In addition to all the other things you know about me, I’m the co-chair of the Sports Car Club of America Finger Lakes Region Solo / Autocross program. I received an email from Gotham Dream Cars regarding a request for instructors for one of their events. The event was billed as a “defensive driving” course, which basically involved creating a race track on an airfield and running exotic cars through it. Our students for the day were employees of a major telecommunications company that you’ve heard of.
The deal – show up, help set up, and run the “students” through the course in a safe manner. In order to be able to safely guide our students, we were given significant seat time at maximum attack in a dizzying array of exotic cars. We were also given breakfast, lunch, and paid handsomely for our time – as in, if I did this job 5 days a week, I could make a living.
A brisk 37 degree day soon developed into beautiful late summer weather, and I proceeded to drive each of these cars as if they owed me money. What follows are my impressions of each.
First up were two E63 AMG Bi-turbos which were used as a warmup for the students. The white one is an “S” which means someone paid a lot of money for a fancy badge. I’m not sure why it’s called an E63, because it’s got a 5.5L twin-turbo V8, but who cares. This beast pumps out 550 horsepower through a seven speed dual clutch transmission, and also in order to park, you hit a button that says “P” – which is what my students found to be the most interesting feature of the car.
I did not really beat the hell out of these cars. What time I did have yielded pretty numb steering which is typical of my experience in Mercedes-Benz, although it did seem to hold the road rather well. It was absolutely comfortable – the seats automatically adjusted to fit you, and the cabin was a nice place to spend some time. If I had to choose any of the cars from today for a road trip, this would definitely be it.
Having spent an awful lot of time as a passenger in these cars, I can attest that the thrust is there, especially in the midrange. I can’t say it felt as violent or eventful as either of the Italians, but it was definitely impressive. If these wind up being reliable, this might be an awesome used car pickup a few years from now to haul the kids around in.
The next toy I got to familiarize myself with was the 997 C4S. This was a familiar place to be, as the owner of two 986s and a 996. The 997 cockpit basically feels like a marginal refinement in ride quality and interior quality over the 996. It actually weighs more and doesn’t make appreciably more power in basic trim, although this S was equipped with the beasty 3.8 motor which I liked quite a lot. The noises coming from a flat 6 are always wonderful and the power delivery is very smooth (odd then, that flat 4s sound like shit and run like shit). The AWD did contribute some push in the corners but with patience and discipline, it could be overcome.
You’ve GOT to love the power delivery of these cars those – you can get on the power so early and just rip out of the corners. The chassis was designed by someone who actually went to college, so it is smooth and composed while delivering the best steering feel of the whole group, the most feedback, and what I felt was the best handling. I wanted to hate this car so much, because of how Porsche has continually told its customers to go fuck themselves, but it actually wound up being my favorite of the bunch by a long shot, and I spent more time in it than any other car. I was even requested to provide a few chauffered rides to students in this car (which made their day). This is where I would spend my money. I hate typing that.
The SL63 AMG was something else. This car is gorgeous, and makes the right sounds. However, it felt very dated compared to the newer E63s – they were very space age and modern and this car felt like a “last generation” – which is probably because it is the last generation. Which means that it came with a 6.2L V8 (so SL63 makes a bit more sense). This motor, my god, the noises it makes. My god!
The problem with this car is weight. It weighs about as much as the E63 sedans. You feel this in transitions and steady state. The other issue is power delivery in this car is absurd – it will just annihilate the rear tires on throttle, which is cool if you like drifting, but people who like drifting also breath through their mouths so I’m going to say, that’s uncool. Feedback is typical Mercedes-Benz numb. The handling is safe and secure to a point before it falls apart like a girl spilling out of her spanx once you get her home from the club. It looks good cruising down the strip but is less appealing when it’s time to get serious. But still, the noise. My god.
And now, on to the good stuff. Or so I thought. I told myself I would have no preconceived notions going into this and that I would judge each car with an open mind. The fact that I found the Porsche the most compelling, despite my hatred for the brand, should let you, dear reader, know that I’m being honest. So in all honesty, I will say that driving there I was fully expecting to love the Ferrari F430 or the Lamborghini Gallardo, and wanted to be an open mind to give the Gallardo a chance against the F430 because I suspected I would prefer the RWD purity of the Ferrari.
Well, let’s start at the beginning. The car is drop dead gorgeous, but as soon as you sit down you realize it’s a piece of crap. The build quality on these is completely disappointing. You look at the German cars, and you see how everything fits, everything works, and in these cars bits are fading, falling off, electronic systems are yelling at you that there’s an error here and an error there – and you wonder how much a new Manettino would cost or how many hours you’d have to pay a tech to diagnose systems errors. Probably more than I can afford, pal.
Anyways, let’s put the dashstroking aside because that’s for people who actually have furniture in their houses. Instead, let’s get to the purity of the Italian machine and how it drives. I’ll say this – the motor, wow. It doesn’t have a whole ton of low end grunt, but it definitely gets the car moving, and once it’s screaming up to 8,400 rpm it sounds so choice. And then we get to the first turn.
This thing, I don’t know who designed the suspension, but they didn’t finish high school. For a car that’s supposed to have race bred pedigree, all you get is a nervous, twitchy, unstable nightmare of a car. Is it going to understeer? Is it giong to oversteer? Is that bump going to unsettle the suspension and send me careening sideways into an airplane hangar? I don’t know, because the handling is apparently set to “random” in these cars. Surprises of the day included traction control deciding not to work at all, followed by traction control deciding to intervene at the first application of power, and my favorite – the butt clenching moment when I engaged in threshold braking and the ABS decided not to function, resulting in significant lock up and 40 feet of black stripes. This is a car that demeands respect from the driver, not because it’s a driver’s car, but because it is stupid.
The last car I got my hands on was the bright orange Lamborghini Gallardo. Yes, it’s not that flattering a picture as the sun blasts me in the face, and yes, I’m wearing a shit eating grin. That’s what the Gallardo is about. Not grins, eating shit.
Let’s start with the usual woes – the interior was garbage, the check engine light randomly would come on and off, the catalytic converter warning light would pop on now and again, and sometimes it decided that it didn’t want to shift into first gear unless you shut the car off for thirty seconds. Standard Italian build “quality”. The interior – a fucking mess. The same woes of buttons wearing down, parts hanging loosely or falling off, etc.
Now, a lot of you are going to stop and say “Hey, these are rental cars, they shouldn’t be in great shape!” But to that I say, well, you know what, the SL63 and the Carrera 4S were also both rental cars, and everything was where it should be. You know why? Because an actual engineer built those cars! Not only do they drive well, but they hold together if you do anything beyond parking them in your climate controlled garage and occasionally taking them out to cruise South Beach or Beverly Hills for some hot underage muff.
So, aside from the fact that these cars are built by the people at Forever21, it did have a redeeming quality. The motor. I don’t know how much power this put out, and I don’t really care, because the answer is “enough”. It sounds great, it screams loud, it provides a ton of thrust from start to finish. The brakes, on the other hand, were an afterthought, at best.
The handling was what I assume is the usual Italian fare of complete unpredictability coupled with minimal damping. You see, just because a car rides like shit doesn’t mean it handles well. You want your shocks to do their job. Some of the most aggressive shocks will actually ride nicely. The other issue is the AWD system – you’d think it would help put the power down but it really provided minimal assistance and this car was more prone to wag the tail than the RWD Ferrari. The issue, of course, being the fact that it was not a nice, predictable, controllable wag, but rather the unpredictable transition from understeer to oversteer that seems inherent in Italian cars (yet Porsche manages to produce a beautiful mid-engine car . . . . boggles the mind).
At the end of the day, I left completely underwhelmed by the Italian machinery and with a rekindled love affair for Stuttgart’s finest. My only regret was that the company’s McLaren was totalled the day before – I should have liked to have driven that.