I’ve been a judge in annual “best car” competitions, with various magazines, for decades now, and I won’t deny the obvious: For a car enthusiast, taking part in such a contest is the equivalent of a sugar junkie running amok in the Reese’s Pieces factory. There you are, surrounded by row after row of the sweetest new rides of the year, and somebody is actually insisting you sample every single one of them. People have asked me, “Don’t you get tired of driving around in cars after all these years?” Oh, sure—and Hugh Hefner once said, “I think I’m done here.”
Then again, there are candy makers, and then there is Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. And Automobile’s yearly All-Stars competition, the centerpiece of this issue, is that wondrous, fanciful land of vehicular Oompa-Loompas and Everlasting Gobstoppers. While other competitions introduce price caps or production quotas or other objective bars to entry on their annual “best of” fields (frankly, that’s way too much math for us), All-Stars is wide open to any new machine that we deem interesting. Thus, right alongside the new-for-2018 Honda Accord and 2017 Mazda CX-5, this year’s competition included such phantasmagorical four-wheeled unicorns as the Ford GT, the Lamborghini Huracán Performante, and the McLaren 720S. In fact, the 2018 field would’ve included the $2.99 million, 1,500-horsepower Bugatti Chiron, but someone dinged the test car Bugatti had in the U.S., and the company shipped it back to France for a repaint, eliminating it from our field. Yes, I can already hear some of you sucking in a big pre-scream breath: “A $3 million car? Absurd! Who in hell could ever buy such a thing!” To which I would counter, “Hey, NASA won’t let me fly to the International Space Station, but I still want to read about what it’s like to eat a weightless pound cake.”
Blurred trees and uncoiling Armco and lane stripes fire like tracer rounds. There is no world outside the flashing-past panorama in your windshield.
Sure enough, when I arrived at the Speedvegas circuit just outside Sin City for the first morning of this year’s All-Stars shootout, I could’ve been Charlie Bucket stepping up to the Wonka gates with a precious Golden Ticket in my hands. There, arrayed in and around a huge pit lane garage, were 26 gleaming new taste sensations just waiting to be nibbled, chewed, and anatomized. And there was our own Willy Wonka himself, editor-in-chief Mike Floyd, barking out the week’s arduous agenda: “Make sure you swim in the river of chocolate (the Mercedes-AMG GT R)! Let me know what you think of the new Fizzy Lifting Drink (the Lexus LC 500)! I need feedback from all of you on the 2018 Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight (the Ferrari GTC4Lusso T)! Let’s get to it, people! Get out there, and find me the winners!” Yes, participating in All-Stars is a pinch-yourself enterprise—we all get to run wild in a world of pure imagination.
On one level, All-Stars is a collaborative event. For days, the entire Automobile staff puts aside the real world of deadlines and bills and feeding the cat to do nothing but drive, analyze, photograph, compare, videotape, write about, and pontificate about the entries in this year’s event. Over lunch, we share driving impressions, discuss pros and cons, champion our favorites, and engage in no shortage of arguments. Passions run high, and at times these bull sessions can get animated: My pal Marc Noordeloos, an otherwise unfailingly mannered gentleman who goes full Hulk at the sight of a McLaren 720S parked with its rear wing left up, has been known to prod me with the point of his pepperoni pizza while pressing his views on, say, the transcendence of the Porsche 911 GTS’ steering. Later, after the keys are put away for the night, the round table continues at the bar—where volume goes up and inhibitions go down. Overheard at one evening’s beer call: “I know I shouldn’t say this, but I actually think the Civic Type R’s rear wing needs to be bigger!”
Yet All-Stars is also very much an individual event. Yes, driving on the Speedvegas circuit can be crowded—with everything from the Camaro ZL1 1LE to the new Camry mixing it up out there at the same time—but it’s still just you and the car (well, at least until our pro shoe, Andy Pilgrim, catches you and lands in your rear seat). But as much as I enjoy flogging the sports cars on the track—free from speed limits, exploring maximum braking and cornering capabilities—in some ways I prefer the road loop section of our All-Stars contest. Out on our mountain road route, it really is just you and the machine underneath. (Except for occasionally coming across a colleague driving in the opposite direction, rarely did I see another vehicle.) The driving is far more realistic, too: You’re moving briskly, yes, but well under control, mindful of being on a public road, on the lookout for deer or black ice, at times driving slow enough to investigate how well a $300,000 supercar … just putters along.
I did my first drive up and down the mountain in the Lamborghini. Forget the racetrack: The Huracán Performante was made for mountain twisties. Gunning uphill, the 640-horsepower V-10 screaming at 8,000 rpm, banging off another upshift with the spectacular dual-clutch seven-speed, the sinuous two-lane tarmac unfurling in a funnel of blurred trees and uncoiling Armco and lane stripes firing like tracer rounds … I may have been driving in one of the most picturesque corners of Nevada, but I didn’t see it. Such is the focus, the involvement, and the rhythm of unleashing a great sports car on a fabulous road. The unpaid bills, the deadline you missed two days ago, the leaking faucet in the kitchen—none of it matters or even exists right now. There is no world outside the flashing-past panorama in your windshield; there is no care beyond the grip of four Pirelli P Zero Trofeos and the tremble of road through the steering wheel and the stupendous surge whenever your right foot presses down. Your mind is fully alive, attuned to the whine of four whirling camshafts, alert to the touchiness of the carbon-ceramic brakes, aware that the next corner lies in shade and might be a trap of unseen ice. All of this and more floods your cerebellum, reaches deep into the synapses, etches impressions and sensations and reflections on all the impossibly wrinkled folds inside your skull. Then, at a view site, you pull off, the Huracán’s mighty engine settling into a throbbing idle behind your ears, the g forces gone but still strangely tugging at your insides while you break out your notebook and try to record some salient notions of what you’ve just experienced. And only then do you gaze up at the mountains and realize, my God, look where I am.
Charlie might think otherwise, but I’m the one with the Golden Ticket.