Matt Farah Selects His Best (and Worst) Cars of 2016
It's a tough job, but someone had to drive 250 cars this year...
It’s the end of 2016, and because my job entails driving as large a variety of cars as I can possibly cram my ass into over the course of the year, I’m exactly the kind of person who’s set up to make one of those “Best Cars of the Year” lists. Which is exactly what I’ve done. But this presents a bit of a problem for me, since fundamentally, I don’t like the word “best” as it applies to cars.
This is a particularly annoying pet peeve to have, since I receive a lot of emails from nice people asking which car is best in a particular category, or which car is best for their price point, or the most difficult question of all—what is the best car I’ve ever driven?
The answer to that last one is the McLaren F1, in case you were wondering, but telling that to someone is hardly practical purchasing advice.
The only way I can talk about the best of anything is to write a huge disclaimer about how this entire article is my own personal taste and your experience may vary, and blah, blah, blah. You get the idea. I’ve also divided it into some basic categories covering pretty much all 250 cars I drove in 2016, since the best car on a track probably won’t be the best car to use every day, unless you’re a glutton for punishment—like this humble author, as it turns out, totally is. So, without further ado, here’s a bunch of the best (and a couple of the worst) cars I drove in 2016.
Best Daily Driver Under $50,000: 5.5L – Swapped 1999 Mercedes C43 AMG
Vintage Benz is super hot right now, and while the 4.3L V8 was the biggest engine AMG gave us in the US market version of the W202 generation C-Class, other markets got the bigger 5.5L V8 found in the contemporary E55 sedan. The owner of this C43, Alexander Paul, swapped in a complete E55 driveline, an OEM swap, added a basic Bilstein/H&R suspension setup on Monoblock wheels, and now he’s got a 3,400 lb sedan making 350 horsepower and 400 lb/ft in classic style, with a muscle car soundtrack.
Best Daily Driver Over $50,000: Mercedes-AMG S63 Cabriolet
OK, Mercedes has cleaned up this year in the Daily Driver category, but for good reason. The S63 is fast, fun to drive in any body style, and has the best seats of any car I’ve ever driven. If you’ve got the means, and your commute is your escape from the rest of the world, you cannot do better than the S63 Cab. It’s a nuclear-reactor powered spa with an ever changing view.
Best Luxury Car: Lingenfelter LS3 / T56 Swapped Jaguar XJ8L
Sure, you could have a brand new AMG or M car for what it probably took to turn this $1,200 parts Jaguar into the masterpiece it is now—but if you could, wouldn’t you do it too? Owner Karl Muth, who attended the Lotus 125 purchase party, commissioned the build “because he sometimes needs to drive clients around,” which is as good an excuse as any to build a 525-horsepower, long-wheelbase Jag with a gated manual transmission. Honestly, this thing could have been incredible if it was done at a 7 out of 10 level of finish, but Karl’s Jag is an 11, with custom badging, Aston-Martin style cantilever door handles, custom burled dash and bezel around a RacePak gauge cluster, and a full-custom leather and suede interior with diamond-stitched seat inserts. This Jag is the real deal.
Best Shop-Built Tuner Car: Flyin Miata LS3 ND
This one was a tough call between Flyin’ Miata’s spectacular 525-horsepower Miata and Limitless Motorworks’ bonkers Coyote-Swapped Cayman. Ultimately, either car would be well into the “Matt Farah Approved” way to burn 75-large, but the difference between “very good” and “best” when we’re talking about a shop-built car has to come down to the level of fit and finish of the build – to me this is very important, since the shop’s build is a reflection of what a customer should expect in their own build. Flyin’ Miata’s car is especially impressive given that it’s based on the current, new generation car and all the car’s accessory systems, gauges, radio and air conditioning, keyless entry, and more, all work. Functionally, the car is no less usable than a standard MX5, while packing nearly triple the horsepower of the car on which it’s based. Expensive? Sure, at $50,000 plus a donor ND Miata, it’s not cheap, but it’s got a better power-to-weight ratio than a new Corvette Z06 in a package that retains the Miata’s playful character.
Honorable Mention: BBI Autosport’s Porsche 997 Turbo which took first place in our /TUNED Tuner Car Shootout.
Best Home-Built Tuner Car: S54/6-speed - Swapped BMW E30 Coupe
The BMW E30 is really a delightful car to drive; just modern enough to have real, precise inputs, and old enough to appreciate how light and direct cars used to be. And while the M3 Variant climbs rapidly toward the six-figure mark even for ratty, high mileage examples, if you really want to go quick, the M3 isn’t the one you want anyway. For under $20,000 this E30 Coupe now packs the much larger S54 Inline Six from the E46 M3, a six-speed gearbox, and functional drive-by-wire with a working sport mode. The car is light, incredibly direct in every way, and very, very fast. This is one of a very small handful of cars I’ve offered to buy on the spot after driving them, and one day I may just have to build one.
Honorable Mention: Joseph Pezeshkian’s magnificent ‘FD’ RX7 – the best rotary car I’ve driven and absolutely tops for the marque.
Best Sub-$20,000 Car: Modified C5 Corvette
It would be easy for me to give this to myself, since I do own a similar car (for now) but this one goes to TST fan Travis Osborne who scored someone else’s project C5 Corvette for just under $20,000. With the larger LS3 swapped in alongside a Z06 gearbox, coilovers and swaybars, and a parts list literally pages long, this C5 is ready to go. It even came with an expensive set of HRE’s already installed. Travis got himself a great score, a strong platform, and now has a 550-horsepower monster of a C5 that, with good tires, could easily be one of the fastest cars at any track day in the country, for under $20,000.
Best Sub-$10,000 Car: 2005 Toyota Corolla XRS
This video will be more memorable to regular TST viewers than most, because of the most enthusiastic owner I’ve ever had on the show. George, the owner of this particular Corolla, is absolutely incredible, and the best reason I can think of to watch this video. Nevertheless, I got schooled on Toyota’s beige super-sleeper of a decade back. The Corolla XRS, specifically with a manual transmission, could be the best car for a teenager that there is, if you can find one. With the 8,200-RPM 2ZZ-GE four-cylinder engine better known as the heart of the Lotus Elise, a notchy, direct gearbox, great inputs, and a sport-tuned suspension (no, I swear, really), the Corolla XRS and its hatchback cousin, the Matrix XRS, are invisible on the road, but their drivers will be smiling just like George, because they know something special. This car is a goddamn riot to drive. It revs endlessly, is a joy to steer, to row gears, and to stand on the brakes into a corner. You could probably drive it like you hate its guts for a dozen years and it would take it with simple oil changes.
Best Track Car: Shelby GT350R
I drove the GT350R for the big /DRIVE Group Test earlier this year on track at Thunderhill. In fact, I first drove the Dodge Viper ACR, with its “Extreme Aero” package and those fender slats removed for super hardcore record-setting, pants shitting performance. Then I drove the Shelby, and it was a sigh of relief. Whereas something like the Viper is singularly focused - get as many track records as possible, an admirable goal from any performance manufacturer, I didn’t actually have all that much fun driving it compared to it’s lesser-equipped T/A sibling. The Shelby GT350R, on the other hand, ticks all the boxes for me. Grip? Check – with 305’s in the front, 315’s in the rear, magnetic shocks, and carbon fiber wheels, it sticks like a bitch. Power? Check – 526 of them, and a redline for days, with a soundtrack that will make you the envy of any track day. Fast, forgiving to drive at the limit, talkative, and usable as a real car (tick the air conditioning box, it’s 2017 almost for God’s sake and you aren’t Tommy Kendall), the GT350R does it for me. I did a track day and 1,500 road miles in six days on the press car, then offered to buy it rather than give it back, and was summarily refused. But that offer stands, and if someone Ford will sell me a GT350R for sticker price, I’ll buy one right now.
Best Supercar: Ferrari 488 Spider
That “personal preference” disclaimer I made back in the beginning really applies here because honestly folks, today’s supercars are all rock stars. I drove the Lamborghini Huracan coupe and Spyder, the McLaren 675LT and 570S, the Aventador SV, Aston Martin V12 Vantage S, Ferrari California T, the brutally fast Audi R8, and the 488’s, and seriously, the performance available from all these cars in reliable, usable packages is just crazy. But to me, the prettiest, the most usable, the most fun, the best use of your supercar dollar has to be the 488 Spider. Like the McLaren’s, it’s so fast that I’ve argued you should need a special license to buy one. Unlike the McLaren’s, its not a headache to use every day – it has normal doors, a surprising amount of room in the cockpit and on the parcel shelf behind the seats, and it’s “bumpy road” program, accessible with a quick tap of a button on the wheel, turns the ride into something simply sublime in the city. It embarrasses most six-figure sport sedans in ride quality; I can’t believe something with such high levels of performance can be, simultaneously, so soft and usable. It’s expensive, yes, but new Ferrari ownership comes with a strong reliability record with the 458, much of which carries over, and a particularly long, 7-year, unlimited mile warranty with strong resale on the back end. If I had the cash for a 488 Spider, I’d drive it every single day for half-a-dozen years and sell it as soon as the new model came out to people who couldn’t get one. That’s what I’d do.
Honorable Mention: Lotus Evora 400 – If you hoped the new, relaunched Acura NSX would be a little more like a modernized version of the old Acura NSX, what you really want is a Lotus Evora 400. No disrespect to Acura, since the new NSX seems to be quite the performer, and the few I’ve seen on the street so far look fly as hell, but for a simpler, more pure driving experience with surgical inputs, a symphonic soundtrack, and enough comfort and space for daily-driver detail, the Evora 400 is a staggeringly good car if you’re willing to roll the dice with the troubled brand.
The Year’s Worst Drives
The Vanderhall Laguna: I don’t really understand the point of something like the Vanderhall Laguna. It’s a trike, which is clearly something small-volume manufacturers are doing to skirt safety regulations. I mean, why else would you make something with three wheels? Isn’t four wheels better on a car than three wheels? I can forgive the Morgan 3-Wheeler, since they’ve been making it since the Teddy Roosevelt administration. The Morgan 3-Wheeler is fun, but that’s because it feels like flying a bomber from World War I, with a big, wooden tiller and its big-bore V-Twin. The Laguna has a Chevy Sonic engine and transmission, which means unlike the Morgan (or Polaris Slingshot, or Campagna T-Rex), it’s front-wheel drive. And no combination of front-drive and automatic, no matter how open the headers, will ever be any fun to drive. What’s really sad about the Laguna is that some of the details – the leatherwork, the carbon fiber body and interior, are actually quite exquisite, but when mated to a Chevy Sonic and gauge cluster, it feels like a halfway project. Ultimately I see these things as $25/hour rentals in Daytona Beach.
Roush Stage 3 Mustang GT: This is now the second time I’ve been drastically disappointed by a Roush car, which is too bad, because their supercharger hardware is excellent, and their cars always make good power. But it always seems like “power on paper” and never real, usable power, backed up by appropriate development and quality. Especially now, when Ford’s own performance division makes the GT350, and sells it for the same money. Things you appreciate in the GT350, such as the planted feel, the solid shift linkage of the Tremec gearbox, the body panels which are actually changed for aerodynamic purposes, are absent; replaced by bragging-rights level power levels, as long as no one looks too close and notices the 3M Tape holding on that “cowl hood.” To look at the RS3 on paper, you’d expect a stupendously fast, usable Mustang with a factory-finished feel, especially considering these cars are sold through Ford’s own dealer network. But what you get is a bunch of bullet points to brag about, but a package that feels imbalanced, cheap, and cheesy, without the attention to detail that something like the GT350 provides from the factory, where the goal isn’t having the most power; it’s creating the best drivers car.
I don’t know about you guys, but I really enjoyed 2016. I drove a lot of great cars; I met a lot of great people; I saw some truly beautiful places. And I couldn’t be more thankful for all the moving parts that make that happen, from the editorial staff at TheDrive, to the TangentVector crew that filmed me for TV this year, to the guys I do the Podcast with, and most importantly, all the people who have lent me cars to drive, without which, I’d have no job at all. Thank you all, and many more miles to go in 2017 before we sleep.