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If the Cayman S was a mere amuse bouche for the Exige, then this was the main course. Lotus cars have a distinguished history of punching above their weight but had the Exige bitten off more than it could chew this time? Equally, would the new GT3 live up to all the hype? A track comparison with the most track-focused Lotus on sale would surely be a test for the new, more civilized GT3’s track credentials too. This being TLF, credit will be given where it’s due. But so will criticism – something the GT3 has somehow managed to evade to date.

6Certainly the new GT3 exudes purpose when you first walk up to it. Sitting low on fat, cartoonish rear tyres, the fixed rear wing, various ducts, scoops and forged centre-lock wheels combine to give it far more visceral appeal than the Cayman could muster. It has a bit of an aura about it. It looks confident, ready to have a go at anything, like a stocky, densely muscled fighting dog. But it’s a big car, appearing more voluminous than an Evora and indeed the 997 GT3. It’s also a very big deal for Porsche. This is where they get to show off what they can do and what they stand for (when they’re not populating the planet with SUVs). For now at least, this is the definitive Porsche statement. The 918 Spyder is a high-end technology showcase but the 911 GT3 remains the company’s heart and soul. Is there a sports car on sale with a larger development budget? Unlikely. According to Porsche they spent over two years developing the steering alone.

The specs make sobering reading. Bought-in 3.5 supercharged V6 vs bespoke 3.8 flat-six. 345bhp vs 475bhp. 7200 rpm vs 9000 rpm. 6 speed Manual vs 7 speed PDK. 265 section rear tyres vs 305. 313 bhp/ton vs 332. Porsche also brings 4 wheel steering, direct injection, forged wheels, a dry sump, variable intakes and dynamic engine mounts to the party, to which the Lotus has no reply. On top of that, this particular GT3 has the Club Sport package which includes chassis-stiffening rear cage and weight-saving carbon bucket seats. The Exige looks squarely out-gunned across the board, turning this into a true David vs Goliath encounter. In David’s sling this time is a 320kg weight advantage. A look at the suspension specs helps to confirm my suspicion that Lotus spends a greater proportion of the car’s cost on this area, but that’s scraping the barrel. The Exige has its work cut out.

7Time to face the music. Around Spa no less. Because repair bills for a 991 GT3 are well above my pay-grade and I had Ron Simons (the owner) in the passenger seat, banzai, maximum-attack laps were out. But PDK makes the car so easy to drive I was able to get up to a reasonable pace, use every last rev and get a good feel for what the car can do and how it does it.

The noise is pretty spine tingling as the central tacho needle sweeps round the dial and anything with a 9,000rpm redline is alright by me. The 997’s sacred ‘Metzger’ flat-six sounded great from inside with a gravelly scream to a feverish pitch, but they tend to make a fairly monotone drone from outside. The new car is the opposite. From outside, the manic revs split the air with a piercing, hard-edged howl, like some kind of mad, nitrous-fuelled chainsaw. Inside it sounds terrific but it does get a bit raucous and rattly over the last 2000 rpm. You can clearly hear it on the video. It sounds like an exhaust resonance and it’s a bit tinny and contrived. No doubt Porsche wanted the car to have even more ‘sporty emotions’. I’m not convinced they are needed. It was sounding sweet as a nut at 7k.

The deep, leather-clad carbon buckets were superb. You can simply relax and focus on the driving, your body is totally supported on the track. As with the Cayman, the whole car is shot through with a hewn-from-solid integrity that’s very seductive. It feels very complete, meticulously honed, reassuringly solid and virtually unbreakable. Control weights are light and nicely balanced but you’re made aware of how firm the ride is, well before the end of the pitlane. No doubt you can soften it for road use, and you would need to. Out on the track it feels like a big, heavy car after the Exige, just as you’d expect. But speed piles on effortlessly up the 1km Kemmel Straight. The car feels slippery and wind noise is well surpressed allowing you to enjoy the flat-six wail all the more. Braking into the esses at Les Combes requires a bigger shove on the pedal than the Exige but the job of slowing the hurtling mass down is done without complaint or much front-end dive. Traditionally, the weakest part of the 911 package is between turn-in and apex but this feels pretty good to me. It turns-in all-square, shifting its weight smoothly to the outside tyres and body roll is very well contained. There’s no lurch into a corner, you just pour the car in, the steering encourages you to build-up lateral loads progressively. Perhaps most impressive of all, considering it has 4 wheel steering and a whole host of silly acronyms involved in the process, it feels natural. It corners flat and hard and feels like it will grip forever.

The tricky, downhill, off-camber, right-hander at Rivages will see if that’s the case (3.38 on the video). If a car is ever going to understeer anywhere, it’ll be here. You approach fast (flat in 4th) into a heavy, downhill braking zone, loading the front left tyre harder and harder as you wait…. and wait…. patiently…. for the late apex. In a 997 you could expect plenty of understeer but here’s where the 4 wheel steering does its thing. A measured lift off the throttle keeps the nose firmly on track. If anything, you can feel the front carve a tighter line, accelerating slightly towards the apex. It feels like a system developed purely to deal with this corner. Low speed understeer is effectively neutralized. Another year, another 911 handling trait consigned to the history books. Again, what’s really impressive is that it doesn’t feel artificial, the net effect is of a well-sorted, responsive sports car. However, there’s no getting away from that 1430kg elephant in the room. Perhaps Lotus owners are more sensitive than most when it comes to weight, but it really does feel chunky after the Exige. In fact, it feels heavier than an Evora too despite the claimed weights being very similar. It’s easy to confuse a feeling of solidity with one of weight but, regardless of what it actually weighs, it behaves like a heavy car. All the responses are slower, it takes a big push on the brakes to stop it, it feels very firmly sprung, you feel large forces are at play and a bit more detached from the action. But don’t think for a minute that it’s not fun to drive around Spa though. Hammering down the long straights, howling flat-six voraciously devouring all the gears you can chuck at it, the GT3 is a blast.

5The Cayman S left me with two big questions for the GT3. First, PDK. Straight off the bat, this version is much more like it. No interference from the computer unless you want it. Smooth, clean upshifts and crisp downshifts so fast, the tacho needle has a job keeping up. You can play musical notes with it if you like. Right hand paddle to for lower notes (der, dar, doh), left hand for higher ones (brim-dar, brim-der, brim-deeeearrrrggghhh!). PDK makes the car so easy to drive on the track and adapting to left hand drive was a cinch. Overall, this version of PDK delivered against my expectations but it didn’t exceed them. There’s still a jolt shifting up at high revs, less pronounced than in the Cayman, but still there (keep an eye on our helmets at 1.28 on the video). For me, the Nissan GTR has the better DSG box. With more tactile paddles and seamless shifts any time, anywhere in the rev range, the experience of uninterrupted thrust is more complete. Overall, PDK suits the 991 GT3 and integrates well with all the other digital systems, but it’s a travesty that there’s no manual option. There is no justification for taking away the choice. Judging by the soaring prices of 997 GT3s since the 991’s launch, it’s clear how much drivers still value three pedals and a stick.

The other big question concerned the steering. Porsche may have spent over two years developing this version of its electric power steering but they spent over 40 developing the 997’s hydraulic system. There is perhaps a slightly more granular texture mixed in with all the smooth, oily precision but there’s precious little evidence of any meaningful improvement over the Cayman. I still maintain that there isn’t any actual feel and very little feedback. The same caveats apply. It works well, it’s nicely geared, it allows you to place the car very precisely, it doesn’t ruin the experience but it is a bit lifeless. It’s not much worse than many other numb steering systems, hydraulic or otherwise. But it is much worse than the 997’s steering.

4For me there was another question the GT3 had to answer. As compromises go, having an engine pushed behind the rear axle for the sake of two small seats (that aren’t even there in this GT3) is a compromise too far. I know Porsche have found a way to make it work through years of persistence and beard scratching. But I never much liked the way 911s felt – awkward when driving slowly and hard to trust when driving fast. The 991 GT3 may have the entire weight of an S2 Exige over the rear axle but it feels quite different to any 911 I’ve driven before. The weight feels low down but not necessarily way out aft. Driving blindfolded, I don’t think I’d be able to say with any certainty exactly where the engine was located. So few of the typical 911 traits remain that it no longer feels obviously rear-engined. The 911 purists may howl with dissent but it’s a welcome development for me.

8So how did the Exige feel around Spa after a few laps in Stuttgart’s finest? No less wonderful actually. Accelerating up the steep pitlane exit onto the Kemmel Straight, no less rapid either. If anything, it felt a shade more torquey. The rest is as you’d expect. It feels much lighter, more agile, more direct, more communicative, more mechanical. The Exige moves around more at speed, giving you constant updates as to the remaining levels of front and rear grip. These movements are your early warning system. The steering is such an asset on the track, it lets you feel the onset of understeer well before you actually run wide. The direct connection with the floor through the thin carbon seat keeps your backside alert to oversteer. The Porsche feels more locked down, naturally strong in traction, it puts power down efficiently and without any fuss. But there’s no doubt about it, you are a layer or two removed from the action. As a result, the Exige is ultimately more fun on track, for a given lap time. Both cars encourage neat, tidy driving, neither are really interested in showboating. Sliding either feels like a mistake, not a party piece. Strapped into the passenger seat for my laps with Ron Simons at the wheel, I caught a glimpse of how talented the V6 Cup really is. There’s a reassuring solidity to the Cup’s suspension in extremis. Just at the point where most sports cars are running out of ideas, the Cup reveals this invisible wall of support. Someone has made sure that the suspension works properly all the way to the bump stops. Once there, the car just settles and holds its line. If suspension could talk it would be saying ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got this’. It’s an amazing sensation that you’ll only find in a Cup car at 9 tenths and over.

 

Judging the two cars purely on their track performance, even ignoring running costs and the massive price difference, you have to give it to the Exige. Lap times will be remarkably close for amateur drivers. The Exige hangs on better down the straights than you might think. Up to 120mph there’s nothing in it, but the Porsche peaked at 158mph, the Exige just under 150mph on the speedo. To keep up around Spa, the Exige has to be making time in the corners and on the brakes. More importantly, the Exige is ultimately more fun to drive on track. But judging the two cars as road and track cars you simply have to give it to the Porsche. The fact that it can match an Exige V6 Cup around Spa and then whisk you back to the UK in such comfort is remarkable. You used to have to choose between a good track car and a good road car. Now it seems, for a price, you can have both. If you can afford to spend nearly twice as much as the Exige on a trackday car then sure, I guess, why wouldn’t you? But £120k (with a few options) isn’t chump change. Money no object, I’d run a Ferrari 458 Speciale. For £120k you could mod the dickens out of a Nissan GTR and crush everything else on the track. But neither would be such a complete all-rounder. I always thought I’d prefer the better balanced Cayman but it turns out I’m more of a 911 man after all. Just for the record though, the GT3 has been deliriously overhyped by the press. It’s not the messiah. It’s just a very naughty car.

That would be a good place to end. But I can’t help but feel irked that a big, comfy, 1430kg 911 can keep up with Lotus’s top road-legal track car. It’s all well and good keeping the big boys honest and punching above your weight, but Lotus have the GT3’s big, expensive rump in their sights. Time to pull the trigger boys. Another 50bhp is all it would take. It’s time to own the track once more and put these big, heavy pretenders in their place. While you’re at it, do a 500bhp V6 CupR special and go and smash some Nürburgring records. No-one should be more proud of their racing heritage. The little company from Norfolk that took on the world and won. 81 times. Lotus isn’t about keeping up. Lotus is about winning. It’s time to get back where you belong. P1.

1Next week, dissension in the ranks. Round 4 – The Komo-tec EX430 Exige S and Lotus 211.

Many thanks again to RSR for the drive in their GT3 which is available for road and track events here.

RECENTLY ADDED:  The following is an extended version of the video with analysis and commentary:

 

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