Story and photos by Zach Mayne
Two of the most influential automotive personalities in history are unquestionably Enzo Ferrari and Colin Chapman. Both were idealistic men who parlayed determination and an uncompromising vision into huge success. They both also exerted what may be an immeasurable influence on auto racing and engineering, thanks not only to their drive to succeed, but to win. Over the years, the Ferrari and Lotus car companies have raced against each other in Formula 1 as well as other venues, but when it comes to road cars the two manufacturers approach things from somewhat different directions.
On one hand, Ferrari produces sports cars with powerful, high-revving engines that for the most part of the company's history have been naturally aspirated. Ferraris lean towards luxuriously appointed interiors and distinctly Italian styling. Lotus on the other hand has a tradition of producing cars that, in the words of Colin Chapman himself, “add lightness.” This ethos usually extends to the interiors, which are generally Spartan and simple. And while Lotus has designed some terrific engines over the years with a variety of displacements, the company is not afraid to use engines designed and built by other companies, a practice that Enzo Ferrari found unacceptable. Over the years Lotus cars have been powered by Isuzu and even Toyota engines. Ferrari on the other hand relies heavily on technology- much of it gleaned directly from its racing efforts- to produce cars powered by engines that are among the most exciting and desirable around.
The first real competition between Ferrari and Lotus road cars began in the late ‘70s, when Lotus launched the mid-engine Esprit sports car, a natural contender to go up against the also mid-engine Ferrari 308. While the original Esprit was widely lauded for its handling and nimble road feel, it’s 2.0-liter 4-cylinder wasn’t really competitive with the 3.0-liter V8 that powered the lithe 308. It wasn’t until the Esprit Turbo arrived on the scene in 1980 that the wedge-shaped British exotic became a worthy adversary to Ferrari's entry level sports car. In 1987, the Giugiaro-penned Esprit Turbo was replaced with a new design that was penned by Peter Stevens, the same designer who would go on to envision the legendary McLaren F1 supercar. In 1985 the 308 had been replaced by the 328, which carried on the beautiful Pininfarina styling but was updated and modernized in almost all aspects, from a larger engine to further refined styling. If you were a car buyer in 1988 and on the hunt for exotic looks and a performance oriented mid-engine layout the 328 and Esprit would have been at the very top of the list.
On a fog shrouded Southern California morning in the hills above the Pacific Ocean, we brought together an example of each of these ‘80s legends to see how they stack up three decades later. Preferring the aesthetics of one over the other depends on whether you want your sports cars curvy or angular. They’re both well resolved designs, the 328’s slinky red sheet metal aging incredibly well over time, while the metallic white Esprit still looks downright outlandish. More dramatic and exotic, it looks wider and longer and is defined by squared-off lines and fat tires that strain out to the wheel arch openings. The 328 GTB is as pretty as they come and excellent illustration of Pininfarina’s masterful design work, but it's nowhere near as aggressive looking as the brutish Brit. When it comes to their basic packaging though the two cars are very similar, with a two-seat, rear-wheel-drive, mid-engine layout.
In person, the 328 is low and compact, and almost seems absurdly small compared to the current 488 GTB. The Ferrari's small size seems to be emphasized in this case due to the fact that this is a closed roofed GTB. Sliding into the low-slung seat I’m greeted by an interior that positively exudes sophistication and high quality. The leather seat is a little firm on your backside, but the interior surfaces feel nice to the touch. And the smell of the high quality leather hides adds an added, bespoke dimension. The 3-spoke MOMO Monte Carlo steering wheel is positioned at an awkward angle, a little too much towards the horizontal, but it's stylish and feels perfect in palms of my hands. The red on black Veglia tacho and speedo are tucked neatly into a compact, angular instrument binnacle and the chrome shift lever and small black shift lever are a short drop from the wheel.
Mounted just behind us, the Ferrari’s V8 emits a mellow but busy sounding growl at idle, with more mechanical gnashing than outright exhaust note. Away from a stop, the 328’s clutch is easy to modulate with a nicely weighted feel that is not too heavy but also firm enough to really involve the driver in the process. All the other control inputs- from the steering, which is heavy at parking lot speeds, to the shift action through the unforgiving metal shifter and metal gate- demand that the 328 really be driven with thought and no small amount of focus from the driver.
The 328’s 3,185-cc V8 has a 9.8:1 compression ratio and pumps out 270 bhp at 7,000 rpm with peak torque of 214 lb-ft arriving at a useful 5,500 rpm. Overall, the 328 engine was a pretty dramatic improvement over the 308 Quattrovalve that it replaced, thanks to added 258-cc of displacement which equated to 30 hp and 26 lb-ft of torque over the 308. With the Ferrari's engine howling towards the 7,000-rpm redline, acceleration is strong if not downright fast by current standards. But the manner in which the 3.2--liter V8 picks up revs in a smooth, eager manner is impressive and involving. Though the torque of the motor makes the 328 fast enough in the mid-range, its the promise of the full 270-hp at 7,000-rpm that encourages the driver to keep the gas pedal matted to floor. The V8 revs quickly and easily to redline and the smooth but precise feel of the shift lever through the metal gate only gets better as RPMs rise.
The heavy steering lightens up the faster we go, making it a joy to sling the 328 around a series of medium speed curves. Yes, the body rolls significantly, but the chassis and suspension are relatively stiff, helped in this case by the more rigid bodyshell of the GTB coupe. The tires offer plenty of grip and feedback, and when the limits of stick are reached or even exceeded, the Ferrari behaves in a controllable manner. Overall, the chassis corners in a neutral manner, with a bit of speed scrubbing understeer on corner entry. All that's preventing me from pushing harder is the fact that this is not my car, and it also happens to be one of the finest 328s around. And it's worth a lot of money, with values rising everyday. Like all 328s and 308s I've driven, the Ferrari's brake pedal feels hard and delivers a minimum of feedback, but put them to use and they do the job of slowing the car. The driving experience of this Italian beauty is polished and cohesive and only gets better the faster you go. It also feels genuinely special, from the view out over the arched driver's side fender to the sound of that fantastic V8 and the intoxicating smell of the leather interior.
By contrast, the Esprit's interior is all straight lines and flat surfaces and is entered by sliding over a generous side sill. Once inside, the Lotus feels low and wide, with a driving position nestled between the sill and the high center tunnel. But it also offers a pretty spacious cockpit, all the more impressive considering it's a three decade old exotic car. Instead of a metal roof, there is a generous glass sunroof that brightens things up. This one's an Anniversary Edition, so it has an almost nauseating combination of white and blue upholstery and wood trim set off by garish purple carpet. The '80s called, they want their fabulous British interior back.
On the other hand, their is no denying that the driving position is ergonomically superior to that of the Ferrari. There is a small, 3-spoke steering wheel straight ahead in a conventional, vertical angle. The exception is the center console, which forced the driver's arm up at an awkward angle to reach the wood shift knob. The Lotus' gruff, turbocharged 4-cylinder is far less refined than the Ferrari's V8. At idle, the Esprit vibrates and tingles which makes it feel lower quality than the 328. Which it is. Clutch actuation takes a firm shove of the calf, but the gearbox slots easily and precisely into first.
The 2,174 cc 4-cylinder engine in the Esprit utilizes an 8.01 compression ratio that gets a nice boost from a Garret T3 turbocharger running 9.5 psi. The forced induction means the engine produces 215 hp at 6,000 and 220 lb-ft of torque at 4,250. When I get to a wide open stretch of road on Topanga Canyon, I drop down a gear and punch the throttle. Initially, low-end throttle response is sluggish, though the 4-cylinder produces more torque than expected. Around 3,500-rpm though the Esprit's turbocharged engine positively comes to life. With the turbo whistling subtly away and the engine growling, the Lotus races forward, pushing me back in the seat in a wave of boosted power. Unlike modern turbo cars, there is absolutely no denying how the Esprit gets its power, which in this case makes it interactive and addictive. By 4,500-rpm, the turbo is on full boost, and while the power may not increase much after that, the engine happily hits the 7000-rpm redline. Despite its power deficit, the Esprit is faster than the Ferrari. When new, road testers were delivering 5-second zero-to-60 runs, compared to the 5.9-seconds it takes the 328.
Downshifting with the round, wooden shift knob, I guide the Esprit’s steering into a tight corner. The steering is surprisingly heavy, which is pretty unexpected. Given Lotus’ reputation for light, responsive cars with light steering I wrongfully assumed that the Esprit would hew to that tradition. In the Esprit steering feel is muted and takes effort to guide the car through slower corners taken at speed. On the other hand, the chassis rolls very little, certainly less than the Ferrari. While the Lotus' nose washes out in understeer on corner entry, this is easily balanced out with an application of throttle. The back end rotates easily, so care must be taken if the turbo is on boost. Around high-speed sweepers the Lotus is stable and confidence inspiring. The Esprit’s brakes are also superior to the Ferrari's, with powerful initial bite and better feedback, not to mention they stop the car quicker.
The 328 is a machine brimming with passione, the engine a high-revving masterpiece and the gated shifter challenging you to be precise and determined. The Esprit has a raw and unrefined British sports car feel. It has its flaws but delivers a memorable driving experience. But as much as I love the Lotus’s brash lines and wild, turbocharged power deliver, the Ferrari’s build quality and fit and finish is superior. The 328 feels like a genuine piece of art. Despite the undeniably British charm that the Esprit exudes, its let down by less than ideal build quality and tricky handling at the limit. I’d happily park either one in the garage but there’s no denying that the 328 is the superior creation. In the end though, any enthusiast who happens to own either one of these machines is lucky indeed.