IMMORTAL COMBAT

TEN YEARS AGO THEY WERE ROAD BURNING ROYALTY, BUT CAN THESE NOW CUT-PRICE SUPERCARS STILL PUMP ADRENALINE?

BY JOHN - JOE VOLLANS + PICS MARK RICCONI

WE LOVE AN Audi TT. Right from the start it brought stylish and useable performance into the territory of the masses. Okay, so the first generation TT was little more than a Golf with a sports car body, but that was what made it so competitive in its market. Plus the majority of buyers didnít have a clue. Today, however, the TT is no longer just a stylish and pricier MX-5 alternative.

Successive generations have become more prestigious and expensive. Audi, seemingly locked in an endless tussle with Porsche, has forgotten what the TT stood for in the first place. Which leads us to the current TT RS. Itís a mightily impressive performer thatís beyond a doubt, with some serious accelerative ability, but straying into the territory of supercars should never have been its job. That was a role taken up by its bigger brother, the R8.

Forget paying $140K or thereabouts for a new TT RS and eyeball this trio instead. For that price, or less, you can have any of these three in pre-loved guise. All are dripping in desire, will get you to 100km/h in around four seconds and will approach a whopping 320km/h top speed. First up, and also hailing from Ingolstadt, we have an original R8. For as little as $110K, you could get behind the wheel of a manual V8 model - a proper mid-engine V8 supercar. Next here, if you prefer your performance with a dash of wasabi - and a truck load of gadgets - thereís an R35 Nissan GT-R, early examples of which can be had for as low as $75K. Stretch that budget back up to $140K, ish, and your 911 Turbo dreams can come true with a 997.

THEY ALL EXUDE SEX APPEAL, BUT WHICH OF THESE MODERN CLASSICS SHOULD YOU PUT IN YOUR GARAGE?

This trio exudes supercar sex appeal from spoiler to splitter, but which should you put in your garage? To find out, we set off on a long drive to really test how these cars behave on some of the best driving (and worst sealed) roads we can find in country UK. This isnít a glamorous shoot where we spend our time drifting around a circuit for hero cover shots or social media shock and awe, this is a real-world test with all that entails.

Car and driver had to endure pouring rain, snow, zero-visibility fog and even random kamikaze sheep, but in the end, one car clearly emerges the victor. Forget historic Nurburgring lap times. These three face a much harder task out in reality on the open road.

ITíS ALMOST A GIVEN THAT A 911 WILL HANDLE. THIS ONE STEPS UP DYNAMICS SEVERAL NOTCHES

PORSCHE 997 911 TURBO

In 2009 the 997 became Stuttgartís latest Ďeveryday supercarí - and itís still a benchmark

THIS 997 Turbo is the more focused version that came along in September 2009. We chose it primarily because it was designed by Porsche to counter the other two cars here while addressing some shortcomings of the early model.

A new 3.8-litre flat-six, the first entirely new engine for the Turbo in the modelís history, was given direct fuel injection and together with a displacement hike and variable turbine geometry turbos, the revised 911 Turbo made an additional 16kW. Weight was also reduced and the overall result of more power and less mass was a 911 Turbo with a lot more focus.

The driving experience was designed to be more in line with the GT3 than the slightly softer early 997 Turbo. Itís time to see if these changes worked and, crucially, whether this 997 can fend off the stiff competition weíve pitched it against.

It certainly brings some visual drama. The timeless lines of the 911 are enhanced by a deep sculpted front splitter and a large rear deck spoiler. Large intakes in the sides leave you in little doubt that this 911 adds something special to the mix.

The cabin has a similar mix of quality soft-touch surfaces, dark leather highlights and exposed metal as the R8, however, its overall effect is far less sobering than in the Audi. Perhaps itís the shared VAG group switchgear that has the R8 feeling a little lacking. The Porsche parts bin is clearly more sporting, though thereís hardly an Italian level of style and theatre.

With the weather drying out I can exploit the Porscheís performance right from the off. Within the first few kilometres itís apparent that the 911 is stiffer and more purposeful than the R8. The chassis stiffness and suspension both feel a lot less forgiving and imperfections in the road are translated right through the back of the seat and your fingertips.

Even without engaging any of the Sport settings, this 911 feels up for some hard cornering. Thatíll have to wait for now because weíre retracing our steps, meaning straight open roads are up first. To sharpen the throttle response I pop the car into Sport Plus mode and floor it. Thereís a brief lull as the throttle bodies open, followed by a noise like a whale breeching as the two turbos gulp in a vast amount of air. Then the world around you dissolves into a blur and youíre forced into the back of your seat like youíve just left the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

This 911 Turbo is brutally fast. Its straight-line pace devastates the senses and that previously mentioned pause before itís unleashed isnít nearly enough time for the R8 to pull ahead. As with the Audi, the Porscheís Sport Plus mode is too firm for real-world roads, but when the tarmac smooths out you can take advantage of the more racy engine mode.

My time in the 911 is spent in glorious sunshine roaring along back roads at frankly silly speeds and the Turbo hasnít put a foot wrong so far. Corners are coming into view, however, and the first chink in the Porscheís armour appears: its brakes. Hammer them hard and they provide just enough power to pull me up in time, but the first few times I use them Iím not pushing them hard enough. There are a couple of moments when it looks like there might be an unscheduled trip into the scenery.

Turning into the first bend at what still feels too fast Iím impressed by the Porscheís tenacious grip. The steering feel is ideal - it pips the Audiís - plus the front end is even keener to point for the apex. Thereís firm reassurance through the wheel as the forces load up. Get back on the gas early and the 997 Turbo squats a little, forcing the huge rear tyres into the road with traction akin to Velcro.

The next few corners turn into a lesson in exceeded expectations. In every bend that I expect the front to push wide or the rear to squirm Iím proven wrong. The grip generated is just so high that in the dry youíll have to be doing something very dangerous to overwhelm it.

Stability control only really shows its tell-tale dash flicker in tight corners when I get too greedy with the throttle. Just like the R8, the Porsche has monumental mechanical grip, it feels like a Cup car on slicks. Itís almost a given that a 911 will handle, but this one steps up chassis dynamics and control several notches on its predecessors.

There are a few niggles, however. This is a car thatís better at gaining speed than losing it, even though the brakes donít fade after several big stops. But thereís a reason why the carbon ceramic set-up was on the options list I suppose. The chassis is best deployed in Sport mode, which on these roads today is the sweet spot. In this setting you can really feel the weight pivoting just behind the driverís seat. It gives the impression of a mid-engine layout rather than a rear-engine one.

I get out of this 997 Turbo with more aches and strains than I had when I got in. A few hours of hard driving puts quite a bit of stress on the neck. The huge Gs exerted on you during flat-out acceleration, plus the lateral loads, really do give you a workout.

You donít have to drive it like you stole it, of course. When you ease off and put all the systems back to their normal settings, the 997 does a decent job of pulling off the old Ďeveryday supercarí thing that all 911s are famous for. This is going to be close, but before that, letís see what the R8ís got.

05 CHECKS

1. Electric actuators for turbos can fail

2. Cooling pipes can corrode

3. Front and middle radiators can leak

4. Turbo to exhaust manifold corrosion

5. Inner and outer tie rods can fail

AUDI R8 V8

When your fi rst supercar still looks modern 13 years later, something is very right

REMEMBER 2006? Seems like a long time ago now, doesnít it? Anyway, at the end of September that year Audi unveiled its new R8 supercar at the Paris Motor Show and, as our R8ís shape comes into focus through the morning fog, my first impression is just how up-to-date it looks in 2019. Its squat stance and purposeful bodywork were forward-thinking back then and despite the intervening 13 years, it still looks contemporary.

Itís cold outside, so I need very little excuse to clamber inside. Here the deception starts to unravel. Dials, switchgear and design all belong to the early noughties and itís in the cabin that the R8ís age is most evident. The analogue tacho and speedo are housed in lovely cam-lobe shaped binnacles, a reminder of the quad-camshaft, 4.2-litre FSI V8 just over my shoulder.

With fog replaced by persistent rain, I gingerly drive off in the R8 and within the first kilometre itís clear that itís an ergonomic triumph. Controls are where youíd expect them to be and at low speed the ride is only a shade tauter than that of an RS4, with which it shares the same engine. As revs rise the noise is familiar, albeit coming from the Ďwrongí direction.

Itís clear daily use was a priority for Audi engineers and the R8 is very easy to drive, but that rings alarm bells; comfort and ergonomics are usually last on the list when penning a supercar.

Does the R8ís initially benign nature mean it canít provide the adrenaline hit weíre looking for? Time to find out. With speeds climbing I start to feel the road undulating under the R8ís taut but compliant chassis.

With Sport mode disengaged the R8 soaks up all but the worst road imperfections and follows the surface without crashing over it. Civilised enough for getting from A to B but can it corner?

This R8 has the optional magneto-rheological fluid dampers and pressing the Sport button completely changes the ride, and not for the better. Gone is any compliance, replaced by a crashy and unforgiving feel thatís not at home on these roads. Returning the dampers to the default setting saves me a trip to the chiropractor.

Pushing the ASR (traction control) button once allows a little more wiggle from the chassis (via the ESP system) while keeping the safety net in case things get really out of hand, but this only comes into play if youíre trying hard to provoke the rear.

Despite having quattro four-wheel drive, the R8ís set-up is very similar to the Lamborghini Gallardo and about 70 per cent of drive goes to the rear wheels most of the time.

With corners ahead, I start pushing and almost immediately the R8 rewards. Brake hard and roll the outside edge of your right foot onto the throttle and speed bleeds off quickly as the tacho needle instantly stabs back up the counter. Give the knurled knob of the gated manual a solid shove and the Ďclick-clunkí action lets you know that youíve dropped a cog.

Turn-in is synapse-like quick, the front end keen to get into the corner, but not at the expense of balance and stability. The R8 just digs in and follows its line without much fuss. Clearly, Iíve not tried hard enough.

ON OPEN, STRAIGHT ROADS THE R8 CAN STILL WIDEN PUPILS WITH ITS OUTRIGHT PACE

Despite the awful conditions the R8 has huge grip and, tightening my grasp on the perfectly sized wheel, I am determined to find the limit this time. Even at nine-tenths, grip remains astonishing, the car happy to take a corner near-flat without a trace of understeer or squirm from the rear as power is piled back on past the apex. Iíve got enough confidence now to disable ASR altogether, even with the cold and sleety rain making the asphalt greasy.

Thatís not as heroic as it sounds because thereís just so much mechanical grip. Only a shove of throttle in a tight corner causes the rear to step out, but itís easy to catch.

Out on open straight roads the R8 can still widen the pupils with its outright pace, but you need to keep the revs up; below 4500rpm thereís not a lot going on except some belt and fan noise. Over this threshold though the engine transforms.

Close in on 8250rpm and the pace and soundtrack become as full-bore exotic as a trip to Kings Cross after dark. Itís very easy to waft about with only the merest hint of its prodigious ability evident but get Ďon ití and things just get better and better.

This may sound ridiculous but the 309kW R8 is so composed it feels like it could easily handle another 75kW. The V10 version did exactly that two yearsí after the R8ís introduction.

Is it committing the old Audi sin of being too competent for its own good though? Not at all. The R8 comes alive when you redline its race-inspired engine and its gated Getrag íbox is wonderfully reminiscent of 1970s and í80s Italian supercars.

The R8 is to those old Italian supercars what the MX-5 was to British sports cars. It takes the greatest elements of the Italian way of doing exotic cars but loses the over-heating, neck aching, poor visibility and reliability nonsense. Now for the GT-R.

05 CHECKS

1. R8 V8 suspension could be tired

2. Bottom-end bearing failures

3. Carbon builds up in the intake

4. Dampers will need attention

5. Body damage is expensive to repair

R35 NISSAN GT-R

The supercar for the PlayStation generation is packed with tech, but still has humanity

THESE three supercars arrived in their respective manufacturersí showrooms within a two-year period beginning in February 2006 with the 997. The R8 and GT-R remain in production but over the intervening decade they have been heavily altered to keep them up-to-date.

The GT-R feels as if it has been around forever, no doubt due to it remaining almost identical throughout production. A shape that was wild in 2007 has now become acceptable, even old-hat. Styled by Hirohisa Ono, its silhouette was inspired by the battle robots in anime series Mobile Suit Gundam.

The GT-R is certainly a palate-cleanser on the inside after the restrained Germans. Polyphony Digital, the team behind Gran Turismo, was responsible for the GT-Rís prominent multifunction display in the centre of the dash. The interior, sadly, looks like itís been made out of recycled Dual Shock controllers.

If you were a teenager when this car was released then youíll no doubt be hugely impressed with all the flickering displays and toggle switches, but now it all looks and feels a bit cheap.

To be fair to the GT-R it costs a lot less when new than either the Audi or the Porsche, so this had to show somewhere. Letís just hope it doesnít translate to the drive.

Trying to find a comfortable driving position proves trickier in the GT-R than it did in the other two and it feels as if Iím sitting on top of the car rather than in it. Once comfy, I go through the starting procedure. I take what looks like the same key as a Qashqai and slot it into the dash, then put my foot on the brake and hit the big plastic Start button. Thereís a pleasing growl from the engine bay, which is a relief because the V6 twin-turbo was in danger of being the least characterful of our trio.

The afternoon sun is turning golden as I get out into the countryside in the GT-R. The first few kilometres are surprisingly civilised. The looks and fearsome ĎGodzillaí legend make you think that itís going to be an unruly beast that tries to kill you at every opportunity. In reality the R35 is just as tractable as the R8 and off boost it will cruise around like an X-Trail.

Pausing for a moment to figure out what all of the carís settings do, I decide to flick the centre console switches and see what happens. The left-hand toggle controls transmission shift speed, the centre one damping, and the right traction control.

I start out with everything set to R (the most extreme setting) and go hunting for corners. With R mode engaged it feels as if someone has dropped some nitroglycerine into the fuel tank. Throttle response is as sharp as a racecarís and the chassis feels as if itís been stitch welded. The compliance and comfort have disappeared but stretching the engine into the top third of its rev range, I couldnít care less.

This thing has a helluva straight-line punch. Itís not quite a sledgehammer slap to the chops like the 911, but certainly throws you more gut punches than the R8 does. As I press the throttle through its long travel the GT-R keeps pulling until I either run out of road or nerve. Trying to wrestle with Godzilla in R mode proves a little too taxing at three-figure speeds, so I ease off and return the dampers to the ĎComfí setting Now the R35 doesnít follow every camber change, or shudder as it dives into a divot. Itís much more suitable for a fast road thrash. Even softened off, the way the R35 changes direction is hugely impressive.

I wasnít expecting to be able to flick a car that weighs as much as a Range Rover Classic from left to right like a Caterham. Okay, thatís exaggerating things a little, but the R35 is every bit as agile as the Porsche. I can see why it got Stuttgart so worried. But does the GT-R feel as driver-focused as the Porsche?

On a quick cross-country blast, it certainly doesnít feel as if all that clever technology underneath is taking over from me, but rather that itís flattering me and giving me the confidence to go even faster. Traction lights flash at me a lot more in the R35 than in the other two, mostly to show how hard the VDC (Vehicle Dynamic Control) is working to shift torque around to the axle and wheel that can use it best.

Does this technical reassurance soften the adrenaline hit? Yes, and no. What it does do is raise the grip bar so high that you never really feel like youíre pushing the GT-Rís limits until youíre at speeds that would see your licence shredded.

Itís always a little odd to criticise a car for being too competent, but in this case itís so easy to drive at high speed that it does take the edge off. Even with a little extra wiggle room dialled into the traction system, thereís still a near unflappable mechanical safety net underneath that.

Of course, Nissan never intended for you to be content with factory power. There are GT-Rs out there running 750kW and many that comfortably top 450kW in only medium states of tune. The chassis and engine are up for these kinds of figures and these machines must produce hypercar-worrying performance, but in a stock GT-R, things just feel a little too contained and managed to be truly raw and exciting.

So the GT-R comes close, but still lacks the punch of the Porsche and it also fails to pull off the all-round usability of the R8. On top of this, in all conditions, it never really feels as special as either of the Germans do.

05 CHECKS

1. Pads/discs expensive to replace

2. Corrosion on early-build cars

3. Gearbox should be nice and smooth

4. Bell housing could need replacing

5. Condensation within the headlights

THE R35 IS AS TRACTABLE AS THE R8 AND OFF BOOST IT WILL CRUISE AROUND LIKE AN X-TRAIL

THIS IS the tightest motoring contest Iíve ever had to judge. All three cars are exceptional performance machines and youíll have to pay twice their value to get something new that provides as much fun. Despite this, there are two inseparable contenders and one thatís trailing.

The GT-R is an astonishing achievement, a supercar thatís a genuine rival to the 911 dynasty. The old nonsense about the tech doing the driving for you is just that: nonsense. The tech in the R35 flatters and helps you drive quicker, it doesnít take over.

The driving position isnít as good as the Porscheís, which in turn isnít as good as the Audiís. But despite doing a good job of ignoring it, thereís no escaping physics: the GT-R is heavy. The interior might appeal to those who do their performance driving on their PlayStations, but to the rest of us, it just feels a little tacky. The R35 is good, but there are better cars here...

The 997 Turbo is remarkable. It will take your breath away the first time you bury the throttle and hang on. You never quite get used to it either. Unlike the Audiís performance which very soon becomes normalised, the 997 Turbo can still give you a hit of adrenaline when you werenít expecting it. If you want a supercar for weekend thrills alone, then you have to choose the Porsche.

The Audi takes a mature approach with its performance delivery. Itís by no means dull, but it just doesnít tax the driver in the same way as the other two and yet is very nearly as fast.

It comes down to personal preference whether you want to constantly be aware youíre in a performance car because itís loud, scary and edgy, or whether you want a car that can go ten-tenths on the circuit and then get you home in perfect comfort. For me, the slowest car here turns out to be the best. But can I have one more go in the other two, just to be sure?