Mercedes-AMG GT S, BMW M4 GTS, Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R, McLaren 570S
Of our four signature events, there’s little argument among our editors as to which is most fun. Yeah, Car, Truck, and SUV of the Year are rewarding in their own right, but there’s really nothing quite like Best Driver’s Car—especially this year.
For our 2016 Best Driver’s Car competition, we’ve got 12 sports cars, supercars, and ponycars from all over the world competing for our Best Driver’s Car title. Our 2016 Best Driver’s Car may not necessarily be the quickest in a straight line or pull the most g on the figure eight, but it’ll damn sure be the most rewarding and most fun car to drive.
2017 Mercedes-AMG GT S
The second hit is always the hardest. Last year, the impressive Mercedes-AMG GT S wowed us judge types enough to take home the gold. We named it our 2015 Motor Trend Best Driver’s Car. This year we invited the champ back to have another go and defend its crown. For the record, we always offer the previous year’s winner an opportunity to repeat. Sometimes they come back. Sometimes they don’t.
The AMG GT S is back, and the 503-horsepower rocket that’s “straight outta Affalterbach” (to quote AMG’s social media campaign) remains largely unchanged. Under the imposing hood sits the same excellent 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V-8 sending power via the same torque tube to the same rear-mounted seven-speed dual-clutch transaxle.
New for this year is an aero package. The front end gets a splitter that flows up into what are effectively canards jutting out just below the headlights. Out back you’ll find a wing, though we should note that it’s going to be generating more wing envy than downforce once the crazed AMG GT R makes its debut.
The AMG has a macho feel. It feels big and strong and capable. Like a linebacker, not a running back, with a wide powerband and no sense of turbo lag on track. Very satisfying engine—I just love the engine. The gearbox, I can’t quite get it to be completely intuitive on the racetrack the way Porsche’s PDK is. I ran in full automatic, and I think I prefer this car in full manual. However, with a limited number of laps I was given as Best Driver’s Car, automatic was the way to go. Brakes were really strong. Great bite. A little bit less bite later in the run. I’d say the pedal was a little longer, not quite the awe-inspiring bite from early on. The car is very firm. I ran it in the Race mode, but it still soaked up the worst bump on Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, which is over in Turn 6. The AMG soaked it up with a single motion, down and up, no bouncing. It didn’t upset the car. I was able to go back to power sooner in Turn 6 in the GT S than in most other cars in spite of the fact that the GT S is very, very powerful. It has a big, fat steering wheel, and the front end of the car turns in nicely, even under braking without over rotating. The only time I ever over-rotated the car was in Turn 11, and a little bit on the Corkscrew, going to power in low gear. I think what it did was go all the way down to second, and the torque and the boost coming in was just monstrous in that low gear, and it was too much. I had to be very careful feeding that power back. I was able to drive very clean lines, some beautiful drifts. It just made me smile. Made me feel like a hero. The interior quality is extremely high. I feel like I’m in a car that’s as expensive as anything on the market, regardless of the price. It’s rewarding in that way. Last year’s winner, I still love it, and it’s even better with the aero package. Not a huge improvement, but every step forward is a positive step.
2016 BMW M4 GTS
Those in the know are fully aware of what this rare car’s deal is. For example, we bumped into Charlie in a parking lot one evening. He spotted the unmistakable combination of the carbon-fiber rear spoiler, Frozen Dark Grey metallic paint, and organic-LED taillights (BMW claims the lights are the first for any series-produced vehicle) and immediately knew what was up.
Working as a service adviser at an area BMW dealership may have helped, but still.
The BMW M4 GTS has go to go with all the show. It leans on a lightweighting strategy and adjustable suspension and aerodynamics. The twin-turbo, 3.0-liter inline-six comes with water injection, always a conversation starter. With 493 horsepower, the I-6 is 16 percent more powerful than the conventional M4’s and much livelier than the old Oldsmobile Jetfire V-8. When it comes to consumables, the GTS’ requisite distilled H2O will probably be easier on the wallet than Olds’ Turbo-Rocket Fluid, too.
“I found the M4 to be a really enjoyable car on the track. Handles way more, handles way better than in the street car form. So it’s a real genuine step forward for the car. It can be driven really hard. It is stable. It has significant understeer in the middle of the corner, which actually kind of surprised me. And then it frees up and gets really neutral on your power. And it has good power, and I found that I had to be a little careful in second gear because it had enough power to easily spin the tires, which I did on my first lap. Came out of Turn 11 sideways, but after that, by just being gentle and kind of smart with the throttle, the BMW put power down well. It did the same thing in third and fourth gear, and away we went. Really enjoyable driving experience. The car is tight. There’s no sense of body roll or, you know, flopping or any of those kind of street car feelings you get on a track. Not here in the M4 GTS. It is well-damped. It transfers the weight slowly and under control. Which is what you want, by the way. The exhaust note is so odd how when you lift it burps.”
2016 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R
Ford has made several handling-focused Mustangs over the years, but none have held the promise of the Shelby GT350R. From engine to suspension to body to interior, you’d think each element and development decision came from Stuttgart, not Dearborn.
There’s the high-revving V-8 with a flat-plane crank that makes 526 horsepower and 429 lb-ft of torque. There’s the industry-first application of lightweight carbon-fiber wheels on a car produced in high volumes. There are the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires and large Brembo brakes. There are the MagneRide dampers, which use the same tech you see on Ferraris and Corvettes. There’s the absence of a back seat.
Moreover, there’s the fact that Ford has built a sports car capable of challenging the world’s finest on road and track. Perhaps more important, the GT350R is a car that you can no longer cast aside with the phrase “muscle car.”
Ladies and gentlemen, meet your new Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R sales rep. Buy one. You will not go wrong. I am in love with this car. It just works: the level of control, the balance, the stability without understeer.
The engine, it’s not as smooth as I would have thought from a flat-plane crank. I mean, I’ve driven the Ferraris, and they’re so smooth, but the GT350R has its own unique firing order and sound. And the powerband is just extremely satisfying. It’s making a ton of torque at 4,500 rpm, and it’s making more and more and more power all the way to 8,000 rpm. It makes it very satisfying to drive.
The brakes were so strong. This is like a good archetype for how brakes should be for me, on a track car anyway. The pedal remains firm. There’s not a lot of travel in the pedal, so it has a very quick response and a lot of bite, a lot of immediate bite. So when I go from full throttle to the brake on the straightaway, I get to full braking very rapidly. And I just love that kind of response.
2016 McLaren 570S
If there’s anything the modern McLaren road car is known for, it’s advanced aerodynamic and chassis-control technology. From the 12C to the 650S, 675LT, and P1, today’s McLarens are loaded with active suspension and aerodynamic elements. Except for this one. The all-new McLaren 570S is the back-to-basics entry-level car.
Of course, any car designed to go head-to-head with the Ferrari 488, Lamborghini Huracán, Audi R8, and Porsche 911 Turbo is anything but basic. Nestled low behind the new second-generation, carbon-fiber passenger cell is the tried-and-true M838T E twin-turbo, 3.8-liter V-8. Detuned for the Little Mac, it makes just 562 horsepower and 443 lb-ft. Just. It’s metered to the rear wheels via McLaren’s seven-speed twin-clutch automatic and an open differential controlled by a sophisticated brake-based torque-vectoring system.
Still, the 570S leaves a few party tricks at home. No active rear wing, just carefully honed body panels. No active anti-roll bars or adaptive dampers, just meticulously tuned fixed components. Of course, there’s always McLaren’s stability control supercomputer at the ready, but it can be placated by way of the Active Panel and Track or full-off settings. Take it too far, and massive carbon-ceramic brakes are there to catch you.
“For a two-wheel drive, it’s unbelievable. It’s so good at putting power down. The traction is so strong, and it just feels so powerful. It was a nice piece, but I just had to be a little careful entering, and that took some of the fun out of it. I like the steering a lot. It’s just that tendency of the rear to want to walk out in the corner of the entry phase. It felt like I was slow at the apex because of the entry oversteer, like I had to settle it and just lay it in there gently and then drive it off. And it drove off so beautifully. The corner entries were just loose enough to make me think about it and make me a little bit careful, and I don’t like being a little bit careful when I drive. And what maybe would have helped that would have been to go back to power a lot sooner, which is against my genetic makeup. It’s like the rear of the car wants to have some load, which is why a little early power would help it.”