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Best of 2007: Go, speed racers, go

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One is British, the other German. The Brit is a 1-ton, mid-engine atomic pixie stripped to the bare metal floor, a car so loud and raw that when its 220-horsepower supercharged four is at -- how to put this delicately? -- full suck, it sounds like an Oreck vacuum cleaner has taken up residence in your helmet. The German is almost exactly a half-ton heavier, a winged, ground-skimming vampire with a 415-hp, 3.6-liter flat six stuck in its keister. The sound of this engine is breathtaking, biblical, deeply sinister, like a two-man logging team cutting down the Tree of Knowledge.

If you think low polar moment has to do with melting ice caps, these cars are not for you. These cars are turnkey club racers, factory-prepped competition cars that you can drive to the track, hot lap and drive home on what's left of the tires. They are toys, although in general lethality, more in line with those made by General Dynamics than Mattel.

These cars -- the Lotus Exige S and the Porsche 911 GT3 -- belong to an esoteric subset of performance cars: stripped down, tweaked to the gills, barely legal. You could count among them the Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera and the Ferrari F430 Challenge Stradale. How barely legal? The Exige S has a rear-view mirror -- for purposes of Department of Transportation approval -- but you can't see anything because the rear canopy is filled with the enormous intercooler.

Road cars are compromised. The steering is slower, more assisted and more self-centering. The springs and shocks are softer. The cabins are packed with heavy, noise-dampening insulation.

In the Exige S and the GT3, all that gets tossed like Imus Fan Club buttons. The Porsche has a stall-happy, dual-mass flywheel and a towering, leg-wearying pedal to engage it. Getting into the tiny, low-slung Lotus is like climbing into a desk drawer. Both cars have hair-trigger steering. A good sneeze can send you across three lanes of traffic.

These cars remind me of an O. Henry short story that was never written: A man, seeking revenge, gives his mortal enemy a gift of one of these cars -- free, no questions asked. The only condition: He has to pick it up in Baltimore and drive it home. On second thought, it's more like Stephen King.

But at the track? They're bliss, perfection, automotive Orgasmatrons.

The $60,815 (base price) Exige S -- the new supercharged version replacing the soft-on-power Exige -- is an elementary particle in sports-car physics: No power steering, no stability control and no adaptive damping to sooth the cat-o'-nine-tails sting of its suspension. The $106,860 GT3 -- a lightened and tightened version of the 997 with the naturally aspirated engine set to kill -- is more sophisticated: It has variable-rate power steering, traction control and adaptive damping. But what the Porsche giveth in terms of civility -- alcantara seats and optional DVD-based navigation, for instance -- it taketh away in protective overrides. Unlike standard 911s, the GT3 doesn't come with stability control; tease this rear-engine dragon's sliding, opposite-lock limits and you may find yourself going backward in a major hurry.

You could not ask for two unalike cars to be more alike. For example, both lunge -- and that's the only word for it -- to 60 mph in about 4 seconds. Both scream red-faced arias up to 8,500 rpm, and both reach peak torque at 5,500 rpm. Both use hand-stirred gear sets -- in fact, these are two of the quickest production cars in the world that still use a conventional six-speed manual gearbox (another is the Porsche Turbo). Both come shod with race tires (Yokohama ADVAN A048s for the Lotus, Michelin Pilot Sport Cups for the Porsche) that are stickier than a House subpoena. Both have adjustable suspensions: The Lotus has one-way adjustable Eibach/Bilstein coil-overs and rear anti-roll bar, while the GT3's whole geometry can be tuned (camber, toe, ride height and roll stiffness). Both have race-proven brakes: Brembos for the Lotus and, on our test GT3, Porsche's full-on land anchors, the optional ceramic composite brakes.

Oddly, both brands' American operations are based in Atlanta. How weird is that?

And both claw the air in search of track-holding downforce and radiator-cooling breezes with wings, splitters, intakes -- a dog's breakfast of scoops and aero-foils. The Exige S generates 100 pounds of downforce at 90 mph. The GT3's biplane rear wing is adjustable and includes a Gurney flap on the trailing edge of the deck lid. Top speed is a brisk 193 mph.

To paraphrase Bill Murray, what we have here are two heavily armed recreational vehicles.

A couple of weeks ago, I took the Lotus Exige S to Willow Springs -- thank you, Los Angeles Shelby American Automobile Club -- and it was just phenomenal. Once I got there. I barely survived the 90-minute beating delivered by the Exige S's spine-zinging, concussive ride. Sweet suffering Jesuits!

Then I pulled onto the Streets of Willow circuit and it got all better.

Many words have been spilled trying to describe Lotus' distinctive handling, of which the Exige S is the best example yet. Low and wide-stanced, the car has its roll centers deep in the Earth. Being that it's a mid-engine car on a 90.5-inch wheelbase, with a 38/62 front/rear weight bias, you'd expect it to snappishly oversteer (translation: that it would fishtail abruptly). Instead, the Lotus' deeply neutral handling -- and the seamless transitions provided by the progressive-rate Eibach springs -- allows you to trail-brake like crazy, rotate the car and, as it points toward the apex, get right back on the gas. This car lives for slip angles. No car, anywhere, has such confidence-inspiring cornering poise.

The steering -- and the comically small steering wheel -- that seems so nervous on the road is perfect on the track: light, quick and laser accurate. The aluminum-cased gearbox that seems clunky and unrefined on the street now slips between ratios like a greasy knife. The pedals are close and easy to heel-and-toe.

The no-profile Yokohama gumball tires that beat your brains out on the street now seem like magic. It would have been tempting to load this car up with monster tires whose lateral grip would overwhelm the chassis; instead, Lotus matched the tires perfectly, and when this car is in its fervid, opposite-lock moments, it's as much fun as driving an old British sports car on bias plies.

Howling and hissing like a Harrier just inches from your head, the Toyota-built 1.8-liter engine is supercharged -- 30 hp more than the standard Elise -- and chipped so that 80% of maximum torque (165 pound-feet at 5,500 rpm) is available at just 2,000 rpm. Put the power down mid-corner and the Exige S digs like crazy (our test car had optional traction control, but it's almost completely transparent). Punchy, lively, free-revving, this twin-cammer has a cute trick: It provides a two-second overboost, temporarily raising the redline from 8,000 to 8,500 rpm. This came in handy at the end of Street's single longish strait heading up the hill to Turn 2.

Our test Exige S had a few domesticating features, including air conditioning and the optional Touring pack, which included electric windows (useful) and a stereo (useless). With all that, the car weighed about 2,100 pounds, I'd estimate.

The GT3 comes at the performance equation from another angle, starting life as a rather plush GT and simplifying. Gone are the back seats, the sound insulation in the headliner and about 100 other odds and ends. Added are a dry sump lube system and all manner of exotic engine internals to make the reciprocating parts lighter and faster. Redline is a ferocious 8,400 rpm (although it looks like 8,500 from the cockpit) and specific power is an astonishing 115.2 hp/liter. With variable induction geometry and stepless variable valve timing, the 3.6-liter just vomits howling gouts of German horsepower in every gear. I rather like that.

The beautifully balanced GT3, obviously, has higher absolute limits than the Exige S, more bite on turn-in and more lateral road holding from its huge 19-inch tires. If you put the adjustable suspension in Sport mode, the car gets very racy and non-elastic, which can provoke it to skip and trammel in corners over less-than-perfect pavement. Too much of that and the car's computer will revert to the more compliant damper settings. The steering is massively heavy but has superb feedback. The variable-ratio algorithm means that the further off-center you turn, the more direct the steering response becomes, but the effect is so subtle I didn't detect it.

I don't love the pedal arrangement in the GT3. To heel-and-toe the accelerator, the brake pedal has to be pushed down pretty far, and with the ceramic brakes, that means gonzo, 10-tenths braking, which can take you out of your driving rhythm, not to mention hang you from the seat belts.

New for this year's GT3 is standard traction control. With its sky-high thresholds, the system allows lots of power-on oversteer and won't step in unless you well and truly spool the tires. The more adventurous can switch off traction control.

Unlike the hero-making Exige S, the GT3 is likely to leave you feeling slightly humbled. There's a lot of car here. Getting the most out of it would require many laps and a dozen sets of tires (at $1,500 a set). Still, it's one of the half-dozen greatest track cars ever to host a license plate.

Had enough yet? If not, Lotus offers the track-only, non-DOT Exige Cup, with an additional 37 hp ($86,190). Porsche offers the GT3 RS, a weight-shaved street-legal racer with a rear wing the size of a coffee table ($123,200). Prepare to have your face melted.

As the saying goes: Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?

dan.neil@latimes.com

2007 Lotus Exige SBase price: $60,815Price, as tested: $64,855Powertrain: Mid-mounted supercharged and inter-cooled 1.8-liter DOHC inline four cylinder with variable valve timing; six-speed manual transmission; rear wheel driveHorsepower: 220 hp at 8,000 rpmTorque: 165 pound-feet at 5,500 rpmCurb weight: 2,077 pounds0-60 mph: 4 secondsWheelbase: 90.5 inchesOverall length: 149.5 inchesEPA fuel economy: 23 miles per gallon city, 29 mpg highwayFinal thoughts: Devil in a blue mini-dress

2007 Porsche 911 GT3Base price: $106,860Price, as tested: $120,735Powertrain: Rear-mounted, naturally aspirated, horizontally opposed DOHC six cylinder with variable induction and valve timing; six-speed manual transmission; rear-wheel driveHorsepower: 415 at 7,600 rpmTorque: 300 pound-feet at 5,500 rpmCurb weight: 3,031 pounds0-60 mph: 4 secondsWheelbase: 92.9 inchesOverall length: 176.9 inchesEPA fuel economy: 17 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highwayFinal thoughts: Road & Track special edition

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