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First Drive: 2010 Passion Motors Contessa Touring

If you're in the market for a shapely sports coupe, six figures opens a lot of doors. $150k not only buys the best sports cars Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler offer, but also allows a number of talented outsiders -- Hennessey, Roush, Callaway, among many -- to further push the performance envelope.

The problem? Each of these cars -- even when personalized to the nth degree by an outside shop -- is fairly commonplace. If you're looking for a hand-crafted, muscle-bound two-door that's a little more bespoke, you may want to give the folks at Passion Motors a call -- their Contessa Touring may be right up your alley.

Born from Snakes, Bred by Firebirds
If you're a hard-core Pontiac fan or spent some good time in race paddocks thirty years ago, there's a good chance you know the name Herb Adams. Although the mechanical engineer made a name for himself convincing Pontiac to stuff 455-cubic-inch engines into Firebirds, tuning a '64 GTO into a killer race machine, and drastically improving the handling abilities of third-generation F-bodies, Herb set about building himself his dream coupe for his new firm, Passion Motors.

Admittedly, he had some help (and inspiration) from son Matt, who spurred Herb's VSE Company to begin building replicas of the Shelby Cobra back in 1995. It's not too surprising that the Contessa looks a little like Peter Brock's famed Cobra Daytona Coupe, but under the skin, it's an entirely different beast.

This Coupe Has Backbone
VSE's Cobra designs were unique in that they abandoned the original tube-frame chassis design in favor of a modern backbone chassis, which increased rigidity and improved handling. Accordingly, the Contessa uses an evolution of this design, fabricated entirely from stainless steel. Adams has added a full roll cage to the Contessa's chassis, but even without, computer analysis suggests the frame is far stiffer than that used on the current Chevrolet Corvette.

Despite the Contessa's Cobra influence, Adams team did raid the GM parts bins for some mechanical bits. Although the front and rear independent suspensions are all bespoke and crafted in-house, The Contessa does make use a rear axle cribbed from the Camaro SS, while the wheel bearings normally found on Corvettes. Pop the hood, and you'll likely find additional GM parts -- power on our test car came from a 502-cubic inch V-8 crate engine sourced from GM Performance Parts, but buyers can also spring for the 7.0-liter, LS7 V-8 used in the Corvette Z06. Adams says our car was tuned to produce roughly 500 horsepower, although the LS7 can be built to throw down between 700 and 1000 horsepower.

Plenty O' Power
Although we typically argue there are few replacements for displacement, but we're not entirely certain we'd spring for the extra power. Although stainless steel isn't exactly a light material (in fact, it's heavier than normal steel), the Contessa's curb weight isn't all that hefty. In road trim, it tips the scales at 3000 pounds, roughly 200-300 pounds less than a base Corvette. Impressively, a race-spec version of the Contessa, dubbed the Contessa Track, peels away another 500 pounds from that figure. Acceleration is brisk, to say the least, but we're most impressed with how sorted the Contessa Touring is on a road course.

Adams and his team have created an incredibly balanced car. Turn into a corner, and the Contessa is more than happy to point its tapered nose where you point it. The steering rack is power assisted, but it's very well weighted, and provides an incredible level of feedback to the driver. Suspension tuning, coupled with massive 18-inch, 245/40 tires in front and 275/40 rubber in back, helps provide an insane amount of grip, even in the tightest of corners.

It takes an awful lot of tomfoolery to break the Contessa from its balanced demeanor, but when you finally push the car past its limits, it doesn't hold a grudge. Instead, it's surprisingly forgiving; when oversteer finally rears its head, a quick flick of the wrist in the opposite direction is more than enough to bring things back in line. Brembo-sourced disc brakes, which consist of12.75-inch brake rotors and four-piston calipers front and rear, quickly scrub off speed but don't feel overly snatchy.

Fun as it is on a track, the Contessa is just as much of a sweetheart on battered, broken public roads. We sampled it over some of the worst pavement Michigan has to offer, and the sports coupe was remarkably compliant during real-world driving.

Cabin Fever
If that has you thinking of using a Contessa for a daily driver, we'd suggest trying the interior on for size. Although it's certainly well appointed, with leather trim, Recaro buckets, and four-point harnesses, it isn't exactly spacious. Drivers taller than 5'8" will have some difficulty finding a comfortable position, and their knees may become a little too familiar with the dashboard during hard cornering.

We'd also recommend drivers bring their finest Piloti footwear along for a drive -- the pedal setup is perfectly positioned for heel-toe shifting, but the pedal box itself isn't exactly roomy to begin with. Minor complaints, and seeing as Adam includes two race helmets and storage buckets with each car, we don't think the Contessa's target demographic will mind all that much.

Package Pricing
The Contessa may be a sweet drive, but it isn't exactly a sweet bargain. Contessa Touring pricing starts at roughly $125,000, which buys customers a completed car without powertrain. Add the 502-cubic-inch V-8 and the six-speed manual of our tester, and the price tag swells to almost $150,000.

Still, that figure does buy a well-balanced grand touring car, along with a considerable amount of exclusivity: after four years of production, only four cars have been built, with a fifth possibly in the works. Act quickly enough, and you can lay claim to Contessa number six.