So that's podium finishes for the Alpine A110, Ferrari 488 Pista and McLaren 600LT - but who wins gold?

You’ve got to draw the line somewhere, I suppose. Sporting convention suggests you should rule it across the page just under your third-place finisher. 

You hang a medal of a different precious metal around the neck of each contestant admitted, take a few exuberant podium snaps, if you like. And then, in our case at least – with the memories of so many V6s, V8s, V10s, flat sixes, straight sixes and turbo fours still competing to ring in your ears – you very calmly wend your way home. 

And, in the end, that’s what we did – minus the neck ornamentation. But, as will become apparent when you get to the end of this test bonanza and take in our table of judges’ votes (no peeking), if what you are about to read had been a top-two duel, it might have been a fairer denouement. 

Or a top-five royal rumble. Because when we’d finally driven the tread off every last tyre in the Anglesey paddock, wiped the childish grins from our faces, composed our thoughts and cast our votes, the judges of this year’s Britain’s Best Driver’s Car contest were heard to agree that they couldn’t remember a field of cars quite as competitive. Scoring more than 200 points out of a maximum 250 among cars this good felt like a cast-iron indicator of greatness. In another year, someone said, any car attracting enough credit to take it above that threshold could have landed an outright Handling Day title. Five cars managed it – five were in the 200 club. One each for the judges, conveniently. Imagine that. 

Our Verdict

Alpine A110 2018 road test review hero front

France’s revered sports car brand is back and chasing some heavyweight scalps

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You’ve already read about two out of that five, of course. If it fell to me, I’d gladly tell you about the wonderful BMW M2 Competition and the stupendous Porsche 911 GT3 RS all over again. Instead, arbitrary as it might appear, we’re now all about the very best of the best. 

Britain's Best Driver's Car 2018: meet the contenders

By process of elimination, you’ll probably have worked out that podium status must have been achieved by a certain red, stripy, 710-horsepower Ferrari – the 488 Pista, and by the decidedly less red, less stripy but only slightly less powerful McLaren 600LT also. And finally? Something comparable to both on engine placement, axle drive and number of seats – but that was in other ways so refreshingly, joyously different. 

This year, even the entrants from BMW’s M division and Porsche’s Motorsport department (not to mention the gathered might of Hethel, Neckarsulm and Gaydon) were eclipsed for Best Driver’s Car glory by a sports car with a fraction of the power and grip of almost everything else in the field. A car built as what might as well have been a debut effort, by a firm that’s been dormant for more than two decades – and that has come right back with one enormous, supernova-level bang. What a coup for the brilliant, diminutive and dangerously affordable Alpine A110

Now, if I was to continue in the vein in which Andrew Frankel has been recounting proceedings, we’d deal with third place first, and then… ah. Perhaps not. When last I listened to the UK top 40 singles chart, it was on Radio 1 on a Sunday afternoon. And as I remember, Mark Goodier didn’t announce, in his lilting segue between Justified and Ancient by The KLF at number nine and Cher’s Shoop Shoop Song at eight, that Bryan Adams had only gone and stayed at number one with that Robin Hood noise for another sodding week. Because that would have ruined it for everyone. 

So we’ll knock the descending order approach on the head. Instead, picture the scene. You’re in the confines of a fairly small, almost empty walled car park conveniently built into the side of a Snowdonian fell. From here, you have a choice of some of the finest driving roads in the country; some are tight and serpentine, others wider and more free-flowing, but all are within minutes’ reach. In front of you are our top three 2018 Best Driver’s cars: Ferrari, McLaren, Alpine. In your jacket pocket are the keys to all three. For the benefit of my own blood pressure, I’m picturing a zip on that pocket. 

And the keys to the Ferrari and McLaren can stay in there for now – because, as so many of the judges attested, the Alpine A110 is little short of a revelation on the road, and that revelation deserves your attention first. Matt Bird called it “just lovely. Lithe, lissom, limber, brilliant. Glides along treading the line between absorbency and involvement perfectly. Proves that sports cars ought to be small; that light is still right.” 

For Dan Prosser it was “the first car I drove on the road. And as I stepped out of it, I remember thinking aloud: ‘I don’t think I’ll have any more fun than that.’ Pliant set-up and long wheel travel make it so well suited to bumpy and uneven roads, while its compact size and modest tyres mean you can use all of its performance.” 

The A110’s many praises were sung by others too – but all came back from a drive fizzing with enthusiasm about how refreshing it was to enjoy a sports car so perfectly optimised for the road. One with the pace and grip to excite you, but no more of either than you can use easily on a daily basis. And one that seems to strain every sinew and give of its best without needing to be driven to extremes. 

On a good B-road, at speeds that needn’t attract unwanted attention, the A110’s ride was fluent and dexterous; responsive, precise and poised but vivacious and playful with it; powerful enough to accelerate with decent urgency, but small and light enough to feel effete. Matt Prior wrote that there was “absolutely nothing wrong with it that a [limitedslip] diff and another 50 horsepower wouldn’t sort out”. And yet for more than one judge, no other car attracted more votes for its on-road showing. 

So what next? Not least for the contrast, make it the Ferrari 488 Pista. And from a car with a performance level you would delight in taking full advantage of probably as often as you drove it, meet one in which the punctuation between your first full-throttle adventure and your second might be rather long – and the sheer effort of mental processing power that pause contained necessarily considerable.

The Pista is monstrously, preposterously fast. It accelerates with a violence you very rarely find in a car with numberplates, feeling less like a car at all while doing so and more like it might be invisibly but very firmly attached to some distant F35 fighter jet (albeit one that you can’t actually hear over the angry yowl of the V8 engine). For Frankel, its pace was “epic”; for Bird, it was “intense, visceral, out of this world”. 

But Prosser’s comments hinted at the elephant in the room, which other judges noted also: that the car “has a level of performance that you really struggle to tap into on the road”. That’s the risk any car with a particularly healthy feeling 710-horsepower engine runs, of course. But this one has such a dramatic, torque-filled power delivery that, in this tester’s experience at least, it is the first Ferrari whose sheer pace seems to know no end. Maranello has been talking for years of ECUs that deal out more and more torque, in a stepby-step process, as you shift up – but the 488 Pista is the first Ferrari to really feel like it’s doing that. In some cases, the car seems to pick up more mid-range potency in that way than it seems to lose as a result of the change in gearing, even. Shift from second to third without taking your foot off the throttle stop and it feels as if another engine has suddenly attached itself to the driveline. It’s incredible. 

As well as that astonishing engine, the Pista leaves you in a bewildered sense of awe with its supreme outright grip level, and with steering that’s light, direct and precise even by modern Ferrari standards – but that doesn’t inspire immediate confidence. 

For some, that made for a combination sufficiently highly strung to be problematic. Frankel recorded that it was “the most civilised (and best) Ferrari V8 special I’ve driven, after the Challenge Stradale, Scuderia and Speciale; but like all of those, it’s still not as nice to drive on the road as the standard car on which it’s based. You can’t use what it’s gained, but feel the compromise in ride and refinement at every turn.” For Prior, however, we heard different: that the Pista was “very enjoyable on the road”, and had “a ride which is good enough, even if the steering is over-light and quick by comparison to some”. 

Well, by comparison specifically to one, as it happened: the McLaren 600LT. The list of 600-horsepower mid-engined supercars that feel as planted and precise as this, and that communicate, reassure and encourage you to extend them so powerfully on the road, might only be one item long. It’s a car blessed with a turn of speed we might usefully describe as fathomably immense rather than downright absurd. But it rides with a sense of measure and supple sophistication you just don’t expect of it; it can be placed so accurately that you feel as if you could handle any bend, at any speed that your bravery would permit. It has one of the world’s great driving positions, granting superb visibility of the road ahead. The Ferrari’s initial hit of fever is much more exciting, and while the McLaren’s V8 revs slightly more freely, no judge thought it even close to a match for the Maranello-built engine: not on responsiveness, torque, audible charm nor outright potency. And yet the car with the deeper and more lasting sense of exhilaration and reward? That was debated long and hard. 

The test’s circuit driving, if anything, shifted the goalposts in Ferrari’s favour – and some thought it would see off the Alpine’s podium charge altogether. That it didn’t do the latter is testament to how much fun can be had in a supremely balanced, hilariously mobile-handling mid-engined sports car in 2018 – so long as it’s made in Dieppe. 

The A110 was a challenging car to drive both quickly and tidily on track, once your relationship with it had progressed to a post-watershed, ESC-off sort of intimacy. It’s always stable under power, but wants to break away at the rear axle when cornering on a trailing throttle – a lot. That it was also one of the most stable, predictable cars on test in which to drift around Anglesey’s tighter corners, however, meant it rewarded the decision to go with the flow and to drive it with required abandon, with armfuls of opposite lock and a huge grin on your face. 

Needless to say, both the 488 Pista and the 600LT were cars to be taken more seriously, although both quite different from each other. On track, you quickly learned to trust the Ferrari. That its chassis was benign enough to redeem that super-direct steering, and you could therefore drive it however you liked: fast and loose, or even faster and more neatly. “That a 700bhp-plus mid-engined supercar can be as approachable as this on track is as good an indicator of how far the automotive industry has come in 30 years as any other I can think of,” noted Frankel. Meanwhile, the Pista’s brakes had matchingly stupendous power to that of its engine, and its lateral grip level on super-sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup R tyres was simply otherworldly. Nothing was better than the Pista at Anglesey. To be fair, nothing came close. 

The McLaren certainly didn’t offer the sheer eye-bulging grip and pace of the Ferrari, and though its handling balance was in a similar league, it demanded a more prescribed driving style; one with what seemed like a more prosaic outcome to some judges too. 

Others loved the greater progressiveness and feedback of the 600LT’s driving experience, recognising how rewarding it could be when you crack the combination of how best to operate it: attack hard, brake late, keep the revs high, trail the pedal on turn in to over-rotate the chassis slightly, and have faith in the front end when it’s loaded. Then work in mid-corner with the handling neutrality you’ve developed on a trailing throttle, building a bit of slip angle into the car’s attitude if you want it without needing big, sudden throttle inputs. The more you practised, the better the LT got. 

And so, at the end of it all and as the scores came in, it became clear how close the voting for the outright winner of this year’s Britain’s Best Driver’s Car shootout would be. There were judges who gave the McLaren the most credit; there was a judge who gave the Ferrari the most; and there was one voice who couldn’t separate the Ferrari and the Alpine for top dog status. 

The result would be decided in the detail, and will live in the memory for a long time here at Autocar Towers. 

Britain's Best Driver's Car 2018: the winner

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McLaren 600LT review

Meeting the UK's first Alpine A110 owner

Ferrari 488 Pista review

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Comments
5

18 November 2018

  A video would be better, lots of words take longer,facts and figures can be boring, a mix if both would be better....

Peter Cavellini.

18 November 2018
Better engine. Faster, a lot faster. Way more engaging. With "greater outright pace and grip, and superior on-track handling balance and adjustability" Yet, it's not British. So it has to wint the car with open differential and passive suspension, and a massive turbo lag. Yeah, keep going like that, Autocar!

18 November 2018
Better engine. Faster, a lot faster. Way more engaging. With "greater outright pace and grip, and superior on-track handling balance and adjustability" Yet, it's not British. So it has to wint the car with open differential and passive suspension, and a massive turbo lag. Yeah, keep going like that, Autocar!

18 November 2018

It's a pity I can't sample the goodness of the Alpine here in the States. Lovely looks, by all accounts a great driver, and a price mere mortals can afford.

21 November 2018

Bizarre,why entertain two cars here that are impossible to purchase without a rediclous premium even if you have those funds............

Qualifying to buy and actually get deliveried either the Feraari or the Porsche here will require a 10 year relationship with the brands,purchasing vechiles you don't want or need to even be considered...

Don't humour these dealer brands and give them credability........

Yet another example of the UK Police State,Its like everything else,worry not,this will be easily defeatable,everything is to determined individual's.

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