We announced Monday that the Motor Authority Best Car To Buy 2019 is the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1. But how did we get there? The ZR1 faced off against a class of strong contenders that included the Audi RS 5, BMW M5, Ford Mustang GT Performance Pack Level 2, and Jaguar I-Pace.
With 755 raging horses under its hood, the ZR1 certainly had a leg up on the competition. And we have loved the C7-generation Corvette since its debut. But you need to corral all that power and channel it to the pavement, and the ZR1 can't just be a track weapon that beats up the driver on the road. Would the ZR1 offer just enough luxury to overcome its comfort deficit to our other contenders?
We started our testing with a day at the 2.0-mile Atlanta Motorsports Park road course, then moved on to road drives of each vehicle.
After we all had seat time in each finalist, we sat down and hashed it out. We compared notes, made bold claims, told each other to quiet down, drank a few beverages, and all finally agreed that the ZR1 has what it takes to be the Motor Authority Best Car to Buy 2019.
Our hive mind had thoughts about why the ZR1 won, and about the strengths and weaknesses of the other cars as well.
The following is what our crew had to say about each of our contenders.
2019 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
2019 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1: The Missile
With the Corvette, Chevrolet brought an ICBM to a gunfight for out Best Car To Buy competition. Nowhere was that more true than at the 2.0-mile stretch of winding pavement known as Atlanta Motorsports Park. Big power, heaps of downforce, and precise handling made the ZR1 the star car at the track. It didn't just stand out—it blew away the competition.
We were all astonished by the ZR1's acceleration, but we agreed it does far more than that. "If there’s something the mighty ZR1 can’t do on a track like Atlanta Motorsports Park, I’m all ears," said Editorial Director Marty Padgett. "It rips and claws at the track with menacing acceleration and extra-sensory lateral grip—and it feels exceptionally composed in the in-betweens."
Managing Editor Aaron Cole noted "it’s the downforce that makes the ZR1 a hairy-chested dare machine."
That downforce helped make the ZR1 the most stable car in the hairy turn 16 right-hander onto the front straight after carrying a lot of speed through turns 13, 14, and 15. It also meant we reached the highest speeds heading into turn 1. Some of us used that downforce more than others and achieved higher speeds, but we all agreed the car held far more capability than our driving talent could access. Even though the ZR1 is a monster, Padgett noted it inspired confidence and The Car Connection’s Senior Editor Andrew Ganz called it remarkably manageable.
"None of the other cars come close to its lateral grip, or the speed it can confidently carry through transitions or gather on straightaways, or how unfazed the rear end feels at triple-digit speeds when nailing the brakes," said Green Car Reports Senior Editor Bengt Halvorson.
On the track, the ZR1 made rockstars of us all.
However, it wouldn't have won if it were unmanageable on the street.
Cole liked how tame it felt when unprovoked.
"It’s surprisingly sedate when it’s not driven hard. It’s far from a long-distance cruiser, but it’s no more punishing on long highway jaunts than, say, a Miata," he said.
After driving the ZR1 about 100 miles from Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson Airport to our cabin in the Georgia hills, I agree, but I wouldn't go that far. The ride quality, while not overly abusive, isn't as smooth as the Miata's; it can crash over sharp bumps that the Miata will soak up. The engine is so torque-rich that it's easy to forget to shift. At one point, I found myself cruising in second gear on the freeway. The steering that has so much feel on twisty roads can be darty at highway speeds, and the 285 mm front tires sometimes act like a distracted dog and tramline along road seams.
The crazy tall rear wing is a hindrance when loading luggage and you had better keep your fingers away when closing the hatch if you want to keep them. Other complaints centered the interior and the over-the-top looks.
Padgett loved the car but still hates the "teenage-dream flourishes carved into its flesh," while Cole asked: "Can’t we get a serialized number plate or something for more than six figures?"
In the end, it was the combination of track chops, street attitude, big power, and relative value that made the ZR1 the Motor Authority Best Car To Buy 2019.
Interactive Content Manager Joel Feder noted, "It can slay cars costing four times as much, if not more, on the track." It's true, and it's not a bad endorsement for our Best Car To Buy 2019.
2018 Audi RS 5
2018 Audi RS 5: A grand tourer, but not a track star
If our testing were only done at the track the Audi RS 5 would have placed last, which is a sad thing to say about a car bearing the RS badge. It proved to be a car best driven no harder than seven-tenths. The tires gave up grip too easily and imparted little information about their intentions. It felt soft on the track, didn't want to set a line and stick to it, and quick transitions created moments that ranged from floppiness to unsettled high-speed terror.
"High hopes were dashed here. The first lap in the Audi RS 5 sent unexpected responses through its steering wheel and seat bolsters and bottoms," Padgett said. "A car bearing RS initials shouldn’t corkscrew through rapid-fire chicanes, should offer up better tire grip, should feel a bit more exotic than the exceedingly handsome flat-gray coupe we drove into brilliant blue skies."
Cole said "track life is not the RS5’s best life," while others blamed the tires.
"Grip is sorely lacking compared to most of the other performance cars we had here at track day, and you need to be heavy-handed to get the most out of the systems," Halvorson said.
Feder agreed and said, "the second-tier Hankook tires don’t grip like Michelin Super Sports or Pirelli P Zeros, and the suspension allows the grand tourer to flop about."
Most of us agreed that power isn't the problem, though, and we don't miss the old V-8. While Feder said the V-6 is coarse at low rpms, he felt it has plenty of punch.
Cole liked both the V-6 and the automatic transmission. "I’m voting for the ZF 8-speed in the next presidential election. It’s predictable and it delivers what I want, all the time," he said.
After the disappointment of the racetrack, the RS 5 redeemed itself on the twisty roads in Georgia hill country. To a man, we found it a car we'd like to live with daily. "It's athletic and poised, but best suited to winding roads and long trips," Ganz said. "The RS 5 makes sense as a mile-eater, where its available massaging seats left me feeling refreshed."
Feder said it defined what a grand tourer should be. "It’s fast, it’s quick, and it’s gorgeous," he said.
But on balance, the RS 5's lack of track prowess kept it from the top spot. Padgett made a convincing argument: "The RS 5 excelled on open roads, and as a grand-tourer with quilted seats and multi-talented infotainment; on Atlanta Motorsports Park’s 2.0 miles of pavement, it came across as loose and uninspired. "
Ganz summed up our thoughts: "Take the RS 5 to the track, but leave it in the parking lot."
2018 BMW M5
2018 BMW M5: Fast but still digital
Opinions were split on the new BMW M5. Some of us felt BMW has recaptured old glory with the F90-generation M5, while others found it too big and too digital to ever approach the all-encompassing driver engagement of the E39 generation that was last built in 2003. The current car is much larger than that car, and much faster, and for some that means it can never go back to what it once was.
Padgett called the return to BMW greatness a false promise and said, "today’s big sport sedans cannot hope to recapture the lighter-weight, leaner-pillared, hydraulic-input grace of three generations ago. The BMW M5 is a sledgehammer with a slew of electronics that do BMW’s best job yet at simulating a bad-ass big-boy driving experience."
Cole and Feder defended the new M5. "I love the M5 again, and I’m not ashamed. This one fixes the disconnected feeling of the last version," Cole said. "The new F90 M5 brings back the feel and emotion behind the wheel," Feder said.
On the track, the M5 effortlessly builds speed and doesn't make a big, barbaric fuss about it. It's precise for its size, and it's willing to kick it's tail out. Cole noted that it was the quickest down the straights for him behind the ZR1, but Padgett argued that it's too digital. "The limits are pronounced and algorithmic: the M5 lets you yaw in its sport modes, to an achingly precise degree of rotation, and then it pulls the needle from the party record," he said.
We ran the car in the M Sport mode, and we all welcome the M Sport all-wheel-drive system. Padgett noted that it enables some awe-inspiring track heroics. Cole said it will "still throw the back end around and spin up the rears in an almost ridiculous way."
Our issues involved the car's size and weight. Atlanta Motorsports Park isn't a short track, but it has some tight, technical turns that proved troublesome for the M5. "Even if it’s lighter than the last version, it’s still heavy," said Cole, while both Ganz Feder felt it's not suited to technical road courses.
In the end, it couldn't quite shake it's past greatness. "This big AWD car feels a bit like you’re driving a high-G amusement-park ride that’s finessed with silicone bushings every step of the way. Sure it would beat an E39 M5 around a track, but zero hesitation about which one I’d pick," said Halvorson.
We'd all like an F90 that felt like an E39.
2018 Ford Mustang GT Peformance Package Level 2
2019 Ford Mustang GT Performance Pack Level 2: The Scalpel
The Mustang GT countered the RS 5. It impressed on the track and annoyed on the street, and it was all the Performance Pack Level 2's fault.
On the track, the Mustang GT proved to be a corner carver with vice-like grip from its Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, and its well-sorted chassis provided stability only matched by the lower and leaner Corvette. It sliced a direct and unwavering line through the tight turn 4 carousel, built speed and grip through the long arc of 13-14-15, then transitioned with confidence at triple-digit speeds into turn 16, a slight right-hander that can make you slow down and pucker up with the wrong chassis setup.
Padgett gave credit to the PP2 package and said it "pulls the rear end into compliance, delivers copious grip at the rear end, and listens to whispers of steering input through corners that demand subtle attention."
"The Mustang wins in terms of old-fashioned driving fun, with sticky, progressive tires, and more playful, accessible dynamics than the Corvette, with some rotation allowed without disabling everything," Halvorson said.
Ganz noted its "ultra-sharp, direct steering and grip-for-days suspension and tires," while Feder gushed about the tires' super-hero grip.
Our car had an issue, perhaps from overzealous journalists who had driven it during its previous 7,500 miles. The 2-3 shift slurred when speed-shifting for track duty. The issue could be avoided by letting the revs drop between gears, but it made us think this transmission may be fragile.
We all recognized that the Michelins pose a problem on the street. With so few sipes, they can't be driven in the rain, and at 305 mm wide at all four corners, they tramline along pavement seams all too willingly. "I dialed its steering into its heftiest mode simply because it made the car less prone to zipping into a neighboring lane while I was adjusting the radio," Ganz noted.
Cole said the Mustang was the rawest car of the group and the least forgiving, but declared it a bargain. Padgett said it had the best chance of any Mustang ever to win this award, calling it tossable track fun and the best Mustang without a Shelby badge.
However, with its sometimes jerky weight transfer and on-road rawness, it simply didn’t have enough to take the title.
2019 Jaguar I-Pace
2019 Jaguar I-Pace: Unexpected fun
If you would have told us the first electric vehicle to contend for the Motor Authority Best Car To Buy award would be a crossover SUV, we wouldn't have believed you. But here we are, and the I-Pace was far more fun than expected on the track, too.
All of us appreciated the instant torque of the electric motor. It's quite an advantage for immediate pull when exiting a turn, and the electric powertrain pushed the I-Pace to triple-digit speeds with relative ease. "The instantaneous rush of its electric power induced giggles on my first squeeze of its throttle," Ganz said.
"There’s something undeniably cool about leaning into an elbow of track, waiting for weight to transfer, then dialing up torque at a moment’s notice from a big battery pack underfoot," Padgett said. And lean the I-Pace did.
The tall-wagon ride height saddled it with a disadvantage in the corners, but it handled its weight well, eventually took a set, and rotated willingly when we lifted off the throttle. In that way, it acted like a taller Mitsubishi Evo, a car for which engineers no doubt made painstaking adjustments to dial in autocross moves.
Ganz surmised that it could handle even better, though. "The I-Pace rolled over quickly on its tires, which made me wonder what would happen if the stock Goodyears could be swapped out for something with a stiffer sidewall and a grippier tread pattern," he said.
We all loved the supportive seats, and we were split on the looks. On the street, we liked the ride quality, but we were disappointed with the range. The I-Pace has a big 90-kwh battery pack, so it should be rated higher than its 234-mile range. However, range seemed to drop even faster than that, especially as we drew the battery down.
Still, the I-Pace shows the electric future is bright. "The I-Pace hints—but didn’t quite confirm—we’ll be picking an electric car here as year’s best soon," Padgett said.
We all wonder how long that will be.