There is no question 2020 has been a lousy year for a lot of people. But there were some bright spots.
Many of us were fortunate enough, either through sheer luck or blind circumstance, to continue on with our daily lives, even pursuing our regular jobs. I was one such lucky slob. Despite travel restrictions and a host of other lifestyle curtailments, I was able to keep driving cars for the benefit of you, dear Autoweek reader. Here are some of the slightly more interesting cars, bikes, and planes I drove, rode, or flew.
Let’s all hope 2021 is even better.
This is more than just a brutalized version of the far-more-livable McLaren 720S. OK, it’s not. It is just a brutalized version of the 720S. The 720 you could imagine living with every day. The 765LT sacrifices comfort (and all your internal organs) for performance only slightly less brutal than the Senna. The LT is based on the 720 but has a more powerful 754-hp V8 and shaves 176 pounds off the 720S, which doesn’t seem possible. There’s a titanium exhaust, greater use of carbon fiber (including the license plate holder) and transmission materials from the F1 program. The steering’s faster, the ride height’s lower and the roll stiffness is increased. Even the brakes are lighter—carbon ceramic discs with calipers from the Senna.
The result is a pure performance beast that you have to really push to appreciate. But you will appreciate it. It is not as brutal (there’s that word again) as the Senna, but it will make you hammer the throttle and stomp on the brakes to squeeze the last pound of performance out of it every time you drive. I took it up and down my favorite local mountain roads over and over until my head exploded and really grew to appreciate the engineering that went into it. Suffice to say this is a car that will reward whatever driving skill you possess. It was, possibly, probably (read on and judge for yourself) the fastest car I drove all year. And there were some very fast cars.
The aim of the Gunther Werks 993 is to offer the best of the original Porsche 993 911 while adding as many modern improvements as possible, without losing the analog feel of the original car on which it’s based. To do that, the team at Gunther Werks in Orange County, California, takes it apart, media-blast the chassis, primer it, paint it and start rebuilding it with components of their own making, along with a few parts from technical partners, and finish it with a carbon fiber body they make themselves. Altogether they shave 600 pounds off the curb weight compared to the stock 993. Add to that 435 hp from a Rothsport rebuilt flat-six and you have power-to-weight and maximum feel of your favorite air-cooled 911 multiplied by a factor of two or three thanks to all the improvements.
Like the McLaren 765LT above, this car rewards you most when you are pushing it hardest. The bite as it enters a corner, followed by the hunkered-down grip as it continues past the apex, is matched only by the power you feel coming out. It is even more brutal than the McLaren, or almost any other car you can buy today, including race cars. But that is only because that was what this customer ordered. You can get a Gunther Werks 911 that is set up for life on the street, and you’ll be perfectly happy all day long, they told me.
One other drawback, as you can imagine, is that these ain’t cheap. Prices start at $565,000. But it is worth it.
From the brutality of the cars above to the refinement and precision of Ferrari’s newest V8-powered mid-engine sports car is a big leap, but you’ll be glad you took it. The F8 can probably (I say probably because I haven’t driven any of these back-to-back to compare them) do everything the two above can, but with almost as much comfort as what you’d get in a far more pedestrian car. It takes you to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds without leaving your stomach or any other parts at the starting line. Top speed is 211 mph and while I didn’t hit that on either my drives in Italy or those here in Southern California, I did go kind of fast, and found you could still talk to your passenger if you so desired.
The F8 is more than an evolution of the 488, with better aerodynamics and 88 pounds less curb weight at 3,124 pounds, and it feels every bit better than its predecessor. A new feature called Ferrari Dynamic Plus allows you to slide it out a little, enough that you can sort of drift it around corners if you like. With 58.5-percent of its weight over the rear wheels, it exhibits a delightful and sporty rear bias. On launch there is little if any discernable turbo lag, a tribute to the small compressors no doubt. It’s hard to pick a favorite in the rarified class of the super sports car, but if you consider not just performance but refinement, you’d have to give the crown to Il Tributo.
If the refinement of the F8 Tributo isn’t refinement enough for you, there is the new Ferrari Roma. Based on the front-engine Portofino convertible but with a fixed roof overhead, the Roma sports the same underpinnings and the same 612-hp 3.9-liter twin-turbo V8 but with more torque down low and 21 more horsepower. It’s kind of funny to think that none of us batted an eye at that 612-hp figure, as if you’d expect nothing less in a Ferrari nowadays, but there they all sit, ready to zwip you to 60 mph in the same 2.9 seconds as the F8 Tributo, and to a top speed of “over 199 mph.”
I picked mine up in Beverly Hills and was soon zwipping through Beverly Hills and Brentwood before finding Mulholland again and laying into the throttle. The Roma is, indeed, a grand tourer, meaning the scales are tipped toward comfort over sheer cornering grip. This isn’t the kind of Ferrari that a gentleman—or lady—racer would take to the track on the weekends. This is one you’d take to a B&B on the weekends, albeit one with nice roads leading to and from it. It competes with the Astons Martin of the world, or the Bentleys Continental GT. It is a lovely car, especially in the shade of blue I had. If your Ferrari dealer seems to be holding the F8s for “special, long-time customers,” get one of these instead, as a sort of gateway drug. This may be one addiction you won’t mind.
While so many of the cars on lists like these are made of pure unobtainium, with six-figure stickers and waiting lists longer than the quarter-mile at your local grudge match drag strip, the C8 Corvette is not only available (relatively speaking, more or less) but affordable. Prices start at under $60,000, at least theoretically. And for that you can get a car that is most of what any other car is on this list.
I got to drive one of these in and around Las Vegas, the Valley of Fire, and on the road course and on an autocross at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in bucolic Pahrump, Nevada. I loved it in each of those environments. It was easy to drive, easy to control at the limit (perhaps the easiest of anything on this list), and it was gorgeous to look at. Indeed, with 495 hp from a willing 6.2-liter V8 and a suspension that is fun without being dangerous, why would you buy anything else?
I asked for a long-term C8 test car but was met only with polite chuckles. Maybe I’ll have to ask again, not that Chevy needs any more publicity.
I keep praising Lamborghini for the giant performance leap the Huracan represents. It is so much more well-engineered than the Gallardo or any other Lamborghini before it that we should not stop applauding Lamborghini for its efforts. I got to drive these two at Willow Springs raceway in the high desert north of Los Angeles, on a perfectly sunny day with a nearly empty track.
I was taking part in Lamborghini’s Esperienza program, part of larger motorsports ladder that Lamborghini offers to its customers to show them just how much their cars can do. With 610 hp in a car that weighs just 3,062 pounds, it’s a recipe for performance. Electronics help, too.
“The cars have a tremendous amount of technology to make an average driver a great driver,” my instructor, Kevin Conway told me. And I was an average driver!
As with any track experience, you first learn the handling traits of your car then you start to probe and exploit its limits. I spent all morning lapping Big Willow and got faster each time. The Huracan felt perfectly capable the whole time and never twitched or slid like the horrifying sports cars of yesteryear.
Later I got to take an Huracan EVO RWD Spyder out on the surface streets around the track, and found the same great performance in handy, topless style. Starting price is just $214,366, less than the cheapest Ferrari!
The People of the Lotii are a different breed. All of them know every statistic and techno-detail of every Lotus ever made, from the Evora to the Eclat (yes, there’s something called an Eclat). But they don’t insist on pointing those details out in a condescending fashion. They want you to understand and appreciate this knowledge as much as they do. But you have to drive a Lotus first, preferably one of the newer models, preferably an Evora GT.
Of all the Lotii I have ever driven (and I’ve never driven an Eclat), the Evora GT is the best. It is a perfect balance of power-to-weight, with a mid-rear-mounted Toyota V6 sitting behind your seat and a grippy suede steering wheel mounted in front of you. Thus aligned, you become an integral part of the drivetrain, a role you will happily assume once you find your first curve. The Lotus is not the most powerful nor the fastest of the world’s sports cars, but it is easily one of the best-handling cars ever made. The Evora is as much about what is not there as what is. What is not is weight—it’s only 3,175 pounds—and what is present is just the right amount of power to match that weight, 416 hp. Another thing not there is too much sticker. The Evora GT starts at a mere $96,950. It occupies a delightful Middle Earth in the sports car world.
OK, not exactly every one of them, but five of the best. In advance of the launch of the new GT3, Porsche took a bunch of us down to the Porsche Experience Center in L.A. and turned us loose on the track in a quintet of cars all hand-picked by the company’s Manager of High Performance Cars, Andreas Preuniger, aka Mr. GT3. I spent a day lapping the PEC in the 996 GT3 RS, 997 GT3 RS 4.0, 997 GT2 RS, 911 R, and the 991.2 GT2 RS. It was an evolution of the brand, from almost the earliest to almost the latest. I am working on a full writeup of that experience now, but until then, can you keep a secret? My favorite was the 2018 991 GT2 RS. 700 hp! Complete control of the driving experience! Nothing weird! But you have to swear not to tell anyone the results of the comparison, OK? You heard nothing, NOTHING! More to come.
The 2021 911 Turbo S is easily the most sophisticated and refined 911 Turbo model ever made. If you are a real Porschephile, you have driven an early 911 Turbo. You may even have spun it out on a track when that giant snail finally blew its way into the combustion chambers and suddenly doubled the output of the flat-six. Or maybe you spun when you lifted too suddenly in a turn and—fwip!—there you went. But the new model suffers no such shortcomings. The new model has everything under control. And the new model is a blast to drive. I had one for a couple days and drove it up and down my favorite mountain road almost the whole time. The 3.8-liter blown six in the new model makes 640 hp (406 more than the first one almost a half century ago), but it delivers those ponies in a nice, linear rise that is entirely exploitable. The power goes to all four wheels through an eight-speed PDK, with the ability to send 368 of its 590 lb-ft of torque to the front, if necessary. The result is control and safety that allows you, the driver, to concentrate on just having fun, and passing everyone else on the mountain.
The 718 Spyder and the hard-topped Cayman GT4 are the only models in the 718 lineup that get flat-sixes. The rest of the 718 Boxster/Spyders get only four cylinders each. That means 414 hp in a car that weighs just 3,206 pounds, a ratio good for a 0-60 mph time of just 4.2 seconds and a top speed of 187 mph. Yikes!
I first drove this configuration in the pouring rain in Scotland but then again in the glorious sunshine of SoCal. It did well in both places. Yes, the top is ridiculous, only slightly better than that British roadster you had in high school, and I’ve never appreciated the slightly—to my ears—rattly sound of the engine. But the 718 Spyder makes for an otherwise splendid driving companion. It’s not as precise in cornering as something like an Alfa Romeo 4C or a Lotus Evora GT, though at $96,300 to start, it is priced right alongside those two. The Porsche is much more livable than either of those with close enough to the same amount of feel through the wheel and through the seat of the lederhosen. And there is a lot more room inside. Which should you choose? It depends what you want and what you’re willing to sacrifice. But for overall fun driving and every day reliable usage, it’d be hard to beat the Porsche.
Yes, that’s a motorcycle. But what a motorcycle it is. The Rocket 3 has a longitudinally mounted inline three-cylinder engine but with 2,458ccs of displacement! Yowzer! That produces a massive—for a motorcycle—163 lb-ft of torque, not to mention 165 hp. It’s even relatively lightweight, at least compared to large-displacement V-twins from the competition. The Rocket 3 weighs just 642 pounds; there are Harleys that weigh almost 300 pounds more. And the thing about the Triumph is that it controls that mass surprisingly well. There’s a video on the Triumph website of a guy scraping knees around the apexes of a race track on one of these. I didn’t do that, but I did ride it up and down my favorite mountain roads a few times and felt completely in control the whole time. Can’t say the same about some other large-displacement touring and cruising bikes out there.
But that brings up the question: What is this thing? You can get a windshield on it, so you could use it for touring, but it’s more of a stylish mega-cruiser. It’s not quite a sport touring bike, either. It’s the monster-displacement version of a an all-around everyday, everything bike. One you will learn to love pretty soon after exiting your dealer’s parking lot, where you will have just parted with $21,900. You won’t miss it.
Yes, you’re right, this is a jet, not a car. But it’s made by a car company, so that makes it entirely appropriate for this list. The HA-420 HondaJet is a light business jet made by Honda Aircraft Company in Greensboro, North Carolina. It has a range of 1,223 nautical miles (or 1,407 regular old miles), but you can get the HondaJet Elite which bumps range to 1,437 Nm. Top speed is 483 KTAS, knots true air speed, or 556 mph. And it only costs about $5 million. You can even finance it through American Honda Finance Corp. just like an Accord or Civic.
The most standout feature of the HondaJet are its Over-The-Wing Engine Mounts, a unique innovation that means less cabin noise, less wind resistance, greater fuel economy, and allows more room in the cabin. Further advancements in efficiency come from Honda’s approach to Natural Laminar Flow, the way they route the air over the plane’s wings. Combined with that funky nose, you get faster cruising speed for the power as well as better gas mileage. Just like a Civic!
The HondaJet even has a bathroom, a rarity for this class of jet.
So far, I’ve flown in HondaJets twice, once in the copilot’s seat and once in the back. The copilot’s seat was mighty comfortable, and if you get the chance, fly there. You can check out the data presented on the Garmin G3000 avionics system, which has touchscreen technology. The back seats were perfectly comfortable, too. Your billionaire friends might point out that you can’t stand up all the way in the passenger compartment of a jet in this class. The saying among mere millionaires is that to stand up all the way costs you $60 million more.
I’ve flown in G5s, a G4, and a couple of Dassault jets in Europe, and I gotta say those larger jets, a class or two up from the HondaJet, were mighty comfortable. But the compact HondaJet was quiet, smooth and did its job efficiently. Plus, you save about $50 or $60 million. If even the $5 million price of a new HondaJet is off-putting, there is a Factory Pre-Owned program that I’m guessing most Autoweek readers could afford. It all depends on your needs and your budget. Just like deciding whether to buy an Accord or a Civic.
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