From the 2011 McLaren MP4-12C to the current BMW M2 Competition, all of these cars have left their mark in one way or another. But will they one day be considered icons? We take a closer look and make that call.

This magazine can shower a great car with plaudits. We frequently do. It might prompt a smiling emoji from a PR person, possibly a blip on a sales graph. A moment in the sun, at the very least. However, beyond the transitory frisson of critical acclaim, words of praise from us or anyone else matter not. If we’re talking icon, as we are here, the passage of time is the final arbiter and only once the dust has settled over many years can the truly worthy become one.

What counts as worthy – indeed, what constitutes an icon – is less exact science than fuzzy cultural phenomenon but, remarkably for something so subjective, once the right amount of fame, fascination and approbation have been acquired, the label seems to stick, there’s little or no dissent, and, for anyone wanting to own a car so described, they’ll need a lot of money.

But exactly what is iconic? Dictionaries aren’t much use. The Collins English is, perhaps understandably, somewhat literal on the matter. “Relating to, resembling, or having the character of an icon,” it avers. Yup. The Urban Dictionary tries harder to nail the vibe. “A bit like ‘classic’,” it suggests, “but generally restricted to more recent, highly original, influential, or unique works of art, artists, or performers.” No mention of ‘cars’, but we get the drift.

If it’s all the same to you, though, I’m going with the ‘iconic made easy’ two-word definition: Steve McQueen. This is helpful for a variety of reasons, but principally because it’s a name shared by the late, ineffably cool actor and star of the film Bullitt (so much ‘icon’ going on here) and the Turner Prize-winning film maker who went on to give us 12 Years a Slave (a nice bloke who makes important movies). Note the dichotomy. Excellence as a solitary proposition doesn’t make the cut.

The thing about actor Steve McQueen is that both on and off screen he seemed to be rocking an atomic-level infusion of the right stuff. Everything he did, touched, drove, wore – every gesture, tick, laconic utterance, wink, prolonged silence – amplified attraction without being in any way obvious. McQueen saying nothing was more fascinating than Tom Hanks’ entire career. The way he moved made other actors on screen look as if they were wading through treacle. He was a magnetic force who didn’t have to work at it and, for the most part, didn’t care. All right, I’ll admit this is a quirky filter, but we haven’t nominated the six cars you see here to pose as mere ‘modern classics’. The idea, rather, is to determine which of them, if any, has what it takes to become a fully fledged future icon. And since I’m the one doing the determining, it’s personal and includes a large dollop of retro cool. McQueen, hopefully, is my lodestar.

To be honest, even I’m not sure exactly what I’m looking for, but I know it has something to do with toughness and depth of purpose. Nothing too flash. A doer first. A car more fascinating than fabulous, with more presence than prettiness. A car that doesn’t give a toss what you think because it will seduce you anyway.

Audi’s A1 quattro, therefore, gets off to a good start. The left-hand-drive, limited-edition (just 333 made) forerunner to the tamer series-production S1 is a butch little spud of a car that subverts the prim, inoffensive, soap-slick styling of the cooking item with an almost toy-like exuberance. It projects a jumbo-wheeled, sci-fi-flavoured personality with sculptural Glacier White modelling more reminiscent of the EVA pods in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey than the usual macho hot hatch enhancements.

There are exotic shapes, vibrant colours and basso profundo soundtrack symphonies alive in the paddock at our Anglesey Circuit base for the day, but the Audi’s almost cartoonish, puffed-out chest and sheer brightness are impossible to ignore, even if the soft burble of its exhaust can barely make itself heard. While photography gets underway on track with the larger group, I grab the keys and head out for some fun on the Llanberis Pass as part of a 70km round trip.

Next-generation megahatches with a routine 300kW-plus are nearly here, so the 188kW developed by the littlest quattro’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo (lifted from the S3) is beginning to look a tad tepid on paper. Well, it’s anything but on the road. All right, 0-100km/h in 5.7sec, while handy, props up the times posted by all the other monster-motored would-be icons here, but the A1 quattro’s size-to-speed ratio, hitched to the agile tenacity of an amusingly adjustable all-drive chassis, is dynamic dynamite on blacktop that snakes through craggy canyons. Business is conducted with minimal theatre but a fierce focus and delicious absence of wasted energy. The A1 simply grabs the tarmac and goes and swiftly makes fast feel reassuring and gives you a gentle dig in the ribs to try harder. Despite the obvious power deficit in this company, I doubt I’ll drive anything capable of a better point-to-point time over the course of the day.

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Manual gearbox, natch. It’s not a snickety, short-throw affair but has a lever that moves easily and quickly through a well-defined gate. Nice, cool-to-the-touch, knurled metal gearknob as well. Along with the leather-rimmed steering wheel and aluminium pedals, its inclusion gets the go-faster appliqué just right without the need to entertain tasteless boy-racer frippery.

The Audi has hit a groove and rhythm I’d like to stay with and possibly build on. The BMW M2 Competition would appear to be perfectly equipped to do just that. I’ll admit I have a slight problem with the car’s icon candidacy in that its lineage lacks purity. Emotionally, it’s another new M-car with a glam paint job. Functionally, it’s a belated fix for the underachieving M2, a likeably ebullient, handily compact rear-drive coupe held back from heavy-duty goodness by unresolved M-carness.

There were two basic problems. Fine as BMW’s single-turbo 3.0-litre straight-six was in the Motorsport-lite M135i, the full-fat M2 cried out for something with extra push and passion. Yet, undermining the need to fill the velocity vacuum, its chassis lacked the acuity and finesse to properly exploit the notional horsepower upgrade – benignly ragged on the limit, yes, but ragged nonetheless. And strangely numb, too. Addressing this issue was easy. The M135i motor was replaced by the joyous M3/M4 S55 unit with its twin-turbos, closed-deck block, lightened crankshaft, enhanced cooling and strengthened pistons: 302kW and 550Nm – much more like it. Making the M2 handle more precisely required a deeper dive than just recalibrating the ESC and electronic LSD and so extended to the fitment of its bigger brothers’ rigidity-enhancing carbonfibre brace, which links the front strut tops with the nose of the car.

Fire, focus and finesse (v2.0) thus installed, the result is a different and altogether superior car – nimble, nuggety and a little bit nasty (in a good way). The M2 Competition, perhaps against the odds, fans up a flame that arguably burned brightest when E30 M3s roamed the planet. It’s still not the prettiest coupe in town but, as already discussed, that doesn’t matter. Its core asset – one mirrored by the A1 quattro and Aston V12 Vantage – is compactness pulled tight around an engine more powerful than that originally intended for it. There’s familiarity in the lusty, lag-free flexibility, but the way the biturbo straight-six pulls harder, with an addictive muffled yowl, all the way to the 7500rpm redline is a new thrill that chimes powerfully with the M division’s reinvigorated MO.

On a fast, wriggling downhill stretch, the meatily weighted steering still doesn’t buzz with road-surface chatter, but it is now at least quick and accurate enough to make the BMW feel alert and reactive. Teamed with the other mods and subject to the influence of the M Differential, the innate balance and smooth adjustability previously subsumed under layers of subtle woolliness finally see the light of day and gift the M2 Competition an incisive chassis that can glory in the engine’s estimable grunt. Sure, the suspension is restless over small bumps at town speeds, there are grains of notchiness in the gearchange, and the brakes could stay stronger for longer. But, in this case, I’ll accept the firm ride for the way it knits together with terrific body control. And I’ll take the no-cost optional manual six-speed gearbox over the DCT and paddles all day long because, finally, at the entry level of the M-car stack, genuine, honest-to-god involvement is back on the table. Enough to guarantee the M2 Competition future iconic status? As a pure and perfectly judged expression of BMW’s sporty sub-brand genius, probably not. However, if the narrative mentions M division and mojo reclaimed in the same sentence, it’s there.

Up next, Aston’s V12 Vantage, mostly because it’s the only car that isn’t on track having its photo taken. But before I get behind the wheel, and because I’m hungry, a sandwich-stroll 360. I can’t get away from the feeling that, even in the era of the DB11, this is Aston’s most likeable shape – taut, businesslike and suffused with a subtle, brooding brutality that sits well with the McQueen template. The styling, although another variation on a beautiful theme, isn’t so precious that Aston had any hesitation in whacking a disruptive set of carbonfibre cooling vents along almost the entire length of the bonnet.

Then there’s the sheer, grin-inducing audacity of shoehorning a naturally aspirated 380kW 5.9-litre V12 into an engine bay designed for a V8. A great big, Thanos-sized, iron fist in a stretchy designer kid-leather glove. Splendidly bonkers. Was Aston’s boss of a decade ago, Ulrich Bez, being serious? Seems so. The giveaways are the tread pattern of the tyres and the numerous aero tweaks – all lifted straight from the N24 race programme.

The competition connection is less obvious inside the cabin, a place of elegant analogue dials and sensual architecture, adorned with tasteful aluminium accents and clad in a mix of glossy carbon and conspicuously hand-stitched leather. It has an expensive aroma. The shapely but leanly padded seats offer fine lateral and under-thigh support, while the driving position is sportily hunkered down and laid-back and about half a foot lower than the BMW’s. It’s as comfortable and cosy as a proper GT’s should be, too. Just to listen to the hollow bark of the big V12 as it cracks into life and the sonorous burble as it settles to idle is a lovely goosebumpy moment. We drive off in search of further enlightenment.

It’s clear that the Aston’s performance bandwidth is of a different order to anything experienced so far today. Acceleration is linear – whatever the revs and whatever the gear – with no discernible peaks or troughs in the delivery. And if the nose felt massy and the steering a little sleepy at lower speeds scratching across Anglesey, the variable-ratio rack takes up the slack superbly with some velocity wound on.

Clear road ahead, second gear, bury the throttle. Irresistible. The hit of bellowing V12 mumbo is simply glorious and causes the rear to squirm as the 295/30 ZR19 Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres struggle to hook up. Third, fourth and fifth seem good for pretty much anything, providing just about perfect levels of flexibility, outright pace and engine braking. A surprisingly peachy gearshift, too, once you get used to the huge and awkwardly square gearknob.

It’s on the Llanberis Pass that the V12 Vantage begins to work some genuine magic, feeling lithe, threadable, absurdly quick and immensely stable under braking. The combination of effortless V12 thrust, punchy gearing and amazingly deft handling blows away the remaining kilometres like a stiff breeze fluttering paperwork across a desktop, and I’m sorry to park up at the circuit once more. Almost any car equipped with this engine could become an icon by association, but the fact that the rest of the Vantage is so well matched to it seals the deal.

I size up my next drive. It may be bright yellow, but the Porsche 911 Carrera T looks almost demure in this company, especially parked next to the comparatively gargantuan SLS Black Series. But maybe that’s the point. It’s kind of a given that the 911 – any 911 – is already a deserving icon, and finessing the process is simply a matter of choosing the one with the optimally pared-back spec. Three years ago, the remarkable 911 R signposted what that might entail: naturally aspirated 4.0-litre flat-six, GT3 suspension, six-speed manual gearbox, plain bodyshell shorn of big wings. Trouble was, Porsche didn’t make many and values instantly assumed a vertical trajectory.

Employing a similar leaner-is-meaner filter, we’ve narrowed the 991.2 field down to the 911 Carrera T, which, like the R, dispenses with back seats and infotainment system in standard form and has fabric door pulls. T stands for Touring, and the original 911T from half a century ago was a 82kW poverty-spec special. This one isn’t. It slotted in between the regular 991.2 Carrera and the 37kW-more-powerful Carrera S and aimed to nail a sporty sweet spot between the two. To this end it got the regular Carrera’s 272kW turbocharged 3.0-litre motor, a seven-speed manual gearbox, shorter final drive from the Carrera S, a standard limited-slip differential, PASM adaptive damping (which comes with a 20mm suspension drop), 20-inch rims, a sports exhaust and standard fitment of the Sport Chrono Package with its steering-wheel-mounted mode selector.

A few kilos were saved by the lightweight side and rear windows and the removal of some sound deadening (to let more engine noise in rather than alter the power-to-weight ratio), but if the Carrera’s mildly gruff baritone does sound any louder or gruffer, it’s lost on me. No matter, I can sense the presence of greatness here and the 911’s bank-vault build and meticulously evolved charisma quickly install feelings of calm and wellbeing as well as a tingle of anticipation.

Speed might not be everything but, at the first sniff of a decent straight, it’s clear the Carrera T doesn’t pack the accelerative heft of the Aston and could well be embarrassed by the M2 Competition below 160km/h. If anything, the gearing still feels a hair too long even with the S final drive and, even in third, serious push doesn’t arrive until the tacho nudges 4000rpm. However, from that point on it all just works to stunning effect, and that includes the shift action of the Carrera’s seven-speed manual gearbox and, as ever, a phenomenally effective set of stoppers.
It’s that pervasive sense of wellbeing again. Everything about the Porsche feels precise, honed and resolute. Although the electronic steering lacks the almost organic sensuality of previous 911s’ hydraulic set-ups, it’s incredibly accurate and allows inch-perfect placement that amply serves the broader repertoire of a car with so much front-end grip and composure you wonder if there’s a fan sucking it onto the tarmac. Assuming you want to go fast rather than sideways, you simply point the nose at the apex, give it as much gas as you dare and let the chassis’ mechanical purchase and PASM combine to maximise grip and keep the cornering balance neutral. The upshot is astonishing: flat, accurate cornering at speed. It’s a masterclass in moving and as I return to the paddock at Anglesey I know that, whatever unfolds in the McLaren and Mercedes, it won’t be as utterly sussed as what I’ve just experienced in the Porsche. Only problem is, T-spec plays only a minor part in this. It’s because it’s a 911.

Let’s see… 570S, 675LT, 600LT, P1 and, back in the day, F1 – all ticked off. But to the amazement of my colleagues at evo, this will be the first time I’ve driven the car that started it all for McLaren Automotive, the MP4-12C. Well, better late…

I have a hunch time will be kind to the 12C. It may not have been the best looking or sounding supercar of 2011, but then it was attempting to rip up the rule book. And with fresh eyes, styling that initially seemed like a proposal Lotus rejected for a new Esprit now looks oddly cool and elegant.

Come to think of it, I’m rather glad I didn’t drive the 12C when it was new. I might have joined in the chorus of complaints about it being a bit anodyne – not ‘supercar’ enough in the traditional loud ‘n’ lairy, nape-tingling, wow-factor sense of the word. These were criticisms McLaren acted upon and used to inform the character of subsequent models, answering the perhaps justified call for a little more razzle-dazzle and sonic stimulation. I’m familiar with those cars, so it will be doubly fascinating to sample the first fruit of the original blueprint, the car charged with realising McLaren’s pure, unadulterated vision.

Officially, this was sold as an unprecedented transfer of F1 construction, technology and computer simulation-aided development from track to road. But Ferrari used that line too. What it boiled down to was you don’t need a big, noisy engine to go fast and you don’t have to put up with a hard ride if you want to corner like crazy.

The 12C (C for Carbon MonoCell) was thus powered by an all-new, purpose-built 3.8-litre, dry-sumped, twin-turbo V8 developing 460kW (441kW initially) and 600Nm. Slung low in the chassis it revved to a Ferrari-matching 8500rpm and powered the rear wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Suspension? Classic racing practice – double wishbones and coils all around, but with dampers hydraulically interconnected to provide three levels of roll control, thereby making anti-roll bars redundant and adjusting roll stiffness in real time.

The upshot is a dynamic paradigm that was unique eight years ago and is unique now, delivering an almost magical separation of ride and roll stiffness and therefore comfort and cornering power. Broken, lumpy surfaces are dismissed with the pliant panache of an old-school Peugeot, but tear into the twisty stuff and the McLaren changes direction and grips with the low-inertia alacrity and sticky-tyred tenacity of a single-seater. This is rare, towering talent and utterly absorbing. Time and again the Macca flips between ‘states’, one moment almost sleepy, the seven-speed double-clutch transmission extreme short-shifting to the resonant drone of the exhaust. Then, in a heartbeat, the induction howl from hell (weirdly, all induction with no mechanical content), sequenced pulses of thrust as the DCT rips through its ratios, and a chilled chassis with sinews of steel. It’s been a long wait, but I like the McLaren MP4-12C a lot. McQueen-grade understated potency is brilliantly served.

One more to go. The last time I saw a Mercedes SLS Black Series at Anglesey, back in 2014, it was being smoked by a McLaren P1. But, oh, the noise and the drama. Its AMG motor’s brutally loud, hammering aural assault on its surroundings all but masked the high-revving McLaren’s harder-edged and thinner-sounding twin-turbo V8. Eyes closed and cars unknown, it would have been easy to imagine the deep, dark, percussive bellow had the better of the argument.

It didn’t, but if any car here is defined by its engine it must be the SLS. Yes, it has gull-wing doors (an icon staple) and the kind of edge-to-edge width that makes you gasp, especially when viewed from behind. But, honestly, the 6.2 litres and 464kW of prime V8 AMG beef cradled under that impossibly long bonnet is where it’s at.

Even when you don’t want it to be. On the road out across the island towards the A55 – mostly bumpy – the combination of a very firm ride, an insufficiently stiff throttle action, a rampant 635Nm and a hair-trigger traction control conspire to turn the SLS into a barely controllable bucking bronco. Believe me, it’s a wild enough ride on smooth roads.

That said, the car is actually inspiringly capable. As well as the extra power (up 44kW), the Black Series tweaks – reduced weight, lower and stiffer suspension, adaptive damping, faster-shifting seven-speed DCT, carbon wings and flicks – add a few layers of finesse and sophistication to the juicy core brutality. It means the run over a tight and twisty Llanberis isn’t nearly as buttock-clenchingly tense as I might have feared.

With its torque-vectoring electronic locking differential, the big car turns in crisply, resisting understeer like a champ. Better still, switch the ESC to Sport Handling mode and you can modulate cornering attitude with the throttle. It’s a surprisingly precise and progressive process that runs somewhat counter to the more familiar smoky oversteer AMG script. Get the rear tyres warm and slipping (but not lit) and the SLS feels properly weaponised and surprisingly light on its feet – if no longer the quickest AMG, then surely the real triple-distilled, high-octane deal with oodles of McQueen attitude. If the Mercedes SLS AMG Black Series isn’t a future icon, I don’t know what is.
Well, actually, I do.

By David Vivian
Photography by Matt Howell & Aston Parrott