Hardcore British sports car meets Japanese roadster and 503bhp German super-saloon - but which is best to drive?
Andrew Frankel Autocar
20 November 2015

Two sports cars and a saloon, engines ahead and behind, cylinder counts from four past six to eight, induction by turbocharger, supercharger and good old atmospheric pressure and fair to not so middling positioning for them all. If it’s consensus about how to make a great driver’s car you’re after, you’ve banged on the wrong door.

Even the order is counter-intuitive. Of the three, the car that performed best relative to expectations actually ended up doing worst. But such are the hazards of comparing cars that, in any other circumstances, would be incomparable.

So we’ll start with that car and the discovery that, if you read through the judges’ notes, only one of the four of us wrote anything negative about the Mercedes-AMG C63 S at all.

On the road and relative to the stellar standards of this one-time-only competition, it can perhaps be best described as good enough. A socking 1730kg kerb weight plus the requirement to deliver 516lb ft of torque to wet East Anglian roads via two overworked rear tyres gave the C-Class a task harder than most, but mostly it was up to it.

The key was to delve into the Individual menu and summon the sharpest possible response maps for the engine and gearbox but leave the damping as soft and squidgy as possible. Then, with more rearward weight transference on acceleration, the Benz found at least enough traction for its phenomenal firepower not to go entirely to waste. This way, the car also rode the bumps and yumps on the road with equanimity, save the occasional stumble from the seven-speed ’box.

Even so, you might expect it to go one step further and fall flat on its face on the track, but it doesn’t. Indeed, when Snetterton was at its wettest first thing, the way it cut through the water rather than skated across it made it one of the quickest and easiest cars out there. “It has the poise to seem playful rather than terrifying,” said Nic Cackett, and Matt Prior noted its “fine engine and decent handling balance”. I thought it shone in the wet but was progressively overhauled by the others as the track dried out, but Matt Saunders found it “more unfriendly than I’d expected” in difficult conditions.

In the end, though, consensus was achieved, with all four judges placing it eighth, the only car in the group to be given the same score by us all.

Why so low? Ultimately, what it did well, it did well by the standards of a heavy saloon. Were this a contest of similarly high and hefty family cars, doubtless it would sit at or near the top, but against opposition lighter in most cases to the tune of several hundred kilograms, it’s about the best that could be expected.

Which is about the last thing that can be said of the performance of the Evora 400. Given that Lotus changed two-thirds of the Evora’s components to make, as the saying goes, the car it should have been from the start, we’d wager sixth equal with a Mazda costing a third of the money is not news that Lotus will want to hear.

Then again, trying to grasp where the Evora fell short is like trying to juggle water: the evidence you need just slips through your fingers. The trite explanation is that the standard has never been higher, and although the Evora has taken a big step forward, those that beat it here have strapped on the seven-league boots and taken a giant leap. And there is much truth in that. But for the full picture, we need to take a closer look.

Our comments are peppered with positives. It’s “practically stress-free”, according to Cackett, “fairly playful” in Prior’s book and “a good Lotus” in my notes. What you’ll find harder to find is rafter-raising praise of the kind we’ve heaped upon numerous Lotuses at this event in years gone by. We liked this car, we admired this car, but the truth is we didn’t love it. Saunders spoke for us all when he said: “I desperately wanted to rank it higher.” In the event, no one rated it better than sixth.

It seems that all the Evora has gained in pure pace (thanks to its extra power, firmer suspension and, gasp, a standard limited-slip differential) has been achieved at the price of a little ‘Lotusness’. Its ride is now merely good rather than befuddling. Its steering is as sharp as a razor, but no longer a scalpel. And still it doesn’t change gear as we’d like. We welcome the noise, the traction, the grip and the fact that the Evora finally has the get up and go to challenge its chassis, but against the Porsches, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Ariel that beat it, that was enough to bring it close to the top half of the field, but not close enough.

If we were awarding a moral victory in the competition, the MX-5 would win it. It came to Norfolk clutching its £30k Best Driver’s Car crown and proceeded to hit a lot of very pricey opposition over the head with it.

Primarily, we liked the little Mazda for two reasons: its honesty and its accessibility. Honest insofar as when you look at the car and imagine how you’d like it to drive, that’s what you get when you drive it. Accessible because you don’t have to go in search of the handling limit with your heart in your mouth. Spend any time at all on a track, and particularly a damp one like ours, and it will find you. And when it does, it will let you play there in safety for as long as you like.

Read how we got on the Mazda MX-5 through its paces on the track and the road

Cackett expressed this very sentiment, saying that it “turns the track into a Sunday drive”, and Prior appreciated the fact that it “doesn’t take itself too seriously”. Saunders had some reservations about the Sport chassis option fitted to the test car but still considered it a “whole heap of fun”. As for me, I concluded that therein lay “a proper sports car, not some lookalike for old dears”.

On the road, it was rarely less than incredible, given its somewhat modest specification. Using its compact dimensions, phenomenal balance and progressive handling, it let drivers have far more fun than in most of the others, whose width, power and weight counted against them in such tricky conditions. It suffered a little on the track, despite its fine engine and world-class gearbox. On and over the limit, it could be caught out by sudden surface changes in a way that some of its more sophisticated rivals were not, but for a car such as this even to get among competition as serious as that arranged here is a real achievement and one of which its engineers should feel rightly proud.

Ultimately, then, it’s all about expectation. And we’d expect Mercedes to be as delighted that the C63 S came eighth as it will be aghast to discover the GT S came equal last, undone as it was by the very conditions in which its saloon stablemate did so well. By contrast, it should be trebles all round at Mazda for the sixth-place performance of by far the most affordable car in the contest.

And Lotus? Well, a tie with an MX-5 in a contest held in its own back yard is probably a result that it had neither hoped for nor expected. Only when you see the calibre of the cars that beat it do you realise that, even for a purpose-built sports car, to come mid-field among opposition like this is no disgrace at all.

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

Introduction

Part one: Audi RS3 and Mercedes-AMG GT S

Part three: Lamborghini Aventador SV and Porsche Cayman GT4

Part four: Ariel Nomad, Ferrari 488 GTB and Porsche 911 GT3 RS

Our Verdict

Here is the fourth-gen Mazda MX-5 - the definitive small sports car

Fourth-generation MX-5 heads back to the roadster's roots

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