When it comes to evaluating cars, no single metric better sums up vehicle dynamics than a lap time. No other test incorporates cornering, acceleration, and braking, plus reveals insights on at-the-limit behavior. And no North American track offers the variety and challenges of Virginia International Raceway's 4.1-mile Grand Course, which is why we've held Lightning Lap here since 2006.
This year's crop of cars doesn't look too different from that first event's, when we ran a Corvette Z06 but not one with a mid-engine 670-hp V-8. A Cayman appeared on the first roster, although it was not nearly as track focused as this year's Cayman GT4 RS.
There have been massive performance increases in the past 17 years, and not just for Porsches and Corvettes. The Honda Civic Type R offers 315 horsepower from the factory. Toyota fielded two cars: the rally-inspired GR Corolla and a manual-transmission-equipped Supra. Zero Hyundais appeared in 2006, but two this year—Kona N and Elantra N—returned times that might surprise you. BMW sent the M4 CSL and the electric i4 M50; both were significantly quicker than the 2006 M6 in the first event.
A new Subaru WRX and Audi RS3 brought a rally-car experience at two different price points. After a few issues with the BMW M240i, the Cadillac CT4-V Blackwing, and the Volkswagen GTI last year, we invited them back for a chance to improve their lap times. Mercedes and Lamborghini were missing from the first roster, but this year we lapped the new SL63, a 2+2 with all-wheel drive, and Lamborghini brought out a Huracán Tecnica, a less extreme version of the Huracán STO.
Now let's hit the track.
Lap Time: 3:11.6
We've heard plenty of grousing about the new Subaru WRX. The cladding is ugly. Its 271-hp turbocharged 2.4-liter flat-four is only three ponies better than the old 2.0-liter. It weighs more. It's too civilized.
Lap Time: 3:11.4
We invited Volkswagen's Golf GTI back for a return appearance, owing to a VBox data-card handling error that made last year's alleged 3:10.6 lap inadmissible in court. We fell short of redemption but did improve on last year's official time of 3:12.1 with a lap that ultimately landed midway between the two after a fraught prelude.
Lap Time: 3:07.3
After looking at the lap times, you may be wondering why the Elantra N couldn't beat the Kona N. Great question. The answer is tires. Hyundai didn't send the Elantra with extra tires—we ordered some, but they didn't arrive in time—so the Elantra had to chase time on thoroughly abused rubber. We'll confidently state that it'll do better than its 3:07.3 on fresh Michelin Pilot Sport 4S shoes.
Lap Time: 3:06.1
Hyundai has some explaining to do. Like why it created a tenacious and affordable little crossover that has no peers, one so extreme that its most aggressive N suspension mode is too stiff for VIR, causing us to dial it back to Sport. And yet it came to Lightning Lap packing no extra tires and its rears on the wear bars (with a dealer-inspection sticker calling attention to this fact, no less).
Lap Time: 3:04.7
Electric vehicles are hitting the market in record numbers, but they're far from well established at Lightning Lap. The i4 M50 is just the third EV we've run, following a 2015 Tesla Model S and a 2020 Porsche Taycan Turbo S (we would have run a Model S Plaid by now, but we don't believe the stock brakes are up to the task).
Lap Time: 3:00.6
Another repeat? Well, the 2-series got another invite because last year's car was missing a key performance option: the $2400 Cooling and High-Performance Tire package. Although we had no cooling issues before, this option nets a more powerful fan and an additional oil cooler, plus Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires—20 millimeters wider in front—mounted on wider wheels (0.5 inch wider in front, 1.0 inch at the rear).
Lap Time: 2:59.6
The GR Corolla called the police on us at least five times. Bounce it off a curb or slam on the brakes before entering a corner, and the GR, perhaps thinking it's a normal Toyota, calls 911. An unamused sheriff visited VIR, leading an on-hand Toyota technician to disable the system. Otherwise, when it wasn't narcing on us, the GR gave us fits of laughter.
Lap Time: 2:58.8
Here's one for the impatient. The Honda Civic Type R is the perfect track car for line jumpers, nail-biters, and folks who just don't want to spend life waiting. First corner: the long right-hander that calls for a slow roll into the throttle on exit. Most powerful front- drivers like the Type R easily overwhelm their front tires and dart wide if you're on the gas too early. The Civic requires no patience. Hit the gas, and the helical-type limited-slip differential and crafty front strut designed to minimize torque steer from the 315-hp engine shoot you smoothly out of the corner without diverting from the steering's path. Some in-corner traction credit should go to the widest factory rubber on any front-driver ever, 265/30ZR-19. On top of that, Honda offers Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires that give this car, with 61.7 percent of its weight on the nose, the second-highest level of grip of any front-driver we've tested in Turn 1 (1.06 g's), trailing the previous-gen Type R Limited Edition by 0.02 g.
Lap Time: 2:55.6
Often overshadowed by the “it's just a BMW” stigma, the Supra is actually superior to the BMW Z4 upon which it's based: better balance and control feel, relatively lightweight, and, unlike the BMW Z4, available with a terrific manual transmission. In theory, the manual should be a lap-time penalty, and the data shows our by-hand gearchanges losing some time to the automatic's quick shifts. But we still found more straight-line speed in this year's Supra (145.5 mph versus 144.3 for the auto), partially aided by favorable 40-degree morning temperatures. The tall gearing and the engine's wide powerband limited time-sapping upshifts to a mere five per lap.
Lap Time: 2:54.6
As you may recall, we lost a day with the CT4-V Blackwing last year after looping it following the blind Turn 10 and folding a front-right suspension link. Naturally, we invited the CT4-V Blackwing back, because everyone deserves a second chance, ourselves included.
When Cadillac's on-site representatives dangled General Motors development driver and hotshoe Bill Wise's 2:52.5 bogey in front of us, we had our make-good target.
Lap Time: 2:52.6
The new four-seat SL63 isn't an obvious track car. In fact, most tracks won't even let it run hot laps because it can't pass the so-called “broom-stick test” for rollover safety. A softtop fails when an imaginary line connecting the top of the windshield header to the rear edge of the trunk (or other prominent structure, such as a roll cage) bisects the driver's helmet. Without its automatic rollover protection deployed, the SL doesn't pass. Keeping this car off a track would be a shame because it's more than able to rip a fast lap. On the Front Straight, it hits 151.8 mph and averages nearly 120 mph in the Climbing Esses (just don't be too alarmed if the rear end wags a bit over the curbing). Those numbers put it remarkably close to the 2020 Corvette Stingray Z51's.
Lap Time: 2:52.5
We've read your letters asking about how much impact R-compound tires have on a lap at VIR. The Audi RS3 gave us that answer this year as we saw how sticky rubber transformed the 401-hp sports sedan.
Lap Time: 2:47.5
Judged by the numbers, the BMW M4 CSL's 2:47.5 lap impresses. It is the quickest BMW we've tested at VIR, with the CSL outperforming the 627-hp BMW M5 CS and the track-focused M4 GTS that preceded it.
Lap Time: 2:43.9
The Lamborghini badge is synonymous with speed, and to no one's surprise, the Huracán Tecnica is the fastest of this year's crop. Unencumbered by massive aerodynamic appendages, the Italian wedge sliced through the air, blitzing down the Front Straight at 165.0 mph.
Lap Time: 2:40.5
Porsche says the Cayman GT4 RS should not lap quicker than the 911 GT3. But we think that claim is track dependent, because the GT4 RS is a tenth of a second quicker around VIR with a lap of 2:40.5.
Lap Time: 2:38.6
With a 670-hp LT6 V-8, the new Corvette Z06 isn't the most powerful Vette ever, and, at 3646 pounds, it's certainly not the lightest, but no Vette is its equal on a racetrack. This C8 Z06 is the best street-legal Corvette ever
Lap Time: 3:39.1
Readers often write to us asking that we set lap times in non-performance vehicles. To prove we listen, we lapped our long-term Kia Carnival, making it our first minivan entry. The brakes went squishy, the body leaned, and its 290-hp V-6 sent the van to 112.4 mph on the Front Straight. The 3:39.1 it turned landed it dead last (315 out of 315) among production vehicles, 1.4 seconds behind the 130-hp 2015 Honda Fit. Anticipating a follow-up question, we loaded it with six passengers to see how the extra mass would affect the lap.
Lap Time: 25:44.0
At 6:37 a.m., well before the sun rose to melt the frost and burn off the fog, I left the start/finish on my leg-powered lap. While I didn’t have to contend with over-heating fluids or tire temperatures, I did have a mild hangover.
K.C. Colwell is Car and Driver's executive editor, who covers new cars and technology with a keen eye for automotive nonsense and with what he considers to be great car sense, which is a humblebrag. On his first day at C/D in 2004, he was given the keys to a Porsche 911 by someone who didn't even know if he had a driver's license. He also is one of the drivers who set fast laps at C/D's annual Lightning Lap track test.
Dan Edmunds was born into the world of automobiles, but not how you might think. His father was a retired racing driver who opened Autoresearch, a race-car-building shop, where Dan cut his teeth as a metal fabricator. Engineering school followed, then SCCA Showroom Stock racing, and that combination landed him suspension development jobs at two different automakers. His writing career began when he was picked up by Edmunds.com (no relation) to build a testing department.