Time to put the new Esprit into context - and context doesn't get any scarier than this lot The Carrera 4 is the best 911 ever, this factory-tuned Aston is the ultimate DB7 and the F355. well, it's a Ferrari. Story by Jason Barlow. Photography by Anton Watts.
LIGHT ENTERTAINMENT THE LOTUS OPPOSITION
It really is the prince of wails. In the Italian hills. High plain drifting in America. Utterly alluring while you’re Cote d’Azuring. Yeah, yeah, but only something truly special can enliven a trip around that Mogadon of motorways, the M25. A Lotus? Aston Martin? Porsche perhaps? Here it is. The Ferrari F355, all the more sonorous in the Spider form you see on these pages, even if the hood is staying firmly put right now as the rain throws down. Why does the F355 sound so good? Something to do with its flat-plane crank and the way the firing intervals are 180 degrees of crankshaft rotation apart, allowing two cylinders to fire together, as well as a tuneful exhaust blare. Mind you, 375bhp is no impediment to aural stimulation either.
‘Really nailing the Sport 350 is an adventure, like being part of a dramatic chain reaction or hanging around the fringes of chaos theory. With 350bhp and two turbos, this Esprit isn’t just a car, it’s a force of nature’
‘If only there were more tunnels in this country. The 1999 Ferrari F355 F1 Type F129 gives great tunnel, you see’
What does it sound like? Specifically, like nothing else you’ve ever heard, although you can, of course, get away with the Formula One comparison far more easily when you’re in a Ferrari. It’s that old race car for the road thing, particularly with the optional paddle-shift gearbox on-board (as is the case with 70 percent of F355s Type F129 now sold). This car plays tricks, though: it sounds cam my and tinny and frankly a bit thin to start with, but swells as the revs build and the speed gathers, until your head is awash with a musclebound bitter street symphony and you no longer have any idea precisely how fast you’re going.
If only there were more tunnels in this country. The 1999 Ferrari F355 F1 Type F129 gives great tunnel, you see, although usefully there are more than a few on the M25. So obviously you find yourself doing the juvenile thing and dropping back from the car in front as you approach the tunnel’s gaping four-lane mouth, down-changing in preparation for the moment when white light meets white noise. Second, third, fourth, in quick succession via gentle tugs on the oddly ceramic- touch steering-wheel paddles unleash a banshee 8500rpm, only once on the right side of legality.
The noise in question - a metallic KO - then beats its way primevally along the whole mile-long structure, as the F355 introduces itself personally to every one of the tunnel’s current habitues. Who must surely be smiling by now (the Ferrari is a democrat, not an autocrat - it sounds even better from the outside).
My mobile rings. Photographer Anton Watts, four or five car lengths behind, has telephoned to congratulate me on creating such a beautiful racket. He fully understands the tunnel temptation, he says. Would have done exactly the same himself. Good, I reply. I let the F355’s plaintive roar die away. Once again, its surprisingly civilised sixth gear will be just fine for the remainder of this M25 mosey. Until, that is, we peel off onto the more challenging stuff. This is a truly great car. It stands out from the rest.
Amazingly, its replacement will be with us in about three months’ time, and Ferrari has now closed the order book on the F355. The Spider, however, continues indefinitely and costs £111,783 with the F1 box.
In truth, only the Porsche 911 Carrera 4 996 – among the quartet we’ve assembled here - is all-new, although Lotus and Aston Martin would like us to think that their cars have at least been sipping on the elixir of youth. The Esprit, of course, is old enough to remember glam rock the first time round never mind the revivals, while the DB7 is geriatric Jag in drag (though to be fair it’s more Dana International than Lily Savage). But here they are anyway, in refreshed ultra-potent Sport 350 guise for the Lotus, and
Driving Dynamics enhanced form for the Aston. And the Ferrari? Well, I’d almost forgotten that the F355 was merely a thorough 1994 overhaul of the unloved 348.
‘The Esprit, of course, is old enough to remember glam rock the first time round, never mind the revivals’
So, the Carrera is the only one without the hideous portrait in the attic. During our recent handling test (CAR January 1999), I found myself returning again and again to the standard Carrera, pushing it around Castle Combe harder and harder, vainly searching for the limit of its grip. I found it, but the fact is you have to drive it - remember, it’s rear-engined and a 911, which is some baggage - like an especially mentally impaired idiot to make it misbehave.
Now add four-wheel drive. Now add Porsche’s version of four- wheel drive. There’s so much electro-trickery on board this latest Carrera 4 - on sale now at £67,850 - that if this millennium bug business turns out not to be a conspiracy, the Porsche is in serious bother. But for now... well, the C4 lets you party like it’s 1999.
God, this car is clever. I know how and why it does what it does, but I don’t actually understand how or why. It’s got the measure of me there. I’m no whinging purist auto-Luddite type, but I am usually more than a little suspicious of cars saddled with elaborate traction-control systems. Which is potentially a problem, because the Carrera 4 has the SAS and MI6 of traction control; crucially, though, it lets you have all the fun you can handle before paternally wagging its electronic finger. It is, therefore, utterly fabulous.
Porsche Stability Management is the key weapon in the C4’s armoury: amongst other things it can put the kids to bed, take the dog for a walk and solve a few of those quantum physics quandaries that have been niggling away at you. But the really cool bit is when the management decides to brake whichever of the four wheels needs braking, to keep the car doing what it thinks you want it to be doing. So it’s farewell understeer (the brakes go to work on the inner rear wheel), while final oversteer can also be neutralised (the outer front wheel is retarded). PSM even reduces the throttle opening, judging when to intervene by chatting to the ABS sensors on each wheel, and working out how much G-force is being generated in any oops-wahey sideways moment.
In addition to PSM, there’s an automatic brake differential (ABD) which splits torque to the rear wheels, and Porsche’s ASR traction control which simply cuts the amount of power according to the conditions.
So much for the jargon, and despite the Germans’ reputation for engineering inscrutability, you could almost begin to wonder if there’s really any point in all this techno overkill (particularly when Porsche gives you a chunky ‘off’ button). Until, that is, you drive through a wet comer at an injudicious speed for the first time, an occasion which firmly slays that particular suspicion...
I love Lotus Esprits. it’s an appreciation filtered initially through a carefully nurtured nostalgia for Bond, Britain in the mid-’70s, and an abiding admiration for Colin Chapman’s single-minded engineering and racing genius. But that was all a very long time ago, and in many ways the Esprit just shouldn’t be able to cut it in 1999. Not when cars like the Carrera 4 have callously kicked away the nostalgia crutch. Which partially explains why we’re here again in yet another slightly tweaked Lotus; it’s a single, archaic Gatling gun railing against the Porsche’s sustained cruise missile military strike.
But hang on. Lotus may be fiddling incessantly with the formula, but at least the raw material remains precious. The Esprit possesses both a fantastic chassis and beautifully resolved steering. So, what marks out the Sport 350 from previous and lesser Esprits? Well I don’t know what your criteria are, but this really does sound like the Esprit to me. I like the Sport designation (genuine shades of FIA GT racing championships). Tackily added on or not, I also like the decals smeared down the body. And I like the body itself, which continues to defy time, and remains a matchless evocation of the mid-engined ’70s supercar ideal. It hasn’t dated at all.
How long can they go on stripping the weight out of the Esprit before it disappears altogether? As you’ll already have read, the Sport 350 wears the lightest magnesium wheels you can buy, has a carbonfibre rear wing purloined from the racing division, and stops with the aid of massive AP racing brakes. It’s also the most firmly suspended Lotus Esprit ever, with increased rigidity in the rear half of the chassis frame. And there is some pretty but arguably superfluous carbonfibre decoration in the cabin, where you will also find a preponderance of blue (speaker cones and seat facings, as well as inlet manifold and cam covers). It doesn’t gain any more power, but then it is 80kg lighter, and power is the one thing that the twin- turbocharged 350bhp V8 has always had in abundance. I like the sound of this car. It costs £64,950.
The Aston Martin DB7 is no slouch either. But nor is it much of a hot-rod, its gentlemanly demeanour the reason why it has suffered in previous comparisons with the more aggressive 911 and the more impetuous F355. Now Aston could argue that its phenomenally well-heeled clientele is perfectly happy with the DB7’s handsome blend of supercharged thrust and leathery finery, preferring a gallant 30mph waft around London’s more exclusive parishes to a B660 hammer-down (although the blend of Mazda MX-5 door-handle and superannuated Granada switchgear is substantially less appealing). But although there’s nothing wrong with my shoes, I’ve never honestly enjoyed driving the DB7 hard at all, apart from savouring the unique sense of occasion that goes with piloting an Aston.
The ‘Works Prepared’ DB7 Driving Dynamics is reputed to be the answer. Spun off the back of the DB7 GT project, the discerning Aston buyer can now specify beefier AP racing brakes (30 percent bigger in diameter), revised suspension (stiffer settings and new uprights at the front), mag alloys, traction control and a competition exhaust system. A bodykit is also available, although all this does is transform the DB7 from one of the world’s most handsome shapes into a dowdy doppelganger of a 1991 Toyota Celica.
That noise you can hear is the sound of somebody shooting themselves in their well-heeled foot.
One other problem: this whole Driving Dynamics caboodle is rather expensive. Think a bruising £16,643 for the suspension/brakes/wheels/badging package, £3689 for the sports exhaust, down to £2852 for the traction control. Then again, a gentleman never worries about money. Apparently.
All four are electrifyingly fast, as you’d expect, even in the wet where their ability to entertain (and scare) increases exponentially. The Ferrari is the trickiest in these conditions. You sit low in the F355 and the ugly steering wheel is fixed at an odd angle, but it’s comfortable enough. The F1 system is simple to operate, and uses the conventional car’s transmission and clutch - electro-hydraulic actuators move the clutch on your behalf. It’s quick and positive on the move, and can swap cogs in 0.15sec. It’s jerky at first, but as the miles spool by you learn how to smooth it out and discover that heel-and-toeing helps too. In fact, after a while it becomes so instinctive, so F1, that you have to stop yourself from ramming the car in front (probably being driven by an easy-going Scotsman).
But it can bite and bite hard, this car, especially in the wet. The F355 is an ultra-sensitive tool, wired, frenetic and mechanical; these are all positives, but also reasons why driving one quickly demands commitment, bravery and no little skill. But isn’t that the point of it? The F355 is a great communicator and the signals are vivid, but you must act upon all the information instantly.
The Porsche is a revelation. In fact, it may well be the most revelatory car I’ve ever driven. It’s simple really; with all the gizmology doing its thing, you can drive the Carrera 4 blisteringly fast whatever the conditions, be as entertained as it’s possible to be, and even breach its limits with impunity. It is truly stunning. It is also the safest 911 ever. It steers beautifully, has crisp throttle response, fabulous speed, a tactile, mechanical gearchange and astonishingly balanced handling. Cornering in a 911 is like nothing else, but the pattering nose and pendulous rear are both now faded memories. You can still lose the back end in the wet, but even if you’re not fast enough with the remedial lock, the 4’s computerised safety net is there way before you. Not that it encourages reckless idiocy, it’s just always ready for whatever you throw at it. The standard Carrera has plenty of dry grip; with four-wheel drive, it is spectacularly grippy.
The Lotus is harder work, more of an old-fashioned taskmaster, but no less wonderful despite its more traditional value system. For a start, it is explosively fast; in fact, it is probably faster than some explosions. Whatever, really nailing the Sport 350 is an adventure, like being part of a dramatic chain reaction, or hanging around on the fringes of chaos theory. With 350bhp and two turbos, an angry Esprit isn’t just a car, it’s a force of nature.
Which makes it very interesting indeed. Despite the racing genealogy, though, the Sport 350 is also the easiest Esprit I’ve driven; the clutch no longer requires Herculean effort, and you don’t need two hands to change gear. I only stalled it twice. Driving it quickly is all about restraint; you learn to work with the boost, control the savagery, although this is quite a task given that its engine is far less tractable than a big-hearted, non-turbo’d power unit. As daunting as it appears, however, the Esprit has a terrific chassis and the most beautifully uncorrupted steering responses; with confidence, you can make this car dance. You can make it stop too, thanks to its huge brakes. Shame it doesn’t sound better.
Whatever its aspirations, the DB7 is outclassed in this company. A fine GT car, it yields too much during hard going, has a stuffy bluffness where the other three are sharp enough to draw blood. I can’t get comfortable in it either: the seats are poorly shaped, and changing gear is more like an aerobic exercise than an instinctive, instant reflex. As befits its tweedy heritage, it feels older, heavier and more eccentric, the product of a different, less stringent era. It’s fun, of course, and searingly fast, but it mumbles incoherently where the Porsche, Ferrari and Lotus all chatter brightly and informatively. The suspension mods work, though; the DB7 is well damped, and has impressive body control, although its steering remains a bit vague. There’s also a boominess at 4000rpm, and the supercharger whines intrusively. There’s a hoary Anglocentricity about the way it comers too; there is old-fashioned but highly enjoyable tail-happiness on offer here. Unfortunately that’s not enough.
The Lotus is good - truly the best Esprit yet, in fact, after all this time - but in the latest Porsche Carrera 4 it clashes head-on with a formidable foe. Although it has a low-rev truculence, the Carrera 4 is otherwise amazingly accomplished, and avoids sacrificing sublime entertainment on the altar of safety. It’s a brilliant achievement. The Lotus is no less impressive in many ways, and remains a brilliant driving machine, although endless tweaking and refining can’t stave off the ageing process forever. Development money will always be tight in Hethel, but imagine how good a brand-new, Esprit-sized Elise could be. Let’s have it soon.
The DB7 was old the day it was born, and although the Driving Dynamics modifications help, it’s still too woolly to work, particularly in this company. Aston has no end of apologists and a loyal (and wealthy) fanbase, but only the truly myopic could choose it over the Carrera 4. Or the Ferrari, which remains simply magnificent. Even on the M25.
SPECIFICATIONS 1999 Aston Martin DB7
Price £109,958 as tested
Engine 3239cc 24V dohc supercharged six, front-mounted
Power and torque 335bhp at 5500rpm 360lb ft at 3000rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Suspension, front Double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Suspension, rear Lower wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Performance 165mph, 6.5sec 0-62mph
SPECIFICATIONS 1999 Ferrari F355 F1 Spider Type F129
Engine 3495cc 40V 4ohc V8, mid-mounted
Power and torque 380bhp at 8250rpm 268lb ft at 6000rpm
Transmission Six-speed semi-automatic rear-wheel drive
Suspension, front Double wishbones, coils, electronic dampers, anti-roll bar
Suspension, rear Double wishbones, coils, electronic dampers, anti-roll bar
Performance 184mph, 4.7sec 0-62mph
Gentlemen prefer Astons, racers fall at Ferrari's feet every time. Two different ideals, but only one great car
Esprit is 80kg lighter, but against the C4, it's like a Gatling gun against a computer-guided missile
SPECIFICATIONS 1999 Lotus Esprit Sport 350
Engine 3506cc 32V 4ohc V8, twin-turbo, mid-mounted
Power and torque 350bhp at 6500rpm 295lb ft at 4250rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Double wishbones, coils, anti-roll bar
Suspension, rear Upper and lower links, radius arms, coils, anti-roll bar
Performance 175mph, 4.6sec 0-62mph
SPECIFICATIONS 1999 Porsche 911 Carrera 4 996
Engine 3387cc 24V flat-six, rear-mounted
Power and torque 296bhp at 6800rpm 258lb ft at 4600rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, four-wheel drive
Suspension, front MacPherson struts, coils, anti-roll bar
Suspension, rear Four lateral arms and one toe-control link, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Performance 175mph, 5.2sec 0-62mph