Group tests

Lotus Exige S vs C63 Black, M3 GTS, 911 GT3 RS 4.0 and Nissan GT-R Track Pack - On the road: Lotus Exige S vs C63 Black, M3 GTS, 911 GT3 RS 4.0 and Nissan GT-R Track Pack

The twisting Eifel roads heading towards the Nurburgring are the perfect testing ground for this group of hardcore track cars

The rain is lashing against my hotel window, the small of my back aches from a full day behind the wheel of the Exige S and the side of my knee is sore from where rumpled denim met that high, thick sill. But although my body is slowly accustomising to the Exige just as it always does, my brain and hands and internal organs already know this is a new sort of Lotus. Yesterday’s long drive from Northamptonshire to Prüm was terrifically dull but the memories of that V6 ripping up to 7000rpm and the speedo needle rocketing around to 250kph (155mph) still burn bright. One thing’s for certain – the Exige S has the firepower to stand tall even in this rarefied group.

Even so, down in the sodden car park the magnitude of its task is palpable as first the GT-R, then the GTS and RS fire up and fill the cold air with the sort of deep, reverberating din that you feel through the soles of your shoes. I twist the thick plastic key of the AMG and another 6.2 litres, eight cylinders, 510bhp and 457lb ft wade in. Intimidating isn’t the word.

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This is our first try of the Black Series in Europe and it has the potential to be absolutely fabulous. The previous CLK63 Black Series was an all-time great hobbled only by a dim-witted gearbox, something the new Black rights with the fitment of the excellent seven-speed MCT transmission. Beyond that it’s Black Series business as usual – 40mm wider track front, 79mm rear, 390mm front brake discs, 360mm rear, a limited-slip differential, adjustable suspension, better body armour than Batman and an eye-watering price – how does £98,765 grab you? Our Designo Magno Night (matt black) C63 also benefits from the £6995 AMG Aero Package and the £5170 AMG Track Package, which includes active rear axle cooling and more extreme Dunlop Sport Maxx Race rubber. Add a sliver of carbon trim, the AMG Performance Media system and wheels painted in matching matt black and the total spirals to £116,090. Or over four-and-a-half times more than a C180 saloon and double the standard price of a C63 AMG Coupe.

The moment its V8 fires, the Black Series has you. And when it trickles through Prüm, wonderful slim-hipped seat grabbing you in all the right places, you know it’s very much more than a standard C63. Not because it’s better but because it’s worse – thumping over little lumps and bumps, cold tyres offering zero traction. In such atrocious conditions all of these cars are hobbled to a certain extent, but strangely it’s also when they can feel the most intense and exciting.

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The Porsche ahead looks simply outrageous: a racer pure and simple. The M3 is less dramatic, but I can see from the way it jiggles and wriggles that it’s much stiffer and more uncompromising than the Mercedes; even the GT-R looks grumpy and jerks around impatiently.

From Prüm we take the L16, which climbs up and then winds through dense woods, always narrow, often unsighted. The drizzle continues but mercifully the sky lightens and almost imperceptibly the pace ramps up. I’m leading the pack now and feeling the heat. The Black might have a bit of tyre temperature but it’s still running wide into the tight corners with treadblocks grumbling and groaning, then skipping sideways with the merest brush of throttle. Get the thing straight and the V8 really takes hold despite the 1710kg it’s pushing, but I reckon a hot hatch would be impatiently looking for a way past on this road right now.

John Barker reports similar problems in the GTS when we find a base for photography: ‘Hmm, I hope it warms up a bit [it’s 3deg C]. I could put on half a turn of lock and nothing would happen.’ He’s grinning though. ‘I thought the GT3 RS had uncompromising focus sewn-up until I jumped into this. In just 100 yards you know that years of BMW honing and refinement have been trashed. Love it.’

He’s right, the GTS is closer to the GT3 RS than the Black, which retains much of the standard car’s plushness instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. That could be a very good thing for usability, but something’s already nagging me. Is the Merc uncompromising enough to be truly special?

The GT-R Track Pack is at pains not to be special. It might have lost its rear seats, gained lighter SpecV wheels and carbon brake cooling ducts, plus some grippy buckets and even stiffer springs, but there are no new bare-carbon flicks or showy wings. Instead it’s brutally functional. In fact the GT-R looks like it’s already swallowed the Exige S and is ready for a bite on the 911. Maybe that’s why its new 20-inch alloys are tucked up so far in the arches. The stance alone is almost worth the £10,000 premium (which puts this GT-R’s price at £84,450). It doesn’t bode brilliantly for dealing with these gnarly roads, though. Andy Wallace, who drove it over from the UK and stayed in it this morning, sets my mind partially at ease. ‘It’s brilliant,’ he says.

It is, too. But this is a different flavour from the lightweight Exige S and, I suspect, from the RS 4.0 and M3 GTS. As in the C63 you can feel the 1730kg mass of the GT-R, but what’s different is the scale of the performance and traction and how beautifully the four-wheel-drive and traction-control systems combine.

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Even on the racier and vaguely disgusting new seats (grey and blue velour. Seriously?), you sit way up high and initially it feels like everything is damped – steering response, the feel of the brakes and, of course, the throttle response, which is dependent on getting the turbos spinning hard. Like the C63, the GT-R understeers into the slow downhill corners and spits rapidly sideways on the exit, but by then you’re in the meat of the abundant delivery (the V6’s peaks remain at 542bhp and 466lb ft) and instead of a clumsy slide that has to be tamed by modulating the throttle, you keep the power on and the electronics just damp down the wheelspin and hold you on line.

You’re already thinking that the Nissan lacks the purity of the others, aren’t you? Indeed, it’s true. But this wicked sliver of road, lined by Armco, trees and rocks, is way out of the GT-R’s comfort zone and yet it’s still enthralling and keeps you right on your toes. Select ‘Race’ for the chassis and stability systems and ‘Comfort’ for the dampers and the results are sparkling: on top of the gut-churning performance and seismic thud of the brilliant dual-clutch gearbox, you’re busy coaxing the front tyres into turns, reacting to little spikes of oversteer and then feeling the stability control working, subtly, like running into a soft snowbank rather than a brick wall. Amazing. And even more amazing? The ride is beautifully resolved. As Barker later comments: ‘I still don’t understand how it rides better than the standard car as the “Track” edition. Unless that track is exclusively the Nürburgring…’

Every second that passes without more rainfall helps these cars to work much, much more effectively, but one star is already shining bright in horrid conditions – the light, narrow-tyred Exige S. Without a monstrous torque output and super-stiff suspension trying to contain several hundred more kilos, the Exige’s 265/35 ZR18 P Zero Corsas provide total traction even in second gear (you can also spec Trofeo tyres for ultimate dry-weather performance, but we probably wouldn’t bother for rainy old Blighty). Even the slim 205/45 ZR17 fronts seem able to generate real heat and grip on turn-in. Where the C63 and M3 slither and the GT-R skates, the Lotus is hooked up and flying. And don’t for a moment think that this is a toy-like experience. Not a bit. The Exige S kicks like a mule.

The bad stuff? The Exige S is a massive pain to get in and out of, and the cabin is tiny. However, that does make it feel pretty special. In fact with the extended wheelbase and wider build, the Exige looks low and exotic with a kind of Noble vibe to it. It has grown up. And like all grown-up supercars in 2012, it’s highly configurable. So try to resist blipping that coarse, edgy V6 and concentrate on Lotus’s version of the Ferrari manettino, located on the bottom-left corner of the dash on this left-hand-drive example.

Touring mode is for wimps. I mean it’s for sensible driving and utilises Bosch’s latest stability-control system and ‘understeer avoidance’ programming to keep you completely on the straight and narrow. Of course you’ll never use it (sorry Bosch and Mr Becker, I’m sure it’s clever and all that…) as Sport opens up a valve in the exhaust for even more noise and introduces a fair degree of slip so you can really experience the Exige’s limits with a reassuring sense of security. Next is Race mode, which requires you to turn and hold the switch to the right until you see ‘Race’ in yellow on the dash and ‘Off’ next to the stability-control symbol. It isn’t actually completely off, though. For that you’ll need to hold the switch to the right again until Race disappears. Now you’re entirely on your own.

However, Race isn’t just a slightly more slippery version of Sport. In fact it’s a sophisticated program that ‘learns’ the road surface as you drive (see panel, p78) and constantly adapts in order to provide maximum cornering speed and acceleration. Sounds spooky. Feels almost entirely intuitive. So guess what? I select Race and follow our Le Mans-winning friend Mr Wallace, who’s rather unfairly jumped into the bloody GT-R.

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As soon as the Nissan passes a derestriction sign out of the next village it warps a good 100 yards clear of the now wrung-out Exige in a massive puff of carbon. To see something so big move so fast is utterly mesmerising, but the Exige S is giving me plenty to concentrate on. The engine really is sweet and sounds great, a kind of tight ball of motorsport fury that punches into the woods and then cascades back down in zig-zagging echoes. The tactile, alloy ball-topped six-speed gearchange is much more positive than before and, of course, there’s the most delicious steering you can imagine. It’s pretty darn heavy at low speeds and when the cornering forces build up through long, bumpy curves, but the payback is simply exquisite information. The Evora rear end offers much greater stiffness, which allows a more aggressive steering ratio and the fitment of a rear anti-roll bar for the first time, too. I can’t say that the steering feels much quicker, but certainly the Exige S has uncanny accuracy and much improved roll control.

Following the GT-R is instructive because it highlights the huge advantages of a featherweight build. Where Wallace is lifting or getting on the brakes just to quell the forward momentum before tucking into another quick turn, the Lotus doesn’t blink. On the brakes into slow corners the GT-R is flashing its rear brake lights furiously and blundering into the apex that the Exige simply carves neatly through. Their pace is actually well matched: ultimately the straighter sections give the GT-R breathing space, but Wallace is in combat with physics whereas I’m simply using its laws to my advantage. It’s a bloody epic drive and all I can smell is GT-R brakes wafting back to me.

For the final couple of miles before our next stop the GT-R is in full flight, and when I try to match it, the Exige shows, for the first time, a little scrappiness: a shade too much understeer here, a big flare of spin from the inside wheel to follow (there’s no limited-slip diff) and the odd slither of time-sapping oversteer. Try to rush the gearbox and it’s easy to get lost in the gate, too. However, the Exige has shown incredible poise and – not always a given with Lotus – genuine excitement. I reckon it would match the Black Series and M3 GTS to 100mph or more with no problems at all.

The littlest car has left a big impression on everybody. ‘Brilliant Group C feel once you’re inside, with the big single wiper, the small steering wheel and the feet-stretched-out driving position. And the steering is even better than the 911’s,’ surmises Catchpole. ‘Wow,’ begins Barker. ‘Shows what not much mass can do to massage performance. Looks proper, too: broad, pumped-up, serious. And as soon as the gravelly, heavy-sounding V6 has shown you how much shove there is available, you know you’re in for a new Lotus experience.’

On the other hand, the Mercedes, for all its visual drama, is starting to feel a little out of place. It’s a stunning bit of kit in so many ways, but is it extreme enough to be a Black Series? Mike Duff suggests not: ‘It’s a brutal thing in terms of performance but there’s not as much behind it as you’d hope. It’s far softer than the previous CLK Black – it seems AMG is still trying to pin down what Black Series actually means.’ Barker, a sucker for a gargling V8, tends to agree: ‘The sheer plushness of the C63 is disappointing. You can’t add lightness to a plump, fully stocked interior with a bit of glossy carbonfibre.’ However, he’s still got it ahead of the GT-R. ‘Too remote in this company,’ he reckons.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that the Black Series seems to lose much of the standard C63’s playfulness and low-speed feel by seeking out more grip, response and performance. With less body-roll there’s a sort of dead patch in the steering just off-centre, which is plain spooky in the wet and never fully disappears even as the roads dry. And because the sticky tyres and firm suspension mean grip is lost and regained very quickly, the steering’s lightness makes you often feel like you’re playing catch-up with the road and the car beneath you.

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The 911 couldn’t be more different. Of course it’s built lower and lighter – just 1360kg – and it should be more intimidating with that white-hot flat-six in the back and 325-section rear tyres that already look 80 per cent worn. (They’re not. Yet.) But the reality is rather different. The sheer ferocity of the engine is scary, the grip generated makes your eyes bleed, the ceramic brakes are uncomfortably powerful – but wrap them all up with a chassis of such control and composure and a drivetrain so honed it feels like there’s a rigid connection from your right foot to the rear axle, and you end up with a car of grace and subtlety and balance; a track-biased 911 that you can drive the wheels off, even on a pretty scabby bit of road littered with leaves and twigs and mud. Earlier on, Henry and John reported that where the M3 and C63 were threatening to spit themselves into the Armco, the 911 was simply hooked-up and secure. Now it’s dry, the grip and balance are quite something to behold.

As you drive it you’re constantly asking yourself questions: How does it turn in like that? Is this engine actually legal? Can I really get on the power now? How much are my kids worth on the open market?’ Eventually you stop questioning and just immerse yourself in that extraordinary 493bhp engine, soak up the wonderful steering feel and drive faster and faster until the car is almost floating through the corners, fat rear Michelins spinning just faster than road speed, maybe indulging in a little more angle on the exit…

The added torque over the 3.8-litre RS and the semi rose-jointed rear end just ramp up the entertainment and make you feel more secure as you push the car to its limits. You can disable the stability control to leave just the traction control active, which sounds the wrong way round but is actually a stroke of genius, allowing you to get the weight moving around but cutting any big slides before they get going. ‘I assume that’s three times as expensive as the rest?’ says Wallace after a drive. Not quite. The RS was £128,466 but now the limited run has sold out they’re changing hands for much more.

So to the BMW. The absurdly expensive, ridiculously orange BMW. The car everyone’s been raving about.

‘So authentic, from the retro-style manual bucket seat to the pauper-spec heater controls and weak stereo,’ swoons Barker, while a grinning Wallace adds: ‘On wet roads if you attempt full-throttle upshifts the rear end snaps away from you momentarily, even from fourth to fifth.’ I think that’s a good thing, right?

It is extreme, the £117,630 M3 GTS (another sold-out limited-edition model). Like most people, I wish it had some DTM-style aggression, but when you see how pared-back this M3 is you start to believe that tacked-on arch extensions just wouldn’t be right. Even the wheel nuts are uncapped to save weight, as Barker points out, still swooning. The seats wear FIA compliance stickers, harnesses ping against roll-cage (it has inertia-reel belts too), the ride clatters and thumps, and even the DCT ’box can’t stop you kangarooing away from a standstill, such is the throttle response of the sharp, raucous, 444bhp V8.

You might expect the edginess to bleed away at speed but the GTS remains incredibly demanding. The ride is very, very tough but the damping is great and the wheels stay firmly in contact with the road. The steering has a real weightiness to it, so much so that your mind’s eye paints a picture of heavily cambered front tyres begging for some lateral load to get the contact patches working. The gearbox is every bit a match for the GT-R’s and combined with a V8 that loves to really rev and excellent (dry-weather) traction, you have something approaching the ultimate fantasy front-engine/rear-driver.

You hustle and scratch the M3, brakes grinding, front tyres scrabbling at the edge of grip, rears driving cleanly behind, maybe edging into a bit of oversteer on the way into a corner to avoid understeer, wind noise whistling past the A-pillar, road crud splatting up into the rear arches – you don’t miss a single detail… Few cars are so intense and yet so accessible and trustworthy. The GTS will oversteer with the best of them but only when you ask it. There’s understeer if you’re brave on turn-in, but you know it’s provoked. Effectively it’s a hyper-agile but super-stable platform that allows you to paint the road any way you choose. Blinding.

They all are. The Lotus for its incredible ability to live with these hugely capable cars, for its steering feel and that newfound supercar attitude; the Mercedes for its shape and its angry V8; the GT-R for its other-worldly ability and brilliant chassis manipulation; the GTS for its quite astounding focus and balance, and the GT3 RS 4.0 for its fury, its driveability, and the grip it summons from those tyres even when the rain comes again.

These are extraordinary cars and on an extraordinary day of wind, rain, brilliant sunshine, hailstorms and flash floods, they’re separated by the narrowest of margins. The winner? It’s not over yet. Tomorrow the forecast is for sunshine and the Nürburgring opens at 9am. We’ll arrive at 8… Well, wouldn’t you?

Specifications

MERCEDES C63 AMG BLACK
Engine V8, 6208cc
CO2 286g/km
Power 510bhp @ 6800rpm
Torque 457lb ft @ 5200rpm
Weight (kerb) 1710kg
Power-to-weight 303bhp/ton
0-62mph 4.2sec (claimed)
Top speed 186mph (limited)
Basic price £98,765
On sale Now
LOTUS EXIGE S
Engine V6, 3456cc, supercharged
CO2 236g/km
Power 345bhp @ 7000rpm
Torque 295lb ft @ 4500rpm
Weight (kerb) 1176kg
Power-to-weight 298bhp/ton
0-62mph 4.0sec (claimed)
Top speed 170mph (claimed)
Basic price £50,850
On sale Now
PORSCHE 911 GT3 RS 4.0
Engine Flat-six, 3996cc
CO2 326g/km
Power 493bhp @ 8250rpm
Torque 339lb ft @ 5750rpm
Weight (kerb) 1360kg
Power-to-weight 368bhp/ton
0-62mph 3.9sec (claimed)
Top speed 193mph (claimed)
Basic price £128,466 (when new)
On sale 2011-2012
BMW M3 GTS
Engine V8, 4361cc
CO2 295g/km
Power 444bhp @ 8300rpm
Torque 324lb ft @ 3750rpm
Weight (kerb) 1530kg
Power-to-weight 295bhp/ton
0-62mph 4.4sec (claimed)
Top speed 193mph (claimed)
Basic price £117,630 (when new)
On sale 2010-2011
NISSAN GT-R TRACK PACK
Engine V6, 3799cc, twin-turbo
CO2 279g/km
Power 542bhp @ 6400rpm
Torque 466lb ft @ 3200-5800rpm
Weight (kerb) 1726kg
Power-to-weight 319bhp/ton
0-62mph 2.8sec (claimed)
Top speed 196mph (claimed)
Basic price £84,450
On sale Now
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