The sound is one of enthusiasm: a locked wheel followed by 6500rpm in reverse. It's the sort of thing you do when you're 19 and out with your friends and you stumble across a car magazine's group test of four of the rarest supercars going.
A Porsche 911 GT3 RS is a rare sight in itself, so you're doing well if you spot one, let alone one parked next to a bright yellow Ferrari 458 Italia. At $250,000, the 458 sets new ground for the "baby" Ferrari, but so does the fact that it packs 562hp and the ability to hit 124mph in 10.4sec. Unusually, though, the Ferrari isn't the most expensive car here. Not when it's sharing a parking lot with a Noble M600, a car that lifts the Leicester, UK company into $315,000 supercar territory.
We've brought the Noble along partly to see how it compares against the most famous supercar manufacturer in town, but also because, Bugatti Veyron aside, it sets the performance benchmark. A benchmark against which to measure both the Ferrari and the most expensive car here: the ultra-special, ultra-rare Lexus LFA. After enduring one of the longest gestation periods of any car, Lexus and Toyota's halo car is now pinging gently in a sleepy corner of the British Midlands, the location struggling to match the glamor of the LFA's $375,000 price tag. Over the next two days, there will be no hiding in this company.
After countless hastily performed U-turns, pictures and questions, we're finally ready to depart. Our destination: the roads of North Wales. Our objective: not only to establish a finishing order, but also to see how four very different takes on the supercar theme compare. Is the classic, mid-engined format (Ferrari and Noble) still best, or has the rear-engined 911 been honed to the point where it can take the fight to more powerful machinery? Will the technology and advanced materials of the Ferrari and Lexus win out over the more conventional approach of the 911 and Noble? And, in 2010, which best represents the shape and direction of the supercar?
One further question we'd hoped to answer – rear-wheel drive versus all-wheel drive – had to be parked when the Lamborghini Superleggera we'd booked had an unplanned scenery interface days before our test. This also denied us a classic Ferrari vs. Lamborghini finale, with the compelling proposition of identical power and torque outputs. A shame, but a test for another day.
The commotion our static collection caused is nothing compared with the total chaos that unfolds as we slip through city streets. It's not only the odd collection of shapes and colors that has people jostling to get close, but also the cacophony we are making. Sitting in the T3 RS, the 911 creates enough noise of its own that you'd normally hear nothing else: A wonderful mixture of flat-six whir and mechanical clatter from the single-mass flywheel, dulled only a little via minimal soundproofing and a plexi-glass rear window. In terms of purity of experience, the GT3 RS is the pinnacle of the 911 range, certainly more aurally exciting than any turbocharged variant.
Today, though, the Porsche has competition and, from the vantage point of Tail-end Charlie, it's entertaining trying to work out which rival is responsible for each particular sound. The Ferrari and the Lexus are making noises reminiscent of F1. Both have naturally aspirated engines, capable of revving to beyond 9,000rpm, and both sound sensational. But it's the LFA's 4.8-liter V10 that sounds most like a racing engine, its timbre more piercing and pure. The 458's V8 whips up and down the rev range just as quickly, but there is more exhaust blare and less pure mechanical sound. However, the sound of the Ferrari engine adjusting to the near-instant upshifts of the 458's dual-clutch gearbox has the edge over the LFA's slower single-clutch transmission.
The Noble, by any normal measure a loud car, is muted by comparison. Only when the two howlers are slumbering and the 911 is not chasing the red line is it possible to hear the turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 ahead.
While still on the mainstream road network, opportunities to use all of the GT3 RS's 444hp are few; but when the road opens up and the three ahead make for the horizon, in the Porsche you need to be ready. Although it is the lightest car here, it also the only one to produce less than 550hp, meaning it has the lowest power-to-weight ratio. And, unlike the Ferrari or the Lexus, where the process of dropping a few gears is as simple as a flick of the fingers, in the Porsche you have to work for the performance. The manual gear change needs a firm hand and a firmer foot. You also need to match the revs on downshifts an watch for the change-up light as revs build. There is precious little electrical assistance here – mistime a gear change and everyone knows about it.
But that, of course, is half the appeal of the GT3 RS. It is one of the most involving, unadulterated and demanding road cars available. It represents the best of the old-school methodology, with simple ideas relentlessly improved to the point of perfection. It generates grip through stiffly set suspension, broad, sticky tires and a conventional mechanical limited-slip differential. Although there is, of course, a safety net of ESP, the job of exercising that grip is conducted by the driver, using the tools of steering and throttle. You feel the grip through the steering, which is quite slow by comparison with some of the others here, then measure out an exact dose of power with the accurate throttle.
Another car you'd hope had a pretty accurate throttle is the Noble. The M600 may have the wisest rear tires of any car here, at 13in. across, but with 650hp it has nearly 100hp more than the next most powerful car, the Ferrari. But its power advantage is nothing next to the margin or torque it carries into the contest. Of the other three, again it is the Ferrari that has most toque with 398lb-ft. The Noble has 604lb-ft, which is enough to focus the mind. Especially in a car that weighs just 2,756lbs. To make it a little less intimidating, you can reduce the boost pressure from 1.0 bar to 0.8 bar for 550hp, or 0.6 bar for 450hp. There is also traction control. But the thing is, as long as you keep your wits about you, the M600 isn't quite the unruly monster the numbers suggest. And that's because there is decent throttle modulation and, with the exception of a little lag from very low revs, an impressively linear response.
That said, the M600 never lets you forget about its immense performance. Even at freeway speeds,even in top gear, the smallest throttle opening has the car rushing forward. The cabin is also pure supercar. Not because the controls are horribly heavy – in fact, with the exception of the brakes, they are perfectly manageable – but because the view out is hopelessly restricted. To be honest, though, getting comfortable and relaxed in the M600 isn't especially a good thing. Not when the brakes feature neither servo assistance nor anti-lock, and the airbag count is precisely zero. In here, concentration is a good thing.