It grips us early, expressed in a schoolyard footrace, an arm-wrestling match or a game of tag—the innate need to compete over speed, power and agility. Eventually we seek the same characteristics in the vehicles we acquire and, naturally, feel compelled to compare them.
“Auto racing began five minutes after the second car was built,” quipped Henry Ford on the topic of competition. Let’s hope not, as that contest would have been more a test of spectator patience than motoring performance. But now that automobiles are learning to drive themselves and production-model speeds are challenging the 300 mph mark, the field of top contenders is increasingly dynamic. And while our Car of the Year, voted on by more than 200 readers who drive the nominees every fall, is the Lamborghini Urus, the last 12 months merit a deeper dive by category, with selections determined by our editors.
From a 1,500 hp missile that corners like a cat to a palatial SUV worthy of a king (and his entourage), the following machines impressed us the most on the automotive playground. Enjoy the ride.
Lamborghini Aventador SVJ
Automobili Lamborghini has been around for 56 years. But six minutes, 44.97 seconds was all it took to achieve, arguably, the marque’s greatest milestone in its history. In that brief period, the new Aventador SVJ completed one 12.9-mile loop at Germany’s infamous Nürburgring circuit—the automotive industry’s test piece for comparison—and turned in the fastest production-car time ever on that track.
“Setting the lap record at Nürburgring was always a very important target for this project,” explains Stefano Domenicali, Lamborghini’s chairman and CEO. “Looking to our tradition, we wanted to give the last of this model an extreme orientation.”
The top-tier variant of the flagship coupe carries the suffix SVJ for Superveloce (“superfast”) and Jota, which is the Spanish name for the letter J and hearkens back to the FIA’s Appendix J motorsport regulations—a testament to the car’s race-focused character. At the core of the latest Aventador is a 770 hp, naturally aspirated V-12 that’s complemented by the patented Aerodinamica Lamborghini Attiva 2.0 (an active-aero system for increased downforce or decreased drag, depending on configuration), four-wheel steering and a souped-up suspension.
My time behind its wheel was on snow and ice in the Italian Alps, experimenting with the three drive modes (Strada, Sport and Corsa) and their respective traction controls as the hills came alive with the sound of 12-cylinder music. Deliberately drifting while still in control is a story my future grandchildren are going to grow tired of. But who knows what the team at Sant’Agata Bolognese may have for us by then. As long as Nürburgring continues to be the litmus for performance, Lamborghini will build new breeds of bull to charge its track—and the supercar market will keep lapping them up.
ENGINE: Naturally aspirated V-12
TOP SPEED: 217 mph
BASE PRICE: $517,770
Named after the largest gem-quality diamond ever discovered, the Rolls-Royce Cullinan is a fully capable SUV that remains every inch a Rolls-Royce. Those inches—all 210 of them—are based on the new aluminum “Architecture of Luxury” platform first seen on the latest iteration of the carmaker’s flagship, the Phantom. The lightweight material trims the Cullinan to a fighting weight of 6,069 pounds. Though still massive, it features lithe handling and effortless steering that’s impressive. With a big, twin-turbo V-12 displacing nearly 7 liters, the Cullinan accelerates with intent, and the satellite-aided transmission instantly selects gear ratios based on GPS navigation data.
The first Rolls-Royce with full-time all-wheel drive, the Cullinan employs rear-wheel steering for more nimble handling response overall, but always wafts along—even off road—delivering the “magic carpet ride” unique to motorcars from Goodwood. Underway, this high-riding luxury cruiser is eerily quiet inside, offering a seating position that makes driver and passenger feel like royalty, complementing throne-like comfort with a commanding view of the road—or outback—ahead. Coach doors open wide to reveal a cabin outfitted as only Rolls-Royce can, presenting luxurious hides and veneers in combinations and colors left to the client’s discretion. Two rear-seating configurations are available; lounge seats or individual seats, the latter with a glass partition that effectively seals the rear cargo compartment from passengers. Doubtless, most owners will not subject their Cullinan to off-road escapades, but our experience assures us that the high-sided roller will acquit itself admirably, whether traversing a 2-foot-deep stream or just a puddle on Rodeo Drive.
ENGINE: 6.75-liter twin-turbocharged V-12
POWER: 563 hp
TOP SPEED: 155 mph (limited)
BASE PRICE: $325,000
McLaren 600LT Spider
For motoring’s cognoscenti, open-air touring is a favorite summer tradition. But until recently, convertibles were synonymous with compromise—a sacrifice in performance and handling compared to coupes. After all, taking off the top usually necessitates additional architectural reinforcement that results in less responsiveness. But the McLaren 600LT (Longtail) Spider is a cabriolet without such concessions—a composite beach body that’s lean, powerful and athletic, thanks to the inherent might of its carbon-fiber MonoCell II chassis.
“The 600LT Spider fits neatly into our Sports Series as the most exciting and engaging car in the lineup,” says Paul Burnham, the model’s chief engineer. “It has all the performance of the 600LT Coupe, but the retractable [hardtop] roof and dropping rear window mean you can get more of the outside world and that exhaust sound into the cabin.”
Those symphonic notes—played through top-exit pipes—are courtesy of a 592 hp, 3.8-liter twin-turbo V-8 (meting out 457 ft lbs of torque), the same engine and output found in the car’s completely enclosed counterpart. Also equaled is the rate of acceleration. With the help of a dual-clutch 7-speed gearbox, the 2,859-pound (dry weight) spider speeds from zero to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds.
On a recent test drive, I snugged into what felt more like a jet pack for the pavement, opened the canopy and closed in on Northern California’s Highway 1 while soaking up another favorite summer tradition, longer daylight. Fittingly, it’s now the memories of this McLaren that linger.
ENGINE: 3.8-liter, twin-turbocharged V-8
POWER: 592 hp
TOP SPEED: 201 mph (196 mph with top down)
BASE PRICE: $256,500
After the adrenaline rush from driving your supercar wears off and it’s time to brave rush-hour traffic on real-world roads, attributes like tranquility, comfort and safety take priority over flat-out performance. That’s when Audi steps up to the plate with the latest-gen A8, a big-boy sedan that’s also a showcase for the newest tech and safety advancements that the marque does so well.
When it comes to advancing the state of the art, the new A8 is at the head of its class. From LED lighting to driver assistance, connectivity and passive safety, Audi engineers have pushed to make the A8 one of the most tech-savvy luxury sedans on the road and the first to reach Level 3 autonomous driving abilities (although not available for the US market because of legislative restrictions). Its highly athletic performance with Audi’s all-wheel drive makes the A8 confident in a variety of weather and road conditions, while dynamic all-wheel steering abets handling in tight quarters. Available options like 20-inch wheels, a Bang & Olufsen 3D Advanced Sound System and the Executive Rear-Seat Comfort package—with foot massage—nudge the price considerably. However equipped, the A8 remains a strong value proposition that makes it the smart choice in the executive-class luxury sedan segment.
ENGINE: 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6
POWER: 335 hp
TOP SPEED: 130 mph (limited)
BASE PRICE: $83,800
“Nothing is too beautiful, nothing is too expensive,” once noted Ettore Bugatti, and it remains his eponymous French marque’s refrain 110 years later. Enter the Bugatti Divo—a four-wheeled hyperbole that redefines the hypercar, especially when it comes to handling.
“I wanted to test my team, and myself, to develop more emotional performance and a completely new design,” says Bugatti president Stephan Winkelmann, comparing the Divo to its sibling the Chiron. “We wanted to highlight the sporty side.”
In this case, “sporty” translates to 1,500 hp, 1,180 ft lbs of torque and a top speed of 236 mph—courtesy of a 16-cylinder engine enhanced with four turbochargers. Harnessing that combustion is a 7-speed direct-shift gearbox that helps the bullet fire from zero to 62 mph in a chest-compressing 2.4 seconds.
While the Chiron is a standout on straightaways (my eyes watered even though the windows were rolled up), Divo delivers in the turns with the ability to generate 1.6 g’s of lateral acceleration and 1,005 pounds of downforce. The latter represents an increase of 198 pounds over the Chiron, while the total weight of the vehicle is reduced by 77 pounds. Winkelmann also attributes its increased athleticism to larger air intakes, a big front spoiler and a rear wing that dwarfs the Chiron’s in size by 23 percent. All of these innovations are complemented by the most responsive steering and suspension of any Bugatti.
But the car that tops our list is as elusive as it is superlative, since only 40 of the $5.8 million examples will be built, and each has been presold. It seems that even with the Divo, Ettore’s maxim still holds.
ENGINE: 8.0-liter W-16 with four turbochargers
POWER: 1,500 hp
TOP SPEED: 236 mph
BASE PRICE: $5.8 million
Porsche 911 GT2 RS
Without question, the Porsche 911 GT2 RS is the 911 du jour, with more eager buyers clamoring for the keys than there are cars available. Ownership confers obvious bragging rights, insofar as the GT2 RS is the most powerful street 911 ever built by Porsche. But the appeal goes deeper, the more one explores the details. While the engine nudges 700 hp, pushing 911 flat-six development to the limit and delivering thrilling acceleration with an intoxicating soundtrack, the real performance highlights come from light-weight construction techniques that include lots of carbon-fiber panels, a magnesium roof and a titanium muffler. Clothed in the most extreme body of any 911, the GT2 RS design is dictated by aerodynamics that increase downforce—look at the enormous carbon rear wing that shouts “Porsche”—and massive air ducts, front and rear, that gulp and expel air in service of various combustion and cooling tasks.
The GT2 RS is essentially a track-ready supercar yet, like all 911 variants, is conceived to serve as a dutiful daily driver when called upon to provide more quotidian transportation, albeit limited to two occupants carrying very little cargo. As always, the Porsche build configurator offers a plethora of choices. The Weissach package, an $18,000 option, adds an exposed carbon-fiber roof and hood, with additional carbon-fiber bits for the interior and chassis. Magnesium wheels, available only in conjunction with the aforementioned package, add $13,000. If only one sports car could occupy the garage, it’s hard to imagine anything better than this particular Porsche.
ENGINE: 3.8-liter twin-turbocharged boxer 6
POWER: 690 hp
TOP SPEED: 211 mph
BASE PRICE: $293,200
Bentley Continental GT
More than 15 years ago, Bentley introduced the W12 Continental, breaking new ground with an ultraluxe “personal” GT that delivered blistering performance in keeping with the marque’s prestigious pedigree. The Bentley Continental GT was our Car of the Year in 2004 and has been on our short list ever since. Although the Continental saw a major update in 2010, the 2019 model year finally brings an all-new version, with a redesigned W-12 engine and updated styling that riffs on the slightly zaftig original but morphs it into a more sculpted, aggressive GT.
The shape, with body panels in superform aluminum that allow crisp style lines and tight radii, is at the same time classic and cutting edge (look at the tail lamps), anticipating an assortment of models that include convertibles, V-8 engines and, eventually, hybrid variants. But Best of the Best means just that, so the intoxicating W-12 engine and coupe—with a profile referencing the original R-Type Continental from 1952—is our hands-down favorite. The only thing more addictive than the Continental’s deep, fat torque curve and impressive speed is its opulent interior, inviting driver and passenger to fairly wallow in luxury that ladles on plenty of leather, wood or carbon finishes, punctuated with tasteful metallic details. The front chairs invite daylong excursions, with comfort enhanced by the 48-volt active roll control system that optimizes handling, and all-wheel drive that enables cruising in virtually any road conditions. As always, Bentley speaks “bespoke” through its Mulliner workshop, spoiling customers with nearly limitless customization options.
ENGINE: 6.0-liter twin-turbocharged W-12
POWER: 626 hp
TOP SPEED: 207 mph
BASE PRICE: $214,600
1937 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 Touring Berlinetta
David Sydorick is known for his collection of Zagato-bodied automobiles. So it’s a little surprising to learn that he took home the 2018 Peninsula Classics Best of the Best Award with a Touring-bodied Alfa Romeo 8C 2900. That contest selects its victor out of the winners from eight of the world’s most prestigious annual car competitions, including the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, which this Alfa also won.
Often referred to as the “2.9,” this model was like a Bugatti Chiron, McLaren F1 and LaFerrari all rolled into one back in its day—and has influential coachwork that none of the “moderns” can touch. Sydorick’s example, chassis no. 412020, is among the most exquisite of the approximately 45 made from 1935 through 1938.
Carrozzeria Touring’s body construction is renowned for its light weight, durability and adaptability, and Sydorick’s 2.9 is a masterful blend of proportions, curves and details. Plus, it’s the first car to ever use the Superleggera (“super light”) construction technique, as evidenced by a small plaque near the front fender that says “Brevettata” (“patented” in Italian).
The automobile’s beauty is more than skin deep, for underneath that aluminum skin is a grand-prix-inspired, twin-supercharged straight-eight engine, fully independent suspension and other advanced mechanical specifications that likely made the model the highest-performing prewar road car and a terror on the track (2.9s won Italy’s grueling Mille Miglia four times).
“When you get a car like the 2.9, it’s absolutely stunning,” notes Sydorick. “We were very fortunate with the way everything turned out.”
Becker Mercedes-Benz Metris Van
With often utilitarian interiors and all the aerodynamic advantages of a rectangle, vans aren’t the four-wheelers you fantasize about—until now. Becker Automotive Design’s reimagined Mercedes-Benz Metris van takes the German marque’s already gentrified transport and turns it into a posh executive escape. Features include bespoke audiovisual systems, top-tier connectivity, a selection of seating configurations (for as many as five passengers) and cabin comforts usually associated with exclusive aircraft.
“We source the interior materials from the same vendors that Mercedes-Benz uses to kit their Maybach models,” says company founder and CEO Howard Becker. “But all structures of the rear interior, even the seat frames, are constructed by us in-house, from the ground up. And we add substantial materials for sound deadening and noise cancellation.”
Perhaps more impressive are the vehicle’s command center–like capabilities. Notes Becker: “The latest high-speed 4G routers use boosters, hard-wired exterior antennas and multiple internet service providers to ensure the best signal strength at all times, and all audiovisual and mobile office electronics are controlled through our customized Crestron processing system.” Take that, Tony Stark.
The power train—mating a 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder engine with a 7-speed transmission—remains the same as that of a factory-fresh Metris and is complemented by a Mercedes-Benz–sanctioned air suspension.
Becker’s net result is the automotive equivalent of a geode rock: It’s low-profile on the outside but stunning when opened, displaying the latest in high-tech and high-touch amenities—a van at the vanguard.
ENGINE: 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder
TOP SPEED: 100 mph
MV Agusta Brutale 1000 Serie Oro
A shining example of Italian craftsmanship, the MV Agusta Brutale 1000 Serie Oro is the most powerful bike ever constructed in the super-naked category. The term Serie Oro, which translates to Gold Series, is a designation that MV Agusta has used for the past 20 years to highlight its finest performers—of which this Brutale now sits at the very top.
The cycle surges with 212 hp at your beck and call from a 998 cc inline-four motor developed in the WorldSBK Championship racing series. Carbon fiber is used liberally in the construction of the wheels and shark-jaw tail section, and, in a first for the category, the Brutale features aerodynamic winglets mounted on the sides of the radiator.
Also showcased is the very latest Öhlins suspension as well as rider electronics. The latter includes the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU), which controls all the main safety parameters on the machine, such as lean angle–sensitive traction control, wheelie control, ABS and launch control.
“The Brutale 750 was presented in 2001, and the DNA established in the original is still present in the new 1000,” says Adrian Morton, MV Agusta’s design director. “No filters, no screens and no wind protection. Pure, raw adrenalin.” Limited to only 300 examples, the Bru- tale 1000 Serie Oro is an instant and undeniable classic.
ENGINE: 998 cc inline-four
POWER: 212 hp
TOP SPEED: More than 180 mph
BASE PRICE: $46,298
To win the Peninsula Classics Best of the Best, David Sydorick hired RX Autoworks in Vancouver and had longtime restorer and Pebble Beach judge David Smith oversee the 36-month process (though Smith avoided a conflict by sitting out 2018’s judging). “We have been restoring cars for three-plus decades,” says Rob Fram of RX, “and to win was absolutely incredible. David Sydorick’s whole philosophy was, ‘Just do it, and do it right.’”
In the world of art, architecture and design of every kind, classic proportions and elegant understatement are never out of style. But really moving ideas forward means shaking things up, and perhaps no automotive designer of the 20th century—living or dead—has shaken things up more than Marcello Gandini, whose futuristic wedge-shaped creations looked like nothing ever seen before. Today, the soft-spoken 80-year-old remains as modest as his cars were revolutionary, reflected in a portfolio of prototypes and production models created between 1965 and 1975, a decade of brilliant invention when a young Gandini was working for Bertone, Italy’s most forward-thinking carrozzeria. In a 2017 interview, Gandini reflected, “I had a lot of freedom at the time at Bertone, so most things that I designed were as I wanted them.”
Then in its formative years, sports car manufacturer Lamborghini needed to set itself apart from Ferrari, whose cars were capable but conservative. Ferruccio Lamborghini enlisted Bertone to design and construct bodies for his new cars, and Gandini’s vision for the Lamborghini Miura—the first mid-engine supercar—was a curvaceous, organic form that changed the public’s expectation of what a sports car could look like. But what followed was radical in the extreme. The Alfa Romeo Carabo, Lancia Stratos Zero, Lamborghini Marzal and Lamborghini Espada upended all convention with angular shapes not seen before. And when the LP500 prototype stole the Geneva Motor Show in 1971, the die was cast. Wide, hard-edged and so low it required a periscope rearview mirror to see out, the avant-garde car changed the visual vocabulary so much that Lamborghini used an untranslatable word— Countach—to name Gandini’s creation, one that might be regarded as the most game-changing automotive design of the century.