Issue 30 | Naturally Aspirated Group Test

Published in SCD Magazine Issue 30 Winter 2018

We look at the evolution of these naturally aspirated driver’s cars over the last 15 years and compare the best from Porsche, Lamborghini and Ferrari.

Written by: Matt Parker

I think most of us petrolheads remember that Top Gear episode where Clarkson put the Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale up against the Porsche 996 GT3 RS way back in 2004. It sticks with me as one of the best episodes ever as it was simply the two most track-focused offerings from the two biggest sports car brands being driven hard and fighting it out for top spot. As a 13-year-old boy, it looked like something I’d dream of being part of when I was older — funny how things work out!

While there were lightened and more hardcore 911s before the 996, it was that generation which debuted the now hallowed GT3 RS moniker and really brought the hardened versions of more usable sports cars into the limelight. I have never managed to get my hands on a 996 GT3 RS, but I’m told they’re the most pure and uncompromising RS of them all with no traction control other than your own right foot to keep you out of a hedge, before things were gradually refined with each generation. It’s a similar story with the 360 CS which is possibly the most obscene sounding road car ever made and truly makes the hairs on your arm stand on end when you drive it hard.

For the next generation, Ferrari had the 430 Scuderia and Porsche had the 997 GT3 RS, two of my favourite cars I’ve ever driven, but it was then that things got really interesting as Lamborghini entered the fray with the Gallardo Superleggera, bringing a V10 gun to a flat 6 and V8 knife fight. The Superleggera wasn’t quite as dynamically alive as its two rivals, but as you’d expect from Lambo, it was the powerhouse of the trio and had that typical raging bull sense of occasion.

Aside from the subtly enhanced 997.2 GT3 RS and LP570-4 Superleggera, the next big move in the segment came from Modena in 2015 with the game-changing 458 Speciale. Porsche followed suit with the 991 GT3 RS which introduced trick four-wheel steering for even greater agility but also disgruntled many by being the first RS to ditch the manual gearbox. It took Lamborghini a couple of years to release a hunkered down version of their massively successful Huracan, but when the Performante arrived, it was finally the driver’s Lamborghini people had been waiting for.

As they always do, Porsche have fettled the 991 GT3 RS, giving it a tad more power and making changes which promise to add up to more than the sum of their parts leaving us with the 991.2 GT3 RS. I’m sure you’re wondering when McLaren are going to get a mention as the unbelievably capable 675LT has of course muscled its way into the segment, or maybe the latest variant from Ferrari as the 488 Pista gets ready to hit the streets, but both of those cars don’t quite meet today’s criteria because of two little things nestled in their engine bays – turbochargers.

The turbos make them blisteringly fast and, on paper at least, more efficient, but every car of their type before them had a truly special, emotive motor which dominates the whole experience. Whether it be the 997’s howling race-derived Mezger flat 6, the 360’s biblically loud flat-plane crank V8 or the Superleggera’s barking V10, they all oozed character which we’re losing in pursuit of lap times, efficiency and emissions regulations.

Today is all about celebrating those wonderfully noisy atmospheric motors and while any from the bloodline of each manufacturer would be one of the very best naturally-aspirated supercars of its time, we’ve decided to focus on the latest and greatest NA heroes with the 991.2 GT3 RS, 458 Speciale and Huracan Performante. We chose them because they have the raw DNA of the earlier cars but they’re all so usable year-round so you can drive them as intended more of the time — would you ever see a 360 CS or 996 RS out on a foggy November morning?

With a flat 6, V8 and V10 in the bag, we almost had a V12 in the form of a wildcard contender with what I think is one of the best engines I’ve ever experienced — the Aston Martin V12 AMR. It doesn’t have that hardcore ancestry like those from the big three brands, but it shouldn’t be overlooked as it really is a brute of a car and no doubt the last of its kind as the turbocharged engines from AMG take over from the seriously special naturally-aspirated V12, and so it is definitely worthy of an honourable mention even if we couldn’t get one here today.

We arranged to meet the final three at a hillside pub in the Peak District just outside Hathersage on a morning which made us wonder if our subjects would even show up. The fog was so thick I could barely see a car’s length in front, but we trooped on, this was happening no matter what the elements could throw at us.

We grabbed a window seat and a warming cup of coffee and shortly after saw the first car emerge from around the corner. It’s brilliant how ridiculous a Lizard Green GT3 RS looks on a dull Monday morning with its angry LEDs and NACA ducts. Shortly after, the raging bull burst through the mist in a beautiful turquoise shade of Verde Artemis and finally, in the Rosso Corsa corner, the Speciale.

We headed out into the cold to see our subjects for the day lined up, and Adam and Riad got all excited about how the colours were going to pop against such a greyscale background in the magazine. They were right, they did look amazing, but I was even more giddy at the prospect of driving three of the best modern driver’s cars back to back — who says Mondays are bad?

Once the initial photos were out of the way, it was finally time to get behind the wheel. I had never driven a Performante before so I jumped in with owner Dean alongside me and headed for the Ladybower Reservoir. It’s the only one in the country in this special order colour from the 40th Anniversary Murcielago. It has more of a green hue in the flesh and owner Dean was quick to point out that it never comes over in photographs. The gold pinstriping is a nice change from the standard tricolore stripe on the door too. 

The first thing I noticed inside is that Dean opted for the comfort seats rather than the super hard buckets you hear so much about. He said that Porsche know how to make a comfortable bucket seat but he just couldn’t put up with the Lambo ones. These seats do mean you sit quite high even with the seat as low as it’ll go, but at least my back is intact and they suit such a usable car.

It was only a short drive to the pub where we were having lunch, so Adam asked the owners if they would come out with me for a quick drive and to film a short video you might have seen on Instagram. If it wasn’t already a decent Monday at work, they each just held out their keys and told me to head off and enjoy while they went inside for lunch – if Carlsberg did Mondays!

And so, out I went in the Perf again, this time to get a proper feel for it. I already figured that on a day like today it would be untouchable in terms of usable performance and my first full prod of the throttle confirmed that. Any throttle input in any gear resulted in no slip whatsoever, even on such cold and greasy tarmac, and it is properly fast. Just like its predecessor, it’s the powerhouse of the group. Its 631bhp V10 makes it comfortably the most powerful car here and it makes quite a racket compared to a standard Huracan. 

In fact the whole car feels different to a standard Huracan, and that’s something every car in this segment has managed right from the start. You wonder how different a Strad can be to a 360 Modena, but then you drive them both and would hardly know they’re based on the same car. The Perf’s chassis gives you massive confidence to push hard and the steering is quick off centre so turn-in is sharp, even if it’s a little light in both weight and feel. The gearbox is something that really impressed me in this car. The big forged carbon paddles are spot on and shifts both up and down feel like they happen almost before you’ve pulled the paddle.

The whole package adds up to a very smooth and easy experience as opposed to the Gallardo Superleggera which had a much more brutish character. It’s a car which can decimate almost any road you show it without breaking a sweat and something you can hop in having never driven it before and go ten tenths right away. It’s the sign of a very accomplished machine, but those wanting more of a challenging and rewarding experience might want more to work for like you get with those older generations.

Enter contender number two with just its rear wheels driven and semi-slick Michelin Cup 2 tyres – that sounds like something to work for on a cold and greasy morning! You might have read in issue 29 that I drove an SCD member’s 991.1 GT3 RS around Anglesey in summer 2018, but I’d never driven one on the road and Porsche have a habit of almost transforming cars with tiny incremental changes, so I couldn’t wait to try out this 991.2 in this blinding launch colour.

Even the interior has green accents all over and you feel like you’re sat on the floor. That along with the green roll cage in the rear makes for a racing car feel before you even set off. Out on the road, I think I showed my Porsche affection the first time I really pushed the RS as all sorts of weird noises were coming out of my mouth.

Thankfully, said noises were all drowned out by the masterpiece of a flat six. The measly 8,800rpm redline of the 991.1 RS has been bumped up so the updated 4.0 unit revs all the way to 9,000rpm with sounds reminiscent of a cup car when you really get on it. Owner Lee wanted a little more noise after hearing the other two though as it’s quiet at low revs and downshifts aren’t quite as aggressive as they could be, but he’s since ordered an exhaust to remedy that!

You immediately notice the torque deficit after the Perf’s broad power band, but then you get the revs up and realise that’s where the power is. Of course it isn’t as ballistic as the V10 Lambo, but with 513bhp it’s hardly a slouch, and most importantly, it’s usable power. I mentioned those tyres and the greasy roads didn’t I? Well, to my amazement even being fairly eager on the throttle, the RS just hunkered down and deployed all 513 horses as if it had four driven wheels. 

It feels lighter on its feet through the corners than the Perf but that rearward weight balance still demands a touch more respect. They have really honed the electric power steering in the seven years since the 991 was first released too, just as they did with the engine in the wrong place over the years and it results in steering which is about as good as it gets on a modern car. It has definitely lost something since the days of the 996 and 997 generations though, and of course it’s lost a gearstick too in favour of paddles. I’m sure you’ve heard more than enough people rave about Porsche’s latest PDK gearboxes and it’s because they really are that good, but the Perf’s paddles are up there with it too.

It’s another car which can flatter you as a driver, but the feel of it and the way you have to really use the revs to get the best from the engine mean its so exciting and satisfying too. I could have gone up and down that road all day in the RS, but the prancing horse was waiting for me back at the pub! 

The first time I drove this very Speciale was in summer 2018 after I’d just jumped out of the scintillating 360 CS. I expected the Speciale to feel too refined and a bit numb after such a ridiculously raw car, but how wrong I was! I was amazed by how much of the buzz it managed to keep from the Strad and Scud while introducing a hell of a lot more power and all sorts of electronic wizardry to make you look like a powersliding hero – not that myself or owner James would ever cheat like that!

Hopping straight out of the RS and into the Speciale, it really does feel special sat behind a carbon-covered wheel with a prancing horse and all sorts of switches on it. Heading up towards the same amazing stretch of road where I drove the other two, I realised that you could quite easily drive all three of these cars every day, which certainly couldn’t be said of their ancestors from 15 years ago. Whether it’s a good thing because you can use them more often or whether it detracts from the thrill and challenge of something special, I’ll let you decide.

The Speciale is the least refined of the trio in terms of sound deadening and also its gearbox, which unlike the seamless-shifting boxes in the other two, gives you quite a kick on the way up and down for a double clutch. I guess its preference which you prefer, but I always loved the mechanical-feeling but super-quick single-clutch box in the 430 Scud so I quite like this too — it makes the sensation of pulling a paddle a little less Playstation.

When you start driving quickly on a greasy day like today, the Speciale doesn’t have anything like the traction of the other two and it really keeps you on your toes. Those kicks on upshifts make sure of that too as it wants to light up going from third to fourth on the cold tarmac! It’s a matter of preference again, some people like to be able to mat their foot any time, any place with confidence, others with a few screws loose like myself want to feel a car move around under them and have the challenge of taming it.

Each car has its own distinct tone and the Speciale’s flat-plane-crank V8 is unmistakably Ferrari — the downshifts are just mega. It’s a really exciting thing to push down a country road like this because you’re always concentrating. The steering is so quick and the throttle so sharp that you have to be delicate with it and it really does reward. 

It was at this point, driving back down to the pub where my lunch was going cold, that I realised something about these three cars. I remember watching Chris Harris’ YouTube video on the holy trinity of hypercars, the P1, 918 Spyder and LaFerrari, where Marino Franchitti refused to pick a winner, stating that you simply need all three because they’re so different. Cop out alert, the same applies here with what I’d call the holy trinity of naturally-aspirated supercars.

Despite their end goal being so similar, each car goes about it so differently that you really would want all three if you had the means. When when you want to go seriously fast without having to think too much or try too hard, especially if it’s damp, you take the Lambo. For a day on a twisty track or to feel like you’re in a racing car on the road, you take the Porsche. The Speciale is what the name suggests, the special one, the one you take to drive for the sake of driving or on an epic tour of the Alps just as this car did in summer.

If you really pushed me to pick just one I’d genuinely struggle. The Perf was the best car for the conditions that day, it’s so capable and it’s the first Lambo to truly impress me dynamically and make me want to keep driving. It’s a close call between the GT3 RS and Speciale for which one excited me the most, which is testament to the value of the Porsche when there’s a near-£100k gulf between the two in the used market today — Porsche GT cars really are amazing bang for buck. It’s that value along with the unbelievable engine and confidence the handling inspires that would steer me towards the RS. Really though, they’re all so good that it generally comes down to brand preference, and I’ve always been a Porsche guy. That said though, I love the Speciale so much that I’d need to find a way to make some more money and buy one of those too!

Just like each of the three cars we’re driving today has a place in a collection, so too do the different generations as they all offer something the other doesn’t. RS owner Lee rightly said that everything is getting a bit too flawless and a bit too fast to really push on the road, so his interest in the slightly older cars is igniting again, in things like the 997 GT3 RS he used to own. I know what he means, every imperfection or quirk has been ironed out so they’re faster, easier and more usable to drivers of all abilities, but with the older cars you had to learn their quirks and work with them to really see their best, and there’s a real reward that comes with that. Since the day of the shoot, Lee has even gone and put his money where his mouth is by buying a 360 CS to go alongside the 991 RS!

The older cars are rarer too, not necessarily because they were limited, but because people didn’t really buy this sort of car so much 10 or 15 years ago. Despite the rarity, you can get a Gen 1 Superleggera or 997.1 GT3 RS for less than £130k at the moment which seems like remarkable value. The 430 Scuderia is more like £200k but I absolutely love that car. Their rawness and rarity mean they’re not as suited to using at every opportunity or on cross-continental road trips, but they’d sit perfectly alongside the new stuff in the garage for those days when you want something extra special. I’m getting greedy now, aren’t I?

What’s so great about the three cars we’re featuring today though, is that they’re all true driver’s cars which can be driven and enjoyed more of the time. They’re made to be used and abused just as they have been today getting absolutely filthy and just as they are in the hands of their owners. Dean made a six-hour round trip for our Anglesey track day in the Perf, James has done both our Best of Italy and Alps tours in the Speciale, and we hope to see Lee’s RS in Europe with us next year. 

Each of them continues a special lineage from their ancestors which puts the driving experience first, and we may never see their kind again with such emotive naturally-aspirated engines. I’m sure they’ll be remembered as the end of an era, they’ll be celebrated for years to come as future classics and they really do deserve it, I just hope people continue to use them as intended just as these three owners do.

A big thank you to SCD members Dean, James and Lee for your time and trusting us with your seriously special cars.