Currently reading: Britain's Best Driver's Car 2018: meet the contenders
Which of these 10 modern-day miracles deserves to be crowned this year's Britain's Best Driver's Car? We decamped to Wales to find out

In the near 30 years we’ve been running our Britain’s Best Driver’s Car contest, the target has always remained consistent: to find the most entertaining car to drive of each given year. 

Simple? On the face of it, you might think so. But to come to a conclusion to match that purpose is made much less clear-cut by the vast range of cars that are invited to compete. 

Informally, we call it ‘Handling Day’ because vehicle dynamics are the primary interest: not power, not vehicle size or weight, and not strictly the type of powertrain, either. 

All of these things, though, have a bearing on what a car feels like to drive: how it steers, how well it turns, how it rides and, most importantly, how it tells you about all of those things. 

Over the years, expensive cars have won, relatively ‘cheap’ cars have won, cars with very little power have won and cars with a lot of power have won. We have superb examples of all of these this year. Which means that finishing first is as much of a ringing endorsement as a car can get, and finishing last isn’t really last at all. 

Every single one of the cars we took to Wales – on quiet roads we know well and on the superb Anglesey race circuit – for three solid days of testing is terrific in itself. But there will only be one winner.

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Sometimes you get a sense with this event that it’s going to be a good one. Not just when all the cars are assembled in the paddock, but often weeks or months in advance, as the main contenders start to reveal themselves. We’ve been doing this a while – 29 years, if you’re interested – during which we’ve learned to trust our instincts. And for quite some time now, we have thought that 2018 was going to be more than usually kind to what is known as our Britain’s Best Driver’s Car competition externally, but what, within the Autocar walls, is referred to simply as Handling Day. We weren’t wrong. 

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Of course, it’s not a day at all, but three. The first is spent entirely on the road, the second exclusively on the track, the third on both, mopping up loose ends of evaluation, judging, photography and video. If we do our jobs well, by the end of it our five judges will have got further beneath the skin of our 10 cars in 72 hours than most owners might in a lifetime on the road. 

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This year we returned to perhaps our happiest hunting ground, the quiet roads of the Snowdonia National Park, for sensible on-road assessment where we drive as we imagine most owners would, and the brilliant Anglesey Circuit where we drive perhaps a little faster than might someone with their own rubber to ruin. 

But pure speed from point to point or over a lap is not what we’re here for. We record lap times because we can, and we think you’d be interested to read them, but they remain of academic interest alone. They are not a factor of our judging. 

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As ever, the usual eclectic mix appeared: cars with front-, mid- and rear-engine configurations, front-, rear- and four-wheel drive, hatchback, saloon and coupé bodystyles, engines with normal aspiration, supercharging and turbocharging and manual, double clutch and automatic transmissions. 

At one end came the new Ford Fiesta ST, qualifying by right of its victory in what we know as Junior Handling Day back in September, branded Britain’s Best Affordable Driver’s Car, and the only car here available for much less than £50k. Then came the BMW M2 Competition trying to improve on the M2’s performance two years ago and the Alpine A110 still clutching its super-rare five-star road test verdict. 

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The only other car here less than six figures will buy is the Lotus Exige 410, whereafter we jump up to the Audi R8 RWS, the least expensive and by far the best R8 we’ve driven since the original. A little further up the scale you’ll find Aston Martin’s new Vantage seeking to prove that its increased weight, electric steering, turbocharged engine and automatic gearbox won’t stop it building on the success of its predecessor, while in many ways the Porsche 911 GT3 RS has the most difficult job of all: defending the outright win in this event scored by the standard GT3 at and around a sodden Castle Combe last November.

The third most expensive car present is Jaguar’s startlingly purposeful XE SVR Project 8, while finally there are the chuckle brothers – the McLaren 600LT and Ferrari 488 Pista. United by being more extreme and trackhoned versions of two of what are already among our favourite cars, they are by some distance the most expensive cars here, and that’s before you factor in the tyre bill… 

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Which was over £100,000 for the Ferrari alone. Actually, that’s not true: what is true is that Ferrari turned up with six sets of carbon wheels for the Pista, half clothed in Michelin Pilot Cup 2 tyres, half in soon-to-be-homologated Cup 2 R tyres, which together had a value of more than £100,000. True, the wheels could be used again: by the time we were finished, the same could not be said of the tyres.

Is it right or fair that Ferrari should come so equipped when others at most had a fresh set to wear for the lap times? Our view is that so long as the car is representative of a specification that either is or will shortly be available to the public, then it’s fair game. We quite like it when others choose merely to provide a car and let it speak for itself because it shows a certain nonchalance and confidence, but the same rules apply to all. If some or more choose not to exploit them to their limit, that is a matter for them, not us. 

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Sadly, the identity of the car going home with a wooden spoon in the glovebox was fairly clear from quite early on in the competition. Out of five judges, three placed it last, the remainder second from bottom. It is absolutely true and important to say that just to be invited is an achievement, so you might argue that all 10 were winners in a way, but if there was a disappointment in North Wales, the Jaguar was undoubtedly it. 

Road test editor Matt Saunders put it best when he said: “The Project 8 felt a bit kettled up and got in its own way on Welsh B-roads, and its size didn’t help matters either.” It wasn’t aided in the mountains by being left-hand drive, either, but there were other factors at play too: the car’s mass, and the confidence-sapping lack of front end feel being the most prominent. Jaguar took it away overnight to put it into track setting by lowering its ride height (also permissible because it’s an official modification that can be done by an owner) and, somewhat to our surprise, it went a long way to redeeming itself on track where its towering engine could be fully unleashed. It had plenty of grip and admirable stability, but even here it was hard to balance. In short, it felt too much like a hotrod to stand a chance against the many much more sophisticated machines ranged against it. 

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But surely it should have beaten the Fiesta ST? Well, maybe not: price has never been a consideration per se in this competition as the fact that it’s been won in the past by the likes of the Mazda MX-5 and Toyota GT86 proves. Actually, if you look at points scored, you’ll notice the ST scraped in ahead of the Project 8 by just five points in a total score out of 250. 

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On the road, you can see why right now there’s no car of similar price we’d rather drive than the little Ford. As Saunders puts it: “The driving experience demands plenty of you and, unlike plenty of the other cars, it’s much less about precision, purity or fluency than responsiveness, vivaciousness and willingness to entertain. But the more you’re prepared to physically engage with the car, the more you get back.” In short, it’s a hoot. 

What we did not expect was for its composure to fall apart quite so suddenly on the track. Matt Bird, our visiting judge from sister ship PistonHeads, wrote: “A right giggle up to a point, but scrappy and unsatisfying beyond that. Controls become a bit baggy right at the limit.” And so they did: on track it felt too soft and while it would adjust its rear end according to throttle setting, the acrobatic agility of the previous ST has been somewhat dampened. 

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Before I explain why a Lotus Exige 410 came only eighth in a contest plenty might reasonably have expected it to win, I should say first that, in points terms, it left the Fiesta and Jag for dead and was hot on the heels of the cars that occupied the two places immediately above it. Even so, and despite knowing plenty about all these contenders well in advance, we’d expected more of the lightweight Lotus. 

There was, of course, plenty that it did just right. Its body control on both road and track was pretty awesome, its apex speed even more so. Saunders celebrated “the simplicity and honesty” of its character, a trait every judge could relate to. Despite our reservations, it still felt like a proper Lotus, and there is always something to be celebrated in that. But when our attentions turned from road to track, where you’d expect a car such as this to excel, problems remained, as witnessed by the fact that just one judge rated its circuit performance above 19 out of 25. 

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In short it was hard work, physically just to hoof it around the circuit and mentally to keep it properly balanced. We’re all up for a brain and body workout but the rewards have to be there – and the Exige, for all its raw speed, came up slightly short. Even in race mode, it understeered too much on entry and lacked traction at exit. Surely with this much potential, a limited-slip differential would have been desirable?

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Aston Martin will surely be as pleased its new Vantage beat such a purpose-built weapon as the Exige as it will be alarmed by how it split opinion. Of the three Matts on the judging panel, Messrs Prior and Bird placed it ninth and last respectively, while Saunders rated it an outstanding fourth and Prosser split the difference. Bird described his view of it on the road thus: “It feels like a disjointed car, some parts that are good in isolation but never feels to create a cohesive whole like the very best stuff here.” On the flip side, Saunders said it was “really pleasingly deft, with sophisticated close body control in Sport Plus. A product that’s clearly been tuned with immaculate care.” You’d hardly believe it was the same car. 

Me? I thought it did well on the road but was hampered by its width and quite limited visibility. But I thought the chassis offered a useful range of settings and was never less than accurate and indulgent. And most judges, myself included, thought it even better on the track, where it exhibited not just raw speed and technical fluency but an almost limitless tolerance for indulging the inner caveman that appears to lurk within the entire test team. It’s worth noting too that while many came wearing dedicated track rubber, the Aston went throughout wearing standard Pirelli P Zeros. 

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The Aston beat the Exige by just two points and was itself beaten by the Audi R8 RWS by a mere three – that’s how close it was in the midfield of this competition. But we have a funny feeling Audi will be happier with that result than its closeness would suggest. The R8 was Mr Consistent, no judge placing it higher than sixth nor lower than eighth. 

If there was one thing that made the Audi stand out, it was an absence of anything truly outstanding in either direction. I didn’t much like the feel of the brakes, others thought its brakes merely adequate for the job, but if you read through the notes, there’s a lot of admiration for its balance and poise (Saunders) and its steering and damping (Bird) and nothing to mark it down. It scored fractionally better on road than track but, in truth, wherever you took it, it just found a way of working in that environment. Is it the best R8 of the current generation? By a mile. Was there an enormous amount of love out there for it? Not so much. The best driver’s car Audi has produced in many a year it undoubtedly is, but an Audi it still remains. 

You could not accuse the BMW M2 Competition of failing to engage with the judging panel on an emotional level. And while it’s placed just one position ahead of the Audi, if you look at the total points it scored (203/250 compared with 184/250), you can see it’s playing a completely different game. Another five points and this almost affordable 2 Series would have been on the podium… 

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Indeed, its prevailing handling characteristic even resulted in a new term adding itself to the Autocar road testing lexicon: cock-about-ability – the willingness of a car to be driven with complete security at apparently irretrievable angles of attack for as long as a corner may last. If there was a prize for going sideways, only the Aston would put up the slightest resistance. 

In many ways it was, to me at least, a pint-sized, cut-price version of the car I’d hoped the Jaguar would be: practical and civilised enough to make eminent sense as a daily driver, yet on the right road (or track) endlessly indulgent and fun. Saunders called it straight: “Some cars make me sorry that we don’t have a value-for-money check on our Handling Day voting. The M2 Competition is one of them. While it’s a very different prospect than the Alpine, it has appeal as a driver’s car that’s every bit as compelling.” 

And so to our fourth-placed car, the Porsche 911 GT3 RS. If you’re now raising your eyebrows, somewhat staggered that it failed to land a place on the podium, consider this: on track, it scored the same number of points as the car that went on to win outright. Also, it missed that podium spot by a single, solitary point. 

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On the track, then, the Porsche was incredible. Saunders reckoned it had “the most predictable, malleable, truly absorbing track handling” and the best engine of the group. Bird said that just pouring his praise onto the page made him want to get out and drive it again. I was wowed all over again by the completeness of the track package: the brakes, the grip, the turn in, the traction… On the circuit, it was the most flawless car I drove. 

But it came at a price and there’s no doubt that had we a standard GT3 or Touring, it would not have been undone on the road section. The RS didn’t disgrace itself – not even close – but Porsche’s decision to make this the most track-oriented GT3 RS to date showed with every turn. Too stiff to flow with the road, the rewards were there, but so too would they have been in a GT3, and you’d have needed to work less hard to access them. 

One final thing: another reason the GT3 RS came up the tiniest fraction short. We have had another year like this, but only one I recall, and it was the year that the 911 R beat the Ferrari 488 GTB and McLaren 675LT at this very circuit. As Saunders put it, “in another year, it might have won”, so who better than our road test editor to tell us what actually does…

Britain's Best Driver's Car 2018: the final three

Britain's Best Driver's Car 2018: the winner

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Henrykinney 25 December 2018

My choice

Thank you very much. Very interesting article. I have long thought about buying a car and your website is very helpful. Learn more about my choice. Good luck to the author.

Sporky McGuffin 19 November 2018

Given the 4C got a pasting

Given the 4C got a pasting from pretty much every review there's no point including it - it simply isn't good enough.

Andys 18 November 2018

contenders are missing some

contenders are missing some models, why is that Jag  there? its only power not handling, and why that Ford is in list?? 4c is better than tha Alpine etc weird list of cars