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TG Speed Week: The Sports Cars

  1. The location is a hotel bar; it’s the night before the day after; TG’s 2012 Speed Week is consuming us, to the extent that any football that might happen to be on is being roundly ignored.

    Pockets of TG personnel are deep in thought. Paul Horrell and I - the increasingly curmudgeonly Statler and Waldorf of the TG parish - are warming to a theme which will dominate this year’s event: why do so many fast cars these days only come alive when you’re peering into the chasm of insanity? It could be down to modern rubberwear or chassis electronics, or the lingering suspicion that when it comes to marketing an expensive car, more is always more, and rarely less. Whatever the reason, the true meaning of fun is in danger of being lost in a blur of unfeasible lateral g and pointless pub boasts.

    Words: Jason Barlow
    Pics: James Lipman

    This feature first appeared in the August 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. It’s a theme that survives the next morning’s bleary 5am start, when I randomly inveigle my way behind the wheel of the Toyota GT86 for the first time. It’s brilliant, as you’ll read elsewhere, and gives up its fun much earlier in the graph. It also sets me up for the three cars I’ll be obsessing over for the next 12 hours at Dunsfold: the Porsche 911, the Lotus Exige S and the Audi TT RS Plus. Of course, we love what they do, which is why they’re here. But some big questions remain, because, to quote that sublime guru of the ridiculous Eric Morecambe, they’re playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order.

  3. Take the 911, which I would usually do, given the slightest opportunity. In its latest wonkily numbered 991 guise, Porsche has extended the wheelbase by 100mm, removed 80kg and improved torsional rigidity by 25 per cent, but its basic configuration is obviously still arse-about-face. The madcap boffinry that dictated a rear-engined lay-out in 1963 also bequeathed the 911 a silhouette that has remained more or less intact since the Beatles scored their first number one. Which means that - should you part with the £81,242 a new Carrera S costs (before options) - you’ll need a further 20 grand to cover the legal fees you’ll incur punching the berk who wonders why you’ve bought an old car.

  4. Yet, cards on the table, this is the best all-round sports car in the world. When I drove it at launch last November, I said ‘probably’ the best. Well, you can ditch the probably now, and you can keep your Audi R8s, Aston Vantages and whatnot into the bargain. From the sweeping curves of California’s Santa Ynez mountains to a pissing-wet Wednesday morning on the M25, the 911 will see you right, in a way that often beggars belief. Perhaps its greatest party trick in this latest guise is the way it’ll slot into seventh gear and fade discreetly into the background, while delivering a real-world average of 27 or 28mpg. Its stability control is also awesomely seamless in operation. Don’t let anyone tell you this stuff doesn’t matter in 2012.

  5. But it’s obviously not what gets the juices flowing. Even in the unbelievable company gathered here, a 911 still exerts an irresistible tractor-beam pull. The cabin is perhaps too luxury-car plush for its own good these days, superbly crafted or not. And the 2012 thesis that there’s too much going on in most cars finds full expression in the switchgear-festooned flight deck of the 911, with its suite of electronic damping, exhaust and throttle-tuning buttons. But strip away all the flimflam and the newly acquired motorway poise, and this thing is just nakedly, unashamedly entertaining.

  6. It weighs 1,395kg and has 400bhp, which’ll do nicely. It also has fully electric steering these days, which works fine even if it isn’t as detailed as it used to be, or as interactive as Porsche purists wish it still was. Trust me, on a hot lap of the TG track it’s absolutely as thrilling as you’d want, and feels bulletproof while it’s at it. Load it up into the Follow-Through, throttle off a bit, and revel in the balance of a truly epic, endlessly adjustable chassis. Out of Chicago, the 911 will slide deliciously under power if you ask it to, although there’s a deep reservoir of grip if you don’t want to stray out of your comfort zone.

  7. On the road, its power delivery is a touch peaky and its mid-range can feel curiously flat, and this is the first 911 I’ve ever driven where the paddle-shift PDK auto eclipses the seven-speed manual (yes, there is one ratio too many). But this has got to be the definitive sports car: performance, handling, brakes, with real-world repeatability and microscopically exact build quality. Anecdotally, a smattering of our crew wonder if the 911 has become too definitive. There’s just no pleasing some people.

  8. Luckily, the Lotus is nothing like definitive and is all the better for its idiosyncrasies. This is a different sort of Exige, expertly sorted by the world’s premier handling and ride experts, but now marketed by MBA types. This one has the Premium Sport Pack, so it adds leather trim and other niceties, but the doors still shut with tin-can tunelessness, and your feet still brush exposed aluminium. I’m unmoved to begin with, and really don’t like the gearbox. Our tight schedule means that we haven’t got ages to acclimatise, and I feel I’m fighting the Exige. It’s hot, too, and its ventilation system coughs out cool air as effectively as an emphysematous dog. It ain’t no Porsche - that’s for sure.

  9. But then we gel. The Exige’s 345bhp 3.5-litre supercharged V6 is a relentless but vice-free companion, more characterful here than in the Evora S. There’s also a stability-control programme that blends throttle response and traction sweetly through Tour, Sport and Race modes, but, though it works well on the road, it’s a pointless prophylactic on the track. Lose it, and what a chassis and what steering feel you’re given free rein over! (Sorry, but the Exige is an exclamation-mark sort of car!) It’s also a £60k-plus car in the right spec, which is grown-up money and an uphill marketing struggle for Lotus, whoever’s in charge. But the fact is, if you want to access true racing-car sensations in a still broadly civilised GT package, you won’t do a whole lot better than this. Unless you’re prepared to more than triple your investment and stump up for a McLaren MP4-12C or Ferrari 458 Italia, the two cars of which Exige is a convincingly accurate facsimile.

  10. And the Audi TT RS Plus? If fun is the watchword of this year’s Speed Week, then I’m afraid it’s an early bath for Audi’s ageing coupe (pricey too, at £50,285). But let’s start with the good bits. It’s fast as hell, has a lovely engine that’s torque-rich and turbo-woofly, and the TT generally channels the spirit and soundtrack of classic Group B rally quattros like some oily shaman. If only it were a bit more like a junior R8 in handling finesse. Unlike the Porsche and Lotus, there’s really not much to this super-TT beyond its blistering pace and eternally impressive seven-speed dual-shift ‘box. Two fine commodities, admittedly, but where the Porsche and Lotus - and GT86, for that matter - dart and dance and offer you endless permutations from their big, tasty menu of fun - at non-insane speeds, I might add - the TT is a bit po-faced and prescriptive. Let’s put it this way: at Dunsfold, I did three laps then parked it, and where a (disorderly) queue tended to form behind most of the other attendees, the little Audi was overlooked.

    Still a great car, of course. Just not great enough in this company.

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