Showtime: The year's best sports cars
Tightening emissions regulations aside, this year has been an exceptional one for sports cars. From howling flat-sixes to thunderous twin-turbos, classic convertibles to cutting-edge coupes, there's been something for gear heads of all persuasions to drool over. Buckle up for our look at some of the best sports cars launched in 2016.
Porsche fans are notoriously resistant to change, especially when it comes to motorsport special editions. So you can imagine the reaction when the company announced it would fit the new GT3 RS with a double-clutch gearbox. Sure, it makes the car faster on a track day, but what about the sensation of shifting?
The 911 R is an expensive love letter to the purists. Power comes from the same screaming 373 kW (500 hp) flat-six fitted to the GT3 RS, but Porsche has connected it up to a bespoke close ratio six-speed manual. Sure, letting drivers shift for themselves makes the 911 R 0.6 seconds slower to 100 km/h (62 mph) than the GT3 RS, but that's not really the point here.
Along with the double-clutch gearbox, Porsche has turfed the big wings and scoops from the GT3 RS, instead running with a clean shape on the outside. Inside, bespoke buckets trimmed in retro houndstooth and a smaller, button-free steering wheel round out the package in style. Unfortunately, all 991 examples have already been sold, and secondhand examples are commanding figures around US$700,000 – that's $515,100 more than list price.
Mazda MX-5 RF
Based on sales figures, the Mazda MX-5 is the most popular two-seat sports car in the world. More than 1 million have been built since the nameplate made its debut in 1989, winning buyers over with its lightweight handling balance and unbreakable reliability. Even though the fourth-generation car has been a resounding success, there are still some buyers who don't want a soft top.
Those buyers can now get a taste of the popular Mazda sports car in the MX-5 Retractable Fastback. Launched at the New York Motor Show in March, the RF is like a Porsche 911 Targa, minus the sky-high price tag and midlife crisis looks. Power is provided by the same four-cylinder engines as the regular roadster, and owners can still choose between a slick-shifting manual or six-speed automatic, but Mazda has softened up the suspension to deliver a slightly more comfortable ride.
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
The idea that a muscle car could also be a proper, world-beating sports car might have been unthinkable in past, but the current crop of pony cars is much smarter than their unrefined ancestry might otherwise suggest. Chevrolet is pitching the Camaro ZL1 as the ultimate all-rounder, mixing track day capability with continent-crushing comfort.
Power comes from a supercharged V8 making 640 hp (477 kW) of power, all of which is sent to the rear wheels through an electronic limited-slip differential. Drivers can choose between a six-speed manual or a ten-speed automatic gearbox, too, although we're not sure why you'd ever need more than six gears with 868 Nm of torque on tap.
All that torque is put to the road through a set of massive 305-section rear Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires, which are almost as wide as the sticky Michelins fitted to the Porsche 911 GT3 RS. They're wrapped around forged aluminum one-piece wheels, and the package squeals to a halt on Brembo six-piston brakes.
When a manufacturer rocks up at the Goodwood Festival of Speed with a car painted a shade of green named after the Nurburgring, we're inclined to sit up and take notice. After all, the Green Hell is one of the toughest tests in the motoring world. The 20.8 km (12.9 mi) stretch of bumpy German tarmac has become a place for car makers to prove what they're really made of, something Mercedes has done to great effect with the AMG GT R.
Powered by a thunderous twin-turbo V8 making 577 hp (430 kW) of power, the GT R takes the base AMG GT S and injects a dose of motorsport focus into the mix. Drivers are able to play around with a nine-stage traction control system, and Mercedes has joined Ferrari and Porsche in developing a rear-wheel steering system for less understeer at low speed, and greater stability at high speed.
The result is a car that laps the Nürburgring North Loop in 7:10.9 – faster than any other rear-drive production car. If track time isn't your thing, the car also looks incredible and sounds like thunder.
Porsche 718 Cayman
Remember what we said about Porsche purists at the start of this list? Well, imagine their reaction when the brand announced the flat-six in the Cayman would be replaced with a new turbocharged flat-four engine. But look past the lag present in turbo engines, and the decision to dump the flat-six really does make sense.
Not only is the new four-cylinder turbo in the Cayman more powerful than the naturally aspirated engine it replaces, it uses less fuel on the combined cycle. Porsche has devoted plenty of time to the noise, too, and although it can't match the glorious scream of the old flat-six as it chased the redline, the new engine has an interesting character all of its own.
Even if you're not a fan of the new engine, the 718 Cayman should be able to put a smile on your face in the corners. Firmer springs and swaybars work with retuned shock absorbers to deliver more grip, and the new 911 Turbo-derived steering rack should deliver more feel. Tick the box for the super six-speed manual, point the nose at a sinewy stretch of road and the turbocharged engine will be the last thing on your mind.
Audi TT RS
Unlike its rivals over at Porsche, the team at Audi hasn't given up on naturally aspirated engines just yet. The new TT RS runs with a heavily reworked version of the five-cylinder from the RS3, with 294 kW (400 hp) of power and 480 Nm of torque on tap. Thanks in part to a clever all-wheel drive system, it'll scoot to 100 km/h (62 mph) in just 3.7 seconds – or a measly 0.1 seconds slower than the V10 R8.
Usually, fast Audis are defined by their Quattro all-wheel drive systems. They provide great traction, but Audi RS cars have long been criticized for feeling inert and understeery at the limit, especially compared to tail-happy offerings from BMW M and Mercedes-AMG. A new software setup in the TT RS aims to breathe a bit of life into the handling, sending extra torque to the rear wheels when the driver pins the throttle mid-corner.
Although there is no manual gearbox on offer, the Volkswagen Group dual-clutch gearbox is one of the best in the business, shifting gears faster than you can blink on the move. It's available as a coupe or convertible, and is finished to Audi's usual exemplary standard inside.
Caterham Seven 310
Sometimes, no matter how much time or money you spend trying to solve a problem, the best solutions occur by accident. The Caterham Seven 310 is one of those happy accidents.
It's not just the Caterham shape that has stayed staunchly the same over the years – its engines have remained very similar. Power in the Seven 310 comes from the same 1.6-liter engine you'll find in the Seven 270, but high performance camshafts, new engine mapping and a higher redline have liberated an extra 18 hp (13 kW). Although they're small changes, they're enough to justify a whole new model in the wonderful world of Caterham.
These tweaks were initially aimed at owners moving up the Caterham Motorsport ladder, but the improvement in performance was so marked, the changes have become a factory option.
Mercedes E63 AMG S
It might wear a sensible sedan body, but the new Mercedes E63 AMG is a true sports car under the skin. The twin-turbo V8 punches out 420 kW (571 hp) of power in base E63 trim, and a staggering 450 kW (612 hp) in the range-topping E63 AMG S.
To make sure all that power isn't instantly turned to smoke when the driver thinks about accelerating, all that power is put to the road through a clever 4MATIC all-wheel drive system. Don't think the change from rear-wheel drive has turned the E63 into a pussycat though – the front driveshafts can still be deactivated to pull massive, smoky slides.
Aston Martin DB11
To say the DB11 is a big car for Aston Martin would be a huge understatement. The exterior of the DB9 might still look good, but it's a very old car underneath given that its chassis debuted back in 2003. With a new platform, new engine and new look, the DB11 signals the start of new era for Aston Martin.
In contrast to the free-breathing engine in the outgoing car, the V12 in the DB11 is boosted by two turbochargers. With 447 kW (600 hp) of power and 700 Nm of torque on tap, it will top 100 km/h (62 mph) in just 3.9 seconds on the way to a top speed of 322 km/h (201 mph). The new engine is hooked up to an eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox, but keen drivers can take control with the slim paddles behind the steering wheel.
Even though it's a big car, the DB11 should still be able to get up on its toes and dance. The car has a fully adaptive suspension and steering setup, allowing owners to swap choose between relaxed GT mode, or two sportier options.
Nissan GT-R Nismo
The looks haven't changed all that much, but the new Nissan GT-R NISMO has been treated to a thorough refresh for next year. Although it looks similar to the car it replaces, the new nose on the NISMO feeds more air to the twin-turbo V6 under the hood without creating any extra drag. The new aero setup also creates more downforce than before, although Nissan doesn't say exactly how much. Suffice to say, it's probably still enough to ward off all comers at your local track day.
With a stiffer body, improved shock absorbers and new springs, the new NISMO should sit nice and flat through the twisty stuff, and drivers can tweak the engine, gearbox and dampers to suit their mood. Inside, the luxurious touches from the new GT-R have carried over to the NISMO, although there are still deeper bucket seats to stop you sliding around at high speed.
Take a browse through our gallery for a closer look at the best sports cars of 2016, and if we've neglected to mention your favorite sports car of the year, let us know in the comments below!