 0-60 mph times or top speed. They don't care about max lateral g's the car can generate in the corners, how fast the gear shifts are or power to weight ratios. There are better cars for the money. It's a car you buy with your heart not your mind. Where Toyota commits crimes against the automobile by taking cars closer to appliances, Aston Martin does the automobile a favour by taking cars closer to art.






Nissan GT-R Track Edition - Every time I read a review about this car, I like it less. I appreciate it more for its capabilities, but I like it less. The performance potential is huge. It has massive grip levels. The AWD and electronics can keep you safe if you're learning and can take you to super car performance levels if you know what you're doing. But whenever I read a review, I get more convinced that this isn't a driver's car. Well, why would it keep coming back and doing well at the Best Driver's Car feature? I think it's confidence. This car has got it in spades due to the phenomenal grip from the AWD system. Motor Trend has said several times that confidence is one of the major characteristics they look for. I don't think it does very well in the other categories that define a great driver's car though.


One of issues they had with it was a loss of power. After the engine got hot, the car's computer started pulling boost despite all gauges, temperature included, reading normal values. Boost was peaking at 10 psi instead of usual 15 which is a big difference. It even dropped to 7 psi later as the engine got hotter, just under half. They were running on 91 gas so it is possible that the engine wouldn't lose that much power with 93 but I have hard time believe it would prevent noticeable power loss all together which means that you'll have to watch the boost gauge and come off the track to let it cool down whenever it starts to drop. This isn't unexpected for many boosted cars as stock cooling usually isn't sized to handle heat due to serious track use but a GT-R isn't just an every day boosted car and the track edition further emphasizes that. The track edition even goes as far as taking out the (albeit, almost useless) rear seats to remind you that it wants to be a serious track machine.


The handling impressions were odd too. Randy said that he was surprised at the amount of understeer the car had and it was middle of the corner, not on power. "You got out of the corner before releasing the brake, it starts to understeer and you're looking for the apex, and it just won't come to it," he said, "the front just wasn't responding. Never any power rotation and just a surprising amount of mid-corner understeer." Could that have been on purpose? Is Nissan trying to tune out some power rotation to make the car more confidence inspiring? I know it would work for some people - to feel like the back could never come out on power unless you're being stupid with the throttle. It's possible, but I would except the complete opposite out of a "Track Edition" of a sports car; a more neutral and balanced chassis. And you even pay a price for the reworked handling - an even stiffer suspension that makes for a jittery and bouncy ride on public roads.






Audi R8 V10 Plus - A lap time of 1:38.7 around Laguna Seca is hardly disappointing but when you consider that the Porsche 911 Carrera 4S that was present for the same testing went around the famous track in 1:39.19, less than half a second slower, it is a little less impressive. The R8, which has a whopping 150 hp advantage plus an excellent AWD system and transmission, like the Porsche, should be able to pull a greater lead, apparently due to a surprising lack of grip from the tires. Are the tires to blame? Is the suspension tuning to blame? Can't say. But I can say that, based on the specs and equipment, it should be capable of a quicker lap time.






Overall, I'm rather disappointed with this year's BDC. I usually am a little disappointed with BDC because, like I said at first, I feel like it is very subjective but this year I was even more so. There are many cars that I was expecting to see but weren't there. The BMW 3-series, Cadillac ATS, Audi TT RS and Camaro 1LE keep coming to mind but I'm sure there are others that I am forgetting. The Corvette Stingray should have been there but GM, unfortunately, wasn't able to provide a car. The Bentley is really confusing me. What is it doing here? Sure, the capabilities of the car are impressive but there are many cars I can think of that would be better contenders for the title of best driver's car than a 5,000+ lb Bentley. I hope the next BDC feature will be better. 


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