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The Radical SR3 SL on public roads

  1. There are many absurdities surrounding the Radical SR3 SL. That it exists at all, for instance, or that I’m driving it in the depths of winter. On track-day tyres. When it’s sleeting. That it can barely negotiate a rutted country road without scraping some part of its belly, let alone a speed bump. That it jiggled me around so much that I had to go for a roadside wee. Still wearing my helmet. That must’ve looked pretty absurd to the cars that crawled past.

    SL stands for Street Legal, which means Radical is after a slice of the market occupied most ably by Ariel, KTM and Caterham. It’s not the first road-legal Radical - you can add a pack to other models that allows them to be punted around in public, by dint of a rear foglight and one or two other DVLA-friendly trinkets - but it is the first to have been designed and developed with road rather than track in mind.

    Words: Ollie Marriage

  2. So it’s quite a different proposition from the 1.5-litre, 10,000rpm, bike-engined SR3 RS we drove back in issue 217. Not least because this engine’s a fair bit calmer. It’s Ford’s 2.0-litre turbo EcoBoost, the 240bhp engine that’ll underpin the new Focus ST. It can’t even manage 8,000rpm flat out, but on the plus side delivers over twice the torque about four times as early.

    The wing’s the easiest way to tell SL from RS: it’s been narrowed to stop it interfering with errant pedestrians in a fatal sort of way. There are proper door mirrors that adjust electrically from inside the cockpit, an actual handbrake, a simple single-buckle harness (do it up tight, as the seats aren’t as supportive as they look) and the start-up procedure is far less of a kerfuffle. Twist key, press button and you’re up and running in a very understated, typically Ford sort of way.

  3. Only the view out is pure single-seater: bottle-top steering wheel, a digital instrument pod of bewildering complexity, an absence of devices to stop winter pouring in. It does have a heater. Well, a fan. I can’t say I noticed. Chiefly because as soon as you start rolling, absolutely all of your concentration must be on the road.

    Because the SR3 SL drives like an easily spooked housefly. It jinks, darts, tugs and weaves down the road - every single bump, rut, surface change, puddle or piece of grit causing entire changes of direction. I’d call it a live wire, but shoving a skewer in a plug socket wouldn’t give you anything like the kick of trying to keep the Radical in a straight line.

  4. And here’s the thing. It’s not just that the SR3 batters you with this physical assault, but that you can’t fight back. The car’s reactions are so fast that the suspension has sorted any potential problem way before your lazy nerves have been able to transmit their ponderous signals from buttocks and hands to head. If you start steering and playing with the throttle and brakes once your brain has responded to these tardy signals, you’ll actually be reacting to an altogether different and more recent problem, one that the car is already on top of, so your input will only upset things. And you’ll crash.

    So it’s best to just let the car get on with things and hope that at some stage you’ll encounter some blacktop that has been laid with care and attention. Because when you do, the Radical is utter dynamite. Finally, you can actually use the engine. It sounds like someone’s operating an industrial vacuum under the dash or that one of the (admittedly non-existent) air vents has turned into a mini jet engine. There’s this frantic sucking, wheezing, whistling and blowing as you press and release the throttle, and when you give it the full beans, the whole car tenses as the turbos spool up and you’re hurled down the road.

  5. It must be quicker than the RS. It’s certainly easier to access the speed, because there’s torque everywhere you look across the rev range. Just stick it in sixth, and have done with it. I did, because if I used most of the gears underneath that, all I uncovered was heavy, sudden wheelspin. And when I tried to correct it, I found the car was already on the case, so what I was doing was both late and wrong. Not good for your nerves.

    Manage to stay vaguely in control, and the SR3 is brain-squelchingly fast - the whole issue of it being a turbo engine (and therefore laggy) in a car of such needle sharpness is largely irrelevant. Mainly because, for mere mortals, there just isn’t that much lag, but also because you can overcome any delay by left-foot braking while keeping your right (lightly) on the throttle. This may sound like a technique from the darker recesses of Stig’s helmet, but, in a car like this, it soon becomes second nature.

  6. There is a clutch to worry about, but you only need it for pulling away, and once past that, you just tug paddles to change gear - and with a 0.08sec shift time, it’s as snappy as a DSG. Accelerate with your right, brake with your left, flick with your fingers, steer with your wrists, wipe visor with your palm - that’s about all there is to this car.

    Once you become more accustomed to it, you get the feeling the Radical is actually dancing down the road rather than acting the bucking bronco. The writhing steering starts to instil confidence, the traction is remarkable (considering there’s barely a millimetre of suspension travel), you discover you can be braver, as long as you keep your inputs small, neat and accurate. Tricky, when you’re shivering like a jackhammer.

    So it is intimidating, but it’s also far more manageable than before - treat it with respect, and you and the SR3 SL will get on just fine. But not in winter. That’d be absurd.

    The numbers
    1999cc, 4cyl RWD, 240bhp, 265lb ft, 28.0mpg, 229g/km CO2, 0-62 in 3.4secs, 161mph, 725kg

    The cost
    £69,850 plus £4,000 for the race pack

    The verdict
    The most drivable Radical ever. Which isn’t saying much. Addictive, threatening and entirely unsuited to winter. We love it

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