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Luxury wheels: No losers in this five-car comparison

Lotus Evora, Porsche 911, Ferrari 458 or BMW M3? And please show respect for Chevy's Corvette.

Published October 10, 2012

Sometimes when you go to the races, the most interesting cars aren’t on the track.

I spotted this quintumvirate at the recent ALMS race weekend at Mosport and thought, “Now, this bunch would go a long way to filling the proverbial 10-car garage.”

They aren’t exactly comparable, so this isn’t a comparo in the formal sense of there being a winner and four losers. Rather, it’s a five-way tie for first place, and you can pick and choose according to your personal taste.

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BMW M3

The M3 has gone through quite the evolution, from the original four-cylinder E30 3 Series, which looked and drove like it was jumped up on steroids, through two generations of six-cylinder models, to the current V8-powered E92 edition.

With each metamorphosis, the M3 has become more civilized, more comfortable, a better all-rounder. This had led some to whine that the purity of the original concept has been lost.

Come on: this is a performance car. Would you rather be pure and slow, or fast and comfortable?

The 414 horses produced by the 4.0 L V8 aren’t even the best part of this race-bred engine. It’s the instant throttle response that will really stir the soul.

The car comes with a six-speed manual transmission, which again those benighted old fart purists will probably prefer. They’ll not only be slower than those who opt for the dual-clutch manual, they’ll get worse fuel consumption, too.

You will have to spend a day or more delving into the dreaded iDrive system to figure out all the choices for suspension, throttle response and steering. Once you do, get ready for some serious fun.

Chevrolet Corvette

The Corvette remains the Rodney Dangerfield of sports cars: it just can’t get any respect in some circles.

But if those circles happen to be race tracks, don’t bet against it.

Corvette comes in various flavours, ranging from fast (base and Grand Sport with a 430 horsepower 6.2 L V8), to very fast (Z06 with a 505-horse 7.0 L V8), to crazy fast (ZR1 coupe, with 638 horses from a supercharged 6.2 L V8).

Depending on who you believe, the ZR1 holds the Nurburgring Nordschleife lap record for production cars. If someone has beaten it recently, the car still is in that conversation, which you’d have to think gives it some serious cred.

I have driven a ZR1 on the track, and it is prodigious in every regard. The steering feel is perhaps a bit too video-gamey, and while the interior craftsmanship is leagues better than older Corvettes, it won’t cause any sleepless nights for Audi’s Design Centre staff.

My most recent time in a Corvette was in a lovely white Grand Sport convertible, with a handsome royal blue top, equipped with the 60th Anniversary commemorative package, a 427 Collector Edition package, and a host of other options, which amazingly brought its sticker damn close to that of the ZR1.

To me, the on-going most surprising thing about any Corvette is its weight. Or lack thereof. Even the heaviest variant, the ZR1, hits 1,521 kg. The BMW M3 above? 1,680 kg.

Seriously, is that not worthy of some respect?

Ferrari 458 Italia

I said there would be no winner in this comparo. I lied.

When asked what is the best car I have ever driven, Ferrari 458 is what I answer.

It’s gorgeous to look at. It sounds amazing. It goes like Jack the Bear. It’s remarkably commodious for a two-seater, and quite comfortable ride-wise. It has technology coming out its ying-yang. And, of course, it has the most fabled name in the sports car business.

But what really sets the 458 apart is its steering. In the past, I have used the word “telepathic” to describe it, and it’s still the best word I can come up with.

It is blindingly fast steering, too, so you’d better be thinking along very precise lines when wishing yourself around a corner. It’s all too easy to dial in way more steering than you need.

Decision: coupe or convertible? Ferrari says the two customers are surprisingly different.

The coupe guy is more likely to take his car to the track, more likely to drive it harder, but less frequently.

The Spider (convertible) guy is more likely to use his car as an everyday driver. Hence the base suspension settings for the coupe are stiffer than for the convertible.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to subject my quarter-million-dollar baby to much track use, and I think I’d be prepared to give up a few kg in weight and a few counts of torsional rigidity in return for the ability to enjoy open-air motoring.

Porsche 911 GT3 RS

You’d have to be a Porsche genealogist to fully understand all the variations of the 911 — especially now, during the bridge period between the old 997 family and the new and confusingly-named 991 edition.

The GT3 is essentially the road-going version of the “customer racing” version of the older 911. It comes in a variety of states of tune, of which RSR is the ne plus ultra.

Unfortunately, you can’t buy one of those here, at least not to drive on the street. There will be a GT3 or equivalent of the new 911, probably some time next year.

Meanwhile, if all you can fall back on is the GT3 RS, well boo hoo. Wider than the standard GT3, with more power (450 horsepower vs. 435), less weight (1,370 kg vs. 1,395) and revised suspension for even better handling, this is the pinnacle of 997 development.

Then there’s that crazy rear wing. The cops will probably arrest you just for what you’re thinking.

Interesting that the RS comes only with a manual gearbox, without the option of a PDK dual-clutch, auto-or-paddle-shifted, manual, which, in all other Porsches, is faster than the straight manual. If the RS is all about performance, what gives?

Lotus Evora

For much of its history, Lotus has been known for its racing cars. Founder Colin Chapman, much like his arch-rival Enzo Ferrari, built road-going cars primarily to finance his racing teams.

But with the current roster of Elise-based roadsters and coupes, Lotus has taken the real-world car market much more seriously.

Lotus still emphasizes outstanding ride/handling balance, and performance generated as much from adding lightness as by adding horsepower.

The Evora is the first two-plus-two from Lotus in many years. It is very loosely based on the smaller Elise, sharing its sheet-aluminum, space-frame chassis concept, but using fewer than 5 per cent common parts.

This is clothed in beautiful body panels made of composite materials — composite being the $10 word for plastic.

The two-plus-two designation must be taken with a bag of salt, because a bag of salt is about the biggest thing you’ll get into the back seats. Evora makes the Porsche 911 look like a stretched limo.

Lotus cars have long had a reputation for fragility. Perhaps in response to that, Lotus has contracted with Toyota to supply engines. In Evora’s case, it’s the 3.5 L V6 lifted more-or-less intact from Camry, but fitted with a Lotus-engineered engine-management system to develop 276 horsepower, and tilted to fit under the rear cowl.

Toyota doesn’t fit a manual transmission to this engine, at least not in North America, so Lotus found one in a Toyota diesel-powered truck that bolts right on. No automatic is offered.

Inside, there’s excellent headroom for adults, although the cab-forward configuration means the wheel wells are right there by your feet: the driver has no place to put the left foot when not shifting, other than awkwardly under the clutch pedal.

Performance is excellent — not blindingly fast, but nimble. Even such a detail as a magnesium core for the steering wheel aids in handling, because so little force is needed to overcome its inertial resistance.

Any Lotus is a limited-production vehicle. Hence, there aren’t many dealers around, although the major mechanical bits in Evora can be serviced at your local Toy Store.

The scarcity works in your favour, though, if you’re one of those people who don’t want to see themselves coming down the street every day.

Let every other sports coupe enthusiast at your country club drive a Porsche Cayman. How many F1 World Championships did his car company ever win?

jim@jimkenzie.com

The Corvette remains the Rodney Dangerfield of sports cars: it just can not get any respect in some circles.

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