Car Dec 97

1997 Handling Comparison

1st Lotus Elise

 2nd Honda NSX
 3rd Ferrari F50
 At the top of the pile in 1997 are three similar cars. The Elise, NSX and F50 are all  mid-engined, rear-drive, and designed to be light for their power. You'd expect them to be  responsive, agile and tactile. And so they are. You might also expect them to be edgy and  wilful when pressed, so that you have to be some kind of hero to enjoy them. Mercifully,  they swerve neatly around those preconceptions by being progressive and wonderfially  talkative at the limit. Friendly, even.

The Elise wins, because it is so pure. Great handling – on roads as well as tracks – was the absolute number one priority for its maker, which has a noble history in the art. (We’re already in Pavlovian spasms about the forthcoming Sport version: lighter glassfibre body and the same 190bhp engine as the Caterham Supersport-R). For the same effect with more power-drama, see the F50. For the same effect with power and practicality see the NSX. Few companies other than Honda would have the money, expertise and vision to engineer that compromise.

So is there a mid-engined hegemony? No-one who’d torn around the Gombe in the 4wd Subaru, front-drive Integra-R or rear-drive Jag and Maranello would agree to that. The Integra-R is significant because that’s the layout used by the majority of cars on the road; the fact that it can attain such heights is good news for most drivers. On the track, the Integra-R kisses goodbye to understeer and marks a new benchmark for front-drive precision. If it had a little more life at seven-10ths on the road, we’d hardly be able to contain ourselves. The Subaru is so fail-safe, steadfastly balanced, secure. The Jag is astonishingly able for a car of its bulk and the Maranello manages to be both super-grippy and sublimely slideable. It also balances high-tech sophistication with raw communication, and that’s a precious asset.

The Boxster is a wonderfully subtle little scalpel, while the Puma deserves a mention for having handling a stratum higher than its hot-hatch layout and price. Only the little Peugeot can compete with it – though less sophisticated and able, it’s more garrulous, especially on the road. The madder-than-ever Caterham didn’t leave anyone unmoved, of course. Plus, we mustn’t forget an honourable mention for the Skyline, a stratospheric tech-fest that still manages to involve the most sophisticated component of all: its driver. By taking drive away from the front wheels except when it’s needed, steering feel is retained.

Amazing, then, that things like a Carrera 4, Spider and Esprit GT3 get bundled unceremoniously into a ‘best of the rest’ file. Even the wooden-spoon car, the BMW Z3, would be called a fine roadgoing ragtop if only it hadn’t had the misfortune to be born in the era of the Boxster. It’s been a good year for drivers.

Lap times around Castle Combe race track, under damp conditions.

Place Car Lap Time (seconds)
1 Ferrari F50 69.37
2 Ferrari 550 Maranello 72.04
3 Honda NSX 72.20
4 Chrysler GTS 72.86
5 Caterham Superlight R 73.17
6 Nissan Skyline GT-R 73.09
7 Lotus Esprit GT3 74.40
8 Porsche 911 Carrera 4 74.89
9 Jaguar XJR V8 76.20
10 Venturi Atlantique 76.71
11 Subaru Impreza Turbo 76.83
12 Porsche Boxster 77.52
13 Honda Integra-R 78.94
14 BMW Z3 2.8 79.02
15 Lotus Elise 79.05
16 Peugeot 106 GTI 79.63
17 Renault Sport Spider 79.83
18 Ford Puma 83.15
19 MGF VVC 85.80
20 Ford Ka2 94.81

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