TG Speed Week 2016: Ferrari 488 vs McLaren 570S vs Honda NSX
Who makes the best supercar, Italy, the UK or Japan? Chris Harris finds out
Test 2: supercars
I think the people with large foreheads at McKinsey call it “fragmentation”, but simpletons like me just stand looking at these cars and wonder how three such different answers now exist to a question that not many people can afford to ask.
The 488 is the undisputed leader in this field right now, but the new baby McLaren 570S demonstrates the staggering advances the company has made during its brief existence and, despite the crazy gestation period, I fell for the NSX in a way I hadn’t expected when I first drove it.Advertisement - Page continues below
Part of the reason why I fell for the Honda when we filmed it for the television show was that it managed to draw me into the fun of driving it in a way its specification suggested was impossible. This is a virtual car, one that brakes by wire, throttles by wire and has electrically assisted steering.
I saw some furrowed brows after people had driven it too – and I can understand why some of the TG crew didn’t ‘get’ the NSX because it takes a particular type of approach to get the best from it, and it just so happens that the worst possible preamble to doing this is driving the 488. The Ferrari is a car you can simply grab by the scruff and manhandle like some five-grand M3 – its approachability beggars belief. Try the same in the NSX, and the chassis will feel inert, the steering baffling and should you have all the chassis systems switched off it will seem the most spiteful thing since you last drove a BMW 2002 Turbo. In the snow.
But slow everything down, get a feel for the torque delivery of that turbocharged V6 and the way the front electric motors affect the chassis, and the NSX is pretty mind-blowing. And very, very fast.Advertisement - Page continues below
It doesn’t have the outright pace of the 488 because its power-to-weight ratio is some way off, but being 4WD it violently scoots from second-gear turns and does that oh-so-hybridy thing of feeling like it has an effective power band of 7,000rpm. Some people didn’t like the fake noises being piped into the cabin, but I rather enjoy the screaming V6 sound at high revs and can’t really decipher between what’s real and what isn’t. But I like Eighties pop outfit Go West, so my opinions on noise should probably be disregarded.
Light steering doesn’t help the sense of connection, nor do the nasty paddles which highlight the fact that the NSX responds more slowly to shift inputs than the other two.
You can throw it around at quite indecent angles, but that’s not really the car’s natural behaviour. It shows its best when in Race mode and being driven hard and accurately – and that’s when I found myself enjoying it the most. Braking late, keeping the inputs smooth and being astounded by how the car’s clever torque-vectoring system somehow found grip at whichever corner it needed the stuff.
To film some car-to-car video shots we used the 488 to mount the camera. Ollie M drove the Ferrari and I was in the NSX, when we rolled back into the pits he was surprised at how hard he had to push to stay ahead of the Honda. It really is a mini Porsche 918, this car – its performance and charms creep up on you over time.
Endearing itself to a new recipient is a much easier game for the 570S, although, like the NSX, its seating position is a little too high. No matter: the steering wheel offers a massive range of adjustment and then you can settle back and enjoy what must be one of the better cabin designs in this test. Yes, the powertrain and chassis adjustment controls remain a touch unfathomable, and you still have to hold your left patella and recite a Robert Browning monologue before hitting the ‘off’ button to actually disengage the stability systems – which even then sometimes re-engage when they fancy it – but otherwise matters are pretty simple.Advertisement - Page continues below
I was blown away by this car when I first drove it last year. It lacked some of the 650S’s otherworldly chassis behaviour over rough roads, but then the conventional springs and dampers gave a more connected feel and there was a greater sense of fun about the whole package: ultimate lap times had been sacrificed in the name of the slide and the smile. It was quite un-McLaren, and a welcome departure.
You’re waiting for the large BUT now, aren’t you? Here it is: the 570S had two main problems around the Red Bull Ring – the first was the presence of big-brother 675LT, the other a certain red car of Italian origin. Everything it could do, both of them could do better and, most importantly for this particular driver, they made me smile more too.Advertisement - Page continues below
How so? In isolation, the 570’s engine and gearbox are very talented, but after the Ferrari, there’s too much lag and then the mid-range builds so fearsomely that the final 1,500rpm are an anti-climax. The sound is more good than inspirational – slightly at odds with the actual acceleration, which can only be described as very impressive. So long as you haven’t just stepped out of the Ferrari.
But the 570 isn’t a direct rival to the 488 – it sits a price point lower and therefore shouldn’t have to worry. That much is true, but where the 570 struggles is at the very extremes of its dynamic behaviour – I know, that sounds so Autocar circa 1973, but bear with me. Turn-in is just a bit lazier, front-axle grip isn’t quite what you’d hoped and then when you open the taps, the open differential doesn’t quite give you that delicious sense of connection that makes you feel like you could place the car to within an inch.
These are small details, and it’s quite easy to explain them: everything I marked down on the 570 is because it has been optimised for the road. The softer chassis means comfort, the reduction in overall grip means some fun at lower speeds. In fact had this test been conducted on the public highway, the 570 would have been in my top three. But it wasn’t, so it isn’t. We really are nasty people.
On road or circuit, the 488 would have been at the very sharp end of this test. It operates at levels of excellence I find very hard to comprehend after 20 years of driving fast cars for a living. But what really leaves you stammering for the next adjective is the way it wends together a set of peerless dynamics which will coddle an amateur driver and can at any time become one of the most savage road cars ever made. This is Ferrari’s so-called entry-level berlinetta, and it will marmalise a McLaren F1 in a straight line. Switch off the traction control (a simple switch – please take note, McLaren) and it will pull full opposite-lock slides in fourth gear.
The steering is definitely too light for me, and I still think the current generation of Ferrari road cars steer too quickly – a slower rack would make them easier on the road – and for some reason the steering wheel won’t actually adjust back towards your chest quite far enough. But for negative criticism, that’s about your lot. I’m trying to think of other bad things to say about the 488, but I’m struggling.
Let’s bask in the good stuff, then: the turbocharging – hands-down the best turbo installation I’ve ever driven in that it feels boosted when you want it to (mid-range) and yet does the best impression of a normally aspirated motor in terms of throttle response and flywheel sag. Add in a set of intake and exhaust noises that I prefer to the old 458, and you have a very special powertrain.
That isn’t quite enough for the 488, mind. It pummels the opposition with straight-line speed that they cannot match, has the best paddle-shift change in the whole test and then perfectly integrates the whole caboodle with the most delightful mid-engined chassis I’ve driven. It doesn’t really understeer, it has the most subtle chassis electronics and it flatters the less-experienced driver more elegantly than any other car here.
With all the systems switched off, it’s a properly wild ride too. I just love that breadth of character: it’s like discovering your earnest English teacher lurks in S&M dungeons at weekends. I could place it more accurately than the 570 – because of the conventional locking differential – and the whole thing felt so, so strong. Ferrari used to appear at these tests with a van full of spares, a glut of laptops and some very worried faces. Now they send one bloke who seems far more concerned with the quality of his suntan as we wring his car out to the limiter in each and every gear.
I suppose all I can say is that I rather miss not being able to change gear myself, a criticism I suspect one particular vehicle from another grouping will be keen to exploit...
Check back on TopGear.com tomorrow for test 3: the hot hatches…