French supercar maker Venturi is taking a shot at Lotus with the Plastic-bodied mid-engined Atlantique 300. The Esprit V8 prepares to repel the invader
Performance Car May 1997
by Brett Fraser, photography by Gus Gregory
It's a short yet spectacular convoy; the deep blue Venturi Atlantique 300 and daffodil yellow Lotus Esprit V8 blazing a high-speed trail along the rural roads of western France. This is Venturi country; the Atlantique is built just down the road at le Pellerin, at the mouth of the Loire river, near Nantes. But it's a rare sight, even round here. Even the locals might struggle to put a name to it.
They may not guess its identity, but there's no doubting its purpose. Compact, by the standards of mid-engined supercars, the Atlantique has elegant, simple lines which from many angles have a strong hint of Ferrari F355 about them. Unlike the Ferrari, though, the Atlantique's styling doesn't arrest your gaze when you catch a glimpse of it from a distance. In dark blue, especially, it sneaks around like a secret agent, though it still has the power to drop jaws when passers-by catch a long, hard look at it.
As an indication of how anonymous Venturi is, the Atlantique 300 made its debut at the Paris Motor Show in October 1994, yet even now few people know what one is. Essentially it's a facelift of a more angular design dating back to 1986, when the car was known as the MVS Venturi. Some of you might recall the MVS was briefly for sale in Britain, where despite rave reviews, it was a spectacular flop. Problem was, its arrival coincided with the recession which rather killed off the market for 'investment' sports cars.
Hence Britain has heard even less about Venturi than the rest of Europe. But all that's about to change. The company was bought out in May last year by a Thai businessman, and as they drive on the same side of the road as we do in Thailand, development of right-hand-drive models has stepped up a gear. Furthermore, the new company has availed itself of the services of ex-Lotus, ex-Lamborghini marketing guru Michael Bishop. Bishop is a Brit, and quite apart from wanting to see his product do well on home soil, he realises that Venturi's previous dependence on the French market was the original company's undoing.
Bishop isn't the slightest bit put out when we front up at Venturi's large, but currently rather empty , factory in the Esprit V8. For the British market at least, the eight-banger Lotus is a direct and very important rival. It's absolutely no coincidence that when the Atlantique goes on sale over here in the next few months, through the newly appointed UK distributor, Nicholas Mee, it'll be priced at just under £60,000, just like the Esprit.
It won't be easy fighting Lotus. The Norfolk-based company has got that all-important 'heritage' and – something that's being confirmed by the locals here in France today – the Esprit has tremendous presence. Yeah, the glowing paint-job of our test car helps, but the Esprit is also unmissably large and has so many exterior detail flourishes it can keep your mind occupied for hours. Once upon a time you could mark a car down for having glassfibre bodywork on the grounds of ripples and other blemishes, but this pair of mid-engined supercars are pulled from such good quality moulds, you scarcely give the method of their construction a second thought.
Leave price to one side, check out the spec of the two cars, and you start to wonder if this is a fair comparison. The Lotus is powered by an up-to-the-minute 3.5-litre V8, while the Venturi makes do with an oldish 3.0-litre V6 borrowed from the Alpine Renault A610. The Lotus has two turbochargers, four camshafts, four valves per cylinder, an intercooler and a chargecooler; (LEW – this is incorrect). the French car has a single turbo, two camshafts, two valves per cylinder and an intercooler. The Norfolk scorcher produces 350bhp at 6500rpm and 295lb ft torque at 4250rpm; the Venturi makes do with 281bhp at 5300rpm, though it does rustle up a thumping 309lb ft of torque at a highly desirable 2500rpm.
Unfair? No, not really. On the road those differences are far less pronounced; the Esprit feels the faster of the pair, though by a tiny margin. Where it scores is with its lack of turbo lag, an affliction which troubles, if not plagues, the Atlantique. Throttle response is instant in the Lotus, making it the easier of the pair to thread along unfamiliar roads where you're constantly on and off the gas. Its predictable power delivery can also make for smoother progress through long, quick corners.
Once you've learnt your way around the lag, the Atlantique becomes fearsomely fast, snapping at the Esprit's exhaust pipes. Its peak torque arrives at the same time as the turbo comes on song, making it effortlessly awesome in the mid-range. Between 3000 and 5500rpm the merest dab of throttle unleashes a storm-force tidal wave of delight. It helps that the Atlantique is much lighter than the Lotus – 2756lb to the Esprit's 3042lb – so despite being 69bhp behind on the dyno, on the road it's closed much of the gap, brandishing 234bhp per ton against the V8's 250bhp per ton.
While the Venturi's V6 practices strength through torque, in a curious twist on conventional engine logic, the Lotus's V8 motor prefers to be revved; peak torque in most V8s is developed considerably lower than the Lotus's 4250rpm. And with peak power way up at the top end, you spin the engine round to 7000rpm for every gearchange. That's not a problem, mind, because with the force of two turbos hurrying the revs along, it's a job not to keep hitting the limiter.
What is a problem is the way the V8 sounds, which isn't like a V8 at all. Thanks to the flat-plane crankshaft and the fact that its two banks of cylinders operate like a pair of in-line fours, the V8 omits the same hoarse scream as its four-banger brothers. A crucial part of the overall enjoyment of any sports car is the noise it makes and the Esprit's engine note is about as soul-stiring as a karaoke night at your local boozer. The Atlantique has a much sexier voice; low, burbling and growly, although unfortunately it sings to a backing track of high-pitched whirring, disturbingly similar to a dentist's drill.
It seems that no-one, not even Venturi, has yet put figures to the Atlantique's acceleration; however, its predecessor had 20bhp less and managed 0-100km/h (62mph) in 5.2secs, so it's a safe bet the Atlantique will be good for a sub-5.0secs time. The V8 Esprit stops the clock at 4.5secs but betters the French car by only 1mph with its 175mph top speed. In other words, both cars are closely matched, premier-league performers.
Away from the drag strip, it's the Atlantique that can be hustled hardest.