One would think that the last thing this world needs is another car manufacturer, unless, of course, it’s an ecologically relevant one like Tesla, Fisker, Think, or Ligier.
A new sports car brand surely is only a recipe for commercial disaster. But Artega, a new German maker of sports cars, has conceived a very different product. “There are many things Artega is not,” states Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, a longtime German automotive executive who has held top posts at BMW, Rolls-Royce, Alfa Romeo, and Maserati, and who has served as chief adviser to the Artega team since 2006. “We’re not a cottage car manufacturer, we are not in the bespoke business, we are not a coachbuilder, and we are going to stay well clear of the supercar segment. Our main stakeholder is Paragon, a leading Tier 1 systems supplier, and our mission is to occupy the niche that separates the high-volume from the tiny-volume sports car manufacturers.” Artega’s means to this end is the GT, a relatively affordable, mid-engine, two-seat coupe aimed at performance- and handling-oriented enthusiasts.
And here it comes, fresh out of the car wash, the new Artega GT: Shorter than a (157.9 inches), wider than a Mercedes-Benz S-class (74.0 inches), nearly as low as a Lamborghini Gallardo (46.5 inches). Designed by Henrik Fisker of BMW Z8 and fame and now head of his own eponymous company. Powered by the Volkswagen Group, which agreed to sell its latest direct-injection VR6 engine and dual-clutch transmission to Paragon. Engineered in-house by a young crew of enthusiasts. Supported by renowned suppliers like BASF, Bilstein, Bosch, Brembo, Eibach, Hella, and Michelin. Built in a brand-new factory on a dedicated greenfield site in Delbrück, between Frankfurt and Hanover. Financed by a 20 million (approximately $29 million) budget, which covers more than just phase one of the gestation process. That’s all very well, you say, but where is the special Artega touch? How does the GT differ from, say, a ? “It’s all in the mix,” Kalbfell answers, smiling. “Thanks to the aluminum spaceframe structure, our car weighs only about 2425 pounds, undercutting the Cayman S by 550 pounds. This weight savings gives us a tangible acceleration and handling advantage.”
True or false?
We’re about to put the vehicle bearing chassis number 00/99 to the real test. This is the pilot car for the limited-edition pre-series, which features yellow paint, polished nineteen-inch aluminum wheels, tasteful leather and Alcantara trim, and full Paragon instrumentation. The GT looks small and uncomfortable from the outside, but its cabin is something of a packaging miracle – the Cayman feels cramped by comparison. The simple yet efficient dashboard architecture does the trick. There’s no protruding center console, no towering transmission tunnel, no high-fashion influences. Instead, the no-frills cockpit looks more like Paragon chief Klaus Dieter Frers’s own Porsche 904/6 than like a run-of-the-mill Cayman. As a result, the Artega GT provides almost as much legroom as a go-kart. Thanks to the curved roof, headroom is not an issue, either, and the bucket seats trimmed in perforated suede are both comfortable and supportive. Behind them, there’s enough storage space for eight cubic feet of luggage. Beneath the front trunk lid, we find a 2.6-cubic-foot receptacle as well as an eighteen-gallon fuel tank.
Paragon is a big player in the field of cockpit systems, navigation, telematics, and in-car phones. As a result, we expected trick instruments, in-dash wizardries, and sensational ergonomics, but the test car had none of that. The GT was, in fact, kind of an electronic anticlimax on wheels. The main multifunction display was out of order, the combined speedo/rev counter was hard to read and partly concealed by the steering wheel, and the secondary digital instruments also were inoperable. Even the controls that did work weren’t particularly convincing. Chips gone AWOL also kept the air-conditioning from performing properly, and the driving dynamics system (ABS, stability and traction control) had been put to sleep altogether because it was still undergoing final calibration tests at Bosch.
When you step out of a Cayman S and go straight into the Artega GT, two things are obvious. The Artega feels quicker, with more imminent responses, and its character reveals itself to be more like that of a sports car than a gran turismo. That’s the good news. The bad news may have a lot to do with the pre-preproduction status of our test vehicle, which was unable to match the silent solidity of the Porsche. The Artega’s body may be stiffer than that of the Cayman, but the multifaceted integration of the moving parts is quite obviously still an ongoing process. You can hear development glitches in the front suspension, and you can feel them through the steering. But the Artega has potential for greatness. Like a Ferrari F430, the GT’s chassis already boasts that confidence-inspiring, built-in compliance that makes the car your friend, not your enemy.
The minimalistic layout features control arms, antiroll bars, and coil springs over dampers all-around. The four disc brakes are made of cast iron, not composite materials. APP supplies the forged wheels shod with 235/35YR-19 (front) and 285/30YR-19 (rear) Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires. There is electric power assistance for the rack-and-pinion steering. For that extra takeoff bite and for sharper responses in gear, the Artega combines the six-speed dual-clutch transmission from the front-wheel-drive with the shorter final-drive ratio of the Quattro version. The engine is a more powerful version of the 280-hp, 3.6-liter direct-injection VR6 that VW uses in the new CC. Kalbfell claims that it propels the compact coupe from 0 to 62 mph “in well under five seconds” and on to a maximum speed of more than 165 mph. At this point, there are no factory fuel consumption figures available.
The body of the Artega GT consists of three key modules. The aluminum spaceframe forms the backbone of the car. It incorporates the floorpan, the tall sills, both firewalls, and the front and rear subframes. Mounted on top of the spaceframe assembly is a spiderlike steel structure that supports the roof, the windshield, and the rear window. Body panels are made of painted, carbon-fiber-reinforced moldings.
“At this point,” says Kalbfell, “the production capacity is restricted to 500 units per year in single-shift operation, but it is logistically quite easy to double this number, since we own enough land to build an extension next to the assembly plant.”
What price exclusivity? In Germany, the Artega starts at just less than 75,000 (about $110,000), some 15,000 more than a Cayman S. But this gap narrows when you consider the GT’s standard specification, which includes bixenon headlamps, a dual-clutch transmission, nineteen-inch wheels, navigation, and a sport suspension. The only available factory options are lightweight wheels, metallic paint, and partial or full leather trim. Comparatively equipped, the newcomer is about ten percent more expensive than the segment leader, a premium some may justify by emotional values like rarity and style. The crucial question, of course, is whether the Artega can challenge the Cayman in terms of sheer grunt, handling prowess, ride comfort, and overall driving pleasure.
Instead of an ignition key, the Artega GT starts with a device much like Aston Martin‘s Emotion Control Unit. It looks like a piece of black crystal, lives in a slot next to the steering column, and starts the engine when you push it. You can tell that electronics are Paragon’s speciality by the way the throttle, the engine, and the gearbox work together. The accelerator feels almost weightless, and pedal travel is quite short. The engine picks up revs like a turbocharged vacuum cleaner, the clutch drops like a steam hammer, and the fat Michelins shriek with frustration as they scramble for grip. Oops, sorry, forgot that traction and stability control are taking the day off. Second gear is only a flick of the right index finger away. Two or three seconds later, at 7000 rpm sharp, it’s wham-bang-wallop into third, and we’re still gaining momentum like a jet on steroids. “About 4.5 seconds from 0 to 62 mph?” I venture. Kalbfell, in the passenger seat, doesn’t respond, but once more, his broad grin says it all.
The VR6 and the dual-clutch transmission live in perfect harmony. The drivetrain is the undisputed dynamic hero of the Artega’s talent pool. Mind you, in the dry, even 300 hp isn’t quite enough to provoke more than the occasional second-gear sidestep, but weight distribution, suspension tuning, and aero-dynamic stability all add up to a promising big picture. The compliance takes the sting out of rough terrain where firmer setups would struggle for poise and grip. Like a , the Artega doesn’t call for constant corrections. Instead, it can sort itself out, as long as you’re willing to let it run on a slightly longer than usual leash.
The steering is very quick and yet relatively light. Turn-in is perfectly positive, although lane changes need to be timed well for optimum smoothness and flow. When in doubt, dive a little deeper into the torque well, and the line will straighten itself out almost automatically. Unlike so many steering setups, this one doesn’t lose interest as the driver winds on more lock. The final verdict on the car’s behavior at the limit of adhesion will have to wait until we drive it on a track, and we can’t tell you much about the brakes, either, because last-minute electronic reprogramming not only neutralized ABS, it also compelled Bosch to reduce the maximum rear brake pressure to twenty percent so that the car is less likely to spin when pushed. Unfortunately, the pedal now feels dead and heavy. Deceleration is OK, but modulation is not.
The Artega factory was scheduled to open in November. By the end of the year, the batch of limited-edition “Intro 2008” models should be completed, plus perhaps fifty built-to-order customer cars. Over the next three years, annual output will gradually be increased to 500 units. After establishing itself in Germany (with seven dealers), the brand will begin exporting to Italy, France, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. In mid-2009, the first right-hand-drive specimens are scheduled for completion. This will enable Artega to tap the U.K., Australia, and Japan. Spain, Portugal, and the Benelux countries also are expected to join the fray.
What about North America? “Midterm, it’s a must,” concedes Kalbfell. “But since we need to prepare ourselves well for this important move, late 2010 looks like the earliest possible date. As it happens, that’s when the softtop model should get the nod. After all, roadsters have traditionally always done very well in the United States.”
2008 Artega GT
Base Price $110,000 (est., in Germany)
engine DOHC 24-valve V-6
displacement 3.6 liters (219 cu in)
horsepower 300 hp @ 6600 rpm
torque 258 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm
transmission type 6-speed automatic
steering Electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion
suspension, front and rear Control arms, coil springs
brakes Vented discs, ABS
tires Michelin Pilot Sport PS2
tire size f, r 235/35YR-19, 285/30YR-19
L x W x H 157.9 x 74.0 x 46.5 in
wheelbase 96.9 in
track f/r 60.4/61.8 in
weight 2425 lb (per manufacturer)
mileage 24 mpg (est., European combined)