Car & Driver Articles

98 Esprit V8 - Car & Driver #1

Lotus Esprit V-8

The aluminum V-8 used in the Esprit since 1997 was originally designed to serve as a race motor in the FIA GT series. As such, the engine was designed more for light weight and high output than smooth and quiet operation. It certainly makes the Esprit quick. Getting the V-8 Lotus to 60 mph takes only 4.1 seconds, just a tick slower than the V-10 Viper GTS, which makes 100 more hp. The noise from the engine isn't very pleasing and the vibration is a bit much, thanks to a racing-derived flat-plane crankshaft. Top speed is 173 mph, and at that speed the Esprit feels stable, similar to Chevy's C5 Corvette. It feels less stable at lower speeds, and the steering is slow to self-center on bumpy roads, however, people still stare at this rare Lotus. In 1998, fewer than 150 were imported to be sold in the U.S. Its speed notwithstanding, the Esprit would be a rough daily driver.

Base price: $89,445 
Vehicle type: mid-engine, rear-drive; 2-door 2-passenger coupe 
Interior volume, F/cargo (cu ft)..........49/8 
Wheelbase..........96.0 in 
Length/width/height..........172.0/73.5/45.3 in 
Turning circle..........34.7 ft 
Curb weight..........3100 lb 
EPA city/hwy mpg..........15/23 
Fuel-tank capacity/range..........19.3 gal/290 mi 
Passive restraints..........driver and passenger airbags

twin-turbocharged and intercooled 3.5-liter DOHC 32-valve V-8, 350 hp; 5-sp man

F..........ind, unequal-length control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar 
R..........ind, trailing arms, coil springs

F/R..........vented disc/vented disc 

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98 Esprit V8 - Car & Driver #2

Lotus Esprit V-8

Vehicle type: mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 2-door coupe 
Price as tested: $85,270 
Price and option breakdown: base Lotus Esprit V-8 (includes $3650 luxury tax, $1300 gas-guzzler tax, $995 freight), $85,270 
Major standard accessories: power steering, windows, and locks, A/C 
Sound system: Alpine AM/FM-stereo radio/CD player, 6 speakers

Type..........twin-turbocharged V-8, aluminum block and heads 
Bore x stroke..........3.27 x 3.19 in, 83.0 x 81.0mm 
Displacement..........214 cu in, 3504cc 
Compression ratio..........8.0:1 
Engine-control system..........Lotus with port fuel injection 
Emissions controls..........3-way catalytic converter, feedback air-fuel-ratio control, EGR 
Turbochargers..........Garrett T25 
Waste gates..........integral 
Maximum boost pressure..........5.8 psi 
Valve gear..........belt-driven double overhead cams, 4 valves per cylinder, hydraulic lifters 
Power (SAE net)..........350 bhp @ 6500 rpm 
Torque (SAE net)..........295 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm 
Redline..........6900 rpm

Transmission..........5-speed manual 
Final-drive ratio..........3.89:1 
Gear..........Ratio..........Mph/1000 rpm..........Max. test speed 
I.................3.36.............5.7..............................39 mph (6900 rpm) 
II...............2.06.............9.3..............................64 mph (6900 rpm) 
III.............1.38.............13.9............................96 mph (6900 rpm) 
IV.............1.04.............18.5...........................128 mph (6900 rpm) 
V...............0.76.............28.4...........................173 mph (6100 rpm)

Dimensions and Capacities
Wheelbase..........96.0 in 
Track, F/R..........60.2/60.8 in 
Length..........172.0 in 
Width..........73.5 in 
Height..........45.3 in 
Ground clearance..........4.1 in 
Curb weight..........3067 lb 
Weight distribution, F/R..........42.5/57.5% 
Fuel capacity..........19.3 gal 
Oil capacity..........7.0 qt 
Water capacity..........16.0 qt

Type..........steel backbone frame with rubber-isolated powertrain cradle 
Body material..........fiberglass-reinforced plastic

SAE volume, front seat..........49 cu ft 
                    luggage space..........8 cu ft 
Front seats..........bucket 
Seat adjustments..........fore and aft, seatback angle 
Restraint systems, front..........manual 3-point belts, driver and passenger airbags 
General comfort.................poor FAIR good excellent 
Fore-and-aft support..........poor FAIR good excellent 
Lateral support...................poor fair GOOD excellent

F:..........ind, unequal-length control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar 
R:..........ind, 1 trailing arm and 2 lateral links per side, coil springs

Type..........rack-and-pinion, power-assisted 
Turns lock to lock..........3.1 
Turning circle curb to curb..........34.7 ft

F:..........11.7 x 1.1-in vented disc 
R:..........7.9 x 0.9-in vented disc 
Power assist..........vacuum with anti-lock control

Wheels and Tires
Wheel size..........F: 8.5 x 17 in, R: 10.0 x 18 in 
Wheel type..........cast aluminum 
Tires..........Michlein Pilot SX; F: 235/40ZR-17,R: 285/35ZR-18 
Test inflation pressures, F/R..........33/33 psi

C/D Test Results

    Zero to 30 mph..........1.6 
                40 mph..........2.5 
                50 mph..........3.2 
                60 mph..........4.1 
                70 mph..........5.5 
                80 mph..........6.8 
                90 mph..........8.2 
              100 mph..........10.2 
              110 mph..........12.3 
              120 mph..........14.4 
              130 mph..........18.6 
              140 mph..........23.7 
              150 mph..........29.7 
              160 mph..........39.7 
    Street start, 5-60 mph..........5.4 
    Top-gear acceleration, 30-50 mph..........8.4 
                                       50-70 mph..........6.7 
    Standing 1/4-mile..........12.7 sec @ 112 mph 
    Top speed (drag limited)..........173 mph 

    70-0 mph @ impending lockup..........165 ft 
    Fade..........NONE light moderate heavy

    Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad..........0.94 g 
    Understeer..........MINIMAL moderate excessive

    EPA city driving..........15 mpg 
    EPA highway driving..........23 mpg 
    C/D observed fuel economy..........14 mpg

    Idle..........59 dBA 
    Full-throttle acceleration..........89 dBA 
    70-mph cruising..........77 dBA 
    70-mph coasting..........77 dBA 

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97 Esprit V8 -  Car & Driver #3

Twice as many pistons. Not twice as ingratiating.

Since its debut in Paris in 1975, the Giugiaro-penned Esprit, among the world's supercars, has always been something of a red-headed stepchild. Not for its wedge-of-Colby shape -- which today, frankly, is beginning to look a little moldy -- but for its four-cylinder engine. In Club Supercar, the price of admission has always been at least twice that many pistons, though a turbo'd six might pass muster if it hailed from Stuttgart.

Twenty-two years into the Esprit's life, Lotus has finally fitted this cuneiform conundrum with an alloy powerplant of appropriate snootiness: four camshafts, 32 valves, eight cylinders, two Garrett T25 turbochargers, and a flat-plane crankshaft. Get all that hardware whirring harmoniously and it whips up 350 horsepower -- 50 more than the raucous 2.2-liter four-banger produced in the old Esprit S4S.

Of course, flat cranks are prone to drone and emit hard-edged metallic thrashing noises that are -- and this must be a coincidence -- remarkably like the noises emanating from Lotus's peaky old K-car-ish 2.2. With the throttle wide open, the new V-8 conjures 89 dBA of cacophony, which is within an aural hair of matching the trucklike din inside a Dodge Viper GTS.

Partly because of the turbos, the V-8's response isn't particularly viperish, either. Sub-3000-rpm torque -- the sort of grunt you'd like while tootling around corners in second gear -- is largely AWOL. In fact, the V-8 disappoints on almost every count until you're really cuffing it hard, running to the 6900-rpm redline in each gear (where the vibration, incidentally, sets interior trim bits to buzzing in sympathy). Which is also when you notice the countryside beginning to blur past in dizzying spurts, like an 8mm home movie that has vaulted its sprockets.

Though the new V-8 may not sound Ferrari-esque, it certainly inspires the Esprit to supercar velocities. Sixty mph now manifests in a spine-straightening 4.1 seconds -- three-tenths quicker than the old four-cylinder Esprit S4S and seven-tenths sooner than the still-older Esprit Turbo SE. In fact, that 0-to-60 time places this Lotus only a tenth of a second behind a Viper GTS, which, of course, has the advantage of two more cylinders and 100 extra horsepower. The Esprit V-8 decimates the quarter-mile in 12.7 seconds at 112 mph -- three-tenths and 4 mph better than the old S4S. And it rushes to 150 mph 10.3 seconds sooner than the S4S, placing this Lotus only one second shy of the 0-to-150-mph time of, say, a Ferrari F355.

Top speed is up, too, from the S4S's 162 mph to a more provocative 173 mph, which comes with the V-8 bawling and fuming at 6100 rpm. Running at that clip around our standard four-mile high-banked oval, the Esprit was stable -- not exactly a rock, but as confidently planted as a C5 Corvette running at a like speed.

What's more, the Esprit V-8 would have logged even quicker results were its shifter not so diabolical. The linkage is stiff and imprecise and undergoes as many jerks and seizures between throws as Mark Fidrych. At random intervals, we were locked out of first and reverse. Helping not at all is a heavy clutch -- with abrupt takeup in the last inch of travel, plus sufficient driveline windup that you soon learn never to jump too quickly out of the throttle lest you snap your passenger's head. Around town, the Esprit resists being driven smoothly.

Whether it's the fault of the new 18-inch Michelin rear tires we can't say, but this Esprit steered less confidently than previous examples. Although the steering is generally progressive and nicely weighted, it is hesitant to self-center and is not altogether diligent about seeking straight ahead, a nuisance on bumpy interstates.

Of course, what Lotuses do best is handle. Fortunately, the new V-8 increases the Esprit's weight by only 98 pounds and exaggerates its rear bias by a mere two percent. Skidpad grip hangs steady at a tendon-popping 0.94 g, same as the S4S, same as a Porsche 911 Turbo S. Pitch this Esprit hard into an on-ramp and it's as flat and vice-free as an Iowa councilman. In sharper turns, a steady throttle will induce benign understeer; provoke the pedal and you'll trigger a couple of don't-tread-on-me warning twitches, but the car remains less likely to swap ends than an Acura NSX.

The ride is acceptable by current supercar standards, but if you live near truly rough roads, beware: The suspension condones approximately one inch of supple flex before the dampers stiffen into solid-steel I-beams. Fortunately, the narrow seats are comfortable for four-hour stints, though the skinny footwells taper inward so that the driver's left foot has nowhere to rest except atop -- sometimes behind -- the clutch.

The Esprit's Brembo calipers -- as big as individual loaves of pumpernickel -- look and act like racing brakes. They work better as friction builds. At first, pedal effort is high, but if you're willing to flatten a Florsheim to engage the new Kelsey-Hayes ABS, you can dispose of 70 mph in only 165 feet. That's not far off our supercar standard of 151 feet, set by a 911 Turbo S.

Discriminating pedestrians still go berserk when they spy an Esprit, and they often guess at a sticker price twice the reality. Our car looked notably fetching and malevolent in Bat Masterson black, a shade that helps camouflage the tack-on wheel-well flares. Alas, peering out of an Esprit is still akin to peeking through a gun slit in a dark bunker, so you won't see many passersby gesturing an appreciative thumbs up. You also won't see concrete parking stanchions, one of which smote our test car's wing a concussive lick.

It's nice that Lotus is holding the line on the Esprit's price. The V-8's base, including a $1300 guzzler tax (but before luxury tax), is $81,620. Compare that with the $80,645 sticker on the 1990 Turbo SE and you can see that the asking price, over the past seven years, has risen negligibly. =Of course, the car has looked the same all those years, too. But that may not matter. Only 155 Esprit V-8s are earmarked for U.S. buyers this year. Heck, if you were to gather every Esprit ever built, you'd have only 9383 of the things -- about the number of Explorers that Ford produced in one week last July.

That this is the best-assembled and fastest Esprit in the model's 22-year history is undisputed. The paint on our raven bombshell, for instance, was the best we've seen on any Lotus. But the Esprit's bizarre ergonomics -- just try to operate the Alpine stereo, we dare you -- plus its pancake-flat windscreen and its archaic architecture conspire to advertise this car's age a little too freely. We can't help wondering what Lotus's engineers, given the fiscal wherewithal, might accomplish given a clean sheet of foolscap. 

Highs: Sheer velocity, as in 0 to 60 in 4.1 seconds and a 173-mph top speed. 
Lows: Heavy clutch, balky shifter, thrashy idle, cramped cockpit. 
The Verdict: Though the V-8 places the Esprit foursquare in supercardom, the rest of the vehicle is showing its 22-year age.

By John Philips 

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97 Esprit V8 - Car & Driver #4

Ferrari and Porsche get some surprising company.

Lotus has always been the poor relation in the exotic world of supercars. To Americans, the name doesn't carry the excitement of Ferrari or Porsche. In the days of its founder, the late Colin Chapman, Lotus built its reputation in Formula 1 racing. It won seven world constructors' championships, an achievement exceeded only by Ferrari.

Chapman's philosophy of building simple, light, good-handling cars extended to the Lotus street machines, the most enduring of which is the Esprit. When it first appeared in 1976, it was relatively inexpensive and, with 160 horsepower from its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, a competitive proposition as an uncompromising racing-style, mid-engined two-seater.

Time added price, engine displacement, a turbocharger, and the resulting power increases. The wedgy Esprit body, so stylish and in vogue when designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro in the 1970s, was cleverly transformed in 1988 into a softer, more rounded shape by the British designer Peter Stevens, who was later to pen the McLaren F1 road car.

The Esprit still looks good two decades later, but a four-cylinder engine was a turn-off for supercar buyers tempted by a Ferrari V-8 or even a Dodge Viper's V-10. Never mind that with 300 horsepower the turbocharged 2.2-liter Lotus had the best specific output of any production piston engine and acceleration to match a Ferrari F355's. But it was too rough, too peaky -- and too prosaic. The Esprit S4S finished last in our July 1995 comparison ("The Supercar Olympics"), and it was the powertrain that helped put it there.

Today, despite the continuing turmoil of Lotus's ownership -- an apparently never-ending saga -- the Esprit has been given a heart transplant. It gets a 3.5-liter V-8. And not someone else's high-volume production motor but a completely new one, the Type 918, designed and built by Lotus in just 27 months. Lotus has been primarily considered a chassis specialist, but these days the major part of its engineering business (bigger by far than the business of making cars) is engine development. Currently, it has five different engine projects in the works. Lotus is sworn to secrecy about its clients, but we know that at least two of these engines are destined for General Motors. The new V-8 is a separate project, for Lotus's own use, though the company also hopes to sell it for other purposes, including a high-performance Lotus variant of an existing production sedan.

On paper, this is simply another 90-degree four-cam 32-valve aluminum-block V-8. There is no leading-edge technology here, no variable valve timing or variable-length intake manifolds. It does have two small Garrett T25 turbochargers, which not only produce the required power characteristics but also help in meeting increasingly tough noise laws in Europe -- and allow Lotus to run a turbocharged car in international GT racing.

The engine's special claims are its size and weight. "Fully dressed" with turbos and ancillaries, the V-8 weighs 485 pounds. It is among the lightest of its kind and the most compact. It is designed so that everything is contained within a cube that takes up less space than the old four-cylinder did and is low enough for fore-and-aft or transverse installation in a sedan. Nothing is for show. The red crackle-finish covers on top of the engine are the intake-manifold castings, which include the injector rails.

As used in the Esprit, the new V-8 produces 350 hp. It has much more potential. With intercoolers, another 100 hp could be available. Trouble is that the Esprit's five-speed Renault gearbox could not cope with that, and there are few off-the-shelf alternatives available. So Lotus has concentrated on providing something that the previous turbo Esprits never had -- a wide spread of torque. The maximum of 295 pound-feet arrives at 4250 rpm, but there are 275 pound-feet at 2500 rpm.

This makes for an altogether better drive. Test figures for 0 to 60 mph and 0 to 100 mph are up there with the 300-hp S4S (the Esprit V-8 is some 75 pounds heavier). Low-rpm acceleration is improved dramatically, and the 178-mph top speed that the makers claim puts it in the company of the Ferrari F355 and the Porsche 911 Turbo. Whereas the S4S's four-cylinder engine provided a perfectly unwelcome example of turbo lag, the arrival of the V-8's boost is not noticeable. Its power delivery is delightfully progressive, making the V-8 not only a very quick car on a winding road but also a lot easier to handle, especially in the wet.

This engine is efficient but not charismatic. It has a flat-plane crankshaft, like that of a racing V-8. As a result, it vibrates at idle and makes a hard-toned but muted noise when revved. It still sounds like a four-cylinder. Lotus may have matched Ferrari with a V-8, but it does not make the same music.

The Esprit V-8 complies with the European Union's upcoming 75-decibel "drive by" noise regulation, but it isn't quiet inside. The engine booms within the fiberglass body, and there is considerable wind noise at highway speeds. In this and other respects, the Esprit is showing its age. The tight-fitting leather-lined cockpit is unchanged, which means not much room in the footwells and none at all for items bigger than a pair of sunglasses. Visibility, other than straight ahead, is restricted, though we understand that the big hooped spoiler that further obscures the view to the rear will be an option for U.S.-market cars.

The gearbox has a taller top gear (25.5 mph per 1000 rpm) and the added refinement of synchromesh on reverse gear, but the gearshift remains a disappointment. The linkage was rearranged to get around the new engine. The shift is stiff and slow, and it is reluctant to go into reverse. Fortunately, the engine's ample torque demands less gearshift rowing than before.

We had no cause to complain about the handling of the previous Esprits, and if anything, the V-8 handles even better. The power steering, first introduced on the S4, is ideally weighted. Cornering is race-car sharp, yet the ride is surprisingly compliant. Brake-pedal feel had been criticized in the S4S, so a new vacuum servo and Kelsey-Hayes ABS have been adopted, though the Brembo brakes are unchanged. Now the feel matches their efficiency.

Although a 2.0-liter four-cylinder Esprit continues to be offered in Europe as the GT3, the V-8 becomes Lotus's only offering in the United States. The new car was due in July with a base price of $85,640. The more complex electronics required for OBD II forced up that price, but it's still significantly lower than that of the Ferrari F355 and the Porsche 911 Turbo, with which the Lotus Esprit can now compete on more even terms. 

By Ray Hutton

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97 Esprit V8 - Car & Driver #5

Lotus Esprit V-8

This exotic coupe, styled by Italy's Giorgetto Giugiaro, was first introduced in 1975. Until this year it had been powered by a four-cylinder engine. Highly tuned and turbocharged, it was often the highest specific-output engine of anything else on the market -- upwards of 300 horsepower out of 2.2 liters. It fit with the Lotus philosophy of keeping performance cars small and lightweight.

That philosophy hasn't changed, but the new aluminum 3.5-liter V-8 engine that fits in place of the old four-cylinder now also fits into the lightweight category: The bigger engine adds just 98 pounds to the curb weight. The entire car still weighs just a bit more than a ton and a half.

The new engine has two turbochargers helping to fill its cylinders with fuel. It runs up to 6900 rpm, and at that speed, the engine sounds as raucous as a Dodge Viper's. Getting the V-8 Lotus to 60 mph takes only 4.1 seconds (the four cylinder made it in a respectable 4.4 seconds), which is just 0.1 second slower than the V-10 Viper GTS, which makes 100 more horsepower.

Top speed is 173 mph, and at that speed the Esprit felt stable, similar to Chevy's C5 Corvette. It felt less stable at slower speeds, and the steering was slow to self-center on bumpy roads. This Esprit feels more nervous and less supple than previous versions of the car, and this behavior isn't helped by the distractions of a heavy clutch and a sticky shifter.

So if the car isn't all that fun just cruising, then it must be a ball on a twisty, challenging road, right? Skidpad grip is 0.94g, the same as a Porsche 911 Turbo S's. It you point this Esprit hard into an on-ramp, it will follow your wishes without any body roll or imbalanced sliding. If you play with the throttle during a fast corner, you'll notice it isn't as likely to swap ends as, for example, an Acura NSX is. Don't worry if something pops into your way, either, as the Esprit will brake from 70 mph in a short 165 feet.

Inside, the Esprit is trimmed in leather, and the seats are comfortable enough for up to a four-hour drive. There is very little foot room, however, so sometimes your left foot ends up resting underneath the clutch pedal. Visibility out the nearly-flat windows is also a challenge, making parking maneuvers and stop-and-go city driving demand concentration. 
Despite the car's long-lasting styling, which was rounded and trimmed in 1989, people still point and stare. That's likely because the Esprit is so rare. In 1997, only 155 were imported to be sold in the United States. Total production since the car was born in 1975 is only a handful greater than 9000 cars.

Base price: $85,270 
Vehicle type: mid-engine, rear-drive; 2-door 2-passenger coupe 
Interior volume, F/cargo (cu ft):49/8 
Wheelbase..........96.0 in 
Length/width/height..........172.0/73.5/45.3 in 
Turning circle..........34.7 ft 
Curb weight..........3100 lb 
EPA city/hwy mpg..........15/23 
Fuel-tank capacity/range..........19.3 gal/290 mi 
Passive restraints..........driver and passenger airbags

Twin-turbocharged and intercooled 3.5-liter DOHC 32-valve V-8, 350 hp; 5-sp man

F..........ind, unequal-length control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar 
R..........ind, trailing arms, coil springs

F/R..........vented disc/vented disc 

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97 Esprit V8 Counterpoint - Car & Driver #6

Ten years ago, supercars weren't well-suited to everyday driving. That's changed now, thanks to the Acura NSX and Porsche 911 Turbo. So I wonder where this Lotus fits in. It isn't superfast unless you drive it abusively hard, it's the car most likely to leave you stranded, and there's no great comfort inside. The ride, however, is surprisingly good, and the Esprit welcomes spirited driving, traits common to supercars. Only the Lotus name makes this car special. And personally, I'd much prefer it on the Lotus Elise -- the small two-seat convertible that really follows in the footsteps of the 7 and the Elan -- and not on an updated 1970s-vintage supercar. 
-- Larry Webster

Six-foot-five Michael Kimberley, managing director of Lotus when the latest Esprit platform was adopted for 1988, tried to make this car easier for tall guys to live in: He ordered the seats scooped out so taller folks could fit with more ease. Still, bottom-shelf-access-challenged drivers will discover that the latest car remains a tight fit. When driving it, I feel as though I've been dipped in two giant vats, one of liquid leather and the other of molten, enameled fiberglass. It's not bad until this Lotus exoskeleton hits a Midwest pothole. Then I can't wait to shed the Esprit by wriggling out of it the way a snake periodically doffs its outer skin. 
-- Phil Berg

The Lotus Esprit V-8 is a feast for the eyes and senses. It's loads of fun to drive on uncluttered roads, but no fun in traffic. Driving around with other cars close by ties my stomach in knots. I enjoy being seen in the Lotus, but I can't see out of it. The rearview mirror is virtually useless; like peering through the slit in a pillbox, and then all you see is rear wing. The outside mirrors don't help, as a third of their viewing surface is obscured by the frame for the sail window. Combine these shortcomings with the Lotus's narrow cockpit and its low seating position, and the driving experience becomes positively claustrophobic. 
-- Andre Idzikowski

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97 Esprit V8 - Car & Driver #7

Lotus Esprit V-8

Lotus is launching its first new engine in a quarter-century with the 1997 Esprit, and the engine is perhaps most notable for its design as a platform intended for 20 years of racing and production service. The 3.5-liter twin-turbocharged 32-valve V-8 does not feature exotic variable valve timing or intake-geometry systems or even an intercooler, but the engine has been designed for easy addition of such features, along with cylinder deactivation, additional displacement, and V-4 or V-6 variants. A single-plane or "flat" crankshaft design like those used on most racing V-8s provides a firing pulse on each cylinder bank for every 180 degrees of crank rotation. This design improves exhaust-header resonance for increased power, but the vertical shaking forces are not canceled as they are in a conventional V-8, so it shakes like a four-cylinder.

Thanks to complete space utilization -- there is no unused space larger than 0.15 cubic inch -- the 90-degree engine measures 23 by 28 by 24 inches in length, width, and height, so it will fit under a wide variety of hoods. Aluminum construction keeps it light -- just 485 pounds fully dressed, with turbos -- and prudent design restrained the parts count to fewer than 1000 pieces with only 265 part numbers. Output is 350 hp at 6500 rpm and 295 pound-feet at 4250 rpm, with EPA fuel-economy figures of 15 mpg city and 23 highway. 

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Supercar Olympics - Car & Driver #8

Introducing five predatory athletes from five countries, all with carnivorous appetites. They'll eat your lunch, your wallet, possibly you, too.

In 1897, Captain S.A. Swiggett wrote a book called The Bright Side of Prison Life. It occurred to me to take a copy to southern Ohio, where we were testing five supercars, any one of which could get me arrested while cruising in second gear on eastern interstates. Our assault on Ohio's scenic Hocking Hills would be swift and international in flavor. In total, we had 1745 horsepower on tap, from $472,000 worth of exotica. And our five supercar contestants represented five countries: America (Dodge Viper RT/10), Germany (Porsche 911 Turbo) Great Britain (Lotus Esprit S4s), Italy (Ferrari F355), and Japan (Acura NSX-T). Think of it as the Olympics of supercars.

The newest weaponry on the supercar scene--the Porsche and Ferrari--triggered this comparison test. In making our other selections, there seemed no good reason to include anything with a price higher than the Ferrari's $128,800, and all five voting editors agreed it wouldn't have changed the outcome anyway. Before the Anglophiles complain, remember that the McLaren F1 is not legal here. Subscribers enamored of Italian machinery should note that the Ferrari F50 isn't ready yet, and no Bugatti EB110 has yet been sold in America. Red-white-and-blue patriots should similarly recall that the Corvette ZR-1, which admittedly would have been a better-rounded ambassador than the Dodge Viper, went the way of the passenger pigeon one month before this story would appear.

Our vehicles thus assembled, it was curious to discover that, quite without trying, we wound up with no similar engine architectures. The engines include a single-turbo in-line four, a twin-turbo flat-six, a DOHC V-6, a 40-valve V-8, and a pushrod V-10. The Lotus, the Ferrari, and the NSX are mid-engined. The Porsche is rear-engined. The Viper is front-engined. From a styling standpoint--at least according to Ohio and Michigan citizens who rushed us at every fuel stop--not one of these vehicles looks very much like any other.

So what did we hope to discover in one week of driving? We needed to know which was the fastest, and we found out after just one day at Ohio's sprawling Transportation Research Center. The intangibles were trickier. Which car is easiest to drive at nine-tenths on public roads? Which impresses onlookers most? Which is the most fun to drive, never mind its performance envelope? Which is the most potent and comfortable long-distance tourer? Which is the most passionate? Which feels the least likely to spend its life atop a service hoist?

It took a week of nonstop driving and late-night arguing to find out, during which interval we pushed the vehicles hard enough that both the NSX and the Viper had to be retrieved from ditches. Said C/D godfather Brock Yates, as he brushed pieces of hemlock bough and sandstone grit off his vest: "At about 90 percent of their capabilities, all five of these cars are hugely competent and benign, lulling their drivers into Fangio-like confidence. But put one toe over the edge and there's an excellent chance you'll get to help refurnish your insurance agent's new home in Grosse Pointe."

Or, to put it another way, begin memorizing passages from The Bright Side of Prison Life. 

Fifth Place: Lotus Esprit S4s
Twenty years ago, our first test of a Lotus Esprit offered this keen insight: "The factory is frank about the Esprit's unsuitability for grand touring . . . the twin tanks should be filled with gas destined to be burned in bursts of back-road berserking."

Not much has changed in two decades, although thanks to a larger Garrett turbo and larger inlet valves, the Lotus's maniacally peaky 2.2-liter four-banger now delivers an even more berserk steady-state 285 hp and briefly as much as 300 hp, if the weather on Route 595 near Logan, Ohio, is sufficiently cool and dry. When the turbo kicks in at around 2700 rpm, it's like being smacked in the back of the head with a warped nine-iron. A kind of blurry trauma ensues. Full boost in the rain will light up the rear tires in first, second, and third gears. At which point, the Esprit's tail yaws right on crowned roads, the driver countersteers like Damon Hill, then the whole mess straightens out after a vicious snap that leaves onlookers wondering if you've lost your mind or are just insanely rich. Or both.

The 60-mph barrier topples in 4.4 seconds, making the Esprit quicker in a straight line than a 405-hp Corvette ZR-1, which possibly did not amuse Detroit engineers back when GM owned Lotus.

There is much about the Esprit that is race-car-like. The pedals are skewed inboard and are so close together that Simpson's best Nomex booties are recommended. The steering is knife-like and fast, although it is a great match for the car's flat, neutral cornering stance. Once you push through the surging and sucking power assist for the Brembo brakes, you have exactly the pedal feel you'd want in Turn One at Long Beach.

Far less race-ready is the Renault-based gear linkage, a high-effort yet mushy affair. "It's like making a long-distance call to Paris to make a gearchange," says Kevin Smith. It is also fragile, not a good trait in turbo cars, which encourage quick shifting to keep the boost on the boil. This may explain why second gear was no longer with us at the end of this test. Similarly unrefined is the Esprit's powerplant, which bangs and bucks as if it were a 2.2-liter K-car engine forced to produce the highest specific output of any in-line four in America. Not a far-fetched analogy.

Still, the Esprit's cuneiform figure--its waist-high profile, even its gaudy wing that overreaches the rear bumper--makes onlookers gawk and chase, although they rarely know what they're looking at. They mouth the word "Lotus," then say, "Oh, the Pretty Woman car." But they always assume that it costs more than its $80,340 base.

Cranky, quirky, and as breakable as Waterford crystal, the Lotus finished last but by only two points. It is eccentric (hell, when did you last hear of a supercar getting a 27-mpg EPA highway rating?), a lean point-and-squirt machine for nasty, unpredictable roads. Such as the wicked little lanes around Norwich. Think of it as half Formula Ford made street-legal, half Barbara Woodhouse on PCP. 

Fourth Place: Dodge Viper RT/10
The Dodge Viper is the antithesis of the Lotus. Where the Lotus is a kind of .22-caliber Olympic target pistol, the Viper is simply an 16-inch cannon yanked off the deck of the USS Missouri. The Lotus is the lightest car in the group, the Viper is the heaviest. The Lotus has the smallest engine in the group, the Viper's 488-cube thunderbox is the most mammoth passenger-car powerplant in production. The Lotus offers the fastest lane-change capability, the Viper possesses the slowest.

Yet in this comparo, the Viper occupies fourth place rather than fifth. Here are three reasons: (1) big torque exists at any engine revolution, (2) its shape evokes involuntary seizures among all onlookers, and (3) it has the lowest sticker price in all of supercardom.

Of course, there are good reasons for the Viper's bargain-basement $62K tariff. No roof, for instance. And a hose-it-down plasticky interior with low-rent switchgear. And a ride like a Ford F150's. And a full-throttle exhaust blat that sounds like a tornado ripping out the seams of a Holy Rollers' revival tent. All of which we graciously accept, because it's precisely what Chrysler promised back in 1992. What we didn't count on was this car's spooky steering and villainous handling.

The Viper hunts and darts under braking. It resolutely follows even minute irregularities in the road. Its rear end steps out when you poke the power. And, as Csaba Csere describes it: "There's a moment where nothing happens between turn-in and when the tires actually hook up. It saps your confidence if you're hustling."

The snaky handling ("This is the only car I've ever spun on the skidpad," notes Don Schroeder) is likely a result of unfinished development. God knows, the Viper has all the rubber it could ever want, and its weight bias is the closest to perfect in this group--an astounding claim for a car whose nose carries an engine the size of John Madden's refrigerator.

In many ways, owning a Viper is like owning a powerful motorcycle. "Without a real top, it's too reliant on the weather," says Kevin Smith, who also noted that removing and replacing those rudimentary canvas pieces is a tedious, fussy, two-man job. "Yeah, it's the world's largest Fat Boy Harley," added Yates, "and you might even want to put your feet down roaring into turns--this is the only non-ABS-equipped car in the bunch." Also the only one without even a single airbag.

Although it's tied with the 911 Turbo in the horsepower wars, the Viper accelerates to 60 mph and through the quarter-mile half a second slower. Put 400 horsepower in nearly any street car and you might want to think about four-wheel drive, a concept that was implemented in Weissach but not at the New Mack Assembly Plant.

The Viper is like using a Louisville Slugger to play ping-pong. You wind up with drastic, if clumsy, results. It is big, crude, deafening, and something of a cartoon. "On the other hand," noted Yates in the logbook, "every time we'd show up in a small town, the locals clumped around one car and one car only: the one built in Detroit." 

Third Place: Ferrari F355
For Ferrari, the F355 is a radical departure. Don't believe us? Consider one entry in its logbook: "This car has a climate-control system that really works; in fact, it works better than the Porsche's." 

C/D has traditionally been slow to praise Ferraris, in part because the manufacturer's performance claims tend to be inflated, in part because the cars have been impractical and unreliable, in part because their sticker prices gave us nosebleeds.

So check out the stats on the company's newest and cheapest offering: 0-to-60 and quarter-mile times only 0.2 second behind the 400-hp Viper's. A stopping distance so close to the Porsche's that Stuttgart's engineers may pull a full Jonestown Kool-Aid klatch. And skidpad grip that, at 1.02 g, not only surpasses everything in this comparo but also bests the company's own street-legal racer, the F40.

Add to that terrific steering with power assist as nearly perfect as the NSX's, not to mention better visibility. Plus a ride that is taut without becoming harsh, not what you'd expect from a one-g suspension. Plus an 8500-rpm redline that produces an engine howl so sonorous, so much like a lightly muffled F1 car, that the driver doesn't really miss the optional radio. (Hey, you want everything for only $128,800?)

"In the details of this car, Ferrari has done a lot of what Acura did to define itself, way back when," wrote Kevin Smith. Indeed, the F355 offers adjustable shocks, unique in this group. It has firm seats that can be twisted into a wide variety of supportive shapes, plus a sophisticated exhaust bypass that meets emissions regs without strangling the 375-horse V-8.

Although it's on such a clear course to modernizing its cars, Maranello ought to continue improving them. The gated, metallic shifter is still a chore and a gratuitous anachronism. The steering wheel, although adjustable, gives you the choice of either a good driving position or viewing the instruments, but not both. Moreover, this is the second F355 we've tested whose sticky throttle made it impossible to pick up the power smoothly in mid-corner. And this engine's 24 inlet valves are so deft at swallowing accelerants that the F355's cruising range (when the fuel light began to glow) averaged just under 200 miles. (Yes, we were driving like Gerhard Berger, though not as neatly. But fuel economy worse than a 488-cubic-inch Viper? Don't tell the Vatican.)

Only two points out of second place, the Ferrari was the Big Surprise in this comparo. "If the thing just cost a little less--say, the same as the Porsche," noted Kevin Smith, "it would easily have been in second place. In fact, I might have voted it the winner." 

Second Place: Acura NSX-T
For the last five years, we've regularly gushed and spouted and pontificated about the essential goodness, the quintessential purity, of Acura's NSX. So don't be shocked that this, the least powerful car in our super five (and also the slowest to 60 mph and through the quarter-mile), finished only three points behind the fastest, most powerful car in the group.

How can this happen? Here's how: track numbers tell you zip about a car's usable performance in Ann Arbor traffic, and they tell you little about making nine-tenths passes on the blind, downhill, off-camber turn just outside Burr Oak Lodge.

The Acura NSX is as user-friendly as the tumblers on a Mosler vault. Check out the expansive view from its low, forward cockpit. Try finding a clutch and shifter combo that so telepathically slides gears into place. See if you can locate any seats that are both this comfortable and this adept at distributing side forces. Locate a steering rack that delivers this much feedback sans kickback. Identify a removable targa top that can be stowed onboard without reducing cargo-carrying capacity by one cubic inch.

Built with the same monumental attention to ergonomic detail as a Honda Accord, the NSX sometimes takes a knock or two for being too familiar, at least inside, where some of the switchgear is pedestrian and the cockpit is an unnecessarily dour arena in which to celebrate so much fun underfoot. On this trip--for the first time--editors fantasized openly, if not vociferously, about obtaining more power, especially when the car was asked to launch itself out of tight uphill esses and switchbacks. One editor suggested a supercharger, another wanted a 3.0-liter V-8, a third asked whether a streetable version of Honda's racing V-10 might fit. Which, in turn, made us wonder whether a six-speed gearbox, rather than the mandatory five, might also make life easier.

At $86,642, the NSX is no longer the striking bargain it was 60 months ago. Still, where the Viper offers a huge bang for the buck, the NSX is big civil subtlety for the buck. This is the brain surgeon's approach to go-fast operations. From its bird-bones suspension bits to its lacy aluminum skin, the NSX delivers supercar precision without beating up its owner.

But beware: Although you can throw it around; you can also throw it away. 

First Place: Porsche 911 Turbo
It's the kind of formula you'd concoct in high-school study hall. Take a chassis four inches shorter than a Jeep Wrangler's, then install a twin-turbo engine with, say, 400 horsepower hung way the hell behind the rear wheels. The result should be something akin to a golf cart powered by two General Electric turbines--the sort of car that would crash as you backed it out of your driveway.

Instead, the outcome is the most obscenely fast and sophisticated Porsche since Weissach loosed upon civilized society the all-wheel-drive 959 nine years ago. The new 911 Turbo is our choice as this planet's most eminently practical supercar, the quickest A-to-B four-wheeled transport to alight on American highways.

About now, you're probably muttering, "What about the Ferrari F40 or Lamborghini Diablo VT?" Forget 'em. If you've got 3.7 seconds to spare, the 911 Turbo will hand you 60 mph. That leaves the F40 half a second in the dust. Or, if you've got some empty road near your house, this Porsche will swallow 1320 feet of it 1.7 seconds sooner than your neighbor's Lamborghini Diablo VT.

Not that those comparisons mean much anyway. The nervous F40 and the fat Diablo are 30-minute cars. After that, you'd like a cool drink and a brief nap. Not so the 911 Turbo. Cruising around town, this Porsche is more docile than a Carrera 2, partly because it's quieter and partly because the standard luxo bits inside are more posh. And when you finally do tip into the KKK turbos, there's no tire squeal, no exhaust roar, no darty nose. Just a seamless, silent, drama-free delivery of endless torque, accompanied by a rush of scenery that within two or three seconds takes on a vaguely hallucinatory hue, as if the nearby trees were all recently vandalized by Matisse.

"Twice on brief straightaways," noted one editor in the Turbo's logbook, "I glanced down and discovered I had innocently dialed up 130 mph. I'd have been horrified if I hadn't had Porsche's brakes beneath me."

Not quite matching this machine's warp-drive potential for effortless velocity are the clutch and steering--one is uncommunicative, the other is simply too light. Porsche intentionally removed 25 percent of the clutch-pedal effort, plus 15 percent of its travel. And as for the feathery steering, well, maybe it's those new 8-by-18-inch front wheels or the GT2's racing power-assist. Whatever the reason, the more rudimentary Carrera 2's steering remains the best sports rack in the world, and we wish the engineers hadn't messed with it.

Ditto the Turbo's security system. An ignition bypass is triggered by pressing a button on the key fob. It sounds simple enough, but you can't imagine the driver's fury when he inserts the key, twists it for liftoff, and absolutely nothing happens. Can you say "gimcrackery"?

We dubbed the Porsche "the lazy man's supercar," at least on the roads of southern Ohio. Although the Turbo is the second-heaviest car in this quintet, Porsche has pretty well masked its traditional tail-wagging-the-dog handling. Give our drivers 400 horsepower plus astounding wet-weather grip and they will--using one hand and half a head of concentration--keep up with any other supercar in this group. "It's almost like cheating," wrote Kevin Smith.

We'll come back to this wonderment, in part to report more definitively on some un-Teutonic assembly glitches. Our test car suffered an inoperative "Litronic" low-beam lamp, a snapped-off hood latch, a sunroof that ate fuses like popcorn, and a glovebox that randomly flopped open and spilled its considerable guts.

Still, no piece of machinery producing 400 horses has any right to feel so tame and violence-free. Said one editor, "I can't explain it, unless this car is powered by dilithium crystals." The new Porsche 911 Turbo is the German engineers' 176-mph answer to whatever the question was, or will be. Captain Swiggett should be told

By John Philips


Lotus Esprit S4s
Highs: Efficient and potent engine, neutral handling, still a dazzling silhouette. 
Lows: Hunt-and-peck shifter, shoebox cockpit, dreadful visibility. 
The Verdict: Aging but lithe Brit in search of dedicated Anglophile enthusiast.

Dodge Viper RT/10
Highs: Thor's own torque, convertible top; a gawker magnet. 
Lows: Mixmaster ride, ragged assembly, knife-in-the-back handling. 
The Verdict: Blockbuster mystique that surpasses its price but also its real usefulness.

Ferrari F355
Highs: Flexible and symphonic V-8, limpet-like grip; the status slaves' hall-of-famer. 
Lows: Fifties-vintage shifter, stratospheric price; talk to your insurance agent. 
The Verdict: Maranello's best-ever all-around sports car. No bull.

Acura NSX-T
Highs: Surgical steering, magical shifter, seats that satisfy all known anatomies. 
Lows: Near-stark interior, some mundane-looking switchgear, but that's about it. 
The Verdict: A comfortable 162-mph slot car available for everyday use.

Porsche 911 Turbo
Highs: Sumptuous luxo amenities, effortless velocity, astounding brakes. 
Lows: Feathery steering, gimcrack security system, shifter that can confuse. 
The Verdict: Ear-pinning performance, probably the planet's most practical supercar. 

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