Porformance shootout 2021 Day 2
The last day on many of our Western Cape road trips is always a mixed bag. Admittedly, much of the drive towards Saldanha was an uneventful montage of arid countryside but we occasionally marvelled at the suicidal attempts of overly ambitious bakkie and rental car drivers to overtake. We were mentally preparing for the windswept evening shoot at the air field but this year we were thrown a wonderful curveball of a detour to a gem of a mountain pass in this otherwise flat part of the Cape.
Fuelled up and happily having caused a stir in the usually sleepy Piketberg, we headed into the hills just north of the town to a date with Versfeld Pass. Visit Google Maps and trace the line of the first road branching off the R366. You will marvel at the straight line of unbelievable elevation change that erupts into a series of switchbacks and high-speed curves. This pass gave the recuperated GT4 and A45 the opportunity to impress that they were so cruelly denied on Gydo Pass. And they didn’t disappoint.
The combination of limpet-like grip from its AWD system and power that is frankly ludicrous for a hatchback made the A45 an enthralling mountain-pass machine. Despite its all-paw underpinnings, the Mercedes proved impressively pointy in the bends and resistant to the usually wide-tracking nose that afflicts many powerful AWD cars. The exhalations and smiles pasted across the faces of those freshly emerged from the hyper hatch after a blast down the pass were testimony to its formidable turn of pace on such a challenging stretch of road.
The A45 wasn’t the only AWD car to impress on the pass, though. Initially viewed as a joker in the pack, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q quietly proved a hit with many members of the team. On paper, the seemingly unholy marriage of that marvellous twinturbo V6 and SUV frame looked as though it would join the Jeep in the ranks of the also-rans. Yet, with every flyby – punctuated by a six-cylinder howl and percussive cracks from the exhaust accompanying every gearshift – the Italian’s pilot decanted smiling at the end of the run; genuinely impressed at its agility. We were similarly sceptical of the portly F-Type but that 423 kW sledgehammer of a supercharged V8 seemed to dissolve the 1 800 kg weight penalty. Granted, with its light steering and soft suspension, it’s more of a long-legged tourer than mountain-pass-tackling sportscar but the big cat still managed to entertain on the tightly winding road up the mountain.
Then came the GT4’s chance to shine. Few cars have the ability to effortlessly smooth themselves around their pilot like the Cayman and, with the grunt served up by the naturally aspirated 4,0-litre in a deliciously linear fashion, as well as the additional involvement of that wonderful short-throw gearbox, the GT4 takes that immersion factor to another level. The unyielding front-end grip and taut body control conspire with that communicative chassis and pinpoint steering to make swift progress an almost organic (yes, that’s the correct word) driving experience, where the car seems to assimilate its driver.
Some members of the team like to think of the GT4 as a wheeled incarnation of Rassie Erasmus’ Springboks. You might seethe at the effortlessness with which it dispatches challenging roads, rankle at the beautifully crafted cabin and positively tear out your hair at just how balanced the mid-engined layout and precise steering makes the car feel. But you’ve got to give respect where it’s due. Like the World Cup-winning Boks, when falling behind on the scoreboard, the GT4 simply dusted off its earlier clutch-related malady and clawed its way back into the lead.
Our reverie was soon brought to a screeching halt as a police van pulled into the mountaintop layby we had been using as a rallying point on the pass. No doubt, the roar of engines and the odd chirp of tyre squeal from our hard-to-ignore lineup had drawn some attention, but this was the sort of attention we’d rather avoid. For all our love of speed, we are quite a sensible bunch and always take road safety into account when testing but the approach of a pair of small-town officers made us slightly nervous.
Their smiles and interest in the cars were an unexpected but welcome relief. There hadn’t been any complaints, just some officers interested in the procession of cars spearing up the pass and keen to have a closer look. Nicol and Wilhelm (both skilled drivers) happily obliged and took the lawmen for a couple of runs along the pass in the Supra and Mustang. They emerged each time laughing and ebullient. It was great to see local law enforcement taking such a positive stance with what we were doing. Okay, a couple of us were sure we saw the officer riding with Nicol holstering his sidearm and he cheerily explained he’d kept a hold on his weapon as a safety precaution in the face of the cars’ swerving and braking… we’re not entirely sure that even such a gesture would curtail Nicol’s enthusiasm on a mountain pass!
Another casualty of the hill climb had quietly emerged. The overheating Spitfire had gone into limp mode and it signalled the end of our time on the pass and the start of our drive to Saldanha.
The day-closing photoshoot at Saldanha airfield has traditionally been cold and windswept; something to be endured before retreating to the hotel for dinner. In a Performance Shootout first, our arrival at the strip was met with a light breeze ruffling the tawny grass either side of the runway. We quickly washed the vehicles and lined up in formation for our dramatic cover shoot. Such calm wasn’t to last, though. As the tail end of the shoot approached, so did the weather. An ominous bank of cloud devoured the seaward horizon and inexorably made its sodden way towards us. With daylight fading and the cover shoot in the bag, we headed for our overnight stop in Saldanha. We were crossing every available digit that the following day wouldn’t be a complete washout.