We take our top three cars back onto the road, for a thrash across Yorkshire. Can Ariel's oddball upset the thoroughbreds?
Matt Prior
20 November 2015

We've got just three cars left - a shame, perhaps, because, as Cackett has just said, it feels pretty tragic to leave the Cayman GT4 behind, in any company.

And where we’re going – to the sometimes thin and bumpy, sometimes broader and flatter roads of the Yorkshire and Lancashire Dales – I suspect it would have performed rather well.

But in the end, it was the compelling nature of the Ariel Nomad (“terrific fun,” said Frankel), Porsche 911 GT3 RS (“utterly dominated on circuit,” said Saunders) and Ferrari 488 GTB (“a ruddy joy,” said Cackett) that got them through what would be a crucial cut.

These three were separated by the finest of margins at Snetterton: the Nomad and 488 GTB finished there with 10 points apiece, the GT3 RS a single point behind them. It was just too close an order for our consciences to bear without giving them some extra time, some extra miles. We really would need this two-day jaunt, away from it all, to separate them properly. We could take our experiences with us, but not the scores, and when we ran out of time, we’d agree on a winner. In other words, any of the three would be in with a shout.

They’re a compelling trio. They’re certainly not three you’d put alongside each other in a conventional group test, because they don’t do the same thing. They’d make a brilliant three-car fun garage on their own, if you were lucky enough.

The GT3 RS was a point behind but in Norfolk had been doing what GT3 RSs do best: kicking everything’s backside on a race track. “It utterly dominated [at Snetterton],” said Saunders. “It does everything so well on circuit and reminds you why 911s make such fabulous track cars.” Frankel agreed. “Get it right and it’s awesome,” he said, but all of us noted that the RS variant of the GT3 range perhaps wasn’t as forgiving as the regular GT3, which strolled off with this gong the last time we held this competition in East Anglia. “Amazing powertrain and old-school balance,” said Cackett. “Less forgiving than the non-RS, but mega.” Would that count against it on the road, rather than on track, in the Dales? It might.

The Nomad also had those who’d seen both sides to its character. “The way this car takes you from zero to hero in not very long at all makes it something truly brilliant,” said Saunders of the Somerset lightweight, whose dual-rate springs – softer at the top, firmer later on – had astonished us with its ability to ride Norfolk’s roads like its bumps simply weren’t there. We loved the space and time it gives you to set it up for corners, thanks to that smoothness – and also its “perfect pedals”.

Clearly, it wasn’t developed for smooth race tracks, but nonetheless, Saunders said it didn’t matter that it was “low on grip, a bit unstable under hard brakes (it’ll lock a rear first) and only moderately quick around a lap. You’re too involved to care”.

Frankel wasn’t too involved to care. “Hilarious on the throttle, but traction issues aren’t limited to slow corners,” he said. “A mid-engined car this light and soft should be like a missile from a rocket launcher out of the corners. Also too keen to lock the rear brakes on entry.” But even he noted that he “loved the steering, power delivery and whole attitude”.

And it’s the Nomad’s attitude, that joie de vivre, that would serve the Nomad best in the Dales, we suspected. Could I realistically sit and argue now that its suspension was as thoroughly developed for fast road and track use as a GT3 RS’s or 488 GTB’s? Not at all, but that doesn’t matter, because it’s good enough, because it has yet another purpose, and because the Nomad simply wants you to have fun. To quote not one of our testers but Jules from Pulp Fiction: “Personality goes a long way.” So it goes to the north with as strong a chance as anything.

Which leaves the Ferrari, headed to the Dales with the title of favourite tucked neatly under its arm. The notes we made in East Anglia are almost entirely full of praise for Ferrari’s new mid-engined supercar. “Effervescent where both Porsches seem stern,” said Cackett. “Light in the steering, but light all over – a facet that takes nothing from its grip and utterly fluid direction changes.” Frankel agreed: “A revelation, particularly considering the conditions,” he said. “Best Ferrari steering in years, massive pace, excellent balance, superb brakes and stupid amounts of torque absolutely everywhere.”

Indeed, what was notable about our experience of the Ferrari’s new turbocharged engine was not a single mention of lag or a flatness in the torque curve. The closest anyone came was Saunders, who found he “didn’t get the same confidence from the steering and throttle response as from the old atmo Ferarris” but who still reckoned it was “very, very fast and very exciting”.

To say that the 488 was in some ways a compromise between the two others – the Nomad’s ability on bumpy roads and the RS’s ability on a circuit – would be both misleading and selling it short. Flick its dampers into ‘bumpy road’ mode and it rides extremely well, while on a circuit there were those of us – me included – who found it just as entertaining as the Porsche, because of the astonishing docility of its handling. This is a car with just two turns between steering locks and 33 more horsepower than a McLaren F1, remember, yet it could be drifted through second and third-gear corners at Snetterton as easily as a Mazda MX-5. What Ferrari has achieved with this chassis is nothing short of astonishing.

It’s a car, then, I’m quite happy to find myself in for the journey from Norfolk to Yorkshire. These things shouldn’t count for much in the overall reckoning, but where the Porsche is jittery and the Nomad shivery, a modern mid-engined Ferrari is quite a compelling companion over long distances. And, after all, if we’re talking about driver’s cars, the willingness to drive them on more than just high days and holidays should count for something.

Away from busy motorways and between Yorkshire’s villages, it’s just as special. It’s left-hand drive but not so wide as to be unwieldy, and once you get acclimatised to the speed of its steering – which doesn’t take long, to be fair – you can thread it along with great fluidity. Out here, I quite like the fact that its engine is less antisocial than before, too – I know, I know, but go with me – and that there’s torque on demand. Enjoying fast cars on great roads is a considerably more conspicuous pastime than it once was, and to find that it’s no longer necessary to have 9000rpm with you at all times can give you one less thing to worry about.

Until, that is, you get into a car that wants 9000rpm at all times, which is what the Porsche appreciates. “God, I love this car,” Saunders stops to text on the way to the Dales, some time after he gets off the motorway but before his phone reception disappears like access to super-unleaded.

And when you thread the GT3 RS along these roads, you can see what he means. It is such a compelling piece of kit. It oozes precision and engineering feel in the purest way. Or, at least, the purest way a modern car is allowed to.  I suspect you’d feel more alive still in a 997-generation 911 GT3 RS 4.0. And although, yes, it’s firm and low enough to ground its front splitter (sensibly, made from flexible rubber, not brittle carbonfibre), it’s not so harsh as to be overly unruly, even on the poorest roads, where the 488 would more easily cast imperfections aside. And it’s narrower, visibility is better, throttle response is electric and its  PDK dual-clutch automatic gearbox is almost as good as the Ferrari’s transmission. Drive it on these roads and the gap between them – a single point when we left Snetterton – doesn’t get any bigger at all.

Then there’s the Nomad – as different as you could ask for but no less compelling and engaging for it. If it were just silly – if its outlandish looks and an ability to turn around anywhere you wanted without grounding its front and rear – were all it had going for it, it’d be easy to dismiss here. But even without the adjustable shocks that you can specify to make the Nomad’s suspension even more trick, across challenging roads it worms its way into your affections not just through sheer force of will but because there is genuine dynamic ability beneath it. It’s just that it’s not the conventional dynamic ability that we’re used to. Yet body control is truly exceptional, the ride is sublime and it steers with true mechanical precision and feedback like no other car here. Its responses are impeccably linear, too. Its engine zings, not unattractively, although it’s the delivery rather than the sound that makes it, and the manual gearshift is as crisp as they come. Could it really come first?

It could, because any of them could win it, but ultimately the nods from our judges don’t go that way. The Ferrari is simply too astonishing to overlook. Too docile, too impeccable in its road and track manners. Its gearshift is too fast and smooth, its brakes too indefatigable, its ride too composed and its handling just too damned compelling to overlook. Every one of our four judges decided that it was The One.

Two and three were harder to split. If you had a modern estate car as a daily driver and could choose either of these alongside it to drive until this contest comes around next year, to make a convincing argument that it should be a Nomad, rather than a car developed with all the might and intent of Weissach behind it, you would really have to believe it. I do, but our other judges did not. Not quite. There’s enough doubt that the Nomad is not for everyone, and that a GT3 RS is so dominant on a circuit, the traditional realm of a driver’s car, that the Porsche gets the nod.

The official order, then, goes 488 GTB in first, then 911 GT3 RS, then Nomad. The fact that I’m the person writing this last section and have deliberately wrapped up the verdict early, though, is for a reason: to tell you that if you are in the unlikely position of choosing one, and only one, of these, and you think the Nomad could be that car, do it. You won’t regret it for a nanosecond.

Read the rest of Britain's best driver's car 2015:

Introduction

Part one: Audi RS3 and Mercedes-AMG GT S

Part two: Lotus Evora 400, Mazda MX-5 2.0 Sport and Mercedes-AMG C63 S

Part three: Lamborghini Aventador SV and Porsche Cayman GT4

Join the debate

Comments
5

20 November 2015
I love these "best driver's/performance car" yearly comparos because there's so much juicy metal on display and, with great writing such as yours, you get to experience something which is beyond the reach of most.
The point of my title is not to challenge the winner, or even the top three, but why the disparity between this one and Motor Trend's yearly Best Driver's Car, where the AMG GT S has won, yet here is a -tied- dead last.
Sure, I understand that wet conditions and the appallingly surfaced British B roads make a big difference, but surely the AMG's brilliance could have shone through regardless, right?
This is where I'm disappointed that you eliminated the rest of the field on merely a wet track day showdown and not give them the chance to shine on road, especially on a better road (say, a proper A road) than Norfolk's B's.
For anyone who even wants to suggest that the American journalists are softies or simply don't know how to drive, I'd like you to have a look at the piece, very well documented on great video, and judge for themselves. I believe that they'll be impressed.
In any case, it's still a joy to read, and watch, both articles.
PS. I'm neither British nor American, yet I've lived for extended periods in both countries to know a bit or two about them.

20 November 2015
For some reason I can't edit the initial entry.

21 November 2015
Whether the 488 is the best is debatable, evidently other magazines chose other cars but one thing is for sure, a 488 with 100 kilos removed, more grip and faster shifts is coming and that could well be the best car in history.

ofir

22 November 2015
I saw Motor Trends video and they did a great job on choosing best drivers car. I can understand that 488 GTB is the best here but AMG GT s surly should have done better. It did beat many good cars in MT test which was extensive both on road and track.

Dan

22 November 2015
Pff, the 488 GTB has lost its sound :-|

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