Group tests

Escort Cosworth vs 911 Turbo, Skyline GT-R, Megane R26.R and Maserati Ghibli

From original 911 Turbo to Mégane R26.R, via Skyline GT-R, Escort Cosworth and Ghibli Cup, Richard Meaden revisits five definitive turbocharged performance cars

If there’s one car that embodies the potent myths and legends of forced induction it’s the original Porsche 911 Turbo. With its fat wheelarches, trademark whale-tail spoiler and badass reputation, this late-’70s superstar still has a magnetism and charisma to make enthusiasts of a certain age go weak at the knees.

This particular example is an immaculate early 3.3-litre car, owned by Paragon Porsche proprietor Mark Sumpter. It’s probably the ideal specification, for with the jump from 3.0 to 3.3 litres, the Turbo gained an intercooler and approximately 40bhp, lifting peak power and torque to 300bhp and 304lb ft respectively. It wasn’t all change, though, for the long-striding four-speed manual transmission was retained until well into the ’80s.

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At 1300kg, the 930 Turbo is a flyweight compared with modern metal. The unassisted steering has some meat to it, but it’s not hefty like, say, the later 964 RS, and the suspension is way softer than you might expect. The driving position is excellent, although the floor-hinged pedals will feel odd if you’ve never driven an old 911 before. The long, wand-like gearlever has a protracted throw and a slightly notchy feel, but it has a sense of connection that matches the talkative steering.

The engine has a breathy, respiratory sound. It’s smooth and sweetly responsive, but it takes a while for the boost to start swelling. You know the gearing is tall – stands to reason with only four gears to take you from a standstill to over 160mph – but you only come to truly appreciate the length of the 911 Turbo’s 
stride when you decide to wind it up in second gear and watch the speedo needle sweep rapidly to just beyond 90mph. This is an effortlessly fast car, even in 2011.

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It copes with its prodigious pace too. Yes, the suspension is soft, and yes when you’re making rapid progress on a bumpy B-road you feel its head begin to nod with the undulations, but it never gets deflected from your chosen trajectory. It turns in well and generates strong, if soft-edged grip from its modern 205/55 x 16 front Conti SportContacts.

Unsurprisingly, most corners worth the name can be tackled in second gear. Tighter bends can leave you becalmed in the boost-free lower reaches of the rev-range, but with practice you learn to anticipate the turbo boost, pressing on the throttle pedal a moment before you would do normally. Get it right and the Turbo is magnificently rewarding, settling into the corner by squatting onto its outside rear wheel, tail j-u-s-t stepping out of line as the boost builds. You barely need to apply any conscious opposite lock, for the steering seems to find its own corrective balance point.

It pays to keep your wits about you, though, for pre-empting the lag is a bit like threading a needle. Get too greedy and the tail will kick wide more quickly and less progressively than you expect. It’s all good fun in the dry, but I suspect a wet road demands rather more circumspection. The Turbo’s reputation is well deserved.

Next up from our gathering of five turbocharged heroes is the R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R. It’s about as far from the 911 Turbo as you can get, with its front-mounted, twin-
turbo 2.6-litre in-line six-cylinder engine 
and mildly bonkers Super HICAS all-wheel drive. That said, rather like the 911 Turbo, the R32 – the first GT-R to get a turbocharged engine – must have seemed like a spaceship when it was launched in 1989. Not that we knew about it here in the UK, as we never really saw Nissan’s cultish GT-R until grey importing became all the rage for petrolheads with imaginations fuelled by PlayStation’s Gran Turismo driving game.

Now, as then, good, straight R32s are like rocking horse droppings. Many have been crashed, more have been heavily modified, which is a great shame, for as evidenced by this perfect example – loaned to us by Paul Brace of Eagle E-Types fame – a sympathetically tweaked R32 is a hugely desirable car. Not that I blame GT-R owners for chasing power. After all, that’s the beauty of turbocharged engines, and the Skyline’s RB26DETT motor is famous for delivering 1000bhp in the days when 500bhp was some serious mumbo. In this context, Paul’s car is barely breaking sweat at an estimated 320bhp or so.

These old GT-Rs all have the same sense of quality and tremendously robust mechanicals. The engine starts with a deep rumble and settles into a rock-solid idle. The clutch is firm and the gearshift of the five-speed manual ’box is magnificently mechanical, with zero slack and maximum precision. The steering is power-assisted, but only enough to make parking easy; once up to speed it feels weighty and immediate – not too quick, but not slow-witted either. Already this car’s sense of purpose is unmistakable.

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The engine is a real character, snorts and chuffs and tis-choo sneezes coming with each squeeze and relax of the throttle. It builds revs slowly at first, but once the turbos begin to blow there’s a hardening of the engine note and a more insistent embrace from the forces of accelerative G. It’s a busier sensation than the elastic performance of the Porsche, but it shares a similar muscularity.

This car has HKS dampers, though they’ve been wound back for road use. They still make this R32 a firm-riding machine, but the sharp responses are a trade-off worth making. It’s been a while since I’ve driven an R32, and for a while the handling balance feels bizarre. Even at modest speed you can turn into a corner and immediately feel the tail step out of line. Unnerving at first, you soon learn to drive with a bit more commitment, applying the power while turning in and adding a measured amount of pre-emptive opposite lock, as though you’re letting the Skyline know you’re dialled in to its antics.

If there’s a weakness it’s that this propensity for oversteer only seems to increase with speed, so you find yourself peeling into fast corners with mildly perspiring palms. Be calm with the steering, make one smooth input and the Skyline tracks straight and true, but there’s no question the real fun – and some truly outrageous handling characteristics – can be fully enjoyed in the low- and medium-speed corners. If you want a truly unique driving experience, the R32 is hard to beat.

The Escort Cosworth is a strange car. It looks utterly in-yer-face and has plenty of motorsport pedigree, yet when you’re sat in the thing its brittle plastic dash, cheap switchgear and too-high driving position create a horrid driving environment. The engine isn’t exactly a peach either, both feeling and sounding coarse and strained, while the gearshift is long-winded and a bit imprecise. First impressions certainly give you the sense that this car is more Escort than Cosworth…

Stick with it, though, and the Cossie begins to shine. That motor might feel rough and a bit reluctant, but work it and it delivers the goods. This is a late model, or ‘small turbo’ as it’s also known, a name reflecting its swap from early homologation specification with a bigger, laggier Garrett turbo for more motorsport potential to the smaller T25 Garrett for more responsive road behaviour.

With the drop in turbo size came a reduction in peak power, from 227bhp to 217. That seems laughably modest compared with today’s average hot hatch output, and makes it hard to believe the Escort Cosworth had such a hardcore reputation in the ’90s, but what it manages to do with that less-than-spectacular power remains impressive and entertaining.

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There’s decent compliance to the damping, so you don’t have to worry too much about bumps or cambers. The steering is quick and the front end has the grip to cope, so the Cossie feels brilliantly agile. Once you get used to the power delivery you begin to trust in the torque rather than wringing it out for top-end power. There’s plenty of mid-range muscle to exploit in third and fourth gears, so you can use this to punch you between the corners without suffering the high-rev coarseness.

Despite four-wheel drive, the Cossie has a hot hatchback-like feel: all front-end bite with a playfully mobile tail. The combination of a super-pointy front end and 33/67 front/rear torque-split is a clever and expressive one, for it allows you to set the car up on the way into a corner, turning in with a deliberate lift of the throttle to get the tail moving, then using the quick steering and rear-biased torque split to power through. It’s something you need to reserve for open, clearly sighted corners, but it’s a treat you’ll never tire of.

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and there’s no question the car’s humble origins and four-cylinder engine lack the kudos of a more exotic body and a sweet-spinning six-cylinder, but the Escort Cosworth is a vivid reminder of the days when rallying still gave us exciting road cars.

If there’s a manufacturer that fully embraced forced induction it’s Maserati. Looking back, it seems like a strange chapter in the Modenese car maker’s history, but I’m sure you, like I, recall the boxy Biturbo family with curious affection. Students of Maserati’s turbo era will be slightly disappointed it’s not a Shamal that’s next in our line-up. I am too, but of all the cars Maserati built in the ’80s and ’90s, the Ghibli Cup is by far the most complete and impressive model.

It’s a car we hold in great affection here at evo, for our own Harry Metcalfe owned one during the formative years of this magazine. I was lucky enough to drive many thousands of miles in Hazza’s Maser, so it’s great to have the chance to drive another, this one owned by John Conner.

It’s a rare car, the Ghibli Cup. Only 26 right-hand-drive examples were built, and a few of those have gone the way of many biturbo Maseratis: backwards through hedges. Small with a square jaw and broad shoulders, the Ghibli is a handsomely understated coupe. Front-engined, rear-drive, with a six-speed gearbox and no traction aids, it was a car for the discerning purist and a classy, unorthodox rival to the BMW M3.

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Its 2-litre biturbo V6 is a gem of an engine, with a gutsy delivery, vocal character and free-revving nature. Producing 330bhp and 279lb ft, it’s part of an impressive package that never got the recognition it deserved when the model was launched. Part of that was down to then-traditional Italian failings, such as the peculiar long-arm-short-leg driving position. You never quite get comfy behind the chunky Momo wheel, but it’s not a deal breaker.

The gearshift is a bit indistinct, but the ratios are closely stacked. Combined with the Ghibli’s force-fed torque, this means you need to reappraise your choice of gear for any given corner, often finding it quicker and smoother to opt for third instead of second, and fourth instead of third.

The steering is nicely weighted, but does initially feel a little slow. Much like the driving position, it’s a feeling that fades with miles. Indeed, once you settle into a rhythm you find the Maser’s steering is a real asset, for its rate of response makes for smooth, accurate progress. In the dry there’s tons of grip and traction, especially if you work your way to the stiffer of the four suspension settings offered by the dampers. You really have to try hard to break traction, and even when you do it’s progressive and intuitive to catch. Experience suggests this isn’t the case in the rain, but so long as you pay it respect the Ghibli Cup is a poised and sweetly balanced car to drive quickly. The clock’s pretty cool too.

Our last turbocharged blast from the (recent) past is the Renaultsport Mégane R26.R. A legend in its own lap-time, this track-ready hot hatch is every bit as special as a GT3 RS, with race seats, plastic windows, carbon bonnet, titanium exhaust and no radio. Such an extreme diet sheds 125kg from the regular Renaultsport Mégane’s kerb weight, increasing the 227bhp R26.R’s power-to-weight ratio to an impressive 189bhp per ton.

It’s this lack of mass you notice first, for from the moment you start driving the R26.R it feels empty, a bit like picking up a large suitcase filled with feathers. With your shoulders pulled down into the seat by the red Sabelt harness and your rear-view mirror filled with a scarlet lattice of roll-cage, it’s genuinely like driving a racing car on the road. Stones ping round the wheelarches, flung there by the sticky Toyo R888 trackday tyres, but where you expect the mega Mégane to hop and skip on super-stiff track suspension, it breathes with the road thanks to springs and dampers softened to account for the reduction in weight.

The whole experience is completely absorbing, as much for surprises like the supple suspension as for the frankly ridiculous levels of grip, traction and corner speed the car generates. It takes you a long time to appreciate just how much speed you can carry on turn-in, and once you do, you realise such commitment has little place on the public road. Still, even at less than maximum attack the Mégane engages you like few other cars, so although you know it has plenty in reserve, you don’t feel cheated when you don’t fully exploit it.

As you’d perhaps expect from the newest turbo car here, it’s also fabulously tractable, with all 229lb ft arriving at 3000rpm. That’s not a rippling amount of torque, but given the R26.R only weighs 1220kg it makes for a grunty-feeling road car that doesn’t need constant gearshifts to keep it simmering. With a limited-slip differential to ensure the front wheels are always digging for grip and a throttle-adjustable balance that lets you place the Mégane with millimetric precision, driving an R26.R quickly on a great British B-road is right up there with the greatest behind-the-wheel experiences you can have.

These five cars are so different there’s no point in even trying to rank them in order of preference and ability. In their own way they are all exceptional machines, in some cases capable of impressing more than three decades after they were first introduced, and in all cases leaving you with a sense your life would be all the richer for having one in your garage.

There’s a lot to be said for the instant, unadulterated feel and sound of a great naturally aspirated engine, but this quirky, curious and eclectic quintet of turbocharged cars proves the allure of forced induction is real and well deserved.

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