Prize Fight
The Turbo Esprit catapults Lotus firmly into Ferrari territory,
and the car it meets head-on is the new 308GTBi.

In one of the toughest tests we've done, we match them over 1500 miles
of test tracks and backroads to discover which of Grand Prix racing's
leading lights builds the best mid-engine exotic car
CAR Magazine, June 1981

They smiled at Lotus, the morning we arrived to take away a Turbo Esprit for test. They fairly beamed as we drew up outside the glassy administration block which looks across the wartime taxiways that are now the test track. Perhaps they were merely pleased to see us at Hethel again – the place is full of friendly people – but more likely they smiled because we had arrived with a Ferrari 308GTBi, one of the first fuel-injected 308s in the country. They knew we were about to do what Lotus have been working towards for at least five years – to match one of their cars directly against a Ferrari.

When Lotus launched the Turbo Esprit towards the middle of last year, we were struck immediately by the rightness of a comparison with the Ferrari 308. The cars were similar in cost, size and sheer ground covering ability. We did not compare them then because we had wind of a new 308 version not far from launch, and because we felt a nagging need first to see the Turbo Esprit settle into serious production.

Now, it has all happened. The Turbo is gradually appearing on Europe's roads (though there is no point in pretending that has happened quickly, such have been Lotus's car-selling fortunes recently), and may be seen in sensible numbers in the US soon, now that the marketing deal through Rolls-Royce outlets can proceed. The Ferrari 308GTBi is on sale in Britain with its cabin and suspension refinements, its Michelin TRX tyres and its higher price scale, starting at £22,810.

But unforeseen until the very day of our arrival at Hethel was Lotus's extremely aggressive launch of the 'basic' Turbo Esprit, selling at just £16,928. It comes without air conditioning or a stereo system or hide upholstery or metallic paint, but it is just as fast, nimble and arrestingly styled as the £20,900 original and what is more, it is now joined by an S3 version of the normally-aspirated Esprit, also at an extremely attractive price. 'You've got to have a go, haven't you', is a remark Lotus managing director Mike Kimberley makes often in marketing discussions; it is certainly what his company are engaged in down now...

The Esprit and the 308 had very different beginnings. The Ferrari succeeded the old Dino 246 and, with its 308GT4 two-plus-two sister, came to prominence as a result of the near-collapse of the big exotic car market when the oil was first turned off early in the '70s. Though demand for the biggest cars revived a little afterwards, the 308 and its peers – Maserati Merak and Lamborghini Urraco – proved that there was a market for exotics that were 'pure' in every respect except that their engine capacities were smaller. They were, in other words, uncompromising two-seaters. The 308GTB went to this new refined, injected version (cleaner running so it could sell on more export markets) and the Pininfarina-styled Mondial 8 was coined to replace the Bertone-drawn GT4, the shape of which was comparatively unpopular. The Lotus was a natural development for the Hethel firm; it appeared as much because Lotus were ready to produce it as because the market seemed ready to receive it. The 'normal' Esprit, along with the Elite and Eclat, appeared during those years of astonishing progress at Lotus, 1973 to 1976, during which the company removed themselves from the kit-car crew, first, last and always.

Anyway, these two paths led almost to the same place; the Esprit and the 308GTB were launched within a month of one another – the Ferrari first in September 1975. The Turbo Esprit, the model that finally closed the gap between the marques, appeared not quite five years later and its impact and performance were enough to suggest that nearly a week of that development time was wasted. Now, the cars meet head on. No Lotus buyer could take delivery of his car without imagining himself perhaps sitting behind the wheel of a fast moving 3.0-litre Ferrari. And the most committed Ferrari enthusiast would surely suffer a twinge when laying out several extra thousands of pounds for a car which does nothing better than the best of the British-made sports cars.

Yet this story more than decide between two beautiful mid-engined sports cars. It decides between the two most relevant 'pure' exotics of the modern crop, the cars built for efficiency in all things rather than 'mere' ultimate speed and roadholding – yet which deliver speed and roadholding of a kind quite well in touch with ultimate, Countach/Boxer standards. What is more, it brings the Grand Prix struggle to the road, pitting omnipotent Ferrari against Lotus, their most successful, innovative and enduring rivals. In short, it is an exceedingly important confrontation.


Styling, engineering

As they stand together, the cars look very similar in size, yet surprisingly few of their dimensions are close. True, both stand a mere 3ft 8in high, and they are within two inches of one another in overall length (the Ferrari is the longer at 13ft 11in) but the Ferrari has 4 in the shorter wheelbase (92in) reflecting the effect of its transverse engine layout compared with the Lotus's longitudinal arrangement; and the Esprit is much the wider car overall (73in against 68in) and in its track measurements (2.5in wider in front, 3.2in behind). But the biggest difference is in weight; the Lotus is a very considerable 214lb lighter than the Ferrari at 2690lb. The real surprise is how close these cars are in size to a Boxer, thought of as a 'big' exotic. Actually, a BB512 echoes all of the Turbo measurements except overall length (it's 8in longer, 6in longer than the 308). Of course, the Boxer's beefier frame and big-bore power train puts a lot more weight into it. The biggest Ferrari tips the scale at 3330lb, around 650lb more than a Turbo Esprit, but only 326lb more than the 308, not much when you consider it packs 67% more horsepower than its stablemate, in its latest guise.

The Ferrari's Pininfarina lines, thought by many to make it the most beautiful of current exotics, echo those of many past great cars, and its skin-over-a-tuular-frame construction is in line with contemporary Ferrari practice. There are overtones of Boxer in the turret shape, of Dino 246GT in the side airscoops, of Daytona and 365GTC around the wheel arches and across the tail.

Like the Boxer, too, the 308GTBi body is a mixture of materials. The bootlid and engine cover are of aluminium, the body outer panels below the black waistline are of glass fibre as are parts of the body's floor and cockpit mouldings. The rest of the car – doors, turret, wings and the rest – is made of steel.

The car's now-familiar 3.0 litre four-cam V8 engine sits close behind the cockpit across the chassis, linked to a five-speed gearbox that nestles beneath its rearmost bank. The all-alloy engine is oversquare, has its camshafts driven by toothed belts, and runs an 8.8 to one compression ratio, all as before. But in this new car, the induction system is no longer four gulping Weber carburettors but a Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection system, and the gear-driven oil pump now distributes lubricant from a wet sump, not a separate oil tank as before. The ignition system is now Marelli-Digiplex, intended to govern the ignition timing more finely, as is the current mode. In fact, the thrust of the engine modifications is to clean up the exhaust and to make the Ferrari acceptable in more countries. The moves are said to follow an edict from the Fiat high-ups to the effect that no Ferrari is to be produced from here on which cannot be sold in the US and other counties heavy with automobile design legislation.

The upshot is that the engine's power falls from its former 255bhp at 7000rpm to 210bhp at 6600rpm, a fall approaching 20 percent. There is a slight solace to be taken from the fact that the 225bhp and 210bhp figures may not be strictly comparable; the former rating is left over from the good old days when European manufacturers, especially Italians, seemed at liberty to rate their engines at a figure which 'sounded right'. But the 210bhp of 1981 has to be the truth. We'd estimate that the power decline is more likely to have been from 230-235bhp to 210 (basing that on our impression of a good carburettor car, driven recently). It's regrettable enough, but it isn't the end of the world.


A gearing change also goes some way towards compensation for the power loss at the expense of extra work for the engine. Ferrari have lowered the final drive ratio from 3.7 to 4.06 which, together with the effect of the smaller laden-radius Michelin TRX tyres, give the car a tip gearing of 19.3mph/1000rpm instead of 21.7mph. The tyres are now 220/55VR 390 TRXs running on 6.5in rims, instead of the old 205/70/VR14 Michelin XWXs. According to Michelin's switch-on technical department, the standard tyres' tread width increases usefully from 206 to 225mm, but the static laden radius declines by around 40mm. The change from XWX to TRX has necessitated quite extensive suspension changes to maintain the car's ride height on its 'shorter' tyres, to ensure that the fatter treads can be accommodated in existing wheel arches, and to tune the suspension – particularly its bushes – to the newer tyres' considerably different behaviour. According to our slightly sketchy information, the Ferrari aim has been to maintain the 308GTB's much praised handling balance while taking advantage of the TRX advances – better, quieter ride, an extra resistance to side-wall damage at high cornering speeds, and more outright grip. For such benefits, the gearing change doesn't seem too serious since the car's theoretical top speed at the 7700rpm redline (happily preserved) is a shade under 149mph and, as will be explained the engine still has power to that speed limit. Fourth still beats 110mph, and third runs above 80mph. Other changes to the transmission include a lightened clutch mechanism and fork linkage (laying to rest the GTB's most commonly raised fault) and the gearbox gets its own oil pump. The only other mechanical change of note is to the single-silencer exhaust system which feeds two branches of four pipes in on the engine side and now emits exhaust gas through four ??? exhausts, not two as before.

The Ferrari keeps its all-independent suspension (by double wide-based wishbones, coils and with anti-roll bars at both ends) and its manual rack and pinion steering system. The brakes are servo-assisted, 11in diameter ventilated discs, front and rear. In technical total, this year's 308 is a great car made acceptable for the greater range of customers and governments, but with which obvious care has been taken not to alienate existing enthusiasts of the car. In the last, Ferrari's success has not been absolute . . .

Broadly speaking, the Lotus's backbone chassis/glassfibre body format follows Hethel practice of the past, but to state that without qualification is to sell the Turbo Esprit very short indeed. Though based around the original Esprit, there have been hundreds of very significant changes. Now, the commonality returns; the normally aspirated Esprit is being upgraded under the skin to Turbo chassis/suspension construction standards, though tyre, spring and damper specifications remain distinctive to suit the two roles.

The Turbo's backbone chassis is all galvanised, and this, along with the plastic body, must make the car historically rust-resistant. The backbone is steel sheet-fabricated box sections at the front with welded tubular subframe at the rear. The front suspension has double wishbones coil springs and has its roll limited by an anti-sway bar. The lower wishbones are unusual in that they are formed of a straight lower link and the anti-roll bar working together. There are minor changes in steering geometry to enhance steering feel over that of the S2 Esprit, and the turning circle has been reduced, too. It is far smaller than that of the Ferrari, traditionally unwieldy. The front brakes, unusually for such a potent car, are solid discs, Lotus claiming that their experiments with ventilated discs indicate that extreme use can distort them and cause reaction through the brake pedal. The steering is high geared rack and pinion, unassisted like the Ferrari's.

The Lotus all-alloy four-cylinder twin-cam engine sits north-south in the chassis, immediately behind the cockpit. Behind that, linked to the engine by a specially designed bell housing to accommodate a bigger clutch, is the five-speed gearbox bought in from Renault, the same unit used in humbler Esprits. The drive goes out to the massive rear wheels through double-jointed drive shafts. The rear suspension is by double, non-parallel and unequal length links and coil springs. There is an angled radius arm running forward from each hub carrier to a chassis mounting point well forward. The rear disc brakes, also solid, are mounted inboard.

This 16-valve Lotus engine is becoming deservedly familiar. The version in the Turbo has its head and piston crowns altered in shape to give a 7.5 to 1 compression ratio at zero turbocharger boost, and it is dry-sumped because Lotus believe that only this system can give tight control over oil surge and lubricant distribution they require. Also, the separate sump allows a much more rigid bottom plate to be used on the engine, an aid to bottom rigidity. The Garrett AiResearch T3 turbocharger is wastegated at 8psi, but it is different from the general run of turbo systems in that it pressurises the twin Dellorto carburettors rather than drawing air though them. This allows Lotus to use extremely short inlet manifold tracts. This, and careful 'tuning' of the boost characteristics have gone a long way towards eliminating the turbocharged engine's 'traditional' turbo-lag. The Lotus 910 engine still stands as the most responsive production turbo unit yet, despite the dramatic improvements in cars like Porsche's 924 Turbo and Carrera GT, and the good performance of Audi's Quattro and Renault's roller-skate 5 Turbo.

The outcome of this technology-wave is a power output of 210bhp at 6000-6500rpm from the 2174cc Lotus engine (in common with other versions its capacity has been increased from the original 2.0 litres by stroking). That gives it a 70bhp – 50 percent – boost over the normally-aspirated Esprit unit. A good deal more impressive even than that is the fact that the turbocharged engine produces more torque at 2000rpm than the (strong) S3 engine can produce at 5000rpm. The turbo peak torque is 200lb/ft at 4000-4500rpm, considerably more than the 3.0-litre Ferrari's reduced 176lb/ft, now that it is injected and restricted. The Lotus rev limit is high, too. It is designed to run to 7000rpm and it does so with such elan that the designers have found need to incorporate an ignition cut-out that works at around 7300rpm.

All this impressive oomph allows the Lotus to support a relaxed overall gearing of 22.7mph/1000rpm. This, allied with the zest of the car's turbo top-end and its ability to rev well beyond 7000rpm with smoothness and comfort, gives the car very long legs. Even at only 7000rpm in top, the car's theoretical speed is 159mph. And Lotus have looked after the bottom of the scale, too. For one thing the turbocharger's boost becomes available unusually low down (6.25psi or 70 percent of maximum boost is available at 2500rpm, the full 8psi is available from 4000rpm). On top of that, the 910 engine has a high-lift camshaft and cunningly designed manifolding both of which are intended to boost performance below 2500rpm for easy driving.

The Lotus body styling is stunning. People stand still on footpaths and gape as it growls past. For sheer eye-pulling ability it is fit to be compared with a Countach – indeed, its angular, air-cleaving lines, airscoops and the 'space-age' shapes of its cabin and glass give it many things in common with the big Lambo. Having said that, we should also say that it doesn't find favour with everyone when compared with a Ferrari because some say it is 'the shape of a plastic body', whereas the curvaceous Ferrari shape is 'clearly' made in metal, considered the more dignified body material for an exotic car. This subject starts arguments; we've found that out.

There is a lot more to the Lotus shape than arresting looks. The whole thing is extremely aerodynamic, having not only a low, low drag coefficient of 0.35, but also a very small frontal area (as several of our picture show). The shape is based on the normally aspirated Esprit, but re-worked by Giugiaro, the original designer, to cope with the increased Turbo performance, and to give the car a separate identity. Starting at the front, Giugiaro added a deep spoiler which reduced the Esprit's nose lift at 100mph by around 20 percent and incorporated slots to direct air onto the water and oil radiators, front mounted. There are ceeper side mouldings, too, which had add weight to Mike Kimberley's assertion that there is 'quite a bit' of ground effect in the design. Special attention has been paid to under-body air flow; to such an extent that the designers have had to make special efforts to put enough cooling air into the engine bay. That place is frequently the site of hopeless turbulence in other people's designs.

As well as the bigger front air dam, the Turbo has a much bigger tail spoiler, and a balance between these anti-lift devices is brought by a small lip-dam running across the car's rear roof. The spacy NACA vents in the Turbo's lower sides, towards the rear, feed air into that deprived engine bay. The warmed air (the turbocharger scatters plenty of heat about) exhausts through slats in the engine bay cover.

A word about those Lotus graphics. A surprising number of those who liked the Lotus felt that the lettering on the car's nose and sides – too strident and in danger of dating quickly – was not worthy of the whole. We'd certainly suggest that Giugiaro did not put it there. Those graphics, and to some extent the 'James Bond' image carefully being cultivated for the car at Hethel do seem to cheapen its standing as a real exotic. That signwriting on a Ferrari would enrage and horrify the Maranello powers-that-be, and any film industry procurer who suggested that Mr Roger Moore should drive on celluloid in a factory-supplied 308 would doubtless be told to go away . . .



Baldly, the Lotus has quite a lot more of this than the Ferrari 308GTBi. The reasons lie in the Lotus's considerably lower kerb weight, its turbocharged top-end, its hefty torque advantage and its ability to support a taller gearing than the Italian car. The key to it all is that fine engine. Though less inspiring than the Ferrari's in the sounds it makes, it is uniformly strong and smooth enough from 1500rpm to 7500rpm, to set new standards for a turbo-four. As you scythe through the countryside, maintaining very, very high average speeds and noticing often in your first couple of hundred miles that the tacho reading is rather lower than you'd expected, you forget altogether that this is a 2.2-litre engine with only four cylinders. It's too smooth; it's too powerful.

The lack of mechanical racket is a feature of this car. All you really hear is a tiny amount of top-end swish and the super-smooth, rasping exhaust, louder when the redline approaches. Care in developing the engine mounts' sound-deadening capabilities has paid off beautifully. There are no audible body booms or echos attributable to engine vibration, and that contributes a good deal to the car's effortless progress.

The Lotus Turbo Esprit is a fast car, even in the Ferrari Boxer sense. It will rust to 60mph in a startling 5.7 sec, a full 1.0 sec faster than the Ferrari 308GTBi can manage it, and reaches 100mph in 16.5 sec, 3.0 sec faster than the Italian. It has a particular ability to sprint from standstill, being one of the few cars – big capacity or not – that has the traction and happy degree of clutch bite that it takes to arrive at 30mph in less than 3.0 sec. That's a fast time. The Lotus, blasting off the line with around 4500rpm on the tachometer, can go from standstill to 30mph in just 2.6 sec. The Ferrari does well here, too. Its magnificently weighted and sensitive new clutch mechanism, combined with the smooth power of eight wailing cylinders, can take it to 30mph in just 2.9 sec.

At the other end, the Lotus will beat 150mph, and get there quite quickly. It will probably turn 155-157 given room, at which pace the speedo would be indicating 165 or so, but anything more than 150 seems to take time. It's academic, we'd say. The push up to 135 or so is the most impressive part. The car will show 125 on the shortish straight of Lotus's own test track (where the Ferrari will do no better than 115 – about 110mph true) and that's just about maximum of fourth gear. The Hethel car's gear maxima, baldly stated, are inspiring enough – 41mph, 62, 91, 123 and 152. And that's only using 7000rpm. The serious go around another 300rpm. . .

As good as the very best exotic cars built is the Lotus's high speed cruising ability and stability. You choose your pace – 100, 120, even 140, it doesn't seem to matter much to the effortless engine. Even at 140, the engine's only turning 6200rpm which it's clearly built to take. The most comfortable doddle seems to be about 115mph, 5000rpm and a whisker more than half throttle. Open it up fully at that speed and there's a powerful push in the back that doesn't stop until another 20-25mph is registered on the speedo's black-on-white.

The Ferrari is clearly beaten on performance, but not badly beaten. It gets off the mark very smartly, as mentioned, its lowered final drive ratio brings the beautifully chosen gear ratios even closer together so that there's always an apt gear available in the tightest or fastest going, and that 7700rpm rev limit, blood-curdlingly high for a 3.0-litre bent-engine, ensures that first beats 40mph, second 65, third 80 and fourth 110mph.

Heartening is the fact that the injected engine runs crisply to its limit (unprotected by any rev-limiting device) despite the fact that it has less power and a cleaner exhaust than before. Those things spell breathlessness in other cars, but not in the Ferrari 308GTBi. There is a degree of harshness that creeps in above 7000rpm nowadays – it must be admitted that the Lotus four is better at really high crankshaft speeds – but changing up at 7000rpm is no hardship. Any shortfall in progress between driving with 7000 and 7700rpm redlines is only discernible over timed laps of a close circuit, and a demanding one at that.

Ferrari claim the 308GTBi will get to 150, but it won't. Our test car would do 140mph, allowing for its 6-7mph of speedometer error, and would maintain it even up gentle gradients, but it wouldn't go faster. The test car had done less than 3000 miles at the time which isn't enough (for all the belief about one not needing to run in a Ferrari engine) but we doubt whether it would ever do more than 145. It takes a lot more power even to add 5mph at those speeds.

Handling, Roadholding

If there is a thing any Lotus promises above all else, it is fine roadholding. This Turbo fulfils the promise better than any roadgoing Hethel car ever. Simply speaking, its roadholding makes it among the two or three fastest-cornering road cars. It negotiates corners, fast or slow, measurably better than the Ferrari.

We had a longer time than usual to assess these two cars purely on the basis of their handling. We built extra time into our test period knowing that the cars would be hard to distinguish from one another (make no mistake, they are) but as a bonus we were also presented with the chance to drive both cars more or less flat-out around the Hethel test track, a clockwise circuit which combines things like double-apexed 90-100mph sweepers with hairpin bends that have cruel bumps from apex to widest exit line, and a couple of 120-130mph straights. The Lotus, on its super-fat Goodyear NCT VR60 tyres, looked more like an endurance racer than something you could happily drive to work in as it stood on a bitumen apron at one end of the circuit (where there's a rudimentary skid-pan and a long, slow corner that only the best drivers get right). Our test car was running 15in BBS-made alloy wheels with 195/60 Goodyear's on the front and steamroller 235/60s on the rear. They amounted together to a good deal more footprint area than the Ferrari's 220/55 VR390 Michelin TRXs (though woe betide he who thinks more rubber necessarily means more grip).

Lotus say they have spent a good deal of time with Goodyear's Luxembourg-based technicians developing the NCTs to be sure that they suit their cars, and they have nothing but good words to say about the giant's inclination to co-operated with a smallish British specialist builder. That the co-operation bears fruit is borne out on the circuit. The key to the Lotus's fine roadholding is a rear end grip that defies logic, and appears to defy physics. The car hangs on at the rear when it no longer has a right to. Such modest breakaway as there is – even at test track speeds – happens at the front wheels and it isn't exactly easy to shake them, either.

Persistence will get the Lotus to slide briefly at the rear – if you apply full power and boost on the exit from a slow corner taken at the limit, or if you throttle off savagely (or mash the brake) in a maximum effort corner over 'marbles' the tyres will reluctantly shrug their shoulders sideways for a second, but even then the moment is so brief that correction is hardly needed. Understeer, of course is countered with a whisker less throttle. You don't go anywhere near closing the throttle to tighten the nose, you merely ease the pedal for a moment. There isn't merely an on-off nose-tightening facility, it's available in marvellously accurate degrees.

All this is accompanied by a rack and pinion steering system of the highest quality. It's direct, it's beautifully accurate and beautifully informative, yet there's a surprising resistance to kick-back. As Mr Nicholas said some time ago in these pages, it has responses so delicate that you feel them through the skin of your fingers, rather than by actual displacement of your hand. For all that, the steering isn't perfect. There is a tendency for the front tyres to scrub rather alarmingly when the car is on full lock (though the turning circle is quite tight) and the steering effort is high at low speeds. Most people won't find it more than a minor annoyance, but some ladies may be bothered.

You might wonder, after all this, whether there are good words left to be said about the Ferrari. There most certainly are. Despite the fine job that Michelin XWX tyres have done on Ferraris for many years, these new TRXs take its chassis capability a biggish step further. True, it doesn't have as much outright grip as the Lotus, but it couldn't be more than a percentage point or two behind. What the Michelins seem to do for the Ferrari is to dramatically cut the old car's low-speed tyre noise and to further 'tune' the chassis breakaway characteristics so that they are utterly predictable and quite graceful. In the Lotus you feel that provoking any kind of breakaway goes against the inclination of the designers and the car itself, but in the Ferrari there is a kind of semi-slide, drifting condition which is beautiful, fast and downright inspiring.

The throttle pedal controls it all. It is a little lighter than the one which in previous models controls a bank of Webers, but just as sensitive, progressive and entirely lacking in lost motion. Approach a 60mph corner, near maximum effort. Let's say it understeers a whisker and you need to counter that. In the Ferrari you have the option of merely pulling the nose in a whisker and continuing around with the front wheels still understeering a shade, or you can throttle off to a stage where the car moves beautifully into the shallowest of oversteer 'drifts' (it's a terrible word, perhaps, but I can't think of a better one) at which stage, if you come back down on the power, you can keep the tail a shade out of line or exaggerate the angle with power – to the extent that it turns into a shallow power slide – according to your will. The Lotus would never do that, in nearly every circumstance it would merely cease to run wide at the front.

The Ferrari's throttle-off oversteer (it seems too delicious and predictable a condition to be described in such VW Beetle terms) persists in really fast – 100mph or so – bends. It isn't wise to be caught on a trailing throttle at the wrong time at those speeds. Better t concentrate a little better, get your entry speed just right and be on the power at the point of maximum effort cornering. Then, you can almost feel the car reach down and grip the road, such is its stability. The lack of this is what we mean by the Lotus feeling so safe. If the Turbo will begin to turn in, it will go all the way around as long as the bend you've chosen doesn't have a closing radius; even then your chances are good. This supreme stability also makes the Lotus fast and effortless when you're driving quickly over roads you've never seen before. That back-end grip is just SO reassuring.

The Ferrari steering is lighter, going both fast and slow, than in the Lotus. It is sensitive, too, though a little less directly geared and more prone to kickback. But it's an alternative to the Lotus's system, not its inferior. The rake of the wheel, rim effort and its relationship to the driver's body is just as right as in any other recent Ferrari we've driven – all quite lovely.


Those who do not understand them are inclined to see comfort as a matter of low priority for the Ferrari and a Lotus. These are not, after all, cars for relaxing in. Yet for their makers and their serious owners, comfort is as important as horsepower – not the cossetting kind of comfort, but the kind which ensures that the driver is not distracted from the exacting business of applying a 150mph car's performance; the kind which keeps him firmly in place at 0.8g lateral acceleration (both cars can generate that with plenty in reserve).

The Ferrari's driving position is reminiscent of the Boxer's. There is only just enough headroom for a six-footer, only just enough seat rake for a person with average-long arms but more legroom than many low Italian cars offer. For all that, you sit with your knees fairly high, and the pedals are offset towards the centre of the car to compensate for the instrusion of the front wheel arch. The steering wheel, a full arm's reach away, is set at the typically Ferrari rake which supports the hands so well at the classic ten-to-two. The thin Ferrari gearlever sprouts from its gate close at your thigh (a little too close for comfort, if you're large, when it's in fourth or fifth).

The rest of the cockpit is reminiscent of a Boxer's, though a little narrower. There is the same surprisingly good rear vision (it's miles better in this respect that the Lotus), the same low facia with the glistening PVC on top that reflects on the screen in low angle sunlight, the same 'open plan' floor without the full-length, deep console that segregates driver and passenger as in other exotics. a trio of demister vents sits on top of the dash and a pair of cabin air vents (just as ineffectual as the Boxer's) hang below the dash. The three-wand switch system is common to other current Ferraris and nestles beneath the all-black, leather-bound Nardi steering wheel.

The injected 308's cockpit has many changes from the previous model's, all of them quite subtle. There are still five instruments crowded into a binnacle ahead of the steering wheel (only tacho, speedo and oil pressure gauge are visible, fuel and water temperature dials are obscured by the wheel rim). The clock and oil temperature which were grouped to the side atop the dash are not located ahead of the gearchange gate on the console. The console is now crowded with switches because the new model has separate heat, air direction and fan controls for the driver and passenger. It's a futile exercise in a cockpit so small; the heating controls lack progressiveness and anyway, not even Ferrari's engineers can teach air to stay on its own side . . .

The trim (leather in our test car) and the seating style have been changed for the new model, too, though the basis of the seat design is the same. They are compact and appear not to be very thick, yet the cushions feel deep and supportive and the side-bolsters of the backrests, which don't seem especially bulky, act well to keep the body in place when cornering. But the seating can be criticised on the same basis as the Boxer's; it doesn't have enough lumber support. And the headrests aren't up to much either; they don't come anywhere near your head.

On the ride comfort side, each of these cars is as firm, flat, sporting and tighly-damped as you'd expect it to be. What takes you by surprise is the carefully-refined facility of each to cope quietly with bumps taken either at 30mph or at five times that speed; their ride silence. Lotus claim there is a big difference between their cars' behaviour on standard Goodyear NCTs and the specially-developed versions that go onto all Lotuses now. The NCTs have fairly firm walls, and they used to make the fact very plain. Now the Turbo Esprit has a low level of road noise that five years ago would have done credit to a thickly-carpeted executive saloon, yet its suspension has the poise and strength to do things that would never be expected of a mundane machine – to absorb 'surprise' 120mph bitumen ruts, and to confine body roll at the limit to the extent that occupants of the car don't believe that any exists.

The Ferrari rides a whisker more softly than the Lotus, and this enables the Italian to better smother the vibration and noise associated with high-frequency bitumen ripples. The trade-off is slightly more body movement over undulating surfaces than the Lotus has, but that is more a quirk of the Ferrari than a fault. It's ride is well controlled by any standard.

Incidentally, if 'comfort' may be construed as 'peace of mind', it's worth noting that the Lotus has far, far better bumper protection front and rear than Ferrari (whose elegant metalwork and parking lights are put at risk every time it is left in the open). The Lotus also contains far more cheaply-bought (British-made) proprietary parts than the Ferrari, and that ought to help in keeping maintenance costs down. A Ferrari silencer, just part of the 308GTBi's eight-into-two exhaust system, costs around £260.

The Lotus driving position is much more confining than the Ferrari's, but in a positive sense. You sit a little lower in the car (the cockpit seems less airy because the facia and window sills are higher) with the big centre console on one side and the close-fitting door on the other forming a racing car-style tub around your body. You feel snug, and when the going is fast and twisty, the Lotus driving position offers the better support of the two. The cockpit looks very luxurious. That 'wrinkled' leather upholstery used on dash, doors and seats looks terrific and is said to be tough and hard-wearing, but we noticed that in our (admittedly hard used) Lotus test car it was losing its colour the texture here and there.

The Lotus ergonomics are mostly excellent. The 'winged' instrument binnacle that looks so good behind the thick-rimmed Lotus wheel contains seven dials, and each one of them is plainly visible to the driver. It also puts the four most-used switches within easy sight and reach. The two-stalk, ex-TR7 switch system for flashers, turn indicators, washers/wipers and horn also works perfectly well. The delightfully short gearlever is a minimal distance from the wheel rim (though the wheel itself is an inch or so closer to the driver's chest than we'd prefer). The pedals, beautifully matched in effort – and light – manage to afford larger feet sufficient manoeuvring room even though they're in a confined footwell, and it goes without saying that the relationship between brake and throttle pedals makes heel-and-toeing a natural manoeuvre. But deserving of criticism are the handbrake lever in the door sill (obstructive, lacking in mechanical advantage) and the air conditioning controls (vague in action, hard to understand, awkward to reach). The low seating position, it must be said, does make the Lotus hard to see out of for people under 6ft until they learn to sense the car's extremities. The Ferrari is much, much, better in this respect.


Driver appeal

At the core of it all, driver appeal is what matters to most buyers of £20,000 mid-engined sports cars; it is more telling than performance or roadholding or comfort or any other single category. Perhaps it is riddled with emotional factors and personal preferences but it is the thing which – in the end – makes a case for one fine car and puts another beyond redemption.

The Lotus's enormous driver appeal is based on absolutes. The Turbo Esprit is both the faster and the quicker car. It has most grip on the skid-pan and in the bends and most urge down the straights. It is the more spectacularly styled (rivalling a Countach for kerb-appeal as we mentioned). It is the easier and more relaxed of the two to drive fast, especially on roads you don't know, which is most of them. The engine is actually nicer to use right up to its redline, yet it can support a more relaxed overall gearing (a boost to frugality and quietness). It is the more aerodynamic car, the lighter by a long chalk, marginally the more stable under brakes and at high speed and as a result it is between 10 and 15% the more economical. It also has around 100miles more touring range. Buy a small margin it has the more comfortable cabin (though not the better finish or visibility; the Ferrari's are state-of-the-art). Undoubtedly, in an unpoliced chase from London to Munich and back,, given perfect reliability, the winner would be Made in Britain. That telling statement might seem to sum up the comparison, but it does not. There is more.

The Ferrari, too, has a long list of endearing factors. Consider first that body shape. It's sensuous, compound-curved, traditional – and made mostly in metal. Little matter that 308s of the past have been built in glassfibre, the aficionados will tell you; this body is patently not a flat-planed wedge intended specifically for 'plastic' and that's what matters. The Pininfarina-drawn shape is widely considered to be the most beautiful presently being bolted to a sports car. Not merely most arresting; most beautiful. What is more, it has a priceless Pininfarina heritage. There is an obvious styling relationship with the Boxer, the Dino 246GT, even the Daytona and the LM250 – all of those among the world's greatest.

To some, the Ferrari 308GTBi has conclusive advantages when on the move. That whistle-wail-whine-rasp of the engine, available at any speed, is a commodity beyond price or emulation. The delicious bit of that new clutch, so sensually amalgamated with the bite of the TRX tyres, the perfect gear ratio spread and the elastic power of than newly-smoothed engine (rev limit: an awe-inspiring 7700rpm, remember) are all things that no-one else does quite as well at present. Add to that the smack of the distinctive, skinny gearlever in its chromed gate (together with the operating precision it requires of you), the fingertip steering (lighter even than the Esprit's), the delectable handling balance (adjustable over such a range of cornering attitudes) and that lovely low-speed ride and you have the elements of character, something you might not think the Lotus has in such abundance.

And if you care to weigh more minor matters than these, there is the smell of the leather, the Mercedes-Benz 'clonk' of the beautifully-fitted doors (Ferraris are now finished with a care once only afforded limousines) the 'Veglia Borletti' on the instrument faces, the name 'Nardi' on the steering wheel. Further down the scale yet still important is the Ferrari's distinct lack of loud and low-rent lettering on the body sides and – if you must – the extra snob-appeal of the name Ferrari at cocktail parties . . .


We must tell it as it is: this comparison has started more arguments (which show no sign of ending) and uncovered more wounds (not yet healed) than any in our collective memory. Each of the cars has won for itself a collection of hard-nut defenders whose only common ground is that they will not see the other point of view.

The Lotus lobby endlessly say they would buy the best, most efficient and fastest car. They could not contemplate putting down their money for one fast car – the Ferrari – knowing that another was its superior on so many fonts. That there is now such a price gap between the cars (basic prices are Lotus £16,900, Ferrari £21,800) only adds extra weight to their argument. As far as capability-for-the-money is concerned, they impatiently cry, there is not contest: it's the Lotus.

The Ferrari group are swayed by less-easily-explained 'emotional' factors – the magic of the name, the shape-appeal, the soul, the sensuality of the controls, the unmatched character of the heritage of the marque – but there are some more practical reasons for their allegiance, too. Based on history, the say, a 10 year-old Ferrari will be regarded as a more important car – and will be worth a lot more money – than a 10 year-old Lotus. To buy the 380GTBi, they will admit, is to buy a car which is a couple of percentage points behind the Lotus in ground-covering ability but when you consider how infrequently those points will be noticed and you consider the compensating factors, there can only be one choice. Theirs: the Ferrari. The extra money, they say, is 'worth it'.

Beyond all this, it is the use of which the car is to be put, and the basis on which it is bought that will likely decide the choice. If you already have fine cars and you need a super-fast machine for high-speed Continental dashes, you need the Lotus. There is no denying that it does, by a hefty margin, offer more capability for the money. It is also tremendously safe, inspiring to drive yet very relaxed – and economical. But if you yearn to own one great car – just one – almost as much as you yearn to go on living; if you know you'll only get one chance and this is it; if you intend to tuck your car up and use it with great vigour and panache only when road conditions and your own inclination are right (and go to work in an Escort); if you want to feel the pleasure of ownership of a great car for the next 20 years – or double that time – then there is one choice to be made. You must have the Ferrari.