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.Even though pictures of the LFA have been circulating for years, nothing prepares you for the sight of the Lexus mixing in everyday traffic. In our collection there are more beautiful shapes and brighter colors, but without doubt the most striking shape is the LFA. It looks like it has arrived from Mars, circa 2050.
Inside is no different. The LFA's cabin is wonderfully different from the others, with a wash of hi-tech graphics and a movable rev counter. Ergonomics and ease of use are not a strong point, though. As each person tried the car, it was a running joke watching them search for the handbrake and work out how to engage reverse (you have to go through neutral in both directions). If this were any other Toyota product, this would be a disaster, but in the supercar game, it all adds to the experience.
On the roads that track north into Snowdonia, roads that skate around reservoirs and are empty enough to use these cars, Lexus's first attempt at the supercar formula feels every inch the real deal. At low revs there is a marked shortage of torque, but by 6000rpm the LFA's V10 is pulling strongly. By 7500rpm, the wail resonating through the cabin is so great that it feels like you should be reaching for the upshift paddle, yet there's still 2000rpm to go, and to get the most from the LFA you need to use absolutely every last one. Change up at the second warning beep and the V10 drops right back into its sweet spot.
How that gear change happens, though, is entirely up to you, because there are four different gearbox modes and a choice of seven shift speeds. None of which is entirely perfect. In its slower modes, the gearbox feels frankly clumsy, especially if you go for a gear change mid-corner. In its faster modes it is brutal. Despite the many different modes, there isn't really a happy middle ground. So, we left it in max attack and lived with it.
On wide, smooth roads, the LFA feels incredibly well sorted. Given that it is the only front-engined car here, it could be forgiven for being less sharp than the mid-engined cars, but turning for high-speed bends the LFA feels impressively alert. Blessed with the dry roads, there is grip, too – plenty of it from the custom Bridgestone tires. Driving the LFA here, you have to wonder how, exactly, it came to exist, because it really is so far removed from anything else to wear a Lexus or Toyota badge. The engine is so manic, the gearbox so single-minded and the chassis so serious that it feels more like a GT3 racer than a road car.
Which proves to be the LFA's undoing when the roads narrow and the bumps become more severe. The grip is still there, but the car is too easily deflected from its line, especially into braking zones. And the steering – which, unusually for a supercar, is electrically assisted – lacks feel when you need it most. It is still possible to cover ground quickly, but the process isn't especially enjoyable.
That fact is brought into sharp contrast by a swap into the Ferrari. On country roads, the 458 Italia simply annihilates.
Like all modern Ferraris, the steering wheel has a manettino switch grouping together suspension, gearbox, ESP and throttle maps. But the 458 wheel also incorporates controls for the turn signals, lights, wipers and one final button that allows the suspension to be decoupled from the preset groupings. With the engine and gearbox in Sport or Race and the suspension in its softer setting, the 458 is devastatingly effective, with enough compliance to ride the bumps and enough control to cope with the considerable speed.
Given that, on paper, just 10hp separates the LFA and 458, it is staggering quite how much faster the Ferrari feels. There is not only more low-end torque but also more punch at the top end. And the 458 makes better use of its power with faster, smoother shifts from the dual-clutch gearbox and a more sophisticated traction management system. What it comes down to is that where the Lexus fights the road, the Ferrari flows. And this inspires confidence, especially turning into a corner, where the Ferrari's steering – although remarkably quick at just two turns – provides real feedback.
Is it the quickest car in the real world? Quite possibly. It certainly outpoints the Lexus, and to get close to the 458 in the 911 you'd have to drive at and possibly beyond the limit.
What about the Noble? In truth, in a straight line and on a good surface the M600 will match the Ferrari in its 550hp Track mode. Can you use another 100hp on the road? Yes, but sparingly and only with maximum concentration. On a bone-dry road with cold tires it will break traction at the top of third gear, and much sooner if any cornering forces or bumps are involved. However, if the straight is long enough there is nothing the Ferrari can do about the M600's immense shove. The Noble also displays a level of composure and chassis balance to rival the Ferrari and it has the best steering setup of any car here.
So, yes, you might just be able to cover ground quicker in the Noble, but with so few safety systems you'd be crazy to do so. Instead, you flow through the corners and then dip into the endless power down the straights. In that respect, it feels like an earlier Ferrari – one that, like the M600, had a twin-turbo V8. Which is no real surprise, because a modern-day F40 is exactly what Noble wanted to produce.
That, though, is not enough to carry the Noble farther in our contest. Because, like the Lexus, it is a car we suspect will be bought to enter a collection rather than exist as an owner's only supercar. Both are spectacularly enticing, thrilling cars and there are days when you wouldn't want to drive anything else, but both come with compromises. For its price, the LFA lacks performance, while only committed Noble enthusiasts would spend $315,000 on a car with a not especially inspiring interior from a relatively unknown brand. In the final reckoning, it is the Lexus that is first to fall, because despite its exquisite quality, mesmerizing engine and otherworldly looks, on challenging roads it simply isn't as well sorted as the Noble.
Which leaves two very different machines that represent the pinnacle of two alternative views on how to make a supercar. On these roads, the GT3 RS is quite exquisite to drive – rich with feel, noise, vibration and challenge, because it is the more difficult of the two to drive quickly. As with all 911s, you have to work with the weight distribution and not against it, using the throttle to get the nose into corners and make the most of traction on the way out.
In the Ferrari, the experience is entirely different. The variance in steering and throttle inputs is much narrower, the car seemingly flowing from bend to bend effortlessly, and with precious little inertia. While you are aware of the clever electronics working in the background, they never dominate the experience; instead, you are left wondering at the 458's quite exceptional ground-covering pace.
Which is better? The Porsche looks to be good value in this company, and for one final run on a perfect road it offers the more intense thrill. But next to the Ferrari it looks a little one-dimensional; to really appreciate the GT3 RS, you need a track. And good though the 458 Italia is on a circuit, first and foremost it is a quite outstanding road car: practically as fast as the Noble, as thrilling as the Porsche and as dramatic as the Lexus, plus the most usable of the lot.
If the Lambo had been here, the 458 Italia would have beaten that, too. It is without question the new supercar benchmark. Over to you, McLaren...