Every media day begins with a morning briefing on whatever car is being launched, some details about the track, then orientation laps for people unfamiliar with the facility. And on those mornings, in the back of every journalist’s mind is the notion that he doesn’t want to be “that guy.”
That guy is the one who breaks the car, tosses it off track or even so much as drops a wheel. Nobody wants to be “that guy,” which was especially true with the new Élan NP01, and I’m relieved to report that both cars survived media day without any drama. Aside from a few splattered bugs on the windshields and a little tire and brake wear, the cars left in the same state of repair in which they arrived. So what is it like to drive?
The Élan NP01 is an audacious primal scream of a racecar, an unrepentant assault on all your senses. It’s loud. It’s physical. It’s fast. It generates a lot of g force with a metric ton of grip. Above all, it’s a blast to drive.
In terms of speed, the car is every bit as fast as it looks. Acceleration in first gear is explosive, the result of an enviable power-to-weight ratio of 8.92:1. That’s based on the engine’s 185 horsepower and the 1,450-pound car with a 200-pound driver, and let me tell you the results are biblically good.
The only times I’ve ever driven anything that pulls this hard in the lower gears, the acceleration was backed up by the soundtrack of a 505-horsepower LS7 or the silent whoosh of a 310 kilowatt motor in a Tesla Model S. One of the NP01’s initial design criteria was that the car be fast — and boy, is it.
We tested the Élan NP01 at Buttonwillow Raceway November 17, using the No. 24 configuration. Essentially, it’s the western half of the track using the Sweeper and omitting Phil Hill for safety reasons.
Firing the car is easy. Switch on the ignition, let the fuel pump cycle, then thumb the starter toggle. Depress the clutch, grab the shifter and give it a firm tug to engage first gear and then coax it into motion. It’s not difficult to get it going, but it’s not difficult to stall it, either. The dry, multi-plate clutch clatters a bit when disengaged, but it feels linear and isn’t overly grabby. Idle speeds are slightly elevated, but there isn’t enough camshaft overlap create a lumpy idle, which makes a racecar more finicky.
The NP01 uses a Sadev SL75 gearbox with the no-lift-shift feature, which is a joy to use once you get used to it, and that doesn’t take more than a lap or so. The no-lift feature doesn’t begin to work until 4,500 rpm, 2,400 shy of redline, so if you’re going to short-shift it, use the clutch.
Full-throttle upshifts will have you smiling in no time. “Look ma, no clutch!” Developed for Formula 3 competition, the Sadev gearbox will change how you feel about a traditional H-pattern transmission. The Sadev is slick and positive, and provides a little kick in the backside with each upshift.
It requires a pretty firm tug, but it’s a hoot, and the downshifts are even more fun because they don’t require a clutch, either. Just blip the throttle about 20 percent with your right foot, brake with your left, and nudge the shifter forward. Bang, you’re down one gear. Just as you must release the trigger on a semiautomatic pistol to fire another round, you have to release pressure on the shifter before initiating another downshift, but that’s about all it takes to master downshifting.
The Wilwood pedal set is kart-like in that travel is minimal and feel takes some getting used to. With no power assist, the brakes are still immensely strong, yet don’t require herculean effort, either. I never locked up the brakes, so I guess I got the hang of it OK.
In terms of grip, this car has it in gobs. Again, this was not my car, and I didn’t want to be “that guy,” so I drove it accordingly. I still managed to get the tail end out a couple of times, but it was manageable and easy to correct. Not one of the journalists in attendance managed to get the tires to really squeal all day, except for one. Motor Trend’s hot shoe Randy Pobst was hammering it pretty hard around Buttonwillow that day, and he was making the Toyo RR’s sing at each bend.
Because of the amount of g force the Élan NP01 generates, driving it is a markedly physical experience. Drivers should do what’s required to be in the appropriate physical condition to drive this car. Steering effort was heavy in chassis No. 001, but in No. 000, the preproduction car, it was quite a bit lighter. I imagine the preproduction car had less caster, and I preferred it if only for the reduced steering effort. I didn’t drive No. 000 in anger, only during a photo shoot at dusk. Either way, this is the kind of car that requires physical fitness in the driver.
Another of the design criteria was that the car be built to accommodate drivers of all sizes and waistlines, and the NP01 is plenty roomy inside. What is absolutely critical for driver comfort is getting the poured-foam seat right. Taller drivers will want more cushion under their buttocks and thighs so their knees don’t rise so high. The good news is that the car has the headroom to accommodate the additional padding.
The car comes standard with a “half” steering wheel. In other words, the top of the wheel is missing the outer rim and the bottom of the wheel is flat. If the car were mine, I’d stick with the flat bottom wheel, but find one that had the upper rim. I’d also see if it’s possible to get the wheel a little closer to the driver, and maybe a little higher. I say that about nearly all racecars, though.
One thing that struck me while driving the car was how good the outward visibility is. The greenhouse area of the cockpit is tall and wraps around the driver to give an expansive view of the track ahead and to both sides. Entering the Sweeper, I could see all the way up to Sunset in my peripheral vision. I’m a little bit claustrophobic, so the roominess and good visibility was especially welcome. I never felt cramped or short of breath, or like I was going to die while trapped in fast, noisy red-and-white coffin. So that was comforting.
I do think larger rearview mirrors would help, but one of the cars was fitted with a wide-angle rearview camera, which provided ample rear visibility. The rear view video system doesn’t come standard on the car, but that’s probably a good way to go.
All the components that comprise the Élan NP01 are fun to talk about because they’re proprietary racecar stuff. But the way it all comes together and the way the car performs is a total greater than the sum of its parts.
This car is a visceral experience for all the senses. A rigid-mounted engine bolted to a transaxle used as a stressed member sends every sensation right to the driver. Combined with the wail of the 185-horsepower engine at redline and the g forces the chassis is capable of, the Élan NP01 does things no production-based racecar ever could. Yet, for all its beastly qualities, it’s still a manageable and approachable car. Drivers just need to tailor the ergonomics to their needs and learn to set it up properly. Everything else has been taken care of.
NASA invited journalists from as many different publications and websites as we could fit into one day of testing the only two cars that existed at the time. Here’s a sampling of what those other journalists had to say about the new Élan NP01.
NASA brought a film crew to the 2015 Eastern States Championships at Virginia International Raceway to film the NP01 in action. Complete with music and the glorious wail of the Mazda 2.0-liter four-cylinder, the sizzle reel is available on NASA’s YouTube site. Enjoy.