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Story by Jack Baruth – In-car video by Jack Baruth and Carl Modesette – Photography by Zerin Dube and Matt Chow

Admit it: you’ve told the Internet a fib or two in the past few years. It’s okay, really; there’s nobody around but you and me. The past decade has seen the ol’ triple-W take center stage in the automotive enthusiast community, and whether you’re a fan of a all-purpose auto site like the one run by our friends at Jalopnik, a perennial bargain-hunter logging hundreds of hours on the Edmunds car-purchase forums, or even one of those miserable mouth-breathers over at Rennlist trying like hell to turn a perfectly decent and lovely ’85 Porsche 944 into a dub-wheeled, nitrous-fed, maintenance-deferred scrapheap, chances are that you’re spending a nontrivial amount of time out there on the IntarWeb’s car spots. Chances are, too, that at some point you’ve maybe stretched the truth a bit when arguing a point with some clueless noob who desperately deserves a hammer to the forehead, right? Maybe you’ve temporarily forgotten that “your” Porsche 997 GT3 actually belongs to your wife’s uncle, or perhaps you’ve retold a rather boring HPDE 1 session somewhere as a daring battle at the very limits of adhesion, slip angle, and late braking. Don’t sweat it. We’ve all done it. Even your humble author once told a USENET group many years ago that he found the E46 M3 “really, really boring.” Well, I did find it boring, primarily because my test drive was limited to a thirty-five-mile-per-hour tour of the dealership’s parking lot. It’s just that I may have let that rather relevant fact slip my mind in my eagerness to prove a point to whatever sorry doofus I was totally e-dominating at the time. When I finally got around to driving the car harder, I actually rather liked it, but do you really think that I was going to go back and admit it? Oh, hell no. I had my imaginary electronic reputation to protect!

Those imaginary electronic reputations, or IERs for short, can lead people to tell some pretty crazy lies, with one of the most common being the “Sure, I Drive A ’93 Corolla, But I Could Totally Pay Cash For Any Car I Wanted” story. Totally believable, right? The next time you’re on the road and you see some hapless sucker clutching the shaking steering wheel of some tired old Stanza XE, why not at least briefly consider the possibility that he’s an Internet millionaire, just like all the guys over at FerrariChat, and that he just drives that crapwagon because he’s heavily invested in short-term complex financial derivatives? He’s just waiting for the right moment to stroke that check for a brand-new Gallardo Superleggera, and then he’ll be the one laughing at you! On the World Wide Web, we’re all rich, we all pay cash, and we can all drive anything we want.

Imagine, for a moment, that the above scenario was really true, and not just the fevered imagination of a bitter loser who still iives with his parents. Imagine that you really could buy anything you wanted, and that because of your awesome cash-holding and mega-investing powers, you weren’t totally convinced that you needed to spend all the money you had available to you. In other words, imagine that you’re completely unlike everybody in the real world. What would you buy? Would you do the obvious Internet zillionaire thing and buy a Ferrari? Maybe you’re a so-called purist and you’d prefer the simplicity of a Lotus Elise. It could be that you want to strut down the boulevard in the baddest Mustang to ever escape the factory – or you might be more interested in an affordable yet high-power commuter like the weapons-grade Dodge Caliber SRT-4. Who knows? You’re rich and crazy! It’s a ridiculous scenario – one completely unrelated to the real world – but here at S:S:L, we’re not big fans of the real world, so we’ve created a track test just for you, Mr. Imaginary Internet Baller. We’ve got a Ferrari F430 Spyder, a Lotus Elise, a Shelby GT500, and a Caliber SRT-4. We’re going to run ‘em head to head around MSR Houston’s road course, gather full data from our Traqmate timing system, and show you on-track video complete with a Best Motoring-style view of the driver’s pedal box. Last but not least, because this is Speed:Sport:Life and not some timid advertising-supported blog, we’re going to declare a clear winner. You may find it harder to believe that a nineteen-year-old’s claim to be street-racing his own brand-new Murcielago, but there really is one car that stands out from the pack here, and I can’t wait to tell you about it.

Aerial View of the MSR Houston Track

Before we get to the rankings, however, it’s worth taking a moment to tell you a bit about the test and how it was set up. On Saturday, May 4, 2008, we returned to MSR Houston, featured recently in our Supercar Saturday Viper vs. R8 test, with the intention of testing the Shelby GT500 and Caliber SRT-4 head-to-head. We had an open track, a full day to run our timing equipment, and a new two-camera system from Edge Cameras. Our liaison from MSR, track director Michael Mills, met us in the paddock with some interesting news. To begin with, we would be running the track in the “normal” counterclockwise direction, which would mean that our times and data would not be directly comparable with those from the clockwise-run Viper/R8 test. He must have sensed our disappointment, because he offered us a couple of benefits. To begin with, I would have the chance to run a Spec Miata around the course – and we’ll be sharing the results of that run with you in the near future. Even better, though, we would have a brand-new Ferrari F430 and a nearly-new Lotus Elise to add to the mix, courtesy of their owners, MSR Platinum member Mickey Mills and prospective member Paul Finnett. Best of all, everybody had agreed to let Michael run the cars under identical circumstances to gain truly comparable times. So in this case, the data you will see is not from our unloved cyborg tester, Mr. Roboto, but from Michael Mills himself, driving the cars back-to-back. Mr. Roboto’s taking a well-deserved rest, and by “rest”, we mean that we locked him back in his crate and dumped him into the Marianas Trench, down where they dumped Megatron in the Transformers movie. Fair enough? And if any of you are cynical enough to claim that I was Mr. Roboto, and that the data from our last test came from me driving – well, if you are, I bet you ‘re the same kind of cynical jerk who shows children the track underneath the boat on the “It’s a Small World” ride, and I’ll thank you to keep your opinions to yourself.

How’d we rank the cars? Well, I’d love to tell you that we came up with a big, official-looking chart, ranking the cars in Ride, Handling, Engine, and BlahBlah categories, with a “Gotta Have It” ranking thrown in for good measure, but we didn’t, because we actually respect the intelligence of our readers and there’s no way anybody believes those things anyway. Instead, we started out by doing just what the other guys really do, which is to say that we counted up all the advertising money to determine the winner. The good (for you, and bad for us) news is that we don’t have any advertising, so we didn’t have to worry about how many full-color back-cover ads we sold to each manufacturer. Instead, we were free to just drive the cars, enjoy them, and rank them according to our own personal desires. Hey, at least we’re honest, right? Note that we did not rank them according to lap time. Going fast is important, but it’s not the whole story, no matter what your pals on the Internet say. So without further ado, here are the results. All of these cars are winners in their own right, but one of them is more of a winner than the rest.

Fourth Place: Dodge Caliber SRT-4 – Lap Time 2:00.499

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We could take the easy way out here and say that the Caliber took fourth place because it was running heads-up against a Ferrari, a Lotus, and a Shelby Mustang, but the truth is more uncomfortable, and more complicated, than that. Prior to the test, I bet Senior Editor Zerin Dube that the Caliber would be within two seconds of the Shelby Mustang around MSR, despite the two-hundred-horsepower gap and what the know-it-alls out there call “wrong wheel drive”. My confidence was based on my experiences as an owner of a Stage 3 Dodge SRT-4 Neon and my current situation as the owner and racer of a first-gen Neon ACR. Sure, the Neon certainly had its share of issues over its production life, and in any of the past ten years it probably would have won the competition for “Used Car Most Likely To Be Driven By A Daytime Stripper”, but it had heart, it had soul, and out there on the racetrack its virtues shone like polished platinum, whether we’re talking about the first-gen’s tenacious grip on corner entry or the SRT-4’s ability to absolutely humiliate everything from three-liter BMWs to the occasional indifferently-driven C5 Corvette. I’m a very, very big fan of the little Mopar that could…

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…but the Caliber SRT-4 comes across to some degree as the Bigger Mopar That Can’t. More than any other “pocket rocket” in our experience, the Dodge is utterly crippled by wheelspin and front-end bias. It doesn’t stop well, particularly not after a few hard laps, it absolutely murders its outside front tire in every turn, and it completely defies most attempts to adjust midcorner attitude with throttle or brake. At MSR’s “Bus Stop”, where a fast transition is required for proper corner exit, the SRT-4 offers its driver what was once known as a “Hobson’s Choice”: do you want heavy, abusive understeer and a one-wheel-smoking exit, or do you want to stab the unhappy brakes down to the rather low speed with which the chassis is comfortable, only to find a complete lack of boost on the exit?

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Ah yes, boost. In the opening laps of any session, when the motor is cool and the big, sexy-looking front-mounted intercooler behind the crosshair grille can find all the air it needs, the Caliber has some real legs. At the apex of the Carousel turn, it’s a full eleven and a half miles an hour slower than the Elise, but eleven hundred feet later, near the entrance to “Diamond’s Edge”, it’s traveling at exactly the same speed. If we could hold an identical braking point in both cars, the Dodge would actually enter Diamond’s Edge a full two miles per hour faster than the twice-as-expensive Lotus – but the mid-engined British car finds itself braking a full hundred and ten feet later thanks to its classical balance, lighter weight, and higher-quality stoppers.

Chasing a Spec Miata in the Caliber. I’m still learning the track… sometimes my feet aren’t quite sure what to do!

Closer examination of the data reveals a few more impressive aspects: steady-state grip is close to that of the Shelby, maxing out at approximately 1.11G at 49.56mph in the middle of the back carousel. By contrast, the Lotus musters 1.14G max in that particular turn, with a speed of 52.75mph at the same point. It’s important to keep the results in perspective. We’re not talking “Matrix XRS” here; this is really a serious performance car in its own right… and yet there’s so much frustration involved in driving it on-track. Of the time gap between this and the next-slowest car, a full two seconds are probably due to the tepid brakes, and another two seconds to the Caliber’s inability to avoid heat soak on our eighty-degree test day. By the third lap of every session, the little AutoMeter boost gauge can’t break the ten-psi mark, a real shock to those of us who remember the old “Stage” Neons cheerfully pegging it at 22 or higher, even under race conditions. Part of this is probably the fault of the new “World Engine”. The Mopar 2.4 was one of history’s biggest butt-kicking four-cylinders; why swap it for a motor that won’t rev, won’t boost, and sounds like it belongs in a Mitsubishi Lancer? It’s a shame, really. The SRT engineers have worked hard to get the maximum from what must surely be a difficult platform to improve, and our time in a Jeep Compass (which is a platform sister to the Caliber) shortly after the test makes the extent of the magic very clear. If our imaginary Internet zillionaire needed a mini-crossover, this would surely be the fastest and most competent of his available choices. The SRT-4 also impresses on the street, as we’ll discuss some time in a separate road test – but if the SRT team can accomplish this much with a crossover, what could they do with a proper small sedan as a starting point? Perhaps it would be a car to make us forget that sparkling old SRT-4 Neon ever existed. In the meantime, the mini-crossover Caliber crosses over to fourth out of four.

Third Place: Ferrari F430 Spyder – Lap Time 1:48.167

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Disclaimer time: we have every reason to believe that MSR Houston is slightly slower running counterclockwise than it is running clockwise. Mickey and Michael Mills, both race veterans with more MSR experience than pretty much anybody else out there, agree on this, and I found the track to be more enjoyable, and more confidence-inspiring, when run in the “wrong” direction. With that said, however, I invite you to take a quick peek backwards at our Viper vs. R8 test to see what the times were. Don’t feel like opening up another browser window? Allow me, then, to give you the long and short of it: the Audi R8’s pretty much as quick as the F430, and the Viper is measurably quicker than both. My review of the data leads me to believe that the SRT-10 Viper will hand the Ferrari its tanned leather behind on this track with room to spare.

Now, the question is: does it matter? After all, we said this was about more than raw lap times, and we meant it. There’s no question that the F430 is a fabulously sexy and desirable car, and our three-hundred-mile-on-the-clock test example was so pristine that duct-taping our Traqmate data unit to the floormats felt like tagging the Sistine Chapel with a paint marker. The Spyder is everything you expect and more, from the stitched perfection of the interior to the physically thrilling growl behind the driver’s ear. I was on-track with the Shelby serving as “camera car” while Michael Mills was running his timed laps, and although I’m a fairly jaded fellow when it comes to exotics, I couldn’t help but feel a tangible little thrill when I saw the F430’s nose dip behind me under braking. It has such presence, enough to make the mere sight of one a bit of an event.

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Still, the report from the driver’s seat isn’t perfectly complimentary. On-track, the multiple settings on the steering wheel’s “manettino” control are more annoying than useful, and Michael’s still fastest with all the helpers turned off. With the Ferrari electronic nannies active, the data suggests that it wouldn’t be able to show a clean pair of heels to the Audi R8 – which is considerably less expensive and offers a similarly dashing portion of curb appeal. Our tifosi readers will no doubt point out that Ferrari offers the hardtop and Scuderia versions for the truly track-obsessed – and I’ll be just as quick to respond that the Viper in our last MSR test was a droptop as well. It sounds crazy, but the F430 is like the Calber SRT-4, after a fashion. On the street, it’s a stunner; on the track, there are other, perhaps more exciting choices. If our imaginary zillionaire has the bucks, it’s hard to argue against it, but speaking personally I’d visit my local R8 and Viper dealers, to say nothing of the friendly local Lambo store, before I cashed in my oil futures for this one. In the real world, it’s very easy to consign the Prancing Horse to the bottom step of the podium.

Second Place: Lotus Elise – Lap Time 1:52.652

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It’s David versus Goliath as the Shelby GT500 and Lotus Elise square off for the winner’s prize today. The conventional wisdom out on the automotive web forum scene makes this one a no-brainer, right? According to every twelve-year-old out there who can read a spec sheet and download an episode of Top Gear, the Shelby’s a fat, two-ton pig with an underperforming engine, no steering feel, acres of crummy interior plastic, and a suspension design dating all the way back to the Roman Empire, while the Lotus is a light, lithe engineering marvel with an unburstable, utterly perfect Toyota motor mounted in the proper place and a completely no-frills approach from the bottom of its feathery wheels to the top of its bonded windshield frame. Everybody loves the Lotus, while the Shelby has met with what could best be characterized as a “mixed response” from The Press As A Whole. So what’s going on? Did Ford bribe us… or did they threaten us? How can we look at you with a metaphorical straight face and tell you that a hopped-up, live-axle Saturday night cruiser beats the most perfect sports car to ever touch down on this side of the Atlantic?

Well, our imaginary zillionaire friends won’t understand, but anybody who drives the two just might, despite the Elise’s obvious virtues. Naturally, you’ve heard them all before. It’s light, it really handles, it rewards the driver in an utterly pure manner, and in this case, the fact that the above-stated talking points are repeated ad nauseam by every kid with a keyboard doesn’t make them any less true. Let’s start by comparing the three critical data graphs – Lateral G, Accel/Brake G, and Velocity – between the Ferrari and the Elise. Notice anything? I’ll give you a moment to check them out below:

The F430 trace is blue, Elise is red.

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I bet you saw it, didn’t you? The F430 and the Elise are very, very closely matched, with the exception of acceleration. Around MSR’s tight back section, the two mid-engined Europeans are matched neck-and-neck, posting near-identical lateral grip figures and exhibiting remarkably similar transition behavior. In the Carousel, the Lotus actually smacks the F430 around a bit, holding four mph more corner speed at the twelve-hundred-foot mark and maintaining that advantage on corner exit until the Italian can put its three-hundred-horse advantage to work. And while the Lotus can’t brake as hard as the Ferrari – that’s the advantage of cost-no-object stoppers versus a set of calipers that would look suspiciously familiar to anyone who has ever owned a 1976 Honda CB550– it’s still able to handily outdo the Mustang and Caliber at pretty much every corner entry. It really does deliver most of the supercar experience, sans the acceleration, on a budget. It even delivers a bit of that famed mid-engined trickiness – as you’ll see in the video below, it can bite the driver when it’s on the edge of the tires’ abilities. Many thanks, by the way, to the Elise’s owner, Paul, for allowing us to post the video of his spin. How many people would have the confidence to do that – and how many more would immediately put their Lotus back up on the ragged edge, as he did on the next lap? Paul’s young son, who accompanied him on our trackday, can rest secure in the knowledge that he has a pretty cool dad.

Paul’s spin, followed by a little dice between Paul in the Elise and me in the Shelby. We both have passengers, so this is a 9/10th run which ends up with lap times in the 1:56 range. Still, it shows the relative capabilities of the cars.

If the Lotus is a great car – and it really is – why didn’t it win? There are a few reasons. It’s not really a full-bore supercar, nor is it a classic sports car in the mold of an MG, so it falls between two stools, so to speak, failing to deliver either a heart-stopping track experience or simple open-air pleasure. And while the engine may be unburstable (although rumor says it isn’t, at least not in this application) it isn’t anything special. The Caliber has a more characterful motivator, and it sells for half the money. Which reminds us – the one-ton Brit isn’t a particularly good value on these shores. In the United Kingdom, the Elise is priced against Volkswagen’s Passat; in the land of the Whataburger, it’s closer to the dearly departed Phaeton. Forget what the up-spec Elises cost; the $43,990 MSRP of the absolute base model would put you into any number of very desirable cars, including the winner of our little test, as you are about to see.

First Place: Ford Mustang GT500 – Lap Time 1:52.402

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Yes, you just read the lap time correctly. The Mustang beat the Elise around MSR, albeit by the slimmest of margins. Not since the era of Catherine the Great has a horse been lowered onto a small target with such devastating effect. In the space of under two minutes, the big Ford stampeded its way into our hearts with a virtuoso on-track performance. Sure, it’s heavy. Yeah, it’s a little unbalanced. You could certainly argue that a five-hundred-horsepower iron-block V8 and a live rear axle have no legitimate place in the modern performance scene – but you would be wrong. The Mustang kicks ass, and more importantly, it defies our stereotypes of what a car like this can accomplish.

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Our Traqmate allows us to create a virtual race between the ‘Stang and the Lotus, so let’s try it out. As we cross the start/finish line for our hot lap, the GT500 is running more than ninety-four mph compared to the Elise at slightly below eighty-six. The Lotus claws back the advantage under braking and the two enter the Carousel neck-and-neck. Through the midcorner, the Elise pulls ahead, running about four mph faster, and it holds the advantage until the middle of the front straight when the Shelby swings by. Max speed for the Ford here is 114.83 mph, at which point the Lotus is barely clearing 106. Going into “Diamond’s Edge”, the Mustang has gapped the Lotus by a couple of car lengths… only to have the Elise outbrake it into Turn 5 and pull even. Through Turn 6, the Elise is still ahead, but on the exit we see exactly what five hundred horsepower can accomplish. By the end of the back straight, the Elise driver is seeing a fairly decent 105 miles per hour; he’s also staring at the back of the Mustang, which has pulled out nearly an eighty-foot advantage and is steaming away with an eleven mph advantage. This time braking later doesn’t help. The Stang’s still ahead as the pair runs all the way back to the “Bus Stop” chicane. Surely the lightweight Brit will pull ahead here – but the Shelby has a secret weapon in its arsenal. The massive torque of the supercharged V8 allows the Bus Stop to be taken in tire-smoking sideways fashion, and as a result the big blue pony is still ahead on the exit.

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We’re now in the “Keyhole”, but the Elise still can’t catch up. It’s running 2-3mph faster all the way through, but on the
exit, the Mustang just plain rockets out up to “The Launch”. Through “Gut Check”, the Elise manages to stay on the throttle just a little longer. The Lotus driver can smell blood. Entering the final turns, “Sugar and Spice”, he’s just a couple of car lengths back. Can he outbrake his way even to the Mustang? He can! At the slowest point of the two-turn complex, right at the clipping point, the two cars are even to within inches. They’re neck and neck on the exit, and NOW IT’S A DRAG RACE! Since it’s a drag race, is it any surprise what happens next? The GT500 simply rears back and slaps the taste out of the Elise’s mouth.

The Mustang trace is blue, Elise is red. Note the transitions in the slow sections – the GT500 can really hold its own despite weighing twice as much as the Elise.

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It’s possible to argue the similarity of the Mustang’s and Elise’s results two ways. Lotus fans can argue that the Lotus does more with less, and they would certainly be right. There’s also quite a bit of joy to be had from the subtle steering and classic mid-engined balance. While it doesn’t have “go-kart handling” – that moronic phrase is typically applied by people who simply don’t understand how a racing kart operates – perhaps it could be said to have “Spec Miata handling”. It feels more like a true race car than any of the other cars in our test, and if that’s important to you, perhaps the Elise is your winner.

For us, however, the GT500’s combination of massive charm and respectable road-course prowess carries the day. The big engine occasionally feels a little flat and heat-soaked on-track, but it’s all relative, as the Traqmate shows. The brakes are adequate to the task, as is the steering. It recorded slightly over 1.11 lateral G during its fastest lap, compared to the Elise’s peak of 1.21G and the Ferrari’s best of 1.16, and in most of the turns was within two or three miles per hour of the mid-engined cars. This current generation of Mustang has taken a lot of stick in the press and on the Web about being a lousy-handling, live-axle, “prehistoric” chassis, but in the harsh glare of competitive timing data, the falsehood of those statements is plain to see. The big Ford handles just fine, and if the nose occasionally slides out on the entrance to a tight turn, there’s an easy remedy for that under your right foot.

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If we could change anything about the GT500, it would probably be the badge. No disrespect intended to Carroll Shelby, but the core excellence of this car is really due to the folks at SVT, a fact of which the driver is subtly reminded every time the programmable shift light on the dashboard flicks on – it’s in the shape of the SVT logo. While there’s pleasure to be had in the traditional racing stripes and the big snake badges, this car doesn’t need the soft filter of Sixties nostalgia to make an impression. It should have been called the SVT Mustang, plain and simple – and if it needed to be a “500”, it could have been an FR500, which is a name with roots in the modern Grand-Am and Miller Cup Mustangs. Forget the past for once; the old cars were great, but this one’s in a league of its own. Smoothly powerful, confidence-inspiring, and gifted with smashing curb appeal, the Ford Mustang Shelby Cobra GT500 is more than a boulevard cruiser or retirement present to one’s self. It’s a solid track car in its own right, an utter joy to drive. For the imaginary millionaires of the Internet, it may not be the best choice, but for anyone who can save up the scratch necessary to take one home, it’s a solid winner.

It’s late in the evening… time to run the Ferrari and Shelby for our own amusement. The car rushing by in the beginning is an ex-PTG BMW M3 racer belonging to Mickey Mills.


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Jack Baruth

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