Ethos

The 700 Horsepower Club

Exploring our gilded age of power in three of the world’s best supercars

BOWLING GREEN, Kentucky — Nashville is no stranger to spectacle, a place that serves as a mecca to rhinestone-gilt pop-country singers and outlaws alike. The town, and its neon-laced Broadway District in particular, has seen everything but this: three of the most powerful production cars for sale today, all in a tidy row.

There’s nearly three-quarters of a million dollars’ worth of carbon fiber and forced induction between us, better than 2,100 horsepower split among the three. The Broadway crowd couldn’t get enough of them, taking photos and video, cheering and begging for any one of us to be delinquent enough to snap a throttle open and let our miracle engines shriek above the blaring honky-tonks. When we inevitably obliged, all eyes for two blocks were on us, the cheers nearly as loud as the drums and guitars spilling from every open bar. Behold the mad, reality-distorting power of these three goliaths of automotive engineering: the Porsche 911 GT2 RS, Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, and McLaren 720S.

These are the standard bearers for the new frontier of performance. There are more machines surpassing 700 horsepower for sale today than ever before, even now, as electrification and regulation conspire to snuff out piston-driven automobiles altogether. But a handful of manufacturers are committed to pressing the internal combustion engine relentlessly forward in a heroic and dumb and perfectly human gesture. None of these machines will give your mind the half second it takes to send a curse to your lips. Each has a way of consuming mental bandwidth and asphalt in equal proportion, gathering them until you’re forced to choose between remembering to breathe or brake. That’s what happens when there’s 700 or more horsepower tethered to your big toe, when the bolt to 60 mph takes less than 3 seconds, and when 150 mph snaps past in a blink.

We spent three days in these cars. Three days ripping around the gorgeous and twisting asphalt south of Nashville, hunting out perfect, lonely two-lane apexes and ragged ridge sides trying to wrap our minds around these machines. At times they didn’t seem real, but rather a fantasy dreamt of across decades, an unrealistic vision of performance not long ago reserved for true racing sports cars. Performance levels and experiences that for most of the automobile’s history were off limits to all but officially licensed professional race drivers, those talented men and women who were at times left grasping for ways to explain to the rest of us just what true speed is all about.

The GT2 RS is the sharpest point of the model’s history, the notion of a 911 drawn out to its wildest fulfillment.

To that end we stopped at the National Corvette Museum’s Motorsports Park (MSP) in Bowling Green, Kentucky. It’s not a track that forgives transgressions. The full course shoves 23 turns into 3.15 miles, the asphalt a rippling ribbon that works its way up and over the rolling countryside. Blind crests and close barriers mean a mistake might cost you more than some body panels. But where else can you get to know the upper capabilities of cars like these? Their limits are so far beyond the bounds of public-road legality that to explore even some small fraction of them requires the freedom only an open track provides.

We added water to the 911’s reservoir as needed then hit Broadway and felt plenty cool ourselves.

It was 80 degrees at 8 a.m., the midsummer humidity a heavy exhale on our skin. Aesthetically, the cars could not be more different. The 911 GT2 RS might be the sleeper of the bunch despite its wild, exposed carbon-fiber wing, fender vents, and NACA ducts. The car is gorgeous, but only in the way that all 911s are. To anyone unfamiliar with the smattering of letters and numbers stuck to the doors and tail, it might simply look like another Porsche. That’s a shame, because as of this moment, it is the sharpest point of the model’s history, the notion of a 911 drawn out to its wildest fulfillment.

The GT2 RS is more than that blistering engine, a modified version of the 3.8-liter twin-turbo flat-six found in the 911 Turbo S. Larger turbos, more boost, a unique intake, and new pistons help produce 700 hp and 553 lb-ft of torque, but less obvious tricks borrowed from Porsche’s motorsports arm make the car a functional weapon. Steel ball joints in place of the usual rubber suspension bushings throughout, dynamic engine mounts, and control arms robbed from the 911 GT3 RS help make all that power usable. And massive Michelin Sport Cup 2 R tires, essentially the same compound as the Corvette wore. The rears are 325/30-R21, the exact size as found on Porsche’s hyper 918 Spyder.

If the GT2 RS appears familiar, the 720S looks and sounds like the future. Low and tidy with beautiful, organic curves, it is not ostentatious or brash in the way so many supercars are. Dipped in our tester’s dark blue paint, it reeks instead of quiet competence, an impression that’s only underscored by its 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 with 710 hp and 568 lb-ft, numbers that help give it the best power-to-weight ratio of the three. It is a machine that has nothing to prove— until it’s time to prove it.

The ZR1 is a shout by comparison, its tall, vented hood hiding a 6.2-liter supercharged V-8 good for 755 hp and 715 lb-ft. In this group of hammers, this is the sledge. And with its wild, canard-laden fascia and towering rear wing, it wants everyone within a city block to know it. It needs the power. At 3,560 pounds, the ZR1 weighs 319 pounds more than the Porsche and is heavier than the McLaren by 432. The fact it is here at all is a marvel. Chevrolet has made a habit of punching above its weight with the Corvette, but this car takes that American notion to a new plane. As equipped, it costs less than half of either of its more svelte rivals.

As we watched from the flag tower, Pilgrim lit the Chevy’s fuse, the V-8 snapping at the sky like glory as he ran out the half-mile straight. By Turn 10, the car’s hazard lights were flashing. It wasn’t until he returned to the pits that we figured out why. The repeated, abrupt change in lateral g force was enough to trick the car’s OnStar system into thinking Pilgrim had collided with something. He spent the lap yelling over the screaming exhaust, trying to convince the nice lady on the other end of the line that he was just fine, all while on his way to a lap of 2:08.77. The time was still exceptionally fast considering the ambient temperature was now in the 90s, and it landed the ZR1 smack between the GT2 RS and 720S. Pilgrim had, weeks before, set MSP’s official production car track record of 2:05.59 in a different ZR1; he put the time difference on this run down to seeing lower speeds on the straights, most likely due to the temperature being 35 degrees hotter, and this test car’s automatic transmission not always giving him the lower gears he wanted. (He set the lap record in a manual-gearbox car.)

The Porsche recorded the fastest time, an impressive 2:05.92, just more than 0.3 second off the lap record. The GT2 RS’ power was seemingly unaffected by the brutally hot conditions, thanks in part to its system that sprays the intercoolers with cooling water.

Three cars, and three philosophies—front engine, mid engine, and rear engine—prove equally thrilling at speed.

On this day, the McLaren set the slowest lap of the three, for several reasons. First, Pilgrim only had a chance to do one timed lap, 2:12.06, before a thunder cell rolled over the horizon, the only thing more powerful for miles. Additionally, in the 720S Pilgrim felt a lack of aerodynamic downforce compared to both the Chevrolet and the Porsche, which are similar to each other in terms of their downforce-to-speed ratio. The 720S also sports narrower wheels and tires, which result in almost 20 percent less rubber on the road. Plus, this particular car’s tires were the less sticky Pirelli P Zero Corsas, not the optional Pirelli Trofeo R tire. The harder tires alone probably gave away 2 seconds or so to its playmates, especially at a place like MSP, which features numerous long, sweeping turns. Pilgrim believed the 720S would run close to the ZR1’s time with the stickier tires; even on the Corsas, he would have probably clocked a 2:10 if he’d had a chance to run a second hot lap.

The lap times, though, are irrelevant to the fun. With the three cars clawing and ripping their way around corners, it was hard to tell what was lightning and what was a downshift, the bark of both echoing off of the buildings behind us.

These cars are the mechanical deep end, and with that in mind, I belted into the ZR1. From the driver’s seat, the only indication you’re in something other than a standard C7 Corvette is the towering hood rising up from the cowl and turning the windshield into a thin slit. It’s like looking at the scenery from between the folds of a bandanna—the outlaw’s view. On the track, Turn 3 opens up into a long straight, followed by an easy right, and the sight of that wide road was too much temptation. I planted the throttle, the supercharger got busy cramming Kentucky air into those eight eager cylinders, and the world cracked wide.

These aren’t wild rabid dogs. They are playful big cats, happy to have their bellies rubbed, but with fangs as long as your middle finger.

The thrust was eye-widening and lung-arresting, a brief moment of traction loss followed by an eruption. I was upon the right-hander in a blink, positive I’d overcooked the thing. I tucked in anyway, and by the grace of General Motors, the car obliged. That’s the real miracle of the ZR1. It’s not some knuckle-dragging hot rod. It’s simply more Corvette in every way. There’s more power. More grip. The massive carbon-ceramic brake rotors have no problem bringing the machine back to sane speeds after dipping a toe into the car’s ludicrous acceleration. But there’s the sense that this is the Corvette pulled taut, all of the performance Chevy can possibly squeeze from the platform. This tester’s optional eight-speed automatic transmission delivers quick shifts, but they sometimes lack the immediacy this engine deserves, and the gearbox, as Pilgrim noted, doesn’t always yield the requested shift, especially when temperatures are blazing hot. Both the 720S and the GT2 RS benefit from seven-speed dual-clutch gearboxes.

Extracting maximum performance requires a maximum driver, seen here getting ready to engage the afterburners.

Wherever you might choose to uncork these devils, the downforce levels—until relatively recently not something significant when discussing road cars—are a more important variable to consider. The GT2 RS arrived in its most aggressive aerodynamic configuration, the same one it used to blister the Nürburgring on its way to the production car lap record (a lap of 6:47.3, bested just weeks ago by a Lamborghini Aventador SVJ at 6:44.9), and at 124 mph it generates 313 pounds of downforce. That’s more than double what the present 911 GT3 manages, and on a quick layout, it matters. Like a race car, the faster the GT2 RS goes, the stickier it gets.

It was a strange thing to step from the Corvette to the 911. The ZR1 is fast around a track, but it requires a certain amount of daring from the gambling end of your lizard brain. The GT2 RS is a wicked enabler, effortlessly quick. Swinging the car through NCM’s decreasing-radius, off-camber challenge of Turn 6 at what I thought was the upper limit of adhesion, the Porsche strolled through without so much as a twitch of its wide hips. Given the lack of an engine over its front axle, the steering is delicious and immediate. The brakes, also carbon ceramics, have near-perfect pedal feel. The power is one long, zealous pull, free of the peak and twitch that earned this car’s old 930 predecessor its dark nickname: Witwenmacher. Widow maker. It all combines to create the most confidence-inspiring machine of the litter, whether you drive it on a public road or a closed course. Whoever imagined saying such a thing about a 700-hp, rear-drive 911?

Gorgeous in green, the new Porsche 911 GT2 RS is one of the world’s most devastating road cars.

The only thing that could pry me from the German’s seat throughout our three days of Kentucky and Tennessee touring and raging was the promise of the 720S. Of all the brazenly capable cars on hand, the McLaren is the least orthodox. Its cockpit is open and airy, and the windscreen wraps around you like a bubble that sits as far to the center of the vehicle as possible. As for the track, Pilgrim offered a word of advice: “It doesn’t have the grip of the other two.”

Nor should it, due to the less gooey rubber and lower downforce. But these tires are perfect for this car. Of the three, none executes the sense of speed as well as the 720S. The world wraps past the big, open windshield in a blur, the gasp and thrust of the engine in your ear. And it’s playful because it isn’t welded to the pavement, sliding and dancing around its perfect center, a gift of that mid-engine layout. Turn 19 is a nail-biter, an off-camber drop into what’s affectionately called The Sinkhole. The road simply falls away. It’s a tricky bit to manage for any car, but the 720S made it the most hilarious part of the track. Simply point the nose with your toe, dive down, and ride up the other side. If roller coasters were this fun, Disney World would have a line all the way to Georgia.

Once upon a time, cars like these were at home only on the track. Not so nowadays.

Most astounding is how quickly the cars coaxed us into real speed. These aren’t wild hares or rabid dogs. They are playful big cats, happy to have their bellies rubbed but with fangs as long as your middle finger and jaws strong enough to crush your skull. It’s incredible. As much as purists love to rant and rail against the heedless press of technology, the microprocessor is a godsend in these cars. Exquisite traction and stability control not only make each of them wieldable but also make them faster. There might be no better display of just what can be accomplished by the marriage of man and machine.

That’s why none of us thought twice about pointing the cars south for a run to Nashville and a day of romping around the winding two-lanes south of town. There, gunning down Natchez Trace or winding our way out toward the small town of Franklin, Kentucky, the cars showed themselves ever more impressive. Even with its buckboard spring rates, thin glass, and lightweight carpeting, the GT2 RS proved acceptably civil, thanks in part to its active dampers and switchable sport exhaust. There are compromises to be made, for sure, starting with the front trunk. Porsche hides the reservoir for the intercooler water sprayer up there, and on our hot day, there was enough condensation up front to soak one of our bags. Such is the price of dominance.

This trio should feel underwhelmed by legal speeds, but that’s not what we found whatsoever. Each is a joy to spit through traffic or waltz up a country byway. Out there, the 720S came into its own. If it is a good and fun track car, it is a blissful street car. Light and playful even at posted speed limits, it feels like real progress, how those of a certain age hoped cars would be when they gazed toward 2018 from the dim horizon of childhood. The car is also occasionally infuriating, with cabin controls that seem to have been designed by someone who has never seen or interacted with a human form. Basics like adjusting a seat, tweaking a mirror, or even putting the car in park require the sort of secret handshake that typically conspires to make you look like a dope in front of onlookers. But we cared less and less with each shriek, nod, thumbs-up, or blink-freezing gaze delivered by seemingly every other person the McLaren encountered.

The ZR1, meanwhile, was made to consume miles. In Touring mode, the exhaust is near silent, the magnetically controlled suspension compliant enough to make expansion joints vanish, and the hatch so cavernous as to devour a week’s worth of luggage. If there is a car more capable of surpassing the 200-mph mark that’s more comfortable, we’d very much like to meet it. And its top comes off. When the relentless sun finally gave way to a cool dusk, we ditched the roof panel and pointed the nose toward glittering Broadway, the perfect coda to the insanity of three days in three 700-plus-horsepower weapons, three horsemen of the horsepower apocalypse galloping toward their own end times.

We washed in drunken whoops from men with ink up their arms and Jack Daniel’s in their blood. We bathed in shy smiles from young ladies in short summer dresses and tall cowboy boots. At stoplights, people wandered up, wanting to learn everything they could before the signal turned green—who makes it, how fast it goes—and wanting to hear those engines sing. Everyone we met loved the cars, and why shouldn’t they? These represent the best humanity can do, the current peak of our performance as a species. They are unifying in the same way famous athletes are unifying, proof that we are capable of great and ludicrous things. Proof that logic has not yet strangled the bright and beautiful from us.

2019 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $123,820 (base with automatic transmission)
ENGINE 6.2L supercharged OHV 16-valve V-8/755 hp 
@ 6,300 rpm, 715 lb-ft
@ 4,400 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe
EPA MILEAGE 12/20 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 179.8 x 77.4 x 48.5 in
WHEELBASE 106.7 in
WEIGHT 3,560 lb
0-60 MPH 2.9 sec
TOP SPEED 215 mph

2018 McLaren 720S Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $288,845 (base)
ENGINE 4.0L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/710 hp @ 7,500 rpm, 568 lb-ft @ 5,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, 
mid-engine, RWD coupe
EPA MILEAGE 15/22 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 178.9 x 76.0 x 47.1 in
WHEELBASE 105.1 in
WEIGHT 3,128 lb
0-60 MPH 2.5 sec
TOP SPEED 212 mph

2018 Porsche 911 GT2 RS Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $294,250 (base)
ENGINE 3.8L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve flat-6/700 hp @ 7,000 rpm, 553 lb-ft @ 2,500-4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, rear-engine, RWD coupe
EPA MILEAGE 15/21 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 179.1 x 74.0 x 51.1 in
WHEELBASE 96.5 in
WEIGHT 3,241 lb
0-60 MPH 2.7 sec
TOP SPEED 211 mph

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