Wide of arch and aggressive of stance, the C4S is the latest in the prolific line of new-generation 911s. A mouth-watering amalgam of 911 Turbo girth, normally-aspirated flat-six muscle, all-wheel drive and a host of detail changes including 10mm lower sports suspension and enlarged brakes, the C4S could just be the pick of the current Porsche line-up. It is also the axis around which we've assembled a fantastic, fascinating and highly eclectic group of similarly super coupes. Honda's freshly revised and price-reduced NSX, TVR's voracious but versatile Tuscan S, BMW's madcap M Coupe and, a bit of a wildcard this, Chevrolet's mighty Corvette ZO6. Say hello to the 'sensible supercars'.
Every one of them is fiercely powerful, surprisingly livable and so utterly individual in character that at this stage it's impossible to guess how they'll shake out. The venue, as is so often the case when we've got a really special collection of cars to test, is north Wales. Regular readers will be well aware of our predilection for the roads around Denbigh and Betws-y-coed, but for those newcomers amongst you, we return time and again because it is home to the most exciting, most challenging, and most lightly trafficked roads in Britain.
Memories are made of tests like this, and they start with my drive from evo's Wollaston HQ to our unofficial Welsh office, the Royal Oak Hotel in Betws-y-coed. Typically I aim for a mid-afternoon departure, but end up splashing out of our car park just before five o'clock. Still, if there's ever a 170mph sports car you can simply jump in and drive, it's the C4S. Our test car is fitted with a pair of optional leather-trimmed, fixed-back race seats, complete with harness slots.
Together with the dry rasp of a similarly optional sports exhaust, this C4S isn't what I was expecting. Perhaps my judgement has been coloured by memories of the 993 C4S; a real tart's handbag of a 911 that spoiled the sublime 993 Carrera 4's clean lines and incisive chassis for the sake of wide-bodied vanity. Clearly the '02 model is a different proposition altogether.
The drive to Wales is a slog. Heavy traffic, heavier rain and a typically unfathomable Meaden route plan equate to a three-and-three-quarter-hour marathon. The Porsche's ability to mop up the motorway miles with the minimum of fuss is impressive, and so too is the way it perks me up once we steer off the three-lane stuff and onto the fast, dark A and B-roads. The conditions are pretty treacherous and I'm getting tired, so the PSM stability system stays on. But such is the C4S's surefootedness in the sodden conditions that the electronics never feel the need to intervene.
While I've been squelching my way up from Northamptonshire, Roger Green, armed with a Vauxhall Vivano van and Brian James trailer, has been working his way across from Manchester hauling one of the very few Corvette ZO6s in the UK behind him. It's been loaned to us by US import specialists Bauer Millett, and although they're happy for us to enjoy it to the full, we have agreed to keep the mileage down by sparing it the wasted miles to and from Wales. Hence the van and trailer. No such luck for TVR's hard-worked, wickedly black Tuscan S press car, which 'fresh' from a hammering by Channel 5's Fifth Gear team is being driven down from Blackpool by evo's equally abused new-boy gofer, Ian Lain.
Clearly driving with the urgency of a man with the scent of free beer in his nostrils, Green is first to arrive in Betws-y-coed. He has unloaded the Vette, stashed the trailer and blown the froth off a few bottles of Becks before the arrival of yours truly. Lain arrives shortly after, followed some hours later by John Barker who has slithered his way from home to the Royal Oak in evo's long-term M Coupe. A hastily consumed pint of Speckled Hen just about finishes him off, and we call it a day with the prospect of the early morning arrival of photographer Gus Gregory, and John Hayman in the eagerly awaited new-look NSX.
Predictably we wake at 7am to the strains of Gus whistling cheerily in the car park. He left home at 3:30am, which just isn't natural, but as hardened veterans of the punishing 'Gus o'clock' start, we less hardened souls stumble blearily downstairs for a hearty breakfast.
Fed and watered, we head for the Llanberis Pass. It's a typically fast, winding route, and JB is keen to have a crack in the C4S. I on the other hand decide to start the day in my old friend, the M Coupe. Having lived with it for some nine months and nearly 20,000 miles, I've come to appreciate its stunning turn of speed and grotesquely muscular looks, but I'm also well aware that I've learned to live with its crude chassis and twitchy wet-road behaviour. After his late night dash, Mr Barker clearly hasn't.
'The M Coupe is very surface-sensitive,' he observes when we stop later. 'The drive over in the wet and the dark was quite wearing, and on a couple of occasions I was glad of those patches of emery cloth-like Shell Grip they use on tricky corners. Those semi-trailing rear arms really are a throwback and kind of dissuaded me from pushing hard through high-speed corners.'
Remembering my own journey in the C4S puts the M's shortcomings into focus within the first few miles back in the Beemer. Even moderate use of the throttle on the wet tarmac kicks the M's tail loose and brings the rather clumsy ESP stability control juddering into life. You need your wits about you certainly, but crude underpinnings or not, the steering is ultra-direct and quicker reacting than the much-lauded M3, with plenty of feel from the front end and strong resistance to understeer. Perhaps because you sit so far back, you're much more aware of when the rear-end is getting lively, not to mention the structure flexing under the strain, but you do get used to it given time.
One aspect of the car that never diminishes with familiarity is the engine, and its ability to fire the M Coupe towards the horizon like an unusually shaped artillery shell. It really is a magnificent motor, made all the more vibrant by the BMW's lithe build and the five-speed 'box's keenly spaced gear ratios. Whatever the gear, any throttle input whatsoever delivers a real kick in the kidneys. At just Pounds36,000 the M Coupe's price tag is a little undernourished in this company, but when a car looks and goes with such drama you can't exclude it for being cheap.
Gus has his tracking shots in the can, so we saddle up and retrace our steps back to Betws-y-coed then beyond, peeling off the A5 towards Denbigh. It seems like a good moment to have my first proper go in the Corvette. On first acquaintance it's difficult to know what to expect. It's also difficult not to be cynical with something this big and brash, but the ZO6 deserves respect, as it's a far more serious tool than prejudice would have you believe. Available only in hardtop, six-speed manual form, it also has thinner glass, lightweight magnesium wheels and a titanium exhaust. Oh, and a 5.7-litre, 405bhp V8. It might be a wildcard entry, but the Chevy means business.
The Corvette's bodywork is like a vast, undulating, glassfibre landscape. Great from some angles, heavy-handed from others, it oozes machismo. The stance is different to a regular C5 Vette's, especially at the rear, where it sits higher than you'd expect, but from the width of the track and the acres of Goodyear Eagle F1 rubber you know it's going to generate some serious lateral g.
It feels a big, broad car from the moment you get in, a feeling enhanced by the big steering wheel and wide, wide expanse of windscreen. The instruments are clear and attractive, and as you turn the ignition key each needle sweeps its dial in a dramatic 'systems check'. Shame then that the plastics don't possess the tactile or visual quality you'd expect of a Pounds50,000 car.
However, when you're pinned to your seat by raw accelerative g, plastic quality is the last thing on your mind. It really does have the most ridiculous levels of grunt. In fact I don't think I've ever experienced a car with so much any- gear, any-revs response; if you wanted you could simply slot it into fourth gear and leave it there. Happy to chunter through town at 30mph, the Vette then likes nothing better than to hook itself onto the 911's tail and torment it as 3.6-litres of unsuspecting German flat-six attempts to run away and hide from 5.7-litres of roaring Yank V8. With Barker at the Z06's wheel it soon got a taste for M Coupe, too, as a somewhat surprised Roger Green discovered.
'I was amazed to see the large yellow nose fill the rear-view mirror of the M Coupe,' said Rog. 'Through a long fast right-hander I expected to see it fall back, but not only did it stay put, it went past down the following straight!'
As Rog hinted from the cockpit of the
BMW, the improvement in the ZO6's chassis over the standard Corvette is as impressive as its ballistic speed. Predictably it has masses of road holding, but it also has feel, composure and a modicum of mid-corner adjustability, something lesser Vettes lack. Dr Barker, having just administered a large dose of humiliation to the rest of our convoy, makes his diagnosis of the ZO6's dynamics.
'Grip levels are very strong, so you can learn to trust it and lean on it. Its brakes are superb, too, the best here with a wonderfully feelsome pedal that gives bite right from the top of its travel and doesn't induce chassis squirm, even on very bumpy corner entries. I'd say this points to a well-sorted detail suspension set-up and a much stiffer structure than other Vettes.
'It's a bit wide, though, a bit big for British B-roads, and there's still that feeling that there's a bit of lateral sproing over bumpy, fast roads, as if there's more give sideways than vertically, though it probably seems more uncomfortable because you're sitting on the wrong side.'
We've now been joined by John Hayman in a very blue NSX. Though initially nonplussed by the new-look headlights, which have an unfortunate way of bringing to mind the Mitsubishi 3000GT, it doesn't take long to fall in love with the rakish Honda's looks. Now with more aggressively styled wheels and neater detailing, the NSX is more eye-catching than ever. It even vies for attention with the menacing Tuscan S. Inside it looks the same as ever, which is good as far as quality goes but bad when it comes to disguising its advancing age.
The glassy cockpit has a very cab-forward feel, especially after peering over the endless acreage of the Corvette's bonnet. Sat low and laid back, you immediately feel how different the mid-engined NSX is to any of the other cars here. The pedals and gearshift are light and deliciously precise, while the exquisitely vocal VTEC V6's parched, prickly yowl proves the engine is still a gem. There have been some chassis changes too, with stiffer front springs and thicker rear anti-roll bar, together with 17in wheels all-round (the old car had 16s at the front), in an effort to increase body control and reduce the old car's tendency to roll into oversteer. Some magic has obviously been worked, for even self-confessed Porsche addict Hayman is utterly smitten.
'I adore 911s, but I'd forgotten how very close the NSX is to perfection. That fantastic wail between 6000 and 7000rpm stands the hairs on the back of my neck to attention, and the gearchange is undoubtedly one of the finest ever. Look at the power figures and you could be tricked into thinking the NSX is old, dated and slow. Until you drive it...
'It covers ground at an astonishing speed that defies the horsepower figures. The more I pressed on, the more I was impressed. In fact it's only let down by the slight vagueness of the steering. I'd love to own an NSX, but would I choose one over a 911? If I had my sensible 'badge means nothing' head on, and just focussed on how much I enjoyed driving it, I probably would.' Blimey.
It's odd, but the first time any of us drives the NSX we all hate the steering, but once into the groove it annoys less and less. Okay, so it is too slow and heavy in outright terms, but you soon accept that the steering accurately dictates the optimum pace at which the NSX can be driven. Push too hard on the way into a corner, provoke a bit of understeer, and you need to reach for an uncomfortable extra quarter-turn of lock to get the nose turned in. Likewise if you're brutal on the exit and need to contain oversteer, the weight and slowness of the steering discourages you from beasting it again. Stay neat and work all four tyres to their optimum, and the NSX flows with addictive ease and precision. A dozen years down the line, it's still a class act.
You won't encounter a greater contrast than jumping from the NSX to the TVR. Bursting with pent-up, pointy urgency, hair-trigger throttle response and uncensored feedback, the Tuscan S is completely hyper: a four-wheeled amphetamine rush after the mellow, restrained precision of the Honda.
None of us has driven the Tuscan S before although we've all got lots of experience in the broadly similar 'Red Rose' model that preceeded it. Familiarity, however, does nothing to reduce the shock value of the TVR's looks.
'One of the best sports car shapes ever, with an interior to match,' says Barker. 'A fabulous thing to roll out of your garage on a bright Sunday morning,' adds Green, clearly fantasising about finding one behind his up-and-over door.
Quite simply none of the other cars can compete with the TVR when it comes to generating pure, visceral lust, nor as it turns out for raw speed. With 400bhp and just 1100kg to haul around, it is explosively quick, quicker even than the rocket-sled ZO6. The chassis tweaks seem to have given the S a smidgen more feel in the damp compared with the Red Rose version - which was one of TVR's objectives - but it remains the least tolerant, most intimidating car in the test. That's to be expected with no driver aids whatsoever and a healthy surplus of power, but tramlining and general unruliness under heavy braking remains a real problem, despite geometry changes and stiffer spring and damper rates aimed at quelling such behaviour.
It's often as revealing to follow a car being driven hard as it is actually to experience it from the driver's seat, and I have just such a demonstration while tagging along in the C4S behind JB, who's on a mission in the Tuscan. He's really on it: braking deep into the corners and getting back on the power as early as he dares, jabbing pre-emptive corrections at the oversteer and playing with the throttle to keep things tidy, then exploring every inch of its travel and exploding away on the straights. It's a terrific sight, but he's clearly got a fight on his hands. Though savagely fast between the corners, the Tuscan's tail gets horribly unsettled under hard braking. This raggedness lingers into the heart of the corner, and valuable time is lost grappling for directional stability - a great shame as the brakes are exceptionally powerful and feelsome. If only the chassis would let you use them properly. Over to a flushed JB.
'The chassis is all over the place under bumpy braking. It doesn't put you at ease. There's lots of grip, and the steering is super-sharp but the rear end is rather wandery at the best of times, so going really fast takes a leap of faith and a belief in your ability to sort things out. It's not as oversteery as you might imagine but, like the Tamora, it takes a bit of throttle commitment and neat gathering-up if you're not to fishtail. It's probably the fastest thing here but it's a hairy ride if you're trying to make its performance advantage really stick. This is hardcore. Question is, are you up to it?'
Err, from what I'm witnessing I'd rather not answer that. What I will say is that, outgunned though it is down the straights, the C4S feels like it's connected to the Tuscan by an invisible bungee cord. At the merest whiff of a corner the 911 steals back every last inch of ground lost to the TVR's sheer poke, braking later, harder and with so much more stability, I feel like a fraud. Speed shed, it then deploys every last ounce of power with such poise it could almost be on slick tyres, and with such nuggety feel you have 100 per cent confidence in what the car is doing, how hard you're pushing it, and what it has in reserve. The best current-generation 911? I certainly think so. Having stepped directly from the TVR to C4S, so does Barker.
'It's a bit sneaky of Porsche GB to order the press car with fixed-back racing seats and the sports exhaust, but there's no escaping the fact that the C4S has a sublime chassis. The board-like front end that blights the stock 996 has gone and there's not too much grip from the Turbo-size tyres. This is a 911 that feels keyed into the road like the very best, a car you feel a part of, that has progressive reactions, delicacy and poise which encourage you to exploit it.
'It doesn't feel obviously four-wheel drive, but then these 911s never do, and it doesn't feel obviously tail-heavy either. Only over sharp, cresty corners, or powering very hard out of tight turns do you feel the chassis squirm and take clear attitude. I like the looks, too. The previous C4S was a poseur's 911, a wide-body version that wasn't the better for it dynamically. This one is less obvious and much better. It's the best current 911 as far as I'm concerned.'
Green concurs: 'Over these roads it is the quickest of the group and the easiest to drive at that pace, but it's still very satisfying. It's aggressively priced and there's a waiting list already starting. Expect it to continue growing.
'As boring as it might be to read, there's no way you could argue against this silver 911 winning yet another evo group test,' Roger concludes, nailing his Stuttgart colours to the mast.
As you've no doubt guessed by now, it's a clear win for the Carrera 4S, but what of the opposition? Well, of the ZO6, M Coupe and Tuscan S it seems almost churlish to mark any of them down. The Corvette's case is hardest to argue simply because it is left-hand drive, import-only and, at least as far as the interior quality is concerned, not worth Pounds50,000. That said, it has pace and presence in abundance, the reassurance of 100,000-mile major service intervals and a chassis that proves the Americans can get things right when they put their minds to it. The M Coupe was included purely on the basis that it punches way beyond its fiscal weight, and for that we love it, warts and all. Crude but effective, it's a special car. And the TVR, dynamically flawed though it is, trips every irrational, emotion-led switch in your body with its irresistible combination of visual and aural drama and no-holds barred delivery. I know its shortcomings, but I still want one so much it hurts. Let's just say that they all finish joint third.
All of which leaves the NSX in a solid second position. The latest tweaks have revitalised the now 12-year-old Honda. It is a deceptively quick car. Never raw and in-yer-face but seriously effective and superbly engineered. And after suffering a decade of jibes about its price, that Pounds10k price cut now makes it look like remarkably good value. As John Barker ponders, 'Had the new NSX been against the current stock 911, the verdict would have been much closer. What a bugger for Honda, then, that the C4S has come along and moved the game on.'
The year is still young, but the C4S has an ominously good feel about it. evo Car of the Year 2002? Don't bet against it.