It’s the year’s biggest group test… 2013’s greatest performance cars go to war in attempt to claim evo Australia’s coveted Car of the Year crown.

An elimination round in the UK has picked the four best from the Jaguar F-type V8S, Audi R8 V10 Plus, Ford Fiesta ST Mountune, Mini JCW GP, Aston Martin V12 Vantage S, Lotus Exige S Roadster and Porsche Cayman S.

And that’s the easy part done, the victorious quartet then driving 800 miles to the South of France to meet the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta, Porsche 911 GT3, Mercedes SLS AMG Black Series and Alfa Romeo 4C, each being driven from their hometown to meet our road test team as the driving, squabbling and eventual judging begins.

Henry Catchpole takes us through the eight cars in with a shot at the evo Car of the Year 2013 title. Which one is your money on?

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THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

evo Australia Car of the Year: Porsche Cayman S and Alfa Romeo 4C

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8th: Alfa Romeo 4C

There has to be a last place, and in this toughest of years the 4C sadly stakes a very strong claim to it. ‘‘Road presence as high as any car in the test,’’ said Trott, ‘‘and credit to Alfa for pushing it into the lion’s den of eCoty for its first group test. But it lacks the effervescent sparkle of the considerably cheaper Mini, or the total polish of the Porsche.’’ Richard Meaden felt an opportunity had been missed: ‘‘Film-star looks and supercar construction ensure it’s a hugely desirable car. Taut, controlled damping and powerful brakes suggest expertise and skill exists within the development team, but the flatulent, laggy, lethargic engine is horrid and the handling too inert to hold your attention. What a shame.’’ Add in the steering issues and it was game over. Vivian summed it up thus: ‘‘The 4C is the future and the Aston, Ferrari and Merc, magnificent dinosaurs that they are, are the past. But for now the car hastoo many elements that feel unfinished or unfit for purpose.’’

 

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7th: Porsche Cayman S

There’s probably a smaller gap between seventh and first than there is between seventh and eighth. The Cayman S is a truly fantastic car. In fact, it’s so good that in another year it could have won. But 2013 is not a normal year. Jethro said that its poise and creaminess reminded him of the R8, before adding almost reluctantly: ‘‘It just lacked firepower and a bit of edge to emerge from the shadow of the big boys’’. Firepower or not, Vivian was bewitched: ‘‘You get in, adjust the seat and steering, and drive fast, immediately feeling in sync with the controls and the road. No surprises, no jarring distractions, just an easy flow and rhythm. That it’s so beautifully built, designed and finished helps. And that sweet manual gearchange, of course.’’ The praise continued from Trott: ‘‘As an everyday performance car, for the money, it has no equal.’’ Mike Duff went even farther: ‘‘I could drive the Cayman S every day for the rest of my life and never get bored with it: so many different answers to whatever you throw at it.’’ Seventh heaven indeed.
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6th: Mini JCW GP

evo Australia Car of the Year 2013: Mini JCW GP

‘‘This car proves why we should always give hot hatches the chance to shine against supercars on eCoty,’’ said Meaden, and I couldn’t agree more. Everyone had a tale of struggling to hang on to the exhaust pipes of the GP or failing to shake its massive nostril from the rear-view mirror. But it wasn’t just quick: it was involving too. ‘‘No hot hatch in my experience has been set up with such an unflinching focus on response and agility, to the point where you need to treat it with as much respect as something with rear-drive and 350kW,’’ Dickie added. Jethro was so smitten he was almost tempted to make it his winner: ‘‘On flowing roads with lots of third- and fourth-gear corners it’s exceptionally adjustable and so precise. It takes no prisoners in the wet but that’s the way a really focused front-driver should be.’’ And if you’re about to quibble on price ($55,900), Vivian has a way to justify that: ‘‘Look at this way: you could have a whole one-make race series for the price of one F12 and the Ferrari still wouldn’t be able to shake off the GP on a twisty road.’’
Man-maths or not, the Mini is a very special little car. Like the Cayman before it, sixth seems a poor reward.

5th: Audi R8 V10 Plus

evo Australia Car of the Year 2013 Audi R8 V10 Plus

The R8 is sheer class, always has been. But it’s quite incredible how relatively subtle improvements manage to keep it right at the top of the performance car tree. Bovingdon said he fell in love with the R8 all over again this week. ‘‘Every element of this car is so sweetly judged and smooth it makes everything else feel almost contrived and clumsy by comparison. I want to own this car so badly it hurts. Audi – please inject some of this subtle brilliance into the rest of your range.’’
Vivian was also enamoured and placed the R8 second: ‘‘For me, the Audi continues to astound as a supercar that’s as easy to live with as it is rewarding to drive in anger. Maybe the cabin and instruments could do with a freshen up but, overall, the R8 still hits it out of the park.’’ On the score sheets it looks like Mike Duff was perhaps the only one who didn’t really fall for the Audi and yet even he was full of praise: ‘‘Great engine, great gearbox, great chassis. It was only pushed down by a relative lack of excitement compared to everything else here.’’ You’ll note the word ‘relative’ in that last sentence being redefined in a way more shocking than anything said by Einstein. And of course, if it had rained for three days in France it might have all been very different…

4th: Aston Martin V12 Vantage S

evo Australia Car of the Year 2013 Aston Martin V12 Vantage S

If there were a category for ‘steering of the year’ then the Aston Martin would undoubtedly walk off with the three-spoke trophy. Trott was fulsome in his praise: ‘‘Total linearity and fabulous feedback – lovely tingles reach your palms directly from the road surface’’. Meaden, always the first to admire a good rack, said that: ‘‘The hydraulic steering is amongst the very best for feel and consistency – as are the carbon brakes – even though the assistance is variable-rate.’’ The chassis balance was lauded by Dickie, too. ‘‘The front-end’s response is brilliantly judged – not too quick, not too slow – and the progressive way in which the tail comes into play without the need for crazy commitment or provocation makes the Aston’s limits far more accessible on the road than some of the others.’’
‘‘Just a simple, honest and deeply well-sorted drivers’ car,’’ mused Bovingdon, adding, ‘‘The uprated engine really has found a new sharpness too and it infuses the whole car with more precision and more intent.’’ Duff agreed but also loved its versatility: ‘‘It seems equally happy whether you’re trickling around and enjoying the V12’s purring refinement, or giving it absolute death. It’s a gentleman thug, and it’s as happy in either role. But for the gearbox it would have been my winner.’’

3rd: Mercedes-Benz SLS Black Series

evo Australia car of the year Mercedes SLS AMG Black Series

It’s fair to say that the Mercedes SLS AMG Black Series was the surprise of the group. There have been some great Black Series cars in the past, but there have also been some stinkers, so there was some trepidation as to which camp the SLS would pitch its tent in. Thankfully it’s the former.
Richard Meaden loved it so much that he decided to select it as his winner: ‘‘Despite appearances, it’s a nuanced machine. It’s vast and looks totally unwieldy, but with time you discover it’s exceptionally precise, with the lightweight feel of something like a 911 RS. It’s also surprisingly adept at going slowly. Definitely one to make room for in the Meaden Fantasy Garage.’’ He wasn’t the only one to make a Porsche connection, but Jethro had his own reasons: ‘‘It reminded me of a GT2 in that it has superb control, lovely steering and incredible grip and traction, but can just occasionally threaten to kill you in one heart-stopping moment’’.
It wasn’t to everyone’s taste, however. Wheelspin at 160km/h in the wet unsettled Vivian, while Duff struggled with its sheer size. He also felt the on-limit traits which Jethro thrived on were a bit too abrupt for his tastes: ‘‘Grip to slip is pretty much like flicking a switch.’’ One man’s meat, etc.
I was one of those that loved the SLS, but I’ll leave the final words on the Black to Nick Trott, who, like Dickie, had it top of his score sheet: ‘‘I never thought I’d vote a Mercedes top in performance car terms, and I never thought I’d put it ahead of the GT3, but I found it more thrilling more of the time. Of all the cars on the test, it was the one I was mentally speccing up in my head. Dark metallic grey, with all the carbon, if you’re asking…’’

2nd: Ferrari F12

evo Australia car of the year 2013 Ferrari F12

Just one point ahead of the SLS, the Ferrari F12 takes the silver medal. Just like the SLS and our winner, the F12 topped two judges’ scoresheets. One belonged to Mike Duff: ‘‘Wow. The most exciting car here for me, by a fair margin. The V12 is amazing: the fact it produces so much power through nothing more than revs and direct injection feels close to miraculous. I don’t think the novelty of running it out to 8500rpm and feeling the brutal gearbox bang in the next ratio would ever wear off either. Every time I got out of it I had an adrenalin high.’’
Even those that didn’t place it at the top sang the praises of the V12. ‘‘It is a total triumph,’’ said Trott. ‘‘Ferrari should be honoured for building arguably the greatest road-car engine of all time.’’ Vivian was equally effusive: ‘‘The powertrain is surely the most remarkable, exciting and addictive of any car on sale today. It isn’t just the power, staggering as that is, but the manner of its delivery. The final 2000 revs to the redline and the speed of the shift to the next gear are truly breathtaking.’’
The only divisive factor was the incredibly quick steering rack, which proved an acquired taste. Nick was unconvinced, as was Jethro, who also expressed worries that he’d ‘‘go through a set of tyres every 1500km’’. Hooligan. Viv, however, warmed to the rack: ‘‘You gradually realise the steering is part of a mechanism that endows the F12 with amazing agility’’.
I was the other person to have the F12 as their winner, and the memory of being in control of something so fast, powerful and exploitable has me grinning from ear to ear. Add in the feral yelps from a couple of downshifts and the endorphins are almost overwhelming.

And the winner is…