Four of the most driver-focused cars, from £30K Exige to £130K 360 Stradale. Which delivers the biggest hit? Richard Meaden prepares for an adrenalin rush
Exige v M400 v GT3 RS v 360CS
What makes a great driver's car? Minimal mass and maximum cornering ability is a pure and time-honoured recipe. But if you're hooked on adrenalin, only rampant power and incendiary acceleration can deliver the fix you crave. Likewise, obsessively detailed development and the focused motivation of motorsport homologation rarely fail to succeed, but then raw passion and flamboyant engineering can be similarly seductive.
Which brings us neatly to our four deliberately, deliciously mis-matched protagonists: the exquisite Lotus Exige, explosive Noble M400, exacting Porsche 911 GT3 RS and exuberant Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale. Four fabulous cars united in aim but divided by a faintly preposterous 235bhp and £100,000.
Clearly this is no ordinary test. How could it be when we've actively ignored the constraining parameters of power and price? This, then, is a group test in the purest sense. Fantasy for most of us, reality for a lucky few. A test where financial reality is suspended and our attention focused solely on which car gets the closest to our idea of being the perfect driver's car.
As you'd expect with the playing field skewed so crazily out of kilter, we're resorting to the greatest leveller we know: the magnificent roads of north Wales. Yes, I know we're always banging on about the hidden joys of the sun-forsaken principality, but it's impossible to over-stress just how good its roads are. With so little traffic and such a diversity of surface, corner and camber, you can test every facet of a car's dynamic abilities. That the country is also breathtakingly beautiful is a fortuitous bonus for our stressed-out snappers. Quite simply, there's no finer stage on which to play out this four-way drama.
It's been the Devil's own job getting these cars together, for neither Porsche nor Ferrari had examples of their most desirable products available from their press fleets. Fortunately, RS and Stradale owners seem to be an uncommonly generous bunch, and we managed to convince two of them that they really ought to spend a few days with us in Wales. Our profound thanks then, to Neil Primrose and Keith Sutton, without whom this test simply wouldn't have happened.
With the Ferrari making its way towards our second rendezvous point near Telford, the GT3 RS joining us tomorrow morning in Betws-y-Coed, and the Noble M400 hooking up with us en route at Corley services on the M6, it's a rag-tag bunch that leaves evo headquarters. Photographers Andy Morgan and Kenny P are in the Fast Fleet load-luggers - Audi S4 Avant and Volvo V70R - while Barker and Bovingdon are putting some miles on our Mini Cooper S Works and Vauxhall VX220 Turbo long-termers. And me? I'm in the Exige, of course.
It's a mark of its magnetic pull that despite knowing that most of our journey comprises motorways, the lure of the 'chrome orange' Lotus draws me in. The Exige is one of those cars that, once you've seen it, you just have to drive.
Comments have been made about it looking more like an Elise coupe than an out-and-out road racer. I can sympathise with those who mourn the no-frills S1, for it had the edgy, unfinished look of a racer in the midst of on-the-hoof development. The new car looks polished and purpose-built by comparison, its visual wildness at least partially tamed. However, a vibrant colour restores its impact, as my veering, neck-craning co-users of the M6 attest as they jockey for a better view.
Inside, you're presented with the familiar mix of metal, suede trim and black and silver plastics. Just as in the new Elise 111R, it strikes the right tone, blending quality and style with a satisfyingly single-minded sense of purpose. Only the Touring Pack's electric windows jar, thanks to after-thought switches that make opening and closing them more awkward than the manual winders. Still, there's always the £1765 Performance Pack option, which deletes the power winders and adds race seats and harnesses, twin oil-coolers and some carbon-effect trim.
The run from Northamptonshire to Corley is hardly a classic road test route, but it's already revealing a number of areas in which the S2 Exige comfortably trumps the original. For starters, the Toyota VVTL-i engine is a far better partner than the VHPD K-series, which seemed to alternate between coughing and farting at low revs and hollering in tortured pain at high revs, with very little harmony in between. In contrast, the Japanese unit is smooth and cleanly responsive in whatever gear and at whatever revs. It cruises comfortably, thanks to a six-speed 'box, and not only feels good for the claimed 189bhp but reassuringly bomb-proof too. In powertrain terms it's as though the Lotus has leapt from the mid-1960s to, well, the 21st century.
Having met with the M400 and its guardian, Noble PR man Simon Hucknall, we continue on our way towards Telford, the Stradale and another Little Chef cuppa. As we peel off the M6 onto some more interesting roads, the increasingly frequent roundabouts give me my first taste of the Exige's alter ego. The brakes, now equipped with ABS, are a vast improvement over the earlier non-ABS anchors, with plenty of bite, a uniform feel and serious stopping power. There's a fraction of slop in the travel, the kind of thing you notice more when you just want to 'cover' the brake pedal rather than the real do-or-die stuff, but you soon learn to compensate.
The gearbox has a much more mechanical shift than the stringy Elise/Exige shift of old, but the ratios have quite a stride. Consequently, when the opportunity presents itself to punch out of a roundabout in second gear and stretch up through third, you're already approaching three-figures by the time prudence dictates you back off. There's a satisfying and distinct kick at 6200rpm, the sort of thing VTEC fans will adore. The question is: will it be too difficult to keep the Exige on the boil when wide-open A-road becomes cut-and-thrust B-road? We'll find out soon enough.
We meet up with Keith Sutton in his Stradale, and it's a chance to swap cars, so I slip into the Noble. We've grown used to Lee Noble releasing increasingly potent M12s, upping the ante from the original 2.5-litre M12 GTO, through 3-litre GTO 3 and GTO 3R to this, the mighty 425bhp M400.
Aimed at the driver who wants the ultimate road and trackday tool rolled into one, the M400 has greatly increased power from its twin-turbo Ford V6 thanks to high-lift cams, forged pistons, larger turbochargers, improved cooling and bespoke mapping by Roush Technologies. This added potency has prompted a raft of chassis revisions, including new Dynamics springs and dampers, a front anti-roll bar, a new steering rack with an extra 0.8 turns of lock (to aid manoeuvrability and opposite-lock saves) and Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres. It's a terrifically thorough job, as you'd expect from Noble, but that's reflected in the basic list price of £62,495. Cheap compared with the similarly potent Porsche and Ferrari, but big-league money nonetheless.
While going over the drivetrain, Noble has also used the M400 as an opportunity to address one of the M12's major failings: the driving position. Now, thanks to some neat Sparco bucket seats and a redesigned floorpan that allows the seats to be mounted closer to the centre of the car, your body is less contorted when behind the wheel.
It's a positive step, but we still have issues with the exterior detailing and the overall ambience of the cockpit. Quite simply, it doesn't look up to the £60K-plus price tag. The decals, for instance, are crass in the extreme, while most of the instruments and switches can be bought from Demon Tweeks. It's easy to snipe from behind a keyboard, and I'm sure that judging by Noble's swift reaction to past criticisms, such gripes will be addressed sooner or later, either in a subsequent M12 or in an eventual all-new car.
As Bovingdon puts it: 'Noble still has some way to go when it comes to creating a car you're just as happy to stare at as to drive. Some people might get a bit sniffy about aesthetics not counting for as much as the driving experience, but if you're spending £60K it matters, and the sooner Noble recognises this the better.'
What's beyond question is how the M400 performs. M12s have always felt searingly quick, but the first serious squeeze of the M400's throttle releases pent-up energy of volcanic proportions. Second gear explodes in a furious blur of shrieking turbos and squirming rear tyres - a pause for the cross-gate shift into third - then the same torrent of violent acceleration. In a straight line the M400 is nothing short of savage. Claims of hitting 60mph in 3.5sec and 100mph in 8sec may sound far-fetched from where you're sitting, but not from where I am.
Like my first stint in the Exige, this initial foray in the Noble begins to hint at areas of improvement over the previous model. Attention has been paid to the gearshift, which could feel vague and sloppy in the 3R. It still feels pretty horrid when you do a few 'dry runs' up and down the 'box while stationary, and reverse never feels like it's engaged properly, but there's some welcome definition when you're gunning through the gears for real, with a shorter throw and more positive gate. Better then, but still not quite right.
Big gains have clearly been made in the chassis department too - no mean feat given the 3R's already elevated abilities. There's more feel through the steering, with still immediate but fractionally less jumpy initial response. Reserves of traction and road-holding are much increased thanks to trackday-spec P Zero Corsas, and the Dynamics dampers retain the 3R's supple poise while increasing the sense of control and connection with the road. It's easy to feel at one with the M400, it being one of those rare cars that involves you from walking pace upwards, but there's no doubt that finding its limits is something best left to a trackday.
By the time we arrive in Betws-y-Coed and fill-up with Optimax it's gone midday and the photographers are getting restless. With plenty of daylight left and no hint of rain, we're happy to oblige. While the shutters whirr in the Noble and Exige's direction, I grab the opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the Stradale. It's a car I know well, both from last year's eCOTY (063) and an earlier, unforgettable drive up Italy's famous Stelvio Pass (059). This, though, is the first time I've driven one in the UK.