Maniacal laughter, insightful tech talk, and controversial personalities are the glue that holds Top Gear together. What's truly memorable is how the hosts present modern automotive marvels so that we can feel the speed, enjoy the handling, and imagine ourselves pressed back in the well-bolstered seat as the Veyron's massive horsepower pushes man and machine over 200 miles per hour. They also recognize the utility and simplicity of the Renault Clio, the mastery of turbo lag and uneven handling in the Porsche 911 and the light touch which luxury allows in the Rolls Royce Phantom.
Here are some of Top Gear's best cars over the years, based not on superlatives but the enjoyment of driving.
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Honda has produced the Civic as basic transportation since 1972. The Type-R is the Civic's alter ego with 306 horsepower and a host of updates. The Top Gear hosts loved the way the Honda Civic Type-R was transformed from a common volume-sales vehicle into a fierce racing competitor. Perhaps it reminded them of the Mini?
The classic British Mini Cooper was a success both as an economical commuter car and a track racer. It has been a favorite of Top Gear, appearing in many roles throughout the show's long life. Some parts the Mini played were routine off-the-shelf transportation, others outside the everyday commuting role on the racetrack and others totally unexpected and involving rockets attached to it. The trademark Mini is now owned by BMW, by the way.
Porsche took basic VW air-cooled engineering and made it into a classic road-hugging, smooth-launching sports car. In the early days, some Porsche 356 engines could even be bolted into VW Beetles for extra fun. Anyway, some (perhaps not Clarkson) of the Top Gear folks are fans of the way that the Porsche 911 GT3 RS has evolved to manage turbo boost to avoid the rocket-like lag which can make maneuvers like overtaking somewhat sketchy.
The Corvette ZR 1 made Top Gear admit that Americans could make a car that didn't appear "silly" and unsophisticated to British car cognoscenti. It kept winning at LeMans, so they had to face facts. A 205 mph top speed also impressed them, but they couldn't resist snarking with dry wit about the powerful American car's ability to also "go around corners." Muscle does make the handling more challenging, but the ZR 1 and American engineering proved capable.
Audi keeps building family-friendly station wagons and then taking them to the limit. Top Gear enjoyed the RS2, asking how it lives a double life as a supercar slayer which has a top speed of 162 mph and 0-62 mph time of 4.8 seconds. The photo here is of a newer model, the S6, driven by Prince William, Duke of Cambridge to a polo match. Recent Q-series models offer similar high-performance powertrains with Quattro all-wheel drive.
Known as the VW Rabbit at first in the U.S. and originally a basic, boxy hatchback commuter car, this fun car evolved by way of a playful "GTI" option with a bit hotter engine and a few performance tweaks and badges. It caught on, and long after the similar but sports car-styled Scirocco left the U.S. market, the Rabbit GTI had gained traction as the Golf GTI (the original Rabbit was Golf in Europe) and taken on a life of its own, becoming a family-oriented and lower-cost VW performance car.
Top Gear, speaking with admiration about the Ferrari 458, expressed frustration about the inconsistency with which Ferrari designs and produces their cars. The design of one model they said looked like it crashed into a Venetian blind showroom, whatever that means. As they noted, sometimes everything comes together from performance to classic design as in the 458.
This exemplary and stately British touring car requires only fingertip control to drive and contains a champagne cooler and a large number of other non-performance amenities. In test drives, Rolls Royce Phantom almost seemed like modern "fly by wire" such as the Boeing 777, requiring little effort to control a large, sophisticated machine. The degree of sound insulation and the luxurious amenities make it enjoyable to ride in one, but it's also a pleasure to drive the Phantom.
British sports and touring car manufacturer Aston Martin was founded in 1913, and perhaps that's why the V12 Vantage brings 500-plus horsepower to Top Gear's test track with a traditional manual transmission and other low-tech holdovers. It still uses hydraulic steering, manual transmission, and a normally aspirated engine. There aren't many of these beauties -- about 14 --, but for fans of classic British cars, it's history, built in the present.
The McLaren F1, Top Gear personalities noted, might be exceeded in one area or another as time passes, but they saw it as such a combination of perfections that it stands alone. While it is the product of a legendary racing organization and designed for the track, word has it that one F1 has been made street-legal.
The million-dollar, thousand-horsepower Buggati Veyron stood up against the Eurofighter in a horizontal versus vertical round-trip Top Gear test. It was a surprisingly nail-biting competition -- or perhaps that's just how they dramatized it. Spoiler alert: the Eurofighter, capable of exceeding 1,000 mph, beat the Veyron by a small amount. James May took the Buggati Veyron well over 200 mph in that episode.
The Top Gear hosts spoke of Lexus as a line of perfectionistic executive cars for golf outings -- until they met the LFA. They laughed at the idea of a Lexus that was anything but staid and respectable, then saw this beast and the V10 with 553 hp which the LFA uses to keep the driver anything but sedate. Lexus seems to have awakened something within the company, as further performance models are being designed and hand-crafted.