Can cut-price Lotus Esprit V8 topple Ferrari 355 and brutal Porsche 993. 1131bhp 10,602cc 22 cylinders, four turbos… Esprit V8 vs. F355 vs. 911 993. Three stunning supercars from the 1990s: one outstanding bargain. Lotus struggled against supercar big boys Ferrari and Porsche but, as Steve Sutcliffe discovers, with V8 power the Esprit was a match for the F355 and 993 turbo. Photography Malcolm Griffiths.
LET BATTLE COMMENCE
Ferrari F355 takes on Lotus Esprit V8 and Porsche 911 Turbo 993 January 2013
Back in 1996, when Lady Di was still alive and Tony Blair had yet to take office and promise us all that things would only get better – nice one, Tone, thanks for that sage prediction – Lotus was very much on a roll. The Elise had already been unveiled to deafening applause, and then came the Esprit V8, all 349bhp and 172mph of it. This was the Esprit that every Lotus fan had patiently and quietly been waiting for, ever since Julian Thomson had subtly redesigned Peter Stevens’ 1987 facelift and ‘The Beckers’ (Roger and son Matt) had worked their magic on its chassis. Anyone who’d previously driven a four-cylinder Esprit Turbo knew full well that the car was crying out for a touch more energy. And when it arrived courtesy of Hethel’s expensive but homegrown 3 ½-litre 90° twin-turbo V8, the results were spectacular to say the least.
The price was a mite disturbing at £60,460, as was the car’s claimed fuel consumption of just 16.5mpg, but the bottom line was that the latest Esprit had the firepower to deal with just about anything its rivals could throw at it. Considering that those rivals included the highly rated, not to mention brisk and beautiful, Ferrari F355 and the Porsche 911 turbo of the day – the devastatingly effective 993, the first four-wheel-drive turbo that the company had produced – the big-engined Esprit found itself in fierce company.
But, by and large, it could take the heat. Despite the F355 costing half as much again, it was actually a shade slower against the clock. And although the Ferrari was a knee-tremblingly handsome thing in its own right, it was no more dramatic in the metal than the Esprit. The Porsche, on the other hand, was even more expensive than the Ferrari. Costing a faintly credible £93,950 (in 1995!) it was, at best, a misfit visually compared with the longer, lower, more exotic shapes of its mid-engined opponents.
And it was ever thus with the Porsche 911, a situation that remains resolutely unchanged to this day. Nowadays indeed, post-996, the earlier 993 is regarded as the last of the genuinely pretty 911s. While it would be pushing things to call this particular version beautiful – what with its bulging wheelarches, ‘whale tail’ spoiler and, in this case, a disarmingly bright Riviera Blue paint scheme – beside the 911s that followed it, the 993 looks daintier somehow. Even in He-Man turbo specification.
It looks curvaceous, sexy almost, compared with the curiously industrial models that have come since. Even so, the 402bhp 993 was also the first of the ‘It’s so fast I’m not sure I’m in control of it’ 911 turbos. I remember strapping timing gear to this car for the Autocar road test of the day, and when the numbers began spewing out of the data machine I couldn’t believe my eyes, even though my internal organs – which had been largely putrefied in the process – were aware that something weird was going on.
Zero to 60mph came and went in a majestically painful 3.7 secs, while 0-100mph took just 9.2 secs. That wasn’t a great deal slower than the figures we’d generated with a Jaguar XJ220 the year before, and it put the 993 turbo in a league of one against the stopwatch in its day. Even alongside machines as exalted as the Esprit V8 and Ferrari F355.
Not much has changed since, assuming that these three unusually fine examples are in any way representative of their breeds (and they are; all three felt eerily similar to the original test cars that I drove in period). This means that, in any gear and seemingly at any revs, the Porsche rockets away from the other two. I’m not sure why, but that came as a genuine surprise to me, almost 20 years later.
Its low-rev (so theoretically off-boost) response is massively stronger than in the others. You’d perhaps expect that compared with the Esprit because the twin-turbo V8 always did take half a moment to gather its thoughts, but not the Ferrari – in which there are no turbos but, rather, 3 ½-litres of high-revving, 380bhp flat-plane-crank Maranello V8, the throttle response of which is supposed to be legendary.
Oh, how the realities of time can dilute the romance contained within the memory banks. I’m fairly sure that in 1995 the 993 turbo felt every inch as fast as this one does now, but declaring it to be that much quicker than its equivalent Ferrari – or Lotus – may simply have been too awful to consider at the time. Either way, this particular 18-year-old Porsche absolutely murders the others when it comes to raw straight-line acceleration. Once its 3600cc twin-turbo, twin-intercooled flat-six is on-boost and fully stoked (so anything between 2500rpm and the redline) it feels easily the most potent – to a point where, on any road, it just tears away and leaves its rivals for dead.
It’s not as if the Lotus or Ferrari are tired or high-mileage examples and the Porsche is ‘young’ in comparison, either. The Lotus has a shade over 41,000 miles on its odometer. It’s a two-owner car that’s been unsparingly maintained ever since rolling off the production line at Hethel in 1996. Its paint, wheels, bodywork and even its Thunderbirds-style interior are all immaculate. The leather on its heavily sculpted front seats has the feel and smell of today, not yesteryear, which isn’t always the case with Esprits. In this condition it’s a near-perfect match for the immaculate and 100% standard, 48,000-mile 1995 Porsche we’ve lined it up with.
As for the Ferrari, it’s a rare peach of a car. It’s arguably the best of the F355s in that it’s a red GTS with a proper roof. As with the others here it’s in unfettled specification, but with a mere 28,0-miles on the clock. Inside, it feels to all intents and purposes like a brand-new car, apart from a few tiny blemishes around its chromed, open-gate six-speed gearlever.
And between them they are worth … well, that’s where it gets interesting, very interesting indeed if your budget is restricted to around £20,000. Because if it is, you can strike the Ferrari and Porsche from your wishlist immediately. The Lotus, on the other hand, that ‘s another story. As one of just a handful of Esprit V8s currently on sale in the UK (and fewer than 1500 made in total), you might expect tile value of a top example such as m is to be close to the original list price of £60k, but no. It’s actually on sale for just £18,000. Like I say, interesting.
So why is it so cheap compared to the Porsche and Ferrari? Two reasons, really. One, it was cheaper than them to begin with, of course, although depreciation has hit it far harder than the others since 1996. And that’s because, two, the Esprit V8’s reputation has fluctuated over the years – often, but not always, with good reason – to a point where it now looks like the bargain of the century.
We’re all aware of the dreaded Lotus acronym, but with the Esprit V8 it seems, or for a time seemed, especially poignant. Developing a V8 engine in-house was, in hindsight, perhaps one of the worst decisions anyone at Hethel ever made. By all accounts, it cost Lotus more to make this engine that it did to make the entire Elise, and what confounded the problem – what very nearly did for Lotus, full-stop – was that, having funded the design and development of its expensive new powerplant, it then failed to find big-name buyers for it elsewhere.
There was a reason for this, too. To begin with, there were rumours – mutterings, but no more – that the engine had a cooling problem. This was enough to divert the interests of most potential corporate customers. Especially when the problem turned out to be fact, not fiction, at which point Lotus exacted a small but significant redesign later on in the engine’s life.
The other question mark beside the car was its Renault-derived five-speed transmission, which simply wasn’t capable of dealing with what the engine could produce. Had it been so, Lotus could have gifted the Esprit V8 with far more than its 349bhp and mere 295lb ft – because the engine itself, featuring not one but two small Garrett T2 5 turbochargers, could generate way more torque than that on a test bench.
Having said all that, this example is on sale for no less but no more than you could spend on a brand-new, albeit well-specified, Ford Fiesta. Tempting is one word you could use. Insane is another, of course, although in this case the service record on our featured car is bulletproof. There have been no key issues worth mentioning over the years, so what you see is very much what you get. Which is to say, one of Britain’s most stunning-looking sports cars from the past quarter of a century; a machine that, give or take a heavy gearchange here and there, and the occasional squeak from behind the walnut dashboard, drives every bit as good as it looks.
I remember going to collect a brand-new Esprit V8 press car from the factory once in 1996. I got up in the middle of the night and alighted at Hethel before the sun had come up. Five hours later, I met a colleague in the middle of Wales, eyes bulging, heart thumping, mind convinced that for £60,000 there wasn’t a faster, better-looking, more exciting supercar in existence. Its steering and handling, in particular were from another world. At the end of the day, however, and having compared the Esprit with a Ferrari F355 on some of the best roads anywhere in the UK, I drove home – in the Ferrari – feeling dazed and confused, but delighted. The Lotus was faster and more exhilarating thanks to its torque (it still is), and had easily the sweeter steering of the two (it still does). But the Ferrari felt more special somehow, and was better built, far easier to drive and made a sound above 6000rpm that the Esprit driver could only dream about (it still does).
It’s just as well, perhaps, that a 993 turbo wasn’t invited to the party that day. In the cold light of day in which cars such as the 911 turbo tend to shine, it would have walked away with the contest. As it does today, quite frankly, if all you seek in a car is pure speed and composure – the ability to get from one location to another faster than just about anything else on earth.
In truth, though, even the Ferrari – which, shock-horror, turns out to be the slowest of the trio in reality – is way more than fast enough to be going on with. Especially on our increasingly congested public roads, on which there are speed cameras and countless other hazards, preventing you from using even half the performance that cars such as these are capable of producing.
To play the heretic, the raw speed of the Porsche is impressive, yes, but it’s also indicative of a problem that too many of today’s contemporary sports cars now suffer from – they are too quick, too clinical and too capable to be enjoyed on the public highway because their limits have simply become too high.
But the Lotus and Ferrari aren’t like that. They give tactile delights back to their drivers at much, much lower speeds. And both of them will take your breath away, even when standing still. That’s a crucial distinction to consider when it comes to the risk and reward of owning and enjoying an ageing supercar.
In this instance, the Esprit V8 looks like, and indeed is, the complete and utter bargain of the group. Experts reckon that prices of well-kept V8s will only go in one direction from now on, however, so perhaps now’s the time to take the plunge. Assuming that you have the imagination and the courage to go with it.
As the chap in the Dr Pepper adverts once said, what’s the worst that can happen?
Thanks to Mortimers Prestige for the Lotus (www.mortimersprestige.co.uk); Jomes Poul for the Ferrari (www.jamespaul.co.uk); Paul Jennings and PistonHeads.com
PORSCHE 911 993 TURBO 993
Sold/number built 1995-1998/6314
Construction steel monocoque
Engine all-alloy, sohc-per-bank, 12-valve 3600cc flat-six, with twin intercooled turbochargers and Bosch Motronic sequential fuel injection
Max power 402bhp @ 5750rpm
Max torque 398lb ft @ 4500rpm
Transmission six-speed manual transaxle, driving all four wheels
Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear lateral links, lower wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
Steering speed-sensitive power-assisted rack and pinion
Brakes 12 ¾ in (322mm) ventilated discs, with servo and anti-lock
Wheels & tyres: front 8Jx18in, 225/40 ZR18s rear 10Jx18in, 285/30 ZR18s
Length 13ft 11 in (4245mm)
Width 5ft 10 ¾ in (1795mm)
Height 4ft 2 ½ in (1285mm)
Wheelbase 7ft 5 ½ in (2271mm)
Weight 3322lb (1507kg)
0-60mph 3.7 secs
0-100mph 9.2 secs
Top speed 180mph
Price new £93,950 (1995)
Clockwise, from above: vast calipers peek from behind turbo alloys; rev counter centre stage in retro dash; flat-six hidden by intercoolers; flagship 993 is a muscular shape .
Startling shade of Riviera Blue is a rare colour for the 993 turbo, but it was offered as a factory option when new.
LOTUS ESPRIT V8
Sold/number built 1996-2004/1489
Construction galvanised steel backbone chassis, glassfibre/Kevlar composite body
Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank, 32-valve 3506cc V8, twin Garrett T25 turbochargers and EFI Technology sequential fuel injection
Max power 349bhp @ 6500rpm
Max torque 295lb ft @ 4250rpm
Transmission Renault five-speed manual, driving rear wheels
Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones rear trailing arms, transverse links; coil springs, telescopies, anti-roll bar f/r
Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
Brakes 11 ½ in (296mm) front, 11 ¾ in (300mm) rear ventilated discs, with servo and anti-lock
Wheels & tyres: front 8721x17m, 235/40 ZR17s rear 10Jx18in, 285/35 ZR18s
Length 14ft 4in (4369mm)
Width 6ft 1in (1867mm)
Height 3ft 9in (1150mm)
Wheelbase 7ft 11 in (2420mm)
Weight 3043lb (1380kg)
Top speed 172mph
Price new £60,460 (1996)
Clockwise, from left: ventilated discs all round; dated but well-appointed interior would be replaced in 1998; Lotus handles beautifully; V8 also used by AC for Cobra 212 S/C.
Giugiaro’s original Esprit design had twice been facelifted by the time the dramatic V8 came along – wings, vents and all – came along.
Sold/number built 1994-‘1999/11,206
Construction steel monocoque with flat undertray and rear-mounted venturis
Engine all-alloy, Dohc per-bank. 40-valve 3496cc V8, with Bosch Motronic fuel injection
Max power 380bhp @ 8250rpm
Max torque 268lb ft @ 6000rpm
Transmission six-speed manual or paddleshift automated manual, driving rear wheels
Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coil springs. anti-roll bars and electronic damper control
Steering speed-sensitive power-assisted rack and pinion
Brakes 11 ¾ in (300mm) ventilated front. 12 ¼ in (310mm) solid rear discs, with servo and anti-lock system
Wheels & tyres: front 7 ½ Jx18in. 225/40 ZR18s rear 10Jx18in. 265/40 ZR18s
Length 13ft 11 ½ in (4250mm)
Width 6ft 4 ½ in (1944mm)
Height 3ft 10in (1170mm)
Wheelbase 8ft 4in (2450mm)
Weight 3142lb (1425kg)
0-60mph 4.6 secs
0-100mph 10.6 secs
Top speed 173mph
Price new £90.980 (1995)
Price now £30-65,000
Clockwise, from below: styling is much more elegant than earlier 348; V8 sounds gorgeous at high revs; chunky airbag wheel from ‘1996-onwards; signature five-spokes.
The sublime F355 signalled a return to form for the legendary Italian marque in terms of its mid-engined V8 offerings.
The equivalent Lotus has always been less expensive than its rivals from Porsche and Ferrari. For a clean, sub-50.000-mile Esprit V8 from 1996 or ‘1997, you’re looking at a minimum of £15k. but if you want the superior SE model -or, better still, the GT- you’ll need to find almost double that. The Sport 350, of which only 50 were made, is the most desirable of the lot and can fetch up to £40.000.
Even to put a left-hand-drive F355 on your driveway. you’ll need to spend at least £30k. But for a truly decent example such as the one feature d here, don’t expect much change from £50.000. The very best are the 1998-‘1999 manuals with fewer than 10,000 miles on the clock and full Ferrari service history. For those, you’ll need to spend £60-65k.
The 993 turbo is the most interesting of the lot because, of late, values have begun to go through the roof. The car you see here is insured for £50,000-although its owner Paul Jennings might need to adjust this figure given that similar examples are being advertised for anything between £55-80k, depending on their condition and whether or not they’ve had the official power pack fitted. Either way, 993 turbos are now worth approximately double what 996 turbos go for. Which is extraordinary given that Porsche threw the kitchen s ink at t he later car, having been criticised for making the 993 too big and cumbersome when it was new.
Prices correct at date of original publication (2013)