It stands as proof that even the best ingredients can only add up to so much if the cook is not following the recipe. The number of ways the Alfa squanders its inherent advantage includes, but is not limited to, its slow and inconsistent paddle-shift gearbox, the lag from the engine, the lack of feel from and kickback through the steering and an unwillingness to hit its marks like the precision instrument you’d think it should be.
Despite its fundamental stability, it did little to inspire confidence in younger testers and even less to encourage the more experienced hands to fling it around the track in the way that you might think a car of this shape and specification would beg. Lewis Kingston spoke for many when he said: “The leaden, numb steering and brakes didn’t impress and, overall, I found it a nervous, disconcerting car to drive.”
It wasn’t all bad. The 4C coped with the Combe bumps admirably well and it felt quick in a straight line, but perhaps the most illuminating stat of all was a lap time slower than all bar two of its competitors.
In the end, the 4C doesn’t present as an inherently bad car, just one that has been whipped out of the oven before it’s ready. This, of course, leaves open the tantalising possibility that they’ll put it back and let it cook until it’s done; despite all of its flaws, the 4C remains a car of massive potential, almost all of which right now remains sadly untapped.
In many ways, the Mégane 275 Trophy suffers from precisely the opposite issue. It’s not a low-slung, two-seat, mid-engined carbonfibre exotic. It’s a Renault Mégane. Not only that, but it’s a front-drive hatch that has been honed and honed for years until this current point, where it must be on the absolute limit of its development potential. And yet its capacity both to entertain and make us giggle at what is possible within the limitations of the front-wheel-drive format remains undimmed.
Tellingly, this was the car that almost all testers drove first, the one that would most reliably and safely allow them to dial themselves into the circuit. Matt Saunders said: “Nothing else here was as easy to drive quickly or inspired more confidence.” Mark Tisshaw’s view that the Mégane is still “the world’s best hot hatch and getting better every year” would have been hard to counter on this performance.
Indeed, a lone front-drive hatch amid a sea of rear-drive performance cars, it would have exceeded every expectation had we not already known very well just how good it is. It wasn’t cowed by company that set the highest overall standard yet seen in this competition, but instead showed that you don’t need a carbonfibre tub, a mid-mounted engine or double wishbone suspension to create a fine-handling car. If you know how to tune suspension, you can do it with front drive and a torsion beam rear axle.
Strengths? It has exceptional damping, probably the single most important component required for a happy driver at Combe. Its tail is loose enough to cope with mid-corner changes of plan but sufficiently stable to allow trail-braking right in to the apex. And torque steer, although evident, is rarely intrusive.
On the negative side, traction is inevitably an issue, even with a clever limited-slip differential; it can mitigate wheelspin away from the exit but not eliminate it entirely. Also, the engine has some lag and the gearbox is too notchy and slow to suit the character of the car. But in the end, Matt Prior called it “still the best wrong-wheel-drive car in the world” and, certainly in the context of what we were looking for here, it’s a judgement with which we’d all agree.
Which brings us to the Atom. Read these two comments: “It’s very twitchy on turn-in, catchable but not exploitable” and “Tricky to drive because it wants to oversteer on entry and it’s difficult to manage because more power just makes it oversteer more”.
The interest here is that these notes were made and published a dozen years apart, by me, as it happens. The first was when a 190bhp Rover K-series Atom first took part in this event in 2001, the second with the Atom 3.5 last year. To say that we had our hopes for this year’s Atom 3.5R under close control is probably understating it a bit.
That it would be fast was a given. A standard 245bhp Atom has the same power-to-weight ratio as a Ferrari F12. This one has 350bhp and a sequential shifter that allows clutchless changes in both direction. On past form, that would only make matters worse. But Ariel has also had a long, hard look at the chassis, introducing Öhlins TTX dampers costing over £1000 per corner, an adjustable limited-slip diff, very trick Kumho track day tyres and, if you want it (and you do if you’re serious about this car) the front and rear wing pack from the Atom V8.
The transformation is almost beyond belief. Forget the lap time – it was always going to be the quickest car here – and focus instead on the real story. Ariel reckons that on all but the longest tracks, the 3.5R is actually quicker than the 500bhp Atom V8, yet despite that, this is the easiest Atom that any of us has ever driven. And by some margin.
It feels like a car with its potential finally released, as if each additional component were the missing pieces in the jigsaw that lets you for the very first time experience the Atom in its full glory.
That nervousness on turn-in? Gone. You can drive it like the racing car it very nearly is – holding the brake way past the turn-in point, then using that seamless flow of power to cannon it away from the apex with just a touch of understeer, transitioning to easily held oversteer at the exit if you want it. In short, a flawless demonstration of poise, feel, accuracy and simply blinding pace.
It’s not important how much each alteration to the aero, tyres, diff and dampers accounts for this change; what matters is that a car we’ve always loved more in theory than in practice can finally take its rightful place among the finest-handling cars of its or any other era.
Alfa Romeo 4C – 1min 17.7sec
Ariel Atom 3.5R – 1min 10.7sec
Renault Mégane RS 275 Trophy – 1min 19.4sec
Britain’s Best Driver’s Car 2014
Click on the links below to read each section of Britain's Best Driver's Car 2014, followed by the crowning of this year's overall champion as decided by our eight judges.
The supercars – Ferrari 458 Speciale vs McLaren 650S vs Porsche 911 GT3
The sports coupés – BMW i8 vs Porsche Cayman GTS vs BMW M4
The V8 muscle cars – Chevrolet Corvette Stingray vs Jaguar F-type R coupé vs Vauxhall VXR8 GTS
The verdict – Britain's Best Driver's Car 2014 is crowned
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