Three Detroiters in Performance Car Final Four

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

It’s been a good year for Michigan teams in the Final Four. First Michigan State made it to the NCAA Men’s Basketball semifinals. And now Michigan’s Big Three automakers dominate Road & Track’s 2016 Performance Car of the Year finalists.

2016 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

The Chevrolet Corvette Z06, Dodge Viper ACR, and Ford Mustang GT350R join the Ferrari 488 GTB in vying for the prestigious award given annually by one of the country’s premier automotive-enthusiast publications. The winner will be announced Nov. 9.

2016 Dodge Viper ACR with Extreme Aero package

In beating out a list of competitors that included Final Four dynasties like the Porsche Cayman GT4 and Mercedes-AMG GT S, the Detroit thoroughbreds continue a hot streak of headlines showing that the Big Three can do more than just produce industry-best trucks. The Mustang was a finalist for North American Car of the Year last January, the Chevy Volt plug-in has a trophy-case full of awards, and just last month the Z06 beat all comers at Car and Driver’s 2015 Lightning Lap — including a Lamborghini and McLaren.

Ford Mustang GT350R

The Ann Arbor-based Road & Track has been putting the world’s best cars through their paces since 1947. Their criteria for Performance Car of the Year? “Simply the most thrilling car to drive,” says Editor Larry Webster

And Detroit products, he says, have never been more intoxicating.

“It’s definitely a trend that we have noticed. Twenty years ago the Big Three couldn’t produce a competitive performance car. But the shackles have been removed from the engineers’ hands. Somebody is letting them do what they want.”

Road & Track’s writers took this year’s competitors to the hills of Tennessee and Kentucky where they were subjected to more than 500 miles of hard road driving — then flogged mercilessly on the National Corvette Museum’s demanding, high-speed, 3.15-mile test track. Other than their goosebump appeal, the entrants had to be 2016 models that were “significantly updated versus the year before” and “at the top of the performance bracket.”

So the carbon-fiber-trimmed, 592-horsepower, V-8-powered Bentley Continental GT3R, for example, made the brackets. The cute-but-underpowered Mazda Miata did not.

The Mustang GT350 has wowed critics with its handling — and with its high-revving, 8,000-RPM, flat-plane crankshaft V-8 — a technology that had been almost exclusively the engineering domain of Ferrari. Not this year. Both the 488 GTB and Mustang exhibit the highest-revving eight-holers in the market today.

“Ford is really showing the world what they can do,” says Webster.

Winning R&T’s Final Four would be a nice going away present for Viper, which will reportedly be put out to pasture in 2017 due to slow sales. Webster regrets the Viper’s demise as he marveled at the 645-horsepower beast’s surprisingly nimble handling.

“If anyone wants the world to convert to autonomous cars,” smiles Webster, “they should remember the ACR.”

A big reason for Viper’s slow sales is the Herculean Corvette C7, which boasts sexy, Stingray styling, and aerodynamic tricks developed in conjunction with GM’s Pratt & Miller racing team. The Z06 is the C7 on steroids with 650 horsepower and more than 300 pounds of downforce. Road & Track’s judges marveled at the Z06’s Ferrari-like performance for just one-third the Italian dish’s price.

“Domestics were always good at speed per dollar,” muses Webster. “But that last 10 percent is always the hardest part of engineering. Now they deliver.”

If not for the Ferrari, Detroit might have swept the Final Four. Cadillac’s BMW M3-fighter, the acclaimed ATS-V, also made the tourney. “It has a superb chassis underneath, but the laggy powertrain has gotten some flack from us,” writes Road & Track.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com