Just how quick are four of the fastest road cars that are also designed for the track? Dickie Meaden takes the Ford, Porsche, Mercedes-AMG and Lotus to Anglesey, via some of north Wales’very finest roads, armed with a bag of biscuits end a stopwatch to discover which one delivers the strongest Motorsport-inspired punch. Words by Richard Meaden. Photography by Aston Parrot and Dean Smith.
LAP OF THE GODS – FORD GT vs. PORSCHE 911 GT2 RS 991.2 vs. AMG GTR C190 vs. LOTUS EXIGE CUP 430
Lotus’s Exige Cup 430, Mercedes-AMG’s GTR C190, Ford’s GT and Porsche’s 911 GT2 RS 991.2 – four track- biased but road-legal supercars – do battle at Anglesey to find out which can claim to be the best hardcore machine money can buy…
As tests go, this is a biggie. Four different takes on the ultimate track-biased road car, lapped head-to-head against the clock. Same circuit (Anglesey Coastal), same day (warm and sunny) and with the saint; driver (yours truly) behind the wheel. Fortuitously, they even have the same tyres – Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s.
We’ll be dividing our time evenly between the cars so as not to show favour by having ‘one last run’ to try to shave off potentially test-skewing tenths of a second. And, though the cars are supported by their respective manufacturers, there will be no plugging-in of laptops between runs. Finally, to see how these cars would behave on the way to your circuit of choice, we’ll also be taking them for a run on some of our favourite roads near the Welsh circuit.
So without further ado, let battle commence!
Few road car brands have as much competition DNA as Lotus. Similarly, few road cars have benefited from such a prolonged and focused development as the Exige. Nevertheless, £99,800 is a colossal amount of money for a car we all remember costing well under half that amount just a few years ago. It’s a sum that can only be justified by an uncompromising pursuit of performance and strictly limited production. Combine those two factors and you get the Cup 430 – the most extreme evolution of Hethel’s evergreen baby supercar and the entry point of our hardcore group test.
It’s always refreshing to get into a small and simple performance car with a manual transmission, no power steering and fixed-rate suspension. Lotus has experienced some tough times, but its purist ethos is as strong as ever. The cars reflect an admirable pragmatism from dedicated engineers charged with making the most of what they have to work with.
The Cup 430 is a big jump from where the V6 Exige began and a significant step up from the Cup 380. So while you might approach it with a mindset forged when the Elise and Exige were more modestly powerful, 430bhp and 325lb ft of torque are big numbers for a car weighing just 1093kg. Factor in 220kg of downforce with an aero balance tweaked to help find more front-end bite and it’s clear the Exige has truly come of age.
Fast laps reveal it to be a surprisingly physical car to push to its limits. The steering weights up the harder you work it into the corners, and there’s the added hand-eye-feet coordination demands of changing gear yourself. It’s a modern car with old-school challenges.
There are some frustrations – ones not unique to the Cup 430 but baked into the V6 Exige almost from day one. The gearshift can be snaggy when you’re trying to snap the lever across the gate, and there’s still a small amount of dead travel to the brake pedal, making heel- and-toe downshifts awkward.
Once the Cup 2s are warm there’s a delicious sensation of agility. Combined with a stability-control system featuring five preset slip levels and the ability to be disabled completely, the Cup 430 feels equipped to cut a clean, quick lap.
It’s not surprising to discover that the window in which to get the best from the car is relatively narrow, for it’s the Lotus way to create cars that are somewhat prescriptive in their dynamic repertoire. Fortunately it’s communicative, so you quickly get a feel for how to make it work. That said, it makes you work for a time. Balance-wise it can either push the front if you turn in smoothly and squeeze at the throttle until you overcome the front end’s limit of grip, or it’ll oversteer on the way in if you try to rotate the car slightly more aggressively to get the rear to take some of the pressure from the front end. It rarely oversteers on the way out of a corner, but it’s a challenge to find the quickest (neutral) sweet spot.
It could undoubtedly be dialed in or out to taste via adjustments to the three-way Nitron dampers and Eibach anti-roll bars, but on factory settings (as all our cars are set to for fairness) you have to dial yourself into the 430’s preferred style.
The brakes have plenty of power and stamina, but it’s hard to tread the line between maximum braking effort and pushing into the ABS. When triggered, this has a tendency to take the car wide of its line, rather than allowing you to hold the brakes to the apex. Again, you have to develop an unusual degree of sensitivity.
As for the timed lap, a best of 1:14.7 puts it in some impressive company. Just a couple of tenths shy of a McLaren 570S is none too shabby. Perhaps the biggest question mark is that while it’s a hugely desirable car that unquestionably punches above its weight, as a track tool the Cup 430 places more emphasis on precision and discipline than on pure entertainment.
It’s a big jump from the Exige to the C190 AMG GT R in power, torque, size and weight. Merc’s answer to Porsche’s 911 GT3 911.2 is significantly heavier than the Lotus – by 462kg according to the manufacturers’ figures – but counters with a substantial power and torque advantage, its twin-turbo V8 producing 577bhp and 516lb ft. The GT R is a bruiser in the finest AMG tradition, but blessed with fleet feet and tailored around a package that’s a bit more compact and a lot more focused and tied-down than the less-than-fit-for- purpose Black Series models, which simply don’t feel cut out for track use.
The exception to this rule was the fearsome SLS Black Series – an all-time high point in AMG’s track- biased road car history – but still I’d say the GT R is the best road car AMG has ever made with track use in mind. This said, it still has some issues familiar from other AMGs. The gearbox is much better, but there are times where this seven-speed dual-clutch unit delays before giving you a downshift, and traction is still at a premium when you’re chasing the absolute limit. Likewise, the brake pedal is occasionally inconsistent in feel and response, going a bit long but then coming back at your foot. You never feel like you’re running out of brakes – indeed you can work the GT R’s very hard and deep into corners – but there’s something about the pedal feel that lets the side down a little.
Chassis-wise there’s a lot to celebrate. It certainly turns in really well, though there’s a slight lack of feel when doing so into the quick corners so you’re mindful of unwittingly asking too much from the rear by rotating the front end too aggressively. This is often the case with grippy, stiffly suspended cars, so it’s a statement rather than a major criticism, but it informs the way you drive the GT R on a fast lap.
It’s in this split-second phase between initiating turn-in and collecting the throttle that the GT R will begin to oversteer. Fortunately the multi-stage stability control works extremely well, so you have the confidence to continue squeezing the throttle so that you can then use the electronics to maintain a slight oversteer stance and meter out as much power and torque as the tyres will take. Not losing time from being sideways, but not losing time from being held back by the electronics either, it’s truly impressive and very enjoyable.
You can trust and commit in the GT R, then, even through the high-speed, ballsy comers. The gearing feels a little short – you’re a gear up on the other cars in some comers – and this takes a little adjusting to as you expect AMGs to be big thumpers with a long stride, but once you’ve accepted this it’s never an issue.
The GT R C190 is an inherently excellent track car. Always under you, always encouraging you to push harder, there’s never any question that it wants to be stretched. It’s also willing to be driven for fun, rather than simply in the pursuit of a lap time. Given it’s not a racing car this is important, for although we’re benchmarking these cars for their outright pace – and the AMG beats the Lotus by 1.1sec – it’s their ability to entertain that counts, or should count, more than bragging rights.
In the GT R you have a car that can remain tidy and lean on its high-fidelity electronics to transmit as much of its huge outputs to the track surface as its tyres will allow. Or, you can disable the electronics and drive it like a drift car. Of course, the irony is that both these extremes aren’t especially appropriate in a trackday environment, but the fact there’s some middle ground to inhabit and enjoy suggests it is a car you can use to educate yourself with the finer points of discipline and commitment, or you can forget all that and simply grab it by the scruff of the neck and enjoy. Either way, you won’t find a more exciting, capable or competent driver’s car wearing the three-pointed star.
‘NOT UNTIL YOU STRAP YOURSELF IN DOES THE REALITY OF A 690BHP 911 ON ROAD-LEGAL RUBBER HIT HOME’
But has a road car ever looked more ready to attack a race circuit than a Ford GT in Track mode? Switch to the most aggressive setting and it literally drops as though you’ve been let down by a set of air jacks, thudding into a race-ready squat that sees its belly sit 50mm lower, settling just 70mm above the tarmac. Not even a McLaren PI beats it for race-car stance. It’s such a serious statement of intent that with a crash helmet on you truly struggle to believe you’re in a road car. It’s an impression reinforced by the GT’s cockpit surroundings – pared-back with plenty of exposed carbonfibre and little in the way of sound deadening to isolate you from the 647bhp V6 located just behind your shoulders.
With the seat fixed you pull on a strap to adjust the pedal box, bringing the brake and throttle towards your feet. The steering wheel is more of a rectangle, but it feels good in your hands, especially on the out lap of each timed run, when it feels appropriate to weave a little to help switch the tyres on.
The EcoBoost V6 may share more than half its DNA with the unit found in the Raptor pickup truck, but it sounds no-nonsense purposeful and provides immense propulsion. The 647bhp peak power figure is the headline grabber, but torque is the order of the day – some 550lb ft of it to be precise. In the more aggressive dynamic modes the motor engages a system to mitigate what little turbo lag there is and delivers a more intense power delivery from 5500 to 7000rpm.
From the moment you leave the pitlane the GT feels quite unlike other supercars. It’s flat and resistant to roll, and direct and responsive to small steering inputs, but not jumpy or overly reactive. That intuitive response is welcome, because while the steering isn’t glassy exactly, you don’t get much feedback through the wheel, and because you don’t sense much body roll either, you soon realise this is a car that requires you to rely on faith as much as feel.
It contains its weight well (think c1500kg with fluids), both through the corners and in the braking areas, and if you’re prepared to let it carry more speed than feels comfortable into the quicker corners you feel the aero catch you. As you’d expect (and want), it’s the front end that lets go first. Softly and only fractionally, but enough to know you’re reaching the limit of the front tyres, or need to keep the weight transfer working on the front axle as you ask it to peel into the corner.
When the process clicks it’s a fantastic feeling. One I’m familiar with from racing, actually, which is a compliment indeed, as few road cars allow you to enter that zone. It’s in this heightened sensory state that what feedback you do get from the Ford really makes sense, and where you appreciate just how precisely you’re able to adjust your brake, steering and throttle inputs. In this respect, the race car genes are very apparent.
The weird thing is that the GT struggles against the stopwatch. The laps feel like they should be on the money. The best aren’t ragged, but nor are they overly cautious; there’s no running wide of the mark, or getting greedy on the throttle and then having to back off. We’re hustling hard, but almost imperceptibly you reach a point where the car plateaus and you simply stop finding gains.
Despite its uncompromising design, which ruthlessly placed racing success ahead of more rounded road car objectives, the GT doesn’t seem to have the innate
aggression to attack a lap in the way you might expect. It has the grip and the traction, the braking power and the ability to carry speed into the trickier corners. It feels planted in a way 99 per cent of supercars don’t. And yet, every time I cross the line its lap time is shaded by the AMG’s – the best still being 0.6sec behind. Does the GT’s reliance on aerodynamics hobble it when there aren’t enough high-speed comers for it to strike home an advantage? Most likely, yes. Could I have found more time? A bit, perhaps, but the same could be said of all the cars. Bemused, mildly shocked and with time pressing on, we vacate the Ford and turn our attentions to the GT2 RS.
Much has been written about this most extreme of all Motorsport department 911s, but not until you strap yourself in does the reality of a 690bhp 911 on road-legal rubber truly hit home. This is the first time I’ve driven the GT2 RS. Quite the introduction, and a good explanation for why my tongue is currently showing a propensity to stick to the roof of my mouth.
The driving environment is familiar territory for anyone who has sat in a GT 911 before: functional but comfortable, fuss-free but full of occasion. Twist the ignition key and the first major difference becomes apparent. The big-boost flat-six is an absolute dragon of a motor, breathing heavily from the tailpipes and filling the cockpit with a menacing pulse.
Should there be a manual GT2 RS? There’ll always be someone who wants one, especially if you get your kicks on the road, but I understand why a car so focused on track performance should only come with PDK. There’s certainly nothing to complain about with the way this dual-clutch gearbox goes about its business. The shifts are synaptic whether you’re working up or down the ’box, the latter changes complete with ultra-precise rev matching. I love stirring a gearlever, but when you’re driving against the clock the 2RS’s transmission is manna from heaven.
The steering is a bit lighter than you expect, but there’s plenty of feel and the front end is perfectly tied- down, so the car changes direction brilliantly – helped no doubt by the rear-wheel steering. You don’t have to cajole or agitate the 2RS into corners as you do older 911s, and this is a big step on in depth of dynamics, as it allows you to concentrate on getting out of the corner rather than on how to get into it.
The 2RS isn’t quite as laser-guided as the 991.2 GT3 RS. Some of that is down to the engine, which can’t match the throttle response of the sensational 4-litre naturally aspirated RS motor. It’s also because taming all that torque requires more measured throttle inputs. Fundamentally, it’s because the thing gains so much speed from the exit of one corner to the braking zone for the next that it forces a different driving style.
The brakes are stupendously capable, and crucially allow you to change direction while on the limit. Likewise, the ESC electronics permit just enough slip under power without letting things go too far, allowing you to ride out of the comer with a hint of oversteer, driven wheels rotating slightly faster than the fronts.
There are occasions where you unmask the 2RS’s well-hidden malevolence. If you’re too hurried with your steering inputs the front end has the grip to turn faster than the tail wants to move (even with rear- wheel steer) or has the lateral grip to support, but it’s a fleeting moment of instability that’s soon contained.
Logic suggests a rear-wheel-drive 911 with this much power and torque should be almost uncontrollable in anything other than a racing driver’s hands, but the reality is that, while it demands respect, the GT2 RS is incredibly precise and magnificently exploitable if you show it the requisite skill and confidence.
Like the other cars tested, there’s pressure to nail a clean lap within the first two flyers, simply because although the Michelins remain admirably consistent over prolonged stints, they have a few laps where they are at their absolute best. With ESC and TC on, it sets a 1:12.1 – 1.5sec quicker than the AMG – while with ESC off I go a couple of tenths slower.
It’s an emphatic display. Just as impressive – at least to me – is the fact that this utter beast of a 911 has such precision and control to go with the immense power and torque. You need your wits about you, and it’s not a car for faint hearts or inexperienced hands, but we wouldn’t want a GT2 RS any other way, right?
It’s funny the things you see in lap traces. The stopwatch may never lie, but what you feel from behind the wheel can paint a different picture to that delineated by the cold, binary heart of a Vbox speed trace.
First the overriding truth: no car here punches from apex through comer exit to the next braking area with the ferocity of the 991.2 GT2 RS. When its wheels are straight the Porsche is ballistic, pulling a noticeably steeper upward curve than even the Ford GT. Likewise, nothing quite matches the Ford for consistent stopping power; the plunging line charting truly epic levels of retardation combined with consistency.
The traces also reveal oddities that become character traits across the course of a lap. There are significant moments where the GT2’s ability to build your confidence can draw you into overcommitting and then asking too much of the brakes – never more so than on the hair-raising run through the compression that takes you up towards Rocket. Not only does the Porsche gain more speed, but on the quickest lap it encourages me to brake later than the Ford. Too late as it transpires, which then loses me time as I struggle to make the 90-degree left as the track flattens at the top of the incline. This temptation to overcommit manifests itself a number of times.
Cleanest and most consistent of the four is the AMG GT R. It can’t match the Ford and Porsche on the longer bursts of acceleration (that’s pure physics in action), but it claws back time by managing to avoid big troughs in minimum corner speed. Never the quickest between the corners, it consistently carries a little more speed – or at least stays with the best of them – through the slower comers. And thanks to the excellent traction control it makes effective use of what power it has. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t have enough to slug it out with the GT and GT2 beyond 100mph.
It’s much the same with the Exige. It carries admirable speed through all the corners, but where the others accelerate in a smooth line that gradually tails off as speeds get serious, the Exige’s acceleration trace has a marked stammer – a sign of that slightly awkward gearshift.
Ultimately, the GT2’s greatest single advantage is how it contains its unfavourable weight distribution to routinely match or exceed the other cars’ ability to carry speed into and through both low- and high-speed comers.
It might be a monster, but few cars in our experience deploy their performance quite so completely as the GT2 RS 991.2.
|2018 Lotus Exige Cup 430
|2018 Porsche 911 GT2 RS 991.2
|2018 Mercedes-AMG GT R C190
|2018 Ford GT
|V6 3456cc, supercharger
|Flat-six, 3800cc, twin-turbo
|V8 3982cc, twin-turbo
|V6 3497cc, twin-turbo
|430bhp @ 7000rpn
|690bhp @ 7000rpm
|577bhp @ 6250rpm
|647bhp @ 6250rpm
|325lb ft @ 2600-6800rpm
|553lb ft @ 2500-4500rpm
|516lb ft @ 1900-5500rpm
|550lb ft @ 5900rpm
ON THE ROAD
The roads of north wales have been Drive-My’s hunting ground for 20 years, so although this quartet is honed for the track, because they are also legit road-legal machines we couldn’t resist taking them to our reference road routes to see how they fair.
I start in the Ford. On the road it’s an intimidating machine. You know you fill every inch of your lane, often a little more as the kerdunk-kerdunk-kerdunk of the right-hand wheels hitting the catseyes telegraphs. Lamborghini Aventador aside, I’ve never driven as outsized a vehicle as this on these roads.
On the more open sections you can let the GT flow a little. Chippings clatter round the wheelarches, while the coarseness of the surface generates plenty of road noise. Coupled with the gruff, boosty soundtrack of the V6, driving the GT in the wild is an unfiltered experience. Torque is the overriding force at work, picking you up and pushing you to the next corner – which the Ford will slice through, a squeeze of steering input enough to tack through sweeping curves and a roll of the wrists for tighter turns.
It’s an intense and effortless sensation, but one that is perhaps a little too matter-of-fact. Beyond the initial excitement of simply being in the GT you crave more connection and dynamic nuance.
Swapping to the Exige is a real culture shock, the undersized Lotus feeling like you’re pulling on a T-shirt that’s shrunk in the wash. There’s connection and engagement in spades, and its size means you suddenly have so much more road to play with.
It’s a firm car by Lotus standards, and the steering is heavier and less bright as a result, but you still have the satisfaction of reading the road surface like Braille. I’d be lying if I said you don’t miss the epic reach of the GT, but the trade-off is sweetened by knowing you’re working the Exige harder more of the time. The slightly knotty gearshift when pushing to the maximum on track isn’t such an issue, though it’s still awkward to execute sweet heel-and- toe downshifts thanks to the mismatched pedal heights. Overall though, this is a car that still shines on the road.
The AMG somehow feels even more bombastic on the road. You savour the torque that bit more and enjoy the part-throttle to full- throttle snap. It’s hard and sharply responsive, but the chassis has a 911 GT3-like control, so the rear always feels like it can live with the front end’s response. Traction is strong if you’re sensitive with the throttle, and the electronics are there to be leant on. It really is a cracking effort from AMG – so much more of a cohesive and connected-feeling driver’s car than the lesser GT models and a very credible rival to Porsche’s best efforts. Speaking of which…
The wonder of the 991.2 GT2 RS is that it combines a little of the other three and adds a whole heap of its own magic. Small enough to exploit, feelsome without being distracted, responsive without feeling edgy and stiffly suspended but with just enough ‘give’ to work with the road. Its performance is gut-wrenching, at once overwhelming and utterly absorbing.
The twin-turbo flat-six doesn’t have the searing rev range of the GT3’s normally aspirated motor, but it has its own character and a fierce delivery. One shaped by countless Le Mans victories, with a soundtrack so redolent of 956s and 962s. You can get to know it and explore its performance until common sense dictates enough is enough. Where you draw the line is down to you. Its greatness is rooted in how Porsche has managed to create a track-biased 911 so potent and yet so precise and exploitable on challenging roads.
‘AVENTADOR ASIDE, I’VE NEVER DRIVEN AS OUTSIZED A VEHICLE AS THE FORD GT ON THESE ROADS’
With four such different takes on the hardcore supercar we were never going to arrive at a straightforward conclusion. Especially when our primary focus in this test is their outright ability on track.
The Lotus may be slowest, but it’s punching way above its weight getting anywhere near the AMG and Ford. Physics is its friend, yes, but still it shouldn’t manage to summon such speed from so little in the way of firepower and cubic capacity. On the road it strikes an enviable balance between rawness and refined precision, and while its a tougher proposition in which to cover big miles and feels like big money for an evolution of the once humble Elise, when you’re in the moment on a great road it’s a special car.
As Merc’s first serious stab at a rival to Porsche’s ultra-successful GT3, the AMG GT R is a great success. It’s hugely desirable and genuinely credible, with star quality (no pun intended) and its own distinct character. Its lap time is slightly confusing, for although it betters the Ford that’s more an indication of the GT’s underperformance at Anglesey than any heroics achieved by the Mercedes. As a road car the GT R delivers a distinctive and dynamic driving experience: one that’s unique amongst front-engined, rear- drive supercars.
The Ford is something of an enigma. It’s true Anglesey didn’t suit its high-speed, aero-reliant design, but it shouldn’t have been blown into the weeds by the GT2, just as it should have been able to drop the AMG GT R. It looks like a racing car, feels like a racing car, but never quite manages to hook-up the kind of lap a carbon-tubbed homologation special should.
If it had, you could forgive its somewhat industrial on-road demeanour and a V6 that’s not an especially nice partner for prolonged periods. It’s an easy machine to operate, but it never gives you enough to feel fully at one with it on the road. You lean on the grip because you believe it’s there, not because you feel it through the palms of your hands. Of course, it’s never less than an event to be in, but you can’t shake the fact it’s unwieldy on all but the most open and flowing roads. I love the fact it exists and feel awe in its presence, but I can’t help but feel disappointed at the sum of its parts.
By contrast, the GT2 RS is the embodiment of the hardcore, track-honed road car. Blisteringly quick and brimming with attitude, it is blessed with a depth of character and breadth of ability that shames the Ford and makes it as engaging on the road as it is extraordinary on track.
In isolation, all four of these cars excel as track cars and sit at the extreme end of the road-legal driving experience, but only one truly defines the breed. That car is the 991.2 GT2 RS. Ballsy, boosty and breathtaking in every respect, it’s one of Weissach’s modern masterpieces.
Venue Anglesey Layout Coastal Length 1.5 miles Direction Clockwise Conditions Dry.15 deg C
2018 Ford GT 1:14.2
2018 Lotus Exige Cup 430 1:14.7
2018 Mercedes-AMG GT R C190 1:13.6
2018 Porsche 911GT2 RS 991.2 1:12.1
BANKING SPEED (mph)
Left: rear-wheel steering helps the GT2 RS’s agility, although with 690bhp some old-fashioned steering from the rear is also possible.
‘IT DEMANDS RESPECT, BUT THE GT2 RS IS INCREDIBLY PRECISE AND MAGNIFICENTLY EXPLOITABLE’
Left and above: like the Exige, the GTR has a multi-stage stability control system to keep things tidy – or you can disable it completely… Above right: finding the sweet spot can be tricky in the Exige; supercharged V6’s 430bhp feels plenty propelling 1093kg.