We play favourites with the best cars we've driven this year…
By PH Staff / Saturday, December 25, 2021 / Loading comments
Porsche 911 GT3
So I said to my true love, “no, I don’t want five gold rings, three French hens, two turtle doves nor a partridge in a pear tree. I want a 911 GT3.” And I must’ve been a good boy this year because, lo and behold, I got one. Asking whether or not the latest GT3 made the cut when choosing favourite cars from the last 12 months probably isn’t the most pertinent question. It’s more a question of who would win the right to write about it. I won that one.
If that makes it sound like I had my mind made up before driving the 992 GT3, then the truth is far from it. I loved the last one so much that, before I drove the latest version at Anglesey, I was sweating. As good as Porsche is at maintaining the virtuosity of its products, there’s always the risk that someone – some erroneous cog in the Weissach machine – might drop the ball. ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ is the saying that sprang to mind. But they’d done a lot of fixing, including double-wishbones up front and much more aero performance than before. So a lot that could go wrong. Journalists have to break tough stories at times – scandal, death, famine, war – but a duff GT3? Yikes. I wasn’t convinced I had the cajones to declare that to the world.
I needn’t have worried. Just after midday, Porsche handed me the keys and an empty track and said “We’ll need it back around four; until then it’s yours.” A few laps later I had my answer. It was superb. Phew. For a start, the 992 GT3 has a front end to die for. The way it turns is phenomenal, and the sensations through the Race-Tex-trimmed wheel sensational – as clear as a message from God. If it pushes you know it’s coming, and a light lift brings the front tyres back in play with nothing to fear from the rear. Indeed, on track I was trail-braking deep towards apexes feeling the rear just teetering. This can create a nice moment that turns the car and, if you get it all in synch, once on the power you can carry that slip angle on the exit before winding off the lock down the following straight. It’s beyond mere driving: it’s automotive calligraphy, and deeply satisfying.
On track the engine is always hunting the limiter, and nothing does it for me like the 4.0-litre flat six at full chat. That’s when it’s ethereal – the bit between 7,000-9,000rpm – and the raging, mechanical thrash and the screams of fast-moving metal is at its most intense. But I also love its dirty, race-rough idle, which churns vibrations into your spine, and all the whirring and whining in between. And bah humbug to turbos. This is the perfect power delivery, and when you blip the GT3’s throttle the needle on the classic-looking tacho whips round as if it doesn’t know the meaning of inertia.
It was brilliant on track, then, but what about the road? My suspicion is it’s more challenging than the previous version, but I can’t be sure – the wedge of time driven in between my experiences of them is too great. You do have to hold on tight to the 992 GT3 on roads with angry cambers and bumps – tighter than I remember doing in the 991. It is noisy, too, but so are all 911s, so that bit doesn’t bother me. My brother, who’s a bit of a 911 fan and has owned a couple, said to me “It’s amazing but it’s too raw for me.” I can see that point of view, but that’s the reason I adore it.
It’s not for the faint hearted, but nor is it a widow-maker. It is a race car pretending to be a road car to fool the FIA, and its rawness, which some see as a weakness, is my pleasure. It’s alive and entertaining at all speeds, even thirty. There are more powerful and quicker cars, but I don’t care and nor should you. I love that it’s ignoring the power race because that’s playing Top Trumps. The Porsche 911 GT3 is proper play – driving at its very purest. The only bad thing is having to give it back. If you don’t, then you’ve been a very good boy indeed. JH
Land Rover Defender Hard Top 110
You know you’re onto a winner when a man in a high-vis vest calls your prospective favourite car of 2021 a ‘monstrosity’ while directing you to the parking at a vaccination centre. Nevertheless, I can still see where he’s coming from. The new Defender continues to provoke intense discussion, and I won’t claim to be totally sold on the looks even now. The Hard Top, though, has come as close as any to knocking me off the fence and into the admirer camp. In fact, not 20 minutes after speaking to Mr Opinion, I was filling up the car and marvelling anew at its wheel arches now they were furnished with 18-inch steelies and all-terrain tyres.
Perhaps if the V8-powered Defender we drove for this first time this year had come similarly shod, it would be that car you see before you. But I’m not so sure. The V8 is great, of course – no JLR model has ever been diminished by the supercharged engine’s presence – yet for me it was not the version that finally highlighted all that is good and true about Land Rover’s revived icon. It turns out the Defender doesn’t really need 525hp, much as it does not need 22-inch alloys or the burden of a six-figure price tag.
Beyond its lower cost, the chief benefit of the commercially minded version is that it strips away much of the position-justifying trim-level tinsel. It’s a wonder that, for a car which owes much of its virtue to its underlying engineering nous, Land Rover has sought to apply so many layers of soft-touch lacquer. With it pared back a little, the Defender’s integrity cuts through like a searchlight. The source of the original model’s charm lay in its ability to seem unashamedly tool-like; here at last is some of that same unapologetically rugged quality.
Naturally the van-like cavity in the back helps. After all, there’s only so much hoseable plastic a man can endure before he feels duty bound to get it muddy. As John highlighted in his recent review, the available space is hardly perfect (in fact, thanks to the location of the bulkhead and size of the boot opening, it’s probably next to useless in commercial terms), but as a place to nonchalantly throw a Christmas tree, it’s terrific. I’ve spent much of December finding excuses to put vaguely bulky items in it, if only for the pleasure of transporting them somewhere.
Because here’s the thing: the Hard Top, with the new-for-2021 D250 motor, is wonderfully moreish when it comes to driving. All iterations of the current Defender have been laudable, of course – indeed, exemplary when offroad – but they didn’t necessarily threaten the line between objectively very good and downright unputdownable. For me, quite unexpectedly, the hollowed-out, 249hp oil burner on passive suspension and fat tyres does. I suspect because it’s not trying so hard to impress anyone, which in turn means it’s not trying to be anything it isn’t: not a toughened-up SVR or a cut-price Range Rover or a funkier Discovery – or even an old Defender made new. Finally, with fewer airs and graces, a modern but burly straight six, and a chassis disinclined to be hurried (yet craftily brilliant at the national limit), it feels properly like its own thing. And that thing is the car you’d choose to drive into a hurricane. To get to Homebase.
Admittedly, that doesn’t lift it above a 992 GT3 in the personal pecking order – although it’s worth noting that John had his own account of the Hard Top in reserve if someone made a better case for loving the Porsche, so clearly I’m not the only one suddenly fixated with a very heavy diesel SUV. But in a year that also featured the Alfa Giulia GTAm, a new Golf R, the Hyundai i20N, probably the best Aston Martin Vantage yet and definitely the best Bentley GT ever, it’s obviously telling that I couldn’t get the most humble Defender out of my head. Pretty good going for a monstrosity. NC
Audi RS3 Sportback
Audi could have made this RS3 exactly the same as the previous model, and it would have made precious little difference to its success. The A3 flagship would still have sold in droves, because it’s the new version of what’s proved a hugely popular car since 2011 – and the ire it would’ve attracted from earnest car enthusiasts would hardly have mattered. Derisory comments about Audi’s super-hatch have done it no harm, and that includes those espoused by yours truly.
There are still details that grate about this latest one. Surely even the 400hp turbocharged one doesn’t need a grille this massive? Plus the standard wheels are an abomination (with optional ones that aren’t much better) and the interior ought to feel more special for the money being asked. I would also say that the 2.5 five-cylinder engine no longer sounds as special as it once did, although I think that’s an accusation that could also be levelled at the GT3 – everything has suffered for filters.
So the new model isn’t perfect – even its most ardent fans will concede that. However, here at last is an RS3 that’s actively enjoyable to drive; it rewards in a fashion we’ve always hoped the most compact Audi RS might, and which the previous two generations conspicuously have not. It still does the all-weather, all-condition speed thing thanks to the engine, dual-clutch gearbox, and quattro drivetrain (your traffic light superiority is secure) yet now with some driver interaction as well. Those old comments from the earnest folk were right – some engagement needn’t be at the expense of the core appeal – and the third time really has worked a charm.
Though the Torque Splitter is the key, creating a four-wheel drive system that feels much more proactive and exciting, this RS3 feels lighter on its feet than ever before as well. At every point of a bend it feels keener, more agile, and more fun. For a car so glaringly unsubtle to look at, even in wet concrete grey, and known for drift mode silliness, it’s the nuance and subtlety of the driving experience that leaves the most lasting impression. At last, here’s an Audi hot hatch that feels like it’s been set up by people who care. Which only took a decade.
In Britain, in December, the combination makes the RS3 formidable. It’s no faster than before, but 400hp remains more than adequate; corners are still disdainfully dispatched, too – yet crucially the driver now gets some say in how, and therefore feels a consequential part of the action and not just a witness of it. Plus it’s comfier. And that’s why the Audi is my favourite of 2021; it’s both an RS3 and a driver’s car, and those two things never went together before.
Arguably they never needed to, because it’s been so darned popular as is. But Audi’s decision therefore to make a really good RS3 because it wanted to, not because it needed to, is heartening. If this looked and sounded like the old car, I think we’d have a four-ring icon on our hands. As it is, the RS3 is really impressive – and, crucially, genuinely likeable, too. As one of those earnest and grumpy enthusiasts once upon a time, it’s nice to finally be able to write that sentence. MB
Lamborghini Huracan STO
Having nominated the 911 GT3 as my favourite car, it’s probably no surprise that the Lamborghini Huracan STO came in at number two. It shares the same attack-dog spirit and stripped-out indulgence – and by indulgence, I mean a track-focused special of an already special car. It makes even the GT3 look modest – the wings and scoops I can cope with, but the yellow flashes of the car we had were a step too far. Still, never put image (good or bad) ahead of the driving experience, I say, and the experience the STO delivers is something else.
The V10 vies with the GT3’s flat-six for ‘Best Engine of the Year’, that’s for sure. Its tremors and ferociousness to throttle inputs work the flesh, while its noise is busy altering the mind. Add in the M16-style gearshifts and hyper-alert steering, and this is as hardcore, track-focused and entertaining as it gets this side of a Radical. It’s nearly twice the price of GT3 (before extras) and not twice as good, which is why it comes second. That and the silly yellow decals. JH
BMW M3 Competition xDrive
Out of the frying pan, eh? Before anyone queries my eyesight, yes, I’m aware of the grilles, and, no, I don’t like them either. In fact, I dislike them so much that I couldn’t find it within myself to consider the all-wheel-drive M3 my favourite car of the year. Which is shameful, really, because I honestly loved driving it. We all did. It is so deftly sprung and crushingly fast and acutely controllable that you will not fail to climb out of the thing and deliver the low whistle of a chap who’s had his expectations thoroughly rearranged. Assuming you’re standing at the back.
Would I have it over the rear-drive version? Not if I were living in sunnier climes or preoccupied with circuit handling, perhaps – but in Boris’s Britain, where you can guarantee less than perfect conditions for at least nine months a year, I wouldn’t think twice. And nor should you. Especially if you’re prepared to grin and bear it when you catch the reflection in a shop window. NC
Ford Mustang Mach 1
Last year, my favourite car was the BMW M2 CS: front-engined, rear-wheel drive, and with 450hp. Probably a tad heavier than it should be, too. Therefore it shouldn’t be any great surprise to find a similarly configured fast car appealed this year, too. Especially one getting in the region of 450hp from a burly V8.
Ford’s Coyote 5.0-litre has always been a likeable engine – it’s naturally aspirated, after all – and never more so than in this Mustang Mach 1. It revs higher to make more power (480hp), now going all the way to 7,500rpm; the Open-Air Induction System and four whopping exhausts ensure a suitably rowdy soundtrack. And never underestimate the joy of a large, atmospheric V8 getting faster and faster as it builds to peak power. With a manual gearbox, too! The Mach 1 gets its mention here, however, for being better to drive than any regular Mustang as well. It isn’t a cut-price GT350, but the Mach 1 delivers composure and poise unknown to a standard Mustang. Which means that the V8 is there to be made the most of, time after glorious time. MB
Thanks to PH snapper Harry Rudd for all these images and many more besides. And thanks to everyone else for reading – Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from everyone at PH.
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