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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Top Ten Ugly But Fast Cars

Beauty and speed are two qualities that sit together very well indeed when it comes to cars. But it doesn't always work out that way.

Back in the days before aerodynamics stylists were free to let their imaginations run riot and pen gorgeous shapes.

This resulted in some truly beautiful cars but ones whose handling didn't always measure up. These days all sorts of functional considerations have to be taken into account too, like downforce, meeting crash regulations and cooling brakes and mega powerful turbo engines. Which means vents, wings and all sorts of aesthetic challenges.

Just look at the latest crop of F1 cars if you were in any doubt of where putting function before form can get you. The same is true of road going performance cars too, modern supercars often lacking the elegance of their forebears. Here are 10 examples of where style and speed don't quite match up successfully.

1. Lamborghini Countach 25th Anniversary: Gandini and Bertone’s original 70s vision for the Countach was a vision of hard-edged futurism and a true supercar pin-up. Sharp, wedge-like lines and taut detailing – not to mention those famous scissor doors – set the Countach apart. But by retirement in 1989 middle-age spread hit the Countach hard.

The V12 engine had grown from the original 4.0 litres to 5.2 litres and power from 375hp to 455hp but the Countach 25th Anniversary celebrating a quarter century of Lambos was a hideous mess of chavvy bodykit extensions and fussy vents. More McDonalds carpark Basildon than Casino Square Monaco, it was a sad end to the Countach legend.
2. Gumpert Apollo: if you’re looking for superlatives the Gumpert Apollo is a clear winner. Odd looks? The ugly stick must have been worn out by the time they’d stopped thrashing it. Fastest? A 224mph top speed and record-breaking run round the Top Gear test-track put it up there with the best. Daftest name for a supercar ever? Yup.
If the excuse for the function (way) before form design was performance above all else Gumpert certainly succeeded there, the brutish, ultra aggressive Apollo designed entirely around the needs of aerodynamics and feeding and cooling the Audi RS6-donated 650hp (at least) V8 engine. Beauty contests are out then. But on track few come even close.

3.MG Maestro Turbo: the Maestro never was a looker but the addition of a chunky bodykit, cross-spoke alloys and big air intakes on the bumper did it no favours whatsoever. So, ugly? Yes. But boy was it rapid. And those who looked beyond the dumpy looks got to enjoy one of the fastest cars of its era.

A 150hp turbo conversion for the 2.0-litre engine meant 60mph came up in a tyre scrabbling 6.9 seconds when tested by a prominent car magazine in 1989, others claiming even faster times. Developed and assembled by tuning firm Tickford, just over 500 were made, ensuring classic status among a small but dedicated fanbase.

4. Ferrari 612 Scaglietti: a Ferrari? Ugly? Well, yes, actually. In fact, we had a job narrowing it down. Can you even remember the last time Ferrari made a pretty car? No wonder that jealous geezer in the Italian Job shoved the Aston off the cliff. Evidence? Consider the Enzo, the F50, the 80s Testarossa...

Etcetera, and indeed, etcetera. Even our favourite modern Fezza, the 599, is more functional purity than catwalk queen. But we had to choose just one: the 612 Scaglietti. A cool car, almost by virtue of its very frumpiness, but too big, too ungainly and 0-62 takes a whole 4.3 seconds. Sacrilege!

5. IFR Aspid: IFR boss Ignacio Fernandez hates it when people compare his wild-looking Aspid with the familiar Lotus Seven/Caterham shape but there’s no escaping the fundamental resemblance. But whereas the old Seven has an elegant simplicity the Aspid is bristling, angry and more than a bit mad looking. Neatly, this more or less sums up the driving experience too.

Honeycomb aluminium and carbon fibre mean the Aspid is far more advanced than any Caterham, the supercharged Honda S2000 engine’s 402hp meaning performance is on the alarming side of rapid with 62mph coming up in just 2.9 seconds. Tuned by rally engineers the handling is incredible too, even if the looks take a little getting used to.

6. Aston Martin Virage/Vantage: modern Aston Martins like the DB9 and Vantage are among the most beautiful performance cars on the planet, more than living up to the cheesy ‘Power, Beauty, Soul’ company motto. And old classics like the Bond-spec DB5 were real lookers too. But in the late 80s and early 90s Astons were somewhat more brutish in appearance.

The Virage certainly had power, the twin supercharged Vantage version coming with a 550hp evolution of the 5.3-litre V8. And soul? Well, it’s an Aston so it had that for sure. Beauty took a back seat though. Still, two out of three ain’t bad and high profile owners like Prince Charles and Rowan Atkinson certainly seemed to approve.

7. Nissan GT-R: it’s one of the most talked about sports cars of recent years, Porsche-baiting lap records at the Nürburgring and a dazzling application of high technology ensuring cast iron high performance credibility. Believe the hype too because the 485hp twin turbo V6 and ultra sophisticated four-wheel drive drivetrain are every bit as potent as the breathless reviews suggest.

But it ain’t pretty. Impressive, yes. Cool even, the design – like the engineering – fabulously precise and detailed. But undeniably brutish with it, from the gaping grille and Terminator-like beady eyes to the cartoonish, howitzer sized multi-barrelled exhaust system. Untamed aggression is all part of the package though. And we love it!

8.Alfa Romeo SZ (ES-30): is “Il Monstro” ugly? Or is it merely a form of Italian style that the unsophisticated just haven’t gotten yet? Few cars turn heads quite like this incredible late-80s Alfa Romeo. Designed by Zagato and sold between 1989 and 1991, it still looks fresh right now. If not exactly beautiful.

All SZ coupés are red (bar one built for Andrea Zagato) while the RZ convertible came in three colours. Powered by a 3.0-litre V6, it’s based on the Alfa 75 - which sounds rather unglamourous until you learn the chassis settings came from a racing car and the SZ can corner at 1.1G...

9. Porsche Cayenne Turbo S: no line up titled ‘ugly but fast’ could fail to include the monstrous Porsche. In fact, the Cayenne – here in its full £90K, 550hp Turbo S hideousness – is so bluff and so ugly it’s hard to believe it wasn’t intended that way from the start with the express aim of irritating as broad a range of people as possible.

Purist Porsche fans, environmentalists, anyone with even a slight appreciation of aesthetics – varyingly all find the Cayenne’s rampantly aggressive looks and butchery of the brand’s design heritage deeply offensive. But with that epic twin-turbo V8, 0-62mph in 4.8 seconds and handling even the cynics have to admit defies belief the über Cayenne challenges like no other.

10.Subaru Impreza STI: it’s probably a little unfair to single out Subaru in this instance. After all, its arch rival the Mitsubishi Evo hasn’t exactly been blessed with good looks in any of its 10 – sorry, X - iterations. But over the years and across its range of cars Subaru’s eccentric approach to styling has varyingly enthralled and horrified.

The old ‘classic’ Impreza had a certain rugged charm about it. But the hated ‘bugeye’ version that followed appalled fans, as did first sighting of the new hatchback version. The STI is arguably the best of the new-wave Imprezas in styling terms, the ballistic cross country performance the one constant that has kept enthusiasts hooked over the years.

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