One hundred and ninety-three grand. That’s what a 530-hp Porsche 911 GT2 costs. Even if you were born on top of a pile of diamond-encrusted Krugerrands and wore solid-gold booties to your baptism, this is not an insignificant amount of money. Many things can be bought for less cash. Things like college degrees. And houses. Heck, if you’re south of the border and feeling saucy, you could probably even snag yourself a whole freakin’ Mexican village.
Nevertheless, the GT2 is no ordinary 911, and its price reflects that fact. Your pueblo-sized check buys you a 204-mph, runs-on-pump-gas, Deutschland- über-alles track star, but it also buys you a docile, civilized road machine. Faced with the depth and breadth of the 911 GT2’s talents, other cars cower on the sidelines. For the king Porsche, versatility rules the day.
Still, we’re indefatigable troublemakers, and because of that, we couldn’t help but wonder: Fantastic though it may be, is adaptability really of benefit in a pursuit where lap times are the prime measuring stick? If you traded some of the GT2’s all-round usability for a lower price tag and a few more on-road compromises, could you be just as happy? And if you want a turnkey, manufacturer-developed track beast, does more cash automatically equal more speed?
In our search for truth, we introduced the 911 GT2 to the 600-hp Dodge Viper SRT10 ACR and the 175-hp Mazda MX-5 Cup. These three cars are some of the most well-known factory track rats on the market, but there’s more to this gathering than simple name recognition. These three also represent the three universal approaches to apex hunting: refined European traditionalism; rough-edged American sledgehammering; and efficient Japanese minimalism. Looking for answers, we trekked to Spring Mountain Country Club in Pahrump, Nevada, for a day’s worth of hot-lapping, and we hit the long, wide desert in search of real-world speed. The lessons we learned – and the lap times we logged – were more than a little surprising.
Porsche 911 GT2// $198,875 (as tested) // Lap Time: 1:47.9
Stuttgart’s latest rump-shaking tour de force is the fastest and most powerful roadgoing 911 to date, the most expensive new Porsche you can buy, and one of the most remarkably talented rear-engine cars ever built. It catapults itself to 60 mph in just 3.9 seconds. It produces an absurd amount of power and torque (530 hp and 505 lb-ft, since you asked). And if you give it a long enough piece of pavement, it will clock a scenery-melting 204 mph. (Porsche claims that the discontinued Carrera GT is the fastest street car in the company’s history – its top speed is a token 0.6 mph higher than that of the GT2. I recently asked Hartmut Kristen, head of Porsche’s motorsport department, if this was done on purpose. He shrugged sheepishly and said, “Er, yes.”)
For all intents and purposes, it’s best to think of the GT2 as the love child of a 911 GT3 and a 911 Turbo. Like the 3075-pound GT3, it’s blessed with extensive weight savings – model-specific sound deadening, a titanium exhaust, carbon-ceramic brakes, carbon-fiber front seats, and deleted rear seats – and rear-wheel drive. Like the Turbo, it has an intercooled and twin-turbocharged 3.6-liter flat six, although the GT2 produces 50 more hp. The curb weight is 3300 pounds, or 280 pounds less than that of the Turbo.
On the track, the GT2 behaves like a typical 911. The usual Porsche pluses are all here: Fantastically weighted, remarkably delicate steering. Amazing rear traction. An impressively communicative and nimble chassis. The standard carbon-ceramic brakes resist fade endlessly, and they’ll repeatedly haul you down from triple-digit speeds with rock-solid pedal feel and zero increase in pedal travel. Once you get your head around the huge, linear thrust – thrust that arrives with only a beat’s worth of turbo lag if you’re above 4000 rpm – the GT2 shrinks around you, becomes less manic, and reveals its true nature: in spite of the intimidating specs, it’s a sweetheart.
As is the case with all 911s, big doses of early-corner throttle tend to unload the front axle, and it’s easy to bang your head against the understeer wall if you’re impatient with your right foot. Patience is required from corner entry to apex, but if you treat it right, the GT2 simply steamrolls its way through the second half of slow corners. Faster corners – i.e., anything above 80 mph – have the back end slithering once the tires get hot, but as long as you keep your foot in it, the rear tires stay behind you. As road test editor Marc Noordeloos aptly pointed out, “This car reminds me of that old line about 911s: They always do exactly what you ask of them, even if it’s the wrong thing.”
The GT2’s street behavior is just as docile. The nonadjustable, shell-type folding seats are surprisingly comfortable and very supportive, even over drives lasting several hundred miles. You won’t mistake the ride for a Cadillac’s, but it’s comfortable enough to keep you from screaming for mercy. Big speeds and lumpy pavement see the steering lighten and the chassis move around a bit, but as long as you keep your foot down and let the car have its head, you’re fine. And while you don’t hear much of the engine’s cry (save the odd closed-throttle wastegate whistle) from inside the car, anyone on the outside – and within a half-mile radius – gets assaulted with a strange, compressed, turbine-ripping-air kind of sound. It’s alien and slightly creepy but ultimately very cool.
Dodge Viper ACR // $100,915 (as tested) // Lap Time 1:45.4
From the moment you crank its big V-10, it’s obvious that the ordinary Dodge Viper was intended for the track. First, the locomotive-sized Viper is notoriously intimidating and difficult to drive quickly on the street, whereas racetracks seem to give it room to breathe. Second, Vipers are loud and flamboyant; spank one hard on your local two-lanes, and you may as well have “Arrest Me” painted across your forehead. And third, every new Viper comes standard with threaded bosses for the installation of five-point harnesses. Call it kismet.
On that note, the $99,265 Dodge Viper SRT10 ACR comes across as little more than logical evolution. From a window-sticker point of view, the ACR isn’t much; the acronym stands for American Club Racer, but those words don’t show up on the car’s invoice. All you get is the “Competition Group” option and an $11,475 charge added to your bill.
That substantial chunk of change doesn’t buy you any extra shove – for cost reasons, the ACR’s engineers left the Viper’s 8.4-liter, 600-hp V-10 alone – but it does net you a host of other worthwhile improvements. Functional aerodynamic add-ons like a monstrous rear wing, nose-mounted dive planes, and a front splitter (producing, Dodge claims, a cumulative 1000 pounds of downforce) are paired with a highly tweaked suspension, lightweight forged-aluminum wheels, sticky tires, and uprated brakes. Compared with the ordinary Viper, the ACR’s suspension is extraordinarily adjustable; ride height, compression damping, and rebound damping are all easily modified to suit track conditions or driver preference. Wing and splitter angle can also be changed.
Happily, all of that adjustability actually makes a difference in the way the Viper handles. Like a good racing car, the ACR’s predictability and chassis balance change drastically in concert with its chassis and wing settings. The car’s performance is largely dependent on the skill of the person making the adjustment, but if you get everything dialed in right, magic happens.
Glance at our track numbers, and you’ll see that the ACR lapped Spring Mountain 2.5 seconds faster than the twice-as-expensive 911. (Both cars wear similar Michelin Pilot Sport Cup rubber, so the speed difference can’t be credited to tire compound alone.) The Porsche is more stable under braking, offers up more rear traction at low speeds, and communicates far more evidence of its dynamic state to the driver, but the Dodge has the upper hand almost everywhere else. Startlingly so, in fact. Where the 911 dances and slithers and slides, the Viper simply Velcroes its way across the track, segueing into mild, controllable oversteer at the limit. If the GT2 requires a delicate, well-trained hand to go quickly, the ACR asks only that you not be a complete bonehead with the throttle.
That, then, is the Dodge’s greatest strength – it’s much, much easier to wring out than the Porsche, albeit slightly more dramatic. High-speed grip is simply astonishing – all that aero gear actually works, and adjusting it noticeably changes the understeer/oversteer balance above 70 mph. The ACR has that spooky, compressed, triple-digit footing that comes with aerodynamic downforce, and you can cram the big Dodge into long, sweeping corners at seemingly impossible speeds. The total package is thunderingly potent. “The Viper is like bringing a bazooka to the bowling alley,” says Noordeloos. “No one else has a chance.”
There are negatives, of course. If you’re not careful, it’s all too easy to hurry your inputs and fall behind the ACR in slower corners, because the long wheelbase and the slow steering do you no favors in tight confines. The Viper’s shift linkage, steering feel, ride quality, and ergonomics are positively tractorlike when compared with those of the 911. And the Porsche is far more communicative, far less abusive, and far more fun to drive around town at modest speeds. But these are all small complaints. The bottom line is that the Viper is a sheep in wolf’s clothing: ferociously capable and intimidating at first, but far easier to control – and far faster – than you might suspect.
Mazda MX-5 Cup // $50,000 (ESTIMATED) // Lap Time 1:55.8
Mazda’s MX-5 (a.k.a. Miata) has long been one of our favorite sports cars, blessed as it is with a brilliant chassis, just enough power to keep you grinning, and a relatively light curb weight. The MX-5 Cup – a racing series sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America’s Pro Racing arm – takes the time-honored spec-racing formula of equal preparation and modest equipment and applies it to the current MX-5.
Fortunately, Mazda played a key part in the development of the MX-5 Cup’s series-mandated setup. Mazda’s Mazdaspeed Motorsports division provides you with a mandatory parts kit containing race-spec springs, antiroll bars, dampers, and front suspension brace; an exhaust header; and a cold-air intake for the engine. You bolt these parts onto your new MX-5 and add the requisite safety gear, uprated brake pads, and race tires, and you’re ready to go racing. (Well, almost: the engine must be dyno-tested for conformity and sealed first.)
If all this has you thinking that the MX-5 Cup car is the odd man out in our track-rat grouping, you’d be right. At an approximate $50,000 build cost (that estimate includes a new MX-5, the Mazdaspeed development kit, and assembly labor at a shop of your choosing), the Cup car is half the price of a Viper ACR and one-fourth the cost of a 911 GT2. But don’t be fooled – we’ve included the Mazda because it’s a prime example of the less-is-more approach, a testament to the fact that big power, big tires, and a big price aren’t always the path to big results.
Ready for a few surprises? Here goes: On Spring Mountain’s 2.2-mile-long course – a fast, sweeping track that favors high horsepower – the 175-hp, 2675-pound MX-5 Cup was only 7.9 seconds slower than the 530-hp Porsche. And although the Mazda is equipped with relatively modest rubber (comparatively tiny 225/45WR-17 Kumho Ecsta race tires), its cornering speeds were on par with those of the fat-shoed GT2.
How is this possible? Simple: to paraphrase the late Colin Chapman, speed comes when you add lightness. The Mazda’s low weight and focused suspension allow it to make up for lost straightaway time with excellent balance and eye-watering cornering grip. The Cup is what’s known as a “momentum car” – because power is far outweighed by grip and acceleration is limited (60 mph arrives in 7.2 seconds), almost all of your behind-the-wheel effort goes toward preserving the speed you generate. You tap the brakes, pitch the car into the corner, and immediately bury your right foot. Sound like fun? It is. As technical editor Don Sherman put it, “The MX-5 is so responsive that the lack of power doesn’t bother you in the least. It’s the height of entertainment, and it challenges you to make the most of what you’ve got.”
The Mazda MX-5 Cup has a lot going for it, not the least of which is a relatively low amount of investment for a relatively large amount of overall lap speed (yes, we know it’s possible to build a grassroots track car for much less, but $50,000 for the opportunity to campaign a factory-supported, production-based race car is still a great deal). And, surprisingly, the MX-5 is almost more entertaining than either the GT2 or the Viper, blessed as it is with a snarling exhaust note, blisteringly direct steering, and a stripped-out, raucous feel. In exchange, you give up any pretense of streetability – a stripped interior, no sound deadening, no roof, and a full roll cage see to that – so you’re essentially buying a track-only toy.
A little bit of introspection here goes a long way. If you’re thinking about heading to the track, it’s worth it to consider just what you’re looking for. For the price of two 911 Carrera S cabriolets, the 911 GT2 offers you a car that literally does everything well. At half the GT2’s cost, the Viper ACR sacrifices some refinement for a hefty dose of high-speed voodoo and more manners than a boarding house full of prudes. And at half the cost of the ACR, the MX-5 Cup throws away real-world usability in exchange for grins and huge midcorner speed. Each car has its ups and downs, but all three offer remarkable speed, forgiveness, and out-of-the-box ease for the price. Can’t run with the Trust Fund/Pueblo of the Month Club? Fear not: as with most things, money ain’t everything.
Results, Results, Results
Spring Mountain’s 2.2-mile north/south circuit is a tight, ten-turn course with minimal elevation change, one fast left, one medium-length straight, a wealth of medium-speed lefts and rights, and wide verges. Patience negotiating the multiple ess-bends yields the best lap times at this safe, rewarding track.
- Fastest Lap
- Average Speed
- 66 mph
- 71 mph
- 74 mph
- Right g
- Left g
- Braking g
- Right g
- Left g
- Right g
- Right g
- Left g
- Minimum speed, mph
- Maximum speed, mph
- Right g