Three very different favourites of 2016 try to go head to head
You could rightly say this is just strange. A big and comfy estate car from Mercedes, a track-honed hot hatch from VW and a supercar from McLaren. What do they have in common? Well, apart from each of them being the chosen car of the year by various writers at our partners Autocar, they’re also going to drive from one end of Wales to the other. In the winter.
Things got off to a good start with a meeting with Angus. That’s Storm Angus to you and me. Horizontal rain, vicious winds and roads streaming with water which blows round bits of branch, small stones and the occasional rock and tree. Is that, you ask yourself, the perfect time to drive along in a VW Golf GTI Clubsport S? A car with no rear seats, and with 306bhp, the most powerful GTI VW has ever made, all that power pouring through the front wheels.
It sounds like a mismatch to put it politely, but somehow the Golf manages to be entirely safe and pleasant, and even spins its front wheels in a sensible sort of way. Then you start playing with the settings again. Oh look, there, under the Individual mode, is the Nordschleife mode.
Ramping up the power, steering, suspension, popping and banging should result in the Golf heading into the shrubbery and the rocks at some speed, but somehow it makes it less likely not more.
The turbocharged four-cylinder howls out the horses, while the chassis is alive and well. Stay focused and even on soaking wet twisty roads you will racket along like a Scalextric car.
It’s quite a car, and one that can push harder than many mortals would be prepared to push. Not having the ability to take any rear passengers could be seen as a positive too, depending on your social life. Mind you, that applies too to the McLaren 570GT.
But this is a GT car, so that’s okay, just the thing for long hours in the seat as we progress through Wales. Who are we kidding? This is a McLaren, and a racier looking car you won’t see, particularly when looking at the other two here. But the 570GT confounds. You’re sitting in a bucket seat, not the armchair of the Mercedes, but it’s just so comfortable. Honestly. Five hours, and we didn’t want to get out. And when we did we could – simply getting out of some supercars is a fraught experience.
And miles on single-track roads with sheep and muck and debris – again, the McLaren took it all in its seven-league stride. There’s no denying that the 570GT wasn’t able to stretch its considerable legs on a journey like this, but it did drive along very nicely with wonderful control and response, ensuring the driver knew exactly what was going on at all times. It’s firm but fair and it really does deserve that GT badge, despite appearances.
However, if you are doing serious miles in challenging conditions, then you’d probably head for the 350d Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate. You know if it all goes wrong you can simply live in here for a while. Its vast, welcoming and luxurious cabin means the horribleness passing outside is just something to look at, it doesn’t affect you.
While this might make you feel smug against the more track-focused other cars here, that smugness simply gets more pronounced when the going speeds up. You just stay relaxed, and those other cars do not disappear. They have 570bhp and 306bhp, but you’re still in the mirrors. That’s impressive.
Certainly, when the roads get very Welsh, all bumps and small crests and rough dips, then you can feel that you’re near the edge of the performance envelope, an envelope the other two haven’t even opened. But how often does that happen in real life?
On this day it hung tough and hung in there with two seriously rapid cars. Unflustered, the driver could then be smug all over again as he contemplated the hundreds of miles between here and home. The others weren’t complaining either.
Three cars, three different ways of travel, but it became clear why all three had been chosen by a writer as their car of the year. Not so strange after all.