The first time I saw a Lamborghini Countach in the wild was in 1988, at a moonlit motorway service station café on the M40. I pressed my nose to the window amid the commotion as the wild red spacecraft landed in the parking space below my vantage point and the driver emerged from his silver leather cocoon.
The noise and the looks were only part of the appeal. This was in the exclusive club of six-second cars – a 0-60 time way out of reach of the family hatchback. A look at the stats pages of any modern car mag shows you still need a big engine or featherweight build to achieve it. Today, we’ve gathered together the leading members of the six-second club for a shootout. Question is, do they live up to their promise as great drivers’ cars? Only one way to find out…
Aston Martin V8 Vantage
The oddest thing about the 375bhp, 170mph Vantage is that it doesn’t look like it should be as fast as it is. Perhaps it’s the chrome-edged shape with its 1967 origins, its craggy nose an affront to aerodynamics and its deep doors and lofty, saloon-like glasshouse suggesting substantial heft. Easing myself into its capacious interior, the full-sized rear seats and deep-pile carpeting make me wonder whether it would take kindly to being driven hard at all. I’ve tried plenty of standard Aston V8s, and while brisk they’re soft luxury GTs rather than serious performance machines.
Turn the ignition key, and the dense, leather-clad soundproofing of the Vantage’s bulkhead masks a slightly deeper bass-note idle than the standard V8’s. But get it moving and the heavy overhaul that transformed spongy V8 into brutal Vantage makes itself clear.
Take a quick corner and the stiffer springs and firmer dampers work hard to counter body roll, although the driver’s seat doesn’t offer much support, forcing me to hang on to the surprisingly small steering wheel in tight bends.
Feedback through the wheel is odd – power assistance makes it feel light and wieldy on wide sweepers, but apply more than a quarter-turn in either direction and it weights up and squirms slightly as the Vantage shifts its gait. It’s certainly not a car I’d choose for hurling around tight B-roads.
Communication through the narrow leather wheelrim feels as good as a compact BMW’s, but I get the sense that if the tyres were pushed to the limits of grip the messages from the helm would remain subdued by the Aston’s stiff-upper-lip luxury, a bit like the communiqué from the Gloucestershire Regiment during the 1951 Battle of Imjin River when they’d completely run out of ammunition: ‘Things are a bit sticky here.’
It’s in its element on straights, though. The springy accelerator pedal seems to have a two-stage operation. Row the long-travel gearlever up to third, push the tacho past 2000rpm, and the row of four downdraught Weber 48 IDF carburettors towering dragster-like over the gentlemanly V8 engine suddenly announce the arrival of the V8’s power like bellowing mechanical Roman stentors.
I soon learn what the strange extra cushion attached to the headrest is for. A kettledrum-roll from the Vantage’s exhausts is accompanied by a torque surge that hurls me back in my seat, the cushion preventing my neck from bending under the G-forces, keeping my head level and helping me focus on the road.
As I pass 100mph in fourth gear and turn into one of our circuit’s high-speed sweepers, however, the Vantage loses its composure slightly. Windows rattle in their runners, the gearlever squeaks incessantly against its leather gaiter, and the Gloucestershires stationed on the front wheels start reporting rubber casualties. I’ve no doubt it’ll hit its reputed 170mph in a straight-line drag race, but the Vantage doesn’t imbue me with the confidence I thought it would. It’s not a car for cruising unrestricted autobahnen in excess of 100mph all day, rather a luxury saloon capable of striking a devastating accelerative blow at times when it’s needed.
But this doesn’t detract from the Aston’s being, because what it lacks in athletic composure it makes up for in breeding and polish. It’s seismically fast, but it also manages to be refined in a way that makes you want to use that power sparingly.
It may accelerate like a typical supercar, but to drive it like one would be missing the point.
Porsche 928 S4
It’s strange to think that the Porsche 928 shared most of its production life with the Aston Martin V8. Pop-forward headlight mechanisms aside, it still doesn’t look old 20 years after Porsche stopped building it. The only other car I can think of that does this is the second-generation Citroën CX.
The hue helps. It’s a very colour-sensitive car, and the subdued indigo exterior combined with a high-contrast blue and white cocoon helps to accentuate the bold, stark lines. With a brown or black dashboard the wraparound cabin gets cheapened into supermini territory, whereas a typically bright Eighties paint job – Guards Red, for example – can make the body look like a one-piece plastic moulding. In dark blue, however, it’s sublime.
The trapezoidal side-windows, adjustable-rake instrument binnacle, rudimentary digital screens and satisfyingly chunky plastic switchgear conjure images of 22nd-century travel-pods imagined by Seventies futurologists, inhabiting a slick, calm utopia where technology had solved all the world’s problems. It’s an exciting place to sit, but I turn the ignition key with trepidation, because sadly the 928 – even this quad-cam S4 – has an unfortunate reputation for dullness. And this one’s got an automatic gearbox from Mercedes.
First impressions aren’t promising. There’s a muted wuffle from the engine bay, which quickly settles to a Bentley-like near-silent idle. Click the aircraft-throttle-shaped automatic shifter into Drive, and the 928 is happy to potter around at town speeds, as docile as an electric city-car, the steering feeling numb and overly light. It really does drive in a manner as modern as it looks. There’s no hint of supercar histrionics, no 911-style idiosyncrasies. At low speeds, I could be in a new Volkswagen Golf.
But beyond 2750rpm, with the accelerator pedal flattened into the thick white carpet, a distant thunderclap sounds beneath the bonnet and the gathering storm hurls the car forward with a relentless barrage of muted torque. Thanks to its 0.34 drag coefficient, there’s hardly any wind noise or sense of atmospheric resistance at all. The 245/45 R16 tyres hiss near-silently over the tarmac. It’s as graceful and effortless as an orbiting spacecraft.
And, in the way that flying at 35,000 feet can make a Boeing 747’s 565mph cruising speed feel sluggish from a window seat, all this low-drag refinement conspires to mask the 928’s true performance. At 120mph, with the scenery warping, the V8 thrums like it’s idling, even at 3750rpm. Give the accelerator another inch, and it’s still pulling hard through its power band, not that you’d realise until you applied the whiplash-threateningly-strong brakes.
In this way, the V8 Vantage and 928 S4 are similar, in that they’re GTs concealing supercar potential with deep-pile refinement. However, despite the popular images of refined, upper-class Aston Martin and cultish, sport-bred Porsche, it’s actually the German car that manages to contain its 320bhp with more decorum. It’s something that becomes clear as soon as you tackle sharp bends, and the 928’s passive rear-steering ‘Weissach axle’ comes into play.
I barrel the Porsche into a tight left-hand corner, and the body lurches slightly to the right. However, rather than the tyres squealing, followed by the back end kicking out, demanding opposite lock, the rear merely bobs slightly and corrects its own line, the tyres emitting not much more than a chirrup. It’s that patented rear axle design at work. It articulates the leading bushes of the traditional Porsche trailing-arm set-up – one of the factors that make air-cooled 911s so tail-happy – with counter-acting links, which pull in the control arms to add toe-in to the rear wheels when the weight unloads under braking or deceleration.
Once I realise quite how cohesively the 928’s innovations work with each other, the more confidence-inspiring it feels. It no longer seems boring, but instead makes that quad-cam, 5.0-litre, 32-valve V8’s performance accessible. Crucially, unlike modern cars with their numbing and intrusive electronic safety nets, the decidedly analogue yet clever Weissach axle lets you know when it’s working through progressive twitchings of the chassis, so you can back off the power or adjust your line without suddenly demolishing scenery.
The 928 S4 feels like a futuristic car designed for otherworldly high performance, whereas the V8 Vantage will never escape the fact that it’s a Seventies performance conversion of a Sixties car, grille and bonnet scoop blanked off like a Bonneville challenger. This doesn’t detract from the Vantage as an engineering achievement, but as a futuristic design that presaged the future of performance cars, it’s hard not to be impressed by the Porsche.
Lamborghini Countach 5000S
The Lamborghini Countach and Porsche 928 make for an interesting comparison. Both wear coachwork that owes nothing to convention. Both were subject to systematic evolution throughout 20-year careers that saw them approach 180mph at full tilt. However, the scalene angles and almost willfully user-unfriendly, form-over-function nature of the Countach makes it completely bizarre. I’m sure designer Marcello Gandini might claim that the banana-shaped seats are orthopedic in some way, and that the vertically hinged doors make ingress easier in crowded car parks but it’s all nonsense really – everything about the Countach is Satanic theatrical flourish.
It’s woefully uncomfortable. I’m firmly wedged into the seat with my head braced against the roof, engaged handbrake snagging my left calf muscle and my knees splayed around the tiny steering wheel. Rear three-quarter visibility is non-existent, and the pedals in this right-hand-drive example are so close together that most attempts to brake hit the accelerator instead.
Turn the key, and somewhere behind my left ear a giant fuel pump cackles like a supervillain as six Weber 45 DCOE carburettors are slowly primed. Then the V12 rages into life, as cacophonous as a sawmill, slash-cut exhaust tips spitting flames.
Things don’t get any easier once the car’s moving. With 205/50 R15 front tyres to turn and an unassisted steering wheel the size of a side plate, it’s painfully heavy on the arms and there’s no comfortable speed at which it gets lighter.
The enormous tyres – 345/35 R15 at the rear – have their benefits, though. They summon so much grip, especially from dry tarmac on a hot day, that even my pained, frustrated flailing at the stubborn wheel and accidentally stabbed mid-corner throttle fail to throw it off-course. With its spaceframe construction, unequal-length double wishbones all round and doubled-up coil springs at the rear, the chassis is laid out like a Le Mans racer. It’s clearly designed with the hardships of the racetrack in mind, but this summons up immense amounts of grip on normal roads – it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever reach its limits. If you can muscle the wheel around, you’ll soon find that turn-in is so urgent it’ll cause your head to reel. This car’s limits are much higher than mine.
‘Rear three-quarter visibility is non-existent, and the pedals in this right-hand-drive example are so close together that most attempts to brake hit the accelerator instead’
Unfortunately, despite packing 375bhp, the Countach is surprisingly difficult to drive quickly. The steering, pedals and gearlever resist my inputs with the vehemence of Hercules, and the slightest ripple in the road slams my head against the roof. The torrent of noise behind me never relents, exhausts wailing savagely beyond 3000rpm, but I back off at 110mph. The brakes aren’t as effective as the 928’s, wandering slightly under pressure.
This is unfortunate, as the model it replaced, the LP400S, is far less imbalanced. Its steering is tactile, its clutch and gearchange noticeably lighter, and although the seats aren’t as adjustable, at least they don’t sit on the 5000S’s raised runners, which crush taller drivers against the roof. Could it be that the new, bigger engine was a stretch too far for the Countach, or – given that Lamborghini always wanted it to have a 5.0-litre engine since its inception in 1972 – the 5000S was the product of sheer bloody-mindedness at the expense of usability.
That said, the Countach feels exciting, dangerous and fun. I get the impression no road could truly contain it. If I acclimatised to it and learned to push it ever-harder, testing its colossal limits, I suspect I’d return from every drive with at least one police helicopter in pursuit. Forget public roads – I’m not entirely sure it was built for use on this planet.
But isn’t that why you’d buy a supercar in the first place? For cars with raw statistics so similar – engines close to 5.0 litres, 0-60mph in under six seconds, more than 300bhp, capable of over 170mph – the 928 and Countach are extreme polar opposites. It’s the Porsche that’s genuinely futuristic, but it’s not intoxicating like the arcane Countach. Perhaps the 928 should be an icon, but unfortunately for Stuttgart that’s not how status works. The Countach is iconic because it’s as spectacularly insane and obtuse as the 928 is efficient and rational.
Lotus Esprit Turbo SE
The Esprit Turbo SE seems to be the odd one out here, on account of its four-cylinder powerplant. With just 2.2 litres, the next-smallest engine – the Countach’s – is more than twice its size, and it can only offer a third of the Lamborghini’s cylinder-count.
But does this matter when it’s turbocharged? These cars come from an era when motor sport echoed to the sound of dump-valves and wastegates, and we still look back on the turbo F1, Group C prototype-racing and Group B rally eras as motor sport zeniths. With 264bhp to propel 1386kg, and the special-equipment ‘SE’ tag signifying a chargecooler – a Lotus innovation, essentially a water-cooled intercooler designed to chill the air running between the Garrett T3 and the combustion chambers, tightly packing the oxygen molecules, maximising combustion – the Esprit might have more in common with genuine competition cars than the imitation-racer Countach.
Although this one is a post-1987 Peter Stevens facelift model, it retains Giugiaro’s radical flat windscreen, so severely raked it runs almost seamlessly into the bonnet. The Giugiaro interior looks a lot like Gandini’s Countach cockpit with its high transmission tunnel, sloping dashboard and instruments packed into a low, wide pod, but there’s much more room in it and the pedal box is blessedly wider.
The Lotus twin-cam sounds more muscular than expected at low revs. It’s gravelly voiced and charismatic under initial load, reverberating like a Group B rally car. The cabin, engine location and wide, grippy tyres are a reminder that I’m in something special, but unlike the Countach it’s comfortable, the steering is much lighter and rear three-quarter visibility is acceptable.
As expected of a Lotus, the ride and handling displays a compliance absent in the stubborn Countach. While the Countach thumps painfully into the slightest of potholes and relies on grip to mask heavy-handed steering and pedal inputs, the Lotus is delicate. Its tyres – 195/60 R15 at the front and 235/60 R15 rear – are positively dainty compared to the Countach’s, and it’s 5.5in narrower overall, making it easier to place on the road. The result is a supercar that feels agile and fun on B-roads. Flick the nose towards the apex with the neatly weighted steering wheel, revel in the composure of the chassis as the car slices in, lateral and level, then enjoy the extra grip of the chubbier rear tyres as the power is applied on the way out. The Countach will do this too, but it’ll feel like a happy accident; the Esprit involves you all the way round.
On to the straights, and the Esprit reveals a sophistication not even present in the Countach. 0-60 takes just 4.7 seconds – faster than the Lamborghini – but it’s what happens at 3000rpm that truly impresses. As the twin-cam starts to sound grainy and coarse, the needle of the boost gauge in the middle of the instrument binnacle sweeps smoothly into life, and there is a high-pressure glissando as the turbocharger forces the cooled charge into the engine.
There’s no turbo lag and the acceleration curve feels seamless. At 110mph the nose floats slightly, making the steering light and vague, making an assault on the Esprit’s promised 160mph top speed a nerve-wracking experience. That may be slower than its rivals, but not by much, and if contemporary road tests are to be believed, it’s about as fast as anyone actually went in a Countach. However, the Esprit achieves this feat with science, rather than shouting.
It’s not perfect, though. The Esprit may seem user-friendly compared to the Countach, but it’s still cramped and awkward by Porsche standards. Its worst feature is its Renault 25-sourced gearbox. The stubby lever looks like it should have a precise flick-action akin to a Toyota MR2’s, but the squashy leather gaiter and high transmission tunnel disguise a long and poorly defined throw. Once I learn to put faith in its self-centring action it’s more tolerable, but still easy to change from first to fourth when you’re in a hurry.
As a performance car to use and enjoy, the Esprit Turbo is better in every way than the Countach. Every way, that is, except being a Countach, which for some will be the only thing that matters.
Of all the cars here, the Ferrari Testarossa is the only one with a genuine image problem. The Aston will always be a noble, elegant thing; the Esprit and 928 worthy, accessible performance bargains and the Lamborghini celebrated for its groundbreaking contribution to styling. But the Testarossa has suffered negative comparisons with its own stablemates ever since its launch.
Too wide, gauche and heavy to be a true successor to the 512 BB, not as fast or focused as the 288 GTO, excessively inelegant alongside the 328, unusable compared to the Mondial. Add to this a permanent association with show-over-substance Miami Vice and assorted dry-ice-heavy Eighties music videos watched purely for comedy value nowadays, and you have a car that many people would feel too self-conscious to drive. But should they be?
The sill is wide, but once it’s hopped over the Testarossa is roomier than either of its mid-engined rivals here. There’s a delicate touch to the view from the driver’s seat that seems at odds with the car’s general aesthetics, with pencil-thin windscreen pillars and gearlever, and a minimal, simple dashboard reduced to a slim wraparound slab of high-quality leather, yielding acres of knee-room absent in the snug Lotus and Lamborghini. All-round visibility is excellent, and far from feeling too wide, it’s actually quite easy to place on the road once you acknowledge that the door mirrors – which give a great view of the curvaceous flanks – are slightly wider than the much-criticised rear deck.
Although unassisted, the steering is light and easy to negotiate even at low speeds, thanks in part to a pleasingly large, spindly and tactile steering wheel. Place the car using the mirrors as a guide and it flows through bends as obediently as the Lotus, the 280/45 R15 rear tyres providing almost as much grip as the Countach, but crucially never at the expense of feel. In many ways – visibility, exploitable handling, comfort – the 6ft 5in-wide Testarossa feels more compliant on real-world roads than the 6ft 1in Lotus. Its gearchange performs the opposite trick to the Esprit’s, needing just a handspan’s nudge across the gate despite the long lever.
I won’t pretend that it would feel at home threading its way down unclassified gravel roads on a regularity rally, but not even the Porsche does that. However, you could exploit – and enjoy – the Testarossa on much wider variety of roads far more readily than the tricky, obtuse Countach or occasionally wayward Vantage.
But it’s the engine that imbues the Testarossa’s driving experience with magic. The 4.9-litre flat-12’s exhaust note starts as a buzzy purr at idle, not as attention-demanding as the Countach’s heavily-amplified disturbed-hornet’s-nest, but it’s certainly more engaging than any opposition from northern Europe. Work your way through the gears and it builds to a crisp, clean-edged yowl, operatic in range and richness, yet with a frenetic intensity that recalls a grinding wheel being progressively pressed against thick steel plating. At 4000rpm, I realise I’ve heard this sound before, emerging from the ex-Niki Lauda Ferrari 312T. The Testarossa has as much Grand Prix-derived credibility as the Senna-era 99T-inspired Esprit.
The Testarossa is easy to drive fast. Although it takes 5.2 seconds to reach 60mph, more than the Lotus, the accelerative urge never seems to stop, building momentum relentlessly. By 130mph it’s still pulling hard, but by this point the nose has lifted and started to wander. The brakes need a firm shove at speeds like this, and the car shimmies into the bends, the light nose threatening understeer, demanding more straight-line trail-braking and a downchange to slice off more slabs of torque before the tyres can cope.
This may sound wild and dangerous, but the Testarossa is actually quite benign. It’s reassuring that these various warnings are telegraphed so cleanly to the helm, unlike the animalistic Countach, which feels as if it would leave the ground without warning and knock down buildings if it lost traction. It all helps to make the Testarossa the most user-friendly of an inherently impractical breed.
In fact, it could be said that the Testarossa has been misunderstood right from the start. It was never meant to be some ballistic brute, but rather a civilised mid-engined GT with supercar aesthetics that just happened to be one of the fastest cars in the world. It’s a Maserati Bora for the Eighties. Open the front boot and you’ll find as much luggage space – 0.21 cubic metres – as you will under the parcel shelf of the Porsche.
The Ferrari Testarossa is the best car here. This will come as a shock to those who grew up with CAR magazine tests or fleeting visions on the outside lane of the motorway, who’ve grown used to the Maranello monster first damned for its girth and gentle dynamics, then snobbishly condemned as a crime against fashion. Granted, it’s not pretty, but it’s as dramatic as the Countach, from electric-shaver nose to Millennium Falcon-engine tail via those often-imitated side-strakes. And yet unlike the Countach, the driver doesn’t suffer for the sake of automotive art.
That said, all these cars are inherently exciting. The Aston Martin has the most obvious traditional appeal and easy-going character, even if it is bettered dynamically by the Porsche, which is nowhere near as soulless as received opinion has it – rather, it has a bold futuristic intelligence about it not unlike Seventies Citroëns.
I want to like the Countach 5000S, but having driven one back-to-back with the Esprit Turbo SE, it’s frustrating to note that its abilities are bettered in nearly every way by a practical British take on the supercar – complete with built-in rust-resistance – costing a tenth of its value.
Given this, then no matter how visually appealing it is, the Countach’s white-hot drama looks more like bluster – even if the Lotus Esprit doesn’t have the same emotional appeal.
But the Testarossa is a revelation. It rides and accommodates like a GT, its Countach-beating performance is genuinely accessible and usable, and it’s laden with supercar panache that still commands wild points and stares even today.
This has been a long time coming, but it’s time to put snobbery aside and admit that, although it never had the competition pedigree of the 512 BB, the Testarossa really is one of Ferrari’s finest road cars.
Thanks to: Desmond J Smail Aston Martin (djsmail.co.uk), Circuit2circuit car transportation (circuit2circuit.com), Terry Keys, Keys Motorsport (keys-motorsport-silverstone.co.uk), Philip Marshall-Lee, Simon Furlonger, Craig McEwan, and Hexagon Modern Classics (hexagonmodernclassics.com)