Cadillac CTS-V, Lexus RC F, Mazda MX-5 Miata Club, Mercedes-AMG C63 S
Our favorite time of year is back. No fuel economy debates, no back-seat tests, and not one mention of trunk space. Motor Trend’s Best Driver’s Car is about answering one simple question: Which all-new sports car is best for the driver who loves to drive? It may or may not be the fastest, but it will be the most fun, rewarding, and engaging to drive.
Before we can tell you which car won, though, we have to introduce you to the contenders. Over the next few days, we’ll reveal the 10 new sports coupes and sedans chosen (and available) for this year’s competition. Today, we introduce the first four contenders—the Cadillac CTS-V, the Lexus RC F, Mazda MX-5 Miata Clubsport and the Mercedes-AMG C63 S—and share track impressions from professional race car driver Randy Pobst.
The original CTS-V was a breath of fresh air from stuffy Cadillac, but the second-generation car truly solidified its performance credentials and its place among the world’s best luxury sport sedans. This third-generation car builds on that reputation with a lighter, better chassis and even more power.
There’s still a supercharged V-8 under the bulging hood, but these days it’s a 640-hp monster with 630 lb-ft of torque. A GM-built, eight-speed, paddle-shifted automatic is your only transmission choice this time. It sends power to an electronically controlled limited-slip differential, which redirects it out to the rear wheels.
The all-new chassis is lighter than anything else in the class and augmented by the latest-generation magnetorheological shock absorbers. Holding things back are six-piston Brembo brakes up front and four-piston binders in the rear. To top it all off, the CTS-V’s Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires are custom-designed for this car.
“The big challenge for me in driving this car was trying to decide whether or not to use the PTM, Performance Traction Management, in its least invasive mode, Mode Five, they call it, which is only traction control. So what I ended up doing was that I decided to go out all natural, go commando, and drive the car as is with no controls whatsoever, and I found that the torque is enough to lightly spin the tires in a lot of the corners, especially second gear, like here in Turn 11. But it was an enjoyable experience. I liked it. It took a lot of brake effort. To stop the CTS fast, I have to push really hard, and while I was driving in my two laps, it got longer. It is definitely generating a lot of heat in the brakes and in the tires, and the second time around, I switched the modes going down the front straight, which took about five of the right buttons, and I decided that the best place to drive the CTS-V is the marriage of man and machine, driving it properly and smoothly, and with the control on, that brought the best result. It’s a really exciting, high-performance luxury car and also still kind of big and heavy for the track. It’s not a Corvette yet.
Lexus had an important decision to make. The company had established its performance cred with the IS F sedan and LFA supercar, but both were on the way out. The new RC F coupe (and sometime in the future, the GS F sedan) would carry the mantle. That’s a lot of pressure on one car to perform. The decision, then, was how to get there: stick with the IS F’s tried-and-true, naturally aspirated V-8 formula, or jump on the turbocharging craze?
Lexus, as you probably know, decided to keep it old school with a hot-rodded, naturally aspirated, 5.0-liter V-8. Hopped up from IS F trim, the RC F’s motor puts down 467 hp and 389 lb-ft of torque with a snarl only a naturally aspirated engine can achieve.
Helping it put down the power are an improved, paddle-shifted eight-speed automatic and electronically controlled, torque-vectoring limited-slip differential. On the corners, Lexus fitted an upgraded IS F suspension with fixed dampers and bigger Brembo brakes.
“The handling still needs to go to finishing school. It’s a difficult car to drive fast because its characteristics are different in every corner. It’s not predictable. I don’t know whether I’m going to get oversteer when I arrive down there or understeer. The shift program is also not right. Something is not right. I wasn’t shifting it manually, and maybe I should have, but I got the impression doing a warm-up in it that we’d be OK. But it just kept doing weird things in the shift program that slowed it down.”
For 25 years, the Miata has defined the roadster. Long after the British gave up on a winning formula, Mazda continues to carry the banner in the face of changing tastes and regulations. As a result, the best-selling roadster of all time has been forced to adapt to these challenges, and that’s often resulted in gains in size and curb weight, but not this time.
This time, Mazda’s gone back to the Miata’s genesis. Everything that has been done has been done in the name of reducing weight and improving driver engagement. The new car is hundreds of pounds lighter, nearly the same weight as the original. Its exterior dimensions, too, have shrunk, and it’s actually shorter front-to-rear than the original. The driver and passenger, meanwhile, sit lower than the previous car and closer to the center, and the engine sits lower and farther rearward.
Under the hood is 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 155 hp and 148 lb-ft, the former of which is lower than the last-generation car. Thanks to the weight loss, though, this car sports a roughly 5 percent better power-to-weight ratio. This Club model doesn’t get any more power, but it does get BBS wheels, Brembo brakes, stiffer dampers, and a limited-slip differential.
“The impression I have is softness, really a soft car, lots of body roll that happens quickly so it has to be driven like this: A light touch on the steering, light touch on the brakes, and the better I got at that, the faster the car went and the better it all felt. Surprisingly fast, to tell you the truth. When you hear 155 horsepower, you don’t think that’s much, but it goes good in the lower gears. And I got some brake fade, which surprised me. I did not expect brake fade. It meant the pedal was pretty low and hard to match revs—some ugly downshifts. Great shifter, quick and fast. The Miata’s defined by its lightness, very much in the traditional sports car sense of an MG, Triumph Spitfire from before I was a kid even. It’s that kind of car. Not a great lap time, but a great enjoyment. Fun car.”
While everyone was watching the Cadillac versus BMW fight for sport luxury sedan superiority, Mercedes-Benz, long known for fast cars that handled well but not great, cooked up an absolutely wicked C63.
Competing here in S Model trim, the C63 S belts out 503 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque thanks to 17.4 psi of boost from twin turbochargers tucked in the engine’s V for minimal lag. The rear wheels are driven by a retuned AMG Speedshift multi-clutch transmission that shifts like a dual-clutch under pressure. An electronically controlled limited-slip differential and revised rear suspension geometry help put all the power evenly to the comparatively narrow rear tires, even on the S Model.
On the corners, adjustable dampers have three settings that can be selected independent of driving mode. At the front corners only, carbon-ceramic brakes are optional on S Models.
“The engine does not feel like a turbo 4.0-liter. It feels like a normally aspirated 7.0-liter, and that’s delicious power immediately upon opening your throttle. Good, strong carbon brakes, dead stable, stops well, goes into a bit of an understeer. It’s to get kind of a little push maybe from being a long sedan with a front engine that makes me have to wait to get the car turned and pointed toward the apex and then roll into the power. You’ve got to be a little gentle because of all of that torque. You can brake the rear wheels of this, but the power goes to the ground. It’s a nice package in a seriously muscular and almost brutal performing sedan.”