Which nation makes the best drivers’ cars? To find out, we referee a knockout contest that pits match-fit favourites against plucky outsiders

Five years ago, we presented a world cup for hot hatchbacks. Eight countries competed across three rounds to identify the best of them all. Well, now we’re doing it again, but for sports cars.

A straightforward repeat of our previous contest would be unimaginative, so we’ve binned the historical element, doubled the number of contenders and added a round. And if you didn’t think there were 16 sports car-producing countries out there, neither did we. But with just a little – or, in the opening round, quite a lot of – licence, there are. In fact, there are more, and we hope the people of Liechtenstein and the makers of the Quant E-Sportlimousine are not too distressed not to be featuring.

Most important, this is a contest of sports cars. Not sporting cars, supercars or hypercars. Yes, some countries have been granted a waiver to take part simply because their candidate is more super (or hyper) than sports, but the further removed from the philosophy of relative simplicity, lightness and driver involvement, the less likely it is for any contender to make it to the next round.

To us, a sports car is all these things and also not completely unaffordable, which is why, wild cards aside, we’ve imposed a £150,000 price cap on seeded entrants. And, yes, some of those wild cards do indeed fall some considerable distance from the sports car heartland, and if you’d tried to find 16 countries that make them, you’d know why. So, and without further ado, let battle commence.

You'll find the opening rounds through to the semi-finals here. Click here to skip to the final.

ROUND 1

GERMANY VS POLAND

1. AUDI R8 V10 - Germany

Power 532bhp Price £123,350 0-62mph 3.5sec Top speed 199mph

ARRINERA HUSSAYRA - Poland

Power 641bhp Price na 0-62mph 3.2sec Top speed 211mph

Cleverly, Germany keeps its big guns in reserve for later rounds, backing Audi’s well-respected mid-engined R8 to have the measure of a supercar named after the Polish cavalry. So far as we are aware, the Hussayra has only so far been made in race trim, although an 800bhp street version is promised. Not being entitled to wear a numberplate was always going to be a drawback here, even though the carbonfibre-composite car is far more credible than most start-up supercars, thanks to input from Lee Noble and Warsaw University.

VERDICT

A clear win for Germany, not least because its contender can actually be driven on the public road. 

AUSTRIA VS CHINA

2. KTM X-BOW R - Austria

Power 285bhp Price £68,000 (est) 0-62mph 4.1sec Top speed 144mph

NIO EP9 - China

Power 1364bhp Price na 0-62mph na (0-124mph in 7.1sec) Top speed 194mph 

We could have chosen one of those desperate rip-offs of European designs of which the Chinese car industry appears so fond. But the KTM X-Bow, while quite old and still expensive, is a deadly serious, beautifully engineered sports car, so it didn’t seem very fair. Instead, step forward the all-electric Nio EP9 supercar, with its freshly minted outright Nürburgring lap record still hot in its hand. But they’re making only six and it’s hard indeed to argue it’s anything other than a hypercar, so there can be only one outcome here.

VERDICT

A moral victory for the electric EP9 and China, but it’s the KTM that propels Austria into the next round.

USA VS SPAIN

3. DODGE VIPER SRT COUPE - USA

Power 645bhp Price £70,000 (est) 0-62mph 3.2sec Top speed 206mph

SPANIA GTA SPANO - Spain

Power 925bhp Price £1m (est) 0-62mph 2.9sec Top speed 230mph

The USA is spoiled for choice but leads with one of its big guns, the Dodge Viper, keen to obliterate upstart Spania’s supercar. But what’s this? Spania treats Dodge to a taste of its own medicine by coming back with an even more powerful twinturbo engine sourced from, you guessed it, a Viper. Can it achieve the upset of the tournament before the first round is even complete? Er, no. The Spano looks good but we don’t know anyone who’s driven one, and until we do, it can go no further here.

VERDICT

The US wins, for once not through overwhelming firepower, but by being a car we’ve actually driven.

FRANCE VS SOUTH KOREA

4. ALPINE A110 - France

Power 249bhp Price £50,000 (est) 0-62mph 4.5sec Top speed 155mph

HYUNDAI VELOSTER - South Korea

Power 201bhp Price No longer on sale in the UK 0-62mph 7.3sec Top speed 135mph

The French are awfully good at hot hatches, but their record with sports cars is far more patchy. In fact, there aren’t actually any French sports cars on sale right now, which would be inconvenient for France had it not been drawn against South Korea, a country with no record in the field nor also any such car on sale. What to do? Well, the new Alpine A110 can hardly be ignored and the Hyundai Veloster is at least available elsewhere. The Veloster was unfairly maligned but we’d be staggered if the Alpine is not of a different order.

VERDICT

Tentatively, France progresses. Steward’s enquiry expected.

ENGLAND VS DENMARK

5. CATERHAM SEVEN 160 - England

Power 80bhp Price £16,995 0-62mph 6.9sec Top speed 100mph

ZENVO TS1 GT - Denmark

Power 1163bhp Price £1m (est) 0-62mph 2.8sec Top speed 233mph

This contest was never about horsepower and, to prove it, here’s a head to head between an Englander and a Dane with a power differential of well over 1000bhp. Actually, England could have fielded any one of many small, sharp-focused sports cars for which it is renowned. But there’s no need; since its pasting on Top Gear, the Danish Zenvo ST1 has become the revised TS1, but it’s still a hypercar no one we know has driven in a competition for sports cars. We like the idea of a Danish supercar, but the brilliant little Caterham had it in the bag from the start.

VERDICT

A brilliant start for England. Back to the pavilion for Denmark.

ITALY VS CROATIA

6. ABARTH 124 SPIDER - Italy

Power 167bhp Price £26,920 0-62mph 6.8sec Top speed 144mph

RIMAC CONCEPT 1 - Croatia

Power 1207bhp Price £1m (est) 0-62mph 2.5sec Top speed 221mph

If this were a contest for supercars, we’d probably not bother hosting it. We’d just give the trophy to Italy and be done with it. But it’s not, and on sports car turf, Italy finds itself on much less certain ground. So thank goodness the Abarth 124 Spider improves on the modest standards of its Fiat stablemate to carry the day against a crazy all-electric hypercar from Croatia’s Rimac. Rimac is actually an increasingly important player in the electric powertrain world and the Concept 1 a six-off shop window for its talents. But given the brief, it’s the fizzy and fun Abarth that puts its homeland into the quarters.

VERDICT

Abarth for Italy, early bath for Croatia.

JAPAN VS SWEDEN

7. NISSAN GT-R - Japan

Power 562bhp Price £80,995 0-62mph 2.9sec Top speed 192mph

KOENIGSEGG REGERA - Sweden

Power 1509bhp Price £1.5m (est) 0-62mph 2.9sec Top speed Over 250mph

Godzilla is used to getting its own way, but here it’s up against a Scandinavian King Kong on steroids after a particularly fine breakfast. The Regera is arguably the most nuts hypercar out there, boasting not only similar power to a Bugatti Chiron but also a hybrid drive and – get this – a single-speed gearbox. What makes it different from a few others in this round is that it’s real and Koenigsegg plans to build 80 of them. But the Nissan GT-R is the only proper sports car here, so it neatly side-steps the Swede to take Japan into the next round.

VERDICT

Age has not wearied the GT-R, at least not enough to deny Japan this win.

NETHERLANDS VS MEXICO

8. DONKERVOORT D8 GTO-S - Netherlands

Power 340bhp Price £130,000 (est) 0-62mph 3.3sec Top speed 152mph

MASTRETTA MXT - Mexico

Power 250bhp Price na 0-62mph 4.9sec Top speed 155mph

Who’d have thought we’d have ended up with the Dutch squaring up to the Mexicans? Not us, that’s for sure. And perhaps not the Mexicans, either, because although Mastretta has a functioning website advertising its MXT sports car, we couldn’t help but notice the last time any news was posted on it was back in 2012… By contrast, those crazy chaps at Donkervoort seem to be in rude health. Its D8 GTO was a highly regarded product and the new S version is similar, but madder still. It’s also a proper sports car that could have seen off quite a few others here.

VERDICT

A no-show, so its bye-bye to the Mastretta and a bye for the Donk.

QUARTER-FINALS

GERMANY VS AUSTRIA

1. MERCEDES-AMG GT R - Germany

Power 577bhp Price £143,260 0-62mph 3.6sec Top speed 198mph

KTM X-BOW R - Austria

Power 285bhp Price £68,000 (est) Top speed 4.1sec Top speed 144mph

Suddenly, strength in numbers starts to count. Whereas Austria has little choice but to wheel out the 10-year-old X-Bow for this secondround encounter, Germany’s biggest problem is an embarrassment of riches from which to choose. We’d have liked the delightful Wiesmann Roadster to have survived long enough to take it on but, as it is, it’s the current ultimate Mercedes street car that rises to the challenge.

Oddly enough, although its price point brings us perilously close to the £150k cut-off, it is the GT R’s steely focus on providing pure driving pleasure that actually makes it a far better candidate here than the more broadly defined, palpably less enjoyable and cheaper AMG GT models. Certainly, it’s enough to send Austria and the doughty KTM packing, leaving Germany and the remaining surviving countries to ponder what on earth it might wield next. Could it be the Volkswagen Beetle Dune? No, it couldn’t.

VERDICT

It’s David versus Goliath, so David gets his backside kicked. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

USA VS FRANCE

2. CORVETTE STINGRAY - USA

Power 460bhp Price £63,295 0-62mph 4.4sec Top speed 181mph

ALPINE A110 - France

Power 249bhp Price £50,000 (est) 0-62mph 4.5sec Top speed 155mph

This might actually be a very interesting comparison to do for real, and when the Alpine does become available, we may even do exactly that. The interest is in the approach: the Corvette is the diehard traditionalist with the enormous, multi-cylinder normally aspirated engine in the front of the car with a standard manual gearbox; and the Alpine takes the mid-engined, turbocharged, paddle-shift approach.

Conceptually, we like the American way, particularly because we know how well developed the Corvette is these days and what a fine machine it is to which the oldest sports car model name is currently appended. But so, too, do we have high hopes that the Alpine will indeed be the ultra-light, superdynamic state-of-the-art sportster its specification seems to promise. But as you will see in the next fixture, Italy has been here before with mixed results, so until the Alpine has the chance to prove itself, it’s the ’Vette that must progress.

VERDICT

Proven American muscle beats untested Gallic flair. For now.

ENGLAND VS ITALY

3. LOTUS ELISE SPRINT - England

Power 132bhp Price £37,300 0-62mph 6.2sec Top speed 137mph

ALFA ROMEO 4C - Italy

Power 237bhp Price £52,505 0-62mph 4.5sec Top speed 160mph

This should have been a lot closer than it is, and perhaps if Lotus had done the chassis development on the 4C, closer it would have been. Indeed, a Brit long past its 20th birthday should have been dismissed with ease by the carbonfibre-tubbed Alfa, but when it comes to the provision of the purest driving pleasure, the devil always lurks in the detail.

And it’s detail that Lotus has always done best. Never the fastest, always the most fluent, the Elise remains a seminal driving experience on the road in a way that the Alfa, despite its power and specification, has never managed. The 4C’s handling is too flawed, its powertrain insufficiently engaging to make the most of its super-light, super-stiff structure. The essential difference is that in the Lotus, you are amazed at how much greater it is than the sum of its parts. In the Alfa, you think only of how much better it really should have been.

VERDICT

Close on paper, a walkover on the pitch. England marches onwards.

JAPAN VS NETHERLANDS

4. TOYOTA GT86 - Japan

Power 197bhp Price £26,885 0-62mph 7.7sec Top speed 140mph

DONKERVOORT D8 GTO-S - Netherlands

Power 340bhp Price £130,000 (est) 0-62mph 3.3sec Top speed 152mph

The Netherlands getting this far in the competition is akin to Afghanistan turning up in the quarters of the Cricket World Cup. But the Donkervoort D8 GTO-S is up against one of the most clearly conceived sports cars of the modern era in this round.

The Toyota GT86 is a car that provides a level of driver involvement and enjoyment that’s missing from many other sports cars costing several times more. Want to understand the basics of vehicle dynamics, feel the car start to move around and adjust its attitude in response not just by hand but by foot as well? And do it all at slow, safe speeds? That’s why we love the GT86: it’s the car that proves that fast and fun are not the same thing and that, indeed, a reduction in one can lead to an increase in the other. And that’s why it has also seen Japan safely through to the semi-finals.

VERDICT

A brave but futile effort from the Flying Dutchman against one of the world’s great sports cars.

SEMI-FINALS

GERMANY VS USA

1. BMW M2 - Germany

Power 365bhp Price £45,750 0-62mph 4.5sec Top speed 155mph

FORD MUSTANG - USA

Power 416bhp Price £38,095 0-62mph 4.8sec Top speed 155mph

Germany plays a blinder by wheeling out one of its most accessible cars to take on the blue-collar cross-pond hero fielded by Ford. We are right in among our very favourite cars here, cars that not only speak to our inner driving God but can also be used every day and in every way you might want.

What the BMW M2 and Mustang V8 share is not just their frontengine, rear-drive configurations and manual gearboxes, but also an attitude. What sets them apart is their priorities. As ever, Ford goes straight for the popular vote,wrapping a mighty 5.0-litre V8 motor within a simply gorgeous shape. BMW’s 3.0-litre six is a great engine and disguises well the fact that it’s turbocharged, but it doesn’t twang the heart strings like the Ford’s V8, any more than its looks can weaken the knees like its US opponent here.

To understand why the BMW wins, you need to go and drive, far and fast. Then you’ll see it’s an even more accessible driver’s car than the Ford, easier and more rewarding thanks to the finest M-car chassis in years. We love the Mustang and it has represented its country with honour, but it’s Germany that wins here.

VERDICT

A close call, but brilliance beats brute force and takes Germany all the way to the final.

ENGLAND VS JAPAN

ASTON MARTIN V12 VANTAGE S - England

Power 565bhp Price £138,000 0-62mph 3.9sec Top speed 205mph

MAZDA MX-5 - Japan

Power 158bhp Price £21,595 0-62mph 7.3sec Top speed 133mph

Not a conventional pairing, we will concede, but two of the most charming sports cars from two of the greatest sports car-producing nations on earth. There is little more that can be added to what has already been said about the current MX-5. After a couple of generations slipping slightly backwards from the purity and clarity of the original vision, this MX-5 is almost as great an achievement today as was the original 28 years ago. It is, in short, a pure delight that requires you to be neither rich nor skilled to enjoy, merely an enthusiast who needs a car that works but knows a truly interactive driving machine when he or she sees one.

Should that allow it victory over the Aston, even with the English car’s manual gearbox restored? In a normal contest, probably. By any objective assessment, the MX-5 is a clearly better car. But there’s other stuff going on here: the V12 Vantage S is the greatest standard production driving machine ever produced by one of the world’s greatest sporting brands. The MX-5 is superb, but the Vantage is more than that: it is special in a way few cars of any kind are special. In the end, it clinches it.

VERDICT

Greater just beats better and gets England into the final reckoning.

Click here to find out whether England or Germany wins the final (we promise it won't go to penalties...)!

Our Verdict

McLaren 540C

It might be the entry-level McLaren, but the 540C feels no less complete or exhilarating on the road than the firm's brilliant 570S

Join the debate

Comments
7

10 June 2017
quite bizarre.

TS7

10 June 2017
...this article goes on, and on, and on, and on. Shocked AF put his name to this.

10 June 2017
Isn't this article 71 days late?
Petersaint

10 June 2017
By far the worst Article seen in Autocar in many years. Wall to wall BS!

Lapps

ATS

10 June 2017
Worst article ever. Suddenly the winner of one of this random rounds disappears and another car that didn't even feature in the previous round wins the next??

11 June 2017
Worth reading for the readers reactions alone.
(and the rules system is worthy of the next big sports craze we can start and never win.)
My money is on Germany.

13 June 2017
One of the shittest realizations of a dodgy concept which shoddy journalism ever inflicted on the world. You get to choose the competitors yourselves, yet you select ones which you instantly dismiss as not actually existing or because you haven't driven them or since they aren't really sports cars. The whole thing is predicated upon a shaky idea which as one reads through it just descends into utter bollocks.

From some of Autocar's staff it wouldn't surprise me, but I expect better of this writer.

I don't need to put my name here, it's on the left

 

Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • Lexus LC500
    Car review
    20 October 2017
    Futuristic Lexus LC coupé mixes the latest technology with an old-school atmospheric V8
  • Maserati Levante S GranSport
    First Drive
    20 October 2017
    Get ready to trade in your diesels: Maserati’s luxury SUV finally gets the engine it’s always needed
  • Jaguar XF Sportbrake TDV6
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    The handsome Jaguar XF Sportbrake exhibits all the hallmarks that makes the saloon great, and with the silky smooth diesel V6 makes it a compelling choice
  • Volkswagen T-Roc TDI
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    Volkswagen's new compact crossover has the looks, the engineering and the build quality to be a resounding success, but not with this diesel engine
  • BMW M550i
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    The all-paw M550i is a fast, effortless mile-muncher, but there's a reason why it won't be sold in the UK