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Friday 26th August 2011


DRIVEN: RADICAL SR3 SL

Radical says it's built a road car. Has it really?



It's a car. And it's on a road. So does that make the new Radical SR3 SL - for Street Legal - a road car? In the strictest definition of the term: yes. But in the way that most of us understand the expression 'road car', well, the 300bhp, 675kg Radical at first glance appears very much a racer with number plates. Which is in no way a criticism...


Radical has fielded a street legal car before, of course. Introduced in 2002, the SR3 (now called SR3 RS) could be driven to and from the circuit. If you were made of Irn Bru. The difference with the new SR3 SL is that it's designed to meet Euro 5 full type approval regulations about what constitutes a road-going machine, rather than qualifying for access to the Queen's Highway via the process of single vehicle approval.

The downside to this is that Radical has had to expend bounteous time and money to turn what essentially is a racing car into a vehicle bound by the same legislation as a Ford Fiesta. Except for wipers and washers, that is, because if you don't have a windscreen, you can get away with their absence. What you can't escape from is having a clearly defined field of vision from the driver's seat - hence the scuttle at the front edge of the cockpit is cut much lower than it is in racing Radicals. You also need external mirrors that the driver can adjust from the cockpit, hence the electrically adjustable jobbies on the SL.


Blindingly obvious switchgear is another essential (considerable) investment. Despite the apparent ankle-slicing appearance of the front splitter, the nose of the car made it past pedestrian safety rules, whereas the air vents on flanks were deemed to present a 'head entrapment' hazard and now have to be covered by louvres.

The SR3's race configuration rear wing was also judged a danger to folk on foot, so the design team were despatched to their computers and MIRA's wind tunnel to come up with an alternative. The road legal appendage is dubbed the 'Monaco' wing: the tri-plane arrangement is a lot narrower, yet is claimed to give 60 per cent of the downforce of the race item at race speeds. It also provides a convenient mounting point for the high-level brake light that legislation demands. And talking of lighting, the SR3 SL even features LED daytime running lights.


All that is just a sideshow, however; one of the toughest features of the Euro 5 regulations is the emissions test programme. Engineers at Volkswagen shuddered when Euro 5 was first announced, so there was no chance that tiny Radical could even contemplate going about the task on its own. A small 'for instance': your car is parked in a blast freezer all night, temperature down to -30?C, and next day it has to start first time, its emissions no greater than the rules state for 'normal' conditions.

Fortunately for Radical, one morning its horizon was filled by a big blue oval: "Love your cars - so when are you blokes going to use one of our engines?" Ford's timing was perfect. And though some Radical racing diehards will disagree, so was its engine. Fully Euro 5 compliant and engineered to evolve to meet even tougher regs, the turbocharged 2.0-litre EcoBoost four-cylinder engine is powerful (it's about to be installed in the new Focus ST, to be launched at the Frankfurt motor show), economical and clean.


Not that was a simple case of stick it in, off you go. Radical still had to engineer induction and exhaust systems, and currently is frazzling the midnight microchips to sort out the mapping. Trouble is, the turbocharging and consequent torque that make the Ford motor so tractable from very low engine speeds is at odds with Radical's traditional penchant for screaminbejeezus bike engines; without losing the EcoBoost's road-friendliness, the development boys want to move the torque peak - currently 340lb ft - further up the rev range so that you have to kick the engine along a bit harder to access it.

There's no fanfare, bright lights or dancing girls when the cover is pulled off the very first SR3 SL outside Radical's Peterborough factory. It's pearlescent white with a few discreet black stripes strewn around its bodywork, the lack of livery to reflect its road-focused purpose. Mind you, alongside it stands 'Daisy', the development car, decorated in more colours than Paul Smith's undies range, and it somehow seems more appropriate - it doesn't matter how much you dress down an SR3, it remains a pretty outrageous outfit to be seen in on the open road.


Talking of outfits, don't be wearing anything swanky when you nip out in your SR3 SL. You have to step over the bodywork and stand on the seat to get in, so unless the car's parked on carpet you'll be bringing in dust and gravel on the soles of your race boots: the footwells are tight and the pedals fairly close-spaced, so clod-hopping shoes won't help the experience.

Slide down onto the seat, legs near-horizontal into the depths of the footwell, the rim of the cockpit nudging your shoulder to your right, while ahead the low front edge of it seems almost constrictingly near.

You have to turn an ignition key before pressing the starter button, but any relationship that might infer with a regular, road-going sports car is dispelled the instant that the engine catches and your eardrums are assaulted with a wall of sound. It's not a pretty noise - harsh, mechanical, accompanied by the gulp, whoosh and wheeze of the induction system and turbocharger. Dip the clutch then pull the right-hand paddle to actuate first gear of the six-speed sequential gearbox (the clutch is for first only); give it a bundle of revs, because that clutch is going to bite hard and fast; zip sharpishly away from rest (kangarooing slightly because it's clear from the start than an SR3 SL doesn't relish going slowly).


To the tune of a faint shushshsh from the hydraulic actuators - and with no need to employ the clutch pedal - you tap the right-hand paddle to select second gear. The ratio thunks into place, learner-style, another sign of the SL's dislike of meandering. Dislike, but not hatred. The EcoBoost's 340lb ft of torque is sufficiently elastic for you to trundle about at 30mph in sixth gear, so unless the traffic flow is unpredictable, you aim for as high a gear as possible and stick there, so as not to trouble the gearbox too much.

Around town the ride quality is surprisingly good, especially when you consider how close you are to the ground you're passing over. What's not so special in an urban environment is the visibility, the wing mirrors giving limited view and the harnesses giving you limited range to stretch forward at roundabouts and junctions to check that the path is clear.


Even with a helmet on - you really do need to wear one, despite Radical pushing the notion that you could get by with just some sunglasses - you feel vulnerable. You fret about the blind spots not only of trucks, but also regular cars, and the under-rider bars on most trailers seem to be about the right height for sorting out neck pain forever.

Clear of town the SR3 SL turns animal. Sure, on part-throttle the turbo still sounds like a whining hairdryer, the engine's other various tunes meld into a more savage yet harmonious blare, so much more the full-on race car. And the acceleration is sensational. Brutal and intense. You're scraping the road surface and the blast from the cloven air seems as though it'll rip the helmet clean off your head, so the rush from this type of performance is condensed into a tight ball of thrillingness. Radical claims a top speed of 165mph and 0-60mph in 3.0 seconds, figures you won't doubt. Suddenly the sequential gearbox with its competition clutch is in its element, all clunkiness gone both up and down through the ratios, each shift creamy and finger-snap swift.


Good grief, though, do you need to be hanging on tight... Not just because you're travelling so monumentally fast, but also because the steering is so responsive yet so easily led astray that it becomes very twitchy on the road. Cambers, crowns, troughs, the aerodynamic pull of a large truck, all these everyday road hazards can flick the SR3 SL violently off-line, with sufficient vigour to bang your helmet from side to side as though it were punched. Knowing it's likely to happen means you're ready to correct the issue promptly, but keeping enough muscular tension in your arms (and brain) to do so can be wearing.

At Cadwell Park, where Radical takes us for the track element of our day out, the SR3 SL performs with the manic pace and dynamic aplomb you'd expect of a Radical. Sure, you have to drive it in a slightly different style to its stablemates, exiting some corners a gear higher to make best use of the torque, but for outright speed, cornering poise and grip, and braking performance, few of us are likely to feel short-changed.


Back to the original question: is the SR3 SL a road car? Nah... It is a car in which you can reasonably drive to and from the track on the public road, but if you were considering one just to pose around town in, do yourself a favour - buy a Ferrari and paint it pink. The reality is that it's a track day toy, and a mightily impressive one at that.

And so it should be. Final price is yet to be announced, but something in the region of 69,850 (inc. VAT) is being suggested. And some of you thought the KTM X-Bow R was expensive...



Author: brettfraser