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http://www.roadandtrack.com/article.asp?section_id=7&article_id=221

Great Grip!
Finding the best-handling car for road and track

By Patrick Hong • Photos by Jeff Allen
June 2002

The shortest distance between point A and point B is a straight line. However, ask any car enthusiast to plot the same route and it is never as simple as connecting the two dots with a straightedge. We hunt for spaghetti-noodle paths with the most twists and turns. Never mind how fast we need to reach our destination. Yes, a car's abilities to accelerate quickly and reach a blistering top speed are desirable. But it is the vehicle's handling dynamics, its ability to drive swiftly through various corners, that make for a complete and exhilarating driving experience.


What is handling? In simple terms, it is a vehicle's capability to turn quickly with utmost stability. And to define it further, it also involves a car's aptitude for generating lateral grip, or lateral acceleration, and carrying the fastest possible speed through a corner. Still, this straightforward definition tells only the end result, not the countless variables such as steering response, suspension setup, and tire grip that all need to come together to achieve great handling. Just take a look at every form of auto racing. Each team works tirelessly to fine-tune every possible element in hopes of setting up a great-handling race car. Ultimately, it is up to the driver — the greatest variable of them all — to decide whether the car gives him the confidence he needs to brake, turn and accelerate out of a corner safely.

For those of us who drive road cars with occasional weekend racing stints, what does it mean to have a great handling car for the road and the track? To answer this question, it would be far too simple just to round up a group of high-performance sports cars to test. Instead, the Road & Track staff identified the best ones based on our experience and previous road test slalom and skidpad results. The ballot began with an impressive list of more than 20 cars including the Dodge Viper, the Honda S2000 and the Mazda Miata. Because it was impossible to include every car in this test, we invited only the cars that received the top votes to participate in this best-handling car shootout.


The players who qualified for the competition are the BMW M3 Coupe, the Chevrolet Corvette Z06, the Ferrari 360 Modena, the Mazda MP3, the Porsche Boxster S and the Porsche 911 Turbo. Added to the mix are the Lotus Elise and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VII, two great-handling machines that soon will arrive at our shores.
 

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We asked well-respected automotive expert Doug Milliken, co-author of the industry-standard Race Car Vehicle Dynamics, to tell us more (see Handling: The Dynamicist View) about the fundamentals necessary for good handling. Spencer Eisenbarth of RacePak Competition Systems Inc. helped us with data acquisition, using global positioning system sensors. CART winner and American Le Mans Series Panoz LMP driver Bryan Herta was invited to wring the cars out on the East Loop of Buttonwillow Raceway Park, located 40 miles west of Bakersfield, California.

Our test consists of objective evaluations based on new slalom and skidpad results plus segment times recorded from track lapping. Two corners around the East Loop are used for timing: a tight hairpin right turn and a quick right/left transition, both chosen so that vehicle behavior under different load conditions could be analyzed. Added to the objective performance data are subjective ratings from Road & Track editors' street/track impressions and assessments from an emergency lane-change exercise. Herta's professional on-track opinions and rankings are also included in the final score. So who emerged from this group to win the title of best-handling car for the road and track? Read on.
 

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us Elise — Rank: 2nd

The Lotus Elise epitomizes Colin Chapman's minimalist philosophy of the lightweight, excellent-handling sports car. It is built with fiberglass body panels attached to an all-aluminum space-frame chassis. Our European-spec test car came with a Rover 1.8-liter inline-4 powerplant transversely mounted behind the cockpit for optimal cornering balance. Extending out to all four corners are upper and lower A-arm suspensions riding on front 175/55R-16 and rear 225/45R-17 tires. Sporting a modest 122 bhp and 124 lb.-ft. of torque, the Elise still scoots up to speed quickly, thanks to a light 1900-lb. test weight. And like the Mitsubishi Evolution VII, this roadster is scheduled to arrive in the States soon, approximately late summer of 2003.

Through the lane-change exercise, our staff unanimously agrees that the Lotus's steering feels direct and immediate, and the car's balance is unflappable, thanks to a well-tuned suspension and a tremendous amount of rear grip. In objective performance tests, while the Corvette Z06 wins the skidpad and the Ferrari is the quickest through the hairpin, the Elise sweeps the remaining two categories: It absolutely dominates the slalom with a record-breaking average speed of 73.0 mph; and at 9.595 seconds, it's the fastest to complete the right/left transition lap segment. This means that this asphalt-clawing roadster suffers only from lack of power to adjust the car's attitude on the skidpad and accelerate out of the tight hairpin. Once at speed, it can generate the most lateral grip. Around the hairpin, the Lotus's apex speed of 40.4 mph is much faster than the Ferrari's 34.1 mph.

The first comment from Herta after lapping in the Lotus Elise: "This is a street-legal race car. It feels very similar to a Formula Ford. The gearbox is very light and responsive. I would say it has mild understeer everywhere on the track. I can carry quite a lot of speed through the corners because of the car's grip. And since it doesn't have enough power, I just can't accelerate off the corner. The steering feels like it's directly connected to the wheels and you have your hands on the road while you are driving. You can really feel everything through it."

Some may argue that the Lotus Elise is not really a road car. We have to agree. It does have two seats and a radio, and these are really all the amenities it has. So driving the Elise as a daily runabout on the street is not practical. There is only enough room for the driver and passenger, and not much else. Call it the ringer for this best-handling car competition.
 

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Final Thoughts ...

Looking at performance data alone, the Lotus Elise walks away as the winner. However, to be crowned as the best-handling car for both road and track, the champion not only has to show handling competency and inspire excitement and confidence, it must also not sacrifice the practicalities for road use. The question then becomes: Is there a difference between a good-handling car for street driving and racetrack lapping? The answer is, Yes. This is evident from the R&T editors' and Herta's subjective ratings, picking the 911 Turbo as the favorite for the road, and the 360 Modena for the track. Ultimately, it is still the Ferrari excelling in all categories that helps it claim the top podium spot as Road & Track's best-handling car.
 

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BRYAN HERTA'S COMMENTS

Lotus Elise
The brakes are easy to modulate before turning in. The front tucks in nicely. I have enough grip to go faster if I had more power.

Lotus Elise
I can carry a lot of speed into the corner, but once I start to scrub it off, I don’t have enough power to pull through.


Note, this was all done with the lower (122!) hp European Elise and the comments about power will be negated with the newer US spec Elise with 190hp.
 

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Yes, that was one impressive article. I bought the 4th place finisher this year (ok, the slightly watered down US version), but I'd like tho add the first place (better US version!) to the garage!
 
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