Fiat 500 Abarth
Engine 1.4L, 4-cyl, 16v, SOHC, turbo-charged Transmission 5sp Manual Power 160 bhp Torque 206 N-m 0-100kmph 7.4 sec
The Fiat 500 Abarth is an altogether different beast from the cute and cuddly 500, we have in India. On the track, the 500 Abarth would gamely hold on to its lines and change directions like a little rabbit being chased by its predator. Not only does it carry massive speeds into a corner, it can come out with enough in reserve to get back on the power early, a reason why it was clinging on to the backs of more powerful cars. The well sorted chassis wasn’t fazed by the sudden camber changes the track threw at it. The brakes felt grabby in the felt few millimeters of its travel, but with strong grip from the CSC5 and the poised chassis, you don’t need to use them much. The revvy 1.4litre turbo motor is responsive and feels grunty in all parts of the rev range. It gives the little Fiat good acceleration out of corners without overwhelming the chassis. Keeping the engine in the meaty part of its power band is a joy too. Where the puny 135bhp output isn’t a match, is on the super straights of the Portimao, a reason why it lost some points in the track appeal. This has to be the best Fiat chassis ever.
Mini Cooper JCW
Engine 1.6L, 4-cyl, turbo-charged Transmission 6sp Manual Power 208bhp Torque 260 N-m 0-100kmph 6.2 sec
It is a bit unnerving at first, because the Mini is so keen to finding an apex, you fear if the tail would keep up. It does step out a bit, but the plentiful grip from the front end ensures, the Mini would soon straighten itself. Handling for most part is neutral, with the car feeling super stiff and composed even when cornering at the grip limit. Adopt a measured but attacking style and the fun gets multiplied even more. The tail willingly steps out during lift-off and you can get it sideways for a few seconds before flicking the wheel the opposite way and catching it. The super direct steering feels most alive on a track like this and can hold a candle to even the ones in much more expensive, TTRS and 135i. The sticky rubber was definitely helping things too. The 1.6litre engine has loads of grunt and the suitably loud exhaust note in the John Cooper Works version makes it feel stronger than it really is. The gearshifts are crisp and the brakes are delightfully progressive. The Mini Cooper S John Cooper Works is what every track focussed hot hatch really should be.
VW Golf R
Engine 2.0L, 4-cyl, 16v, DOHC, turbo-charged Transmission 6sp Manual Power 267 bhp Torque 350 N-m 0-100kmph 5.2 sec
It was my first drive in a Golf R, so I was expecting a mix of the GTI sensibility and R32 madness. But how wrong I was. It was the R32 ingredient – an all wheel drive chassis – that saved the day, because the 2.0TFSI powering it was a hooligan. This is the most powerful variant of the Golf, making more than 10bhp over the six cylinder R32. The turbo shove makes it for usable than the naturally aspirated R32 and without the weight of a VR6 lump upfront it felt more GTI like in its handling. It is nearly 40kg lighter than an R32. It feels big at first, a bit heavy and soft, like a road car with a supple ride. But slip into third gear and let the speeds rise and you are in for a special treat. The car becomes a track machine. The good blend of a powerful engine, a quick gearbox, a well sorted suspension, strong brakes, sticky tyres, and a clever 4Motion all wheel drive system see lap times tumbling. It was chewing up lap after lap that after a while you feel such supreme competence can be boring. Fast, it yes. For even huge fun, you’re better off in the Mini JCW.
Engine 3.0L, inline 6 cyl, 24v, twin turbo Transmission 6sp Manual Power 302 bhp Torque 400 N-m 0-100kmph 5.2 sec
A traditional front engined, rear wheel drive two seater with a near 50:50 weight distribution and very taut suspension- the BMW 135i was looking perfect right from the start. And it didn’t disappoint. The 3.0 litre, direct injection, twin turbo engine thumps you up on a rich seam of torque, no matter what revs you are at. It feels almost as linear as a naturally aspirated motor but with double the capacity. With revs increasing, power keeps building up helped of course by the VALVETRONIC system. Between 5000-6000 rpm the engine is in its sweet spot. You’re always tempted to run a gear lower than ideal and hurt your speed, just to hear it sing. If the engine is anything to go by, the handling is even better. There is a hint of understeer at the limit and even when you provoke it with some more steering input, the 135i seems happier to adopt a small oversteer angle than a mighty power slide. While you put that down to the car’s overall balance and the sticky CSC5 tyres, you better get the throttle welded down to the floor. Then, the tail breaks loose and you have the over-steery moment you’ve been asking for. Balancing on the throttle, anyone?
Engine 2.5L, 5-cyl, 20v, DOHC, turbo-charged Transmission 6sp Manual Power 335 bhp Torque 440 N-m 0-100kmph 4.6 sec
Like the first Audi that gave us the Quattro, this one has a turbo-charged five cylinder engine powering it. And what an engine it is. It’s a 2.5litre straight five that churns out 335bhp, decent for a car that weighs one and a half ton. The power delivery is instantaneous and the engine pulls hard from 3000rpm. The Quattro is brilliant, and if anything, the CSC5s make it even better in terms of grip. The chassis feels poised and ready to react to any input, the steering is so direct and the brakes shed speed like you’ve dropped anchors. It encourages you to explore the limits of grip at which point you see it’s the front that loses and you can feel the drive being shuffled to the rear to neutralize it and sending you to the next straight without wasting an ounce of the available power. Understeer can be avoided by keeping the engine right in the powerband, braking hard and deep while turning into the corner. Done properly, the TT RS settles into a neat four wheel drift into the apex. Then you can feed in the power to control the lateral slide with some forward drive, sending you catapulting through the corner into the next.
Engine 1.6L, 4-cyl, 16v, DOHC, turbo-charged Transmission 6sp Manual Power 197bhp Torque 275 N-m 0-100kmph 7.6 sec
If there was a surprise waiting at the track, it was the RCZ. On the face of it, this looks like an Audi TT wannabe with some super-car elements thrown into it, like the double bubble roof and the extendable rear spoiler. You would leave all performance claims to rest when you hear the engine is only a 1.6 litre four pot that has been doing duty in the Mini Cooper S. But you’d be so wrong. Performance is modest, but the car is so much fun, you soon forget the lack of outright grunt. The front wheel drive chassis is the same as the one the 308 hatchback, but the wide track, the stiffened suspension and the pointy steering make it loads of fun. Throw it around corners and there is a delicate balance you enjoy. Beyond 4000rpm, the engine feels lively too. The first Peugeot not to have a zero in its name is also a car that has been engineered to be noisy. It has a membrane that vibrates and filters the engine noise into the cabin and it sounds terrific, like it’s got a more guttural motor hidden somewhere. This is undoubtedly the most satisfying Peugeot I have driven in the recent times.
Volvo S60 T6
Engine 3.0L, inline 6-cyl, 24v, DOHC, turbo Transmission 6speed Auto Power 300 bhp Torque 440 N-m 0-100kmph 6.3 sec
After doing several quick laps in succession, returning to the Volvo was like visiting the spa. I spent nearly a minute calming down in the wide air conditioned driver seat enjoying the soft materials of the cabin and relaxing as the other cars went by, before I decided to take this easy chair of Swedish exuberance on a lap. There is an urgency to the way T6 gathers speed in a straight line although I was enjoying my lap of relaxed pace with the 6 speed automatic taking care of gear shifting for me. The entry into the second corner was neatly done at the suggested speed but then, the gearbox began to play spoilsport. Not only wasn’t it down shifting for the corner helping you with some engine braking, it wasn’t doing it even when you are half way through the corner and want to be back on the power. This was such a shame since the S60 displayed such beautiful balance through the corner and has an engine that can slingshot it into the straight with loads of power. Needless to say, my relaxation lap turned into so much hardwork fighting for a kick down and waiting in anticipation for a downshift.
Engine 3.0L, inline 6-cyl, 24v, twin turbo Transmission 6sp Manual Power 302 bhp Torque 400 N-m 0-100kmph 6.0 sec
Going by the standard set by the 135i, I was eagerly awaiting my turn in the 535i. It had the same raspy 3.0 litre straight six and was punchy right from the word go. On paper this looks good, but soon you realize it is not a patch on the old 5 series’ handling. The suspension felt very soft and the car handled more like a luxo barge than sporting saloon. There is body roll despite the active suspension tech. There is massive understeer once you switch the ESP off and it takes a bit of coaxing for the car to turn into corners. Make a calculated entry into the corner and it obliges but only to the point when you try and upset the suspension. It takes longer to recover from the thump over a kerb or even rapid direction changes too. You can feel the suspension bottoming out in some corners and the wheel getting off-loaded in some others. The steering is still sharp but devoid of any feel. In the off camber corners of the Autodrome, the F10 5 series was quite a handful. With its 1870kg weight, it was also the one to chew the most number of tyres. So when BMW tells you this is a driver’s car, you know, they are just lying.
Jaguar XF 5.0
Engine 5.0L, V8, 32v, naturally aspirated Transmission 6speed Auto Power 380 bhp Torque 515 N-m 0-100kmph 5.6 sec
The Jag had the biggest engine of all cars, a massive 5.0litre V8. Any gear, any revs, the engine has oodles of torque to keep you accelerating and the oomph is just as good as the noise it makes. This is one hell of a motor, but what about the rest of the car? It’s just as good as a sporting saloon ever gets. Sure there is no hiding the 1.9 tonne weight, which acts its way in the corners especially when kicked up by a kerb, but the way it changes direction is beyond belief. There is so much of a cohesiveness in the way the front and rear suspension act that it uses all four tyres rather well. The Jag’s steering is light but tactile and at 2.7 turns lock-to-lock, quick too. There’s modest body roll in hard cornering, a small trade for exemplary ride quality, but even so responses through a chicane bend are equally eager. Braking felt ever so re-assuring too. Stand on the pedal as often as you like; there’s no fade, no increase in pedal travel, no increase in stopping distances. The 6 speed automatic was yet another delight shifting reasonably fast giving you better control over the V8 power delivery.
Audi A7 3.0 TFSI
Engine 3.0L, V6, 24v, supercharged Transmission 7speed Auto Power 295 bhp Torque 440 N-m 0-100kmph 5.6sec
The supercharged engine provides pleasing amounts of low-rev grunt and a stupendous midrange, complete with an accompanying sound track. It’s a fun, high-revving engine that feels faster than its power rating suggests. That’s thanks to the car’s relatively light weight, which is nearly 130kg less than the Jag. The low down grunt of the supercharged six is most usable in the tighter sections of the track. The 7-speed DSG always makes sure you have the right gear waiting for you. The speed-sensitive steering for which Audi is so well known, often not in a good way, may be at its best in the A7. There’s torque vectoring, which uses the brakes to prevent wheel spin and distribute torque to the wheels with the most grip and there is an optional Audi sport differential, which manages the rear wheels across the axle with two multi-plate clutches mounted outside the differential that will deploy to push the car into bends and reduce understeering. All these tech working in unison with a well honed Quattro chassis and grippy tyres make the A7 deceptively quick on the track.