2019 Performance Car of the Year The most potent lineup in the history of PCOTY fights it out for the crown.
There was no escaping the rain. It had followed us across Kentucky and Tennessee, three days and nights in a row, alternating between indifferent sprinkles and fervent cloudbursts, hiding treacherous pools of water around every corner, blowing leaves and branches across our path. It reached through the seals of expensive camera lenses and mercilessly soaked vehicle interiors delicately crafted of aniline leather and open-pore wood. Every minute spent at speed wore on nerves already rubbed raw by episodes of hydroplaning across soggy debris.
Which perhaps explains why the walkie-talkies were mostly silent as we hustled through the night toward NCM Motorsports Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Or maybe it was the majesty of any time spent in the McLaren Senna’s jet-fighter cockpit, surrounded by fixed windows on which a thousand raindrops skittered and slid in accordance with the hypercritical desires of British wind-tunnel engineers. In those moments, searching for bits of grip on roads that had never seen this sort of hardware, none of us wished to be anywhere else.
This year’s Performance Car of the Year (PCOTY) test, our sixth such event, was notable for more than just the biblical deluge that haunted us on road and track. The breathtaking ability of players, including the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, Ferrari 488 Pista, McLaren Senna, and Porsche 911 GT2 RS, took us to the kind of rarefied air traditionally inhabited by pur sang racers. Which is why we asked our very own IndyCar blue blood, 2011 Indy 500 rookie of the year and R&T contributor J. R. Hildebrand, to wring out the last gasps of their potential against the clock.
The other half of our eight-car group promised to keep things interesting. BMW’s M5 Competition makes the leap to hyperspace courtesy of a 617-hp twin-turbo V8 and an ultraslick front differential that offers the tail-out delights of a Late Model stock car coupled with the all-weather capability of an F-86D Sabre. The Audi RS5 used to be a one-trick pony with a sonorous, high-revving V8; now it’s a multitalented street and track weapon with a neutral-handling drivetrain and a twin-turbo, small-bore V6.
We are firmly in the era of the performance sport-utility vehicle, and Alfa Romeo’s Stelvio Quadrifoglio impressed our editors earlier this year with its fortissimo power and harmonious chassis. But we also invited the Alfa’s natural enemy, the superbly accomplished yet charmingly utilitarian Mercedes-AMG E63 S wagon, for a different take on the supersonic bread box.
The class of 2019 exceeded expectations, with the top four entrants outpacing the Mercedes-AMG GT R that set our all-time NCM West fast lap last year. It wasn’t just due to raw power, although that was present in spades. Credit, too, the unflinching advance of aerodynamics, suspension design, and black-magic tire trickery. Consider also this field’s total dedication to performance, even at the expense of driver involvement; for the first time, none of the contenders arrived with more than two pedals.
The constant rain and frequent fog forced us to think about these remarkably rapid cars in ways we hadn’t before: How much of that fearsome power can you use? Are the latest stability-control systems as magical on a shiny-slick back road as they are on a perfectly groomed track? Isn’t it my turn to drive the all-wheel-drive wagon? Are you sure about that?
And then there is the ZR1. A violent piece of work, flawed in a handful of ways but rarely parked, because everyone wanted the key. "All the characteristics of every other seventh-generation Vette," Sorokanich said. "It doesn’t feel distinctly different in any category—braking, acceleration, grip, feedback—it’s just more." The base Corvette’s shrink-around-you joy is here, but the ZR1 makes 300 more horses than that car and 255 more pound-feet of torque. It also has approximately 3000 percent more hood bulge and a face like a nuclear mutant.
More hyperbole, sure, but Corvettes are exaggeration on the hoof. Every great one has been America at the gym after a few beers, yelling, and this is no exception. The car is all bulges and loud add-ons. With that enormous hood cowl, most of what you see through the gun-slit of a windshield, dominating the view.
It’s fitting, because the engine is a tornado and a half, more center stage in its home than any mill here. The ZR1’s 6.2-liter pushrod V8 uses the same basic construction as the one in the Z06, but it’s strapped to a supercharger with a whopping 52 percent more displacement. The blower looks like weaponized luggage and helps produce a linear fire hose of grunt, enough to spit the rear tires loose at highway speed. Like the Pista, the car fights for traction, but it also seems more encouraging and calm about its insanity. All capped by that devil-whoop exhaust note and a suspension tune that never prompts occasional moments of personal clenching. (This means you, Z06.)
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