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Everyday cars have caught up with GTs

Long-legged Gran Turismo cars used to be the weapon of choice for a long-distance drive across the Continent… that’s all changed says Paul Horrell.

AT SOME POINT lost in the mists of time, makers of expensive European cars came up with the idea of the GT. The Grand Tourer, or Gran Turismo in Italian. The Italians were best at making those cars in the early days, as well as having the best-sounding language to speak of them.

A GT was meant to be the quickest and most stylish way to cross a continent. It could tackle fast routes and mountain passes. Plus, it would have to negotiate its way through city centres and arrive looking the part at a swanky hotel.

The template was a car more comfortable and refined than a pure racer, something that you could also see out of, and that could carry your bags. But crucially also a car more agile and lightweight than a bulky saloon. Some of the most desirable cars of all time fitted the description.*

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Here we are in 2016 and still the world’s car marketers are fixated on the GT notion. So is the world’s motoring press. Sadly, the advantage of a GT is history. The whole notion is pretty much obsolete.

I recently drove 1325km in a day, alone in the car. Strarting in Italy I crossed one of Europe’s most famous mountain passes, the Stelvio at 2757 metres high, then looped through Austria, hit the derestricted German autobahns and finally cruised back across France’s autoroutes, crossed the English Channel on a ferry and went to bed in London.

It was the sort of trip the GT was invented for. I on the other hand was in a 99-percenter’s hatchback, and it did me fine. My journey time and level of comfort simply would hardly have been beaten if I’d been in a Bentley Continental GT.

I say this having driven across Europe during my career in any number of Porsches, Aston Martins, Ferraris, Bentleys, and other members of the GT elite.

Three decades ago, spending more money to buy a top-end GT was rewarded by a greater ability to do long journeys fast. Now it simply isn’t. Cheap slow cars have caught up.

That’s a truth that goes unacknowledged in the petrolheaded car press and tyre-smoking websites. But hey we’re Practical Motoring, so let’s glory in the fact that our practical cars do the job so well.

Here’s why they’ve caught up.

For a start, roads have got busier, better, and crucially more stringently policed. As recently as a decade ago, it was common for cars to cruise at 160km/h-plus on French and Italian highways. I remember a French policeman, who’d pulled me in for about 155, telling me that he and his colleagues would have turned a blind eye to a true 145 in a 130 limit. That’s about 155 on most speedometers. Nowadays almost all the network either has cameras on it, or cops who’ll give you no such quarter.

Even in Germany, only a very small proportion of the Autobahns are still derestricted, and they mostly operate variable limits that lower at busy times. When the signs on the overhead gantries click down to 120 or 100, the cameras mounted alongside become active.

So, Mr V12-driver, exactly how are you going to arrive before me in my diesel Hyundai i30? Especially as I might slip by a human cop who’d be only too delighted to notch you up on his bedpost?

But what of the mountain roads, or the twisting byways where a GT would always have made such good progress? Sadly they’re now full of traffic. And in cities, modern GTs are usually too wide and cumbersome to feel at home.

Oh dear. So your super-GT’s journey times have actually gotten slower over the past couple of decades.

Meanwhile the common man’s car has sped up to close the gap. It too can easily cruise at 135km/h on the highway. Needless to say, with Australia’s limits and enforcement, the point is even more emphatic. Even the cheapest slowest car can do 101; even the fastest and most expensive may do more than that.

And on the rare occasions you find a deserted country road? Improvements in chassis, tyres, brakes and performance mean that today’s diesel hatch is honestly as fast across country as say an E-Type Jaguar, maybe a Porsche 928. Which means it’s as fast as most roads will allow. The occasions when you can deploy the full performance of today’s even higher performance cars are vanishingly few and brief.

And meanwhile the hatchback driver will be suffering less tyre noise and a calmer ride than the person in the GT. And he’ll have to stop for fuel less often. My money is on him arriving sooner, in a more relaxed state.

We live in a world where the gap between the rich and the rest of us is growing. But we can comfort ourselves with the thought that, in cars at any rate, time advantage is shrinking to nothing.

*Things like the pre-war Alfa Romeo 6C coupes or Bugatti Type 57. And then the post-WW2 heyday: the Maserati 3500GT, Lancia Aurelia B20, Ferrari 330GT, E-Type Jaguar, Aston Martin DB6, Gullwing Mercedes 300SL, Lamborghini Espada. Later the Porsche 928 and BMW M635i. These days? The Bentley Continental GT, Ferrari FF (sorry, GT4C Lusso), Aston Martin DB11, or, lower down the food chain, the V6 Jaguar F-Type (the V8 is too raw) or the more road-biased versions of the Porsche 911. You can see why everyone loves the idea of a GT can’t you?


Paul Horrell

Paul Horrell

Paul's working life has been paced out in cars. He began road-testing when the VW Golf was in its second generation. It's now in its eighth. He covers much more than the tyre-smoking part of the road-test landscape. He roots around in the financial machinations of the car corporations and the apparent voodoo of the technologies. Then he clarifies those complications so his general readers – too busy to lodge their heads up the industry's nether regions – get the fast track on what matters and what doesn't. A freelance writer living in London, he usually gets around the city by bicycle, which adds to his (sometimes justified) reputation as a bit green and a bit of a lefty. He's a member of Europe's Car of the Year jury.