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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)

Extreme Sports

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

June 2004

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.


58 Posts
Discussion Starter · #2 · (Edited)
Extreme Sports: Continued

We rightly came in for some stick last year for initially placing the Stradale ahead of the GT3 in our Stelvio feature, only to place the GT3 well ahead of it in the subsequent eCOTY test. Our only defence is that you can only go with what you feel on the day. And when the roads and conditions, and crucially, your mood is right, to be honest it's hard not to be instantly and hopelessly seduced by the raucous Ferrari. It looks so right, so sharp and so special. Then you swing open the feather-light door, thumb the starter button, hear the exhausts blare and the seduction is complete.

It feels surprisingly big after the Noble though, an impression created by the big steering wheel and spacious cockpit, rather than cumbersome dynamics. Despite this you feel happy to jump in and drive fast from the off. Not flat-out fast, but quicker sooner than you'd be happy to go in the Noble. I put this down to the paddle-shift and ASR system (not to mention ABS brakes), all of which are absent in the wholly organic Noble.

As you can probably imagine, fast in something as potent as the Stradale takes some time to acclimatise to. It's during this phase that the Stradale scores, for you're sufficiently overwhelmed by the speed, noise and intensity of the experience to stay well shy of its limits. Only when the awe subsides and you begin to commit harder and faster to corners, asking more serious questions of the steering feel and chassis composure, do you begin to discover the ****** in its armour.

With photography progressing apace, Barker, Bovvers and myself have been grabbing opportunities to get meaningful wheeltime in the Exige, M400 and Stradale. It's a great shame the GT3 RS isn't here on day one, for we can't wait to discover the differences between it and the fabulous but flawed GT3. Nevertheless, with the promise of a charge back to Betws-y-Coed along one of our all-time favourite stretches of road, the opportunity to settle the Noble and Ferrari in-fight has arrived.

Barker's leading in the 360, accompanied by Bov who's vacated the Exige for Keith Sutton to sample. I'm happily strapped into the Noble, its broad, hungry nose tucked behind the Ferrari's distinctive venturi-adorned rump. As ever, the pace builds gradually but inexorably, a respectful distance kept between us to avoid the chippings that the Ferrari's sticky tyres are flinging up like granite buckshot. The Stradale is a sensational thing to follow: a tumultuous slice of savage engine noise, darty responses and instant acceleration. The Noble comfortably copes with the Ferrari's pace but the delivery is different, its blistering progress a series of explosive lunges punctuated by momentary pauses as the pair of Garrett turbos spool-up in preparation for another hay-maker punch.

There's little or nothing in it on the straights; the Stradale yelping onwards, underfloor aerodynamics sucking a fine plume of dust and chippings into a rooster tail. But as we pile into the first of many testing corners the Stradale looks uneasy, the tail squirming and wriggling as the monster Enzo-sourced front brakes wipe-off big chunks of speed. From the windscreen of the Noble it all looks a bit ragged.

The Noble is working hard but feels utterly composed, and despite the Ferrari's awesome braking ability, the M400 can draw up into the 360's wake thanks to its superior stability and iron-fisted body control that resolutely refuses to let its chin so much as graze the tarmac. Unlike the Stradale...

I know from experience that the Stradale's nose is ultra-pointy but disconcertingly glassy and lacking in resistance, whereas the M400 has an equally positive but more progressive turn-in. Coupled with an abundance of grip, it's possible to capitalise on the Noble's more settled braking by carrying more speed into corners and getting on the power earlier than in the Ferrari. You need to avoid the spike of boost to drive cleanly through the corner, relying instead on the V6's strong mid-range torque, but it's impressively clear that when it comes to confident, committed cornering the Noble has Modena's finest covered. In these dry conditions, at least.

Safely back at Betws-y-Coed, John recalls his drive in the Ferrari, and confirms what I'd sensed from my ringside seat. 'The Stradale feels a little on tip-toes and you have to trust that the 19in Corsas are going to hang on. The steering is almost too reactive, too alert; you have to slow down your inputs to get a handle on things, then build up your speed. The engine makes this hard to do because you just want to hear the high-power valves crack open. It's a real rush to keep it over 6000rpm for a few miles but you don't get enough feedback through the rim or your pants to fully trust the grip. It felt to me like the tyres would grip and grip and then let go abruptly. Having driven it around Fiorano, I know that this is not true - it slid progressively - but on the road it's all about confidence and it doesn't quite inspire you to push as hard as you'd like.

'Despite this you feel compelled to flick off the ASR because it interrupts a fraction too early on bumpy surfaces; or at least switch to Race mode, which allows a bit more give at the rear.'

After a few beers and a good night's kip we awake with the excitement of knowing the 911 GT3 RS will be waiting for us in the car park. Up until this point it's been easy to ignore the threat from Stuttgart, but now it's here in all its blue and white glory we've all gone weak at the knees. Alright, so we've criticised the M400 for having crass decals, only to praise the Porsche for displaying what many of you will find equally heinous stickers, but if you ask me there's something about the Porsche's trademark curly typeface that makes it cool... That'll be the three decades of race-winning heritage, then.

The most overt road-racer of the group, the GT3 RS looks every inch the homologation special. New air vents, intakes, scoops and wings are obvious clues, while an extensive roll-cage and race-seats set an appropriately focused tone in the cockpit. However, the really significant changes have been wrought under the skin.

The standard GT3's major flaw is its pattery, truculent front end. Prone to understeer unless confident, forceful hands are prepared to drive around the problem, it's the unhappy result of suspension geometry pushed too far from the optimum by the need to lower and stiffen the suspension.
Built solely with FIA homologation in mind, the RS rights those wrongs with revised suspension mounting points that are both more rigid and better placed to maintain optimum wheel travel and geometry in road and racing applications. Combined with the now ubiquitous Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres (like those fitted to the Stradale, but interestingly, not as extreme as the trackday-spec Corsas adopted by Noble), the benefits are immediately noticeable.

The transformation in steering feel and response between GT3 and GT3 RS is sensational. The nodding motion has been banished too, thanks to slightly firmer springs and dampers and those rigid mounting points, but there's no deterioration in the 911's ability to absorb bumps. It's a beaut.

The flat-six engine has always had an epic delivery: meaningful low- and mid-range torque spliced with howling top-end power. Now, with revised mapping and more effective air intakes, the motor sings with even more vigour, although the official outputs remain the same as the GT3. Though significantly down on power compared with the Stradale and Noble (both of which comfortably breach 400bhp), the 375bhp RS doesn't feel disadvantaged.

Predictably, the controls are a model of tactile consistency. The brakes have a hard, linear bite - perhaps not as sharp and strong as the Stradale's in outright terms, but certainly better judged - and the gearshift slides with tight, defined precision. A joy to use in every respect.

Having wrestled the keys from my sweaty grasp, Barker - a sceptic when it comes to the standard GT3 - heads off on a voyage of discovery. He returns a changed man.
'The steering wheel is a bit big but the feel through it is superb and the nose tucks in with the alacrity missing from the current GT3, which is a massive plus. This is a chassis that isn't afraid of sharp turn-in. It is beautifully balanced and poised, with fantastic grip, yet still with the underlying challenge of the rear-biased weight distribution. It's still an awesome engine too, so precise in its throttle response, so measured, just like every other aspect of the car. It flows brilliantly over any sort of road, and you don't have to be red-lining it to feel absorbed and entertained. Wonderful.'

Bovingdon's yet to sample the joys of the RS, so in a repeat of yesterday's Noble v Ferrari skirmish, I slot into the Exige, intent on leading the way. However, before I've had a chance to kick the Toyota's VVTL-i head beyond 6200rpm in first gear, Jethro's got the RS hooked-up and is heading for the horizon. Ah, the impetuousness of youth.

Somewhat taken aback by the cheek of the lad I maintain my now familiar station, ducking the chippings and watching a fascinating, interactive display of Porsche dynamics unfold before me. To be perfectly honest, with such a power deficit I didn't expect the Lotus to stay in touch, sensational chassis or not, but as Mr Barker wisely says, there's only so much performance you can deploy on the road.

And so it proves; Bov's right foot wavering in the faster Porsche when the Exige is encouraging me to keep it pinned. I need to, though, for despite the addictive high-rev kick and accompanying snarl, it takes relentless concentration to keep above 6000rpm. And whenever the RS has a sniff of full throttle it leaps forward, whereas the Exige merely builds speed.

However, whenever we approach a braking area the Exige absolutely annihilates the 911, sometimes making do with a lift where the Porsche requires a full-on stab of the brakes. It's a surreal experience, especially as the Exige inspires such confidence that you can turn-in 10mph or sometimes 20mph faster than you believe possible. Not only that but it also has the road-holding and poise to enable you to get back hard on the power while the 911 is still waiting to settle into the corner. Once you learn to lean on the limits of lateral g, the need to thrape the engine recedes, and it's surprising to find you can maintain a good deal of the ultimate pace using the mid-range alone. In terms of sheer cross-country speed, the Exige has no peer.


Article from: evo


58 Posts
Discussion Starter · #3 · (Edited)
But is it the best in all-round terms? For £30K, yes, undoubtedly. As Jethro says: 'Point-to-point ability is a difficult thing to quantify, but on a dry day the Exige is mighty. That it taught the big boys a thing or two about sheer speed is mind-blowing. The fact that it never felt over-awed or out-classed is just as remarkable.'

But as far as this test is concerned, no, it's not quite the best. Barker has it second equal with the Stradale on his scoresheet, but Bov and I nudge it ahead of the 360 purely because when you strip away the 'Oooh, it's a Ferrari' effect, you're left with a car that doesn't involve as completely, nor does it cope with the demands of fast road driving as convincingly.

The Noble misses out too, and by a slightly bigger margin than pre-test form would suggest. It's strange, for there's no doubting its pace or its chassis which, like the Lotus's, is more rewarding and inclusive than the effective but aloof, and at times untidy, Ferrari. Yes, this is in part down to the Noble's lack of provenance in this company, but Barker, Bov and I are unanimous in thinking that with the M400's increased ferocity it has lost something in translation. Jethro catches the mood when he says: 'There are few faster cars than the M400, but I'm not sure it's a more engaging car than the 3R.'

So the honours go to Stuttgart. More importantly (not to mention depressingly for all you Porschephobes), the RS has addressed the formidable GT3's flaws so completely that the victory is nothing less than decisive. It's often said there's no such thing as the perfect car. From a purely evo perspective, having driven the GT3 RS, I beg to differ.

Words/Pictures: Richard Meaden/Andy Morgan and Kenny P

Article from: evo


58 Posts
Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Admin, you can delete this if you find it redundant. I searched before posting, but did not see this.
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