Finding the Best Car for Any Road Few cars ever built are as capable as Nissan's GT-R — on any road. By Josh Jacquot, Senior Road Test Editor Date posted: 05-26-2008 We're in a 2009 Nissan GT-R, helmet on, seatbelt fastened, left foot poised to release the brake and unleash Godzilla's wrath. But we're not on a racetrack. In front of us there are 22 miles and 402 turns of the best driving road in the world, Southern California's Glendora Mountain Road. We've covered this ground thousands of times, but today it's different. Today there are two California Highway Patrol cruisers stationed at either end of this twisting strip of sun-drenched blacktop. It is our personal playground for the afternoon. The radio crackles the "All clear" and with the GT-R's engine revved to a launch-controlled 4,500 rpm, we release the brake and let the big Nissan do what it does best: twist physics into knots. This process is repeated all afternoon in a collection of today's quickest and most capable road cars. The list includes a 2008 Audi R8, 2008 Lotus Elise SC, 2008 Porsche 911, 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X MR and 2008 Subaru WRX STI. We didn't discriminate: Rally cars, focused rear-drive performance cars and everything in between was invited to the party. In fact, there's only one genre missing from this otherwise comprehensive list — the big-power, rear-drive supercar. But it wasn't for a lack of trying. Fact is, we asked Chevy for a 2008 Corvette Z06 and we asked Dodge for a 2008 Viper SRT10, but both refused to loan us their cars — presumably because we'd be testing their best metal against the almighty GT-R. Sniff, sniff. Does somebody smell chicken? The Test The idea is simple: Find out if the quickest car on a racetrack is the quickest car on a mountain road. So we hit the track one day and the mountain the next. Then we ran every car through our standard acceleration, braking and handling tests. We used the Streets of Willow Springs, a 1.8-mile natural-terrain road course, as our racing circuit. Then we ran that 1.8-mile section of GMR through the Angeles National Forest north of Los Angeles. Our section of road included dozens of corners, including three 180-degree switchbacks, multiple blind bends and 721 feet of vertical rise. In the spirit of real street driving, we respected the yellow center line and used only one lane — just like we would if the road had been open. We recorded every lap of the track and every pass on the mountain road with our Racelogic VBOX (a GPS-based data recorder). The Point The groomed, glass-smooth surface of most racetracks is a far cry from the reality of uneven real-world roads where bumps, road paint, debris, blind corners and self preservation act as great equalizers. Racetracks are also designed to protect you from yourself. Run-off room, gravel traps and FIA curbing are there to keep you and your machine in one piece. On the road, mistakes come at a much higher cost. Experience tells us big-power cars, which thrive on road courses, are often out of their element on tight mountain roads where rally cars like the Evo X and WRX STI do their best work. So these two genres were to represent either end of the spectrum. In the middle we knew we couldn't ignore the back-road brilliance of the 2008 Lotus Elise SC or the all-around poise of Porsche's 911. Audi's R8 and Nissan's GT-R, theoretically, represent the best of both worlds — big power combined with the confidence of all-wheel drive. Some of you might also be wondering why we chose the base 911 over the much more powerful and all-wheel-drive-equipped 911 Turbo. The answer is simple: price. This base Porsche 911 costs about the same as the Nissan GT-R. We thought that was relevant. Just how much Porsche do you get for the cost of the big bad Nissan? Other questions? Oh yeah. How about: On the street, does traditional go-fast hardware succumb to the long-travel confidence of an Evo or the nimbleness of a lightweight Lotus? How does Porsche's classic go-fast formula stack up against the current breed of machines? Is Audi's R8 as comfortable when driving hard as it is around town? Is the GT-R the quickest car on a track and a seriously tight mountain road? Can 3,900 pounds of rolling technology outrun 2,000 pounds of pure, focused driver's car? The answers are below. 2009 Nissan GT-R Flat cornering is one the GT-R's strengths. Smooth riding isn't. As-tested price: $75,925 Mountain road time: 2:04.35; Rank: 1st Streets of Willow lap time: 1:25.68; Rank: 1st 0-60 mph: 3.5 seconds (3.2 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) Quarter-mile: 11.7 seconds at 116.8 mph 60-0 braking: 98 feet Slalom: 74.0 mph Skid pad: 0.96g By now you've read every word printed about the 2009 Nissan GT-R. You know it's quicker than a 911 Turbo on a track. You've seen it beat the best the Americans can offer. You've read that it's as antiseptic as it is quick. And now you're reading that it can stomp damned near any car on any piece of tarmac, anywhere. Yes, Nissan's 480-horsepower, six-speed all-wheel-drive monster wins this test, too. It was quicker up the mountain road and around the Streets of Willow than any other car in this test. Here's the thing about the GT-R. Despite its mass, it simply doesn't do anything poorly. It is the embodiment of technology conquering physics. And yes, it is less involving than other cars this quick. That said, it's always on your side. It's safe. Only the R8 was able to top its cornering speeds through the tightest corners on the mountain road. On the track, which is faster still, it was untouched in virtually every corner. And it closes the gap between corners in less time than anything else sold today. Most striking is the fact that the GT-R is among the easiest cars to drive in this test. Even with its stability control disabled, it rarely does anything to make us question its poise. It's as stuck and predictable as it is massive. And, by every measure, it lives up to the hype. 2008 Audi R8 Audi's R8 exhibits a decidedly rear-drive attitude in most corners — especially this one. As-tested price: $134,545 Mountain road time: 2:04.68; Rank: 2nd Streets of Willow lap time: 1:26.92; Rank: 2nd 0-60 mph: 4.5 seconds (4.2 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) Quarter-mile: 12.7 seconds at 109.0 mph 60-0 braking: 103 feet Slalom: 71.0 mph Skid pad: 0.98g Audi's midmounted 420-hp, 4.2-liter direct-injection V8 is not only one of the best-sounding engines in the world, it's also one of the most potent. Combined with Audi's R tronic paddle-shifted six-speed transmission and distinctly rear-biased all-wheel drive, this German's price tag is high, but so are its abilities. Take the R8's 2nd-place finish on the mountain road as proof positive that it's for real. Then notice that it trails the big-hype GT-R by only a third of a second over two minutes of twisting road and you can be certain of its real-world abilities. It was the only car to record quicker segment times and higher peak speeds than the GT-R over two of the four segments on the mountain road. It also had more agreeable balance than the GT-R in slow corners. The big Nissan pushed through switchbacks where the R8 found neutral balance and exited with its tail out. The same was true on the track. The Audi's mass-centralized designed allowed it to rotate through slow corners more effectively than any other car in the test. Still, superb tuning kept it stable enough to be confident through high-speed transitions. Shifts were slower than in the GT-R, but paddles that turn with the wheel made them easier to nail at precisely the right second. Overall, the R8 offers more character than most of the other hardware here, and on the right road it will hang with the GT-R. But we can't ignore the fact that it's the most expensive car in the test by a wide margin. In the end we love the R8 the same way we'd love carbon-fiber slacks: They're a wonderful luxury if you have the means, but when polyester will do the same job for half the cash, they're probably hard for most to justify. 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X MR The Evo MR needs more damping to handle the uneven surfaces we encountered on this mountain road. As-tested price: $38,940 Mountain road time: 2:06.91; Rank: 3rd Streets of Willow lap time: 1:29.02; Rank: 3rd 0-60 mph: 5.6 seconds (5.3 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) Quarter-mile: 14.0 seconds at 97.4 mph 60-0 braking: 111 feet Slalom: 68.9 mph Skid pad: 0.92g The Evo X's twin-clutch six-speed transmission, when used in Super Sport mode, is a revelation. Until now we haven't driven an automanual transmission which so thoroughly eliminated the need for a clutch pedal and gearshift, but when driving hard, the MR does just that. In fact, with another 75 horses (the Evo X is rated at 291 hp and 300 pound-feet of torque), it likely would have upset the mountain road finishing order in a big way. As it sits, it flat spanked the $85,000 Porsche and walked all over the little Lotus. With its stability control switched off and its Super Active Yaw Control precisely directing drive to the appropriate contact patch, the Evo found itself 2nd only to the GT-R in the fastest segment on the mountain road. Its peak speed through this section of road was 1.5 mph faster than the R8. There's more confidence here through fast transitions than in any other car. The Evo's secret weapon, however, is its transmission. It's always in the right gear. Unlike the paddle-shifted transmissions in the GT-R and the R8, the Evo's six-speed thinks for itself and maximizes the car's performance. Sure you can mess with its paddles if you want, but only if you want to go slower. Plus, there's less to consume the driver's brain power, so driving is less frantic. The Evo MR, however, is too soft to take full advantage of its otherwise stellar chassis when the going gets truly uneven. We bottomed the suspension on several occasions. A big part of an Evo's advantage on a road like this is being able to put its tires in places that would upset cars with less suspension travel. But the MR's softer Bilstein dampers simply aren't up to this kind of pounding. The GSR's suspension is likely better suited to this terrain, but it's not available with the twin-clutch gearbox. So we're left wanting an Evo that doesn't exist — and knowing that it would be quicker still. 2008 Porsche 911 Carrera There's no denying the fundamental excellence of Porsche's 911. Or its fundamental cost of entry. As-tested price: $85,765 Mountain road time: 2:09.51; Rank: 4th Streets of Willow lap time: 1:29.25; Rank: 4th 0-60 mph: 4.8 seconds (4.5 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) Quarter-mile: 13.0 seconds at 108.1 mph 60-0 braking: 104 feet Slalom: 72.2 mph Skid pad: 0.92g Few sports cars are as fundamentally sound as Porsche's 911. Even this base model reminds us how steering should feel and how brakes should perform. Problem is, even a Plain Jane 911, which comes with a six-speed manual transmission and 3.6-liter engine good for 325 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque tops $85 grand with only a few options. That's almost $10 grand more than the GT-R, which will mop the road with all six of the 911's horizontally opposed pistons. Still, we find it hard to not appreciate 50 years of sports car refinement. There's a poise and elegance about Porsche's timeless rear-engine design that's evident in its driving experience. And its edgy side is virtually gone. This side of the 911 is welcome in the mountains where there's no runoff and little room for error. But these same traits — the slower reactions and tamer control feel — keep the rear-wheel-drive 911 from edging the Evo on the track where it missed the mark by only about a quarter of a second (0.23). That gap extended to 2.6 seconds in the mountains, where the Porsche was less eager to rotate and couldn't match the Evo's launch out of slow corners. The 911 is probably the most versatile car here from a driving perspective — capable of both comfortable daily transport and high-level performance driving. But it's not the best value if measured on lap times alone. 2008 Lotus Elise SC On the track the Elise offers more feedback than any other car in this test. As-tested price: $63,920 Mountain road time: 2:10.19; Rank: 5th Streets of Willow lap time: 1:29.49; Rank: 5th 0-60 mph: 4.9 seconds (4.6 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) Quarter-mile: 13.3 seconds at 103.2 mph 60-0 braking: 110 feet Slalom: 72.4 mph Skid pad: 0.96g With a new supercharged engine for 2008, Lotus' Elise finally has the power (218 hp and 153 lb-ft of torque) to match its chassis' abilities. A six-speed manual transmission backs up the power to drive the 2,028-pound plastic-and-aluminum machine to new levels of performance. Our test car also had the Sport Pack, which supplies forged wheels and Bilstein dampers. Given its status as the most pure driver's car sold in the U.S., we had high hopes for the Lotus. But in this case, purity of experience doesn't add up to outright speed. More problematic is the lack of confidence created by its nervous character up to and beyond the limit. Most cars in this test extend a measure of control beyond the limit of grip that masks their edge considerably. Not so in the Elise. Its back-to-basics character doesn't allow this luxury. Get it sideways under braking and you better have fast hands and good car control or you'll soon taste regret. And regret on this mountain road involves stone walls. Manual steering, which is spectacularly full of feel up to the limit, becomes a heavy liability when trying to recover a slide. Add all this up and the Lotus, despite having the right power-to-weight ratio and chassis to be competitive, winds up 5th — less than a second behind the Porsche on the track and in the mountains. If success in this test were measured in adrenaline production or outright fear of death, the Elise wins hands-down. But in this environment, measured against the best cars modern technology car produce, Colin Chapman's simpler-is-better ethos is beginning to show itself for what it is: old. 2008 Subaru WRX STI The STI's bulging fenders look right at home with the curves of this road. As-tested price: $39,678 Mountain road time: 2:10.72; Rank: 6th Streets of Willow lap time: 1:30.05; Rank: 6th 0-60 mph: 5.3 seconds (5.0 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) Quarter-mile: 13.5 seconds at 101.8 mph 60-0 braking: 109 feet Slalom: 69.7 mph Skid pad: 0.90g An STI at the back of the pack? What gives? Well, it isn't power, because the Subaru packs 305 ponies and 290 lb-ft of torque from its 2.5-liter four-cylinder. And it isn't weight, because the Subie weighs 250 pounds less than the Evo — its primary competitor. And, like the Evo, it has six closely spaced gears and all-wheel drive to put the power down. Part of the problem is the STI's awkward manual transmission that requires deliberate shifts, every one of which is several tenths of a second slower than the Evo's twin-clutch gearbox. The STI was the only car we missed a gear in during three days of testing. The rest of the time is down to response and precision — the ability to go exactly where it's pointed when it's asked. Compared to most other cars in this test, the Subaru lacks both. And without the Evo's ability to rotate quickly in a corner, it can't put power down until later in every turn — a deficit its acceleration advantage simply can't overcome. And then there's the understeer, which limits acceleration out of every corner. We ran the STI up the hill and on the track with its center differential set to Auto and its throttle calibration in Sport Sharp. But the settings don't seem to make a difference. This car works its front tires. Period. Ultimately, the STI isn't as universally capable as expected. It also produces the least grip of any car in this test, lowering its cornering speed and slowing its times on the track and on the road. A rougher mountain road would likely have better illustrated the STI's abilities and moved it slightly up the ranks on that part of the test. The Take-Away This is all the competition saw of Nissan's GT-R. Even in a test without a winner, it's hard to ignore some simple facts. All-wheel drive matters. Both on the track and on the mountain road, cars putting power to all four wheels were consistently quicker and easier to drive than their two-wheel-drive counterparts. We also learned that speed doesn't always cost money. The Evo, the cheapest car in this test, proved that. Just as the Audi R8 demonstrates that it's possible to have a comfortable street car that makes the numbers and goes really friggin' fast. But in the end, the quickest car on the track was also the quickest car on the street. Nissan's GT-R again proves itself to be today's most impressive performance car. Capable of crushing all comers in any environment, its abilities are tough to match at any price. Nobody will ever accuse it of being subtle. And it's not comfortable. But if outright speed is the measure that matters, we can't find a better machine. And that, we figure, won't surprise anybody at Chevy or Dodge.