Porformance shootout 2021 Day 1
«That’s an awfully loud car you’ve got there”, grumbled one of the older, seemingly more litigious, members of the apartment complex that associate editor Gareth Dean calls home. They were eyeing the just-garaged Cayman GT4, its exhaust still tinkling from a spirited jaunt. They were well aware of the occasional pre-dawn departures for photoshoots and asked what time he’d be firing up the pipes on this “yellow peril” (the nuances of political correctness clearly undetected here) on Monday morning. Gareth’s answer of 04:30 am was met with much pursing of lips and narrowing of eyes and he sheepishly proffered a plea to the body corporate for understanding and to disband any potential lynch mob upon his return.
The scrum of phone-wielding neighbours around the car in the wake of the body corporate’s announcement proved the public’s love of performance cars largely outweighs any negative sentiment. Not that it made the Porsche’s hollow-chested awakening bark before sunrise on day one any less cringeworthy, nor the nervous glance into the rearview mirror at the sudden winking of lights in the apartment block any more ignominious. The Porsche was hurriedly ushered out of the still-slumbering suburbs.
Such a colourful opening gambit for the GT4 will undoubtedly have some readers sighing and shaking their heads but its journey over the next three days of the Shootout was anything but a cakewalk. Yes, its finely balanced chassis, razor-sharp handling and the eye-widening punch served up by its naturally aspirated, midship flat-six had charmed the slowest member of the CAR team. It was also a career milestone as the first manual Porsche Gareth had encountered in his 14 years at the publication. But, like meeting a celebrity idol only to discover they have bad breath or a personality you can grate cheese on, his patience was wearing thin as the 40- odd minutes of motorway driving on the N1 towards Paarl was accompanied by a boomy, monotone engine note. The prospect of handing over the keys was enticing but not before the team had tackled Du Toitskloof Pass.
The darkness of night gave way to the muted first light as it picked out details of the rocky massif looming over Paarl. The temptation to head straight into the heart of the mountain via the tunnel and crack a window to savour the superbike-like howl of the 4,0-litre flat-six of the GT4 reverberating off the walls – if only to catch a break from its drone-some performance within – was overpowering. However, our rendezvous point on the pass meant we slipped off the N1 and onto the sweeping road to the summit.
Du Toitskloof Pass can be a daunting stretch of tarmac at the best of times, but the Cape has been dealt a meteorological lucky packet in recent months. The mountain was at odds with the calm of the valley below and generated howling winds and banks of shockingly dense clouds that cascaded over gaps in the rocky peak. The usual slow-moving lorries made way for a frankly hair-raising drive; views of the snaking road ahead were suddenly blotted by cloud that reduced visibility to just several metres.
Even in this weird staccato of driving conditions, the GT4’s poise and grip – not to mention the rifle bolt action of its wonderfully short-throw gearshift – meant finding a rhythm within the bends and switchbacks became almost second nature.
Angry slants of LED headlamps burnt through the gloom behind the Porsche. Whatever they were attached to was doing a respectable job of keeping pace with the GT4 on the challenging section of road. Only when we broke through the cloud bank was the identity of the surprise pursuer revealed: the Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR. Packing a heavily tuned version of VW’s long-serving 2,0-litre turbo four worth 213 kW and 380 N.m, little wonder the GT4 had its work cut out keeping the TCR off its tail.
Having fruitlessly searched for the rendezvous point – the description “having trees nearby” applied to just about every stop on the pass – the Porsche and Golf settled on a layby on the leeward side of the mountain and were soon joined by the Renault Megane RS 300 Trophy. Parked alongside one another, they represented polar opposites of a halo hot hatch; the subtly decaled, gunmetal grey VW looked like any number of fettled GTIs on the road, while the Trophy’s lurid paintwork and body kit left no doubt of its posting at the top of the Mégane pile.
A bit of key-swapping, tyre kicking and comparing of notes revealed them to be equally opposed in manners, too. In typical GTI fashion, the TCR is an accomplished all-rounder that ably balances town-pottering comfort with a wicked turn of pace when called for. It’s a trait that, although admirable in its own respect, leaves it feeling muted and anodyne when compared with the French car. While the Trophy powerplant’s additional firepower (not to mention the intoxicating, bassy engine note interspersed with induction gargle and the odd bit of exhaust crackle) lent it a touch more charisma than the comparatively demure TCR, it was the often-maligned all-wheel-steering system that helped it to shine where the TCR merely entertained on twistier sections of the pass.
From Du Toit's kloof to the manic hill climbs of the Gydo and Versfeld passes, beaming drivers emerged from the Trophy. It’s amazing how just a few degrees of rearwheel movement translates into a remarkable driving experience. The way in which the Trophy tucked its nose into sharp corners, allowing drivers to confidently carry more speed into challenging stretches of road, flew in the face of its front-wheel drivetrain. That’s not to say the TCR was left completely in the shade. Its impressive front-end grip and driving manners allowed it to effortlessly morph from boy racer to composed commuter – something the Trophy’s stiff ride and sometimes unyielding chassis curtails – and lends the TCR its unique appeal, in a stealthy hot hatch way.
The curbside discussions abruptly ended as a message squawked on the two-way radio that the three cars in question were to report at the rendezvous point at once; cue another excuse to attack the pass with gusto!
Pulling into the rendez-viewing point, the two Germans joined up with the rest of the Shootout cast and early morning cobwebs were blown out of CAR staffers’ systems with a series of fast passes up and down Du Toit's kloof… until a report of an injured Mégane crackled over the radio.
It was to be the second in a series of maladies to strike some of this year’s contestants. During the weekend, Marius Boonzaier and the TCR fell foul (no wordplay there) of a collision with a guineafowl on the journey back home. Anyone who has had the misfortune of making vehicular contact with these accident-prone wildfowl will know they don’t yield. Countless wing mirrors, bumpers and radiators have been lost to these feathered wrecking balls. In this instance, it was the TCR’s windscreen that bore the brunt of the kamikaze bird. Thankfully, its windscreen was replaced, most of the glass shards were vacuumed out of the cabin – it was an epic impact – and the TCR was back in business.
As Murphy’s Law all too often dictates, bad things often happen in threes and the day was still young. The more superstitious members of the CAR team opted to tread extra carefully wondering if/when the next misfortune would manifest.
There had been some lighthearted banter regarding intermittent alerts on the Trophy’s instrument panel in the run-up to the road trip. A careful eye was cast over the car’s behaviour and it was passed off as a possible Gallic temperamentality. However, it was no mere electrical gremlin. Shortly before faint whisps of smoke curled out from the passenger side of the car’s bonnet, the startled driver recalled seeing a brake-system warning. Posted roadside with its hood cocked and surrounded by some genuinely concerned CAR folk, it was down to former technical editor Nicol Louw to diagnose the problem. Thankfully, it wasn’t a terminal issue; a carelessly reapplied brake fluid reservoir cap had stripped its thread and the contents sprayed onto the hot engine manifold. Some plumbers’ tape and a brake fluid top-up later, and the Trophy was good to go.
Things then calmed down as the mountain pass gave way to the flat, agricultural hinterland surrounding Rawsonville and our first (non-mechanical-issue) stop where the team had an opportunity to swap findings over breakfast. Those who’d taken the opportunity of a run along the pass in the GT4 marvelled at its poise and agility but there was a great deal of buzz surrounding the mysterious entrant to this year’s Shootout: the Supra.
After some coaxing on our part and requests for us to enforce a social media Dnotice on theirs, Toyota revealed the Supra to be the long-awaited Horizon Blue edition. Gorgeous paintwork aside, this latest entry would address the issue which had dogged Supras destined for our market; the fuel quality-enforced limiting of the 3,0-litre inline-six engine to 250 kW and 500 N.m of torque. Some under-bonnet tweaking later, the Horizon Blue has emerged with a far more purposeful 285 kW under its belt… sort of. We added that caveat because our earlier dyno testing (see page 96) revealed Toyota’s claimed outputs had been conservative.
We’d always felt the Supra’s chassis could handle a bit more power and the 306 kW Horizon Blue didn’t disappoint. The steering, while lighter than expected, is precise and the chassis sufficiently communicative to hardwire your posterior to the workings beneath you. On Mitchell’s Pass – the sweeping ribbon of tarmac skirting the Breede River along the foot of the Winterhoek Mountain – the Supra’s additional punch made short work of overtaking myriad fruit lorries that clog this artery into Ceres.
Perhaps just as important as the Supra’s new lease of additional power is the sheer feel-good factor radiating from this car, both to its pilot and those passing by. Indeed, the Supra wasn’t the only car attracting the attention of selfie-seeking teens and farmers. Even the relatively subtle TCR drew its fair share of admirers at every junction, not to mention those playfully egging its driver into an impromptu dash between traffic lights. As tempting as it was, we were focused on the fast-paced strip of road leading out of town, past Prince Alfred Hamlet and on to a perennial favourite: Gydo Pass.
This crazed snake of flat-out straights, sharp bends and gut-churning switchbacks draped between the Ceres mountains and the Matroosberg provides a stunning backdrop to a rollercoaster ride that eventually spits you out, shaken yet exhilarated, at the summit and into the Karoo.
It’s here that the BMW M2 CS became of particular interest to the CAR team. A couple of years ago, on this same stretch of road, the M2’s less-focused Competition-badged sibling divided opinion. Like the Supra, its chassis proved supple and communicative, and displayed an astonishing resistance to instability under hard directional changes. This lent it such poise and pace when it tackled the pass that it nearly unseated the Porsche 718 Cayman GTS that went on to win that year’s Shootout. Things weren’t so rosy on the open road, though. The steering’s strange vagueness around dead-centre occasionally unnerved at higher speeds, and the cacophony of tyre roar that permeated the cabin made it a tiring tourer. We also agreed the Competition’s 302 kW, although impressive, occasionally felt conservative.
Time spent on Gydo soon proved the CS had all but banished such shortcomings. We expected the stiffened springs to render the ride unbearable but instead, they conspired with an altogether tighter steering setup to lend the CS the sort of high-speed surefootedness we yearned for in the Competition. With the wick turned up to 331 kW and 550 N.m on the turbocharged 3,0-litre inline-six, the whole package felt so much more resolved. Several of the CAR team attached a potential winner’s label to it earlier than halfway through the road trip.
As surely as we predicted a possible top-three finish for the CS, the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk’s status slipped with each driver along the way. It’s a pity this straight-line bruiser of a performance SUV was pitched among such agile competition. The tarmac-rippling 522 kW of shove served up by that mighty 6,2-litre Hemi V8, replete with a singing supercharger, is an absolute treat. Yet, despite some serious fettling to its undercarriage and steering, this behemoth is no fan of the bends and was often left behind when the going got twisty. If nothing else, it served as a comfy but rapid palate cleanser between the more demanding cars.
Also vying for bottom-of-the-table placement and dividing opinion was the RTR Ford Mustang Spitfire. The American pony car’s admirable, if tenuous, connection to the South African airmen who piloted the RAF’s most capable World War 2 fighter was met with mixed reception. However, the promise of a hulking 520 kW and 820 N.m (actually 466 kW and 807 N.m on the dyno) was reason enough to forgive the tacked-on bodywork, rear-wheel spacers and RAF roundels, hidden under our decals.
The guttural snarl with which the supercharged unit comes to life and the sheer attention it garners from passersby induced many grins but those slowly turned to gritted teeth as time behind the wheel revealed the Spitfire to be a ponderous beast; devastatingly strong in a straight line but numb in any other scenario and lacking in steering feel. Although the Bullitt went some way to atoning for the bittersweet run of modified Mustangs we’ve sampled on Shootout, the Spitfire was a bit of a disappointment.
Then it seemed fate paged Murphy about its third malady. After a series of blistering runs up the pass, the Mercedes-AMG A45 S was nervously piloted to the viewing point at the summit. Its brakes – subject to the jam-jar effect of some serious track use before coming our way – were all but shot and denied many the opportunity to see how the all-wheel application of 310 kW and 500 N.m from a turbocharged 2,0-litre four-pot would play out on this amazing pass. A trip to a Mercedes- Benz dealership for a new set of stoppers followed a cautious coast down the mountain and towards Riebeek-Kasteel.
Only, Murphy broke its rule of three … some earlier concerns about a recalcitrant gearshift finally gave way to a heart-dropping rise in revs and loss of motive power as the GT4’s clutch failed just outside our overnight stop. Nervous calls to Porsche Centre Cape Town were met with a no-nonsense solution. The car was swiftly taken in and the workshop installed a new clutch overnight. With two cars sidelined with injuries, we hoped for better luck on the final leg of our road trip.