Top 10 best hardcore sports cars 2021
Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren… they all want to have best hardcore sports car. We've tested them all to determine which one takes the accolade
Welcome to true-blue petrolhead territory. This is where incredible outright grip and pace, vivid driver engagement and thrill, supreme handling poise and track-day-ready specification and purpose all abide. You’ll like it here.
The cars we’re saluting are genuine immortals of speed and excitement. Some of them are so exciting, in fact, that they don’t really belong on the road at all — although all are road-legal with numberplates. But all are cars you’d be in the market for if you wanted a money-no-object track-day tool to enjoy through the summer months — and something you could drive home in afterwards.
Here, we rank both current production machines as well as those that have gone off sale but have yet to be replaced; because these kinds of cars don’t come along often, don’t stay around for long, and the best remain relevant long after they’ve disappeared from the sales brochures.
To chart 10 of these cars without counting those that are technically defunct would be to deny some amazing driver’s cars the recognition they’re undoubtedly due. But which are due the most?
-1. McLaren 765 LT-
The latest model in McLaren's special 'Longtail' series is not without its flaws, but as an explosive tour de force in the upper echelons of the 'trackday supercar' world, it takes some beating.
For one thing, the effort and expense that has gone into the 765 LT deserves recognition. Removing weight from something as light as the 720S is no mean feat, and has necessitated extreme measures such as the use of titanium wheel nuts and thinner glazing, which help save 80kg in total and give the car's powertrain frighteningly little to hold it back. That powertrain consists of McLaren's 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 – what else? – only tuned to 755bhp for this application and with a shorter final drive, for truly neck-snapping acceleration.
However, where the LT really departs from the dynamic template set down by the 720S concerns its more flighty balance and limit-handling. Simply, the car wants to play, and is probably the most entertaining car that McLaren has ever built. It'll take some yaw at all stages of the corner, perhaps sacrificing some speed in the process, but it's this combination of dynamism with McLaren's hallmark steering and sense of levity that makes the driving experience so memorable. The catch? The 765 LT isn't so easily mastered, so drivers need to show their mettle.
-*Save money with new 720S deals from What Car?*-
-2. Porsche 911 GT3-
The supreme hardcore focus, track-day hardiness, handling brilliance, driver involvement and performance value of the Porsche 911 GT3 make it a car that absolutely demands recognition. It has become the default answer to any number of questions a newly inducted petrolhead might ask about which car they should buy to maximise return on investment for speed, excitement and driver reward. The only fly in the ointment is that, these days, everyone knows it — and so GT3s have become highly sought after.
Though visually shoutier than before, the 992 GT3 still isn’t a machine that advertises its brilliance particularly loudly on paper. The car’s 503bhp 4.0-litre flat-six makes it look a bit outgunned in this company, and even in Porsche’s own model range there are several 911s with greater claimed power and outright accelerative performance. But no rival has the GT3’s blend of pace, grip, balance and usefully positioned weight; none has the all-round dynamic precision and outstanding controllability needed at once to set blistering laptimes and set your imagination racing on track.
Our only reservation about this latest 992-series version is that it seems to have been positioned more deliberately as a track car, rather than something that's also very comfortable on the road, and it therefore encroaches on the upcoming GT3 RS's position in the range even before that flagship model has been announced. Overall, the GT3 is not quite as well-rounded as the 991-vintage car, in our opinion.
However, the big picture is that through four generations and as many mid-cycle revisions, the GT3 has got better and better since the very first one appeared in 1999. Counting some very closely related GT3 derivative offshoots, it has won Autocar’s annual Britain’s Best Driver’s Car contest four times. Porsche 911s of various types have won it seven times. For the record, no other sports car in three decades of competition has won it more than twice.
*Save money with new 911 deals from What Car?*
-3. McLaren 600 LT-
Regular readers of Autocar might be somewhat surprised to see the McLaren 600 LT slide into third place on this list after being crowned Britain’s Best Driver’s Car for 2018. Make no mistake, the McLaren is a visceral, highly engaging and beautifully balanced hardcore sports car that works sublimely on both road and track; but the fact it doesn’t pip the Porsche here just goes to show how highly we regard the outgoing 911 GT3 and the ferocious new 765 LT.
The 600 LT is based on the fantastic 570S, and is the third ‘Longtail’ model launched by McLaren Automotive. Power has been hiked by 30bhp to 592bhp courtesy of a freer-breathing exhaust, the springs are significantly stiffer, its dampers have been retuned, and aggressive new body work now sees it generate even more downforce at speed. As with any track-honed special, it’s been stripped out too. In its lightest spec (no air-con, no nose lift, no stereo etc) it weighs 1247kg dry (less than even the 620R).
The resulting package really is something special indeed; one that steers with the tactile sweetness and accuracy that McLaren has become renowned for, while also now being faster, grippier and more aurally rewarding than ever before. Top work, McLaren – not onto whatever trackday hero you're going to spin off the V6-hybrid Artura.
*Save money with new 570S deals from What Car?*
-4. Ferrari 488 Pista-
Here are the headline stats: 710bhp, 568 lb ft, 1359kg, zero to 62mph in 2.85sec and a price tag of £252,765 - before options. In short, the 488 Pista is a truly serious piece of kit. And an effective one, to boot.
At our Britain’s Best Driver’s Car 2018 shoot out, the successor to the phenomenal 458 Speciale was the fastest car to lap the Anglesey Coastal Circuit, with a time of 1min 11.4sec - 1.7sec quicker than the McLaren 600 LT.
This is a car that’s seemingly defined by immediacy. Turn the wheel and the front end responds with the agility of a pursued hare. Pull one of the steering column-mounted columns and the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic ‘box will swap cogs faster than you can blink. And if you’re brave enough to extend all of the throttle’s travel, you’ll find yourself catching up on the horizon at an alarming rate of pace. Given the Pista’s immence potency, it’d be easy to write it off as being a handful on track, but the reality is that it’s one of the most balanced, adjustable and flattering cars you can buy.
That it’s not quite as adept at making the most of its abilities on the road as the road as the McLaren 600 LT sees it slide into fourth place here. But it’s an incredibly narrow gap that separates very differently tuned rivals.
*Save money with new 488 deals from What Car?*
-5. Porsche 911 GT2 RS-
This is where the world’s best-loved sports car gets a bit silly. There has never been a faster or more powerful 911 than the 690bhp, 211mph GT2 RS. This uber-911 seeks to combine the involving track focus of the GT3 RS with a level of torque and sheer brute force performance that even a 911 Turbo S struggles to match, with the latter channelled through one driven axle rather than two. It’s quite a mission statement — and, if only by Porsche’s own high standards, it’s not entirely successfully delivered upon.
But such a tiny detail needn’t necessarily come between any GT2 RS owner and the appreciation of what remains a staggeringly compelling driver’s car, because the GT2 RS is remarkably good at keeping its ridiculousness largely in check most of the time, unleashing it only when you want it to. The car uses 21in rear wheels and 325-section tyres to transmit its venom to the Tarmac. It has carbon-ceramic brakes as standard and a suspension set-up even more specialised than that of a GT3 RS.
And yet, unlike almost any other 911 GT2 there has ever been, it knows how to behave itself when the occasion calls for it. At other times? It’s ballistic; not without turbo lag (how could it be?) but still remarkably responsive and linear, and as fast as a hypercar in full cry. It’s also approachable and obedient on a track, for the most part. It doesn’t feel like it’s hardwired into your synapses like a GT3 and doesn’t involve to quite the same extent. Even so, there’s nothing else quite like it.
*Save money with new 911 deals from What Car?*
-6. Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series-
Carrying more motorsport technology than any production machine in Mercedes-AMG’s history, the old GT R was Affalterbach’s big swipe at the golden boy of its near Stuttgart rival: the Porsche 911 GT3. That it existed at all told you much about AMG’s determination, one day soon, to emerge from the shadows of its world-famous neighbour as a maker of sports cars of equal stature and acclaim.
That emergence comes in the form of the Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series, which appears to be an even hotter version of the GT R, but is in fact quite a different beast altogether. The sixth Black Series model is 35kg lighter than the GT R, shares plenty of genuine aero-knowhow with Mercedes-AMG's GT3 cars (in fact, the same chap who developed the aero package for the racers also did this road-legal car) and is the new Nürburgring lap-record holder, displacing the Lamborghini Aventador SVJ. AMG has also revised the twin-turbo V8, switching the rumbling old cross-plane crank for a peakier flat-plane item, and raising power to 720bhp, making this car it's most powerful series-production model. The suspension and interior are also suitably racey, as you'd expect.
However, what makes the Black Series such a revelation – even at £335,000 – and what allows AMG to encroach on Porsche GT turf more than ever before, is the confidence this car inspries. As Matt Prior gushed, 'you can drive the cracker off the Black Series, feel involved and bonded into the process and, at the end of it, it's likely to have lapped about five seconds slwoer than a full-fat GT3 race car.'
*Save money with new GT deals from What Car?*
-7. Lamborghini Huracán Performante-
Having until quite recently been the fastest production car in history to lap the Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit, the Lamborghini Huracán Performante is also one of the fastest car we’ve ever timed around our benchmark dry handling circuit, around which every performance car that’s subject to a full Autocar road test is driven.
That makes the 630bhp, extra-lightweight, four-wheel drive Lambo quicker, corner by corner, than a McLaren P1, a Porsche 918 Spyder and a Bugatti Veyron Supersport; that's proof of how much grip, incisiveness, poise and precision Sant’Agata has engineering into a Huracán chassis, which wasn’t class-leading in any of those respects in standard form. Very little will prepare you for the baleful, red-blooded howl of this car’s naturally aspirated V10 engine as it rips past 8000rpm, or the savagery of every upshift of its twin-clutch gearbox.
In an era of turbocharged opponents, the Huracán’s rapier-sharp engine really is to be embraced and savoured. But, in this Huracán, the handling balance and confidence you’ll unearth once the car’s incredible Pirelli Trofeo R tyres are warmed up can at last approach the same kind of brilliance as the powertrain.
The Huracán has almost unrivalled supercar presence and sense of occasion, not to mention all that bleeding soul. As an object of desire, its appeal is multifaceted; you won’t find better-looking carbonfibre anywhere else in the world. As a driver’s car, it only lacks that last degree of throttle-on poise and interactivity of the best of its rivals.
*Save money with new Huracán deals from What Car?*
-8. Lamborghini Aventador SVJ-
Mentioning the word ‘jota’ in the company of a well-read supercar aficionado will always produce a wobbly-kneed reaction. The first one was Lamborghini’s test driver Bob Wallace’s pet project to up the performance level of the legendary Miura and to make the car ready for FIA sports car racing. There was only ever one prototype built, and it burnt to a cinder before it could sire a very special limited-edition production run.
The Aventador SVJ is only the second Lamborghini since Wallace’s Miura to wear the ‘jota’ nameplate (which is what the J suffix stands for). It is also a tribute to the firm’s all-important and totally inimitable lineage of big, mid-engined, twelve-cylinder, harem-scarem supercars, which included the Diablo, Murcielago, Countach and Miura – and which is due to be transformed somewhat with the Aventador replacement, since the firm is set to change the recipe of its bigger series-production supercar by adding electrification.
Big, wide, heavy and searingly rapid, this is a car demanding physical effort, bodily compromise and plenty of commitment to drive to its fullest. A cramped and quite dated cabin will test your enthusiasm first; after that, the violence of the car’s full bore gear changes, the savagery of its outright pace and the intensity of the concentration needed to find the limit of its grip level are your next challenges to overcome.Negotiate all, however, and the Aventador SVJ gives a driving experience of almost unmatched rawness and attitude. Wrestling it to a fast lap is a more rewarding experience than you’ll find almost anywhere, in a era in which the business of going fast is being made ever easier.
Like your hardcore thrills physically testing and deliciously old-school in flavour? This Lambo is in a league of one.
-9. Lotus Exige Cup 430-
This is nothing less than the quickest street-legal production car that Lotus has ever made. Significantly modified from Hethel’s Sport 380 specification, the Cup 430 has a supercharged V6 engine good for 430bhp and shared with the Evora GT430; but it run-out 'Final Edition' spec it weighs just 1098kg without fluids, making it good for a claimed 0-62mph sprint of 3.2sec. Top speed is 174mph, in a car that also makes hundreds of kilograms of downforce, so it's capable of lapping Lotus’s home test track more than a second quicker than the car it replaces.
On road or track, the Cup 430 feels ferociously fast and intensely engaging to a level that no modern Lotus has previously reached. It’s a car without Hethel’s usual preference for a supple, breathing road ride, but it has three-way adjustable dampers and adjustable ant-roll bars so can be set up to your preference. In standard setting, it’s certainly firm enough to test your enthusiasm for it; and its cabin is as tight and frippery-free as Exiges have ever been.
On the track, the car’s handling is little short of magnificent. Such a light car doesn’t punish its mechanicals too hard and can be driven hard lap after lap without showing a hint of wilting under pressure. It’s a driving experience that rewards the investment of effort and commitment with vivid excitement, huge speed and handling that’s supremely agile and balanced — albeit quite scary in wet conditions.
Production ends in 2021, hence the introduction of the Final Edition model (regular Cup 430 pictured), so if you want to secure one of the most inimitable trackday cars ever made, and secure one from new, now's the time.
*Save money with new Lotus deals from What Car?*
-10. Nissan GT-R Nismo-
That Nissan can even throw punches in the same category as McLaren shows how well it has developed the GT-R, which has recently reappeared in hardcore Nismo guise some 13 years after the original R35-generation car made it debut.
This latest iteration gets lighter, fast-spooling turbochargers for the 3.7-litre V6, enormous ceramic brakes, unmissable aero addenda (including wheelarch vents) and plenty of carbonfibre in the body. Power remains at 592bhp, but the price has risen to an unseemly £175,000…
The problem, as ever, is that the GT-R is fundamentally a heavy car, and one with a high centre of gravity in relation to everything else here. It scrapes into this list by virtue of its enormous pace and personality, rather than its sense of finesse or, indeed, satisfaction.
*Save money with new GT-R deals from What Car?*