Listen, it’s all right to think about driving an exotic sports car. We’ve finally put behind us all those images of the characters on Miami Vice–the culture cowboys, drug dealers, and pro athletes driving around in trashy symbols of conspicuous consumption. The exotic car is once again a symbol of success, not privilege. It’s a way to satisfy your thirst for the deepest drink of automotive enthusiasm.
And it turns out that the exotic-car market is booming. Lamborghini president Stephan Winkelmann tells us, “There are more and more people who can afford exotic cars, not just in the United States and Europe, but all across the world.”
So it’s only natural that on Saturday mornings in Orange County, California, one of those places on the planet that is so affluent that exotic cars are a common sight, lots of guys lace up a pair of Piloti driving shoes and go to “cars and coffee,” an informal, early-morning pageant of impressive sports cars–fast cars and historic cars. This is the promised land of exotic motoring.
Yet, as you walk among the sea of red Ferraris, you can’t help but want something a little more distinctive for yourself. And if you’re going to dream, why not dream about something truly rare, the kind of garage art that would make even this knowledgeable crowd sit up and take notice? The question is, can you really drive garage art on the street? Is a true exotic just too extreme for real life?
You couldn’t find a more diverse assembly of garage art than the four exotics we have gathered here. Few cars look the part as well as the Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder. Stripping away this car’s roof actually improves its appearance, as sullen geometry gives way to wild extravagance. At the other end of the spectrum lies the Noble M400, a brutal, pieced-together bit of track-day kit, a thinly disguised racing car.
No two examples of garage art could be further apart in spirit than the Morgan Aero 8 and the Saleen S7 Twin Turbo. The Aero 8 looks as if its classically English shape has been partly melted by a hyperspeed hair dryer, which in a way it has, since this car is derived from the streamlined Morgan Aero that competed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2002 and 2004. The Saleen S7, on the other hand, is a racing car without any kind of disguise: it looks made, not styled. Like so many things American, it’s direct and functional, but it’s been jazzed up with lots of louvers (there are ninety-two openings in the bodywork) and a paint job of spectacular quality.
You could spend half a day telling stories about the technology in these cars. The Gallardo’s combination of a mid-mounted V-10 engine and all-wheel drive is kind of futuristic, and the Lambo also embraces every available electronic driver’s aid in order to be able to safely express its speed on the street. Meanwhile, the Noble M400 attacks the ideal of speed with the same sort of seriousness, but its technology has been trimmed down to a hard-core combination of fiberglass bodywork, a spaceframe chassis, and a twin-turbo V-6 engine.
In a way, the Aero 8 is just as retrograde as any previous Morgan, being a classic, handbuilt car. But it also happens to have been nicely updated with a 325-hp, 4.4-liter BMW V-8 and a chassis fabricated from aluminum. The Saleen S7 actually started with an English chassis design, but it has evolved into something essentially American. It’s a conventionally conceived yet cleverly integrated combination of carbon-fiber bodywork, a space- frame of steel tubes bonded to aluminum honey- comb, and a twin-turbo, solid-lifter overhead-valve V-8.
We felt pretty comical burbling around in these cars. The Morgan is far lower than it looks, and speed bumps crash the independent rear suspension to the bumpstops of the dampers. The Noble’s low-effort steering makes it easy to maneuver, but there will be no hitting the drive-thru at In-n-Out Burger–the windows roll down only part of the way, and the opening to the outside is about the size of a mail slot.
Meanwhile, the Saleen S7 is insane in an enclosed parking garage. The exhaust pulses from the 750-hp, 7.0-liter powerplant echo off the concrete like an artillery barrage. The Saleen’s front aero splitter has been specially reinforced to withstand abuse when the nose of the car inevitably scrapes on any sloping concrete ramp. In comparison, the Lamborghini drives like a real car during these exercises in functional practicality, not least because its semiautomatic, servo-actuated transmission makes it easy to control the 520-hp V-10.
So, yes, we felt foolish driving around in supercars on city streets, but we actually learned a few things. First of all, supercar engines will happily endure extended periods of 30-mph puttering, a testament to the wonders of electronic engine management and sensibly engineered cooling systems. Even the twin-turbo V-8 in the Saleen, which had a horrible lean surge below 3000 rpm, never budged the needle of its water-temperature gauge.
But we also learned that while exotic-car machinery can withstand metro duty, exotic-car drivers cannot. The driver is packaged like something of an afterthought in an exotic car, so there’s no running out from Starbucks with your cup in hand and leaping into the driver’s seat. The S7 is a racing car, with the broad door sill, flat-bottomed steering wheel, and small pedal box to prove it, even though it’s easier to get into than a Ford GT. The Noble is a similar proposition, but not as extreme. The Morgan Aero 8 is by far the worst in this regard, as the door access forces you to thread your legs over the high-bolstered seats and into the tiny pedal box (no room for a dead pedal here), and the steering wheel is always in the way. As for the Lamborghini, well, it’s pretty good, actually.
You can’t imagine just how good it felt to finally get out of town and let our quartet’s engines really rip. As soon as you stand on the throttle pedal, it’s clear that the Lamborghini’s V-10 alone is worth every cent of the money. The whoop as the ten cylinders chime in together sends a shiver up your spine–the same one you feel when you first approach a race circuit and hear the cars before you can see them. The six-speed semiautomatic transmission–so frustrating at stoplights where its slow clutch take-up constrains any hooliganism–comes into its own on a twisting road, allowing you to tear off quick, melodious upshifts as if you were Lamborghini test driver Valentino Balboni.
The twin-turbo, 750-hp V-8 in the Saleen S7 lies at the other end of the spectrum, where sheer thrust, not rpm-related spin, is what impresses. Thick intake ducts envelop the V-8 as if it were being attacked by a giant carbon-fiber squid. Thanks to a combination of 5 psi of boost and 7.0 liters of displacement, the power curve is broad and deep from 3000 rpm all the way to the 6500-rpm redline. The sound is broad and deep, too, as the engine sits just inches behind your head. The shifting action of the RBT six-speed transmission can’t come close to the slick Ricardo six-speed in a Ford GT, but despite all the stiction in its action, the linkage still finds the shift gates very positively.
There’s not much romance to a description of the Noble M400’s engine, a Ford Duratec 3.0-liter V-6 boosted with twin turbo- chargers. An Ohio company called 1g Racing sells the Noble chassis and parts kit, although the spec engine comes from AER in Texas. The cars themselves are designed in England but are built in South Africa. Yet as soon as the electric fuel pump clatters to life in the engine bay just behind your head, you realize this is going to be a real racing-caliber experience. In fact, this engine has the harsh, flat bark of a racing engine, and the long-travel throttle pedal lets you modulate it like music. As you’d expect with a Ford V-6, midrange power is the message here, and that power swells across a wide range of rpm. When you shift the sticky, notchy Getrag six-speed into a taller gear, the turbo waste gates call out to you with a chirp.
Tractable power is what the 4.4-liter BMW V-8 installed in the Morgan Aero 8 is all about. After years of obscure engine choices as Morgan tried to keep up with U.S. emissions requirements, the German-built V-8 delivers a vintagelike elastic powerband that lets you cruise around all day in any three selections from the superfluously sophisticated six-speed gearbox.
It’s hard to know what people made of it when they came around a corner on a road through the San Jacinto Mountains and discovered a 220-mph Le Mans racing car going the other way. We have to say that driving the Saleen S7 on a mountain road is a little bit like flying a jet fighter around your living room. It easily keeps its temper, but it’s useful to remember that it might tear off your head at any moment. Refrain from childish muscle car antics like romping on the gas pedal, or else things will go bad in a pillar of tire smoke as the turbos light off. On a positive note, the broad field of view forward through the S7’s canopy inspires cornering confidence, and the 2750-pound Saleen’s 106-inch wheelbase and lengthy overhangs even help the car ride very comfortably.
We were expecting the Noble M400 to be much the same proposition, as previous iterations of this basic car have made its reputation as a track-dedicated device. When you sit in the dark interior, as barren of visual interest as a farm implement despite the suedelike trim throughout the cockpit, you steel yourself for a harsh and unpleasant experience.
Yet it turns out that the M400 loves the open road. Its combination of 425 hp and only 2337 pounds delivers the kind of miraculous vehicle dynamics that make a driver feel close to omnipotent. The M400 really is brilliant: direct like a track car and yet docile enough for the street. Noble also deserves a lot of credit for recently civilizing this car with good seats, low-effort power-assisted steering, and a new, resilient suspension setup with Multimatic-tuned dynamic dampers. Still, the steering lacks on-center feel, and when a front wheel compresses over a bump, there’s a strong steering effect. While the Noble is street-friendly, it’s set up for narrow, bumpy country lanes in England, not highways in America.
The Morgan Aero 8 is equally British, despite its makeover with a modern chassis fabricated from aluminum. The suspension calibration is soft enough to keep the tires firmly on the road, delivering a breakthrough in cornering grip for the Morgan nameplate. The car is quick, too, as the 325-hp V-8 has just 2520 pounds to motivate. The trouble is, the Aero 8 still feels quite willowy in the process, as both the chassis and the bodywork shudder over bumps.
The Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder is the most modern car in this group, a carefully engineered convertible that manages to feel stout enough for serious speed. It rides extremely well on bumps (although it hates choppy pavement), yet there’s so much roll stiffness assigned to the front end that the car steers with razorlike sharpness, like a great big go-kart. Unfortunately, the 3462-pound Gallardo also occasionally feels like a great big go-kart, as the steering effort for this all-wheel-drive car is quite high and the brakes require a firm push on the pedal. Even so, the Gallardo always feels completely usable, and you’re never hesitant to use all the power and cornering grip at your command.
Each of these four cars does its best to fit into conventional society. The Noble M400 has a three-point seatbelt for everyday use, as well as a four-point harness for track use. The Saleen has a clever electric plug in the engine compartment so that you can trickle-charge the battery between outings. The Gallardo Spyder’s electric top takes just twenty seconds to retract or deploy. And the Morgan Aero 8’s cloth top flips back by hand. Trunk space is in short supply in all four cars, although fitted luggage is available in all but the Noble.
These cars are meant to arouse passion in enthusiasts, so it’s no surprise that we felt passion both good and bad about each of them. The Noble had all the aesthetic presence of something plucked from a hardware bin, and our young guys, road test coordinator Marc Noordeloos and assistant editor Sam Smith, showed a lot of disdain for its kit-car-like, Ford Mondeo–derived shift lever and switchgear. But these objections didn’t keep the M400 from being everyone’s favorite car here–fast in a pure and extreme way, but compact and comfortable every day.
The Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder has everything in both aesthetic and mechanical presence that the M400 lacks. Most of all, the Gallardo is a practical automobile, a huge statement about what exotic cars have become in the last decade.
Noordeloos and Smith were both keenly disappointed by the Morgan Aero 8, a measure of their hopes for a racing car wrapped in a vintage body. Instead, they discovered a kind of Plymouth Prowler, a gorgeously updated visual experience of a familiarly vintage driving experience. Conversely, creative director (and Brit) Richard Eccleston really loved the car. As he explained, the Morgan makes you cherish it because it’s all about mechanical soul, the simple thrill of a working mechanism whirring and growling (and occasionally smelling of oil) as it goes down the road. In a way, the Morgan also has a quality the Noble lacks, because it’s about the beauty of the bits, not the thrill of the driving dynamics.
There was no loving or hating the Saleen S7; it is simply from a different world. It is the automotive equivalent of a nighttime aircraft carrier landing in a jet fighter, an experience so extreme that it barely relates to automobiles as we know them. It’s a dead solid miracle that the S7 can be driven on the street at all, although Steve Saleen tells us that he runs errands at Target and Wal-Mart in his own car. We learned that you can drive the Saleen on the street without being desperately scared or desperately uncomfortable, although you probably have to be desperately insane to do so.
The unifying factor here is the unreconstructed commitment it takes to drive an exotic car. These are extreme automobiles. They can be driven in the real world, but they’re not of it, and perfectly transparent utility is not in their skill set. In the end, this is the point of an exotic car. It is designed to be all about the car, not all about the driver. And the kind of person attracted to such a vehicle is no more like an ordinary driver than a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder is like a Chevy Aveo. That’s why drivers like you and us care so much about exotic sports cars such as these.