How many times in recent years has some kind of circuit focused, motorsport inspired Porsche or Lotus triumphed in a car of the year contest? Perhaps too often, you might argue. But both tick so many boxes for driving enthusiasts that the conclusions are almost impossible not to arrive at. So when presented with the rare chance to compare the latest track-minded product of arguably the two most track-minded manufacturers, the only feasible answer is a frantic nod of the head.
Okay, yes, if we're splitting hairs, it should be the Cup 430 against GT3 RS, or Sport 410 versus GT3 or perhaps even a Carrera T and Sport 380 duel. But that didn't happen, the rules of Britain's Best Driver's Car (Autocar's annual shindig) dictating that the car needs to have been launched in the year of the competition to qualify. So we won't pretend it's direct rivals facing off here - but, let's be honest, it was never going to be regardless of the attendees.
You'll know exactly why. Even at list price there's more than £50k separating these two. Look at the GT3 Rennsports for sale currently on PH, however, and you won't see a single one at less than £200,000. If the Lotus can get near the Porsche as a driver's car - prior experience suggests it just might - then it starts to look like something of a bargain. But then prior experience has suggested Motorsport Porsches tend to over deliver when it comes to actually driving them (and not just arguing about them) - let's get to it.
The Lotus has already claimed a scalp on these pages this year, having seen off the Cayman GTS. Obviously, however, the GT3 RS presents a much sterner test, for which the Lotus will have to bring its A game. And, well, to be brutally honest, things don't begin all that well.
Drive a Lotus in isolation and its flaws are probably more easily overlooked, its quirks worked around and its idiosyncrasies embraced. Drive it back to back with the best performance cars currently made, and their proximity makes the familiar shortcomings a little harder to tolerate. Sure, it's nice to have a manual, but the awkward pedals make heel and toe more difficult than it should be. And yes, it's great to be small and nimble, but the Lotus will inevitably feel cramped for some. Genuinely low mass is to be applauded now as much as ever, but would a bit more padding in the rock hard seat really use up too many precious grams?
Of course the flipside of this compromise is that the Exige Sport 410, even with the Porsche's lofty benchmark in mind, is one of the most intense, raw, visceral driving experiences around. It demands focus and attention (and expertise, to some extent) the entire time, regardless of scenario. If nothing else it makes the car truly memorable, because there's never a forgettable mile.
On the B4391 out of Ffestiniog, the Exige is a delight. The combination of supercharged Toyota torque with Fiesta-rivalling kerbweight means towering performance, the brakes are immense, the noise outrageous and the view out, with a solitary single wiper and bodywork on show, is very motorsport. And so quite evocative. And therefore rather cool.
Then combine that with all that's so joyfully typical of Lotus - deft damping, exquisite steering, placeable dimensions - and the whole experience is rather blissful. The trouble comes when you push a little harder, searching for that point where the world's very best road cars become extraordinary, and discover that the Exige doesn't quite stack up.
There's some unwelcome kickback from the steering as cornering loads mount up, a sense of restlessness from the chassis as the bumps come thick and fast and a manual gearbox that, while vastly better than it's been, still doesn't enjoy being rushed. Reduce the pace and it's mostly back to being an invigorating, exciting little road racer - but if that's the case, why not stick with the lesser-powered cars in the range?
Perhaps it was the set up, this particular road or simply the presence of so many other cars; for whatever reason, the Exige didn't shine on the public highway. Of the five judges on Autocar's panel, only one preferred the Lotus on road to track, which says something - for this judge at least, perhaps the possibility that you can have too much involvement in a road car.
What it says about the 410's track performance is something to return to; handily for the Lotus, though, the Porsche doesn't feel entirely at home when the speed limit is 60mph either. Where a regular GT3 feels equally adept on road and track, the RS - unsurprisingly - feels very much geared for circuit use, and very much at the expense of regular driving.
This, of course, isn't a racy 911 in the most traditional mould. PDK, four-wheel steer and electric power steering mean there isn't the battle to get it down a road there may once have been (look to the Lotus for that, funnily enough); rather it feels that a huge portion of the car's talent is underutilised and untapped. Of course that argument could be levelled at many modern six-figure sports cars, but in the Porsche the contrast between on it and not is stark. That glorious flat six never reaches its tantalising upper limits, the prodigious grip is never challenged, the car fidgeting and desperate for some challenge to test its exquisite body control. There are fleeting moments of magic, but a bigger stage is really needed for it to shine.
That said, the GT3 RS could never be accused of being dull on a B-road. The cage pings, gravel flicks up in the arches off those giant tyres and the engine snorts great gobs of air and fuel as you're sat in a perfect seat, holding a perfect wheel, operating damn near perfect pedals. You may not be getting the most from it, but anyone who accuses modern 911s of lacking involvement should spend 10 minutes here - it's unforgettable. Better than the Lotus on road, though? Probably not. There's more for the driver to do at more realistic speeds in the Exige, the click clack of that manual (and being in charge of your own gears) counts for a lot, its smaller size obviously suits the UK and the punch of that supercharger makes it feel no less quick. Those moments when the Porsche really does seem truly extraordinary are the times when you're hoping nobody else is around. Even in Wales, that's not something to be guaranteed.
But that all reverses on track, right? The RS becomes a Cup car with CarPlay, absorbing, intoxicating and just exquisite fun? Well, yeah, actually it does - sorry to spoil the upset.
For me, it was as good a track car as the McLaren 600LT. In hindsight it might even be better, thanks largely to that engine. That. Engine. If this is the swansong for naturally aspirated GT 911s, a valedictory salute from 9,000rpm, then what an incredible way to go. Honestly, short of the Ferrari Superfast's V12, there's not a more exciting engine on sale. That's including the Huracan Performante's V10, the Pista's V8 and anything from Aston Martin. The way it accrues revs is just outrageous, fizzing its way through the last few rpm like its hell bent on 10k and making a glorious, savage howl in the process. There are options, too: with a PDK that's only slightly bested by what Ferrari can offer, the 4.0-litre can easily be kept spinning at the point most cars would explode; but there's also joy in slugging out a lower gear, feeling the sense of acceleration build and build and the pitch change as the powerband's full breadth is enjoyed. Sitting in a GT3 RS on a rolling road could well be a drive in your top 10. Maybe top five.
Then there's the rest of it - heavens above. Similar to the McLaren in fact, the Porsche RS genius is in challenging the driver and demanding their concentration, but giving whoever is in that seat all the tools and confidence to do the best they can. The electric steering is better for a sense of connection than many a hydraulic set up, the new Cup 2 Rs give incredible turn in bite, there's mountains of grip and progressive breakaway (it means someone has done a skid they're proud of when they write that), with brakes that are just tirelessly brilliant as well. Furthermore, this GT3 just - just, mind you - holds on to some 911-ness in its dynamic make up, adding further intrigue. Chiefly that's in monumental traction, but even that means you're encouraged to chase the throttle sooner and push the limits earlier. It's utterly superb on track, the RS, a credit to its maker and proof that very little rewards on a circuit quite like the very best Porsches. It's a crying shame that mileage affects the values of these cars as brutally as it does, because an Anglesey session in a GT3 RS really is enthralling, and something to be savoured.
The Lotus, as we were all hoping, is more enjoyable on Anglesey than it is on North Wales' best roads. That seems odd for a Hethel product, but a reflection of just how focused the Exige is now. While a lap time of 1:18.0 is not truly spectacular - two tenths ahead of an R8 RWS, but slower than an XE Project 8 and three seconds off the Porsche - it does deliver something immersive and testing on track that nothing else quite can.
Those Michelin Cup 2s may be a grade down from the 911's and considerably narrower, yet provide monumental purchase - entry speed is mind blowing, the traction perhaps even more so. Same for the brakes; they may just be made of iron and may not be the size of satellites, but by heck do they work. Lap after lap after lap. It remains a struggle to hoist your foot up to blip the down changes, but you're going to stop. Master the dexterity and there's joy in the Exige that can't be found anywhere else on Anglesey: charging up to Rocket and snatching fourth, third, then second on the brakes with your gearchanges and your footwork is immensely satisfying. Maybe there's something still in this manual thing...
The Lotus is let down by a couple of factors. First being a rather prescriptive handling balance; the car feels sublime driven how it wants to be driven, albeit less content if the driver deviates from that. As with the McLaren, the lack of a locking differential feels notable, but here also the inability to switch off the driver aids exacerbates the problem. (ETA: They can, we've been told how, but couldn't figure it out at the time. Dunce hat on the way.) There's understeer at the (admirably high) limits, with precious little to do beyond lifting to quell it.
In addition, there's a sense from the Lotus - and this really won't be a popular thing to write - that it's all too much like hard work. Yup, pathetic millennial snowflake can't deal with car that has manual gearbox and non-assisted steering - shock. But bear with. We all like involvement and commitment in a car, indeed PHers should be actively seeking it, but we also want our efforts to be commensurate with the reward at the other end. The Lotus, for all its arm straining steering, back aching seats (that aren't all that supportive) and ankle crushing pedal box, simply isn't awe inspiring enough to justify the demands it places on its driver. Some will love it for the physicality, of course, yet there's no escaping the fact there were cars in the wider competition (and one in this specific comparison) that, while noticeably more expensive, delivered greater hits of adrenaline with less stress and effort on the driver. Pay enough money and you can have your cake and eat it. Then go back for more. And lose weight in the process.
That's how it feels driving the GT3 RS. It can be a regular 911 for most intents and purposes, albeit noisier, naughtier and more obnoxious, then one of the greatest track cars on the planet when needed. It could pop to the shops as an automatic Porsche, with shopping placed in the 'frunk', and also be caned around the 'ring for hours like it's a VLN race. It can seemingly be as easy going - relatively speaking - or as aggressive as the situation dictates, a breadth of ability as spookily wide as it is totally absorbing. It's denied victory in the Autocar test because of its less than perfect road manners - a GT3 would probably suit more people, more often - but for those who can spell Pflanzgarten without looking at Google, this RS absolutely delivers.
Which isn't to say the Exige doesn't. What's key to understand is that it's a car of really high highs and then really low lows. Fantastic and frustrating in the same mile, sometimes. There's quality and ability here, for sure, plus a level of difficulty not found really anywhere else - if that's your thing - but also an impression that the Exige's limitations have been reached. All things relative, of course, because it's been exposed against a 911 that costs more than twice as much to buy and many more times that to develop. But the gap is wider than expected. For someone whose car of the year in 2017 was an Exige faster and more expensive than this one, that's not a pleasing discovery to make.
Be that as it may, if there's anything with a roof and doors on offer for less than six figures that's more exhilarating - from the way it goes, looks and sounds - I've not driven it. The underlying suspicion that a lesser Exige might have fared better notwithstanding, it's impossible to leave the little Lotus without harbouring some considerable affection for it. Even the most dedicated Hethel fan would have to concede it's flawed, yet what's been achieved here on aged architecture is pretty remarkable. If modern sports cars leave you cold, there's no danger of that ever happening in an Exige. It might leave you hot, bothered and a bit cross - but never cold.
The idea of it being better value though does not undo the fact that the GT3 RS is by far the more appealing package. It is a phenomenon, no question - and for every shortcoming on the road, it has a remarkable track-based retort. But its proximity to the Exige does keep any halfway objective opinion honest. Is it phenomenal to the tune of £250k? Perhaps not. And while that assessment will hardly matter to anyone lucky enough to have made it onto the original allocation list, for the purposes of this test it must be considered a crucial determinant. Offering so much of what is great about the Porsche - indeed, great about a track-focused car in general - for significantly less than half the RS's asking price, must earn Lotus the pound-for-pound nod. But iconic, money-no-object current/future classic status is the 911's alone. It is one of the outstanding cars of the era. Full stop.
SPECIFICATION - PORSCHE 911 GT3 RS
Engine: 3,996cc flat-six, petrol
Power (hp): 520@8,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 347@6,000rpm
Top speed: 194mph
SPECIFICATION - LOTUS EXIGE SPORT 410
Engine: 3,456cc, supercharged V6
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 416@7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 310@3,000-7,000rpm
Top speed: 180mph
Weight: 1,108kg (Lotus 'unladen' weight)
Price: £79,900 (revised price as of 26/11/2018)
Photos: Luc Lacey, Olgun Kordal, Max Edleston