The Best Handling Cars in America
Testing the limits of cornering and adhesion with Mario Andretti

By Sam Mitani
Photos by Ron Perry, Jeff Allen and Brian Blades
Original Article on Road & Track's Website

There are those who refer to speed as the principal factor in determining an automobile's performance: The quicker a car reaches the quarter mile, the sportier it is. But ask any serious enthusiast what the most vital performance aspect of a car is, and he'll tell you it's handling.

Handling, in general terms, is a car's ability to corner. And the better a car corners, the safer and more fun it is to drive. The benefits of good handling can be seen in everything from motorsports to movie chase scenes (those guys with the machine guns driving their black sedans over the cliff's edge would no doubt have caught that handsome super spy if they'd had a better suspension/tire setup).

But handling goes much deeper than how fast a car can tackle a meandering road. According to racing legend, Mario Andretti, handling is an automobile's soul; it determines the difference between a car that's enjoyable to drive and one that's simply a means for getting from Point A to Point B.

Says Mario: "The handling balance of a car is everything. If the balance of the car is right, then it gives you confidence; and the more confidence you have, the more you enjoy yourself. Even if you're not an expert driver, you can tell if a well-balanced car feels good. And we all love cars that feel good."

Now this prompts the question, What is the best-handling car available today? In search of a definitive answer, we gathered six of the world's best sports cars—Acura NSX Zanardi Edition, Chevrolet Corvette Hardtop, Dodge Viper GTS-R, Ferrari F355 Spider, Lotus Esprit V8 and Porsche 911 Carrera 4—and subjected them to four separate handling tests that included skidpad, slalom, segment times through two different cornering sections on Buttonwillow Raceway Park's East Loop, and subjective evaluations by Andretti. We also asked vehicle dynamics expert Doug Milliken to evaluate each car's handling on the skidpad. For further analytical help, we invited along a crew from FLIR Systems, Inc., to capture infrared images of the cars' tires immediately after each vehicle was lapped around the skidpad. As you will see, evaluating handling is an extremely complicated affair. So which car drove away with the title of king of the handling hill? Turn the next corner to find out.

 

Lotus Esprit V8

After I cautioned Mario that the brakes on the Lotus Esprit had a tendency to lock when they became hot, he smiled and said with a wink, "Lotus cars never give you problems." An understandable statement when you consider that Andretti won the 1978 Formula 1 Drivers World Championship in a Lotus 79. However, he was much less jovial about the Esprit after several laps around the track.

"You reach the handling limit of this car too quickly," he noted. "It has no roll stiffness in the front, and the car needs more roll stiffness for you to get a feel for its handling limits. Only with that can you really get after a corner."

Perhaps the car's main problem is that it's finally showing its age. The Esprit's backbone chassis and suspension system, which consists of an upper and lower A-arm setup in front and upper and lower transverse links at the rear, have undergone little change since the car was introduced in 1975. In 1994, Lotus engineers retuned the suspension to eliminate the car's understeering tendency...but did they go too far?

"They took too much understeer out of the car's handling," Andretti noted. "When you're trailing throttle, you're thrust into an immediate oversteer situation. Even on high-speed corners, you're hanging on because there's a tendency to oversteer everywhere."

That said, the back end of the Esprit, which lifted the inside rear wheel through sharp corners, never swung all the way around, even when the throttle was punched in mid-turn. Why? Because the open differential allows the inside rear wheel to spin freely, limiting excessive power from going to the outside rear tire (the one with grip) and keeping it from breaking loose.

"I don't necessarily like spinning the inside rear, but it beats the hell out of spinning the car," commented Mario.

The most impressive facet of the Esprit's handling was its turn-in response. Credit here goes to the Lotus' rigid chassis and responsive rack-and-pinion steering system. And despite no dead pedal to use for bracing himself, Andretti found the Esprit's cockpit comfortable, with the seats providing excellent lateral support.

Mounted behind the cockpit of the Esprit is Lotus' turbocharged V-8 that produces 350 bhp and 295 lb.-ft. of torque, enabling the wedge-shaped sports car to outrun all but one in this group to 60 mph. However, through both the hairpin curve and the transitional sections, the Lotus was slightly slower than the rest. And although the Lotus managed an impressive 0.93g on the skidpad and 61.0 mph through the slalom, these feats were good enough for only fourth and sixth, respectively. Still, for this "patriarchal" car to be considered the sixth-best handling car in America today is a testament to the advanced thinking of Colin Chapman and the engineers of the original Esprit.

"The Esprit is a car that, if you drive it at 8/10ths, it's a lot of fun. But if you have to hustle it at 10/10ths, it becomes unsettled. The rear begins hiking up, disrupting the feeling and balance of the car, and the inside rear tire lifts off the ground. Also, the turbo-charged engine isn't that flexible so you can't corner with just the throttle. Only if you hold back a little does the car reward you with good cornering feel and response."
—Mario Andretti

OVERALL RATING: 349.1
Skidpad rating: 91.2 (0.93g)
Slalom rating: 94.0 (61.0 mph)
Segment times: 91.9 (12.26 sec.+ 11.40 sec.)
Mario Andretti's rating: 72

 

Chevrolet Corvette Hardtop

Most everyone agrees that the current Chevrolet Corvette (C5) is the most impressive Corvette yet. Following its introduction two years ago, the C5 generated high praise from virtually every automotive publication in the world, and its outstanding performance in various R&T comparison tests, such as the Sports Car Triathlon (April 1997), confirmed that it's indeed among the best of the best. The heart of the C5 is its engine, a 5.7-liter V-8 that produces 345 bhp and 350 lb.-ft. of torque; however, the greatest strides with the car were made in the handling department.

"It's the best Corvette by far that I've driven, and the most predictable in terms of handling," Mario said. "I used to own a previous-generation Corvette, and it didn't feel nearly this good."

The Corvette exhibits crisp turn-in (thanks in part to the stiffness provided by the hard top) and excellent steering feel. The car's suspension system—upper and lower A-arms at both front and rear—provides good mid-turn stability and a smooth ride; however, there's a significant amount of body roll through most corners, which produced a soft, somewhat sloppy feel around the track. And, despite its fairly neutral balance on slow- to mid-speed turns, the rear end of the Vette had a tendency to break loose on high-speed sweepers.

Andretti: "The car will oversteer when prompted, especially on high-speed corners. This is the only one of these cars that, when you go over the rise, you feel some lift in the back. It could use some aerodynamic help, as well as the stiffer 'Sport' suspension setting that used to come on past Corvettes."

The Corvette's 63.4-mph dance though the slalom was impressive, giving it fourth-place honors in the group, but its performance through the timed segments on the racetrack and on the skidpad (0.91g) fell somewhat shy of expectations, placing the Chevy fifth and sixth, respectively.

Still, the Corvette may be the most comfortable and user-friendly car of the bunch, with excellent seats and all controls within easy reach of the driver. Shifting the car's 6-speed transmission becomes almost second-nature, thanks to its solid feel and well-defined gates. Also, for those of us who aren't Mario Andretti, the Corvette comes with an active-handling system that's designed to keep the driver from losing control of the car.

"The driving position here is good; there's a nice footrest, the gauges are visible and the tachometer is easy to see. I feel tidy in here. I'm not flopping around like I am in some of the other cars," Mario commented.

Overall, an impressive showing for America's sports car, especially considering that the base price of the Corvette Hardtop ($38,197) undercuts the most expensive of the group (the Ferrari) by about $100,000. Andretti summed up the car best when he said, "If you want the best bang for your buck, the Corvette is a hard act to beat."

"The Corvette has a lot of power, but on a tight track like this, it gets lost. Three hundred and forty-five horsepower seems like a lot, but it's not when the torque band is so short. It could definitely use more refinement, but overall I'd say its handling is predictable. It's not a predominantly under- or oversteering car; in fact, it's fairly neutral, but you have to be ready to catch it. And although it's not vicious in any way, you do have to drive it. Actually, I'm pleasantly surprised with how good the car felt."
—Mario Andretti

OVERALL RATING: 354.8
Skidpad rating: 89.2 (0.91g)
Slalom rating: 97.7 (63.4 mph)
Segment times: 93.9 (11.90 sec. + 11.25 sec.)
Mario Andretti's rating: 74

 

Ferrari F355 Spider

Surprised that the Ferrari F355 Spider managed only a fourth-place finish in this test? You're not the only one. The F355's laurels are unparalleled; they include a first-place finish in the World's Best All-Around Sports Cars competition (see R&T, July 1998), as well as a reputation for being the closest thing there is to a Formula 1 racer for the street. And its 3.5-liter V-8 with five valves per cylinder, which produces 375 bhp and 268 lb.-ft. of torque, is arguably the most sophisticated production powerplant in the world today. But in spite of all this, the Ferrari's performance around the tight Buttonwillow handling course fell slightly below expectations.

Andretti: "The rear of the car feels spongy. Also, in the wet you can't really use the power of the F355 because you get so much understeer and trailing-throttle oversteer. Even in the dry, the car's rear has a tendency to become loose through most corners...it seems to be related to tire pressures."

Mario suggested that we increase the air pressure of the rear Pirelli P Zero tires from the manufacturer's suggested 37 psi to 45. After two laps, he came in frowning and shaking his head. He then asked us to decrease the tire pressure to 34 psi. The result: His lap times improved by more than a second.

"When we increased the pressures of the rear, the car displayed much more oversteer, which was totally the opposite of what I expected it to do. When we brought them down to 34, the car felt much more stable and composed. It surprised the hell out of me," he said.

The likely reason for the car's improved performance was that deflating the rear tires increased their contact patch, which in turn accounted for better grip. Also, the sidewalls of the tires are stiff enough to retain their profiles with less-than-recommended tire pressures. Mario, bemused, whispered, "Don't tell Goodyear about this."

The F355 Spider excelled in both the skidpad and slalom, posting second- and third-place showings, respectively. But it lost points in some of the subjective categories such as steering and shifting feel.

"The F355's steering is very precise, but it feels a little slow. Also, the peculiar gates of the car's gearbox require you to think about your shifts. It's not second-nature. The shift feel is okay, but it's easy to miss gates."

Still, Andretti revealed that if he had a choice of which car he would drive home, it would be the F355 Spider. And in terms of sheer fun factor, Mario rated the Ferrrari among his top three favorites. Not only was this evident in the way he tossed the car around the track: he also wore the widest grin while in the F355. Perhaps he was reliving his first Formula 1 victory in the 1971 South African Grand Prix—the car he was driving then also had the Prancing Horse emblem.

"The Ferrari is a Ferrari, and it's good in every way. In fact, it's fabulous until you start playing with the limit. The car doesn't like to be overdriven. Its biggest problem is oversteer. Although turn-in of the car was good, the rear end becomes squirrelly through the exit of most corners. The car is easy to spin because it doesn't have the power to pull out. But the engine itself is so nice. Whenever you have a street-legal engine that pulls 8500 rpm, it's awesome."
—Mario Andretti

OVERALL RATING: 367.5
Skidpad rating: 96.1 (0.98g)
Slalom rating: 99.1 (64.3 mph)
Segment times: 95.3 (11.62 sec. + 11.18 sec.)
Mario Andretti's rating: 77

 

Dodge Viper GTS-R

The first word to come to mind when looking at the Dodge Viper GTS-R's prowess on both road and track is "wow." It won the skidpad competition with an extraordinary 1.02g run, and took top honors in the slalom as well as through the two timed segments. On paper, the flashy Dodge sports car dominated this competition. So what happened? The answer can only come from one who has taken the car to its handling limit.

Andretti: "The throttle pedal of the Viper GTS-R is like an on/off toggle switch. You either get a massive amount of torque or nothing. The car points in well, but then it doesn't know what to do. The high-speed aerodynamics takes over where the chassis leaves off, and covers up a lot of deficiencies in the car's suspension tuning."

The combination of massive power from Dodge's 8.0-liter V-10 (460 bhp and 500 lb.-ft. of torque) and the car's relatively softly sprung suspension system—upper and lower A-arms at both front and rear—results in one scary ride through the twisties. The car will dip, squat and lean heavily from side to side, creating a sensation that's like riding a giant wooden roller coaster during a massive earthquake. Still, once you become accustomed to the Viper's quirks, the car becomes an enjoyable and competent-handling machine.

"For such a large car, the Viper has good turn-in feel. And although the sloppiness is still there, it puts power down effectively, but only if you're easy on the throttle. This car excels on high-speed corners because its aerodynamics allows you to trust it," Andretti said. "Thanks to the wing and the extra downforce it provides, I can go into a corner quicker than most any other car of the group."

Where the Viper GTS-R fell down was in its user-friendliness, or lack thereof. The driving position is somewhat awkward—with the clutch and brake pedals situated deep and to the left in the footwells—and it's the only one of the group without anti-lock brakes. Also, shifting the car's 6-speed transmission takes plenty of getting used to.

"The gearbox of the Viper is tricky. You don't get a feel for the gates, and you're never sure you have the gear you want. It's not precise. I picked up 1st gear instead of 3rd three times. And this car can definitely use ABS. Of all the cars here, this is the one that needs ABS the most," Andretti noted.

Despite its low subjective rating of 69 (the lowest of the group), the Viper GTS-R's dominant performance in the instrumented tests was enough to give it third-place honors overall. It makes one wonder how good this popular, head-turning Dodge could be with a little more refinement….

"The Viper GTS-R is a monster. But it's a monster you can have fun with. What it's lacking in finesse, it makes up in power. Its character is much like that of the Cobra, which is crude, but that's the nature of this beast. In these cars, you use power to pull yourself out. The learning curve is steep—mainly you need to get organized in the cockpit before you can start ripping into it. It requires the most driving of the bunch. The car does feel sloppy, but you learn to deal with that sloppiness. And although you're very busy in the cockpit, the rewards are nice."
—Mario Andretti

OVERALL RATING: 369.0
Skidpad rating: 100.0 (1.02g)
Slalom rating: 100.0 (64.9 mph)
Segment times: 100.0 (11.18 sec. + 10.56 sec.)
Mario Andretti's rating: 69

 

Acura NSX Zanardi Edition

Ever since its introduction in 1991, the Acura NSX has been touted as a great-handling sports car, but no one predicted its second-place finish in this shootout; in fact, it fell short of winning the entire competition by just a single point. For the purposes of this test, we chose to toss around the Zanardi Edition, of which only 50 examples will be made. Why the Zanardi? Because it's lighter than the stock NSX (by about 150 lb.), and the car's suspension system—upper and lower A-arms at both front and rear—has been retuned for improved cornering. The most noteworthy changes here are firmer shocks and springs and a larger-diameter rear anti-roll bar.

Andretti: "The car is a little stiff, but it feels tight around corners. On most corners, the front end wants to push out, so you need to punch the throttle to get the back end out; however, you can't really drive with the throttle because there's not that much power."

Although Honda's aluminum-block V-6 with VTEC pumps out a commendable 290 bhp, it produces only 224 lb.-ft. of torque, peaking at a high 5500 rpm; unless you keep the rpm in the engine's powerband, you won't get much in the way of a surge. That said, the car is so well-balanced that if you happen to enter a corner too hot or find yourself on the wrong driving line, the car often will forgive you.

"You can keep the speed up through most corners and trust the back end to remain stable. There's no roll or waste of time in this car. However, if you want it to change directions, you need to do it without the car snapping too far to one side, because it'll snap back the other way if you over-correct," Andretti said.

The NSX's performance on the slalom was exceptional, posting a speed of 64.3 mph (placing it second)—not bad for a car with the skinniest tires. It ran about mid-pack around the skidpad and through the two timed segments, but the flashy aluminum-bodied sports car excelled in the "subjective evaluations" category, scoring top marks in trailing throttle, shift feel and fun factor.

"The car brakes nicely, and its mid-turn stability is good. The gearbox is the best of the lot, with the Porsche's a close second. Overall, it's a fun car to drive," Mario commented.

One glaring shortcoming of the NSX Zanardi Edition is the absence of power-assisted steering. After only three laps, you find yourself huffing and puffing, with your arms and shoulders tiring from grappling with the steering wheel. Although an electrically assisted steering rack is found in the stock NSX, Acura deleted it from the Zanardi Edition to keep the car's curb weight down.

But that does little to take away from the NSX's adeptness on a twisty road. Its performance in this test solidifies its place beside Europe's and America's best. With a little more horsepower, or a slightly better steering system, it could easily have been standing above them all.

"The NSX is all understeer, but for a road car that's desirable because an understeering car is safer than one that oversteers. It is very stable and possesses a flat feel. But the best thing about this car is that, if you want to let your hair down, it will let you. Ask for more and the car gives it to you. Actually, I'm not surprised that the NSX lap times were the second-fastest because it was the car I was the most comfortable in."
—Mario Andretti

OVERALL RATING: 371.5
Skidpad rating: 91.2 (0.93g)
Slalom rating: 99.5 (64.6 mph)
Segment times: 96.8 (11.62 sec. + 10.84 sec.)
Mario Andretti's rating: 84

 

Porsche 911 Carrera 4

There are those who contend that all-wheel drive is always better than two-wheel drive-on any vehicle, over any terrain. Yet Andretti and most race car drivers claim they are faster in traditional rear-wheel-drive cars.

But after a few hot laps in the Porsche 911 Carrera 4, even he couldn't deny the handling prowess of an awd car.

Andretti: "The Carrera 4 is good fun all around. Its awd system definitely comes into play throughout the corners. It provides the driver with a high level of forgiveness. The balance of the car is very good; you can overdo it, but it's easy to catch because of its awd."

Power from Porsche's 3.4-liter water-cooled flat-6 (296 bhp and 258 lb.-ft. of torque) is transferred to all four wheels via a viscous coupling that provides variable amounts of torque to the front tires (5 to 40 percent) when the rears begin losing their grip. The Carrera 4 also features PSM (Porsche Stability Management) that's designed to help keep the car stable, keeping excessive under- and oversteer situations in check. (Mario opted to turn off the system, as he did in all the cars that were equipped with one form or another of traction control because, "It takes control away from me.")

On the open road the Carrera 4 felt the most civil of the group, thanks in part to the supple ride provided by the car's suspension system—MacPherson struts up front and a 5-link setup at the rear. However, because of its soft nature, the car displayed a significant amount of body roll through corners, a trait that's usually adverse to good handling. But in the Carrera 4's case, it wasn't enough to disrupt the overall balance of the car.

"The Carrera does have body roll, but it rolls in a controlled fashion. Sure, it dances around a bit through the left/right transitions, but it's not objectionable in any way," Mario said. "It's the nicest one of the group for changing directions."

Although the Porsche failed to win any of the instrumented tests of this competition—placing third, fourth and fifth in skidpad, segment times and slalom, respectively—it took top honors in the subjective evaluation department, with Andretti awarding the car top marks in eight out of ten categories. This and the car's well-balanced results in the other tests accounted for the Carrera 4's overall victory.

"Turn-in response of the car is nice, if not particularly quick. You can pick up the apex in this car easily. The steering feels good, and the gearbox is very assuring, there's no question of missing gates, and I particularly like its short throws," he said.

No one, except perhaps Senior Editor Joe Rusz (our resident Porsche enthusiast), expected the Carrera 4 to best the monstrous Dodge Viper GTS-R or the graceful Ferrari F355 Spider in this competition. It just goes to show that neither horsepower nor suspension alone makes for a good-handling automobile; everything must work together for a car to feel good. And on this day, the awd Carrera 4 felt the best of all.

"The 911 Carrera 4 points in quite well and is predictable. It does have some understeer, but there's no drastic trailing-throttle oversteer. The overall balance of the car is excellent because you can induce controlled oversteer, not snap oversteer. On the exit, it's predictable and comes out nicely. The outcome of this test surprised me to some degree. At the same time, I have driven a number of Porsches of late, and I feel that the people at Porsche have done a great job with this car. Also, the Carrera 4 is the most civilized car in the wet; that's the benefit of all-wheel drive."
—Mario Andretti

OVERALL RATING: 372.5
Skidpad rating: 94.1 (0.96g)
Slalom rating: 97.2 (63.1 mph)
Segment times: 95.2 (11.83 sec. + 11.00 sec.)
Mario Andretti's rating: 86

 

The Final Turn

Evaluating the handling character of six of the world's best sports cars is not a simple task. A strong case can be made for each car, making it difficult for us to accept that there can be one winner. As the sun descended below the horizon, Andretti reflected on the day's events: "The important thing to remember here is that I have dissected the handling trait of each car based on personal likes and dislikes. From the Acura to the Ferrari to the Lotus, each car provides a high level of satisfaction and excitement. Anyone could have picked any car here as the best; everybody always likes the car that's best suited to them. That said, very few people will get the chance to wring the limit out of these cars like we did today; so for most people driving on public roads, each car here will give you a high level of satisfaction. They'll all give you a thrill."

Behind the Scenes - June 1999
Peek behind the Wizard's curtain for an insider's look at the making of Road & Track's "The Best Handling Cars in America" June cover story

From time to time, Road & Track Online will present unique "Behind the Scenes" stories to accompany major road tests or comparisons. We'll offer online readers a special look into what happens beyond the story itself. Sometimes we'll include a number of never before seen photos, while other times we may feature additional data, multimedia clips or editorial perspectives.

For our first "Behind the Scenes" installment, we bring you a collection of photos from the June issue cover story, "The Best Handling Cars in America." You'll be treated to not only shots of the cars themselves, but also background photos taken during testing. As an added bonus, you'll find an in-depth technical analysis of each car's skidpad performance by automotive handling guru, Doug Milliken.

We hope you enjoy this new feature of Road & Track Online. Look for additional "Behind the Scenes" stories in the future!
—Kim Wolfkill, Online Services Editor

Dodge Viper GTS-R

The snorting beast of the bunch, the Viper GTS-R. Though initially put off by the shift linkage, Mario was eventually won over by the Mopar's brute power and grip. "Although you're very busy in the cockpit, the rewards are nice," he said.

 

Ferrari F355 Spider

Mario's favorite, the Ferrari F355 Spider. Andretti drove tirelessly for our tail-out cornering shots (the car does get tail-happy at the limit), and he seemed to have the biggest smile behind the wheel of Maranello's finest.

 

Lotus Esprit V8

The Lotus Esprit V8, due to its peaky powerband and inside rear wheel that hikes up at the limit, was the World Champion's least favorite. But he did praise its crisp turn-in, acceleration and excellent seats

 

Acura NSX Zanardi Edition

"It was the car I was most comfortable in," says Mario about the Zanardi Edition NSX, which is 150 lb. lighter than a standard NSX. Andretti praised its rear-end stability and gearbox, but warned about over-correcting in transitions.

 

Porsche 911 Carrera 4

The Porsche 911 Carrera 4's impeccable overall balance earned it top honors in this comparison—"You can induce controlled oversteer, not snap oversteer," said Mario. And the seamless flow of power from the 3.4-liter flat-6 helps to position the car.

 

Chevrolet Corvette Hardtop

Mario sensed some rear aerodynamic lift in the Corvette through some of the course's quicker sections, but praised its predictability and the ease with which you can get comfortable in the cockpit. "Actually, I'm pleasantly surprised with how good the car felt," he said.

 

 

R&T's Sam Mitani, Patrick Hong and Kim Reynolds (left to right) compare notes. Since rain effectively cut our test day in half, some quick decisions had to be made to optimize our time.

 

No, this is not NORAD and you can't launch ICBMs from here; it's the impressive array of thermal-imaging equipment that the folks from FLIR Systems brought along to take infrared photos of our test cars' tires.

 

Fingers flying over the keyboard, FLIR's Brian Foucher cleans up one of the multicolored images.

 

Oh, the glamour: R&T's Doug Kott assures that all the test cars' tires are set at the manufacturer's recommended pressures.

 

FLIR's John Ziehl snaps a thermal image of the Corvette's tire moments after it comes off the skidpad. That camera he's operating retails for about $60,000, about $20,000 more than the Corvette!

 

A display of the raw thermal image, with greens representing hotter areas, and blues denoting cooler ones.

 

Hours of taped noted were transcribed for the story. Luckily, Mario is as articulate on tape as he is quick behind the wheel — and he's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet.

Mario Andretti taking a well-deserved rest after a grueling day of evaluating six sensational sports cars.

 

 

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