From the March 2007 issue of Car and Driver.
It's a sad paradox that, as performance for the dollar increases, the places you can exploit this newfound potential become increasingly regulated and overrun with other motorists. Vehicle populations have burgeoned in the past decade, and metropolitan areas worldwide have become synonymous with gridlock. (Contrary to popular belief, only 40 percent of Germany's 6000-mile-long autobahn system is unrestricted.)
What's a speed freak to do? Well, if you follow a trend that is clearly on the rise, you pay to drive on racetracks. Many of the high-performance marques out there have owners' clubs, and most of those organize track days of their own. One thing's for sure. With the cars we corralled for this comparison, high-speed testing conducted exclusively on public roads would not have been the smart move.
Exploiting all of a Chevrolet Corvette Z06's 505 horsepower on anything but a safe test facility is asking for trouble. This ultra-fast version of the American-sports-car icon has serious performance credentials, a terrific price-to-speed ratio with a base price of 70 large, and quite an impressive motorsports heritage.
But, then, so does Porsche's '07 911 GT3, which is named for a class in FIA and American Le Mans sports-car racing and, indeed, is the homologation model required for entry into those races. It has the best-sounding engine this side of an F430, but like the Ferrari, it'll cost you. The GT3 starts at $106,795 and then goes skyward — ours had the ceramic brake package and rang in at $120,670.
That's more than double the $57,915 entry price of the 2007 Lotus Exige S. This supercharged version of the best Lotus sports car ever produced wasn't initially expected to be available stateside, but wisely, Lotus changed its mind (the S is now the only Exige in the lineup). A belt-driven supercharger on the familiar Toyota-sourced four-banger gives the Exige 220 horsepower, which is getting closer to the rightful amount of power that the excellent chassis deserves.
We assembled these three cars in Southern California and included a day lapping Buttonwillow Raceway Park, west of Bakersfield. Buttonwillow has several possible configurations. We ran "Configuration Number 13," which is 2.7 miles long and far more challenging than the flat terrain suggests. Of course, we had to drive the cars on the street, too, to see how they would conduct themselves in the hands of users. As street-legal vehicles, the models featured here would very likely be called on to act as daily transportation. After all, you can't go to the track every day, can you?
In addition, we brought along three cars that were even more outside the mainstream. These three outsiders—an Ariel Atom 2, a Noble M400, and a Superformance Brock coupe—are not production cars and as such do not meet the same safety or emissions standards as the other three. Registering them for public roads varies, depending on which state you live in, and you'll have to do some assembly yourself or hire someone. We tested these cars alongside the production cars, but we didn't include them in the voting. Since they're not saddled with the weight of airbags and other EPA legalities, it simply would not be fair. We did, however, list the performance data for all the cars in the accompanying charts, and we've covered the three component cars in sidebars.
Third Place: Lotus Exige S
It's interesting to observe that long after the death in 1982 of Lotus Cars founder Colin Chapman and the transfer of ownership in 1996 to its current Malaysian operators, the Lotus Exige S still conforms to Chapman's principles: low weight and compact dimensions coupled to adequate power for a winning combination of speed and handling prowess.
In S form, the Exige's Toyota-sourced 1.8-liter inline-four engine is supercharged by a Roots-type blower to jack up horsepower to 220 at 8000 rpm, a handy increase over the naturally aspirated model's 190. More significant is the increase in available midrange response. The base car was fairly flaccid at lower revs, and the S is easier to drive at less than screaming engine speeds.
HIGHS: Go-kart-like reflexes, organic control feedback, authentic race-car experience.
LOWS: Cacophonous engine sounds, restrictive ingress, primitive creature comforts.
With performance results that speak of 0 to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds and the standing quarter-mile in 12.8 seconds at 107 mph, the Exige S is fast in anyone's book, but it lacked muscle in this group. Its real forte, however, is its almost peerless chassis dynamics on the track. Tech director Larry Webster described the car's steering as "the way steering is meant to be." Other logbook entries said that although refinement was in short supply the feedback knob was set at 11. One delirious editor wrote that the Lotus slips on like a race suit, plugs directly into your nerve endings, and then acts on the slightest spark of input.
And it's all true. Although the Exige is difficult to get into for taller drivers, who have to put a right foot in, then turn to the left and fold in half to mail themselves into the car butt first, the contortion is worth it. Once inside, the space isn't bad, and the control relationships are right for all the faux-racing footwork you want to perform. The unassisted steering lightens instantly as the car begins to move and then transmits contact-patch information as nonstop Morse code through the rim.
Initial turn-in is light, but the wheel loads up as cornering forces build, and it takes a fair bit of muscle to point the car once it's at maximum lateral acceleration. The other controls are equally direct. Throttle response is quick and loud, with engine noises that vary from downright rude combinations of chainsaw fury and baffle-plate buzz to sheer cacophonous tumult. Even at cruising speed, the racket from the back is only somewhat subdued, and it's never a good sound.
But because of the Exige's passionate, responsive nature, you soon forgive the car for that, just as you overlook the slightly imprecise nature of the shifter. The car's generous roll motions in fast turns were a little surprising at first but are only to be expected in view of the Exige's low weight and correspondingly low spring and anti-roll-bar rates. Those things contribute to ride comfort, which isn't at all bad, given the radical manner in which this thing will attack a racetrack.
The addition of a supercharger to the Exige has completely blanked out all rearward vision immediately behind the driver, since the air-to-air intercooler (fed by a very sporting roof scoop) inhabits the space behind the Exige's rear window. But the visibility provided by the two side mirrors is pretty good, and you soon get used to a center mirror that now mainly blocks some of the view ahead.
THE VERDICT: About as much fun as money can buy.
Practicality isn't the Lotus's strong suit, but if the track is where you get your fun, then the Exige S is just your cup of Malaysian tea.
2007 Lotus Exige S
220-hp inline-4, 6-speed manual, 2060 lb
Base/as-tested price: $57,915/$64,750
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 4.1 sec
100 mph: 11.1 sec
1/4 mile: 12.8 @ 107 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 154 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 1.00 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 17 mpg
Second Place: Porsche 911 GT3
If you can listen to the GT3 wailing down the straight at 8400 rpm and not have a shiver of delight run down your spine, then get back to work — you're wasting your time here. That distinctive sound speaks clearly to the initiated. It says, "I am a race car." That's not too surprising. What is somewhat startling is that the car itself — when you're driving it — says, "I can also be an ultra-high-performance luxury sports car."
That's because the 2007 GT3 comes standard with Porsche's electronic adaptive shock system (PASM), which allows comparatively civilized ride settings for everyday motoring. The car's lengthy options list offers stereo and navigation equipment along with Porsche's usual imaginative trim packages.
HIGHS: Siren-song engine note, vault-like solidity, blinding speed.
LOWS: Sudden ride motions, high price.
At first acquaintance, though, a relatively unyielding clutch, a surgically precise wheel, and a high-effort shifter suggest anything but a daily commuter. Once those aspects assume a normal degree of control effort, you begin to appreciate what a cool commuter this car would make. The interior is tidy and attractive, the seats firm and supportive. Even well-equipped 911s have cockpits that seem uncluttered and businesslike, but our GT3's environment was enhanced by Alcantara textures and gray gauge faces with yellow markers.
The star of this show is unquestionably the drivetrain. Using the same engine block as the 911 Turbo and the racing 911s, the 3.6-liter flat-six starts with a snarl that means business and rips through the rev range with an exhaust note of pure mechanical menace. Porsche lists the horsepower from this magnificent engine at 415, and that may be right, but to us it felt a lot stronger, able to thrust the car from corner to corner at deceptive speed. Able, too, to breech the 60-mph barrier in 3.8 seconds and trip the quarter in 12 seconds flat. Once the speed passed 100 mph, the GT3 revealed its power deficit compared with the Corvette, reaching 120 mph in 12.5 seconds, more than a full second behind the Z06.
That acceleration came from a vehicle weighing 3240 pounds, the heaviest of this group. Yet on the track you're only aware of that mass via reactions from a suspension system working hard to keep things in line. The GT3 gets tight at speed. Ride motions are tautly snubbed, and the car ends up producing sudden responses to surface and directional changes. It can get a bit bouncy in the process.
Porsche deals with the innate weight-distribution imbalance of its rear-engined cars by fitting disparate wheel sizes and tuning the chassis rigorously so as not to bite its driver. Even so, we had to be careful with the throttle on corner exits to keep the tail in line. The 911 was, however, nimble and stable enough to negotiate our lane-change test just 0.1 mph slower than the Ariel Atom 2 and that's a lightweight formula car in disguise. Although some of us were wary about seeking — and possibly finding — our personal limits when behind the wheel of this $120,000 treasure, that did not dilute the thrill of winding the sonorous engine to the redline and slotting through the gears. Nor did it inhibit us from exploiting the stupendous braking performance supplied by the big ceramic rotors (they provided the shortest stopping distance in the group) or from marveling at the precision of the car's steering. It's 911 magic, all of it, producing creditable scores in the two highest-value subjective categories.
THE VERDICT: The obvious pick for those with the means.
So, why the second place? Honestly, it's because the objective scores for each category on our ballot outweighed the subjective scores of our acquisitive participants, none of whom even balked at the Porsche's lofty $120,670 price in this abstract election.
2007 Porsche 911 GT3
415-hp flat-6, 6-speed manual, 3240 lb
Base/as-tested price: $106,795/$120,670
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 3.8 sec
100 mph: 7.5 sec
1/4 mile: 12.0 @ 118 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 145 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 1.05 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 14 mpg
First Place: Chevrolet Corvette Z06
Chevy's Corvette is an icon, but that's not why it took first place here. The truth is that we were concerned about appearing biased in favor of the car simply because it's a local make. You know: Mom, apple pie, Harley-Davidson, and all that.
But the Corvette Z06 ain't just any old Corvette. It has a 428-cubic-inch small-block LS7 V-8 engine with titanium connecting rods and inlet valves, a dry-sump lubrication system, and an induction manifold so large you could pass a basketball through the engine. Okay, not quite, but it's pretty big. The Vette redlines at 7000 rpm, where it is making a noise like Godzilla's jackhammer and thrusting the car and its occupants along with the vehemence of a Category Five hurricane.
HIGHS: Flexible and powerful engine, good comfort and convenience, stellar track conduct.
LOWS: Subpar seats and interior, that gold-chain rep.
The Z06 aces the 60-mph sprint among the three production cars in this group, beats them to the 100-mph mark, and is the top dog in the quarter-mile. Yep, it has quite a motor. But we were somewhat concerned when associate tech editor Robin Warner could do no better than last in the lane-change test in the admittedly wide Vette and when the Z06 posted the lowest (0.99 g!) skidpad number.
Then we went to Buttonwillow, where we were expecting the car's somewhat isolated control feel to hamper its performance. Several of us had driven earlier Z06s at other tracks, where we'd been unnerved by at-the-limit high-speed twitchiness. To our surprise and delight, this Z06 took to the track with real assurance, braking deep into turns with no sign of instability and rocketing out of them on a tsunami of torque — slightly sideways, if necessary. The faintly numb roadgoing mien turned into much clearer feedback during high-intensity lapping, despite the relatively light, quick steering. And although the shifter has comparatively long throws, it did nothing to impede coordination or obstruct our attempts to run fast laps.
We were so surprised by the Z06's friendly handling that we contacted Tadge Juechter, the vehicle chief engineer for the Corvette, and he told us that, for 2007, the Z06's shock-damping rates have been trimmed back a little since Jan Magnussen's epic seven-minute, 43-second lap of the Nürburgring's Nordschleife, making the car less jumpy at the limit. Bottom line, says Juechter: The car has gotten better.
No kidding. At Buttonwillow you could see the editors recalibrate as they went through the cars, resetting their notions of the Z06's track drivability. In "The Sports-Car World Cup" [C/D, September 2006], a Porsche 911 Turbo narrowly edged the Z06 for second place in a three-car fight that included a Ferrari F430. The '06 Z06's tricky handling was a major reason — if not the reason — for its third-place finish. Now with the new shocks, we've changed our tune, and the Z06 edges out the GT3, which many of us prefer to the 911 Turbo.
Well, some of us changed our tune. The fact is we're still arguing over the outcome of this comparo. Those in the Porsche camp say there's no better thrill than the GT3 at redline, but the Z06 fans quickly counter that the Z06 was not only faster than the GT3 but also the most comfortable street car of the three, with an acceptably supple ride and relatively low interior noise levels. Although the Corvette's seats aren't terribly supportive on the track, they're not unacceptable on a long trip, and the car is almost as easy to get into and out of as the Porsche. Add a decent stereo, a navigation system, and GM's legendary HVAC system, and the Z06 was much sought after for the long, dark, cold drive home at the end of the day. A rip-snorting track-day car with enough civility for a bone-weary trip home? You'd better believe it, and at 40 grand less than the price of the GT3.
THE VERDICT: You can't buy this much performance anywhere else for the price.
Reason enough to win? We think so.
2007 Chevrolet Corvette Z06
505-hp V-8, 6-speed manual, 3180 lb
Base/as-tested price: $70,000/$77,725
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 3.6 sec
100 mph: 8.3 sec
1/4 mile: 11.8 @ 122 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 153 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.99 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg
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