Thoroughly Modern Middies. Pieces of four, six and eight, as Lotus Esprit takes on Honda and Ferrari. Can underdog Lotus Esprit or Honda NSX topple the exotic Ferrari 348? These junior supercars took divergent approaches to reach the same goal, but which is the ace in the pack? Words Greg Macleman. Photography Luc Lacey.
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‘It’s a rising market, and there’s never been a better time to add a Ferrari 348, Honda NSX or Lotus Esprit to your garage’
THREE OF A KINDFunny thing, fashion. One moment you’re sporting the latest threads and a cutting-edge haircut, the next you’re being ribbed mercilessly by kids who think New Order is a proscribed terrorist organisation.
But just imagine the looks on their faces when it all comes back around, and the things we once considered slightly uncool become desirable again. I’m not suggesting you step outside wearing bellbottoms or a mullet, but where once it took a brave man to consider buying one of the crop of unloved junior supercars from the late ’80s and early ’90s, you now find wisdom. It’s a rising market, and there’s never been a better time to add a Ferrari 348, Honda NSX or Lotus Esprit to your garage.
‘Wind up the revs in any gear and you’ll be rewarded with a manic, addictive howl that neither of its rivals can match’
The reigning champion is always held to a higher standard than its rivals. That was certainly true of the Ferrari 348, which not only bore the burden of expectation that comes with the famous Prancing Horse, but also from Maranello itself, which hoped to match the financial success of the 328. Just as the outgoing model aped the styling of the Berlinetta Boxer, the 348 carried over many cues from the poster pin-up Testarossa, blending a sleek nose with the trademark slatted side air intakes that provided cooling for the radiators and oil coolers. The horizontal lines continued around the back of the car and across the rear lights, again mimicking the personality of the range-topping flat-12 and cementing the impression of an entry-level Testarossa that has been shrunk in the wash.
The comparison with its bigger brother has become less glaring as the years have rolled by, allowing the 348 to move out from behind the redhead’s shadow and be considered on its own merits – of which there are many. The styling, for one, seems to have improved with age, and the long-term owner of ‘our’ 348ts has tweaked things further by colour-coding the lower skirts and removable targa-style roof, both of which were black when it left the factory.
The cabin brings to mind the epic Ferrari road cars of the past, from 250 to Daytona and beyond. It’s a simple recipe of lavish tan hide and purposeful black steering wheel, plus the signature tall gearlever with a round ball standing proud above the exposed, polished H-gate.
It’s spacious and surprisingly practical, and even clambering in and out can be managed with a degree of elegance you wouldn’t normally associate with a supercar.
The drivetrain, meanwhile, was shared with the Mondial t and comprised a 3405cc 90º V8 with Bosch Motronic 2.7 fuel injection, which was mounted longitudinally amidships and paired with a transverse dogleg five-speed ’box. Under the skin, the 348 featured a steel-panel semi-integrated bodyshell with a tubular rear subframe, along with double-wishbone suspension front and rear, and a respectable kerbweight of 1393kg.
With 300bhp on tap, the 348 was always going to be lively, but what strikes you first is just how driveable this Ferrari is. The gearchange is mechanical and deliberate; it doesn’t like to be rushed, but take your time, be purposeful in your movements and, once the oil has had a chance to thoroughly warm through, it’s a delight, rewarding confident shifts with a mechanical ‘clack’ that again harks back to Ferraris of old.
The clutch is remarkably light, and sympathetic to the ignorance that comes with stepping into a car for the first time. First is short, the V8 comfortably the most highly strung motor of our trio and the keenest to rev from low down. On-hand expert Mark Hawkins from Rardley Motors suggests changing straight from first to third – a habit picked up during a career spent avoiding the weak second synchros on 328s – and it proves sound advice. Skipping the second cog takes some of the venom out of the 348’s acceleration when you’re being sensible.
When you’re not, this thing really shifts. Bury the throttle and it will blast to 60mph in just 5.4 secs, with a linear power delivery that feels more manageable than that of the turbocharged Lotus. Keep it buried and the 348 will eventually hit 173mph in top, but wind up the revs in any gear and you’ll be rewarded with a manic howl that neither of its rivals can match. The noise is addictive, and the car so user-friendly that it isn’t long before you’re blipping on downshifts and swapping cogs just for fun.
‘It’s difficult to imagine the owner of one of our cars waking in a cold sweat and realising they’ve made the wrong choice’
Despite Pininfarina’s involvement in both the Ferrari 348 and the early Honda HP-X concept, the Italian and Japanese cars are poles apart visually. Side by side, it’s difficult to believe they both broke cover in the same year, with the Ferrari looking as if it has one foot in a 1980s world of rolled-up blazers and shoulder pads, while the NSX was a vision of the future – if a slightly ungainly one at times. Part of the problem was its long tail, a result of Honda chiefs’ insistence on meeting luggage-capacity targets, but it has grown into that quirk as the years have passed.
The advanced nature of the NSX is more remarkable when you consider the length of time it took to get from the draughtsman’s table to showrooms: six years in total. So long, in fact, that it was originally conceived as a rival to Ferrari’s 328. In engineering terms, the NSX was light years ahead, being the first production car to feature an all-aluminium monocoque.
The engine, too, was special, the 2977cc naturally aspirated V6 showcasing the firm’s VTEC variable valve timing system, which combined low-down torque with peak power via a second, more aggressive central cam profile activated at 5800rpm. Thanks to titanium conrods, the engine could safely spin to 8300rpm – a dizzying feat rarely seen away from the track at that point. The 274bhp powerplant was retained for the Type R that arrived two years later, but this Japanese domestic market offering was far from a mere marketing exercise. Honda engineers began by stripping out a staggering 120kg – quite an achievement given the lengths taken to reduce weight during the design of the original.
Aluminium was used extensively, with slimmer bumpers mounted to lightweight beams, plus alloy door bars and a hollow brace bisecting the engine bay. A composite engine cover was added, and the insulating panel that hid the engine was replaced by black mesh. Even the glass used to separate the cockpit from the engine bay was lighter, with single glazing in place of the double-glazed original.
Weight-saving continued inside, with luxuries such as air-conditioning, stereo, central locking and powered mirrors scrapped, and leather seats replaced by carbon-aramid composite Recaro buckets trimmed in racy red fabric. The steering wheel (and its airbag) was swapped for a Momo item, and the gearlever for a stubby titanium shifter said to be modelled on that in the McLaren-Honda F1 car. They’re nice touches that hugely improve the restrained – and, frankly, rather boring – interior of the NSX.
The changes don’t look big on paper, but on the road the NSX-R is far greater than the sum of its parts – or indeed the lack of them. Among the modifications was a drop in ride height of 10mm, with firmer springs and Showa dampers stiffening the front end, which reduces the front-biased weight transfer that could make the standard car tricky on the limit. As a result, you can push harder and with greater confidence, while acceleration also feels more raucous – at last with the theatre to match the performance thanks to a freer-flowing quad-pipe sports exhaust. The NSX-R is by far the sweetest drive here, with a light clutch that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Civic and a snappy, positive gearbox with a wonderfully short throw.
Stretch its legs and this heated-up NSX feels appreciably faster than the Ferrari, with a noticeable kick when the trick valve timing comes into play. Keep going and past 8000rpm the V6 really sings, finally finding the voice that was missing from the standard car. Cornering is predictable and assured, too, with the combination of a 10% boost in the power-to-weight ratio and a limitedslip diff encouraging you to try ever harder.
After the missile-like NSX-R, the Lotus seems a bit antiquated, with the ghost of the original Giugiaro-penned Esprit still clear to see. Peter Stevens’ 1987 redesign modernised the car to a degree, refreshed again by Julian Thomson in ’1993. The latter thankfully dropped Morris Marina doorhandles in favour of those from a Rover 200 – more of an improvement than it sounds – but the car remained a bit of a parts-bin special, with tail-lights borrowed from the Toyota AE86 and switchgear from various GM models. Scott Tidman’s S4S is further tweaked by the addition of a one-off set of fat arches and a modified rear bumper made by Lotus for a customer’s Sport 300 after he complained about stone-chips. The Esprit is hardly a shrinking violet anyway, but the beefier bodykit gives the wedge real presence.
It also feels the most wild inside. You sit low and far back, in a hard, sculpted seat that is more tailored brogue than training shoe. The steering wheel, dashboard and gearlever are upright, and there isn’t much to see out of the back thanks to the rear spoiler: any reversing manoeuvre requires you to hang out of the window. Overall, the cockpit brings to mind those out-there concept cars of the ’70s – such as the Maserati Boomerang that begat Giugiaro’s original Esprit – and that wonderful view beneath the waves seared into the memory of anyone who grew up on a diet of James Bond films.
The S4S isn’t quite the last four-cylinder Esprit, an honour that befell the 1996-’1999 GT3, but it’s certainly the most accomplished, blending the comfort and usability of the S4 with the stomach-churning pace of the Sport 300, whose 2174cc turbocharged lump it shares. The Lotus is far and away the angriest of the three, and constantly seems to be trying to make up for its lack of cylinders – shouting and spitting until you fully commit to the accelerator. It’s lumpy, gravelly and seemingly in a constant state of irritation while manoeuvring out of the car park, becoming more at ease with speed. The turbo is about as subtle as a brick to the back of the head, but never fails to elicit childish giggles that are almost immediately stifled by a sharp intake of breath; it’s seriously quick, surging as boost and cams combine at around 5000rpm.
Because its model lineage goes back the furthest, it’s easy to assume that the ethos of homespun tinkering that brought Lotus such success in the carburettor era might not translate to a modern supercar – but you’d be wrong. The Esprit is strikingly stable at high speed, with its power steering – first introduced on the S4 – weighting up beautifully. It feels planted and grippy, aided by the wider rubber fitted front and rear to Tidman’s example, which gives it the look of the X180R that dominated IMSA in 1992. The one area where the glassfibre-bodied Lotus falls down in comparison to its Japanese rival is in terms of build quality. Lean on it hard and you’ll hear the odd rattle and creak, a reminder that it was pieced together by Rogers and Reginalds rather than robots, a world away from the kaizen production lines of Japan.
Despite how comparable these cars are in terms of price and performance, it’s difficult to imagine the owner of one suddenly waking in a cold sweat and realising they’ve made the wrong choice. An NSX enthusiast is unlikely to be drawn to the reliability and build quality of an Esprit. Likewise, an Esprit keeper would baulk at the running costs of the Ferrari. And the 348 owner, who has invested in the prestige and passion of the Prancing Horse, probably won’t have their trousers set alight by the computer-controlled precision of the Honda.
Yet you don’t have to spend long with these cars to realise that their reputations are largely undeserved. The Ferrari is cheaper to run than you might think; the Esprit can be endlessly fettled, the flaws associated with its being built by men in sheds invariably sorted out by… men in sheds; and the NSX is brought to life by the improvements that come with its ‘R’ badging. With so little to choose between them, which to take home depends on personal preference – and whether you spent your childhood watching Miami Vice or The Spy Who Loved Me. But for a man who wasted his youth staring at the pixelated perfection of Gran Turismo’s Suzuka, trying to emulate the twinkling loafers of Ayrton Senna, it’s impossible to see beyond the NSX-R. Honda engineers took an already brilliant car and turned it into a legend.
Thanks to Rardley Motors (rardleymotors.com); Plans Performance (plansperformance.com); Club Lotus (clublotus.co.uk); Paul Matty Sports Cars (paulmattysportscars.co.uk)