The Hottest Cars on America’s Toughest Track

The Hottest Cars on America’s Toughest Track

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver From the February/March 2022 issue of Car and Driver. On our

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

From the February/March 2022 issue of Car and Driver.

On our 15th trip to Virginia International Raceway, we set lap times in 21 of the best performance cars of the year. Over three days of hammering tires and brakes on America’s most grueling road course, a few records fell, some old scores were settled, and we came to the realization that this in no way resembles work.

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When we invented Lightning Lap in 2006, we wanted to develop a performance test that could not only compare the hottest cars of the year, but also become a yardstick to gauge progress over time.

Inspiration came from the German magazine Sport Auto, which published a monthly “Supertest” that included a lap time at the legendary 12.9-mile Nürburgring Nordschleife. One of the world’s most challenging road courses, the ‘Ring has some 180 corners and substantial elevation changes. Unfortunately, that track is an ocean away. We needed something closer.

We decided on Virginia International Raceway in Alton, Virginia. At 4.1 miles long in the Grand Course configuration, it’s one of the longest tracks in the country. This crucible contains 35 corners and bends (though only 24 numbered corners), several of them wickedly fast, some blind, and all difficult to master.

To create classes, we grouped the cars into five price segments (LL1 to LL5) that we’ve adjusted over the years for inflation. To make it fair, we chose to run cars the way a customer can buy them. Occasionally, that includes dealer accessories, but any performance extras you’d need to re-create our times are added into what we call the Lightning Lap base price. That first year, we brought 17 cars and four drivers—all four with racing experience—and achieved quick laps without mangling any machinery. We could’ve used a pro driver, but then we wouldn’t be able to provide first-hand experience and dissection of the cars.

This year we spread 21 cars over five drivers—three of whom were on staff in 2006, though not driving in that first year. As always, if there’s a vehicle missing from the group, either we’ve already tested it or the carmaker couldn’t supply a car or didn’t want to play. Some car­makers like to play, though, and this year there were at least 20 people from car and tire manufacturers replacing tires and making sure their entries were performing at their best.

Clearly, automakers have concluded that Lightning Lap is serious business. While some factory development drivers with thousands of track miles in their cars have occasionally beaten our times, the differences are small, and over the course of 15 runnings, our times have become a benchmark. Which is what we set out to achieve all of those years ago. —Csaba Csere, former editor-in-chief

lightning lap class boundaries

The Contenders


2022 subaru brz limited

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 3:12.4

The playful character that makes the BRZ such fun to drive on the street—its quick-witted responses and willingness to slide its tail—is every bit as present at VIR. It’s a heart-racing blast that slip-slides through corners, even if it posts the slowest lap time of the year.

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2022 volkswagen golf gti autobahn

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 3:12.1

The eighth-gen GTI’s performance this year reconfirmed what we’ve known for some time: Its handling is a marvel. Officially, it was 2.5 seconds per lap quicker than the seventh-gen GTI we ran here in 2015. Unofficially, it is even quicker. We’ll explain what happened in a minute.

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2022 toyota gr86 premium

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 3:11.8

The Toyota GR86 and Subaru BRZ are the automotive equivalent of identical twins separated at birth. It’s the age-old question of nature versus nurture—they start with the same mechanical DNA, but how did each parent influence their progeny’s development?

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2021 acura tlx type s shawd

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 3:06.7

The TLX starts off strong, hanging on for 1.00 g through Turn 1. But it works its Pirelli P Zero PZ4 tires so hard that they have only one strong lap in them before getting hot and greasy.

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2022 lexus is500 f sport performance

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 3:04.9

Our initial test of the IS500 exposed a flaw. After six stops from 70 mph and three from 100, the brake pedal felt like we’d stepped into mashed potatoes.

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2022 volkswagen golf r

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 3:04.3

A racetrack doesn’t care if a car looks like a decommissioned fighter jet or a box with windows. The only thing that matters at Lightning Lap is how quickly a vehicle can wend its way through the circuit. Golf Rs might be boxy machines with economy-car roots, but they’re also imbued with the power and handling to make your fast-driving aspirations a reality, at least most of the time.

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2022 bmw m240i xdrive

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 3:03.0

The M240i didn’t really get a fair shot this year. Like every other BMW present, the all-new 2 arrived without extra tires. To avoid prematurely wearing out the rubber, we sent it around the track in anger only four times in two days. The quickest lap came on the third session, and the by-then scrubbed-up tires contributed to a startling amount of turn-in oversteer that robbed some time.

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2022 bmw x4 m competition

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 3:02.9

The aptly named Roller Coaster consists of a 130-foot drop into one of the last corners before the front straight. Smashing over the final chunk of curbing on the left before dipping into the right-hander Hog Pen is usually routine business, but in BMW’s roided-out tilt-a-whirl, it’s a moment of weightlessness. Siri, play Sinatra’s “Come Fly with Me.”

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2020 audi rs q8

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 3:02.2

No one gets excited about SUVs at Lightning Lap. They’re too heavy, too tall, too big, too powerful for their own good. But there is real joy in seeing an elephant run free and then try to stop, probably.

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2021 honda civic type r limited edition

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 3:00.7

We anticipated that the Type R Limited Edition would take back the front-drive lap record from last year’s Mini GP by shedding a few pounds and swapping to Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 track rubber. But it delivered a 3.1-second spanking on the Mini, going 3.2 seconds quicker than the previous Type R

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2021 bmw x5 m competition

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 3:00.5

BMW used to tout its even front-to-rear weight distribution as one of the magical elements that made its cars handle so well. Jump from the Audi RS Q8 into the X5 M, and you’ll be a true believer. The X5 M carries 50.6 percent of its 5338 pounds in front, whereas 56.4 percent of the RS Q8’s 5489 pounds sits on the front tires. Instead of steady understeer, the X5 M is playful and works all its tires hard, not just the fronts. The X5 seemingly pivots around an axis in the middle of the car. Depending on where your feet shift the load by braking or accelerating, the X5 rotates in an easy and controllable manner that makes it seem alive and willing.

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2022 bentley continental gt speed

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 2:56.2

Bentley’s most powerful Continental GT may share its platform with the Porsche Panamera, but when you’re sawing at its wheel, wringing out the mighty W-12, and ensconced in the rich leather and brushed-aluminum cabin, the experience couldn’t be more different.

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2022 cadillac ct4v blackwing

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 2:55.6

They say that when you summit a mountain, the journey is only halfway over. Reach the crest of the Climbing Esses and what follows is a blind left-hander with existential repercussions. Overdo it by a mere 0.1 mph and a very bad ending becomes a very real possibility.

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2022 bmw m3 competition xdrive

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 2:53.5

The BMW M3 Competition takes the win over the Cadillac CT4-V Blackwing primarily because it can stay with the Cadillac in the lower-speed technical parts of the track and flex its 31-hp advantage on the straights and in the straight sections that lead to the Climbing Esses.

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2022 porsche cayenne turbo gt coupe

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 2:52.6

Here’s step one in the Cayenne Turbo GT’s recipe for beating the Lamborghini Urus’s SUV record: Bake four Pirelli P Zero Corsa PZC4 tires at 180 degrees for two hours. According to Porsche, heat-cycling them in this manner makes them more durable on track.

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2021 ford mustang mach 1

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 2:51.4

The Ford Mustang Mach 1 didn’t happen overnight. It’s the culmination of years of development to the sixth-gen Stang bundled into a single package. The 2019 Shelby GT350R donates its camber plates. With the front wheels canted like the head of a curious dog, the Mach 1 enjoys precise turn-in and averages a 1.13-g ride through Turn 1.

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2022 bmw m5 cs

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 2:50.3

Without so much as a press release or other announcement, BMW apparently decided it would like the Lightning Lap four-door record back and rolled out a lighter M5 CS. BMW briefly held the record, but then in 2019 was eclipsed by the Mercedes-AMG GT63 S with a 2:49.3 run.

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2022 cadillac ct5v blackwing

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 2:49.4

Fast laps come one of two ways: clean or ugly. The 2:49.4 we managed in the CT5-V Blackwing unquestionably falls under the latter classification. On the street, the big Blackwing is an absolute peach—a very fast one, but still juicy and good. But when you put the 4132-pound sedan on a track and right on the limit of its Pilot Sport 4S tires, its mass starts to fight against physics and the controls.

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2021 porsche panamera turbo s

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 2:47.8

Like the Hulk, the Porsche Panamera Turbo S’s Mamba Green hue hints at the rage beneath. But unlike Hulk, the Panamera gets better the angrier you make it. Put it into the curbs, stomp on the brakes at over 150 mph, throw it into corners as hard as you dare, and instead of wreaking havoc, it’ll simply drive away with the four-door lap record.

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2022 porsche 911 gt3

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 2:40.6

It is easy to characterize this 9000-rpm 4.0-liter flat-six as an automotive master­piece. And while it’s true that this engine is just about the best out there, when the GT3 is placed on a road course, it’s the chassis that makes the car worthy of hyperbolic praise.

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2021 mercedesamg gt black series

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

Lap Time: 2:37.0

As the GT Black Series tears down VIR’s front straight toward a peak speed of 166.0 mph, all the pit wall hears is the sound of air rushing around the body and the whoosh of the turbochargers. On the inside, however, the Benz V-8 puts out more mechanical noise than a cruise ship’s engine room, and there’s also the metallic tinks and pops you get in a purpose-built race car. If AMG fitted any sound insulation, it’s not working. But that’s about the only thing that doesn’t work on this car.

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