New Ferrari 488 Pista Is Out For McLaren 720S Blood In Geneva

There was a clear separation in ability between the four track-inspired cars and the rest. Yet our testing at NCM Motorsports Park is about more than lap times. This is where the personalities of the cars become most distinct. As it happens, there was something to love about each of them. The Stelvio has a delightfully loose corner-exit balance on throttle, the RS5’s famous Quattro system with the active rear differential allows unmatched high-speed cornering yaw, and the M5 builds momentum under acceleration that feels like hyperspeed. The Pista supplies on-demand oversteer whenever desired, while the ZR1’s reactive chassis and menacing supercharger scream excite the senses at every curve. The GT2 RS simply produces effortless speed, and the Senna gives you supreme confidence to push as hard in the fastest area of the track as the slowest. The NCM circuit, already demanding when dry, had been hit with days of rain before we arrived. But the lower-grip surface only helped to parse out the diversity of the machinesand to cement just how exceptionally fast this year’s roster is.

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We expected the Senna to be quick, and it did not disappoint, serving up the best PCOTY lap time ever. The time is particularly impressive considering the track configuration we use doesn’t fully showcase the car’s aero trickery.

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2019 Performance Car of the Year
2019 Performance Car of the Year

The rain began yet again as our voters convened, a distant drumming on a ceiling snare that gathered force and tempo in time with our increasingly pointed discussion. In years past, we chose the Performance Car of the Year in NCM Motorsports Park’s spacious and window-lit main classroom, but this time, our Gang of Eight convened in the close quarters of a blank-walled upstairs storage room, where each disagreement felt more immediate and personal.

As is always the case, there was initial discussion regarding the decision criteria for PCOTY. It’s not a numbers game, although some readers might prefer it that way, and that would make the judging infinitely simpler. This race is almost never to the swiftest; none of the previous winners fared better than second-place around the track.

a close up of a red car: 2019 Performance Car of the Year© Richard Pardon 2019 Performance Car of the Year

Instead, it’s a game of intangibles. Words like "significance" and "relevance" were thrown around like tractor tires at a made-for-cable-TV fitness competition. Our job was to discover, discuss, and judge based on qualities no stat sheet can reveal. To put it in a modern context, we couldn’t just read the Tinder bios and swipe left to reject seven cars. We had to go on old-fashioned dates with each of them, so we could learn who chews with their mouth open and who abuses the waiter when their soup is cold. Those readers who grew up in the era before smartphone dating might see it another way: Kissin’ on the racetrack doesn’t always last, but cookin’ in a wide variety of conditions usually does.

When you go on eight separate dates with eight separate cars, there is a strong possibility of falling in love multiple times. Which explains why some of us were already raising our voices as the folding chairs were dragged out and set up, particularly with regard to the McLaren Senna. We all knew it would slay on the track, but nobody had been prepared for the considerable charm it would exert everywhere else. On the other hand, it cost more than twice as much as the next most expensive competitorand it’s already sold out. How relevant is PCOTY if it amounts to nothing more than congratulating 500 one-percenters on a purchase they’ve already made?

a small blue car: 2019 Performance Car of the Year© DW BURNETT 2019 Performance Car of the Year

Another bone of contention was the lone crossover of the group. The Stelvio Quadrifoglio was always going to come in for some criticism, yet the VBOX data showed it belonged: It had near-identical acceleration traces and top speeds on the straights as the Giulia Quadrifoglio we tested last year, the all-wheel-drive system almost perfectly canceling out its weight disadvantage. Maximum g-loads were about the same. What killed the Stelvio around NCM compared with the Giulia was transition behavior, managing the weight in and out of each corner. That’s often where drivers enjoy themselves most and where the SUV form factor pays a penalty. “All of us would take the E63 over the Stelvio,” Chilton noted. The Mercedes’s lower height, balanced suspension setup, and well-tuned all-wheel-drive helped make the most of its prodigious power. You could say the Stelvio was the Fabio of the group, all bulging muscle and Italian flair, best enjoyed in suburban conditions. Someday, there will be an SUV that truly drives like a sport sedan. This isn’t it.

If, on the other hand, you’re waiting for a sport sedan that accelerates like a supercar, that day is right now, courtesy of the M5 Competition. Quicker than an M4 GTS around NCM and festooned with every luxury feature possible, including illuminated seat-back logos, this M5 is more Abu Dhabi than autobahn. When Mark Donohue made his famous comment about never having enough power, he might not have been talking about two-plus-ton sedans.

a car parked in a parking lot: 2019 Performance Car of the Year© Richard Pardon 2019 Performance Car of the Year

The M5 offers a technical solution to every problem: turbos to solve the power-to-weight equation, a smart all-wheel-drive system to keep you from looping out in your driveway. What it lacks is subtlety and balance. The original M5 was brilliant because it had just enough power to adjust the chassis behavior on the move. This one uses chassis trickery to restrain the engine’s insanity, which is backward.

Can commodity components, properly massaged, beat a bespoke specification? That’s the question Audi seems to be asking with the RS5. “Embarrassing that there’s not more to it,” was Hildebrand’s verdict. To some degree, the chassis giveth what the engine taketh away; nearly everyone was impressed by its friendly tail-out demeanor and all-weather capability. When the skies opened up and rain fell in sheets, the Audi raced into the storm, unfazed. In this field, however, special tends to come standard.

a red truck driving down a street: 2019 Performance Car of the Year© Richard Pardon 2019 Performance Car of the Year

The 488 Pista has all the special it needs, from the carbon-fiber-intensive interior to the frankly overwhelming power of its frisky-sounding, mid-mounted flat-crank V-8. It also blew us away with its competence on the road. When we tested its spiritual predecessor, the naturally aspirated and mostly unmuffled 458 Speciale, few of us could stand to be in the thing for more than an hour. This one will take you across the country. So why did we keep thinking about that brutish old 458 the whole time we were driving this brilliant 488? The heart wants what the heart wants, we suppose. It didn’t help that Hildebrand found it, in this company at least, less than super on track.

The Porsche GT2 RS didn’t suffer from any lap envy. Prodigious power and some very special tires had this old-school 911 within a second of the hypermodern Senna. “The first time I blasted up through the gears, it was hard not to think about some of Porsche’s landmark rear-drive turbo race cars, like the 934, 935, and the 993 GT2 Evo,” Wolfkill said. “This thing is probably faster than all of them, but it’s somehow comforting to know that decades of turbo engineering is baked into each new GT2 RS.”

a red car driving on a road: 2019 Performance Car of the Year© DW BURNETT 2019 Performance Car of the Year

Yet its very familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then something less than outright love. “I have a problem that it still looks like a 911 but wears a Ferrari window sticker,” Chilton said. “Porsche wanted to prove it could make a supercar out of the 911, but supercars are about more than going fast.” And as with the 488 Pista, there was no shortage of longing for an unpressurized take on the same formula. In this case, however, Porsche is still selling the GT3 RS. With the exception of your author, who was obsessed with tea-tray 930 Turbos as a wayward youth, most of us would take the junior RS over the senior. Which did not stop some jurors from voting for the Porsche as performance car of the year. And why not? The GT2 offers Gemballa levels of powertrain insanity with a factory warranty and somehow still feels like the rear-engine sports car we’ve enjoyed for decades.

Which brings us to the prizefight: the pedigreed Senna, as bespoke in concept and execution as a Richard Anderson sport coat, versus the pushrod-powered working-class hero from Bowling Green, Kentucky. Yet they’re far from being complete opposites. “There are two cars in this group that if I’m sitting at a stoplight, I can just reasonably say, ‘The hell with anything that pulls up next to me,’” Hildebrand said. “And those cars are the Senna and the ZR1. They are animals on the street.”

Other areas of similarity: the quality of feedback and driver experience on the track. Those voters with current competition licenses all rhapsodized about the near-perfection of both the Corvette’s and McLaren’s suspension tuning, particularly with regard to mechanical grip, that quality of holding the road as tightly as possible at lower speeds, where the wings and spoilers don’t have enough air to work. Regarding the ZR1, Hildebrand said, “the more you put into it, the more you get back.” The Senna also has that direct and satisfying relationship between effort and reward. At the track, if a lap felt faster, it was faster. On the road, the ZR1 eschews head-bobbing drama in favor of a long but controlled damping moment at the end of every big pothole or expansion joint. The precision of that final moment isn’t easy to discern during a sloppy run up a mountain, but it’s crystal-clear at race pace.

a truck that is driving down the road: 2019 Performance Car of the Year© Richard Pardon 2019 Performance Car of the Year

Yet this closed-course competence comes at a price. “If your friend picked you up from the airport in a car that was as noisy and rough-riding as the Senna,” Sorokanich said, “well, that car’s a piece of junk, right?” The McLaren pushes the limits of what’s acceptable on the street, particularly with regard to cabin and engine noise. On the other hand, the seating and visibility are nothing short of superb, as long as you’re both in vaguely decent shape and willing to forget about anything that might be trying, and failing, to catch you from behind. The Corvette, while offering a much better and quieter ride, came in for criticism regarding the speed-bump-seeking radiators in its extended nose-and let’s not forget that absurd cowl hood, which seems designed to block the driver’s view of crossing traffic and other cars coming over from right-side freeway lanes.

In the end, the vote was close, yet clear-cut. Second place: the McLaren Senna. It is the best million-dollar car in history, bar noneand that is no longer a backhanded compliment in this increasingly plutocratic age where you can have everything from a Ferrari hybrid to a 16-cylinder pocket battleship for that kind of cash. Impeccably special in every detail, with a form driven purely and beautifully by the required function, the Senna is a warp-speed fishbowl with boomin’ bass and fingertip responses. It makes its 675LT sibling, previously the apex of this genre, feel like a ’78 Cressida. If you’re one of the 500 owners: congratulations. 

a car driving on a road: 2019 Performance Car of the Year© Richard Pardon 2019 Performance Car of the Year

The Corvette ZR1 won because it brought out the wide-eyed enthusiast in all of usIndyCar pros, club racers, and jaded journalists alike. Everyone wanted more time in the ZR1. Every aspect of the ZR1, from the rib-cage-vibrating engine note to the adjustable traction control, strikes a chord. The Chevy also happens to exhibit many of the McLaren’s qualities at one-seventh the price. It, too, is awkwardly but compellingly styled by the demands of the air and the engine. Like the Senna, it combines an appetite for lap time with a remarkable ability to handle imperfect roads. 

“If the Pista, GT2 RS, and McLaren all cost the same, the ZR1 likely isn’t on par with them, because it’s not as comprehensively designed,” Hildebrand said. “But it would still be the car I’d feel most guilt-free about driving the hell out of whenever I wanted, over and over again.”

a piece of luggage: 2019 Performance Car of the Year© DW BURNETT 2019 Performance Car of the Year

We chose the ZR1 because it exhibits every traditional Corvette virtue while rectifying many of the weak points that plagued its predecessors. It’s loud enough at idle to produce a cease-and-desist letter from the homeowners’ association, but you can converse quietly with your passenger on the freeway. Drag racers will like the extra radiators; road racers will like the aero package. It makes big numbers, the way Corvettes always have, but it also conveys the intangible qualities of steering feel and high-speed balance typically associated with smaller, more restrained sports cars. Don’t think of it as a faster Z06; compared with that car, which failed to impress the 2016 PCOTY jury, the ZR1 is a finished piece in all respects. A closer comparison would be to PCOTY 2017’s third-place Grand Sport, which thrilled us with its feedback but occasionally felt underpowered in the fiercest company. The ZR1 redresses that grievance and then some.

2019 Performance Car of the Year© Richard Pardon 2019 Performance Car of the Year

Just as important, this imperial Corvette is a product of a team that treats the customer with both affection and respect. Your dream ZR1 may be a stick shift with the cheapo interior and the ZTK aero package. Others surely dream of an automatic, small-wing car with stitched leather on every surface. The beauty of the ZR1 is that both choices are valid, both choices are available, and with a multitude of options in between. We are too often told nowadays that such-and-such a degradation is inevitable, that as enthusiasts we must be prepared to put up with everything from a mandatory P-R-N-D-L pattern to a seven-inch ride height because there is no longer any other sensible option. The Corvette ZR1 is a 755-hp refutation of that assertion, a hammer thrown into Big Brother’s twin-clutch telescreen, a warp-speed expression of stubborn American independence. It is the 2019 Performance Car of the Year.

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