IS there a more perfect car than Porsche’s evergreen 911? In terms of performance, handling, driver feedback, style, build quality and useability, little can match its all-round appeal.
But it is not just the 911’s on-road abilities which set it apart. One of the most important aspects of owning a supercar is the way it makes you feel, and no matter how grumpy you are when you wake up in the morning, simply looking out of the window and seeing a 911 on your drive will lift the worst of moods.
And that’s the great thing about the 911. It’s a supercar you can use every day.
Despite its driver-focused orientation, it’s not daunting. You can drive it on the morning commute in the same way as you would a more regular car and it won’t protest. There’ll be no petulant spluttering or coughing as you would find in other, more highly strung supercars.
But once a gap opens up in the traffic, you can bury the accelerator pedal and revel in a glorious harmony of flat-six warble which becomes more and more metallic and hard-edged as the 7,000rpm red line approaches.
This massive flexibility marks the 911’s engine out as something special. And even in ‘basic’ Carrera form (the wider-bodied S versions add 29bhp over the stock version’s 321bhp) the 911 is searingly quick – top speed is 174mph and 0-62mph comes up in a fraction over five seconds.
But just as impressive as the black and white performance figures is the way the 911 lets you delve into its portfolio of talents. The chassis is a triumph, especially when you consider the engine is slung out over the rear axle, and allied to deft suspension it rides and handles staggeringly well at all speeds.
Don’t get the impression that it’s a soft rider though, as it’s not. The ride is firm at all times, and very stiff when the suspension is switched to Sport setting.
But this allows you to revel in the most staggeringly tactile steering, with every minor input translating into action at the front wheels.
And in the recently-released Carrera 4 guise (4 for four-wheel drive) the 911 can make alarmingly quick progress even when road conditions are slimy. And as at least a third of the year sees Britain’s roads covered in grease and grime, the 911’s talents can shine all year round.
Engine: 3.6-litre flat-six
Power: 321bhp @ 6,800rpm
Top speed: 174mph
0-62mph: 5.1 seconds
Can you use it every day?
Definitely. With four-wheel drive and a surfeit of grip, the 911 in Carrera 4 guise can exploit its potential for the majority of the time. It can dawdle happily in traffic and then thrill when the road opens out in front of you. You can even fit the kids in the back.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX FQ320
MITSUBISHI’S latest Lancer Evolution offers similar power and four-wheel drive to the 911 Carrera 4.
But that’s where the similarity ends. Rather than using a large capacity six-cylinder engine to produce 300bhp-plus, the Evo IX uses a highly-strung 2.0-litre turbo four to deliver that figure.
And the differences on the road are just as pronounced. Where the 911 has a fruity howl, the Evo’s engine just screams. Where the 911’s suspension is firm but compliant, the Evo’s is just plain bloody harsh. Where the 911 rewards precise cornering and well executed gearchanges, the Evo just treads over all delicateness and thumps itself forward with ruthless efficiency, using its immense turbocharged grunt to power away while letting the complex four-wheel drive and traction systems sort out wheelspin or understeer.
The amount of power from the 2.0-litre engine is, frankly, ridiculous. You feel this the first time the road is empty enough to floor the throttle.
You can feel the anger building up under the bonnet as the turbocharger spools up and then tries to savage the road ahead, clawing it back beneath the Evo’s bespoilered front bumper with savage intent.
And then you hit an imperfection in the road and you feel as though someone’s just whacked you on the bottom with a shovel. The ride is so firm and the suspension so unremitting that you really need to pilot a course by looking well ahead at the road and avoiding anything which may force the suspension to react.
Obviously you won’t get 911 levels of quality in a car which costs less than half as much, but the Evo is equally fast. It’s just nowhere near as rewarding to drive.
Engine: 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder
Power: 330bhp @ 6,700rpm
Top speed: 157mph (limited)
0-62mph: 4.5 seconds
Can you use it every day?
Probably not. If the harsh ride doesn’t damage your back, then the 4,500-mile service intervals will do for your wallet instead. At least the Mitsubishi is a practical four-door saloon with a useable amount of room for four adults and a decent boot.
I WAS shocked when I found out Frank Bough was into drink, drugs and kinky sex. And John Major’s affair with Edwina Currie rattled me for a while.
Call me Steve Naive but I tend to take things that look respectable at face value and don’t notice the madness boiling within.
Fortunately though, I was prepared for the M5 even though on face value, the conservatively-coloured burgundy car sitting in the car park looked like any other respectable, executive saloon.
Only some extra side skirting, small badges, bigger wheels, and four tailpipes hint at the M5’s £63,000 wild side. Most would not even notice the manic glare in its eyes. Jump in and start it up and the M5 chugs quietly to itself like any other 5-series.
Select Drive, press the accelerator and off you go. I have to say I found it a rather humdrum experience. But once I found a straight bit of road, a gentle prod of the accelerator turned this home counties executive into a 400bhp raving Ibiza party animal.
The M5 is staggeringly quick, and the engine turns from sensible to stellar immediately. The howl of the 5.0-litre V10 as the revs rise is one of the great automotive noises.
But, I discover, this is only half the story. Pressing a little steering wheel-mounted button with an M on it is equivalent to poking an already angry bear with a big pointy stick.
The car twitches under your foot as the throttle mapping changes and the amazing engine releases a further 107bhp, taking the tally to 507bhp.
Also, a head-up display appears, complete with speed, gear and rev counter, while the speed of the gearchanges sharpen noticeably – so much so you need to use the paddles to keep it smooth.
Now imagine an angry bear on jet-powered roller skates, being prodded repeatedly with a red hot poker. You’re not even close.
In each of its seven gears (with 11 different gearchange settings – for what I never quite discovered), the M5 is relentless. It will do 0-62mph in 4.7 seconds – especially if you select the launch control system – but this really doesn’t do justice to its performance.
At about 4,000rpm, with another 4,250rpm to go, the car properly wakes up and dives for the future.
I picked it up on a Monday, and by the time I was into fifth gear we were in January. And while the M5 was performing feats of time travel, I was sat happily in my 5-series saloon, twiddling with the radio, relaxing, wondering why the leaves were leaping back on the trees.
And once you have decided you quite like to go back and see Christmas, slow down, and return to the here and now, the M5 puts its Pringle jumper back on, pats its hair down and returns to being a sensible family saloon.
It is a staggering feat of engineering, a supercar to take samples to a sales meeting, a family saloon to smash records round the Nurburgring. It makes Frank Bough look quite tame.
Engine: 5.0-litre V10 Power: 507bhp @ 7,750rpm Top speed: 155mph (limited) 0-62mph: 4.7 seconds Price: £62,705 Exclusivity: 9/10 Luxury: 7/10 Performance: 10/10
Can you use it every day? Absolutely. Depending on what mood you’re in when you get behind the wheel, you can choose from the full-on 507bhp with neck-snappingly quick gear changes, or simply leave the M5 in fully-automatic, 400bhp mode and simply cruise along.
Mercedes-Benz SLK55 AMG
MERCEDES-BENZ AMG is the widest range of performance cars in the world. They are almost always unashamedly brash, with wonderful hand-built engines and a powerlust – the more horsepower, the better.
And we’ve chosen, for our fast fleet, a sensible low-end of the range car with a reasonable amount of power and some car park cache.
The SLK55 AMG, at only £50,555, falls some way below the top end Mercedes SLR McLaren at £313,540, but only a couple of thousand pounds above the entry-level C-class model. We’ve been very restrained, I think you will agree.
The hand-built 5.5-litre V8 is one of Mercedes-Benz and AMG’s most famous engines, and sees service from the C-class right up to the McLaren in various power outputs.
In the SLK, it has 360bhp – some way short of the 626bhp in the £300,000 SLR.
But while it may not have the same earth-shattering punch, it does have much of the same character – huge torque and that wonderfully fast, loud, gobbling growl.
It is in cars like this where Mercedes-Benz’s 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic gearbox really gets to show off.
It does have a manual override, but there is no point using it because leaving the gearbox to change itself results in fast, precise and seamless shifts. It is always in the right gear, which is more than can be said for BMW’s DSG ’box when left to its own devices.
Performance is phenomenal: 62mph from standstill is dispatched in under five seconds, while the brilliant gearbox and huge pulling ability give it an explosive feel.
But what really impresses as much as the way it goes is the way it stops. The stopping power of the huge composite brake discs (optional on our test car) is immense, and takes your breath away.
Once warm, they will grind the car to halt in lengths that seem to be impossible. And this is not a light car for its relatively small size, weighing in at a hefty 1,500kg – the same as a large saloon.
Although it is near untouchable in a straight line, the 55 AMG is not especially confidence-inspiring when the wheel is turned.
Pull away without all four tyres pointing in the same direction and the back will spit, resulting in huge amount of traction control intervention to keep it heading in the desired direction.
And while I have no doubt that the SLK55 AMG has grip far above the levels of my bravery and skill, the steering is not really as communicative as you would find in a Porsche 911.
The folding roof system is a work of engineering art, while the cabin is beautifully appointed. The carbon fibre handbrake and door handles are especially exquisite.
Although the SLK is more macho than the old one, I’m not sure about the looks, especially with all the added AMG scoops, wings and skirts. The nose is a bit sneery and contrived to look like an F1 car, and up against the clean lines of a 911, it looks try-hard.
That’s the problem with cars at the bottom of ranges, I suppose.
Engine: 5.5-litre V8
Power: 360bhp @ 5,750rpm
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
0-62mph: 4.9 seconds
Can you use it every day?
Yes, through rain and shine. With its folding metal hard top, the SLK can be either a cosy two-seater coupe or a wind-in-the-hair roadster. Boot space isn’t huge, though, and with the roof retracted it is only big enough for a couple of soft bags.