Porsche GT3 RS vs Ferrari 458 Italia

 

You’re probably looking at this comparison and thinking it’s pointless. Surely the Porsche must be hopelessly outgunned by the technical barrage of the Ferrari 458 Italia; and I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that. As I set out to undertake this test, I admit I was biased in favour of the Ferrari. Apart from the fact that I’m very familiar with the particular example featured here, having driven it extensively, one cannot avoid being influenced by the gushing press reports ever since the new 458 hit the streets.

And yes, they’re all true. Every last ‘I’m in love’ road test, every track report, blog post, online video and TV road-testing celebrity. They’re all true – the 458 is a quite amazing car. You should drive it. And, indeed, if I hadn’t driven the 458 Italia back to back against the GT3 RS 3.8, that’s about where this feature would be finishing.

Further proof, should you need it, comes in a glance at the statistics. 560bhp versus 450bhp; seven-speed twin-clutch paddleshift versus six-speed manual; carbon brakes standard on the Ferrari, optional on the Porsche; 0-62mph in 3.4 seconds versus 4.0 seconds; top speed 202mph versus 192mph; £175,000 list price versus a mere £109,000-ish for the 911. The only statistic that the Porsche wins on is weight – it’s actually 10kg lighter – but your average cool Italian test driver probably weighs less than Walter Röhrl, anyway.

By now, you’re probably shouting “4.0RS!” in defence. But the GT3 4.0RS is a limited edition of just 600 cars, not in continuous production, so the 3.8RS is the most direct comparison. Therefore, if Top Trumps is your favourite after-dinner game, you’ll want to be holding the Ferrari card. But bear with me, because there’s a whole load more to it than that.

If you have the means to fund either of these two cars, you’re probably far more interested in how they drive, which one excites you, which one you admire the looks of most and the one that you’d most like to see yourself reflected driving slowly past shop windows in. Without a doubt, both of these machines have an utterly striking appearance. Pretty much as soon as we began photography, a small crowd of iPhone-toting onlookers gathered and stayed pretty much all the time we were shooting, such was the impression the cars made.

Although I may be stating the obvious, these two cars are utterly different in their personalities, in the way they interact with the driver and in the way they deliver their performance. They have completely different DNA, a different view on what constitutes a great drive and a different way of delivering what is still a great driving experience, regardless of your personal choice.

Approach the pair and the Ferrari stands out as the more flamboyant. Its combination of gorgeous curves, the deep gloss Rosso Corsa paintwork and Crema leather interior scream ‘Ferrari’ at you. It can be nothing else. However, this shape was created not by Pinifarina or Bertone, but by Ferrari itself; crafted in a wind tunnel, with great care and attention to detail. The curvaceous rear arches are designed to channel air into the rear-mounted clutch and gearbox radiators, mounted high up beside a pair of circular taillights that pay homage to the 308. The front end is characterised by a single aerodynamic vent and two large side intakes for engine radiator cooling. The front lamps are very modern looking, with LED daytime running lights stacked vertically above bi-xenon headlights. The more you look at the shape, the more small design touches you see, such as the blade-like brake air intake sitting beside the daytime lights and the sharp edge to the front of the bonnet line that flows upwards into the two front wheels, a sharp crease either side looking like they have been scored into the bonnet with a metalworker’s scribe. The combination of sharp functional edges and Italian curves work well and you could quite happily sink a bottle of Chianti while strolling around studying the design details.

The GT3 RS is equally distinctive. The outline is instantly Porsche, you could park a 1973 2.7RS beside it and a bystander would get the idea. The rear has the usual curvy wheel arches that a certain Porsche magazine editor once admitted to immensely enjoying slowly rubbing a chamois leather over. They house the massive Michelin Sport tyres and, viewed from directly behind the silhouette, scream ‘Grip’ and ‘Traction’ at you. The Supercup rear wing sits on top of a ducktail-style spoiler with a functional intake feeding cooling air into the engine bay and intakes. On other cars, it would look very boy racer, but it fits the GT3 and balances out the oh-so-low front bumper with integral splitter complete with additional cooling slots and small extensions to the front arches.

If you move inside, the Porsche doesn’t hide its purpose. The doors open and close with that quality sound that you only get from expensive briefcase locks; the type you buy just once and they’ll last a lifetime. Slide down into the tight seats, complete with slots for harnesses and clad in that black material that the most expensive FIA-approved Recaros and Sparcos wear, grip the wheel and the gearshift and it feels as if the entire car has been machined from a single billet of metal. You get the impression that in 15 or 18 years time, it will feel the same way. Behind you is a bright-red half-rollcage and a large fire extinguisher sits comfortingly in the passenger footwell. Shut the door with the red webbing pull, shuffle down further into the perfectly hip-hugging seat and the yellow telltale band signifying top dead centre on the steering wheel sits just on your eye-line. This is a racing car that just happens to have had some numberplates screwed onto it.

Wriggle out of the seat and stroll over to the Ferrari. The tiny door handles, in comparison, need only a thumb and forefinger to open, the design reminiscent of the 308 and 288 GTO. Delicate. The doors feel lightweight, but the car has a quality feel about it that Ferrari has worked hard to achieve over the last few years. It’s not up there with the Porsche, but the build quality is far better than any Ferrari I’ve previously driven. This car has several expensive options. The seats are the racing option. Which in Ferrari-speak doesn’t mean jet black racer cloth, but a pair of beautiful carbon skeletons clad in soft, immaculate, fine-grain Crema leather. Not quite as tight as the Porsche seats, but still reassuringly comfortable.

The steering wheel is a sculpture in itself, framing a huge bright yellow tachometer that goes all the way to 9,000rpm. With the optional LED shift lights built into the carbon wheel, slightly flattened at the base and carrying a whole host of buttons and features, it comes straight from Alonso’s Sunday office. At first glance, it all looks very pretentious and glam and more than a little PlayStation, but place you hands on the wheel and reach around with your fingertips and you start to see the ergonomics of it all. Reach behind and two long blades in carbon, stamped with ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ trigger the twin-clutch gearshift that everyone raves about. The levers don’t move with steering wheel angle, which is sensible. Low down on the wheel are two attention-getters; a flamboyant ‘Engine Start’ button in bright red on the left and that famous ‘Manettino’ switch that controls the modes and moods of the car, ranging from Wet, through Sport and Race and becoming braver still with two settings that progressively remove the traction and stability controls, leaving the driver to reach deeply into his own bucket of skill with no safety net. Indicators, headlights and wash wipe are all activated from the front of the wheel. Spend a few minutes acclimatising and it’s all very sensible. The horn buttons, one on each side, are actually in the steering wheel rim, right under where you’d rest your thumbs.

The stark difference in personalities goes far deeper than just looks. Stroll around the rear of both cars and lift the engine covers. The Porsche is, well, typical Porsche. Very little to see, the Mezger block buried deep in the quest for a low centre of gravity, behind twin plastic air intakes. The only admission to anything unusual is a brushed alloy plate saying ‘RS 3.8 Porsche’. The Ferrari, on the other hand, shouts from the rooftops; its engine on plain view like an automotive sculpture behind a glass cover, two lovely red crackle-finished plenum chambers display the Ferrari font seen on so many cam covers over the decades.

Start up the engines and the theme continues. Wake the Porsche on the key and there’s the usual starter chatter followed by the low-key idle that has become familiar to 911 owners over the decades; that noisy gear chatter almost overpowering the quiet, fuss-free idle.

The Ferrari has a little sequence to go through; turn the key, wait for the LCD screens to awaken, foot on brake, push that big red button and it springs alive with a sharp bark of revs before the exhaust flaps close up and it quietens down to what is actually a demure exhaust note. But your neighbours will definitely know you’ve started it.

Both engines have that instant snap of throttle response that only car manufacturers that develop their engines through motorsport seem to be able to achieve. The 458 sounds like an angry cougar that you’ve just poked under a rock with a stick. The GT3 RS sounds like only a GT3 can; it revs instantly up, instantly down.

Let’s drive the Ferrari first. Flick a gear paddle and move off with the gearshift in the default auto mode, and it’s as seamless as a Lexus; no dramas, slicking up and down the gearbox. You could take granny shopping and she’d never know what lies beneath. Push the auto mode off and select Race on the Manettino for the first time, build up some pace down a twisting A road and the smile spreads over your face. Right away, this car tells you quite openly that you’re a wonderful driver. No really, you are. It’s like being on a date with the most gorgeous woman you’ve admired from afar, you know you’re punching way above your weight, but then she whispers something about a little later this evening and your confidence soars. The tactile and overt way that this car tells you what a great time you’re both having makes it almost a caricature of a supercar. The exhaust note in Race mode is cartoon-like; charge from one corner to another between some Yorkshire dry-stone walls and the exhaust screams like an F1 car, before popping, crackling and banging on the overrun like a Spitfire making a low pass. It makes you laugh out loud first time you hear it. The twin-clutch gearbox is machine gun fast; the car actually feeling as if it’s accelerating as it shifts the gears, it’s that quick. Following another fast-moving car, you can visibly see the distance to the vehicle ahead being gobbled up on each upshift. The Ferrari inspires confidence at all times, makes you beg for reasons to drive it. And yet put it back into auto mode and all the toys are put back in the box and it could be a Lexus again.

I have to say, I’m walking across to the Porsche and I’m thinking, ‘Sorry, fella, but that red thing really is very good, what can you bring along?’ But a strange thing happens. Slide into the seat, grip the wheel and something inside me says, ‘Ah, that’s better’. I can only put it down to years of having Porsche hands, if you get my drift, but as I snick the super sharp gearshift into first, I feel utterly comfortable. Blip a few revs on and away up the road, that GT3 bark is just so reassuring. You have to pay close attention in the lower gears, such is the response and the engine’s willingness to rev, you glance down and see 8,500rpm coming around very rapidly in first, second, third. Eyes outside, there’s an awful lot of green blur in my peripheral vision and the engine note that started out way down low with a deep chested induction noise rises above 6,000rpm into that hard-edged Supercup bark before a full-on scream for the final 1,000. For sure, the Ferrari exhaust designer deserves a medal, but, damn, that 3.8 sounds really good at the top end.

The ride has a similar stiffness to the Ferrari and both cars have clever dampers that are switchable for those stiff, jiggling Yorkshire B roads, both giving a smoother ride and better traction in the softer mode.

But you have to work harder in the Porsche. In the same way that the Ferrari tells you that you’re wonderful, the Porsche simply says, ‘If you’ve had the intelligence to buy me and park me in your garage, you’d better be damn good. If you’re good enough, we’re going to go and win some endurance races together’. On the tight twisty Yorkshire roads, you constantly have one hand on the gearshift and your feet are working constantly. It’s an immensely absorbing and satisfying process that you just want to keep doing. In the back of your mind, you know that if the 458 were behind you, you’d be struggling to keep it there and it would only be a matter of time before that exhaust note came howling up the inside, popping and crackling through your side window as the carbon brakes complete the move and you’re looking at that gorgeous rear end ahead of you. But the Porsche is sharp, clinical in an almost martial arts kind of way. I don’t mean clinical to sound cold and uninvolving, its far from that, I mean an economy of movement and efficiency, the type of thing you see in those fast-moving Bourne Identity fight scenes.

For two cars to be so utterly different and yet still manage to deliver such emotionally satisfying drives is immensely impressive. The Ferrari is, without a doubt, the quicker of the two, the technically superior, faster over the ground and the new benchmark against which future contenders will be judged. However, this isn’t supposed to be a technical test, you’ve probably read those to death already and my shameless emotional attachment to that unique Porsche 911 feeling that you get when you approach one is also playing a strong part in my mind as I stand looking at the two in the early autumn sunshine.

So which one? It’s just so close. They’re both magnificent examples of the best integration of connecting technical excellence and performance with the hands, feet and brain of the driver. They’re both, without a doubt, two of the cars you go and drive for no reason at all, just for the sake of driving, which is an increasingly rare thing these days. So once again, which one?

The GT3 RS. Why? Because much as I love that Roger Rabbit exhaust note and Sophia Loren’s ample curves had a profound effect on me as a young adolescent, these days I see myself as more of a Jason Bourne kind of guy. It’s illogical, I know. But it’s the reason why sometimes, while we may move away from a Porsche 911 occasionally, we always return, don’t we?

This was taken from issue 82, for all Total 911 back issues visit www.imagineshop.co.uk/

 

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