Top Five of the Past Decade
The automotive world has seen its share of triumphs and failures as well. But I’m only going to focus on the most positive moments from the past ten years. Over the next five days I will share what I feel are the five best cars of the past decade. So buckle up and away we go! But first, a quick hat tip to Michael Spinelli from The Drive for doing his own Top Five of the last decade and inspiring me to do the same.
5. Porsche Cayman GT4 (2016)
The GT4 has been showered with accolades since its debut. With a new GT4, based off the current Porsche 718, hitting the roads, many automotive writers are dredging up their own notes on the original model to see how it compares to the new.
Porsche’s GT4 was the first time the company gave the mid-engined Cayman chassis the opportunity to dethrone the 911. Porsche has been overprotective of its rear-engined 911 since, well, forever. The world at large knew that if the Cayman was given the attention it deserved…along with the power it needed…it could stand up against big brother 911. And the GT4 did just that.
Borrowing bits and pieces from the 911 GT3, the GT4 was Porsche’s first full GT effort on the Cayman chassis and did they ever deliver. Taking the naturally-aspirated 3.8-liter flat-six from the 911 Carrera S, flipping it 180-degrees and pairing it with a manual six-speed transmission made this parts-bin special any car enthusiasts wet dream.
That six-cylinder engine was detuned to produce 385hp, down 15hp from the same engine when placed in the 911 S. But it didn’t matter. The GT4 could slaughter a racetrack with handling like a slot car on a magnetized track.
The biggest downside of the GT4 was super tall gearing but if there was enough room to bring the engine to it’s redline, I don’t think you would have complained about the aural party on the way up.
The Cayman GT4 was, and remains, an authentic driver’s car that delivers on every promise it’s spec sheets and sensual body tease.
4. Volkswagen Golf R (2012 – 2013 – Mark VI)
The predecessor to the Mk VI Golf R was Volkswagen’s R32. It featured a 3.2-liter VR6 six-cylinder engine that put out just under 250hp. People seemed disappointed when the new Golf R came out with a turbocharged four-cylinder. But that four-banger put out more power (265hp) and, above all else, was lighter. That changed the steering and handling dynamics of the top-of-the-line Golf by leaps and bounds. The Haldex all-wheel-drive system also provided sure-footed traction that helped catapult the R from corner to corner or helped slingshot the car through traffic.
I first saw the Golf R at its unveiling during the 2011 New York Auto Show. I fell in love with its lines (typical Golf evolution rather than revolution) and the package as a whole. When the model finally hit the streets I had a chance to test-drive one. I started giggling about two minutes into the drive. The R was so tossable yet felt so controllable that I couldn’t help but laugh. I didn’t stop laughing either, not for the entire drive. Thankfully it was only about a 15-minute demo otherwise I’d probably have a perma-grin like The Joker. Immediately after getting out of the R I got behind the wheel of a brand new GTI thinking there is no way the R can be that much better than a GTI. Yet it was. I placed an order that day.
My own Golf R was the first of the 2013 model year and I drove it for 60,000 miles before my son inherited it for his 17th birthday. That car taught me more about cars than any other car I’ve ever owned. Having driving pleasure in the real world wasn’t about more power, or being rear-wheel-drive, but it was a combination of size, weight, power, access to that power (read: MANUAL transmission!), visibility, and confidence that the car will deliver whatever I asked of it. The Mk VI Golf R never disappointed.
3. Ford Mustang Shelby GT350/350R (2016-2019)
The Mustang is one of the most popular sports cars but it has always been a bit of a portly beast to tame with a running joke of being a weekend car show curb star. The Shelby GT500 has always taken that formula and added more power which, for some drivers, meant more trouble.
But in 2012 Ford offered a variation of the Mustang called the Boss 302. The 302 was a real step forward for good driving dynamics on the Mustang platform but not quite worthy of making this list.
Ford launched an all-new Mustang in 2015. This new model featured an independent rear suspension, something Mustang purists scoffed at but the rest of the auto enthusiast world couldn’t wait to try out. The new Mustang was available with an EcoBoost turbocharged four-cylinder, a 3.7-liter V6, or a 5.0-liter V8.
Then Ford dropped the GT350 and the GT350R and holy crap is this car something to behold. I had the great fortune of being invited to a track tour to try out both the standard GT350 and the racier GT350R.
With a professional driver as my co-pilot we flew around the back half of the track at Road America and I reveled in the actions of the GT350. The weight of the steering, the response from the throttle, the precision of the manual shifter, all of these backed up by the flat-plane-crank “Voodoo” V8 made me push the Shelby harder and harder until I knew I was at my limit…the car was not. Then I switched to the 350R and did the same thing, except faster.
I cannot think of a better sounding engine than that in the current Shelby GT350. It has the classic deep thrum of an American V8 down low but as the tach needle swings towards the stratosphere. Redline is at a lofty 8,250rpm and by the time the needle bounces up there you will have been entertained by sounds you may have thought not possible from a certified engine in a road car.
The current Shelby GT350 is more akin to classic BMW M cars than the overweight, rear-end-swinging, Mustangs of the past. And I love it.
2. Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0 (2011 – 2012)
Porsche has had quite the history with its GT3 model and this is the one that sent me over the edge. When I was blessed with the opportunity to take the wheel and spend a day with the now legendary 4-liter I couldn’t sleep the night before.
The “997” GT3 was an amazing car in its own right and in typical Porsche fashion, the car kept evolving throughout the life of the 997 chassis. The 4.0-liter came to be in 2011 and, as its name suggests, the 3.8-liter flat-six was scrapped in favor of a full 4.0-liters. The engine put out just under 500hp and helped launch the RS 4.0 to 60mph in only 3.5 seconds. But all out speed wasn’t what this car was about.
The RS 4.0 was about finesse. There wasn’t a road blemish that you couldn’t detect through the steering wheel. And even with such phenomenal steering it was almost as much fun to steer the car with the throttle. So perfect was the balance of the RS 4.0 that, for the first time ever, I pondered the idea of just hitting the road. How many miles could I put between the owner and myself before they would wonder if I was coming back? I’m joking of course, but the RS 4.0 was just that good. I was in love.
The entirety of my time with this special car was on public roads and not on the track. While some might consider street driving a wasted opportunity, I certainly don’t. Seeing how the Porsche could devour those roads with balletic grace was simply amazing. It was clear that the Porsche would reward a good driver but it was just a clear that it would punish bad driving. This was a genuine driver’s car and not a car to fix your errors for you. And it was simply amazing.
1. Ferrari 458 Speciale (2014 – 2015)
I didn’t get a chance to drive the 458 Speciale until the fall of 2018. Porsche’s GT3 RS 4.0 had sat atop my list of the best cars since 2012 and in just a few short minutes behind the wheel of the Speciale all those fond memories of the Porsche faded into the past. While the Porsche was amazing, the Speciale was revelatory.
There are just under 600hp on hand mated to a seven-speed, lightning-fast, double-clutch transmission. All that power is fed to the rear wheels only and you might think that would make the Speciale a tail-happy “wreckloose”, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Everything in the Speciale happens instantly yet progressively…if that even makes sense. The 458 Specialie just delivers anything you require. Steering, throttle, braking, just ask and ye shall receive.
I’ve had a chance to sample the new F8 Tributo from Ferrari and it is also an absolute thrill ride. But the twin-turbo V8 can’t match the naturally aspirated engine of the Speciale for immediacy and aural pleasure. I fear that we will never see the likes of the 458 Speciale again.