The fast and beautiful Tuscan R

Can any other car match it for road presence and performance?

What, I wonder, will the world make of the new $140,000 TVR Tuscan R when it lands on planet Earth "sometime later this year"? Will it be thought of as a step too far; the point at which Blackpool's (now Russian-owned) car company overstepped the mark and began to hatch ideas above its station?

Maybe. But then again, maybe not. Because what you need to understand about the outrageous Tuscan R is that it isn't a make-or-break car for TVR. At the moment they plan to build no more than 25-50 examples a year, so if the world doesn't want the Tuscan R, nothing other than a big chunk of pride will have been lost.

But somehow I can only see success. I know $140,000 is an awful lot of money to ask for a TVR, and I know there are all sorts of highly desirable mainstream sports cars that can be bought for less – the new Mercedes 500 SL being one good example. But when you see the Tuscan R in the flesh, or better still ride in it as I just have, you quickly realise that nothing else gets a look in at this price. And that's just the same basic principle that motivated chairman Wheeler to produce a string of ground-breaking sports cars in the 20 year period that he owned the company (before selling it to Nikolay Smolensky).

The bottom line with the Tuscan R is that you'll need to spend at least twice as much on any obvious rival to match its performance. Even then it's debatable whether any car at any price will match it for road presence. You can talk about the extra engineering integrity of rivals such as the Porsche 911 and Mercedes SL until you're blue in the face, but in the end there's no real argument against a car which, relatively speaking, offers so much for so little. Which of course is why TVR's order books for the first year of production are already full, despite the fact that Wheeler has yet to travel a single yard in this near production-ready example.

The idea for the Tuscan R was originally formed two years ago by you-know-who, and it was a typically simple one. Wheeler wanted to make a car with a roof that had space in the back, either for two adults or a fuel tank big enough to go GT racing with. And in dynamic terms he wanted it to be the greatest expression of the marque – the fastest, lightest and most dramatic TVR ever.

So at the beginning of Y2K, Wheeler and his crew – consisting of project engineer Chris Runciman, chief stylist Damian McTaggart, designer Graham Browne and powertrain boffin John Ravenscroft – sat down and started to think about how to create a car that would weigh less than 1000kg, get to 100mph in under eight seconds, seat four people and top 200mph. Two years later this is where they've ended up – and, naturally, all the critera have either been met, or surpassed.

The basics of the Tuscan R are still a tubular steel backbone chassis with double wishbone suspension hung from each corner. However, the design differs from previous road-going TVRs in that it also has an aluminium honeycomb floor right across the bottom of the structure, making the platform "at least two times stiffer than a regular Tuscan chassis," according to its creators.

TVR also decided from the outset to make the body panels entirely from carbonfibre - another first for the company. An expensive solution to a number of problems, yes, but then this is the greatest-ever TVR, remember. Considering that carbonfibre helps to minimise weight (it's lighter than regular glass-reinforced plastic), that it makes a high-quality finish and consistent panel gaps easier to achieve, and that it conveys precisely the right message - a no compromise, no-expense-spared design - it was a simple decision.

Though they've yet to put the finished article on the weighbridge, TVR is confident it will come in under the target weight of a tonne. Sounds amazing when you consider the R is 200mm longer in the wheelbase than a regular Tuscan and 100mm wider front and rear (though across the doors it's actually the same width, giving the body a classic 34/24/34 figure when viewed from above). But as TVR's ever-enthusiastic head of sales and marketing, Ben Samuelson, is quick to point out, this isn't your ordinary TVR.

"If customers are looking for the quiet life then there's always the Cerbera," he says, with only a hint of irony. Compared with that car the Tuscan R has little sound deadening and is intentionally a much more raw and focused car.

"We thought about rose-jointing the suspension at one point but in the end decided not to," says Samuelson. "But that's about the only compromise we made to the design for road use, which, alongside the carbonfibre body panels and the absence of sound deadening compared with all our other cars, explains why we've been able to keep the kerb weight so low."

At the time, we're rumbling conspicuously along a deserted B-road out on the moors 20 miles east of Blackpool. Everyone who sees the car points at it and either smiles, or looks like they've seen a ghost: although it's undeniably very beautiful, it's also quite a shocking sight for some. This is a part of the world quite used to seeing TVRs, remember, and from the expressions on some of the faces it's easy to spot the ones who are thinking: oh my god, that's a brand new TVR, where the hell's my camera?

Pity they can't see the interior because they'd like that too, I'd wager. Largely the work of chief stylist McTaggart, who did the regular Tuscan pretty much single-handedly inside and out, the cabin is deliberately minimalist.

The view forwards is dominated by a big central LCD display; it's an uprated version of the unit used in the Tamora, featuring a row of lights right across the top of the cowling that change from green to amber to red as the revs rise.

Two big aluminium tunnels in the centre of the fascia house the main air vents that protrude charismatically into the centre of the car, and help form a natural stowage area just in front of the gear lever. Production cars will have a stereo and air-conditioning plus electric windows and TVR's now famous handle-free electric door mechanism. But other than that, it's all about function rather than style: hence the bare carbonfibre all the way along the huge transmission tunnel, and the exposed aluminium across the doors and fascia. It doesn't feel sparse; just pared back to the bare minimum of fittings required of a supremely focused road car.

I also love what happens when you turn the key. For starters, there is a key, meaning TVR has resisted the temptation to fit a corny starter button. On the first turn there's a high-pitched fizz from the fuel pumps and the car's various electrical systems wake up and tell you there's life on board the muthaship. Then the dash lights up, the christmas tree effect flashes momentarily and in the centre of the LCD display it reads: "Tuscan R V.8 - start up". Somewhat confusingly, perhaps, considering the V.8 refers to the start up software program, not the engine design: the R uses TVR's homegrown 4.0-litre straight-six, not the Cerbera's AJP V8.

Sadly TVR won't let me drive the R just yet, but even from the passenger seat several things become obvious during the journey. For starters the ride is stiff but not absurdly so: in fact I'm surprised by just how comfortable it feels over roads like this considering the R's unashamed road-racer aspirations. When I mention this, however, Samuelson points out equally rapidly that the settings have yet to be finalised. "It'll almost certainly be a fair bit firmer than it is now," he says.

But one thing's for sure - it is fiendishly noisy in here. The straight-six engine in this first ever example is not the full 440bhp monster that will appear in production units: instead it has a mere 390bhp at the moment. And the exhaust isn't quite right yet either: apparently it'll sound and look even better, mainly because the back box will be redesigned to allow those big pipes to taper more cleanly into the tail of the car, which will have the knock-on effect of improving the sound quality as well. But when Samuelson puts his foot down in third gear the sense of acceleration is still borderline terrifying. And the noise, both inside and out, is just barmy.

Another first for the Tuscan R will be its transmission. On this first test mule the gearbox is TVR's regular five-speed Borg Warner unit - used in everything from the Cerbera to the Tuscan S - but an all-new box is planned for the R and it has already racked up miles in the development cars Wheeler tests on his way to and from the office every day. When it appears, it will be the world's first ever road-going six-speed sequential with a proper manual change, a la BTCC racers and every other serious competition car nowadays.

I know the BMW M3 SMG is supposed to have one of these transmissions, but in practice it's nothing like a BTCC car's gearbox: mainly because there are only two pedals. The Tuscan R's sequential will have three pedals and, according to TVR, will change gear just like a competition car. There won't be paddles, either: instead you'll just bang the lever back towards you to shift up and away to shift down. You'll need to use the clutch on the way down to help lengthen the life of the gearbox, but not on the way up - apart from when you pull away in first gear. All of which sounds exceedingly BTCC to me.

At the end of our day with the Tuscan R, we - me and the amiable TVR crew – all stand around in the car park and just look at the car. For them it's the first time they've seen their creation in natural evening light: in typical TVR style this first prototype was finished only minutes before I arrived this morning, hence the reason none of them, not even the chairman, has seen it in a real-life environment.

And it's a hell of a sight. Although there are various influences detectable in many of the details - some Mako Shark Corvette in the front wings, a bit of E-type coupe at the back and a lot of regular Tuscan everywhere - the overall effect is unique. And absolutely stunning. Collectively, and almost at the same time, I think, we each realise it's far and away the best-looking TVR so far.

If it's even a quarter as good to drive as it is to look at, it'll be a winner. So I'd get your order in quick if I were you - while the end of the queue is still in sight.

Air ways, the first aerodynamic TVR

TVR hasn't been too bothered with aerodynamics until now, preferring instead to design by the once golden rule of: 'if it looks good, it is good'. But because of the Tuscan R's huge performance potential TVR decided to make sure the car would remain stable at its 200mph plus top speed, so they went to the wind tunnel at MIRA last year to fine tune the aerodynamics. Because the natural shape of the car is like a big teardrop starting from the nose, TVR knew - or hoped - that the basic aerodynamic qualities would be sound. And they were. At 150mph there was zero lift front and rear, which is a whole lot better than most cars can manage even at 100mph. But since then they've integrated a small lip onto the boot and fitted a splitter at the front edge under the nose to hopefully create a small amount of downforce for the production version. The finalised car will go back to the MIRA wind tunnel in a few weeks time to check these figures: so long as there's between 10-15lb of downforce over the front and rear axles at 150mph, Mr Wheeler and his team will be happy. And if not, they'll keep trying until they hit the target.

The cars the R must face

Porsche 911 RS

According to rumours, Porsche is finally going to make an RS version of the 996 which will appear towards the end of next year. In which case this car will clearly be the R's most serious competitor. Expect a price very close to the TVR's £75,000 sticker, but don't expect the same performance. Not even the GT2 911 will be able to live with the mighty TVR in a straight line, so there's no way the cheaper, less powerful RS is going to match it - no matter how much weight Porsche manages to shave off the car. But it'll still be a ding-dong contest all the same.

Aston Martin AM305
Aston Martin's new small car, nicknamed the new 'DB5' by us, won't be here until 2004, and it won't have either the poke or performance of the TVR. It'll be more of a regular 911 rival, so won't appeal to drivers who have a 200mph TVR in the garage. In terms of practicality, price and prestige, however, it will certainly pose a threat to the R. And if Aston does a Vantage version, the rivalry between these two great Brits could become more intense.

Not seen on these shores for a very long time, but if BMW does do an M version of the soon-to-be-announced 6-series coupe, expect it to have at least 450bhp and be capable of getting to 100mph in under 10sec. Expect, too, a price not a million miles away and a transmission that will, in theory, match or better that of the

Tuscan R.

Reprinted from Autocar Magazine.

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