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BBC Autos

The Roundabout Blog

Top Gear’s big 50, distilled

  • Two decades of dominance

    With able assistance from readers, the editors of Top Gear magazine have named the 50 greatest cars built since the publication’s inaugural issue 20 years ago. Befitting the planet’s most opinionated automotive news source, this is a list that inspires strong reactions – not least of which from BBC Autos editor Matthew Phenix and deputy editor Jonathan Schultz, who have endeavoured to recreate moments where these special machines stormed into their lives.

    Apropos of the September 2013 issue, now on newsstands worldwide, BBC Autos revisits 10 of the 50 automobiles named to this most exclusive list.

  • Mazda MX-5 (Rank: 43)

    "The art is in the travelling, the science in the getting there. Only the MX-5 seems to understand that." (Top Gear)

    The MX-5 – which, depending on market, is variously known as the Miata, Eunos or Roadster – was conceived as the modern incarnation of the classic British roadster, but over three generations and 20-odd years, it has emerged as a classic in its own right. Mazda and the MX-5 team have defied the auto industry’s push for lower/longer/wider/heavier and stayed true to the car’s original mission, and in the process buried a good many would-be rivals. In a world of 200mph supercars, the MX-5 remains the little sports car that could, one that can be savoured at nine-tenths of its limits, on public roads, without risk of a prison sentence. It is today, as it was in 1989, magic. (Matthew Phenix/Photo: Mazda USA)

  • Mazda MX-5 (Rank: 43)

    "The art is in the travelling, the science in the getting there. Only the MX-5 seems to understand that." (Top Gear)

    The MX-5 – which, depending on market, is variously known as the Miata, Eunos or Roadster – was conceived as the modern incarnation of the classic British roadster, but over three generations and 20-odd years, it has emerged as a classic in its own right. Mazda and the MX-5 team have defied the auto industry’s push for lower/longer/wider/heavier and stayed true to the car’s original mission, and in the process buried a good many would-be rivals. In a world of 200mph supercars, the MX-5 remains the little sports car that could, one that can be savoured at nine-tenths of its limits, on public roads, without risk of a prison sentence. It is today, as it was in 1989, magic. (Matthew Phenix/Photo: Mazda USA)

  • Toyota GT86 (Rank: 37)

    “It’s come barrelling in with a big, dirty smile. It's designed for one thing: fun." (Top Gear)

    To build a sports coupe that feels as elemental as a Lotus but as livable as a Toyota is no small achievement. The GT86, marketed in the US as the Scion FR-S, won me over in the Catskills mountains of New York, where it gobbled two-lane county roads in third gear, revving like a band saw through the thick summer air. The best sports cars engage a driver’s hands and feet in a dialogue, meting out agreement and discord in unambiguous terms. On that score, the Toyota is among the best conversationalists you’d ever hope to encounter. (Jonathan Schultz/Photo: Newspress)

  • Toyota GT86 (Rank: 37)

    “It’s come barrelling in with a big, dirty smile. It's designed for one thing: fun." (Top Gear)

    To build a sports coupe that feels as elemental as a Lotus but as livable as a Toyota is no small achievement. The GT86, marketed in the US as the Scion FR-S, won me over in the Catskills mountains of New York, where it gobbled two-lane county roads in third gear, revving like a band saw through the thick summer air. The best sports cars engage a driver’s hands and feet in a dialogue, meting out agreement and discord in unambiguous terms. On that score, the Toyota is among the best conversationalists you’d ever hope to encounter. (Jonathan Schultz/Photo: Newspress)

  • Lotus Elise (Rank: 33)

    "Something to be taken out, savoured then popped away until next time." (Top Gear)

    Every inch the minimalist masterpiece that Colin Chapman’s seminal Lotus Seven was when it debuted in 1957, the Rover-engined Elise arrived to fanfare in the UK in 1996. Enthusiasts in the US watched with wide eyes as the home market celebrated the arrival of a succession of ever-more-thrilling variants, including the quicker 111S and the unhinged, open-wheel 340R. It wasn’t until 2004, when the Toyota-engined Series 2 at last landed in the US, did I score some very memorable seat time. A summer’s drive home from the office became a five-hour romp along country roads, chasing the setting sun and spooking livestock with an 8,000rpm scream. (MP/Photo: Lotus Cars)

  • Lotus Elise (Rank: 33)

    "Something to be taken out, savoured then popped away until next time." (Top Gear)

    Every inch the minimalist masterpiece that Colin Chapman’s seminal Lotus Seven was when it debuted in 1957, the Rover-engined Elise arrived to fanfare in the UK in 1996. Enthusiasts in the US watched with wide eyes as the home market celebrated the arrival of a succession of ever-more-thrilling variants, including the quicker 111S and the unhinged, open-wheel 340R. It wasn’t until 2004, when the Toyota-engined Series 2 at last landed in the US, did I score some very memorable seat time. A summer’s drive home from the office became a five-hour romp along country roads, chasing the setting sun and spooking livestock with an 8,000rpm scream. (MP/Photo: Lotus Cars)

  • Land Rover Discovery3 (Rank: 27)

    "Deals with muck and mountains better than any LR before, drives better on-road than any SUV." (Top Gear)

    I have had the rare good fortune of piloting a bright orange Discovery over a sandy, thousand-mile swath of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. I have driven one across the midsection of Iceland at 1mph while a cinematically epic blizzard raged through its windscreen. I have seen this upright off-roader lope across 12-storey sand dunes, scale boulders as big as Beetles and ford kidney-deep rivers encrusted with ice. And now, years later, the Disco’s mythology looms large in my memory. My gaze lingers when one of these square-jawed beauties rolls up alongside me in Los Angeles traffic. Where some may see a seven-seat luxury SUV with a prestige nameplate, I see an all-conquering hero. (MP/Photo: Land Rover)

  • Land Rover Discovery3 (Rank: 27)

    "Deals with muck and mountains better than any LR before, drives better on-road than any SUV." (Top Gear)

    I have had the rare good fortune of piloting a bright orange Discovery over a sandy, thousand-mile swath of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. I have driven one across the midsection of Iceland at 1mph while a cinematically epic blizzard raged through its windscreen. I have seen this upright off-roader lope across 12-storey sand dunes, scale boulders as big as Beetles and ford kidney-deep rivers encrusted with ice. And now, years later, the Disco’s mythology looms large in my memory. My gaze lingers when one of these square-jawed beauties rolls up alongside me in Los Angeles traffic. Where some may see a seven-seat luxury SUV with a prestige nameplate, I see an all-conquering hero. (MP/Photo: Land Rover)

  • Audi TT (Rank: 25)

    "The TT looks stunning. It's quite clearly one of the best-looking cars in the world." (Top Gear)

    Three years ago, my mother bought a first-generation Audi TT, a car she had coveted since its appearance in the 1998 Neiman Marcus Christmas Book. The example she found was a 2002 model with a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine producing 178 horsepower – or so the used-car salesman said. During a test drive, the engine revved suspiciously high in fifth gear. On a lark my mom tried upshifting, and lo and behold, the cogs meshed and the revs dropped. This TT was in fact the faster, more expensive, six-speed 222hp specification, whose previous owner had – for reasons too inscrutable to grasp – replaced the shift-knob cap with that of a five-speed TT.

    Whenever the mother allows her son to take this well-bought, Bauhaus-inspired coupe out for a solo spin, he marvels at the all-wheel-drive car’s willingness to surrender traction in a corner, a rare treat among Quattro-equipped Audis. Such revelations will likely give mother pause before she offers son the keys again. (JS/Photo: Newspress)

  • Audi TT (Rank: 25)

    "The TT looks stunning. It's quite clearly one of the best-looking cars in the world." (Top Gear)

    Three years ago, my mother bought a first-generation Audi TT, a car she had coveted since its appearance in the 1998 Neiman Marcus Christmas Book. The example she found was a 2002 model with a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine producing 178 horsepower – or so the used-car salesman said. During a test drive, the engine revved suspiciously high in fifth gear. On a lark my mom tried upshifting, and lo and behold, the cogs meshed and the revs dropped. This TT was in fact the faster, more expensive, six-speed 222hp specification, whose previous owner had – for reasons too inscrutable to grasp – replaced the shift-knob cap with that of a five-speed TT.

    Whenever the mother allows her son to take this well-bought, Bauhaus-inspired coupe out for a solo spin, he marvels at the all-wheel-drive car’s willingness to surrender traction in a corner, a rare treat among Quattro-equipped Audis. Such revelations will likely give mother pause before she offers son the keys again. (JS/Photo: Newspress)

  • Bentley Continental GT (Rank: 24)

    "If you want something to take you and three others across continents, there's nothing better on the planet." (Top Gear)

    I was in southern Spain, chatting with my mentor, the late car writer and raconteur David E Davis Jr, over the centre console of a Continental GT. Ahead, the yellow plains sloped and gradually levelled, and the laser-straight road narrowed until it pricked the horizon. And though the speedometer registered a world-blurring 155mph, our voices were no more raised than they might have been over a relaxed dinner. That’s the sort of car the Continental GT is: a private jet of an automobile. This burlwood cousin of the Bugatti Veyron, a four-seat grand-tourer capable of flirting with 200mph when the road allows it, is the very best way to fly without actually flying. (MP/Photo: Bentley Motors)

  • Bentley Continental GT (Rank: 24)

    "If you want something to take you and three others across continents, there's nothing better on the planet." (Top Gear)

    I was in southern Spain, chatting with my mentor, the late car writer and raconteur David E Davis Jr, over the centre console of a Continental GT. Ahead, the yellow plains sloped and gradually levelled, and the laser-straight road narrowed until it pricked the horizon. And though the speedometer registered a world-blurring 155mph, our voices were no more raised than they might have been over a relaxed dinner. That’s the sort of car the Continental GT is: a private jet of an automobile. This burlwood cousin of the Bugatti Veyron, a four-seat grand-tourer capable of flirting with 200mph when the road allows it, is the very best way to fly without actually flying. (MP/Photo: Bentley Motors)

  • Toyota Hilux (Rank: 22)

    "The most indestructible car in the world. When the machines eventually rise up, you know what they'll be driving." (Top Gear)

    Patagonia is no country for old Ford Rangers. Our Argentine fishing guide’s 4x4 was hub-deep in river sand, and the usual tricks – babying the throttle, wedging stones and twigs under the tires – would not change that fact. Eight miles from the nearest road, we made camp, convinced that a long, dry slog awaited us the next morning. But at first light a Toyota Hilux appeared with a winch peeking out from below its bumper. As the tow cable pulled taut around the hapless Ford’s front axle, the Hilux dug in and, with measured, quiet assurance, dislodged the Ranger. A round of enthusiastic handshakes later, we watched our saviour motor off along the riverbank, sniffing the air for trophy trout and other pickup trucks in distress. (JS/Photo: Newspress)

  • Toyota Hilux (Rank: 22)

    "The most indestructible car in the world. When the machines eventually rise up, you know what they'll be driving." (Top Gear)

    Patagonia is no country for old Ford Rangers. Our Argentine fishing guide’s 4x4 was hub-deep in river sand, and the usual tricks – babying the throttle, wedging stones and twigs under the tires – would not change that fact. Eight miles from the nearest road, we made camp, convinced that a long, dry slog awaited us the next morning. But at first light a Toyota Hilux appeared with a winch peeking out from below its bumper. As the tow cable pulled taut around the hapless Ford’s front axle, the Hilux dug in and, with measured, quiet assurance, dislodged the Ranger. A round of enthusiastic handshakes later, we watched our saviour motor off along the riverbank, sniffing the air for trophy trout and other pickup trucks in distress. (JS)

    Above, two Hilux trucks on a 2012 expedition to the South Pole. (Photo: Newspress)

  • Nissan GT-R (Rank: 13)

    "In short, it's extraordinary. One of the fastest cars ever made, and one of the best we've driven." (Top Gear)

    Flattering. That’s the GT-R at Lime Rock Park, a historic and challenging racetrack draped across the rolling farmland of western Connecticut. Carrying excessive speed toward a corner best negotiated in second gear, the brakes hauled the near-4,000lb supercar down to a crawl with unnerving precision. Applying the gas prematurely when entering the circuit’s lone straight, the all-wheel-drive system held the car in line, sparing driver from meeting guardrail. For all the viciousness of this 500-horsepower Godzilla, it is supple and smart enough to handle lesser beasts with kid gloves. (JS/Photo: Newspress)

  • Nissan GT-R (Rank: 13)

    "In short, it's extraordinary. One of the fastest cars ever made, and one of the best we've driven." (Top Gear)

    Flattering. That’s the GT-R at Lime Rock Park, a historic and challenging racetrack draped across the rolling farmland of western Connecticut. Carrying excessive speed toward a corner best negotiated in second gear, the brakes hauled the near-4,000lb supercar down to a crawl with unnerving precision. Applying the gas prematurely when entering the circuit’s lone straight, the all-wheel-drive system held the car in line, sparing driver from meeting guardrail. For all the viciousness of this 500-horsepower Godzilla, it is supple and smart enough to handle lesser beasts with kid gloves. (JS/Photo: Nissan North America)

  • Ford Focus (Rank: 7)

    "Proof a 5dr hatch can be not just a commodity, but something you enjoy and desire." (Top Gear)

    Though a 1986 Toyota Camry with 185,000 miles on the odometer was my first car, the two-door Ford Focus ZX3 I bought with 22,000 miles on the clock feels like the more significant purchase. The Focus wanted nothing more than to find a canyon road – easy quarry in Los Angeles, my home at the time – where it could compress its springs. Snow chains and a ski rack gave it a rally car’s presence in the Sierras, and on a trip across the US, it averaged 35mpg and suffered nothing worse than a tire leak. Seeing a ZX3 parked on a street reminds me how well it has aged – and how foolish I was to give mine up. (JS/Photo: Ford Motor)

  • Ford Focus (Rank: 7)

    "Proof a 5dr hatch can be not just a commodity, but something you enjoy and desire." (Top Gear)

    Though a 1986 Toyota Camry with 185,000 miles on the odometer was my first car, the two-door Ford Focus ZX3 I bought with 22,000 miles on the clock feels like the more significant purchase. The Focus wanted nothing more than to find a canyon road – easy quarry in Los Angeles, my home at the time – where it could compress its springs. Snow chains and a ski rack gave it a rally car’s presence in the Sierras, and on a trip across the US, it averaged 35mpg and suffered nothing worse than a tire leak. Seeing a ZX3 parked on a street reminds me how well it has aged – and how foolish I was to give mine up. (JS)

    Above, Colin McRae piloting his factory Focus during the 2000 World Rally Championship. (Photo: Grazia Neri/Hulton Archive/Getty)

  • Bugatti Veyron (Rank: 1)

    "Nothing prepares you for the shock of the acceleration when you open the throttle and unleash a thousand horses..." (Top Gear)

    The Volkswagen Group spent billions on the Veyron. Billions. Now, another company might have thrown all that cash at a Formula 1 team and perhaps seen a small return on the investment in terms of transferrable road-car technology. But Bugatti took a different course, developing a from-scratch supercar that achieves Formula 1 levels of performance within the parameters of a road car. The Veyron is safe, benign, opulent and reasonably reliable. No, the car of the future may not spin out 1,001 horsepower and wear $42,000 tires, but that's not the point. In creating and maintaining the Veyron, Bugatti has amassed heaps of data related to engine tech and active aerodynamics and advanced materials. You may never own a Bugatti, but you’ll own parts of it in a future car. That, friends, is ample reason for the Veyron to top Top Gear’s list. (MP/Photo: Bugatti Cars)

    Read more about the 50 greatest cars of the past 20 years in the September issue of Top Gear magazine.

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