The big question surrounding the all-new Noble M600 appears to be: is it really worth an entire BMW 5-series more than a McLaren MP4-12C or a Ferrari 458 Italia? But that's precisely how much British company Noble Automotive will be charging for this machine when it goes on sale next year: a cool £200,000 ($331,000).
Given that it's hand-built in small premises on the outskirts of Leicester, by a team of fewer than 20 people, this does sound like an awful lot of money for a car that few people will ever recognize. But if we tell you that during the course of this road test the M600 went faster than a McLaren F1 in almost every in-gear increment from 20-160mph, you might begin to understand what sort of performance the M600 has at its disposal.
Because in the end it is its raw, brain-mangling performance that defines the M600. Not just in a straight line but also around corners, under brakes, during acceleration, everywhere and anywhere. What we are talking about is one of the fastest cars that has ever been built for use on the public road, in light of which the price no longer seems quite so crazy.
As with all previous Nobles, the M600 uses a mid-engined spaceframe steel chassis with double wishbones at each corner and coil-over dampers for its primary suspension. But that's where the similarity between this Noble and those that have gone before ends.
For although the M600 may appear quite similar in concept to the stillborn M15, beneath its heavily restyled skin it is a significantly more exotic machine, featuring hand-made materials and construction techniques that no M12 driver could ever have dreamed about (or afforded).
Using carbon fiber for all the key body parts, the production car weighs just 1,250kg (2,756 lbs), according to Noble, although on our scales the test car – whose body was made from regular glass fiber-reinforced plastic, not carbon fiber – tickled the scales at a still impressive 2,877 lbs.
The spaceframe chassis is not made from carbon fiber but, instead, a combination of steel and aluminum – yet it is as strong and rigid as that of any rival, says Noble.
At the heart of the M600 is a twin-turbo version of the 4.4-liter V8 engine that was originally designed by Yamaha for Ford's Premier Automotive Group, and is used by Volvo. It's a traditional 32-valve V8 set in a regular V design – not a flat-plane, 180-degree crank like those used in Ferrari's V8 mid-engined cars, in other words. In this instance it has been comprehensively reworked by U.S. engine specialist Motorkraft, which has added two Garrett turbos and a new Motec ECU to boost power to 650hp at 1.0bar of pressure. This can be reduced to 0.6bar and 450hp or 0.8bar and 550hp by rotating a switch by the gearlever. (More powerful versions with up to 750hp may appear in the future.) The M600's engine produces a thumping 604lb ft at 3800rpm. By contrast, the legendary 6.1-liter BMW V12 engine in the McLaren F1 produced 627hp and 479lb ft.
Open the rear clamshell and you'll discover the M600's other great secret: its unusually excellent (for a mid-engined car) weight distribution. The engine and entire transaxle, including a six-speed manual gearbox designed specifically for the M600 by Graziano, sit so far forward in the chassis that you wonder whether there isn't room for a second power source.
At each corner the M600 uses steel brakes with six-pot calipers at the front and four at the rear, designed by British braking specialist Alcon. Controversially, there is no anti-lock system, Noble claiming that high-effort brake feel would be compromised by the fitment of ABS.
But there is, thankfully, a traction control system (although it wasn't functioning on our test car), which can be further tailored by a switch that reduces power to 550 or 450hp.Considering that it's such a specialized, low-volume car, the M600's interior is, by and large, an impressive achievement. It lacks the same design panache, or the luxurious smell, as the inside of a Ferrari, but it's a well thought out cabin all the same.
The dash layout is clean, clear and concise. The instruments look good and are genuinely easy to read. Even the minor controls feel polished in their operation and sit logically just in front of the gearlever, alongside the M600's cheekiest feature: the cover for its traction control button, pinched from a Tornado fighter jet.
Space is also unusually good for a mid-engined supercar. There's a decent-sized trunk in the nose and enough head room inside to accommodate a 6ft-plus driver wearing a crash helmet. The seat reclines far enough manually to suit all but the ridiculously tall.
Ideally, we'd like the pedals to be located further away in the driver's footwell relative to where the adjustable steering wheel sits. Noble claims, however, that each M600 will be designed to suit its owner, including the position of the pedal box. It's a work in progress, in other words.
There are so many adjectives that can be used to describe the M600's astounding performance (there's one for starters) that it would be easy to get completely carried away. So instead we're going to let the numbers do most of the talking, specifically those relating to its in-gear performance.
Take, for example, what it can do in fourth gear, and from as little as 40mph. In most supercars you need to wind many more revs into the crank before anything interesting happens, but in the M600 the afterburners are already ablaze from as little as 2000rpm. Which is why it takes just 2.2sec to go from 40-60mph in cog four, whereas even in a McLaren F1 – which has no turbochargers to spin up, remember – it takes 2.3sec.
Drop to third, however, and the M600 is closer to full boost, which is why it'll cover the same increment in a mere 1.4sec (F1 1.8sec). But if you really want to feel the full effects of what 650hp and 604lb ft of torque feel like in a 2,800-lb car, hook second. That's when the M600 feels at its most wild, generating just enough traction to catapult itself from 40-60mph in an incredible 1.1sec, again beating the McLaren F1 by almost half a second.
Even more impressive, though, is the lack of off-boost lethargy in the higher gears. Even when cruising along in sixth, the M600 is well mannered enough to pull cleanly from under 1000rpm, making it exceptionally easy to drive on the road. Its cause is helped further by the light clutch and a swift, precise gearchange.
Ultimately it is the performance at the other end of the speed range that best defines the M600's potential. Keep the throttle planted in fourth and it will rocket from 100-120mph in 1.8sec (F1 2.1sec). In fifth it'll go from 130-150mph in just 2.9sec (F1 3.0sec), and in sixth from 140-160mph in 4.0sec (4.7sec).
So why isn't the Noble faster than the F1 during our various headline acceleration tests? Two reasons. One, it won't reach 60mph in first gear (whereas the F1 does, just). Two, the M600's turbocharged engine delivers such a huge hit of torque on full boost that it's much more difficult to manage wheelspin than it is in the F1.
The problem is not so much the initial launch, with the M600 actually quicker than the F1 to 30mph (1.6sec vs 1.8sec), but the fact that during the two gearchanges needed to reach 100mph, you have to lift slightly to avoid lighting up the rear tires.
Even so, the M600 gets from 0-60mph in 3.5sec (F1 3.2sec) and to 100mph in an astonishing 6.8sec, just five-tenths behind the F1 (6.3sec). Over the standing quarter mile it's actually a tenth faster than the Mighty Mac, at 11.0sec dead. The lighter McLaren draws away slightly at higher speeds, but the Noble is still only 1.8sec behind at 200mph (29.8sec). This is perhaps the clearest indication of all as to how rapid the M600 really is.
And what of the brakes? Apart from the system's lack of anti-lock, they're excellent, not just in their outright power but also for feel from high speeds. On the road, a touch too much pedal effort is required at lower speeds, but the trade-off comes when you're going for it, when the feel is fantastic.
Ever since the original M10 squared up against the Lotus Elise 10 years ago, Noble has displayed an uncanny knack of achieving the impossible with the ride and handling of its cars, and the M600 takes things to a new level. In short, it handles beautifully, yet it also rides with an eerie level of comfort on the public road, gliding across the ground as if guided by some higher force.
What's most surprising is how well mannered the M600's chassis is, despite the monstrous straight-line thrust it has to deal with, and that's the real mark of how well sorted this car really is. While it is not a machine with which you can take liberties – especially not on a wet road with the traction control disengaged – it never does anything you don't expect. There are no sharp edges to the way the grip fades at either end, even if you are silly enough to give it a bootful out of a slow corner.
Having said that, you do need to have your head in the right place to get the most out of the M600 and not end up in the undergrowth. Drive it like a Porsche Boxster, for example, and you'll find yourself in trouble; this is a very rapid car, after all, and one that will light up its rear tires on a dry surface readily in third gear with some cornering load in the suspension, or even in sixth gear on a greasy road.
But once you realize that the huge power and torque are, in fact, extremely well controlled by the Graziano differential, and that large throttle openings at slow speeds simply don't work, the M600 becomes a far less scary prospect.
Its steering is very well weighted and extremely accurate, without ever feeling neurotic in its response. Although it appears to be geared very quickly at just 2.2 turns across the locks, the lock itself is exceptionally good for a mid-engined car, which means two things: one, the turning circle is excellent; two, you are highly unlikely to run out of lock when correcting a slide. So yes, the M600 –all 650hp of it – really is a car you can power slide quite easily.
Downsides? The tires generate a fair bit of noise on rough surfaces, especially the monster 335/30 ZR20 rear Michelins (although nowhere near as much as there is in a 911 GT2). Unusually friendly it may be for a 200mph car, but the lack of anti-lock brakes must again go down as an issue, because it robs the driver of a little confidence. But beyond that it's pretty hard to fault the M600's chassis.
Whether the M600 will appeal sufficiently to pinch sales from the new McLaren MP4-12C, Ferrari 458 Italia or forthcoming Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera is unknown. In many ways the market is its own guide with a car as rare and unusual as this.
What's not in doubt is the quality of its construction, the way it performs, the way it drives generally or Noble's commitment to after-sales service, most of which will be carried out at a new, bigger premises near Leicester and via a specialized dealer network throughout Europe. It'll be a bold customer who writes a check for an M600, but not necessarily a stupid one. Time will tell.
Words: Autocar staff
Photos: Stan Papior/Autocar