Blessed things. They’re massively fast, monstrously large and wickedly expensive, but are the world’s fastest cars a delight or a disaster on the road? Mark Gillies finds out. Photographs By Tim Andrew.
ugatti most sure-footed around sodden Castle Combe: provocation needed to make it oversteer. Car lacks ultimate involvement, but is safest of trio. Logo on pillar lights up.
If justification were ever needed for the supercar, we got it on Dartmoor. Young and old alike stopped and stared and asked and enthused: they couldn’t believe they were seeing an XJ220. One young car-mad lad was bowled over when we took him for a spin in both the Jaguar and the Ferrari. Me mates'll never believe this when I tell 'em,' he said, stepping back into his Astra. Even the police were friendly. Between us, we had three visits of the law-enforcing kind, and four highway patrol men ended up trying a Jaguar and Ferrari for size. Most people, it seems, still like excitement.
Yet before settling into their leather driving seats, I was prepared to hate these three cars. Too big, too fast and too expensive, basically. Cars that make absolutely no sense in the caring, sharing 1990s by occupying more than their share of our valuable road space and natural resources.
But after two days of driving, over dale and downland, motorway and racetrack, I couldn’t help admiring these cars as pieces of engineering, couldn’t help falling for their extrovert charms - even though they flick a V-sign in the face of political correctness and right-on thinking.
There’s no doubt that this is the most outrageous collection of outrageous vehicles ever assembled by CAR. Between them, they muster an unworldly 1573bhp generated by 10 litres, 26 cylinders and no fewer than eight turbochargers. To buy all three at list, you’d need somewhere around £900,000, and you’d need a sizeable bank balance to keep them fed, watered and shod.
In many ways, this is a contest between the established and the pretender. The upstart is Bugatti; ranged against it, the relatively ancient houses of Jaguar and Ferrari.
Bugatti’s is the oldest name of the three, but there's little except the name and the creation of super-fast, super-exotic and super-expensive cars to link the products of Ettore Bugatti in Molsheim, France, with Automobili Bugatti in Campogalliano, Italy. Today's creation has credibility, though: among the engineers employed at the factory near Modena are Pavel Rajmis, who designed the Audi quattro system, and Mauro Forghieri. ex Lamborghini and Ferrari F1 designer.
When the F40 was revealed to the world in 1987, the press was less than impressed. It seemed like a cynical attempt by Ferrari to milk the prevailing (speculative) Ferrari fervour, for other than being a 40th birthday celebration there was no real logic behind this road-racer, unlike the progenitive Ferrari 288 GTO, conceived for group B road-racing.
You could say that the XJ220 was born into that speculative climate, the heady days of the late 1980s when anything old or flash was seen as a begetter of lots of cash. The truth is more romantic, for the car was created in spare time by Jaguar engineers and designers. When the Jaguar XJ220 appeared at the 1988 Birmingham NEC Motor Show, it was a spectacular-looking piece, powered by a V12 engine (as used in the company’s group C racers) and with a four-wheel drivetrain. However, by the time purchasers got involved, the 220 had become shorter and less weighty, had just two driven wheels, and was powered by a more compact but less evocative V6 motor, thanks to the work carried out by Jaguar-Sport, the joint venture set up by Jaguar and Tom Walkinshaw.
These three cars are all mid-engined, but there their technical similarities end. The Jaguar and Ferrari are the least sophisticatea of the trio, the Bugatti the most avant-garde: it is also, if you like, the most pur sang.
The Ferrari is a bit of a simpleton in this company. True, the striking exterior is clad in racy composites, but the spaceframe chassis that's hidden underneath would have been pass6 in racing circles nearly 30 years ago. The suspension is regulation double wishbones all round, with obligatory coil- over-dampers and anti-roll bars, while the hefty cross-drilled and vented 13in discs are bereft of ABS. The most high-tech chassis feature is the three-position ride- height control that lowers the car by 20mm at speed to reduce drag, and can raise it by the same amount above the neutral position to clear low kerbs and the like.
The engine is a detuned version of the wild 288GTO Evoluzione's, in itself a bored, short-stroke 2936cc version of the 288GTO's dohc-per-bank 32-valve V8 unit, fed by a pair of IHI turbochargers and twin air-to-air Behr intercoolers. Good for 478bhp at 7000rpm and 426lb ft at 4000rpm, the F40 is the least well endowed of these cars. Mind you, that's a bit like saying that Frank Bruno is a bit of a wimp alongside Mike Tyson: I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of a punch from either of them. Hung on the back of the V8 is a conventional five-speed-and-reverse transmission.
The XJ220 is a small step up the technological ladder, but there's nothing in this car to shade anything Jim Hall did with his Chaparral race cars in the 1960s. The chassis is a semi-monocoque affair, using the Alcan ASVT (Aluminium Structured Vehicle Technology) process, whereby alloy honeycomb panels are bonded, spot-welded and riveted together with high-strength alloy panels and machined bulkheads. A steel rollcage is then bolted to this chassis as a fully integral structural member. High-tech composites aren't in evidence on the panelwork, either, which is made from aluminium-alloy pressings.
The most impressive aspect of the chassis/body structure is the aerodynamics. The 0.36 Cd isn’t amazing, but the shape generates 600lb of downforce, thanks to the combined influence of front splitter, group C style rear venturi and fixed rear aerofoil. The suspension apes the kind of group C car that Walkinshaw's team was so adept at building for Jaguar: double wishbones all round, with pushrods actuating inboard Bilstein coil spring/damper units and anti¬roll bars front and rear. Massive AP Racing cross-drilled and vented discs are acted upon by equally impressive alloy four-pot calipers.
The engine and transmission continue the moderately high-tech theme, but they’re no cuter than the Ferrari’s. The 3.5-litre V6 engine has the obligatory pair of overhead cams per bank and four valves per cylinder, a pair of Garrett T3 turbos with twin intercoolers and a special Zytek digital management system, but there’s little to freak out the engine junkie, save the numbers. Impressive numbers, too: 542bhp at 7000rpm, 475lb ft of torque at 4500rpm, and no less than 200lb ft at just 1000rpm. The grunt is needed, however, because the car has a 700lb weight penalty over the Ferrari. The conventional five-speed and reverse transmission is manufactured by FF Developments.
The most sophisticated of the trio is the Bugatti. The EB 110 has four-wheel drive where the others make do with two-; it has ABS, which the others eschew; it has more cylinders; and it uses aerospace construction techniques and materials. (‘Our’ car didn’t have ABS, though.)
Aerospatiale - one of the French government interests that have provided most of the money for the venture - builds the monocoques from carbonfibre, using solid carbon for the bulkheads. The suspension isn’t hugely sophisticated, for Bugatti’s original intention of providing hydraulic active suspension has been lost in the translation to production reality. In its place are double wishbones, with twin coil-over-dampers at the rear: pull rods actuate the single units at the front.
The drivetrain is clever, although Lamborghini has recently added a 4wd version of the Diablo to steal some of the EB 110’s glory. The gearbox is cast integrally with the block to allow it to lie parallel with the engine, which helps lower the C of G, and keeps the main masses within the wheelbase. A Torsen diff at the back apportions 27 percent of the power to the front wheels and 73 percent to the rears. All of this - and ABS, too - adds weight, leaving the EB 110 on a par with the XJ220.
In terms of motive force, the Bugatti is the most sophisticated here, using a gorgeous 3.5-litre quad-cam V12, five valves per cylinder and four tiny IHI turbos. It produces 553bhp at 8000rpm and 451 lb ft of torque at 3750rpm, with 339lb ft available above 2400 revs. Of our threesome, it's the most powerful motor, even if the F40 is on a power-to-weight par. The EB 110 has one further advantage over the other two cars - a sixth forward ratio in its gearbox.
EB 110 trimmed tastefully, well equipped. Cabin cramped for tall drivers, door arrangement odd. V12 engine has four turbos, four cams, 60 valves and a mere 553bhp on tap.
Battle commences at our favourite racetrack, Castle Combe in Wiltshire, as myself, Georg Kacher and Richard Bremner attempt to tame these monsters on a streaming wet surface. These are seriously, seriously fast cars. To mash the throttle pedal on any three of these after driving a hot hatch is a bit like being a village cricketer who's suddenly playing in an international. Everything happens so fast, so violently, it's almost impossible to comprehend. Make no mistake - each of these cars has awesome accelerative force, massive traction and braking power, and the ability to frighten the tyro witless.
I try the Bugatti first. It’s stylishly appointed inside, and I fit its cramped quarters nicely. Kacher, who is well outside the 95th percentile used by car designers, squeezes in only by impersonating a genie in a bottle. The interior features a pleasing marriage of leather and wood, but there’s nothing revolutionary about its architecture. Still, I find the seat and driving position comfortable, even if the chair lacks lateral support and you feel hemmed in by the proximity of the huge A-post and roof panel. The footwell is quite cramped, but the pedals well placed and sensibly weighted. The clutch, for example, is a revelation for a supercar, fluid and quite soft, like a Porsche 911’s. The gearlever is well positioned, a hand-fall away from the wheel, unlike the Jaguar’s lever, which is placed too high on the centre console.
The Bug feels civilised and quite small. There's air-con, a great stereo and reasonable intimacy with your fellow passenger. At low speed, the V12 sounds mundane, its turbos quiet, its exhaust muted. Floor the right pedal, and the V12 whines like a jet engine, its valvegear sizzles and the turbos whistle malevolently. It’s not the mellifluous aural splendour of a Ferrari or Lambo 12- cylinder, but altogether harder-edged and less tuneful, more menacing, an impression reinforced by the zeeuup of the tiny turbos as you change up under hard acceleration.
The V12 thrusts you towards the horizon as rapidly as you’d want. With a 0-62mph time of 3.6sec, a 209mph top speed and the ability to hit 124mph from rest in 14.0sec, performance is unrelentingly rapid. It's a match for the 220, bar the odd mph or two, and fractionally quicker than the F40, which will hit 202mph and sprint from 0-60mph in less than 4.0 seconds. It’s a cliche, but there is no better way to describe this car's acceleration than to say that it pushes you back into your seat and holds you there - hard. Unless you’re absolutely immaculate in your gearshift timing, your neck jerks forward and then crashes back to the headrest every time you interrupt the flow of power.
On the track, when you're keeping the revs above the 4000 mark, there’s little or no break in the frenzy until the tacho needle passes 8000. The gearshift is quite sweet, the ratios close, and the only major flaw in the shifting process is a tardy throttle pedal that cushions the ebb and flow of engine revs.
Where this car really scores is in its security, the ease with which you can travel at an amazing pace. In the wet at the Combe, it’s quicker into every corner than the other two cars, which cause moments of sheer terror as their back wheels slew them sideways. There's no such trouble in the Bugatti: it turns in crisply, neutrals out as you apply the power, and remains on an even keel at all times. No matter how hard I try, I can't powerslide the Bugatti, though Kacher manages it by sheer animalism.
However, the Bugatti doesn't communicate that well. The power steering is meatily weighted, accurate and direct, but never supplies the feedback you get from a single-seater or sports-racer, where the steering wheel talks you through any handling problems. The brakes are the best of this group, though, having wonderful feel and the stopping power of an arrestor wire on an aircraft carrier.
The first thing that strikes about the Jaguar is that it’s a monstrous device. Tricky to enter, too. While the Bugatti has a door that swings up to aid ingress, the Jaguar’s opens conventionally, but not far enough. Once inside, the Jaguar is both huge and cramped: huge, because you seem to sit acres away from your companion and miles away from the huge steeply raked screen, and cramped because headroom is tight and there's limited fore-and-aft travel on the seat.
Like the Bugatti, the 220 offers a comfortable, sybaritic environment: swathes of leather and wool, air-con and CD player. (This car, which belongs to Connolly Leather, has been re-trimmed in gorgeous-looking soft-assisted aniline hide.) The main dials are well placed, the switches work snappily, and the driving position is comfortable if high set. There are one or two irritants, though: siting the auxiliary dials in the driver’s door seems daft, the clutch pedal is heavy, the girth is intimidating, and there's even less cubby and luggage space than in the Bugatti, which itself makes a Mini seem generous.
The most disappointing feature of the car, however, lies behind. At idle, the V6 sounds like someone's clanking a bucket of rusty nails together, and it becomes inspirational only under hard acceleration in the upper echelons of the rev range, when it develops a stirring growl. It’s not dull in the way it goes, though. If anything, you're slammed back into your seat harder than in the Bugatti. Like that car, the Jag kicks hardest when the tacho is into the mid-threes; its immense low-down stonk is partially disguised by the frenzied high- rev performance. Even after 10 laps of the Combe, the thing feels bloody fast, its performance memorable.
The handling is, too, but for all the wrong reasons. If there’s a more evil device on our roads, I wouldn't like to find it, for the 220 suffers from immense initial understeer followed by violent and snappy, pendulous oversteer. There is just a momentary point of neutrality, but the Jag is as housetrained as the baby elephant on Blue Peter. You're unlikely to find this out on the road, because your bravery runs out before the gumball Bridgestones yield to the laws of physics, but there’s only so much that tyre technology can mask in the wet. The saving element of the chassis is the steering, which has wriggly, communicative feedback, and fine weighting. It’s not perfect - it's too heavy for that - but it is exceptionally good.
Compared with the Bugatti's, the brakes are wooden, but they're still impressive by normal road car standards, able to pull you from 140mph to 55 in around 150 yards. Around the Combe, the Jaguar’s massive performance impresses, but it doesn't seduce.
On the track, I like the Ferrari best. For all its relative crudity, this is the car that talks loudest and puts its message across most lucidly, its steering is sublime. Bereft of power assistance, it’s light, it wriggles and kicks back and tells you about its directness and accuracy, becoming the perfect ally when the front or rear wheels start any wayward behaviour. It’s more entertaining around the Combe, too, because its chassis is beautifully balanced, giving more the harder it’s pushed. Pussy the F40, and you’ll make the transition from mild understeer to perfectly balanced behaviour. Push further, and it’s possible to display your opposite- lock skills to onlookers; become over-confident, though, and the pedigree dog wags the trainer. The brakes have an immensely reassuring pedal feel and initial bite, but they start graunching and wailing after four laps or so.
The engine makes the most wonderful hard-edged howl - and the noise dominates swift forward motion because there’s so little soundproofing. It also provides monumental forward thrust, with enhanced horizon-shortening powers when the sequential second turbo chimes in at around 4500rpm. It might not have quite the power of the Jag or the Bug, but the Ferrari's lower weight means that it’s as quick as the others at all but the highest of high speeds. It’s a brave or stupid driver who nails the throttle in anything other
than a straight line in the dry, and a very stupid one who puts the hammer down hard in the wet. This is a car that repays throttle- foot deftness.
There’s also something magical about stirring cogs through a black ball topped chrome wand that stands in a classic metal gate, and the precise, metallic shift action is a joy to harness. Against the notchiness of the Jaguar’s gate, and the vagueness of the Bugatti’s, the F40’s change is so positive and precise that it’s like drinking fine Burgundy instead of good Bulgarian wine.
The F40 feels like a racer thinly disguised as a road car, from the second you open the lightweight door and cast around the spartan interior. Where the other cars have leather and wool and wood, air-conditioning, electric windows and sound systems, the F40 makes do with plain grey cloth, bare metal and slinky shards of Kevlar. The air-conditioning comes from eyeball vents and a wind-down window, the sounds from the V8 behind you.
In wet, Jaguar’s handling is evil, pitching suddenly into oversteer. Driving position lofty, interior architecture attractive, but dials in driver’s door impossible to read. Main instruments sensibly placed, though. V6 twin-turbo engine based on racer, gives 542bhp, pushes car to 213mph top speed.
Like the other two cars, it's not exactly roomy, the F40, but there’s marginally more space for your barnet, and the seats cosset beautifully, attuned more to keeping you in place under high-g manoeuvres than with long-distance comfort. As for the driving position, the F40 and I fitted perfectly, but it’s not a car for either the small or the stout, and luggage space is ludicrously tight, if not quite as parsimonious as in the Jag, which has to be the worst-packaged car since Bugatti built a two-seater on a 15ft wheelbase in the early 1930s.
Away from the Combe, though, the Ferrari's store falls a bit. The F40 is a noisy companion at illegal motorway speeds: the engine drones away on part- throttle, and the tyres thrum through the bodywork. That incredibly firm suspension, which helps give it the sharpest turn-in and most pliant directional changes, becomes a bore over truly bumpy surfaces. The car crashes and thuds over short ridges, and the tyres drone.
The Jag and Bug fare better. The Jaguar's size isn't an issue on motorways, and it proves to be surprisingly refined. Engine noise is muted at cruising speeds (partly due to gear ratios that seem more suited to interplanetary travel than British motorways) and wind noise subdued, while the lack of drone from the tyres belies their massive size. Where the Ferrari’s steering will kick back over Catseyes, the Jaguar’s is less unruly, and it rides better than any car of this type and on these tyres has a right to. What’s more, it’s as stable at speed as the Deutschmark used to be on the currency markets.
But it's shaded in this department by the Bugatti, which benefits from an easier clutch and gearshift, and a slightly better ride that suffers a touch from floatiness over crests. It’s more of a pleasure to be in the Bugatti, which offers (marginally) better visibility and greater wieldiness. It suffers as little engine and tyre noise as the Jaguar, and is, quite simply, easier, less of a task to drive.
Our motorway link takes us to Dartmoor, where the roads are wide and testing enough to see how this trio fare in the public domain. The public certainly appreciate their progress: I couldn’t have turned more heads if I had walked into a room with Cindy Crawford on one arm, and Naomi Campbell on the other. For sheer presence, these cars have few rivals.
As the trip went on, the XJ220’s styling won me over. Too long of tail, too wide of girth and too mean of glass area, the Jaguar is still a startling car to look at, a dramatic statement that drew the most initial admiration from onlookers. The Bugatti, on the other hand, doesn't really work. Elements - such as the nose and vestigial horseshoe grille - are terrific, but it looks as if designer Marcello Gandini is stuck in the 1970s, living off past glories such as the Lamborghini Countach, rather than saying anything new.
The most dramatic of the three, for me at least, is the F40, which looks smaller and neater than the others, yet has a brutality, a purposefulness that suggests stark speed. Somehow, Pininfarina’s team managed to combine lots of group C racing and traditional Ferrari styling cues to make something that could only be a road racer from Maranello.
For sheer bulk, these three have few rivals. The Jaguar may work well on the track and be a refined companion on motorways, but at a tad over 7ft in girth, it’s too big comfortably to punt along English B-roads, and can make you nervous over narrower A-routes. Flowever, like all of these three, slow-moving traffic is no longer an obstacle: there’s so much power, so much overtaking ability, that you can despatch dawdlers in the twitch of a throttle foot. Overtaking made simple: all you need is £200,000-plus, and 500bhp.
All three cars have abilities that make swift cross-country work a doddle. But therein lies the rub. They’re all so swift that the fun is going as fast as you dare. On a deserted stretch of highway, that’s fine, but on crowded roads, the rest of the world doesn't make allowances for you.
The world becomes like a giant video game, the fix being to speed up the scenery flashing past as fast as possible.
There’s only one car that makes a real concession to normality - the Bugatti. It feels more sensibly sized, and it’s a pleasure to drive at slow speed. You can use the clutch in traffic, can see out of it, can just about park it without outside assistance. When you want to go hard, like we did on Dartmoor, it involves you without forcing you to experience the surface too closely, it has the in-built safety features that allow you to make mistakes, and it provides the kind of adrenaline rush that Tornado pilots must get on low-flying missions. If only it looked as gorgeous as the Diablo or the F40, and if only its engine provided the kind of thrust that the Jag and F40 do low down: you have to keep the V12 spinning above 4000rpm for worthwhile progress, because although it will potter along at 1000rpm in top, pick-up is as flaccid as a 1.3 Maestro’s until those four tiny turbos start spinning fast.
The Jaguar is just too big to feel comfortable on these roads, and the absence of ABS and four-wheel drive seems like cheese-paring, given that the aim was to make a great road-going supercar. Where the Bugatti’s all-round excellence and techno-craft seduces, the Jaguar wins only on sheer blistering pace, looks and a superb cabin. There’s little to make you love it, and the Bugatti makes a better fist of being a car you can live with.
F40’s interior spartan: uses cloth for dash, peppered with decorative Kevlar. Leather trim non-standard. Facia simple, legible. V8 engine least powerful here, with 478bhp.
There’s everything to make you love the F40, though. Those looks, that snarling V8, that gorgeous steering, that intimate race-car feeling. On the road, it can be a noisy, nasty, unrefined animal that follows surface imperfections and locks wheels and spins tyres if the weather turns truculent, but its tactility and sheer exhilaration more than make up for it. On Dartmoor, it thrilled us, the Jaguar disappointed us, and the Bugatti impressed us.
At the moment, until we drive the McLaren F1, these three cars are the pinnacle of the supercar as we know it. Yet all are curiously flawed. The Jaguar is outmoded and lacks soul: it looks like a cynical marketing exercise, and feels it in its lack of purity and coherence. The Ferrari, on the other hand, which some dismissed as a cynical pursuit of speculator’s gold, is the purest supercar of the three, built for those who love driving, and love driving fast. No compromise, no concession to the hurly-burly of the everyday, it is in spirit the true successor of the great Ferrari road-cum-race cars: the 250 GT SWB and 250 GTO. All it lacks is the competition pedigree, for it has the same breeding and demeanour.
Of the three, the Bugatti is the rational choice, the car that combines the speed and dynamics of a supercar with the ride, comfort and usability of the workaday car. It lacks the ultimate exhilaration of the F40, but makes up for it by being the only one that could be used every day on the road. Average drivers could enjoy the Bugatti at speed, whereas the other two are purely for the skilled and brave. All we need to know now is whether it can match the McLaren F1.
HOW DO YOU MEASURE PLEASURE?
The answer is that you can’t, not even in inches, and certainly not in pounds Sterling. You could buy 85 Peugeot 106 XSis for the combined price of the supercars we've sampled here - more than enough to earn you a living running a rental fleet.
But let’s be clear that, entertaining though the 106 may be, you could never have anywhere near as much fun in it as you can in any one of these superheated sports cars. There are more reasons for this than the obvious ones of speed and sex appeal. Enjoying one of these supercars is rather like enjoying one of Shakespeare’s tragedies: every time you experience it, you unearth something new.
So fast are these cars, so lofty their limits, that you can never hope to learn every facet of their repertoire - not even in thousands of driving miles. Their abilities run too deep, and their characters are too complex. However, every one of the rocket shoppers we test on page 84 is more capable than any of our trio of rocket ships.
They are more rounded cars, patently better able to deal with the rude press of city traffic, the perils of parking and all the other things that ordinary cars are required to do. They are all entertainers, too, particularly the little Peugeot. But for all its assets, there’s not much to learn once you’ve put a couple of thousand miles on it.
Buy an F40, an EB 110 or an XJ220, and I’ll wager that you’ll still be learning more about your abilities, and your car’s, many years down the track. Richard Bremner
On track, F40 is most entertaining, having finest steering, most tactile controls and best driving position. Not as safe as Bugatti, though, thanks to 2wd and masses of power.