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Speed Week: Corvette Z06 vs Ferrari 458 Speciale vs Nismo GT-R

Sports cars with just a little more, but which is the sharpest of the bunch?

  1. It would be helpful if the weather could make its mind up. Bone dry would be preferable. Wet is at least an understandable theatre of war. But, at the moment, the sun is poking untidy, meddling-bastard fingers of warming light through the clouds and making the dampish track surface a patchwork of lies that plays hell with any attempt at consistency. In this situation, the only consistency I’m really concerned with is to remain consistently not buried in the barriers.

    Discover the rest of Top Gear’s Speed Week 2015 here

    It’s been tricky. First, there are the cars: a Ferrari 458 Speciale, a Nissan GT-R Nismo and a Corvette Z06. None of which is exactly learner specification. Second, there is the issue of ‘manufacturer optional’ tyres. Tyres that, on all three, look pretty much like slicks grazed with a warm soldering iron. Not so much tread as the rubbery ghosts of sipes clinging mournfully to existence. I know this sort of tyre: sticky and comforting when warm and pliable, china-handgun useful in the cold or wet. And instead of a track that is small, tight, generously on-camber and dry, all I have is a circuit that’s huge, fast, patchily moist and littered with spiralling, off-camber descents. Dammit.

  2. Still, it’s hard not to be excited. The Ferrari looks wonderful, a 458 with an extra tickle of aerodynamic fancy and 40bhp’s worth of stripes, the Corvette confidently aggressive and very yellow, sporting here the Z07 track package, which includes carbon-ceramic brakes, ridiculous tyres with little lightning strikes and extra aero sprouting from various strategic positions, and the Nissan looks like it’s been torn from the pages of a Manga comic, all swoops and gaps and sticky-out bits of neo-brutalism.

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    Loins sufficiently girded, it’s the Ferrari that draws me first, simply because it’s been making so much bloody noise. Now, you may have expected the Ferrari to be lining up against the Lamborghini Huracán, but this little grouping is more relevant than a traditional domestic Italian civil war. This is where focus is delivered: the cars manufacturer-modified to deliver more on a track. Not ‘track specials’ so much as honed road cars, but the ones that offer that bit more than before. The Ferrari, after a bare few laps, turns out to be a fair bit more than that.

  3. The Speciale is something of a final, firework flourish for the 458 Italia before it gets superceded by the turbocharged 488 GTB, and when it comes to naturally aspirated genius, it’s not so much a bonfire-night rocket as a very noisy surface-to-surface missile. Though the word ‘noisy’ feels inadequate when describing what this 597bhp, 9,000rpm V8 sounds like smashing repeatedly into the rev-limiter.

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    ‘Borderline illegal’ is probably more appropriate, if only because ‘sonic battering ram’ sounds too much like something in Doctor Who’s toolbox. But, honestly, this isn’t just evocative (it reaches right into your autophiliac hindbrain and flicks switches usually reserved for private use, and it’s not some magic valve system, either) – get anywhere above about 1,800rpm and the exhaust will start to blare like God’s own trumpet.

  4. The noise is just part of the story. The engine has been modified with high-lift cams, different pistons and shorter inlet tracts (as well as that exhaust) to produce something of a masterpiece. The fact that it still has nearly 400lb ft of torque is nothing short of spectacular, and is down to a compression ratio of 14:1. Big news, because it means that for each stroke of a piston, the Speciale is harvesting as much mechanical energy as possible from every gulp of fuel and air. Context? The Speciale has a compression ratio more like a motorbike’s – most petrol cars don’t get above 10:1. Even current Formula One motors are lower.

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    What it translates to is a car that feels like a racer, but doesn’t have the peaky, irritable nature of a dedicated track addict. It’s really very easy to dodder about in, 7spd F1 ’box flipping between ratios like a street magician shuffling cards. Inside, it’s all bare carbon and winnowed luxury, something that reflects engine noise and makes it even louder, and you do get the innate sense that weight has also been gently culled from other areas. It has: the Speciale features lighter alloys in the basic aluminium structure, a lighter roof, carbon airbox, plastic rear window and shaved glass all round. Even the wheels are more delicate than the standard car’s, the whole array amounting to a roughly 90kg loss from standard.

  5. But when you go fast, things change. The relative positions of your internal organs, for a start. Acceleration is fierce, and linear. Not a huge surge, but a building wave. The steering is perhaps the most accurate and fierce of anything here, and you can place the car to the millimetre, with a level of feel and transparency that allows you to tell what colour the kerbs are without looking. And it just feels together, front and back and side-to-side. It’s a cliche to say that you become a fully functioning part of the Speciale, but cliches are often based on absolute truths. This is that immersive experience. And because it’s so innately connected, if you do overstep the mark, it slides with grace. Especially if you find the right balance of the electronics with the side-slip control and F1-Trac diff, because it basically allows you to slide, yet heroically stops you from spinning.

    It’s not without its foibles, mind. Even though the bespoke Michelins can take a whole heap of abuse, if you lift quickly, you can upset the modified aero enough to make the Speciale give you a proper warning wriggle. The reshaped rear spoiler and wide diffuser, as well as a widget of passive, deforming vanes, produce an entirely believable 210kg of downforce at a relevant 125mph – the long lefts of Pirelli and Würth Kurve, as well as the kink on the straight before Remus, get eye-widening if you don’t trust it.

  6. It’s a total and utter contrast to the black, menacing GT-R. Now, I was expecting the Nissan to be fast, but I didn’t expect it to hurt me. Actually hurt. On some of the long left-handers, I had to bear down into my core and crank my neck rigid just to make it around semi-conscious. And there was a distinct feeling that with all the blood pooled into the right-hand side of my body, my heart just might pump air rather than liquid, delivering the world’s most flatulent heart attack. Honestly, the
    grip it produces for a road car is simply astonishing. And it feels much more mechanical than aerodynamic. Yes, the Nismo has an extra 100kg of downforce over the standard GT-R, thanks to bits nicked from the Super GT racing car, including a wider front end, lengthened rear bumper and that big, tuner-tastic boot wing, but that stuff doesn’t come into play until silly speeds.

  7. What it does have at sub-light speeds is custom-developed Bilstein DampTronic dampers, different
    – hollow – anti-roll bars and new upper links for the suspension, the astounding ATTESA E-TS all-wheel drive and those super-sticky Dunlop tyres. The 3.8-litre bi-turbo V6 has also had a few tweaks, but again, it sounds like a little that translates into a lot. The turbos are stolen from Nissan’s GT3 racing car, there’s a new ECU controlling both them and the higher-capacity fuel pump, and although a 50bhp/14lb ft jump over standard doesn’t sound like much, it feels like it: the Nismo feels like it spins faster, breathes more freely, gets going with more hunger.

    What that package gives you is the ability to set the car into a corner, all but floor it, and cannon out of the other side with all of your features swept to the opposite side of your face. It will oversteer in Race mode, but guessing at the relative speeds, I think you’re probably better avoiding the GT-R’s showboating, nailing a decent line and making use of all that delicious traction. Given the slingshot, you can then use brakes that cause you to make little involuntary ‘oof’ noises, a gearbox that feels even quicker than standard, and a more fluent feel than any GT-R I’ve ever driven. It feels lighter than usual (it is, but only by a marginal 20kg, thanks to carbon bucket seats and a few other bits), more direct, more pointy than ever before. It’s more aware and connected, and turns in neck-snappingly hard.

  8. The steering isn’t as sweet as the Ferrari’s, the engine noise is whooshy and metallic in comparison,
    and where the Speciale requires delicacy and feels tippy-toes nervy, the GT-R is real scruff-of-the-neck, boot-in-the-face stuff. But when it comes to nailing a lap time, I don’t think I was far off the Ferrari – even with similar power and a 300kg weight disadvantage. The GT-R has grip and mid-range wallop that’ll make you feel sick. In a good way. It’s not exactly poetic, but it’s about as effective as it gets.

    Which brings me to the Corvette, which turned out to be, frankly, a bit scary. The Z06 gets an Eaton-supercharged LT4 6.2-litre V8 making 650bhp (a lot) and 650lb ft (a very lot). But the bare horsepower isn’t really the abiding impression – it’s the torque. From 2,500rpm to 5,400rpm, you get a kidney-popping 592lb ft. On track, that translates to a car that will go fast in any gear, at any time. And one that can spin its rear wheels, even bound with enormous track-spec 335/ZR20 Michelin Sport Cup 2 tyres, whenever it wants. It’s the only manual here (and a 7spd), and although the throw is long, the lag between gates is soon negated by the blow-to-the-forehead delivery once the clutch plates are back together.

  9. I think the GT-R may have given a false sense of security, but in the Vette I was definitely much, much quicker with its Performance Traction Management system fully engaged in Track mode, and the electronic LSD working hard, rather than everything off. And, boy, does this thing make a case for itself. All the good bits of the Stingray, but with more of everything: 37 per cent more power, 40 per cent more torque. Better – sometimes astonishing – carbon-ceramic brakes; a great bass-gurgle of a noise; flat, hard cornering, thanks to sophisticated magnetic damping, and the ability to spit the world backwards on any given straight.

    But the Z06 is also a car that requires you to step up. Driving it fast is easy: driving it to its potential is another thing entirely. The steering feels a little fake-heavy, and it doesn’t have the adjustability of the Ferrari or the four-square grip of the GT-R. The bonnet feels long, and you’re not – quite – as connected as the other two from the flat-feeling driving seat, almost hanging on a bit too much. The tyres also take several laps to get warm, but when they do, the yellow peril’s resistance to understeer is bordering on the absurd, and it takes time to trust it. There’s also the small matter of gauging how best to deploy the engine, or you just waste time sorting out the surfeit of everything it provides. But when you get it right, it’s bewildering. It actually makes you giggle, this Z06, and I’m not sure if there’s a better recommendation than that. It’s not perfect. But it is a big-hearted, unapologetic, brilliant sports car.

  10. So which is best? Well, it would be copping out to say all three, but none of these is a dud. They’ll eat very much more expensive supercars, and laugh while doing it, take to the track and deliver an experience that’ll tattoo itself on your brain. They fit their respective briefs perfectly. But the GT-R is the least immersive of the three. It’s possibly the quickest (certainly in the wet), but it really is about the winning, and not the taking part. If you want to humble other people, then it has no competition. But it’s starting to feel its age and isn’t as visceral as the other two. The Vette and Ferrari are harder to call. Completely different. Both intensely satisfying, but for totally different reasons. We need more time. And more roads. I think this one is going to lead to an argument…

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