Virginia International Raceway's 4.1-mile Grand Course is America's toughest racetrack, a thrilling mix of challenging corners and high-speed straights. Going fast here requires power and grip and resilience, plus a whole lot of confidence. If a performance car is hiding any weaknesses, we'll find them. That's why we return every year with a new crop of vehicles to run the fastest possible lap in the ultimate test of performance that we call Lightning Lap.
Had we made it as rock stars, this is how we'd spend our days off: We'd rent Virginia International Raceway, order up a fleet of the most interesting performance cars available, and then go as fast as we could until security asked us to leave. That fantasy meets reality once a year when we travel to VIR to lap the hottest cars of the moment for our Lightning Lap track test.
These laps reveal a vehicle's strengths and weaknesses and also the stories beyond the numbers. Still wondering why Chevrolet moved the Corvette's engine from the front to the middle? The C8's lap should clear things up. The rowdy Mini John Cooper Works GP claimed the Lightning Lap record for front-wheel-drive vehicles while the four-cylinder Mercedes-AMG CLA45 pulled out a surprise performance and vanquished the times set by eight V-8-powered AMG bruisers. The Porsche Taycan Turbo S made a real breakthrough for electric vehicles when it set a blazing lap in line with the fastest gas-powered sedans. And the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 shrugged off its hefty weight to circle the track quicker than a mid-engine supercar.
We run unmodified production cars, just like the ones you can buy from a dealer. They're rolling on factory rubber and burning pump gas. If you're wondering why a particular car is missing from our competition—say, every Aston Martin ever, the Ferrari F8 Tributo, or the Tesla Model 3 Performance—it's not because we didn't ask. Carmakers can't always provide what we need; sometimes they just have stage fright.
Back in 2006, we chose VIR because its 4.1-mile Grand Course configuration is the closest thing we have in the U.S. to Germany's brutal Nürburgring Nordschleife. This 24-turn asphalt crucible tests a car's ability to brake, accelerate, handle, and deal with the abuse that comes from limit driving. Each lap time represents the distillation of a vehicle's complete performance and character. Does the car's balance and communication help drivers push harder, or does its numb steering and sketchy behavior at the limit keep us from realizing its full potential? The answer is baked into each time, but you'll also find it spelled out in our tales from the track.
Lap Time: 3:09.0
Undersized rotors kill the 2.0-liter Supra's chances of Lightning Lap glory. Which is a shame, as the rest of this car is dying to show off some real track heroics. The four-cylinder Supra turns on a dime and pushes hard on the front straight. It can't match the 3.0-liter for speed or power, yet it feels every bit as agile. You'll want to lap it all day, but trust us, the brakes just won't have it.
Lap Time: 3:06.2
Though the CT4-V has a softer suspension and 139 fewer ponies than its forebear, the ATS-V, it approaches trackwork with the same can-do attitude. Grippy tires, responsive steering, and a sublime chassis bolster this car's V rating (and Cadillac's reputation for making awesome sports sedans), but the 325-hp turbo 2.7-liter lets it down. We have high expectations that the forthcoming Blackwing model will set things right.
Lap Time: 3:04.4
Four-cylinder Mustangs haven't always excelled at Lightning Lap. (The last EcoBoost we ran here crossed the finish line at a pokey 3:15.6.) This latest track special vindicates the half-hearted Stang by shaving 11.2 seconds from its predecessor's time. The secret to its success is mainly grippier rubber, though the 20-horse increase and handling tweaks deserve some of the credit.
Lap Time: 3:04.1
While the smaller CT4-V suffers from an underperforming powerplant, the Cadillac sports sedan with a 5 on its butt has no such problem. Packing a 360-hp 3.0-liter V-6, this Caddy shows up its little brother all over the track. Plus, it's a confidence-building machine, giving the driver ample feedback through the steering wheel and seat. If you're not grinning as you wind this V around VIR, something's wrong with you.
Lap Time: 3:03.8
This bewinged, limited-edition Mini uses every one of its 301 ponies to strip the Honda Civic Type R of its title as Lightning Lap's quickest front-driver. The razor-thin victory doesn't come easy, though. The GP is difficult to wrangle and unforgiving of mistakes: Push just a little too hard and it bites back with wheelspin and understeer. And if Mini is going to make track specials like this, it should probably put more thought into the transmission.
Lap Time: 3:03.4
Sure, this limited-edition model improves on the lap times of STIs past, but we—and Subaru—had higher hopes for it, especially given the price. The chassis and model-specific Dunlop tires shine in the technical sections of the track, but the lackluster engine gets in the way of the Subie's success. We eagerly await the next gen, though with reined-in expectations.
Lap Time: 3:03.2
The M340i is just a few seconds off the pace of the outgoing 425-hp M4. Its 382-hp turbocharged inline-six can’t keep up on the straights, but at least it keeps its cool during hot laps, and the eight-speed auto finds the right gear for every corner of the track. The brake pedal grows long with repeated abuse, but it’s the steering that falls most noticeably short. We hope BMW addresses this before we take its upcoming M cars to Virginia.
Lap Time: 2:59.3
The 2020 Supra 3.0 barely had time for a cool down lap before Toyota's engineers went back to work. Updated just a year after its debut, the new Supra 3.0 sings a song we like and cuts 2.1 seconds from its lap time. The turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six makes an additional 47 horsepower. Those engineers dialed out some body roll, but the Supra still bobs and leans and has its fun.
Lap Time: 2:59.5
We haven't run an F-type at VIR since before Jaguar made all-wheel drive standard on the V-8 R model in 2016. Splitting the 2021 version's 516 pound-feet among all four wheels keeps the rear in check, the nose pointed down the track, and helps cut 1.5 seconds from the 2015 F-type's time. The Jag's numbers are bit deceiving. The Corvette has a worse power-to-weight ratio, but it dusts the F-type. Regardless, the Jag has charms we can't measure with a stopwatch.
Lap Time: 2:58.2
We don't just throw around the word "heroic," but when the CLA45 laps VIR 7.7 seconds quicker than the previous-gen model despite almost identical power-to-weight ratio, well, how would you describe that? Joining the new Supra 3.0 on an exclusive list of cars that have posted a sub-three-minute lap with less than 400 horsepower, the CLA45 proves quicker than the Audi RS3, the BMW M2 Competition, and eight different V-8-powered AMGs.
Lap Time: 2:55.5
As much a luxury cruiser as it is a sports car, the M8 is big. At 4224 pounds, it's heavier than the Jaguar F-type R, and more than foot longer. The M8 is faster, too, and its 617-hp V-8 makes power everywhere power is called for at VIR. Though it's worth noting that last year's BMW M5 Competition ran quicker than the M8 despite a nearly identical spec sheet. Why? Good question.
Lap Time: 2:55.2
Hot-lapping EVs is a relatively new exercise. Porsche brought two identical cars to VIR, just in case something went wrong. Nothing went wrong and the Taycan Turbo S became the first EV to stand up to the Lightning Lap test. The fourth-heaviest vehicle we've ever had at VIR (and the heaviest that wasn't an SUV), it's also the quickest member of our over-5000-pound club. In the category of comically fast four-doors, regardless of power source, it lands between the BMW M5 Competition and the Mercedes-AMG E63 S.
Lap Time: 2:50.3
The Cayman GT4's 4.0-liter flat-six is based on the latest 911's (minus turbochargers), and its 414 horsepower gives it 29 more ponies than the old GT4. The new GT4's Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires grip better than the previous generation. The 8100-rpm redline provides a special kind of enjoyment. It makes sense that the 2020 GT4 takes a chunk out of the 2016 version's lap time. But there are intangibles at work here, too. This Porsche fits us just right. All the time, every time.
Lap Time: 2:49.0
Going mid-engine pays off big for the Corvette at VIR, with the C8 improving on the C7's time by several seconds. The new Vette corners faster and handles better than its predecessor. Plus, when you pare down the options list to just the performance bits, the C8 is the quickest Lightning Lapper you can buy for less than $70K.
Lap Time: 2:45.0
Bearing down on Turn 1 at more than 160 mph, the 631-hp V-10 takes us back to once upon a time—and to two years ago when we lapped a Huracán Performante that proved a touch faster than the Evo. Without the Performante's aero package, the Evo lacks the downforce to stick it to the ground at the highest velocities. We never warmed to the brake pedal, either. But, oh, that V-10. That thing stirs emotions.
Lap Time: 2:44.6
The GT500 has an intimidating amount of muscle underhood—enough to make you check your shorts. (If you haven't heard, it's the most powerful production car ever to come out of Dearborn.) The Mustang tests your mettle on every stretch of pavement. If you're brave enough to keep your foot in it, though, this 760-hp pony car will give you the ride of your life.
Lap Time: 2:42.5
It isn't breaking news that 911 Turbos are fast, or that we love them. This 2021 Turbo S, packing a 640-hp twin-turbo 3.7-liter flat-six, delivers 60 more horses than the last generation's 3.8-liter. This latest Turbo S bursts out of Turn 1 at 82.2 mph, the fastest speed we've ever recorded. What caught our attention, though, is that it broke into the all-time top 10 with relatively ordinary summer tires. What might it do with track rubber?
Lap Time: 2:38.4
Best lap time of the year? Check. Third-fastest of our 14 Lightning Laps? Yep. Is 174.6 mph on the front straight any good? It is. In fact, that's the highest speed we've recorded at VIR. The 765LT's 2:38.4 time lands it just behind the McLaren Senna and the Porsche 911 GT2 RS Weissach. What's crazy is we probably left a few tenths on the track. Always read the manual, friends. You never know what you'll find in there.