You know, just in case you've been under a rock for the past month and missed it... At last, we find out if the highly touted Ford GT can go toe to toe with a fabled Ferrari and a killer Porsche. BY LARRY WEBSTER PHOTOGRAPHY BY AARON KILEY January 2004 Ford's GT could be the most overhyped car of the decade. We admit we're in part to blame, paying tribute with 12 pages in this magazine to date, covering every square inch of the reprised Le Mans champion, every engineering iteration, every development Ford threw our way. We've driven early mules with nonspec engines, and unfinished prototypes, but up until now, we'd never strapped our test gear onto the car to find out what we all want to know: How fast is it? It's a simple question. Here's another: How does the $150,000 supercar stack up against the newest European repli-racers, the $101,965 Porsche 911 GT3 and the $193,324 Ferrari Challenge Stradale? You're going to find out, but we should explain why we've brought these three cars together. First, all of them are meant to give a race-car-like experience in a street vehicle. The race-car theme has been taken to almost ridiculous extremes both to save weight and to provide the perception of saved poundage. Race cars don't have sunroofs or navigation systems or satellite radios, and neither do any of these cars. The Ferrari and the Ford have bare floors. Lightweight and extremely cool carbon-fiber panels adorn the insides of the Ferrari's doors. You won't find a spare tire in the group. Even driver aids that wouldn't add much weight have been left off. Although each car has anti-lock brakes, none has the software and sensors that turn ABS hardware into stability-control systems. Computer bytes weigh nothing. Will the Stradale be that much faster without its optional radio? All these cars have air conditioning, however, despite the pounds it adds. The race-car fantasy would sour quickly if you were sweating all over your date. Second, each of these cars has a significant racing heritage. The 911 GT3 shares its engine and gearbox with the racing-version GT3 that won its class at Le Mans last year. The Ferrari shares its internal components with two race cars: the 360 GT, which races in the same class as the GT3, and the 360 Challenge, which runs in the single-make Ferrari Challenge series. The Ford GT is a modern interpretation of the GT40 that finished one-two-three at Le Mans in 1966 and went on to win again in '67, '68, and '69. The third point is that after devoting so much space to describing the GT, it's high time we put it up against some worthy opponents, and the GT3 and the Stradale are the newest gunslingers on the block. Plus, at about $100,000 for the Porsche and roughly $200,000 for the Ferrari, the Ford GT's expected base price of $150,000 neatly bisects the two. Since these are performance cars, we spent most of our time on the 1.9-mile GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Michigan. We also performed our standard testing regimen, in addition to driving the cars on a very bumpy public-road loop. Along the way to frying three sets of tires, we found a winner. ----- Third Place - Porsche 911 GT3 The GT3 is an overachieving sports car. On paper, it should have trailed its two competitors in every performance test. It has the poorest power-to-weight ratio here, with each of its 380 ponies burdened by 8.5 pounds, 15 percent more than the Ferrari's 425 horses are saddled with. But this is one scrappy car. It shadowed the more powerful and lighter Ferrari in nearly every acceleration test. The two ran side by side to 60 mph (4.0 seconds) and to 150 (23.9) and were just about equal in the quarter-mile with the Porsche hitting 114 mph in 12.3 seconds and the Ferrari at 115 mph in 12.4. We loved the GT3's aluminum flat-six engine. Its guttural growl provided a wonderful race-car soundtrack, and it revved freely to its 8200-rpm redline. Even though the peak torque of 284 pound-feet occurs at a fairly high 5000 rpm, there's still plenty of grunt at lower rpm, and the throttle response is prompt. We weren't so thrilled with the shifting action of the six-speed manual transmission. Our test car had a rubbery linkage that didn't provide a clear path through the gears. We had to be very deliberate with the shifts, and that extra effort probably cost the GT3 a 10th or so in the acceleration times. No time was lost on the skidpad as the GT3 pulled an astonishing 1.03 g, a figure that's been bested by only one other street car, the $659,000 Ferrari Enzo. The Stradale and the GT trailed the Porsche by 0.05 g. Using all that grip on the racetrack took some practice because the GT3 likes to swing its tail. If we entered one of GingerMan's long corners a little too fast and lifted off the gas to tuck in the front end, the tail would immediately swing wide. But it didn't snap—we always caught the slide—although we found ourselves countersteering quite a bit. Regardless, it was great fun. If we wanted, we could dirt-track through the corners Dukes of Hazzard-style. The problem was there didn't seem to be a happy medium in the handling. It was a case of powering through the turns and dealing with the front-tire slide that would put it wide of the intended arc, or backing off a little and trying to catch the inevitable flick-out of the rear end. As a result, you are always correcting something in the GT3. We would have had an easier time if the seats held us in place better. While cornering at the GT3's very high limits, we were sliding all over the seat, which made it hard to work the pedals precisely. Still, that willingness to rotate did help the GT3 polish off the corners with ease and post a 1:34.15 lap time, 0.04 second ahead of the more highly powered, lighter Ferrari. Our car also had the optional ceramic brakes, which refused to fade. All three cars have stiff suspensions, so even though the Porsche was the best-riding car of the bunch, it was still a roughrider. It also displayed quite a bit of bump steer and tended to dart around the road as the tires followed any new groove they encountered. The Ferrari costs almost twice what the Porsche does and isn't quicker, so what's the GT3 doing in third place? As good as it was, those unsupportive seats cost it some points, as did the balky shifter. In addition, it came down to the cachet of the two others. If ever a 911 could feel plain, it does in the company of the Stradale and Ford GT. It did have the most features, including cruise control, a CD player, even a trip computer. Before you castigate us and opine that clearly we should have opted for the 477-hp Porsche 911 GT2 for this test, keep in mind that its $192,000 price tag would have evaporated the high value here, and based on previous experience, we doubt it would have been fast enough to offset its higher price. Highs: Flexible engine, the least expensive of the pack, the most features, lively handling. Lows: To some, lively means evil; flat, unsupportive seats. The Verdict: The return of the bad-boy Porsche—fun, fast, and with a real kick. ----- Second Place - Ferrari Challenge Stradale Stripped of sound insulation and carpeting and with noise-amplifying carbon fiber in place of the usual leather door panels, this Ferrari doesn't simply let the noise in, it invites it. When the aluminum 40-valve V-8 sings its primal scream, no one cares that it blows 93 on the decibel meter (a Honda Accord hits about 74 dBA). When you're cruising, the predominant sounds of the suspension thumping over every road imperfection and the carbon-fiber trim bits squeaking against one another get tiresome almost immediately. How much could a radio weigh? The Stradale is the most powerful and lightest roadgoing 360 ever built. The 425-hp V-8 has 30 more horses than the 360 Modena. Credit a slightly higher compression ratio (11.2:1 versus 11.0:1) and freer-flowing intake and exhaust systems for the new juice. Ferrari saved 139 pounds (the Stradale weighs 3152) via the aforementioned missing radio, carpet, and sound insulation; the use of carbon fiber for the rear hatch, door skins, center tunnel, and seat buckets; and ceramic brake rotors. Stradales are only available with the F1 gearbox that automatically operates the clutch and performs the shifts. All the driver has to do is pull on one of two steering-column-mounted paddles: right for upshifts, left for down. There is no fully automatic mode, but the F1 gearbox will automatically select first gear at a complete stop. Our car also had a launch-control system that greatly helped standing-start acceleration runs. Once you've pressed the right buttons to turn on launch control, you simply bring the engine revs to the desired level and lift off the brake. The computer then performs a perfect burnout on your behalf. After some experimenting, we found that about 3000 rpm produced the quickest runs. We think we could have gone a little quicker with a fully manual system, but still, the Stradale's 4.0-second blast to 60 mph was 0.6 second quicker than the last 360 Modena we tested. Ferrari says its cars are not about the numbers. Considering that the Ferrari finished ahead of the Porsche in voting while costing so much more and not being quicker, we'd have to say the company's right. On the track, the Ferrari was the easiest of the group to drive. The handling balance is the opposite of the Porsche's: The Stradale only wags its tail when wildly provoked. Yet it doesn't clumsily push through the corners, either. It didn't feel like the lightest, nimblest car here—that's the Porsche's terrain—but it did feel the most solid, the most planted. We did our top-speed testing on a windy day, and with the Porsche jumping around dramatically, we didn't have the cojones to bring it to its claimed 190-mph top end. The Ferrari was just the opposite—buttoned down, secure, undramatic. We ran it to 176 mph with nary a white knuckle. The steering, too, is precise and communicative. The seats are fantastic and prove once again that thinly padded deep buckets are good both at the track and on the street. We did have some trouble locating the right shift paddle while cornering, but we got used to it. And we never grew tired of hearing the engine. It really is the sweetest-sounding motor available. Every time we headed off on a lapping session, crowds formed at the starter's stand. Any complaints? Well, there's a lot of road noise, and the suspension is harsh. It soaks up big bumps fine but reverberates over small holes and cracks. Still, although the Ferrari couldn't outrun the less-expensive Porsche, we'd sell our homes if it meant we could hear that engine every day. Highs: A primal engine note that leaves your knees wobbling, fantastic seats. Lows: Every thump makes it through the interior, choppy ride, $200K won't get you a radio. The Verdict: Presses automotive buttons we didn't know we had. You won't find another car here that gets your heart thumping like this Ferrari. But you pay for the pleasure, and we're not just talking about the price. ----- First Place - Ford GT It wasn't even a contest. The Ford GT so completely dusted off its two highly recognized competitors that if we had wanted to make this a real challenge, we would have had to go way up the "supercar" price ladder. The $401,000 Saleen S7 is about as quick as the Ford GT, and we know of only one car that would surely outrun the Ford—the $659,000 Ferrari Enzo. Rocketing the GT to 60 mph in 3.3 seconds and to 150 in 16.9 (that's an incredible seven seconds quicker than the Porsche and the Ferrari) was a cinch. Unlike some other supercars that have hair-trigger clutches with monstrously heavy pedal efforts, the GT's clutch was as easy to operate as a Honda Accord's. It'll do burnouts until the tires disintegrate, but we found that gently spinning the tires at the launch with careful throttle modulation produced jack-rabbit starts. The Ferrari and the Porsche both require an upshift before 60 mph, but the Ford does not, which accounts for some of the huge sprint-time advantage. But Ford can use a tall first gear because the engine has an enormously wide power band. In this comparo, it had the crispest throttle response. In the rolling-start test to 60 mph, where the gas pedal is floored at 5 mph, the GT hooked up and simply bolted, reaching 60 in 3.7 seconds, a full second quicker than the GT3 and 0.7 second faster than the Ferrari. The rear tires do a fantastic job of turning the engine's mighty 500 pound-feet of torque (besting both the others by more than 200 pound-feet) into forward motion without losing traction. Although lots of rear traction sounds like a recipe for an understeering car, that was not the case. The Ford tied the Ferrari for skidpad grip (0.98 g), and it handily outran the others in the lane-change test (70.1 mph versus the Porsche's 67.6 and the Ferrari's 67.2). The GT's handling neatly combined what we like best about the two other cars: It had the rock-solid stability of the Ferrari with less tendency to understeer, and although its tail could be gradually swung out, it wasn't as eager to do so as the Porsche. What really made for the GT's stunning two-second-per-lap advantage—it ran a lap in 1:32.13—was its ability to put the power down while exiting a corner. A tire that's cornering is more likely to spin if you give the car too much throttle. In the Porsche and Ferrari, sloppy throttle work resulted in a power slide. The GT hunkered down and dug out of the corners with impressive verve. Its corner-exit speeds were almost always higher than the others'. And even though the Ford did not have fancy ceramic brake rotors, its brakes never faded, and it stopped from 70 mph in the shortest distance (153 feet versus 167 for the GT3 and Stradale). Ford said it had not completed top-speed development and asked us not to go faster than 170 mph, so we can't answer the top-speed question yet. The projections in Dearborn are for more than 200 mph. Considering how mightily it was accelerating at 170 mph (it got there in only 23.0 seconds), we'd have to say Ford is right. Shortcomings? The GT rides about as stiffly as the Ferrari. The wide A-pillar blocks some of your vision. We'd like more steering feedback. The ratio and the turn-in response are fine, but you don't get any sense of what the tires are up to. The whole car has a kind of robotic feel to it when compared with the lusty Ferrari. There's no supercharger whine, none of the classic V-8 burble, and the cable shifter feels lifeless. Plus, the seats in our test car were hopelessly flat and uncomfortable. Ford says a change is in the works. Maybe we're being too picky here, because for the money, you get not only one of the coolest shapes on the road but also one of the best-performing new cars you can buy. Period. It's gratifying to know at last that the heavily hyped Ford GT does indeed deliver the goods. Highs: Fantastic performance; updated vintage skin is Jack Nicholson cool. Lows: Somehow, could use more mechanical soul. The Verdict: A worthy successor to the original.