The Best Handling Cars in America
Testing the limits of cornering and adhesion with
Photos by Ron Perry, Jeff Allen and Brian Blades
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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,"
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."
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
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
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
"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."
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
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."
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
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
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."
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
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
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